Top critical review
Great Philosophical Approach, but Poor Biblical Exegesis
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on May 17, 2022
“No he is not, and here is why.” This answer to the question in the title of the book is a statement of his thesis, oversimplified perhaps, but accurate nonetheless. Copan sets out to show that God is not a moral monster as many try to make him out to be. The book takes a hard look at the thorny issue of how God is represented in the Old Testament scriptures. Copan takes the reader through all of the important biblical texts on this issue and does so in a balanced way.
The main thrust of the book is aimed at the claims and accusations of the “New Atheists,” most notably Daniel Dennet, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. The first two chapters, Part One, are dedicated to identifying this new movement and laying out their arguments against religion, and the Christian God. In these introductory chapters, Copan does not only layout their case but immediately addresses a few gross overstatements and missteps they make in their critiques of Christianity. Mostly, though, his responses are left for the rest of the book. Part Two delves into a few issues regarding God specifically, addressing issues of sacrifice, God’s jealousy, and Abraham’s taking Isaac up the mountain to sacrifice him. Part Three, the bulk of the book, looks at moral issues in the Mosaic Law, Slavery, The Treatment of Women, and The Killing of the Canaanites. In this section, he takes several chapters to go through each of these issues. Finally, Part Four zooms back out and looks at God as Universal Moral Lawgiver, and ends with a look at Jesus as the perfect revelation of who God is, and the positive contributions of Judaism and Christianity to the world.
The book is, in the author’s words, “supposed to be reasonably popular-level” (p.11) and that certainly was done well. Although Copan laments that he set out with a “goal of keeping endnotes to a minimum, but to no avail.” (p.11) It did not seem to take off to the stratosphere of “too academic,” but was thoroughly readable, while dealing sufficiently with the content. He includes many scholarly sources to show a “broad general agreement” on the issues he covers in the book. His sources contain a mixture of views of Scripture’s authority, some of them hold a high view, while others do not.
In reflecting on the book, I will start with a high-level, gut reaction response, then I’ll get into specific areas. I was pleased with his pointed goal of responding to the New Atheist, using them as a springboard for his discussion of Old Testament Ethics. So, the first two chapters contain a well-articulated response to the New Atheist. Copan works his way from their weakest arguments, especially where they wholly misrepresent Christianity, all the way through their common objections, responding briefly as necessary. Overall, as he moved into the bulk of the book, where he addressed responses to the Old Testament, I feel like he nailed some issues very well. Nonetheless, there were quite a few areas where he took a low view of scripture and backed away from some of the clear language of scripture, to make it more palatable. In all Copan uses a combination of high and low scriptural arguments. This made reading the book feel slightly schizophrenic in certain areas.
Moving on to his response to the claim that God is arrogant, he did well in explaining that God does not behave with divine pride, but that his interaction with humanity is a gracious gift. God created us in his image so that we would enter into his family and have a relationship with him. Copan calls it God’s “spreading his wealth” to humanity. This section was encouraging, faithful to the scriptures, and worshipful. He wraps up by showing that God was indeed humble. This is shown in his relationships within the trinity, in Jesus the Word of God becoming human, and in his death on the cross. He clearly shows the fault of the New Atheist, in trying to judge God as though he was one of us. He quotes Jay Gonldingay saying, “[It is] truly godlike to be humble as it is to be exalted.” He addressed the jealousy of God well. He does this by addressing the accusations of some that God is a “pompous self-centered windbag in the sky.” His basic point is that God is rescuing humanity from the misery of a life serving idols and demons. The ultimate fulfillment of what it is to be human is to live in relationship with the living God. God’s jealousy is for our good and blessing. I had not thought of this aspect of his jealousy before, and I was pleased with the perspective. I think it is a good apologetic argument and could help address the New Atheist's wrong view of God’s jealousy toward his people.
He addressed some wrong views of the invasion of Canaan by professing Christians in the past, especially the manifest destiny understanding of wiping out Native Americans in the taking of the North American continent by Europeans. He accurately reproves the confusing “mix up of church and state” (p.73). He continues “The sooner Christians realize … we don’t live in a theocracy … the sooner the church can make a deeper impact as salt and light in society.” Well said!
As the book progresses though, he begins to bring in a mixture of helpful, and not-so-helpful explanations of Old Testament events. He spends some good ink explaining the meaning behind many of the OT food and cleanliness laws, pointing to their future fulfillment. But, he also weakens many of the OT narratives by comparing the records of war victories in Exodus and Judges to ancient near eastern exaggerating and blustering! What the Bible calls a major battle defeating men, women, and children was turned into a small military skirmish. Jericho was just a small military encampment, rather than a city. His handling of these types of situations was weak. Further on, he adds to the scriptures in Numbers 5, when it says a man may bring his wife, he says that this can be a woman bringing her husband. There is no evidence for this from the Bible. In the dealing of Hebrew slavery, he turned it into an employer/employee relationship, rather than the fact that they truly were owned by their masters. Although, he also included the fact that slaves were to be released every seven years. This is different from most other historical records of slavery. Even though he seemed to weaken many of the references to Israel’s wars, he included a helpful point, God used the Israelites to cleanse the land not because it was the most “efficient” way to do it, but it was certainly “sufficient” to bring about his purposes. I was blessed by this vindication of God’s actions.
As a whole, Copan did well in this book to address the overall question at hand, “What do we do with these Old Testament passages that make us uncomfortable?” He also pointedly responded well to the New Atheist. Some of his apologetic answers, specifically from a philosophical point of view were helpful. I found myself comforted and my perspectives altered and strengthened by his discussions. His expositions of the scriptural texts were somewhat lacking in I would recommend this book for others to read, but his philosophical perspectives are by far the better part.