Search This Blog

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Grasping at Straws Part Eight--Evangelicals Defend Genocide

A large percentage of contemporary evangelical Christians consider themselves to be Calvinists, meaning (among other things) that their theology emphasizes the total depravity of man and the absolute sovereignty of God. As a result of being the Creator, the Calvinist God owns his creation and is completely free to do with it whatever He pleases. As Paul is reported to have said in Romans 9:20-21: But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, "Why have you made me like this?" Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honored use and another for dishonorable use? (ESV)

Today, I want to look at John Calvin's take on the genocidal commands issued by Yahweh.

In his commentary on Joshua, which by the way was the last book written by Calvin before his death, he said with regard to chapter 6, verse 20:
The indiscriminate and promiscuous slaughter, making no distinction of age or sex, but including alike women and children, the aged and decrepit, might seem an inhuman massacre, had it not been executed by the command of God. But as he, in whose hands are life and death, had justly doomed those nations to destruction, this puts an end to all discussion (emphasis added).

Just as Paul had before him, Calvin argues that God has a right to do whatever he pleases and that this puts an end to all discussion of the topic. So, basically God can do anything and man must accept it as being good and right because God did it. If man questions God's actions, he is showing his rebellion against the ruler of the universe.

Calvin continues:
We may add, that they had been borne with for four hundred years, until their iniquity was complete. Who will now presume to complain of excessive rigor, after God had so long delayed to execute judgment? If any one object that children, at least, were still free from fault, it is easy to answer, that they perished justly, as the race was accursed and reprobated. Here then it ought always to be remembered, that it would have been barbarous and atrocious cruelty had the Israelites gratified their own lust and rage, in slaughtering mothers and their children, but that they are justly praised for their active piety and holy zeal, in executing the command of God, who was pleased in this way to purge the land of Canaan of the foul and loathsome defilement’s by which it had long been polluted.

Calvin gives us the old albi which is still used by evangelical apologists today that God was long-suffering and patient with the Canaanites as he allowed their sin to go on and increase for 400 years. As I have said before, I fail to see how someone delaying his criminal act in any way excuses the act once he does it. If I deal patiently with my neighbor's offenses for 40 years before I finally lose patience and kill him, am I any less guilty of murder?

In addition, there is no indication except the Bible writers own claim that the Canaanites sins had increased greatly over 400 years. What were their sins exactly anyway? Sexual sins and human sacrifice. Well Yahweh himself was practicing child sacrifice during this time in Egypt (Exodus 12:29).

Calvin comments on Joshua 10:40:
Here the divine authority is again interposed in order completely to acquit Joshua of any charge of cruelty. Had he proceeded of his own accord to commit an indiscriminate massacre of women and children, no excuse could have exculpated him from the guilt of detestable cruelty, cruelty surpassing anything of which we read as having been perpetrated by savage tribes scarcely raised above the level of the brutes (emphasis added). But that at which all would otherwise be justly horrified, it becomes them to embrace with reverence, as proceeding from God.

I think Calvin is to be commended for his honesty. While so many evangelical apologists try to downplay the atrocity of the Canaanite genocide, Calvin sees it for what it really is. He says it surpassed anything done by savage tribes acting like brute beasts. He is correct, but then suddenly, it becomes okay because God ordered it.

He continues:
But as God had destined the swords of his people for the slaughter of the Amorites, Joshua could do nothing else than obey his command. By this fact, then, not only are all mouths stopped, but all minds also are restrained from presuming to pass censure. When any one hears it said that Joshua slew all who came in his way without distinction, although they threw down their arms and suppliantly begged for mercy, the calmest minds are aroused by the bare and simple statement, but when it is added, that so God had commanded, there is no more ground for obloquy against him, than there is against those who pronounce sentence on criminals.

Calvin goes on to say that even the children deserved the fate Yahweh commanded for them. He writes:
Though, in our judgment at least, the children and many of the women also were without blame, let us remember that the judgment-seat of heaven is not subject to our laws. Nay, rather when we see how the green plants are thus burned, let us, who are dry wood, fear a heavier judgment for ourselves. And certainly, any man who will thoroughly examine himself, will find that he is deserving of a hundred deaths. Why, then, should not the Lord perceive just ground for one death in any infant which has only passed from its mother’s womb? In vain shall we murmur or make noisy complaint, that he has doomed the whole offspring of an accursed race to the same destruction; the potter will nevertheless have absolute power over his own vessels, or rather over his own clay.

Calvin is consistent in the application of his theology. Rather than being guilty of sentimental compassion for the children and infants, he takes a bold stand with his God. Total depravity due to inherited sin, a foundational point in his theology, drives his conclusion. Every human being including those only one minute old deserve nothing but death and damnation from Calvin's thrice holy God.

He writes:

Hence, even infants bringing their condemnation with them from their mother’s womb, suffer not for another’s, but for their own defect. For although they have not yet produced the fruits of their own unrighteousness, they have the seed implanted in them. Nay, their whole nature is, as it were, a seed-bed of sin, and therefore cannot but be odious and abominable to God (emphasis added)
(Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.1.8).

So for Calvin, and many of his followers today, the infants of Canaan just got what they deserved. Never mind that they didn't choose to be born into the world much less to be born to the Canaanites. Never mind that they had not even developed enough intellectually to talk or make any kind of moral decisions. Nope, they were dirty, rotten, sinners odious and abominable to God, according to Calvin and not only deserving of physical death but eternal damnation as well.

Is it any wonder that some have said that Calvin's god is worse than the devil? Yet, many popular evangelical authors and pastors today are adherents of Calvinism. Men such as John MacArthur, John Piper, R. C. Sproul, and a host of others. While these men are too diplomatic to state matters as bluntly as Calvin did, they nevertheless believe the same doctrines.

A problem to be faced by Calvinists and others who insist that "God's ways are not our ways" and the reasons for his actions are illusive to us (i.e., "God works in mysterious ways") is that if this is the case, how can we be sure that we can know anything about such a God? If his actions are mysterious and beyond our comprehension, then how can we say anything with any degree of certainty about Him?

As Ronald Goetz points out in Joshua, Calvin, and Genocide (Theology Today, vol. 32, no. 3; Oct. 1975, 263-274):
How can we speak of the ethical relevance of divine justice if we assert its subsistence in deeds which violate all the canons of human justice? Why bother to speak of God's essential being at all? Must we assert that God is just or, for that matter, loving? Can we not simply say that God is and doesn't give a damn whatever we think? Calvin would never wish to go in this nominalistic direction, for it would entail, among other things, an eventual denial of the very possibility of theology-a denial of any analogy between God's being, revealed in divine acts, and our categories of experience and comprehension. Nevertheless in appealing a priori to the incomprehensible fiats of God, on the one hand, and in so manifestly failing to make sense out of appeals to human conscience as justifying God on the other, Calvin lays out the ancient problem of evil in terms which are especially acute. These terms emerge from within and not outside the "theological circle" and in such a way as to open the question: "Can theology, to say nothing of theodicy, be justified at all?" If the acts of God tell us nothing of who God is, but only reflect mysterious illusiveness, then the divine revelation shows us only the divine incomprehensibility.


  1. I have never understood why it took genocide. God is supposedly all powerful, so couldn't he just cut their fertility to zero. No babies are tortured and killed, no loss of his chosen people in battle, take over is peaceful and without incident. Instead the only way God can think of is by murder, which he just outlawed his people from doing.

  2. I find Calvin's position fully understandable. If one takes the premise that god is god then Calvin is right. However if one is using the Caananite incident to judge whether god exists or not Calvin's arguments seem irrelevant.

    I heard a quote today from a speech by the Reverend Ian Paisley. He said (referencing Romans 3:8) "Doing evil that good may come is a doctrine from the mouth of hell and I reject it completely." He was speaking of the Provisional IRA. It seems rather apt to me in this context since it seems to be the essence of the defenses of the massacre.

  3. Yeah, that's what God did with the people of Gerar in Genesis 20, Beamstalk. He closed their wombs because Abimelech had Sarah in his harem.

  4. **Calvin gives us the old albi which is still used by evangelical apologists today that God was long-suffering and patient with the Canaanites as he allowed their sin to go on and increase for 400 years.**

    The thing I don't understand about this is the whole idea of God being patient, and essentially waiting for the sin to get "worse." In the evangelical theology I'm familiar with, God doesn't have a linear relation to time the way we do. God is outside time. In theory, God would see everything happening at once -- there wouldn't be a past, present, or future. Therefore, if God is outside of time, what does it mean to say that God's patient/longsuffering?

  5. all of this is interesting and thought provoking. my question is why in all of this talk there is not one mention as far as i can see here, of man and the horrific atrocities he has intentionally committed in the name of human preservation and continuance. It seems as though those examples alone proves the concept of "total depravity'

  6. I think it's very interesting how you seem to take the Bible literally AND seem hurt by what it says.

    Why would God, if he exists, use any one man as his instrument, when everything could be?

    And why would a leader need to lead for the benefit of God and not for the benefit of the people he is leading when God, by definition could lead everyone?

    I guess I never understood the concept of evil properly and I've never had enough fear. Even though my family shuns me because I'm not "born again," I suppose I can't hate what you were when you sound like you held your beliefs for a sense of security and safety in a frightening world.