"Is God a Moral Monster?" By Paul Copan

Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Baker Books, 2011. 252 Pgs. 

As I said in my last review of a book on this topic, wading through certain Old Testament passages can be quite troubling and difficult. For Seibert, this seems to have been made especially so by the struggles of his students (or so one gathers from the stories he shares in his introduction). Copan, on the other hand, is mainly responding to the accusations of the 'New Atheists.' People such as Dawkins, Dennet, and Hitchens who delight in caricaturing God as He is presented in the Old Testament so that He more easily falls to their ridicule and condescension. 

In response to these arguments, Copan offers a careful and detailed reading of several parts of the Old Testament, paying particular attention to cultural context and genre, as well as the language and details of scripture itself. His book is divided into four sections. Section one introduces the issues and those who are presenting them (the New Atheists). Section two examines the troubling aspects of divine character presented in the Old Testament, namely: God's pride and humility in His appetite for praise and sacrifice, God's anger and jealousy, and God as child abuser and bully. Section three then explores the many oddities and disturbing passages which we can find in the laws of ancient Israel. These include the strange food and clothing laws, treatment of women, slavery, the genocidal commands regarding the Canaanites, and more. Finally, in section four, Copan takes a step back from detailed arguments to ask what morality we have without God, what morality we have in Jesus, and how that relates to what is presented in the Old Testament. 

Copan has many good arguments and points in this book. They all arise from the same initial premise: If we read these texts with their cultural context in mind and pay attention to the details of the writings themselves then we consistently find that strange and troublesome passages make more sense than we initially thought. We also need to add to this that the law given in the Old Testament was meant to be a temporary measure, not representing the fullness of God nor the fullness of where he was taking his people. As Copan comes to the end of his last chapter on the killing of the Canaanites, he offers a conclusion which very much fits the entire book: "For anyone who takes the bible seriously, these Yahweh-war texts will certainly prove troubling... we shouldn't glibly dismiss or ignore such questions. On the other hand, we hope that critics won't do a surface reading of these Old Testament texts. If our scenario doesn't cover all the bases, it still goes a long way in providing perspective on what happened and didn't happen in Canaan." In other words, Copan knows these are still serious questions, and he knows that the answers he offers are incomplete. His hope is to give the text a fair reading and to alleviate the problems by presenting plausible, if not provable, explanations. In my opinion this book admirably succeeds in these goals. 

I found Copan to be exponentially more helpful than Seibert on this subject. Seibert has approached the issue assuming that the only way through is to find a way to discredit and ignore difficult texts, and thus his readings of the OT are slanted from the beginning. Copan, in contrast, has assumed that we need to more fully understand what the OT actually says so that we can better understand the problems we have. Maybe this will solve our problems, and in some cases Copan argues it does, but maybe it won't, and Copan acknowledges when this is the case. Copan does not shy away from the fact that some texts cannot be read literally, but he is incredibly careful in showing, from the text, the history, and the context why and when this is the case. Rather than seeking a hermeneutical rubric which he can plug each text into, Copan takes each text on its own. Overall, Copan exhibits a fundamental respect for and trust in the OT, allowing this to guide his argument and discussion. Like Seibert, Copan finds resolution for these issues in the person of Jesus Christ. However, unlike Seibert, he does not do so by altering or denying the OT. Instead, he sees Jesus as the fulfillment, the next step, the new covenant, all of which are affirmed in the bible itself. 

Conclusion: 4 of 5 stars. Recommended. Is God a Moral Monster? is well written, well argued, and well worth reading. These issues are important and worth your time to explore. Read this book. 


Dana Ouellette said...

That sounds interesting. Of course I don't have time to read anything that isn't library related at the moment. But i'd love to read a christian who takes theodicy seriously.

Andrew said...

Maybe someday, when you have time again :)

Alex Altorfer said...

Have you read Thom Stark's refutation of Copan's book? It can be downloaded here:



Andrew said...

I have not read it. I just glanced at it, however, and noticed that it is 306 pages long...

I have to ask, is it worth the read?

If so, then I will put it on my pile and thank you for point it out to me. :)