God in the New Testament

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Warren Carter
Core Biblical Studies
  • Nashville, TN: 
    Abingdon Press
    , November
     2016.
     208 pages.
     $29.99.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781426766336.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Warren Carter’s God in the New Testament aims to provide “key concepts and information that assist readers in the process of making meaning of New Testament texts” (vii). Among many other issues in New Testament scholarship, Carter explores how the New Testament portrays God as a “neglected factor” (3) by examining how humans describe their experiences of God’s works. 

The volume’s seventeen chapters are thematically divided into five sections: Gospels (chapters 2-8), Acts (9-10), (Deutro-) Pauline letters (11-13), other Catholic letters (14-15), and Revelation (16). In the first chapter, Carter presents his purpose, goal, textual focus, and approach to reading New Testament passages to understand how the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) explain God and his work. The gospels (chapters 2 through 8) demonstrate God’s twofold image, “very generous and very harsh, very gracious and very judgmental” (23). For instance, Carter cites Matthew in the parable of the king (22:1-14), which displays God’s merciful invitation of the marginalized instead of the elites who refused the king’s invitation, and God’s harsh banishment of those who do not wear a wedding robe. God’s benevolence does not preclude future judgment, though the God of judgment openly invites all to join his kingdom. Carter’s reading of Mark portrays God revealing his message of salvation and sovereign power through the violent death of Jesus, the son of God. While the suffering and death of Jesus shows God’s absence, his resurrection demonstrates the eventual triumph and ironic presence of a God who works in ambivalent ways. Carter than moves on to Luke, in which God challenges contemporary circumstances by warning the powerful not to oppress the marginalized, demanding that all should trust in God, and responding to believers’ supplications; and then John, in which Jesus heals a blind person on the Sabbath but passes over other sick people. Jesus’s opponents attempt to protect the honor of God by killing him for his alleged violation of the Sabbath law, though Jesus proves his piety by fully trusting in God’s power to accomplish his salvific goal. In chapters 9 and 10, Carter discusses the book of Acts, which emphasizes God’s impartiality to both Jews and Gentiles and unconcern with gender or social class. Acts, Carter argues, unfolds the power and sovereignty of God who created the heaven and earth and who is intolerant to all other gods and beliefs. In contrast to the gospels, Paul’s letters in chapters 11 and 12 vividly portray “the circumstances of local Jesus-believers” (117) by depicting a God who is righteous and triumphant over earthly empires and who “giv[es] up” people to the consequences of their distorted thoughts and harmful behaviors (124). According to Carter’s reading of Paul, God displays his love through the crucifixion of Jesus and embraces all regardless of race, gender, and social class, despite daily violence and hatred. After briefly addressing the question of authorship in chapter 13, Carter explains how 1 and 2 Timothy depict God in patriarchal imagery as the world’s housekeeper. The author of 1 and 2 Timothy requires God’s workers (usually men) to be morally accountable and capable of witnessing God’s words.

James juxtaposes ways to form friendship with God (humility, obedience, and purity of heart) with ways to form friendship with the world (speaking evil, arrogance, and self-indulgence) to highlight that God listens to the poor, even within the hierarchical world that favors the rich. The first letter of John displays a strong tension between God and the world, for while God shows unlimited love, he reserves it exclusively for his people. The author of 1 John does not extend God’s love to the Johannine community’s opponents, whom the author labels as Anti-Christ. Eventually, the book of Revelation describes God resolving all conflicts between the divine and the worldly by opening up a new world. The book of Revelation portrays the worship of God as a way to resist the Roman Empire and envisions the Empire’s destruction and the sovereignty of God. Revelation also portrays troubling images, such as the replacement of a violent empire with a violent God, and negative descriptions of female figures. God still engages in violence to accomplish his final triumph over the kingdom of the world. As the Judge that deserves the worship of all nations, God does not tolerate those who do not honor him (182). In light of God’s many characteristics, both good and bad, Carter concludes that one needs to admit the presence of tension and then to “proceed with caution” based on historical and cultural circumstances in order to understand the words of God in the New Testament (196).

Carter successfully demonstrates God’s contrasting characters and succinctly helps both confessional and non-confessional readers navigate and comprehend the texts’ ambiguous constructions of God. The volume also generously provides readers with excurses about difficult interpretive issues and background information (The Testament of Solomon, The Paul of Acts, and the author of 1 and 2 Timothy, and Jezebel), which guide one’s understanding of the arguments. Carter amusingly uses visual “red flags” to highlight difficult or conflicting passages about God, which enables readers to see the complexity of God’s characteristics. Discussion questions at the end of each chapter motivate further reflection for either individual or group study. The reading list is also useful for further study.

It is not easy to talk about topics like theodicy, divine intervention, and human free will, and the benevolence, love, and mercy of God and his justice and judgment in terms of the diverse illustrations of God’s character in the New Testament. This volume clearly demonstrates this tension in the texts, and points out to modern readers that interpretations claiming one totalized view of God (whether radical or conservative) are far from what the texts themselves show. The diversity of descriptions of God’s character in the passages challenge any attempt to universalize. The volume asks readers to continue to ask questions, even if the subject is a deity with absolute power. I would recommend this book to seminary students, religious laypersons, ministers, and non-religious readers who are interested in the ambiguity of God’s character in the New Testament, how humans understand the presence and absence of God, and how God is believed to work in the world.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Chang Seon An is a doctoral candidate in New Testament and Early Christianity at Boston University.

Date of Review: 
June 7, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Warren Carter is Professor of New Testament at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, with a Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary. Before moving to Brite in 2007, he taught for 17 years at Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City. His scholarly work has focused on the gospels of Matthew and John, and he has focused on the issue of the ways in which early Christians negotiated the Roman empire. In addition to numerous scholarly articles, he is the author of many books including The Roman Empire and the New TestamentWhat Does Revelation Reveal?The New Testament: Methods and Meanings (with Amy-Jill Levine); and God in the New Testament published by Abingdon Press. He has also contributed to numerous church resources and publications and is a frequent speaker at scholarly and church conferences.

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