Guest Post – Richard Murray – “Better over Letter” – Beyond Dead-Letter Literalism

Richard Murray

Whenever I cite a New Testament verse which says without qualification that God is ONLY light, love, and goodness – “dead letter” literalists THEN accuse me of improperly cherry-picking Scriptures. They quickly cite Old Testament verses which, when read by the surface letter, appear to say God IS dark, IS wrathful, and IS the ordainer of all evil.

For instance, if I say, “God is light and in Him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5), then they will respond I am cherry-picking Scripture because God DOES indeed have darkness and evil in Him because Isaiah 45:7 says He is the “creator” of all “darkness” and all “evil.” So, they avoid 1 John 1:5 by theologically just dumping it in the garbage bin.

Here is a disturbing dynamic I frequently encounter.

Similarly, these literalists also accuse me of cherry-picking whenever I say that God does not ordain, allow, or tempt us with evil, which I base on the authority of this following passage :

“Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God : for God cannot be tempted with evil , neither tempts he any man…. Do not err , my beloved brethren . Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above , and comes down from the Father of lights , with whom is no variableness , neither shadow of turning” (James 1:15-17).

These critics respond to my claim by quoting Amos 3:6’s assertion that, “Shall there be evil in the city and the Lord has not done it?” Again, they just dump the very clear and precise language of James 1:15-17 into their theological trash can.

Finally, these literal minded critics claim that I am also cherry-picking Scriptures when I claim, on the authority of Jesus’ statement in John 10:10, that Satan is the oppressor, destroyer, and killer of men, not God. “The thief comes not , but for to steal , and to kill , and to destroy: I have come that they might have life , and that they might have it more abundantly.”

These critics are quick to cite Deuteronomy 28, proposing that the Old Testament LITERALLY says God “delights” to afflict us with “marvelous…plagues,…enemies,…famines,…destructions…and many other curses.” God happily sends these oppressions directly our way straight from His wrathful hand until we are “utterly destroyed” (Deuteronomy 28:15-68; Psalm 90). The passage I cited, John 10:10, can have no meaning, these critics maintain, which dares contradict the Old Testament letter.

These literalists accuse me of being a cherry-picking heretic and that my cited verses carry absolutely no weight whatsoever because THEIR chosen verses clearly say otherwise.

But here is the thing.

These “dead letter” literalists usually refuse to acknowledge my New Testament passages – AT ALL. They offer no proposed alternate explanation of my passages, just that they can’t mean what I say they mean because their Old Testament passages “literally” say God IS dark, wrathful and violent.

Despite the fact that the book of Hebrews says that WE, as New Testament believers, have a “better covenant” with the “better promises” which produce a “more excellent” revelation of God (Hebrews 8:6-7), these literalists NONETHELESS prioritize the Old Testament “letter” over and above the New Testament “better.”

Despite the fact that this same Hebrews passage (8:6-7) says that the “dead letter” Old Testament was “NOT faultless” in its revelation of God, a fault which is what made the New Testament necessary in the first place, these “dead letter” literalists NONETHELESS believe the Old Testament trumps and/or nullifies ANY and EVERY New Testament passage which dares to paint a NON-wrathful image of God.

Despite the fact Paul warns us in 2 Corinthians 3:6 that “the letter (written on tablets) kills” us with lethal literalism, but that the “Spirit (of Scripture written on human hearts) gives life,” these critics still insist the Old Testament is the plumb-line of truth, not the New Testament.

Here is my bottom line: JUST as light trumps darkness, so too does “New Testament better” trump the “Old Testament letter.” JUST as stadium floodlights are far better than disorienting strobe lights which only offer partial and choppy vision, so TOO is the “better floodlight” of the New Testament always brighter and righter than the “lesser strobe-light” of the Old Testament.

Richard Murray is an attorney and theologian based in Dalton, Georgia.
This post first appeared on his Facebook feed on July 25, 2022.

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