Thursday, 1 July 2010

Do not test the Lord your God?

In the last few entries I've made a case for the reasonableness of Christian faith. In response to such arguments, Christians and non-Christians alike sometimes produce Bible passages that are allegedly anti-reason or anti-evidence.

A Christian will sometimes adopt the extreme position called 'fideism', which is the belief that our faith in God is something completely divorced from our rational faculties. This position is probably self-defeating. If truths about God cannot be arrived at via reason, then we cannot have any reason to believe in fideism. So why accept it? Fortunately very few Christians seriously hold to fideism. The vast majority of well meaning Christians accept that rational thought is in some way a part of faith, but find certain Bible passages that seem to caution against it. Let us then turn to the first of these important passages.

Do not test the Lord your God

The command to not test the Lord your God is explicitly stated in Deuteronomy 6:16

Do not test the LORD your God as you did at Massah.

Some people would have it that this means that we cannot inquire into the evidence supporting our belief in God. But does this verse really prohibit honest truth-seeking? If it did it would certainly be at odds with some of the verses we looked at in previous entries. We need to look at the event that this verse is referencing. What happened at Massah?

The event is described in Exodus 17. The events that proceed this particular event will likely be familiar to you even if you're not a Christian: Moses leading the Iraelites out of Egypt through the miraculous parting of the Red Sea. Even if you don't believe all this actually occurred, it is still important to look at it, even as a story, to see what the Biblical text is saying.

In Exodus 17 the Israelites are complaining about the lack of water and quarreling about whether God is really with them or not. Fair enough but are these people really honest doubters inquiring into the truth about God? Hardly, they have been presented with masses of evidence for God's care of them. He even rains bread from the sky for them in the previous chapter. They have ample reason to believe that God is looking after them, they just want him to perform for them at will. Let's look at the context in which Jesus uses the Deuteronomy 6:16 command.

Jesus quotes the command in Matthew 4 when Satan is tempting him (in the desert like the Israelites were funnily enough).

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. "If you are the Son of God," he said, "throw yourself down. For it is written:
" 'He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.'"
Jesus answered him, "It is also written: 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'"
Clearly Satan (whatever you take him to be or to represent) is not asking Jesus to test the evidential foundations of his belief in God. He is asking him to force God's hand so to speak in producing an act of power. It is to this coercive attempt that Jesus replies with Deuteronomy 6:16.

In conclusion the command to not test the Lord your God has nothing to do with honest truth seeking. It is about needlessly forcing God to demonstrate his power. He is not a magician to perform at our will after all. We will move on then, to look at other verses often interpreted as being anti-reason.

4 comments:

Still Crows said...

Hey Martin,

I appreciate the leveling of the word "test" as it pertains the Jesus when tempted, but I was wondering how you would come to terms with the statement in Malachi 3:10 where God actually requests to be tested. It seems to be a contradiction, though I know from past experience that it won't be.

Martin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Martin said...

Hi Still Crows, thanks for your question. I'm sorry for the late reply.

Mi initial thoughts about the Malachi passage are that it represents a different kind of situation.

There is a legitimate sense in which we are supposed to 'put God to the test'. After all, we are supposed to depend upon his promises. To depend upon something is, in a sense, to put it to the test. If I say that I trust my car to make long journeys but always take the train for long distances for fear of my car breaking down, I show that I do not really trust my car after all. For I have been unwilling to put my car to the test. Likewise, it is possible to fail to trust God by not putting him to the test on things that he has promised.

That sounds to me like God's complaint to the Israelites in Malachi. God had promised them blessing through the covenant but the Israelites did not trust God and so were not putting God's promises to the test. God is, then, on my initial reading, rebuking them for a lack of trust.

(This is different from a case whereby God has not promised X but a person attempts to cajole God into doing X thereby 'testing' him in a different sense.)

Ashlynn Register said...

Martin,

Okay, so I've been thinking heavily on the subject of testing recently, and I want to make sure I am understanding what you are suggesting.

In Judges 6:36-40, Gideon is said to have tested the Lord by laying out fleece and asking God to prove His will to him. Isn't that more like asking for God to be a magician and prove Himself at that moment? If so, wouldn't any moment where you ask for a sign from God be considered testing Him? Which is exactly what we are NOT supposed to do?