God Is Complicated–

The Demiurge? Many Christians today who read the New Testament struggle with God’s portrayal in the Old Testament. Some early Christians used the concept of a “Demiurge” to help resolve these tensions.

Let’s fly through some examples (quoting the NRSV):

An eye for an eye…

As a launching point, let’s talk about how discussions of retributive justice differ in the two testaments:

  • In Exodus 21, the LORD instructs that serious injury is to be compensated by similar injury to the perpetrator:
    If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life,  eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe
  • Similarly, in Leviticus 24, the LORD says to Moses that:
    Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered.
  • However, in Matthew 5, Jesus directly refutes that line of reasoning– “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also;  and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well;  and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.  Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

Now, you may have a straightforward vision for resolving this tension– for example, you may think that the Old Testament is referring to a legal system of laws to be followed, while Jesus is referring to a more personal application. The important thing to note for our purposes is that you have attempted to resolve a tension in the texts; if you did not see a tension, you would not feel a need to harmonize them. Whether a given tactic is valid or not isn’t our concern here; we’re going to be talking primarily about some early Christian tactics at harmonize. They may sound unintuitive to our modern ears, but the inverse would likely be true, as well!

…A Tooth for How Many Teeth?

Consider, as well, how the LORD instructs his chosen people to approach conflict with other groups:

  • In Deuteronomy 7, the LORD calls the hearer to “enter and occupy” lands, to “dispossess” the nations, and that, “when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy.” The LORD will “send the pestilence against them, until even the survivors and the fugitives are destroyed”, and will “throw them into great panic, until they are destroyed. “
  • In Genesis 19, “the LORD rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven; and he overthrew those cities, and all the Plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground”. Why? Opinions on this differ– some say due to perverse sexual practices, other due to offenses against hospitality– but the text simply states, “because the outcry against its people has become great before the Lord“.
  • In Genesis 7, the LORD not only threatens, but follows through in killing almost every living thing on the planet. The LORD is given particular responsibility for this– “He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, human beings and animals and creeping things and birds of the air; they were blotted out from the earth“.

Clearly, the actions and guidance of the LORD in these passages set up readers for some ethical tension! How did the earliest Christians wrestles with questions like these? Click through to read more.

The God Above God

In the 20th century, the Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich discussed the concept of the “God above God” in classic works such as The Courage To Be. Long before him, some of the earliest Christian theologians were exploring similar veins of thought. Professor Michael Allen Williams does an incredible job of unpacking this in his 1999 work, Rethinking Gnosticism.

Rethinking Gnosticism by Michael Williams (talks about the Demiurge and early Christianity)

Some early Christians thought that, perhaps, the God of the Old Testament was not the God that Jesus called his Father. Rather than trying to explain how the same God that Jesus served also said and did the things described in the Old Testament, these thinkers and theologians argued that we should think of them as distinct. After all, aren’t the characterizations of the LORD as described in the above passages very different than how Jesus describes his Father?

Williams describes such traditions as biblical demiurgical traditions. By demiurgical, he refers to traditions that ” ascribe the creation and management of the cosmos to some lower entity or entities, distinct from the highest God” (p. 51). 

The Demiurge as Evil

  • For some early Christians, such as Marcion, the God of the Old Testament– the Demiurge– is cruel, fickle, shows favoritism, is “always repenting, swearing, or threatening, or is depicted as angry or jealous or excitable or exasperated” (p. 24).
  • In texts like the Apocryphon of John, the Demiurge takes on a maniacal bent, being depraved and evil, stealing spiritual power, and enslaving humanity through fate and sexuality (p.11-12)

The Demiurge As Imperfect, but good

  • For Ptolemy and many other Valentinian thinkers, the Demiurge was imperfect and ignorant, but would eventually be saved and enter Perfection, just like psychical people (p. 18). Interested in what I mean by “psychical” or “psychic”? It has nothing to do with ESP, fortunetelling, or superpowers; check out my post on Romans 1 and pneumatic versus psychic Christians.
  • For Justin, the Demiurge was ignorant and a failed to properly honor his relationships, but does succeed in “ascending to be with the Good”. (p. 22) He is certainly not perfect, but doesn’t seek to defy God or actively harm people.


Is the Idea of the Demiurge of Any Modern Use?

The purpose of this post isn’t to go into great depth; rather, it’s to give a high-level outline of a solution to a problem many still struggle with today. Much has been written about the challenges– particularly the ethical and moral challenges– of thinking of the Old Testament God as being the same as the God that Jesus serves. We’ll hopefully dive into greater depth in later blog posts, but for now, hopefully this helps outline the concept of the Demiurge and show that early Christians applied that concept in different ways.

We often treat the God of the Old Testament as a Demiurge, today, when we take certain tactics to resolve tension. Writers like Peter Enns, in texts like The Bible Tells Me So, explore the idea that the texts of the Old Testament give us a less clear– a less perfect– image of God than is found in the New Testament. Indirectly, such books take the concept of a demiurge and apply it in a modern context.

Not all applications of the concept are equally legitimate. Some applications of the concept, such as most Valentinian applications, use the concept as a way to enhance their religious tradition without trailing off into anti-semitism. I think, however, that some ways of thinking about God in the Old Testament as being a demiurge veer into territory that is and should be unacceptable. Christianity, from the ancient past through the present day, has frequently contributed to hatred and violence toward Jewish people. It is shameful, but important to recognize.

I think the concept of a demiurge can have valid applications today. As we wrestle with understanding the God of the Old Testament, we may find that the best way to do justice to the Old and New Testament texts is to not think of them as being about the same God. After all, as the LORD said in Exodus 33, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live“!