Boyd’s “cruciform interpretation” of the Conquest [chapter 20]

Ted Grimsrud—December 13, 2017

[This is the 21st in a long series of posts that will work through Greg Boyd’s important book, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (Fortress, 2017). The 20th post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]

In Chapter 20, “When God’s Nonviolent Plans Fail: The Cruciform Interpretation of the Conquest Narrative” (pages 961–1002), Boyd elaborates in more detail the way his understanding of Jesus’s cross shapes his response to the violent portraits of God in the Old Testament.

The “Spirit-inspired depth” of God’s self-revelation?

Boyd’s “crucicentric theological approach” focuses on what the violent OT portraits of God now communicate to us in light of the message of Jesus’s cross (963). In light of the cross, we can say, according to Boyd, that God “acts toward his people, as much as possible, but because God persuades rather than coerces, God allows his people to act on him.” As a consequence of this non-coercive stance, God’s self-revelation is shaped by human sinfulness. Because of the presence of human sinfulness, we must work hard to discern “the revelatory content of all depictions of God that fall short of the self-giving God revealed on the cross.” The revelatory content may be found “in the Spirit-inspired depth of those portraits” (963).

So, Boyd is looking for revelatory content deep within the violent portraits of God. He is not content with looking for the meaning only on the surface. Now, it is true, I think, that the surface meaning of those portraits seems to be reprehensible. Boyd’s approach to dealing with this is to retain his high view of biblical inspiration but to look deep within the story for meaning that is quite different from the surface meaning. I worry that such an approach is in tension with seeing the meaning of the Bible as straightforward and clear. Boyd seems almost to advocate a kind of hidden meaning available only to “enlightened” readers. I’d rather work with the “surface” meaning and place the Joshua story in the context of the Big Story of the rest of the Bible in order to find peaceable meaning there.

Part of the problem with Boyd’s approach may also be seen in how he applies only a quite narrow sense of the “cross” to his interpretation of the violent portraits. It’s just the actual event of Jesus being killed and the sacrificial meaning of that death rather than looking at the much broader context of Jesus’ life and teaching understood, in turn, in the context of the story of God’s promise to Israel. The broader view makes possible linking the revelation of God’s politics as seen in the rise and fall of the Hebrews’ territorial kingdom with the politics that were embodied and taught by Jesus that led to his execution by the Romans.

Boyd clearly rejects the assumption that the genocidal message actually came from God. “The macabre portraits of Yahweh uttering the herem command to Moses and then helping his people carry it out … was not, in fact, God’s plan. Viewed through the lens of the cross, these genocidal portraits of God rather reflect the fallen heart and mind of Moses and of God’s people as a whole at this point in history” (963).

Now, I strongly agree that the portraits here are indeed “macabre” and that they cannot possibly accurately portray God. I would also say, though, that the story itself, which is all that we’ve got, does think the command came from God. The text gives no indication of the view Boyd draws from it. To read a “mask” on God into the text seems like a strange way to affirm its “inspiration.” If we can ignore the text’s own intention, why not see the whole thing as not inspired? And it does seem as if Boyd is inferring some sense of historicity when he talks about Moses as the source of the command and not the storyteller—if God inspires the written text and it tells us what God told Moses, how does it make sense that it is not telling us the truth about God? Continue reading

Boyd’s critique of divine genocide defenders [chapter 19]

Ted Grimsrud—December 11, 2017

[This is the 20th in a long series of posts that will work through Greg Boyd’s important book, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (Fortress, 2017). The 19th post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]

In Chapter 19, “Defending Divine Genocide: The Inadequacy of Traditional Defenses of the Conquest Narrative” (pages 917-60), Boyd develops a detailed critique of the argument presented by evangelical theologian Paul Copan’s book Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Copan stands in as a thinker who has argued thoroughly for reading the Joshua story as an accurate account of God’s activity in the world. As we would expect by now, Boyd argues sharply against Copan’s acceptance of that story as accurate in its portrayal of God while agreeing with Copan’s general affirmation of the inspired character of all of the OT.

What to make of the Joshua story as Scripture?

Boyd starts by making the point that indeed we have no alternative but to recognize that the story in Joshua does report genocidal actions empowered by God (922). He then adds, “if we refrain from calling the Israelites’ slaughtering of entire populations ‘genocide,’ we are implicitly admitting that wiping out entire populations in the name of God is sometimes, at least in principle, justified” (922). And, if we take Jesus seriously, we have no option but to deny the truthfulness of that picture of God and God’s will. These points seem important and true.

However, Boyd’s rejection of the picture of God presented in Joshua is only one side of his “conundrum”—that our affirmation of God as love requires us to deny that God could have done what Joshua tells us. He points to the other side of his conundrum here, too: “This narrative is completely God-breathed” (922). By God-breathed, Boyd means that God was directly involved in the writing of this text, that the book of Joshua says what God wanted it to say.

Perhaps the most profound problem with Boyd’s theology of scripture is not that he would insist that Joshua is “God-breathed.” It is that Boyd would argue that any of the Bible at all is “God-breathed” in the sense that he uses that term. In my view, the Bible from start to finish was written by human beings in human language—and then translated and interpreted by human beings. I believe that texts such as the genocidal stories in Joshua are useful in part because they challenge us to rethink our traditional understanding of the Bible as revelation.

If we truly believe that the Bible’s God (seen most clearly in the story of Jesus) could not possibly have given the commands that Joshua presents as from God, then we should not present the story of those commands as “God-breathed”—if “God-breathed” means that God was directly involved the writing and that the words are what God wanted written. We need to rework how we think of scripture as revelation. Unfortunately, Boyd does not seem interested in such a reworking and instead constructs a quite convoluted argument that tries to hold on to a traditional view of inspiration while denying that the picture of God presented in Joshua is true. I find it hard to believe that many will be persuaded, and I find it hard to understand what he hopes to gain with this view of inspiration. Continue reading

Boyd on judgment and “divine withdrawal” [chapters 17 and 18]

Ted Grimsrud—December 7, 2017

[This is the 19th in a long series of posts that will work through Greg Boyd’s important book, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (Fortress, 2017). The 18th post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]

In Chapter 17, “Doing and Allowing: The Crucicentric Significance of Scripture’s Dual Speech Pattern” (pages 851-890) and Chapter 18, “A Question of Divine Culpability: Responding to Objections to the Principle of Redemptive Withdrawal” (pages 891-916), Boyd develops further his arguments about how God exercises punitive judgment in ways that are compatible with how the nonviolent God is revealed in the cross of Jesus.

What does the Bible mean when it speaks of God’s actions?

Boyd makes a good point in his discussion of what he calls “Scripture’s ‘dual speech’ pattern.” He suggests we recognize that the Bible’s authors acknowledge “that God merely allowed the actions they elsewhere directly ascribe to God.” The language of God directly acting to bring about judgment thus should not be read overly literally. It is God’s universe and everything that happens in some sense happens under God’s directing providence. But that does not mean that God directly acts every time God is mentioned.

Boyd links this “dual speech pattern” with his belief that “God merely withdraws protection when he brings about judgment” (852). I would rather say that to note this “dual speech pattern” is simply to note that we have in the text a rhetorical projection of God’s agency onto the events. Boyd takes an additional step that I cannot accept, that the biblical writers implicitly recognize “that their violent depictions of God are divine accommodations to their own fallen and culturally conditioned hearts and minds” (852). I would rather say that this “dual speech pattern” is simply a reflection of the human nature of the Bible’s books.

Boyd seems to claim that the Bible is still “inspired” and even “infallible” when it reflects such “divine accommodation.” It is not that the Bible is a human book that cannot help but reflect its human sources and in fact could not be otherwise. Rather, for Boyd it is that the Bible is still a divine book where God chooses to allow the human limitations to be evident even though God could fashion the Bible otherwise if God wanted to.

It strikes me that Boyd wants to retain a view of a profoundly powerful God who could control things and chooses not to. In face of the evidence that the Bible indeed does reflect human limitations, Boyd argues for this “divine accommodation” without any clear evidence to support such a move beyond the need to hold on to his understanding of the inspiration and infallibility of the Bible. Continue reading

Boyd on how God judges sin [chapter 16]

Ted Grimsrud—December 1, 2017

[This is the 18th in a long series of posts that will work through Greg Boyd’s important book, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (Fortress, 2017). The 17h post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]

Chapter 16, “Crime and Punishment: Divine Withdrawal and the Self-Destructive Nature of Sin” (pages 805-50) develops more of Boyd’s thinking on the second key point in his Cruciform Hermeneutic, which is “the Principle of Redemptive Withdrawal.”

Does God, in effect, grant Israel’s “wish” when Rome destroys Jerusalem?

Boyd explains Jesus’s teaching in Luke 19 that seems to prophesy the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman Empire in 70 CE: “For centuries, God’s covenant people had been pushing him away, and they were now about to push him away in a definitive way by participating in Jesus’s crucifixion. By 70 CE, the time had come when God did, in essence, grant them their wish. And in doing so, God was leaving them vulnerable to the Roman military, who would inflict on them the death-consequences of their sin” (809).

I believe that there are a number of problems with Boyd’s statement. First of all, his statement that “God’s covenant people” (by which he surely means “the Jews” as a people) for centuries “had been pushing [God] away” needs to be challenged. Certainly, the community, as always before and since (and as has always been the case for Christian communities at least as much), struggled with faithfully following God’s will. However, it seems deeply problematic to say they were “pushing God away” in any sense differently than God’s people ever have.

The leadership of Israel in the generations prior to Jesus’s birth, indeed, seems to have been quite corrupt with its use of the temple to exploit the people and in its collaboration with Rome. Again, though, the leadership of Christian communities has over the centuries been just as corrupt. “The [common] people of the covenant” (as always) surely struggled to get by in life and to live as best they could in harmony with God.

Second, to say that “God’s covenant people” would push God away in a “definitive way” by participating in Jesus’s crucifixion seems like a fundamental misreading of the story. It was only the Jewish leaders who collaborated with Rome in killing Jesus, not “God’s covenant people.” Jesus’s execution as a political criminal was not an act of “the covenant people” against God. It was an act by the power elite of the temple structure collaborating with the power elite of the Empire to defy God. That is, the killing of Jesus was most of all about the political dynamics of the power elite versus the efforts of Jesus to minister to the common people, not about Judaism as a religion versus emergent Christianity. Continue reading

Boyd on God’s “divine aikido” [chapter 15]

Ted Grimsrud—November 13, 2017

[This is the 17th in a long series of posts that will work through Greg Boyd’s important book, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (Fortress, 2017). The 16h post may be found here—and an index of the series here.] 

Chapter fifteen, “Divine Aikido: The Cross as the Revelation of God’s ‘Wrath’” (pages 767-804) expands on the second key point in Boyd’s Cruciform Hermeneutic, which is “the Principle of Redemptive Withdrawal.”

Depoliticizing Jesus’s execution

Boyd begins the chapter with a brief statement about “the Principle of Redemptive Withdrawal”: It “is anchored in the fact that God the Father did not act violently toward the Son when the Son bore the judgment of our sin that we deserved. Rather, with a grieving heart, the Father simply withdrew his protective hand, thereby delivering his Son over to wicked humans and fallen powers that were already ‘bend on destruction’ (Isa 51:13). Yet by abandoning his Son to suffer the destructive consequences of sin that we deserved, the Father wisely turned the violent aggression of these evildoers back on themselves, causing evil to self-implode and thereby liberating creation” (768).

This statement raises a number of concerns for me. The idea that “the Son bore the judgment of our sin that we deserved” seems to me to depoliticize Jesus’s execution. Here is an idea that the key element of Jesus’s execution is that in it he was judged for our sin. The only judgment I see in the story is the false judgment by the Empire and the religious leaders that Jesus deserved to die. I guess there is a sense that in making this judgment, these powers actually judged themselves as false claimants to be acting on behalf of God.

However, the idea that in some sense “we” deserved the “judgment” Jesus received because we are the sinful ones seems to reflect a purity, collective guilt notion of sin. It’s as if the presence of sin in this story is not the injustice of the powers that be but the inherent sinfulness of all human beings. That is, the dynamic in the picture is not idolatrous politics that continue to turn people from Jesus’s way even now but rather something much more vague and pervasive—a dynamic that blinds us to the on-going political relevance of this story.

Another concern I have with Boyd’s statement comes when he writes that “the Father simply withdrew his protective hand” and let Jesus be executed. This point seems to imply that God actively “protected” Jesus until God chose not to, with an assumption that God can and does intervene directly to shape what happens—except when God chooses to step back. I find it difficult to differentiate morally between an interventionist God who directly causes an evil act such as Jesus’s execution to happen and an interventionist God who definitely could have stopped the execution and chose not to. Continue reading

Boyd’s “principle of cruciform accommodation” (part 2) [chapter 14]

Ted Grimsrud—November 1, 2017

[This is the 16th in a long series of posts that will work through Greg Boyd’s important book, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (Fortress, 2017). The 15th post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]

Chapter fourteen, “The Heavenly Missionary: Yahweh’s Accommodation of the Law, Nationalism, and Violence” (pages 701-64), is the second part of Boyd’s account of the first of the four principles that make up his “Cruciform Thesis”: the principle of “cruciform accommodation” continuing the discussion from chapter thirteen. He looks at how God’s accommodation to human sinfulness may be seen in how God allows the writings of the Bible to present God as complicit in the people of Israel’s violent understandings of the meaning of the law and of their nationhood.

What about “sin”?

A key part of Boyd’s account is what he calls God’s “sin-bearing” efforts: “To the degree that canonical portraits of God reflect [the fallen and culturally conditioned hearts and minds of God’s people of the time,] our cross-informed faith must discern the heavenly missionary stooping to bear the sin of his people, just as he did in a definitive way on Calvary” (703, emphasis added). It’s not quite clear to me what is involved in “sin-bearing.” This term seems a bit jargonish without a clear explanation of what it means. Is it the idea that there is some kind of legal “transaction” where the sin is “paid for”? What’s the actual outcome of this “sin bearing”?

Boyd seems Augustinian in writing that we are all living in a state of sin—as if being in a state of sin is what matters most in the human relationship with God. If it is the case that this general sense of our sinfulness matters the most in relation to God, then we would likely say that what killed Jesus was our sinfulness in general; we are all guilty. The significance of Jesus’s death then is to somehow address this universal problem of human beings being fundamentally sinful as a state of being. Precisely how Jesus’s death resolves the problem of universal human sinfulness is yet to be determined. Continue reading

Boyd’s “principle of cruciform accommodation” [chapter 13]

Ted Grimsrud—October 23, 2017

[This is the 15th in a long series of posts that will work through Greg Boyd’s important book, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (Fortress, 2017). The 14th post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]

An example of the “something else must be going on” dynamic

Boyd begins the second volume of CWG with an introduction (pages 629-38) where he tells a made-up story about his wife that illustrates his approach to the Old Testament’s violent portraits of God. He then outlines the four principles that make up his “Cruciform Thesis” that is the core argument of CWG. The thirteen chapters of the second volume will be an elaboration on these four principles.

In the fictional story, Boyd spots from a distance his kind, loving wife Shelley acting in a way that seems totally out of character. She slaps around a wheelchair-bound panhandler rather than acting compassionately and generously toward him, which is what Boyd would expect to see. He is shocked. But because he knows his wife so well, he assumes that something else was going on beyond what his naked eye observed.

Boyd tells this story as a way of suggesting his response to the violent portraits of God in the Old Testament. He knows, through his long experience and intellectual awareness as a follower of Jesus, that God is loving, self-giving, even nonviolent. Therefore, he has to assume when he encounters the Old Testament violent portraits that “something else is going on” beyond what his surface reading seems to tell him.

This is an arresting example, one to keep in mind as we are continually reminded in the chapters that follow that Boyd believes “something else is going on.” The power of the example, it seems to me, rests in the personal knowledge he has of his wife through the long, intimate relationship he has with her. Because he has come to trust her so profoundly, he can’t actually believe what his eyes had shown him.

I agree with Boyd that it makes sense to assume based on one’s personal knowledge of the God of Jesus that God could not have given the commands and done the deeds that are recounted in OT stories such as the genocide in the book of Joshua. That personal knowledge should carry a lot of weight and certainly it justifies a sense of strong suspicion about the truthfulness of the violent portraits. However, I do not find Boyd’s explanation of the “something else that is going on” all that persuasive, though I do deeply appreciate his effort and, most importantly, share his commitment to affirming the God of Jesus as the biblical God.

I also have some problems with Boyd’s use of this story. He actually physically sees what his wife does; there is no question about the event of her violent treatment of the panhandler. So the assumption with the story would seem to be that the OT violent portraits are factual in a parallel way to Boyd’s wife’s actions. I think a closer parallel would be if his story was that he had heard someone else describe his wife’s actions. Then, a big part of the question would be about the veracity of the story. Boyd could say, I can’t believe the story is true because I know my wife would not do something like that. That’s the way I think of the OT violent portraits. Continue reading