Yearly Archives: 2017

Boyd and New Testament Spiritual Warfare [chapter 22]—Part two

Ted Grimsrud—December 30, 2017

[This is the 24th 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 23rd post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]

Due to the unusual length of this post, it has been divided into two parts. This is the second part, the first part may be found here.

God’s way of dealing with sin and evil

Boyd once more emphasizes the role of the withdrawal of God’s “protection” in dealing with the sin problem. “In a world that is presently caught in the cross fire of a cosmic war and that is engulfed by violent forces of destruction, God need never throw people down to have them experience the destructive consequence of their sin. Rather, God needs only to stop preventing people from falling to have them experience this” (1070).

Now, I do think that Boyd’s sensibility here could be helpful if it were part of a strategy to cultivate love as our only weapon—and if such a strategy were applied to socio-political analysis and action. Martin Luther King, Jr., would be a well-known example of a Christian leader who understood the call to resist evil being about both “spiritual warfare” and concrete political acts of resistance—all undertaken in the name of love. Boyd certainly does affirm love, but he offers little help in discerning our socio-political context (I have noted his tone deaf positive allusions to our militarized Department of Homeland Security in its work vs. “terrorism” in his story about his wife). A second thought is that Boyd’s discussion of God’s way of causing people to suffer the consequences of their sin turns our attention in precisely the wrong direction. It gives “Satan” way too much power, and it seems to reduce the struggle against evil and sin to a moralistic process where God mainly wants to punish sinners—albeit indirectly.

Boyd disagrees with the idea that he has a Manichaean-like dualism that gives equal power to good powers and evil powers. In his defense against that charge (1071), he argues for a biblical portrayal of the ability of Satan to corrupt nature, but that (unlike Manichaeanism) God is the sole creator and that creation was originally good and not a mixture of good and evil. I think, though, that even seeing Satan as a personal being who actively corrupts nature is problematic. I believe, instead, that we are better off using Satan as a metaphor for the corruption that is already there. Is Satan actually an active personal agent or simply a way of talking about the dynamics of the world we live in (that include human idolatry). Continue reading

Boyd and New Testament Spiritual Warfare [chapter 22]—Part one

Ted Grimsrud—December 30, 2017

[This is the 23rd 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 22nd post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]

In Chapter 22, “Caught in the Cross Fire: Cosmic Conflict and the New Testament” (pages 1041-1098), Boyd expands on the place of the spiritual forces of evil in his theology—most specifically in relation to the theme of CWG (how to hold together a commitment to Christian pacifism with a belief that the violent portraits of God in the Old Testament are part of inspired scripture) but also, more generally, in relation to his entire theological project.

Depoliticizing the New Testament critique of the powers that be?

It becomes clear in this chapter just how important a role his understanding of Satan plays for Boyd’s theology and ethics. My sense is that he has some important insights and helpfully challenges us to be more attentive to what has been in many circles a neglected aspect of the biblical story. Yet, I fear that he goes too far in many of his emphases and unfortunately undermines his case for divine nonviolence and Christian pacifism.

Boyd seems to take pretty literally scattered NT allusions to Satan’s control of the world: “The role given to Satan throughout the NT is absolutely without precedent. For example, according to John, Jesus three times refers to Satan as ‘the prince of this world’ (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11). The word translated ‘prince’ customarily referred to ‘the highest official in a city or region in the Greco-Roman world.’ Hence, while Jesus and his followers of course believed that God was the ultimate Lord over creation, it is apparent that Jesus viewed Satan as the functional ruler over the earth at the present time” (1044-5).

It seems to me that Boyd takes what is more a rhetorical flourish indicating the fallenness of human institutions (and the problem of humans giving loyalty to these institutions) and posits instead the existence of extraordinarily powerful spirit beings. This literalness can have the effect of depoliticizing the NT critique of the powers that be. One big danger with Boyd’s argument is that he tends to see Satan as an autonomous being with an existence independent of the various structures, institutions, belief systems, and the like that can shape human life for evil. What may result is a dualism where evil becomes a disembodied spiritual force and not always embedded in oppressive human structures and ideologies. Continue reading

Boyd and Old Testament Spiritual Warfare [chapter 21]

Ted Grimsrud—December 21, 2017

[This is the 22nd 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 21st post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]

In Chapter 21, “The Battle of the Gods: Cosmic Conflict and the Old Testament” (pages 1005-40), Boyd turns to the next major theme in his cruciform hermeneutic—analyses of the third key type of actor in the stories that contain the violent portraits of God, the powers of evil (the first two types of actors being God and human beings). Boyd attributes much of the violence in the OT to these powers, who certainly were not acting directly as God’s agents for good but nonetheless were used by God.

An engaging parable

Boyd began volume 2 of CWG with a fictional story about how, from a distance, he saw his wife, Shelley, acting violently toward a seemingly defenseless panhandler—that is, acting in a way that seems totally out of character (629-30). Because he knows her so well, Boyd assumes that rather than taking what he saw her do at face value, he should assume that “something else is going on.” This is an engaging parable that he uses to illustrate his approach to the violent portraits in the Old Testament. Because he knows God’s character so well, Boyd cannot believe that the stories in the OT that portray God as acting violently actually tell us what they seem, at face value, to be saying. “Something else is going on.”

Boyd leaves the story unresolved when he first brings it up. Now, as he begins Part IV of CWG (“The Principle of Cosmic Conflict”), Boyd returns to his fictional story. He comes to find out that indeed “something else was going on” with Shelley. She was working for the Department of Homeland Security, and the seemingly defenseless panhandler was actually a terrorist. Shelley, in her violent acts, helped thwart the terrorist plot—and was indeed acting totally consistently with her character (1006-7).

I have two points to make in relation to this story. First, while I give Boyd credit for creating an arresting metaphor to help illumine his book’s main argument, I am troubled that he would present the Department of Homeland Security in such a positive light and would further the “terrorism paranoia” that so fuels American militarism. Boyd himself obviously is a committed pacifist who does make some negative allusions to our militarism elsewhere, so it’s too bad he couldn’t have come up with a story that could make his point in another way.

More importantly, as I have discussed earlier, I think Boyd’s “something else must be going on” motif gives the wrong kind of message regarding the violent portrait texts. In his story about his wife, nothing in the scene he observed indicated anything morally positive about his wife—all he could possibly know contributed to a negative perception. It took some totally unobservable information to help him see the actual reality. Likewise, with the violent portraits Boyd’s reading strategy leaves intact a totally negative perception based on the observable content of the portraits and requires some totally unobservable information (the message of Jesus’s cross) to help us see the actual reality. I want, in contrast, to argue against the truthfulness of the violent portraits based on looking at the stories themselves in the context of the role they play in the Bible’s peaceable Big Story. Continue reading

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