Ted Grimsrud—May 25, 2017
It is a measure of Greg Boyd’s stature that Fortress Press, perhaps the most highly respected publisher of theological books in the United States, would indulge him by publishing Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross in the form that it has. Crucifixion of the Warrior God (hereafter CWG) comes to us as a single book in two volumes, a total of 1,486 pages.
CWG, though, is not an esoteric work of high-level academic density, accessible only to elite initiates. Certainly its size and detailed argumentation are not for the faint of heart, but CWG is the kind of book one might expect from a pastor-scholar—which is what Boyd is. It is clearly written, passionate in tone, and pursues a deeply practical agenda: How do Christians who are committed to the message of Jesus, the Peacemaker, understand their faith in light of biblical materials that paint a picture of God as a God of war and violence?
I find wrestling with this book to be one of most engaging and challenging investments of intellectual and spiritual energy I have made in quite some time. I have had a hard time putting the book down, though it’s not exactly a page-turner. In fact, I have turned the pages very slowly because there are so many ideas that demand my attention. Given the number of pages the book contains, I have decided that the only way I can justify to myself the energy I put into wrestling with CWG is to write about it. So I am embarking on a series of blog posts that will work through the book at some length.
I am not going to write a review exactly nor a summary of the book’s main ideas. Rather, I will reflect on issues that arise for me as I read and thereby develop my thinking about peace, the Bible, Jesus’s crucifixion, and the character of God with Boyd’s impressive book as a catalyst. There will be chunks of the book that I will not address and there will be some parts that I will pay a great deal of attention to. And I won’t claim that in focusing on what I will focus on I will be reflect Boyd’s own priorities so much as my priorities.
We already have many reviews and many more will come. Boyd himself has provided summaries of his main ideas in writings and on-line sermons and lectures (see his ReKnew site). As well, he will publish a shorter and more accessible version of his argument this summer (Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence). What I offer here is more about my own thinking—as a pacifist, Anabaptist, anarchistically-inclined social ethicist who has deeply ambivalent feelings about mainstream Christianity, theological orthodoxy, and the legacy of the Christian tradition. However, I also offer one critical reading of CWG that will probably provide a distinctive angle for understanding Boyd’s project.
Some issues and definitions
At the heart of Boyd’s argument are two fundamental convictions that he sees as central to his faith and as strong certainties that must, in some sense, be held together: (1) God is a God of love and has always been a God of love, a God of nonviolent love revealed to the world definitively in the cross of Jesus Christ. And, (2) the Bible is the God-breathed, inspired, and infallible word of God. It is our source of understanding about God and God’s will for humankind.
The tension between these two core convictions drives the plot of CWG. So I will, of course, have to engage this tension. I greatly admire Boyd’s efforts. I haven’t read a book that has so pulled me into its argument for a long time—perhaps not since the early 1990s with Walter Wink’s Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (a book, by the way, that will likely figure prominently in my reflections to come). At the same time, I have learned more so far (when I write this I have just finished volume 1; it goes through page 628) from the disagreements, questions, and confusions that have arisen—which is not to say I haven’t learned a great deal from the materials I unambivalently affirm, too.
Let me introduce this series of responses to Boyd with several definitions. Some of these are key terms for Boyd; the others will be additional terms that are important for me. These definitions will give us a window into Boyd’s agenda and perspective—and some questions we might have of his argument.
Violence. This is obviously a key term for the book since it is at the center of the sub-title: “Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross.” Boyd, though, does not offer a detailed definition of what he means by “violence.” Perhaps we need to figure that out simply by following his engagement with the biblical accounts in volume 2. Precise definitions of violence are notoriously difficult to construct and perhaps Boyd thinks that the effort to do so, bound to be open to criticism, might be a diversion.
I am pretty comfortable with a general sense of violence as actions that cause harm, usually motivated by an intent to cause harm. So, war or capital punishment are by definition violent, as are many other aggressive acts such as robbery, rape, assault, and the like. We get into more gray territory when we consider acts that cause harm that were not motivated by an intent to harm. Or acts that were intended to cause harm and then did not (such as taking a swing at someone in anger but missing them). And then there is the element of being in a position to prevent harm and not doing so.
The obvious texts in the Bible that Boyd seems to have in mind are places where God causes or commands severe physical harm—the events of the exodus and the invasion of the promised land and various direct acts of punishing judgment, among numerous other examples. I think the point of the subtitle is that we have enough of these examples to have little ambiguity when it comes to a sense that the God of the Old Testament stories is clearly at times portrayed as violent.
Boyd’s point (and I would agree with this) seems to be that “violence” is morally wrong in just about all cases (if not all). To say God is “violent” is to say something deeply problematic about God, something that stands in tension with the portrayal of God that we get in the account of Jesus’s life and crucifixion. So, the issue of violence here is not actually an issue that can be finessed by careful definitions of violence. The issue is that God is portrayed in the Bible as doing and commanding acts that we now believe in light of the message of Jesus to be wrong.
Nonviolence. The opposite of violence is to act to prevent harm, to treat people with love and respect, to refuse ever to harm (insofar as we can help it). We may call this “nonviolence.” I actually prefer the term “pacifism” (a term Boyd, it would seem, does not reject; but he does not use it very often either). To me, pacifism has a more positive connotation—not just to refuse to harm but actively to seek peace, wholeness, healing, shalom. “Pacifism” may be defined as “a love of peace.” However, at the practical core of pacifism is a commitment never to do violence, a commitment to “nonviolence.” Boyd understands nonviolence most centrally as a manifestation of the spirit of God that responds to sin and wrong by accepting the cross as the means to break the spiral of wrong in the world.
For Boyd (and for me), “nonviolence” is not mainly about tactics and strategy to achieve a desired outcome without the use of violence (though it certainly may have that element). Rather, it is a philosophy of life, a commitment to a way of being in the world that overcomes evil with good. That God is nonviolent in this deeper sense is one of Boyd’s core convictions and a lynchpin for the plot of the book. The problem of the violent portraits of God only arises with the intensity that it does because of Boyd’s (and my) convictions about God’s nonviolent character.
God–breathed. The Bible is central for Christian theology and practice. Boyd understands the entire Bible to be something that God was directly involved in creating. The Bible is “inspired” (or “God-breathed,” the literal meaning of the language in the core text of 2 Timothy 3:16), which for Boyd seems to mean that each part of the Bible does come from the guiding hand of God, of course through the instruments of human writers (and translators and interpreters). He does occasionally use the term “plenary inspiration,” meaning the entire Bible is inspired including in some sense each verse, even each word.
Boyd also occasionally uses the word “infallible” of the Bible. By this he does not so mean that every detail in the Bible is historically accurate or that there are absolutely no contradictions within the Bible. Rather, it seems, what he has in mind is that the Bible is completely truthful theologically, in how it portrays God and the key components of biblical faith.
These understandings of the Bible’s divinely shaped character are the other side of the deep tension the book addresses. We have a nonviolent God revealed in the cross of Christ and we have an inspired Bible. Yet, we also have violent portraits of God in the Bible. Boyd responds to this tension with an extraordinarily creative (though perhaps a bit convoluted) argument for how we might hold all of these elements of the picture together in a way that will underwrite our present-day commitment to Christian pacifism. His resolution to the problem centers on his understanding of the cross of Christ.
I am deeply gratified by Boyd’s conclusion about pacifism and by his profound commitment to that conclusion. His Christian pacifism appears to be unwavering, and for that reason alone I endorse this book. Though, as we will see, my questions and disagreements do arise, I find his efforts admirable and worth learning from throughout. I will simply comment here that I fear that his understanding of and commitment to inspiration and infallibility complicate his task more than necessary compared to a weaker but still vigorous affirmation of the truthfulness of the Bible.
The cross. Interestingly, though the cross of Christ is absolutely central to this entire book, Boyd does not spell out many of the details of what he means by “cross.” To summarize what I understand him to mean, the cross is when Jesus was killed in order to bring salvation to the world. He brings salvation through defeating the powers of evil by his sacrificial death, the death of an innocent man, left to his fate by God.
The cross shows us exactly what God is like: sacrificial, nonviolent, sin-conquering love. So the cross plays the central role for Boyd in developing his argument. He interprets everything else in the Bible “in the light of the cross” (the words of his subtitle). How exactly all this works is not yet clear to me; a theme I will track throughout the book is to try to understand the inner mechanics of this saving act of Christ. I will say more in the final section of this post about questions I have about how Boyd introduces the cross in the beginning of his book.
Sovereignty. Boyd does not use the language of the “sovereignty of God” often in the book. However, I think it is important to think a little bit about the power of God. My sense is that though Boyd strongly distances himself from Calvinism, he nonetheless does have a high view of God’s power. We see this in his emphasis on the “God-breathed” character of the Bible. He implies that if God inspired the Bible, that in itself assures us that the Bible is infallible and we have the task of figuring out how to apply this infallibility to difficult texts in the Bible that portray God as violent.
Also, it seems to me that Boyd’s language in general about God reflects a view that God is potentially all-powerful and voluntarily chooses to limit the expression of divine power. God “accommodating” godself to the limited and even deeply corrupted understandings of human beings in order that God might successfully communicate with humanity implies that such an “accommodation” is the act of an all-powerful God who could easily act otherwise. God acts very directly and powerfully in the world in Boyd’s understanding.
Love. For Boyd, God’s love throughout the Bible should be understood in light of the cross. God’s choice to limit God’s power in the world directly follows from God being a loving God. God’s love is self-giving, suffering, cruciform, and visible in the world through God’s patient perseverance and vulnerability. Interestingly, though, Boyd focuses much more on Jesus’s death as the expression of God’s love for the world than on Jesus’s life and teaching. And Boyd also seems to minimize expressions of God’s love recounted in the Old Testament—not that he does not recognize those stories as truthful, but rather that they simply play little role in his account of how God loves the world.
Clearly, for Boyd, love is mutually exclusive with violence. The practice of love for human beings, as it is for God and is seen in the cross of Christ, precludes hurting or killing others. Love is patient, compassionate, forgiving, consistent and always the norm for Christian living. This kind of love is divinely inspired as Boyd is pessimistic about human potential to live loving lives apart from their commitment to Jesus as savior.
Sin. The reality of sin is central to Boyd’s theology in general and especially to his discussion of the cross. I am interested in tracking his use of the term “sin” throughout the book. As far as I can tell so far, he doesn’t spell out in detail what sin means for him. Certainly, for Boyd, the meaning of sin links closely with the meaning of the cross.
At the heart of Boyd’s notion of sin, I perceive, is a sense of sin at the root cause of the fundamental alienation between humanity and God. He rejects the penal substitutionary atonement idea of God as an angry judge bound to punish sin. Instead, he seems to think more in terms of sin as a disease exacerbated by the influence of the demonic realm that profoundly binds people to the dynamics of brokenness and alienation. It’s not clear to me yet how precisely, for Boyd, the cross resolves this problem. But clearly the problem is monumental. God’s love must enter the world and God’s Son must pay the ultimate price in order for sin to be overcome.
What Boyd does not seem to do is think very much about the social dimension of sin—at least as much as I can tell right now. I will watch for this issue as I proceed through the book. I tend to think of sin primarily in social terms as I read the Bible. Going back to the various sinful acts of violence in Genesis (Cain killing Abel, the widespread violence of the Flood story, Sodom’s actual sins, Joseph’s treatment by his brothers, and Tamar’s rape) down through the exodus from Pharaoh’s oppressive treatment of the Hebrews, the conflicts in the stories of the kings, the critiques of the prophets, and many other examples, the Old Testament presents sin as quite social. The New Testament has been translated and interpreted in ways that seem to minimize the dynamics of social sin, but we are more recently revising that sense.
One of major themes in my forthcoming responses to Boyd’s book will be to reflect on what happens when we put at the center that the cross was a political punishment visited on Jesus by the Roman Empire. When we do this, if we think of the cross as part of how God deals with sin, it will have to take into account the actual political nature of that event.
Politics. Boyd has famously spoken out sharply against the politicization and nationalization of evangelical Christianity in America (see his book, The Myth of a Christian Nation). I’m a little uncertain right now what his alternative is concerning the political dimension of Christianity. Clearly (and thankfully, in my view), Boyd strongly believes in Christian pacifism, itself a “political” stance—at least in the sense that be believes Christians should not participate in or even support wars. At the same time, he seems suspicious of socially engaged Christian-led peace movements that try to influence governmental policies and make coalitions with non-Christians for the purpose of social action.
A big question for me will be to see how Boyd’s thinks of politics in the Bible. My sense so far is that he does not directly speak to that theme very often. He does seem to have a pretty negative view toward all the political dynamics in the Old Testament. That negative view seems to preclude an interest in finding within the Old Testament an important strain of a kind of alternative politics (he barely notes the work of Mennonite scholar Millard Lind, author of Yahweh is a Warrior: The Theology of Warfare in the Old Testament, who emphasized what he called the “theo-politics” of the Old Testament).
The inattention to the roots of an alternative politics in the Old Testament may play a role in Boyd’s treatment of the cross—which also seems to be largely apolitical. I believe that an adequate understanding of the cross requires taking seriously its historical setting. Whatever else we might want to learn from Jesus’s death, we should always keep in mind that he was executed by the world’s great empire as a political revolutionary. To jump straight into a discussion of Jesus as an “innocent victim” when discussing the cross tends to miss the elements of his message that would have stimulated the empire to treat him as a revolutionary.
If we remain engaged with the story line of the Old Testament and its theo-politics, we will be better suited to see that Jesus actually fits in well with those OT politics. It may even be possible that rather than emphasizing Jesus’s “innocence” when we talk about the cross we will be more inclined to emphasis Jesus’s nonviolent resistance to Rome that actually was a genuine threat to empire as a way of life—then and now. And, when we think about “sin” in relation to the cross, we will more inclined to think of sin most of all in terms of the social sins of the Powers as they collaborated to kill Jesus.
Anarchistic. The final term I will mention is not one that Boyd even hints at using: “anarchistic” (I should note, though, that Boyd is not necessary opposed to thinking of his approach as a kind of “Christian anarchy“.) I mention this term here because I am considering using it as shorthand for the kind of politics the Bible portrays as the positive alternative to the domination-oriented politics of the nations and empires (here are some of my early, exploratory writings about Christian anarchism). “Anarchistic” conveys a sense of: (1) suspicion toward hierarchical, centralized political structures and (2) optimism about the potential for communities of people to organize themselves in life-enhancing ways to perform necessary social tasks in ways that are just and egalitarian.
The biblical antipathy toward power politics and the creativity of the decentralized social ordering articulated in Torah point toward an anarchistic politics. On both of these points, Jesus echoes what came before him in the Old Testament. He spoke sharply against “lording it over others,” and he provided a framework for humane living in teachings such as the Sermon on the Mount.
Both of these elements contributed to Jesus being perceived as a threat by the Roman Empire in a setting where the Empire and its collaborators in the Jerusalem Temple brooked no opposition. Jesus’s anarchistic politics drew a sympathetic audience and actually did stand as a threat to Roman hegemony. In light of these dynamics, Jesus’s crucifixion takes on great political significance. The story of the crucifixion, though, is only the midpoint between the life of Jesus that placed him in Rome’s crosshairs and the resurrection of Jesus that vindicated his anarchistic life as an expression of God’s will for humanity—and as a repudiation of the Domination System.
It is notable that the resurrection of Jesus does not seem to play a central role in Boyd’s account of how Jesus embodies God’s love and helps us turn away from the portraits of God as a warrior God. That will be one more motif to track as the book unfolds.
Boyd’s Introduction: What about the “crucified Christ”?
To complete this post, I will spend just a bit of time interacting more directly with the beginning of Boyd’s book. In the posts to come, I will focus almost exclusively on the specific chapters of CWG and direct reflections that they stimulate. In this first post, I wanted more to set the stage and bring up some of the issues I will be concerned about.
Boyd’s introduction, subtitled “The ‘Magic Eye’ of the Crucified Christ” (pages xxvii–xliii), sets up the book’s “conundrum”: That “Jesus revealed an agape-centered, other-oriented, self-sacrificial God who opposes violence and who commands his people to refrain from violence” stands in tension with belief “in the divine inspiration of the Old Testament” (xxvii). “How are we to reconcile the God revealed in Christ, who chose to die for his enemies rather than to crush them, with the many OT portraits of Yahweh violently smiting his enemies?” (xxviii). One obvious way to answer this question is rejected out of hand by Boyd, namely, to simply dismiss the OT portraits as false teaching. That kind of dismissal would, for Boyd, contradict belief in biblical inspiration. So, the table is set for some careful thinking.
The book will discuss this conundrum at great length, and I will reflect on Boyd’s strategy of dealing with it in the days to come. So I won’t say more about it now. There is one issue I want to get on the table right away, though. Boyd makes the choice to use Jesus’s crucifixion, not Jesus’s life and teaching, as his touch point for the biblical message of God’s self-sacrificial love for all. I will struggle with that choice a great deal in what comes. Right away, I want to raise one of my main concerns about how we make the cross central.
I’m not sure I would want to make the cross so central in any case; however if we are going to emphasize the cross (and I think it does deserve a lot of attention even if I’d put it in more in the broader context of Jesus’s life-death-resurrection than Boyd seems to), it seems important to emphasize it in appropriate ways.
I’m not so much critiquing Boyd’s use of the cross at this point as raising a concern about how typically Christians have thought about Jesus’s cross. It remains to be seen whether this concern will ultimately apply to Boyd. But right away in the introduction I worry that Boyd might be too apolitical in how he refers to the cross. Will it serve more as a kind of theological symbol for him to a large extent, extracted from the story of the first-century Roman Empire? At the least, Boyd’s early mentions do not make much of that first-century political setting.
I have made a case (see my book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness; see also on-line versions of early chapter drafts) that the meaning of the cross has a great deal to do with the revelation of the Powers (linked with the political and religious structures that killed Jesus while claiming to be God’s servants) as idols. That is, I argue that the cross is a revelation of how we must not idealize those Powers and give them our loyalty—a step tragically taken over and over by Christians in the past 1,700 years. I expect to spell out more how this reading of the meaning of the cross might provide important guidance as we try to come to terms with the violent portraits of God in the Old Testament.
Here, I will only suggest that the violent divine portraits are part of a larger story the Old Testament tells that both points away from trusting in human kingdoms and points toward self-organizing in faith communities in order to embody an alternative political philosophy. These simultaneous turnings away from power politics and turning toward peaceable countercultural communities are precisely the emphases that led to Rome killing Jesus. As such, they should be at the heart of any Christian theology that emphasizes Jesus’s cross.
Ted: “a general sense of violence as actions that cause harm, usually motivated by an intent to cause harm. So, war or capital punishment are by definition violent.”
So, does this mean that all judicial acts that bring “harm” to an individual that has done extraordinary deliberate harm to others is actually “violent” rather than retributive? Clearly the intent is to do a greater good by doing retributive justice on one who has done violence to an innocent other.
You do say “then there is the element of being in a position to prevent harm and not doing so.” This, of course, is one of the primary goals of the violence of retributive justice. Right?
As you say: “the issue is that God is portrayed in the Bible as doing and commanding acts that we now believe in light of the message of Jesus to be wrong.” But is that actually a question for either you or Greg Boyd? Have you not pre-decided that issue? Has not Greg, by failing to give any definition of violence, and you by actually contradicting yourself in saying “the issue of violence here is not actually an issue that can be finessed by careful definitions of violence” but having already defined violence in a way that pre-convicts God of violence, judged that the God of the scriptures (not just the OT, in fact) is portrayed as commanding the evil of violent acts? This is obvious in cases of capital violations in the Torah, and at least surface level true of commands to do holy war.
The problem for Boyd and you is that it is not Jesus, but yourselves that have determined that the acts of God in the OT are in light of “the message of Jesus” considered “to be wrong.” Jesus in no text I consider canonical says that the acts of God in the OT are wrong. Jesus doesn’t teach that anywhere in the NT. So, how exactly do you claim that he did? Be specific here. Jesus in fact, according to the things recorded by the apostles and authors of the NT says nothing even close to the claims being made by either you or Boyd. You both have to be, in your words, “extraordinarily creative” to make sense of the Bible as altogether portraying God as absolutely non-violent in relation to your definition, while it is perhaps much easier for Boyd to do so since he doesn’t define violence, _per se_.
I think you may be seeing the teaching of Boyd in a bit too much of a Magic Eye kind of way, though perhaps that is all we ever have even regarding the teaching of Jesus. However, to say “One obvious way to answer this question [of God violently “smiting his enemies”] is rejected out of hand by Boyd, namely, to simply dismiss the OT portraits as false teaching.” The problem with this characterization of what Boyd says seems to ignore the fact that he in countless verbal online renditions of what he believes there can be no doubt that he in fact understands all portrayals of God commanding or doing violence in any way to be in error. So, he may not “simply dismiss the OT portraits as false teaching,” but he definitely thinks they are in error. You may parse the difference between false teaching and being in error differently from the way I do, but I just can’t see the difference.
A great start, Ted. I share many of your views and concerns. I’m looking forward to following along as you share more of your thoughts.
Much thanks for this (initial) review of CWG – I look forward to your next installments! Having not read the book yet (still saving up my Loonies – the book is quite pricey here in Canada), I can’t comment much about it, but I have read with great interest many of the reviews. Many of the concerns coincide, and I share some of the reservations others have stated, but not enough to shy away from the book itself. Theologically inclined towards the Conservative Quaker tradition, I kind of have to grind my teeth at assertions that the Scriptures are “infallible,” for it comes very close to saying something other than God – a created thing – is perfect and holy – yikes! But a detailed argument for how the outwardly violent portrayals in the OT point the way towards the nonviolent response of Jesus is an exciting thing to look forward to! But in the meantime, I will look forward to your – and others – wonderful examinations of CWG with much appreciation!
Thanks, Randy. I agree that Boyd’s argument promises to be exciting and refreshing compared to standard Christian theology that all too often is complicit in warism. But, as I will suggest, I think he makes things more difficult for himself by not trusting the story enough.
I’m so glad you’ve done this review/interaction introduction, Ted… and will be doing many more. A good way to approach issues, while summarizing the work of a noted author, etc. I haven’t read much of Boyd and probably won’t, so this is helpful!
And, as I implied, you’re stimulating discussions I consider important.
First caveat, however: I’m still working, with a handful of colleagues, on ways to make such nuanced and complex issues and “arguments” accessible and appealing to a much broader audience. It’s a challenge, as you know! It’s so even if that “broader audience” is mainly pastors and serious students who may also teach, write, etc. It seems fiction writing and films are about the only ways that most of Christian laity engages material outside that offered in their own churches. And some via blogs, of course…. Part of why I run one myself!
There’s so much I’d love to engage with in your post. (I’ll limit it down for now). A key issue: your description of his view of “inspiration and infallibility”. Part of this is how one understands and treats the various genres in the Bible, their intended “truthiness” (or lack thereof), etc. From your general explanation and example of his understanding of the Noah/flood story, it appears he may not really grasp that IT, like so much else in both OT and NT is just that: story. And story of the nature of myth-creation. (Obvious invention, not meant to mislead, but to convey deeper truths… which our modern-style thinking tends to distort and just not “get”.) Not saying there was NOT a major flood that was horrendous and impacting enough to enter the lore of many ancient cultures… there probably WAS. But the idea of the “only righteous man” and only he and his family were saved… that concept taken literally? Give us (all) a break! If that’s not Boyd’s position, my apologies, Greg. But it IS that of probably a majority of Christians.
Related to this: Not getting that genres of ancient lit that are obscure and often puzzling to us
make up most of the Bible is a HUGE problem. (The “epistles” are probably closest to a modern style we get… and still use, though on rare occasions, since longer emails most people don’t want to read anymore, and complain to me about :(.
So your point is VERY well taken that Boyd starts from a standpoint that make his task much more difficult. To me, I’d say not feasible or reasonable, from what you say. Much better (and “truthy”) to approach the Bible as a humanly-flawed collection of books (the “canon” of which has no divine authority, but is a decent representation of related and built-up thinking with a fair amount of continuity, and which should be taken along WITH other similar lit of the same era and general culture). Well, just one small area, but enough for one comment!
I appreciate, as always, your thoughtful and encouraging words, Howard.
I have to admit to still being confused about Boyd’s approach to the Bible. He’s not a literalist or inerrantist. But it still is very important to him to speak highly of the Bible’s authority, and he still wants to use the term “infallible.” I don’t think he would say that there was a literal Noah. He seems to want to say that the historicity question is a distraction. But he’s unclear about how to think about the truthfulness in these stories (I think).
This issue of “divine authority” seems very important to him—in a way that I suspect is ultimately in tension with his convictions about pacifism.
I look forward to reading more of your thoughts and responses to Boyd’s work. I am very pleased to hear your focus on social sins and your yearning for an alternative political-social-legal vision rather than rejecting the domination system of statism.
Here is the problem I think you are getting at. The theory goes that Jesus side-stepped the political questions of his day, for example Roman taxes. Since Jesus didn’t promote a political programme for Caesar to adopt, therefore he has no political programme of his own, and the Christian faith is relegated to the personal, internal and subjective domain of feelings and opinions and beliefs.
To avoid falling into this trap we need to realise that it is a false dichotomy between a) accept the Caesar system and b) promote a reform programme for Caesar to get on with if he will only lend us his ear. Unlike modern pundits, the First Century Jewish situation was around the solution to the generally accepted problem of Israel being under Roman domination. In refusing to be made king by force, and in refusing to be a king of force and to raise up a force to throw off the Roman yoke, Jesus is not in any way accepting the Roman yoke or derogating the law of Moses or the Hope of Israel for resurrection (her rising up in new life under Messiah).
The real issue of his day was what strategy was the right one to throw off the Roman yoke and to realise the Hope of Israel. What was the nature of the kingdom of God, and what was the way to enter the kingdom of God. That was the issue Jesus spent most of his time teaching about. And that was the great political question of his day, one that he did not avoid at all.
The anarchistic flavour of the Law of Moses was not entirely lost by the time of Jesus, and his teaching and his programme was not just the restoration of that but the development and realisation of that in his teaching on the fulfillment of the law. In Messiah and in the Kingdom of God, we have something new, but the new is the development and the fulfillment of the old. This is the answer to Boyd’s problem, or at least the key to finding the answer. A prophecy-fulfillment framework is required.
Here is an idea that I think can help us understand the problem and the solution. The Jewish legal thinking was that the law was both perfect and contradictory. In a sense, they had figured out what John Hasnas writes about in his Myth of the Rule of Law: ‘This is the fallacy of legal reasoning. Because the legal world is comprised of contradictory rules, there will be sound legal arguments available not only for the hypothesis one is investigating, but for other, competing hypotheses as well. The assumption that there is a unique, correct resolution, which serves so well in empirical investigations, leads one astray when dealing with legal matters.’
So, the resolution to legal problems was to figure out the correct priority of the laws, which ones would prevail or apply in any given case or circumstance, and which should yield. We can see Jesus engage in this kind of reasoning when answering the question of which commandment was the greatest, and in his appeal to, for example the creation mandates for marriage as having priority over the divorce law of Moses, and the law of circumcising on the eighth day taking precedence over the law of the Sabbath. Paul does the same thing in teaching that the no-divorce law over-rides the no-marriage-to-unbelievers law, but does not eliminate the exoneration available to the Christian divorced without consent by the non-Christian.
How does this help? Jesus is teaching that because the time of the kingdom of God had come, it was time to address and change the priorities of the law as understood and practiced at that time. To some extent this is merely a corrective, but to some extent it is a new set of priorities, a new deal. This I don’t think fully solves the problems that Boyd addresses, and I think his accommodation theory and his negative contrast theory are still very helpful options to consider seriously.
And the nature of law is that it deals with more than rights and wrongs, it deals with remedies for breach and procedure for seeking and considering and administering them. This is where the new Kingdom of God has a more radical break with the institutions of his day and of Moses. The remedy of doing harm a) to deter other breaches, b) to punish and c) to extract financial compensation are eliminated. The procedure for hearing evidence on oath is eliminated because swearing oaths was prohibited. The oath’s implicit or explicit appeal to harmful remedies for false testimony and for breach of promise are rejected. The hierarchical judicial forum of Ex 18 is replaced with the Court of the Three Sages, where each side chooses one adjudicator and they in turn select a third, so that where two or three gather in the Name, they have full judicial authority, albeit not backed by any more serious sanction than to ostracise the one who will not listen.
A final element that I understand is missing in action from Boyd’s approach to the problem is the idea of fulfillment of the Old Testament coercion. Jesus taught that his generation of Jews were filling up the measure of bloodshed and guilt and sin, and that upon them would come full repayment of all the blood shed on the land since creation (Mat 23). As a matter of fulfillment of prophecy, the atonement of the land comes through shedding the blood of those who shed the blood of God’s servants (Deut 32:43). Boyd thinks that Jesus’s death on the cross filled up the measure of suffering and death (although I don’t think he uses those words). But Paul taught in Col 1:24 that Christ’s sufferings were lacking and incomplete, and that it was required for Paul to fill up in his flesh what was lacking. The Jews were filling up the measure of their sin even after the death of Christ (1 Thes 2:14-16). The measure of the martyrs was still being filled up in the First Century (Rev 6:9-11). When that measure of blood was filled up, judgment would come on Jerusalem (Rev 6:12-17; Luke 23:27-31; Mat 3:7-10; 23:29-38; Mal 3:1-5; Is 27:8-11).
Getting back to your concern to see the sin as social sin, this is exactly what the doctrine of the vindication of the blood of the martyrs and the repayment of Israel’s bloodguilt is all about. It is a collective and social sin. For this reason, the punishment is collective and goes from generation to generation. God promised to accumulate Israel’s sin in his vault (Deut 32:32-35). Isaiah predicted it she would be repaid not only for her sins, but for the sins of her ancestors (Is 65:6-7). Daniel confessed the collective sin of his people and in response received the promise that: ‘ ‘Seventy “sevens” are decreed for your people and your holy city to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the Most Holy Place.’ (Dan 9:24). The completion of Israel’s sin involved the Abomination of Desolation, that Jesus promised would be fulfilled in his generation at the fall of Jerusalem (Mat 24).
This social sin included, principally and in particular, shedding the blood of the prophets, not recognising their Messiah when he visited them, rejecting his way of peace, and turning to false messiahs and false prophets who lead Jerusalem into rebellion and war. The chief meaning of the crucifixion of Christ was not the shedding of his blood per se, but the rejection of The Way of peace, and of New Covenant peace, pacifism and the social and legal order of the fulfilled law as set out in the Sermon on the Mount. The blood of the prophets, of Jesus and of the saints he would send to Israel means and represents their message of peace and the Kingdom of God, the new order in fulfillment of the Law of Moses.
I think you really get on to something significant when you say “Here is an idea that I think can help us understand the problem and the solution. The Jewish legal thinking was that the law was both perfect and contradictory.” The legal dilemmas presented to Jesus by the Pharisees were examples of this. Legal reasoning in the USA has for some time been quite aware that there are competing claims/arguments that can reasonably be extrapolated from the same legal precedents and/or principles–this is what the Supreme Court of the USA deals with in every case they decide. Although they decide based on different principles than those presented in scripture, they model the same legal structure following the precedents and principles of American law as evident in Jewish practice. This is at least a reminder of some of the significance and value of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
The root problem with Boyd’s theology is that he he rejects _en masse_ principles of justice and the holy wrath of God embodied in OT Jewish experience. In other words, he throws out the value of the perfectly holy side of the Law (and God’s acts) and instead tries to embody one side of a “contradictory” perspective, the absolutely merciful and loving. The problem is that you can’t be consistently loving if you can’t bring holiness and justice to the table. If one doesn’t think the principles of the scripture are perfect one is wholly dependent on one’s own guidance to decide what parts are in error and which worth upholding–inevitably one’s own fallibility ensures that at least as much human error is involved with determining which parts of scripture are in error, so that one is only left with what is bound to be in error.
Boyd has his theory of God’s wrath, that it is organic and natural rather than forensic or literally judicial. He quotes Deut 32:32-35 as a proof of this, along with a significant body of other texts. But he does not actually do the exegesis on Deut 32 and its application as the out-pouring of wrath on last days Israel for breaking the Old Covenant (and consummating the New Covenant) at the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. So he seems to miss the chance to identify and develop the idea that the Old Testament violence and coercion was being accumulated as sin, and would be fulfilled (filled up, completed, ended) and repaid and discharged.
For example, compare Deut 32:43
Rejoice, you nations, with his people,
for he will avenge the blood of his servants;
he will take vengeance on his enemies
and make atonement for his land and people.
with Num 35:33
Do not pollute the land where you are. Bloodshed pollutes the land, and atonement cannot be made for the land on which blood has been shed, except by the blood of the one who shed it.
Numbers 35 provides a judicial procedure for the application of the death penalty to murderers. It has a very literal and direct meaning and application under the Law of Moses. And it represents a particular legal principle: eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life (Ex 21:23-34).
But according to the Song of Moses, this law would be applied at the corporate level to last days Israel and to atone for the land of Israel. The death penalty would be applied to the Old Body of Moses, for her collective sins. Jesus taught that this would be applied in the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 (Mat 23).
Now to complete the picture, see Mat 5 and the fulfillment and expiry of eye for eye and tooth for tooth (and life for life) (Mat 5:38-42). But according to Jesus:
‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practises and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
So the point is that there is a connection between:
1. The fulfillment of the law of Moses and the fulfillment of prophecy
2. The passing of heaven and earth (at the fall of Jerusalem Mat 24:34-35; Heb 12:22-29)
3. The arrival of and entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven
4. The expiry of eye for eye and tooth for tooth
5. The repayment of Israel by God in A.D. 70 at the fall of Jerusalem.
How can we connect all these things? We can view the law of Moses and its judicial system and its death penalty for murder as typological, for example. In the same way the animal sacrifices were pointing forward to the death of Messiah (as an example for the new order), the execution of murderers was pointing forward to the repayment of Old Covenant Israel and the atonement for her sins at the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 (as the decisive termination of the Old Order and vindication of the blood of Messiah and his saints and the Old Testament prophets who foretold the New Order).
According to Ted Grimsrud there is an ongoing tension in the Old Testament between the violence and the peace. I think he is correct about that. But we need to see the solution in Jesus is the confirmation of the latter and repudiation of the former. The breaking in of the Kingdom of God into the world resolves that tension. So, in reading the story we can know how it ends and that is what matters. The story is about understanding and feeling that tension, and experiencing the relief at the conclusion of the story.
So, I don’t think Boyd is wrong to know the ending of the story and to conclude that this is the meaning of the story all along. It is not a matter of balance, it is a matter of development and consummation and conclusion. The rejection en mass of a whole strand of law is exactly what we do have in the New Covenant. The old law was the ministry of death, the letter that kills. The enslavement of mankind to the fear of death. The death-dealing system was subject to the death penalty when the eagles gathered to the old body. The old mortal body that rose up in rebellion was subject to eternal shame. Let us not raise it up again.
The suggestion that “the enemy is not now the Canaanites, but the Old Covenant system and the people who clung to it and rejected what it foreshadowed and what it prophesied and what it predicted: the Messiah and his New Covenant kingdom,” is too simple and potentially anti-Semitic and anti-Judaic by being anti-Old Covenant. Jesus and the apostles weren’t anti-Old Covenant. Jesus and the apostles were pro-Old Testament fulfilled in Jesus. They definitely didn’t see the New Covenant as an “exodus from the body” of the covenant people (of the Old Covenant) but from bondage to sin and corrupt human systems subject to evil spiritual principalities and powers.
Here is another example of the typological nature of the Old Testament writings that relate to the problem of Old Testament violence: the exodus. The exodus from Egypt and the entrance into the promised land involved violence that Boyd addresses in his book. As with the death penalty, the exodus was a type that pointed forward to the exodus of the New Israel from the body and the system of the Old Israel.
And I do not wish you to be ignorant, brethren, that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all to Moses were baptized in the cloud, and in the sea;
and all the same spiritual food did eat, and all the same spiritual drink did drink, for they were drinking of a spiritual rock following them, and the rock was the Christ …
And all these things as types did happen to those persons, and they were written for our admonition, to whom the end of the ages did come (1 Cor 10:1-4,11)
So Paul teaches that the exodus and wanderings in the wilderness of Israel, the people and the events were types of ‘us upon whom the end of the ages did come’. We are the anti-type, they and their events were the types.
These [laws] are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. (Col 2:17)
So the point is that the reality, the true and final teaching, and the binding law is the reality in Christ, and not the types and shadows.
The exodus typology interpretation developed in the New Testament is that the people of God are in bondage to the Law of Moses, and require redemption from that slavery system:
And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. (1 Pet 1:17-19)
Notice how Peter identifies the law of Moses, being the futile ways inherited from the forefathers, as the system to which they were enslaved and redeemed from, and that they were presently in exile — i.e. the wilderness wanderings — pending their entrance into the promised land. This entrance is the end of the exodus, and the fulfillment of the promise.
When the people of Israel entered into the promised land they needed to fight and drive out the inhabitants. This of course is the problem that needs to be explained and resolved by pacifists. The fulfillment of the promise is at the downfall of the enemy. But the enemy is not now the Canaanites, but the Old Covenant system and the people who clung to it and rejected what it foreshadowed and what it prophesied and what it predicted: the Messiah and his New Covenant kingdom. The enemies to be defeated at the consummation are the Old Israel guilty of shedding the blood of the prophets (Deut 32; Mat 23; 1 Thes 2:14-16; Rev 19:1-2). Israel is now Egypt (Gal 4:21-31), Sodom (Rev 11:7), Gog and Magog (Rev 20:7-9) and Babylon (Rev 17:5-6). Paul explains the fulfillment of the Song of Moses in Deut 32 in Romans 12-13; insisting that Christians are not permitted to participate in the repayment of the persecuting power, and that God would use the governing authorities to destroy those who would rebel and that in doing so God would use the governing authorities as his agent of wrath to repay them with the sword he put in their hands. This is the conclusion of the second exodus: the adversary is crushed under the feet of the saints in fulfillment of Gen 3:15. Paul said it would happen soon after he wrote to the Romans in the late 50s (Rom 16:20).
rwwilson147 seems to agree with the ideas around the fulfillment of the Old Covenant but says he’s not convinced it goes as far as exodus from the Old Covenant system. But he says: ‘They definitely didn’t see the New Covenant as an “exodus from the body” of the covenant people (of the Old Covenant) but from bondage to sin and corrupt human systems subject to evil spiritual principalities and powers.’
The reluctance to see the Old Covenant in quite this unfavourable manner is understandable and perhaps it is somewhat surprising to see some very strong polemic against it in the New Testament. I don’t think rwwilson147 is really wanting to dispute the polemic against the unbelieving Jews, but rather seems to be getting at the ‘Old Covenant’ as being a good thing when viewed as fulfilled. And this point can readily be conceded.
What is the Old Covenant and the Old Body in the New Testament, where it is described so unfavourably and with such harsh polemic?
The law is a fairly obvious place to start. The Old Law, *as the system* surely does come under some very heavy fire in the New Testament, for example the ministry of death carved in letters of stone (2 Cor 3:7). Here is another example: ‘For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death.’ (Rom 7:5) this seems to mean that the effect of the law, the Old Covenant system, was to increase sin, and bring death.
The body is another less obvious and largely ignored teaching. The old body is described in a range of different terms:
The body of the flesh, put off when we join the new body, the body of Christ, in baptism (Col 2:11-12)
The body of sin that would be brought to nothing, to liberate us from it (Rom 6:6)
The mortal body in which sin reigns (Rom 6:12)
The body of death from which deliverance is required (Rom 7:24)
The body is dead because of sin (Rom 8:10)
‘put to death the deeds of the body’ (8:13)
The natural body (1 Cor 15:44)
The perishable body (1 Cor 15:53)
The mortal body (1 Cor 15:53)
be away from the body (2 Cor 5:8)
The ‘passions of the flesh’ and the ‘desires of the body’ (Eph 2:3)
‘our lowly body’ (Phil 3:21)
‘regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation’ (Heb 9:10)
‘the body of Moses’ (Jude 1:9)
‘Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.’ (Mat 24:28)
This old body teaching is frequently treated as if it was talking about a physical body, or about our physical bodies, which I think is a mistake. The body is the body of Moses, being the old body not just as a collection of members, but as an institutional structure, an organised nation, a kingdom. Taken altogether, the teaching is highly negative, and requires a rejection of the old body and entrance into the new, as is fairly clear from Col 2:11-12. How can this not be exodus?
The new birth is another place where we can have quite a lot of clarity. The old body gives birth to the new body:
O Lord, in distress they sought you;
they poured out a whispered prayer
when your discipline was upon them.
Like a pregnant woman
who writhes and cries out in her pangs
when she is near to giving birth,
so were we because of you, O Lord;
we were pregnant, we writhed,
but we have given birth to wind.
We have accomplished no deliverance in the earth,
and the inhabitants of the world have not fallen.
Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise.
You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!
For your dew is a dew of light,
and the earth will give birth to the dead.
Come, my people, enter your chambers,
and shut your doors behind you;
hide yourselves for a little while
until the fury has passed by.
For behold, the Lord is coming out from his place
to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity,
and the earth will disclose the blood shed on it,
and will no more cover its slain. (Is 26:16-21)
Here we can see the futility of the labour pains of the old body, it seems to give birth only to wind. But the death of the old body and its futile labour somehow gives birth to the dead, the old dead body comes to life and rises again as the new body. At the time of the vindication of the blood of the martyrs that Jesus put at AD 70 in Mat 23.
In Is 65-66 we see the same predictions of judgement on the old body, even to the point of its death, while the new body and the new nation is born. And it is the time Israel is repaid for her sins and for the sins of her ancestors, which Jesus put at AD 70 in Mat 23.
Sorry to repeat some of this, but Peter’s statement that his readers had been redeemed from the futile way of life handed down from their forefathers is fairly clear what had held them in bondage and what they had been purchased out of (1 Pet 1:17-19)
Rev 18:4-8 is also a fairly clear exodus passage that can be applied to the old system as well as the old Jerusalem.
Many of the parables of Jesus are about the new breaking the old, e.g. the new wine cannot go in the old wine-skins without breaking them (Mat 9:17). The new cloth breaks the old cloth (Mat 9:16).
And perhaps the most powerful of all is the exodus from and destruction of the Old Jerusalem in order to come to the New Jerusalem and to enter inside. The power of the holy people must be completely destroyed (Dan 12:7). The old temple must be completely destroyed and the new temple built without hands. This is the creative destruction.
We have to be careful not to depoliticize the ‘principalities and powers’ and the ‘spiritual’ powers in ‘heavenly places.’ The idea is not that the referents are purely spiritual, rather it is the connection of earthly and political powers with heavenly and spiritual powers. The risk is that we are going to avoid connecting the rulers of Paul’s ‘this age’ who crucified the Lord of glory with the political and religious authorities, in order to maintain that we are not being anti-semetic or to avoid a subversive political stance. The New Testament teaching is that these rulers were the old body that would be done away with. Paul taught that Christ would come in judgement on the entire political and religious system of his enemies: ‘destroying every rule and every authority and power.’ This would be when the power of sin which was ‘the law’ would be removed. (1 Cor 15:24-25, 56). This would be when the mortal and perishable body would be surpassed by the immortal and imperishable body and Is 25:6-8 would be fulfilled. Which is at the wedding feast when the sons of the kingdom would be thrown outside and the king would come and destroy those murderers and burn their city. It is all very military and political. And it is the time of the reversal, when the enemies of Messiah and their power and their system would be completely destroyed. It is very easy to see where the strength of the polemic and the antithesis comes from that could make some say it was anti-semetic etc.
Really excited about reading this series.
Agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments and methods you have laid out so far.
I wonder on the issue of Jesus’s political stance to Rome and Rome’s response whether some would argue that Rome was not really too concerned/threatened by Jesus’s politics; rather they just wanted to avoid an uprising manufactured by the Sanhedrin? After all didn’t Pilate feel Jesus innocent and wash his hands?
Thanks for your efforts and blessings.
Thanks. I’d say the gospels present the Romans as not taking Jesus’s actual message very seriously (“what is truth?” after all…)—but this is due to their blindness. They should have seen that Jesus was a threat. The later Romans recognized that about Jesus’s followers.