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.