Ted Grimsrud—May 27, 2017
[This is the second in a long series of posts that will work through an important new book, Greg Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (Fortress Press, 2017). The first post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]
In chapter one, “The Faith of Jacob: Wrestling with ‘Strange’ and ‘Alien’ Portraits of God” (pages 3–34), Boyd addresses several foundational issues. He writes about the importance of understanding the Bible as inspired (“God-breathed”) Christian scripture, the difference between reading the Bible in covenantal (traditional) rather than psychological (modern) terms, the profound problems that arise when God is seen as “a god who fights” (21) rather than a god who “refuses to fight,” and the need for his sympathetic readers actively to “renounce” the “violence in our own sacred Scripture” (31).
The authority of the Bible
Boyd’s first word about the Bible is that it is “God-breathed” (or, an alternative translation of 2 Timothy 3:16, “inspired”). He agrees “with the historic-orthodox tradition that this ‘breathing’ entails that God is, in some sense, the ultimate author of all canonical works” (5) I can’t say that I find the metaphor of God as the “author” of the Bible to be very helpful. I believe we should start with the assumption that the Bible is written by human beings—some of whom are identified for us, some about whose authorship we may gain pretty good guesses, and some who will remain anonymous. I find any hint that God in some sense overrode the humanness of these texts to be problematic, and a misleading detour from our needed work genuinely to understand the texts and their meaning.
Part of the issue in talking about “divine authorship” (this term strikes me mainly as a rhetorical device to strengthen claims concerning the authority of the Bible), though, is how we apply that idea. I’m not totally opposed to affirming some weak sense of divine involvement in the fitting together of the entire collection of books we call our Bible. Not that God was the “author” but that there was a gentle guidance in bringing the various writings together. We could call this a kind of a macro-inspiration that is best discerned not in the Bible’s “infallibility” (a word Boyd will affirm later in the book) as much as in its coherence and its applicability for “training in the ways of justice” (the words, actually, of 2 Timothy 3:16).
Boyd seems to want to apply authority and inspiration more on a micro-level in giving God-authored status to each particular text. He will qualify this application in major ways; surely many strong inerrantists will find his approach woefully problematic. However, I suspect that part of the “conundrum” he will wrestle with in this book is made more difficult by the priority he seems to place on finding each specific text in the Bible to be “infallible” in its theology, if not literal historicity.
Boyd writes, “it is the ‘God-breathed’ nature of the text that renders it authoritative, not the relation a text may or may not have with ‘actual history.’” So we can’t “dismiss any portion of Scripture, including its violent portraits of God” simply because it “is judged by some to lack historical veracity” (7). This will be an important point when Boyd actually addresses the Old Testament texts. He is not bound to see them as historically accurate—in fact, he will say that we must insist that the true God, the God of Jesus, could never have done or ordered the kinds of violent acts reported in the Old Testament (say, for example, in the book of Joshua). And yet, we are also bound to see them as God-breathed and therefore true. This is his “conundrum.” We will return to struggling with it in the days to come. I’ll just say here that I’m skeptical that this will come together in a wholly satisfactory way. But I don’t think Boyd’s version of holding together a truthful Bible with a commitment to a nonviolent God is the only possible version—as I will try to show.
No warrior gods
Boyd’s second word about the Bible, as it were, is that we need to reject warrior gods. He suggests that inevitably people who trust in warrior gods will themselves follow the warrior path at some point. And the Bible contains ample material to underwrite trust in a warrior god. “The exaltation of divinely sanctioned violence in sacred literature is the single most important resource for ‘an ideology of violence’” (21)—and this includes Christians’ sacred literature. My sense is that Boyd here bases his antipathy toward the warrior God of the Bible on two factors—most importantly that this is not the God of Jesus, but, as well, the presence of this god in the tradition has and continues to cause tremendous problems of violence and domination that we must resist.
So, in response to the problems with the warrior god, Boyd believes that Christians are called to put “our faith in a god who ‘refuses to fight’” (22). We find this God in Jesus. By “refusing to fight,” I think Boyd means refusing to fight in wars, refusing to kill, refusing to use violence. That is not to say that the God of Jesus does not “fight” as in resisting evil nonviolently.
Boyd uses strong language: “Christianity’s tragic ‘criminal history’ is only intelligible against the backdrop of the remarkable violence found in Scripture” (23). I certainly agree that the violence in scripture has had a horrendous impact. That is why we Christian pacifists today need to invest great energy in understanding the Bible in ways that reinforce Jesus’s call to the way of peace.
However, I think it might be good to complexify the point here a bit. It strikes me as significant that the writers and characters in the New Testament (not least Jesus himself) and many in the early church tended to be pacifists. And the Old Testament was not only part of their Bible, in the early years it was the entirety of their Bible. The Old Testament being recognized as their scripture did not prevent these Christians from making a pacifist commitment. What changed after this was not the presence of the Old Testament with its “violent portraits of God”—it was already present. Rather, what changed was the socio-political location of Christian churches. They became more closely linked with the Roman Empire and more shaped by Greek and Roman thought and culture.
So, it may be better to recognize that “Christianity’s tragic criminal history” most of all required an acceptance of the church/state connection. Only then did the Old Testament become a toxic force. The problem may not be the Old Testament so much as the politics of assimilation. Perhaps Boyd is too hard on the Old Testament—more on this to come.
Renounce the violence in the Christian Bible?
Refreshingly, Boyd is not defensive about non-Christian critiques of the Bible for being so violent. In fact, he insists that Christians today should side with the critics of Christian violence and biblical violence and actually try to outdo their critics (31). We could say that when Christianity (and the Bible itself) can accurately be understood to support war and other forms of violence, they depart from the faith that has the crucified Jesus at its center. Of course, for Boyd this does not mean rejecting Christianity itself; it means trying to transform Christianity to be more Christlike—and to figure out better how to read the Bible in a Christocentric manner.
I am delighted with Boyd’s strong words at this point. He leaves no ambiguity about the centrality of the gospel of peace to his understanding of Christian faith. I share this perspective, and I would characterize the main emphases in my writing, teaching, and preaching for nearly forty years to be precisely on these points. However, I suspect that I want to take this even further than Boyd does. I want examine the theological roots for Christian warism beyond simply the Old Testament warrior God portraits (important as understanding those are for this work). I want to go on to question creedal theology, the doctrine of original sin, and atonement theologies for the role they may play in undermining Christian pacifism. As a rule, I don’t get the sense that Boyd is interested in CWG in taking the argument in those directions.
So, Boyd has set up his great “conundrum” by staking out these strong positions—the inspiration of the Bible and the unequivocal conviction that God is a God of peace, never of war or violence. In spite of what the Bible seems to say. At this point, I suspect that Boyd has unfortunately set up this conundrum in such a way that he will not be able to construct a fully satisfactory resolution.
A less radical “conundrum”?
So, I will propose a somewhat different approach that I plan to test in relation to Boyd’s argument as we proceed. I strongly agree that we should work hard to hold together our commitments to the truthfulness of the Bible and to Christian pacifism. In fact, I believe that the strongest case in favor of Christian pacifism will be anchored in the Bible. I have engaged in numerous arguments with friends over the years who have criticized me for worrying about the teaching of the whole Bible too much, but I am still adamant in seeing the Bible with a core peace message from start to finish.
In relation to Boyd’s argument, though, I would add a couple of comments.
(1) As we affirm the truthfulness of the Bible and anchor our peace theology in the Bible, we need not accept what seems to me to be a modern understanding of “plenary inspiration” and “infallibility” in relation to the Bible. Boyd is surely correct in recognizing and affirming the long-standing Christian tradition of believing that the Bible is closely linked with the Holy Spirit in composition, preservation, and interpretation. But that doesn’t have to lead to affirming that each particular word is inspired or that the Bible has no errors (even no “theological” errors). I like the language of the original “inspiration” verse, 2 Timothy 3:16, that is quite practical. The Bible is true and to be recognized as “God-breathed” not because each word comes directly from God but because it guides us on the paths of justice.
(2) It is necessary to recognize and respond to the “violent portraits of God” texts. And it is necessary to join Boyd in renouncing those portraits. However, I get the sense from what I have read so far that Boyd overstates the problem of those texts when they are read in the context of the entire Old Testament. He says virtually nothing that I have seen so far about the positive vision for peace in the Old Testament. I believe the core tension in the Bible’s message is not between the Old Testament and the New Testament, not between the way of Torah and the way of Jesus. The core tension runs right through the Old Testament from fairly early on—a tension between (borrowing from Walter Brueggemann) the royal and the prophetic consciousnesses. The Old Testament itself actually provides a way to resolve that tension, I think. I will explore this in days to come.
(3) The reading strategy that has helped me deal with the “violent portraits of God” problem is what I call the “big picture approach.” This is my alternative to Boyd’s “conundrum.” If we start with the creation story and see in what follows a plot that culminates in the healing dynamics of New Jerusalem where the nations are healed, we can see that the “violent portraits of God” must be seen as part of the story of shalom. One role those portraits play is as part of a deconstruction of power politics in the failure of the Hebrew territorial kingdom to be an effective channel of God’s promise. The idea of God as a warrior God is part of a failed project, abandoned and left behind. As a story, the Old Testament traces the sustenance of the promise with the conclusion that the promise is to be embodied in peaceable communities scattered around the world—never again in weapon-wielding territorial states. This is yet another theme to be developed further in following installments.