Ted Grimsrud—May 30, 2017
[This is the third 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 second post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]
Reading the Bible with Christ as the center
In chapter two, “The True Face of God: The Absoluteness of the Revelation of God in Christ” (pages 35–92), Boyd’s main interest seems to be to establish the validity of his Christ-centered approach to interpreting the Bible. Based on extensive citations from the New Testament, Boyd makes the case that the Christian Bible as a whole should be read in light of Christ on the cross. He asserts that the Old Testament ultimately, for Christians, needs to be read in service to an affirmation of Jesus as Savior. This approach to reading the Bible will be the basis for Boyd’s cruciform reading of the OT violent portraits of God. He will argue that in the end those portraits (and everything else in the Bible) actually support the conviction that God is nonviolent love. More on that conclusion as we work through the rest of the book.
It strikes me that Boyd bases the case for Jesus as the center of the entire Bible more on his doctrinal beliefs about Jesus’s identity than on an inductive front to back reading that weighs the evidence as one goes along. I’m uncomfortable with his approach, though I will grant that he is able to marshal a great deal of evidence that the NT sees Christ as having authority over the OT and sees him to have an exalted identity as Son of God. Still, I am more attracted to an approach that understands Jesus’s authority and identity and his relationship with the rest of the Bible more based on his actions and teachings as presented in the first three gospels (I will call this a “Jesus”-emphasis) than on his crucifixion and exaltation (a “Christ”-emphasis).
A basic question will trouble me throughout Boyd’s book. Is the center of scripture best seem as Jesus’s death in itself or is the center best seen as the love of God shown to the world throughout the story—love that Jesus’s death witnesses to? That leads to a second question more directly tied to the book’s overt focus: How does the cross reveal God’s nonviolence? Is the core meaning of the nonviolence of the cross to be found in Christ (as God incarnate) taking general human sin upon himself or in Jesus’s life of active love that in its nonviolence shows both the character of God and the character of the human institutions who execute him because of his active nonviolence?
Boyd seems to operate with a “high” (or doctrine-first) christology that has as a starting point Jesus’s identity as God incarnate rather than understanding Jesus’s messianic identity as an inductively arrived-at conclusion drawn from the details of his life. The story of Jesus’s way of life does not seem necessary for Boyd’s description of his identity—or at least Boyd does not present it as such.
Boyd draws heavily on Martin Luther for his cross-centered, doctrine-oriented christology that then provides the lens for understanding Jesus’s authority over the Old Testament. I believe that we should respect Luther as an important theologian with many insights. However, we should also recognize that Luther’s christology did not protect him from his willingness to wage war, from his support for the power elite in his society over the vulnerable peasants, and from his vicious anti-Semitism. These problems seem especially relevant when we struggle today to come to terms with both the Bible’s pro-violence materials and the relationship between the Old Testament and New Testament. Luther may not be a very reliable guide for the kind of peace theology Boyd wants to affirm.
Separating Christianity and Judaism
It could be that Boyd is mostly accurate in his account of the New Testament emphasis on Christ’s identity and authority—though I am not sure that he is. In any case, he clearly arrives as his views about NT christology more from the Augustinian future looking backward to the NT than from the Hebrew prophets’ past looking forward to the NT.
One of the effects of Boyd’s approach is simply to assume from the beginning that the religious sensibility of the NT is a Christianity that is clearly separate from Judaism in important respects. Without having actually examined that data closely, I nevertheless suspect, in contrast, that part of the rhetoric in the NT should be attributed to a polemical environment of debates between different branches within the Jewish faith—where those linked with Jesus debated with fellow-Jews about the shape of their tradition. Boyd reflects a “Christian religious” approach that assumes a clear break between Judaism and Christianity as two different faiths.
Boyd writes: “In the process of offering people this nonviolent kingdom, Jesus reflected an authority that superseded the OT and that allowed him to radically reframe its meaning” (90). This statement helps focus several of the problems I have with Boyd’s approach.
- The central dynamic in relation to Jesus and the OT is not, in my view, about Jesus’s authority over the OT (as in inserting a high christology and making the message of the NT mainly about Jesus’s identity). Rather, the central dynamic is about Jesus choosing a particular strand of interpretation from within the tradition.
- Jesus does not provide a new vision (that is, found a new religion) but he reinforces the core emphases of an existing faith tradition (prophetic Judaism). That means that the “schism” between Christianity and Judaism “did not have to happen” (this is the argument of John Howard Yoder in The Jewish Schism Revisited; see also Daniel Boyarin’s Border Lines for a similar argument from the Jewish side). Because the schism did not have to happen, we can easily imagine much more continuity between a Christianity that closely reflects Jesus’s message and strands of Judaism that closely reflect the message of the OT prophets.
- Jesus reiterated the central political, violence-related themes of the OT story when read as a whole: He rejected linking the promise with territorial kingdoms; he chose the prophetic over the royal consciousness; he understood the call to care for the vulnerable as the core of Torah observance; and he emphasized that God’s mercy should be the heart of correct theology (see his two quotes from Hosea in Matthew’s gospel: “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” [Hos 6:6; Mt 9:13; 12:7]).
Naming the problem
What troubles me about Boyd’s approach is not that he affirms a high christology and strong sense of Jesus’s authority in shaping how we understand the OT. He is not wrong to confess Jesus as Son of God, the second person of the Trinity. However, I am troubled with how he presents these affirmations as simple assumptions, as his starting points in reading the Bible. I think if we are to affirm a high christology in relation to the Bible, it should be our conclusion after considering the emphases of the biblical story. We best make these confessions based on a careful reading of the story on its own terms—not as a quest for biblical support for beliefs we arrive at dogmatically.
When we start with a high christology, we will tend to define divinity, Christ-ness, and authority based on our assumptions about the nature of those things (assumptions that tend to be based on the theology of Christendom), rather than on the actual life that Jesus lived understood in the context of the big biblical story. Boyd, of course, understands his arguments to be biblically grounded. However, they feel to me to be a bit top-downish and not thoroughly grounded in the upside-down cosmology of the gospels.
Boyd does, scattered throughout the book, make various critical comments about, say, Augustine’s anemic notion of the ethical consequences of following Jesus’s path of neighbor love, not to mention various problems with Greek-influenced, post-3rd century theology. But I don’t have the impression that he goes deep enough.
When Boyd makes his case for Christ’s authority over the OT, I get the feeling that in this argument Christ kind of overpowers the biblical story. The issue of reading the Bible then becomes about the all-victorious Christ more than about writings that are a vulnerable, complicated collection of mixed messages that does not transcend our human condition. The weakness of scripture, like the weakness of God, is what follows—I believe—when we make the Jesus of the gospels the center of the story. We will need to return to these questions about vulnerability, weakness, and power in the days to come. My sense right now is that Boyd makes the “cross” central in a way that still retains a sense of an all-powerful, controlling God—albeit a God who accommodates to human limitations with self-sacrificial love.
Christ’s authority over the OT, for Boyd, seems to support the idea that Christ goes in a different direction than the OT in many ways, leaving it behind. It is true that Jesus did, as Boyd points out, repudiate the “nationalistic conception of God’s chosen people” (90). However, it s wrong to imply, as Boyd seems to, that this is an innovation for Jesus, something new on the scene. To the contrary, though, in repudiating nationalistic notions of chosenness, Jesus actually echoes Jeremiah and other OT materials.
Jesus spoke to a problem that the prophets struggled with throughout the OT, a kind of perennial dilemma any time we have a people with an identity as God’s people. This is a tension from the beginning and we see people throughout the OT who try to correct the notion that chosenness is only for the sake of a particular nation (for only one example, see the poignant corrective offered in Jonah).
As well, I wish Boyd had more humility about the dynamics of Christian history. He several times mentions his own ecclesial location as an Anabaptist, and voices occasional criticisms of Christendom. However, he seems like he might have a tendency to compare Christian ideals with Jewish realities on this (and other) issues. I think more realism about the tendency within Christianity to link nationalism with chosenness should push us to read the OT with a bit more nuance—seeing positives there in the same way we see positives in the foundational early history of Christianity.
It seems to me that Boyd attempts to use creedal christology to overcome what he sees as the inadequate revelation of the OT. However, this creedal Christ is a construct from Constantinian Christianity. The creedalism cemented the disastrous schism (Boyarin), and then its leads to approaching the OT as a problem, not so much as a resource for peace (again, Boyd only briefly alludes to the latter and doesn’t develop it as a response to the violent portrait problem).
I think an approach that would take more seriously the peace message of the OT would not treat it mainly as a problem when we think about the way the Bible presents God. Certainly, we dare not ignore the violent portraits of God in the OT. With Boyd, I believe that we must repudiate those portraits as giving us an accurate picture of what God is like. However, I think the best way to do that is to look deeply at the story the OT tells, reading it in light of its outcome. Jesus’ authority over the OT should be seen as an “authority” that provides us with guidance for reading the OT on its own terms as a book of peace, not as an “authority” that led him to create a new sensibility about God that supersedes what the OT tells us.
God’s healing strategy
To support my comments about the positive contribution that the OT should make for our peace theology, I will summarize some key reason I believe that, drawing on a paper, “Old Testament Peace Theology,” I wrote a few years ago.
I believe that with all its variety and looseness, the Bible as a whole tells a coherent story. I like to call it the story of “God’s healing strategy” (see my book with that title). This is the story of a loving creator God who is committed to bringing healing to brokenness in the world. This commitment is expressed by God’s strategy of calling a people that might know God and the healing peace that God offers humanity. These people who know God’s peace will form communities that have the purpose of embodying that peace in their common lives and sharing that peace with others, until ultimately all the families of the earth are blessed.
As we know, the outworking of God’s healing strategy in the Bible was haphazard. The people of the promise at times faithfully did bless others and at times they did not. Interestingly, the history of post-biblical Christianity also shows a haphazard process of seeking to witness to God’s peace and wholeness. So, the story in the Bible remains extraordinarily relevant and helpful—not for assuring that the people will perfectly embody God’s peace nor for providing the bases for condemning God’s people as hopeless failures. Rather, the Bible helps us to struggle onward amidst our failures as we seek to know and to witness to the healing God offers humanity.
The crucial role played by the Old Testament
In the Bible, the Old Testament provides the core enduring message of peace and salvation that Jesus and the NT confirm and vindicate. Let me briefly summarize this message in four parts.
(1) The OT peace vision. The Bible begins with a powerful vision of God as the creative, peaceable maker of heaven and earth. The default character of what God has made is whole, harmonious, creative, alive, and expansive. Importantly, we see here that God has created humanity to be co-creators, made in God’s image, powerful and responsive.
The story continues, famously, with the account of alienation entering the harmony of the original creation—but God remains committed to what God has made and the dynamics of care and respect remain operative. We learn early on in Genesis four that humanity is prone to violence and fearfulness. God remains connected even though. Cain does suffer some consequences of his act of violence, but the possibility of restored relationships remains present. Likewise, the story of Noah and the Flood, even with all its outrageous (and unbelievable) violence concludes with a commitment from God to sustain the relationship with humanity and work patiently to cultivate healing.
God forms a people, descended from Abraham, to bless all the families of the earth. Abraham models this kind of reconciling ministry when he prays on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah in another terrible story of judgment. Likewise, Abraham’s immediate descendants show that they understand their calling also be to be agents of God’s blessing—for example two stories of brotherly reconciliation even in the face of treachery, Esau/Jacob and Joseph.
The next phase of God’s engagement with this promise to bless the earth’s families comes when God intervenes to bring liberation to the Hebrew descendants of Abraham when they find themselves facing annihilation at the hands of the Egyptian Empire. God brings the people out of slavery, helping them to form a new kind of political entity, a confederation with God at the center rather than human kings and elite warriors. To empower political life based on justice for all in the community, God gives the people the gift of Torah. Torah has at its center a vision for shalom, for peace, that may be evaluated by the quality of life for the most vulnerable people in the community—widows, orphans, resident aliens. When things fare well for the least of these, the community as a whole is practicing peace and serving as a blessing.
(2) The OT justice vision. The OT is extremely important in providing a vision of justice that presents justice as being complementary with peace and mercy. Justice in the ancient Hebrew world was relational and restorative. Justice served the needs of the vulnerable in the community and held the powerful people accountable to Torah (and thereby to God) rather than allowing them to expand of their own wealth and ability to dominate. To understand OT justice as relational and restorative is also to understand Torah in general as relational and life-affirming, a perspective often sadly lacking in Christian theology, including in Boyd’s CWG.
One particular OT text especially helps us to understand justice. The short prophetic book of Amos contains that famous command: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (5:24). Amos presents justice as a life force, not as punitive judgment. He does warn of judgment, but justice is the alternative to judgment, not its manifestation. We need especially to think about justice when vulnerable people are exploited and disregarded—in direct violation of the message of Torah. What drives the advocacy for justice is the quest for healing. This little book, like several other prophetic books, is structured so as to reflect the confidence that the quest for wholeness is God’s quest. We have an analysis of the problem and the warnings of judgment (phrased as certainties in Amos, though clearly the implication is still that the people could turn toward justice and live). But Amos, like the other books, concludes with a vision of healing. The outcome that God promises is an outcome of peace, arrived at through mercy, not an outcome of pure destruction.
(3) The critique of power politics and territoriality. The defining vision for the main plot line of the OT (what Walter Brueggemann calls the “primal narrative”) is given in Genesis 12. In response to the chaos of Genesis 4–11, God expresses God’s patient commitment to healing by calling together a people, parented by Abraham and Sarah, whose descendants would bless all the families of the earth by their knowledge of and witness to God’s shalom.
When Abraham’s descendants are enslaved in Egypt and the promise appears to be extinguished, God intervened again by rallying the people around the leadership of Moses, a disarmed prophet. Through Moses, God leads the people out of slavery, doing so in a way that clearly juxtaposed a “theo-politics,” led by the prophetic word and noticeably absent a human king or warrior class, with the politics of empire embodied by Pharaoh. Then God gifts the people with Torah, kind of a blueprint to living in a community that operates according to theo-politics rather than power politics.
In time, the community, led by anxious elders, demands of God a king so they could “be like the other nations.” God acquiesces, and according to the story tries to provide for a kind of human kingship that would still be subordinate to the vision of life contained in Torah (Dt 17). As it turns out, such an arrangement was not possible. In the end, with the destruction of Judah by the Babylonian empire, the linking of the promise with territorial kingdoms is severed.
The survival of the peoplehood (and the promise) depended upon the rediscovery under King Josiah of the book of the law and the decision to try to reform Judah according to Torah. The reforms did not prevent the destruction of the kingdom, but they did re-establish Torah as the core of the community. Because of Torah, the peoplehood survived with its identity intact.
The lesson the big story presents us with is not that human beings in general are hopelessly sinful. Rather, the lesson is that the structures of power politics with their kings, generals, social stratification, and boundary lines that require violence to defend stand is sharp tension with the core of the Torah vision of communal life that is inclusive of all, is characterized by justice and respect, and provides the context for grateful worship of a merciful God. The prophet Jeremiah provides the template for living out the promise in light of the end of the Hebrew territorial kingdom: See Diaspora as the norm, seek the peace of the city where you live, continue on in non-territorial, decentralized, minority communities that witness to the mercies of God wherever you might be.
(4) Jesus carries on the law and prophets. When the OT is read as a peace book, it will be much easier to see how Jesus is in continuity with the faith of his forebears. Jesus embodies a prophetic interpretation of the big story. He reiterates God’s healing strategy, calling together communities of people of faith who will know God’s shalom, share God’s shalom with others, and thereby bless all the families of the earth.
Jesus models a reading strategy (not so much in the details but in the general sensibility) that affirms the truthfulness of the big story, that recognizes the God of that story as a God of love, that follows the approach taken by the prophets in embracing Torah and using Torah as the basis for critique and to revision the life of shalom where empire is opposed, the vulnerable are cared for, God’s mercy is trusted and seen as accessible simply on the basis of turning to God (repenting).
What about the “violent portraits”?
When we remember that Jesus’s Bible had the “violent portraits” of God without the mitigating materials of the NT, and yet he affirmed and followed and modeled an understanding of God as merciful and nonviolent, we will be able to understand that the plot of the big story, the peace vision of the OT, takes priority over the difficult texts. The idea is to let the big story teach us what God is like. The challenge of how to understand the violent portraits remains, but it is a different kind of challenge. It’s not the challenge of how to understand a God who is both violent and nonviolent. Rather, it’s a challenge to understand what is it that we might learn from those portraits that can help us better understand and follow the nonviolent God of Jesus and of the rest of the Bible.
We thus can see that the violent portraits of God in effect serve as props that further the plot. They show what God is not like (when read in the context of the rest of the story), what lessons are to be learned from Israel’s experience as a territorial kingdom (e.g., that kings are antithetical to the promise, that the community of faith should not be linked with territoriality that requires violent boundary maintenance, that the way of Torah does not allow for top down domination from an elite upper class).
As well, even with these violent portraits, the violent God is never the main picture of God. God is always the peace-loving God of the creation story, the slave-loving God of the exodus, the justice-loving God of Torah, and the merciful God of the prophets. Whatever meaning we might find in the violent portraits, they should never be allowed to overshadow the God of the big story.
With the peace-loving God as our central image, we then might be able to discern that one important learning from many of the passages where divine violence is present is that even those texts often have hints and clues that the God of those texts is in subtle ways different from the gods of the nations. For example, the exodus and conquest stories underwrite what we could call a theo-politics that is actually a critique of the power politics of the nations. Or the Sodom story features Abraham’s petition to God to be merciful, showing how seriously he takes his vocation as the God-chosen agent of blessing for all the families of the earth.
As we continue on to the Jesus part of the story, we learn that Jesus in fact confirms the ways the OT contrasts the God of Israel with the nations’ gods. That is, Jesus confirms that the trajectory in the portrayal of God in the Bible is that God is a God of peace not violence.
Finally, the book of Revelation serves as an excellent coda to the way the big story presents us with a peaceable God (by the way, Boyd’s appendix on Revelation is a terrific short analysis about how Revelation is all about nonviolence and healing—more on this later). Just one point to mention about Revelation as coda is the various times when the OT story and the NT story are tied together in presenting the message of God’s nonviolent love—e.g., the twelve tribes in 7:1-8 as linked with the uncountable multitude in 7:9-17; the twelve tribes whose names are on the gates of New Jerusalem linked with the twelve apostles whose names are on the city’s foundations, 21:12-14; and the praise in chapter 15 made up of “the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb” that celebrates that “all nations will come and worship before you” (15:1-4).