Greg Boyd’s Christ-Centered Reading Strategy [CWG chapter three]

Ted Grimsrud—June 2, 2017

[This is the fourth 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 third post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]

Christ as the center?

In chapter three, “Finding Jesus in the Old Testament: The Christocentric Hermeneutic of the Early Church” (pages 93–141), Boyd further deepens his analysis of how Christians might manage to find even the violent portraits of God in the Old Testament to be positive expressions of God’s nonviolent love. The key, he suggests, is to embrace the approach the first Christians used, which was to operate with the assumption that Christ was the goal and fulfillment of the entire OT, that is, of each part of the OT. The way they interpreted the Bible—and the way we should interpret the Bible—is to read it all christocentrically. For Boyd, that kind of reading boils down to seeing every part of the Bible in some sense witnessing to Christ on the cross.

He criticizes “the historic-orthodox church” for not “wrestling with a Christocentric way of interpreting the Old Testament’s violent portraits of God” (95). In effect, notably after the epoch-changing reign of Constantine as the first “Christian” emperor, Christians tended simply to affirm that the violent portraits provided a justification for their affirmation of the use of violence by their governments.

Insofar as Boyd means that Christians should have wrestled with applying the centrality of Jesus Christ to learning to embrace the way of nonviolence in face of the “violent portraits” instead of using those portraits to justify warism, I strongly agree. However, I suspect that the failure to do such wrestling is indicative of problems at the root of the “historic-orthodox” project in general and specifically with the version of “christocentrism” that came to characterize post-Constantine Christianity. What changed from the NT and early Christianity, among other things, was the meaning of “Christ” itself. Rather than hinting that the failure to wrestle with the violent portraits in a pacifist way is incongruous, I think Boyd would do better to scrutinize more critically the “historic-orthodox” tradition itself. How was it that the tradition could in some sense be “christocentric” without being pacifist?

The “orthodox” evasion of Jesus’s message of peace

One of my major theological concerns for years has been to try to understand why Christianity has been almost unanimously non-pacifist for the vast majority of history down to the present. I find it difficult to imagine that such a strong non-pacifist consensus could help but be a product of theological assumptions central to the tradition. Hence, I have reason to be critical of the entire theological framework of “historic-orthodoxy,” a framework that Boyd, amidst a few critical comments, seems to accept as valid.

In fact, so far I sense that with his project Boyd desires to use “orthodox” theology (e.g., biblical infallibility, the doctrine of the cross, a high christology) as a basis for interpreting the “violent portraits” as confirming his pacifism. But I suspect that he tries to stretch the “historic-orthodox” tradition in ways that it simply will not go. We likely have our problem of Christians using the Bible to underwrite violence because of “historic orthodoxy,” not in spite of it.

Boyd emphasizes emphatically in this chapter that the NT writers were so committed to Christ as the fulfillment of the entire Bible that they did not care all that much about the “original meaning” of the OT passages. The ultimate God-intended meaning of any given passage (and of the Old Testament as a whole) was only to be found when the text was seen in relation to Christ (98). And how should we understand this “Christ”? Boyd does not actually spell that out here, but from the general direction of his argument, I think we are to understand Christ in terms especially of the great Christian confessions about Christ as God-incarnate, the second person of the Trinity, and the necessary sacrifice that saves us from the condemnation due to our sinfulness—that is, the “Christ” of “historic orthodoxy.”

For Boyd, the bigness of the vision of this Christ necessarily diminishes the teaching of the OT on its own terms. “If we accept as authoritative the NT view of Christ as the supreme revelation of God and as the culmination of the old covenant, how can we logically avoid also accepting as authoritative their basic Christocentric approach to the OT?” (113). Certainly, we should allow for a sense of interaction between the teachings of the OT and the NT so that they might inform each other. However, this “dialectical interplay” does not take place between two equally authoritative revelations (115).

The NT should guide our way of reading the entire Bible, Boyd insists. For believers in the early church, the OT works as part of the Christ-centered salvation history only when it is subordinated to the NT and understood to have its ultimate meaning only as background that points ahead to the full revelation of God that is made present in the world only with Christ, most especially Christ on the cross (117).

I am afraid, though, that Boyd’s way of portraying the relationship between the two testaments may actually worsen the problem of allowing the violent portraits to determine how Christians viewed God, especially in relationship to violence. Let’s consider Martin Luther. Boyd cites Luther as a “christocentric” theologian. The key for Luther is “what we learn about God and salvation in Christ.” Moses and the prophets “are like a lit ‘wax candle’ that fades into ‘insignificance’ when compared to the brilliance of the sun, the revelation of God in Christ” (121). Yet, Luther’s “christocentrism” does not shape how he uses the OT violent God portraits (138)—he uses them as pro-war precedents. What does “christocentric” mean, then, if it also allows one to embrace reading the OT as a way to justify warism?

“Christocentrism” and support for war

Boyd will argue for a strong connection between his christocentric method in general and his attempt to read the OT peaceably. But as we see with Luther, and so many others, there is nothing within the christocentric approach itself that compels a peaceable reading strategy. I would note that this is why we can have 1,700 years of “christocentric hermeneutics” that did not apply to the OT violent God portraits (this is, albeit, a problem Boyd notes and hopes to fix). This dynamic resulted in 1,700 years of Christian warism and 1,700 years of Christian creeds that ignore Jesus’s life and teaching.

So it seems less than obvious that simply affirming a christocentric hermeneutic will resolve the problem of how Christians might understand and use the violent portraits. As long as christocentrism is primarily doctrinal—about Jesus’s identity and authority and role as savior—and not explicitly about Jesus’s way of life and how his identity can never be separated from his call to follow his way, it will never be free from the dynamics of “historic orthodoxy.” These are dynamics that have cemented over the past 1,700 years a sense that Christian faith is compatible with empire, economic stratification, warism, and anti-Judaism.

The big test for Boyd’s argument, it seems to me, will be how he will fill out the meaning of the “cross.” He seeks to interpret the “Old Testament’s violent portraits of God in light of the cross” (the book’s subtitle). He believes that by filtering all the data through the cross we can come out with an understanding of those portraits, along with the rest of the Bible, that actually will underwrite Christian understandings of God as nonviolent love and Jesus’s way of nonviolence as the norm for all Christians. I hope he is right, but I fear that if Boyd’s sense of the “cross” does not incorporate quite explicitly the way of Jesus’s life that led to the cross, he will have difficulty in overcoming the long Christian tradition of “christocentrism” that remains fully compatible with a rejection of pacifism.

What about the Anabaptists?

Boyd has a perceptive discussion of the Anabaptists towards the end of this chapter. He brings them up to support his argument about the focus on christocentrism in the Christian tradition in general, but he does note that they had significant differences from magisterial reformers such as Luther and Calvin.

Boyd writes that the Anabaptists had a greater sensitivity regarding the tension between the two testaments on violence, and that they used the entire life of Jesus as their hermeneutic criterion. Hence, their christocentric hermeneutic was more “robust” and had “a sharper edge than that of Luther and Calvin” (124). I mainly agree with these points. However, thus far in this book Boyd himself does not show evidence of using “the entire life of Jesus.” He seems focused pretty much on Jesus’s death—and Jesus’s death as a necessary sacrifice with primarily doctrinal significance, not Jesus’s death as the consequence of living his life when and where he did.

According to Boyd, the Anabaptists generally adopted a more narrative-focused reading of scripture than did the Reformers. For Anabaptists, individual texts had always to be interpreted within a larger framework. And it is only in this framework—a narrative framework centered on the humble life and sacrificial death of Christ—that the individual texts that comprise this narrative had “authority.” Again, this is good.

However, it strikes me as someone who also seeks to read the Bible within a narrative-focused framework, what I call the “big story,” that Boyd himself does not follow this approach consistently enough. Boyd’s argument does not seem to emphasize a larger framework so much as rely quite a bit on isolated Bible texts. As I discussed in my last post, he does not seem to have a desire to place the “violent portraits” in the context of the OT story that itself presents God as peaceable (including the way Torah as presented in the OT itself, not as read through Paul’s alleged antipathy toward the law). Boyd also spends little time discussing Jesus’s “humble life” in his focus on Jesus’s death, often, it seems, in isolation from what preceded it.

Boyd does helpfully mention the Anabaptist notion of “hermeneutics of obedience” (128). They were distinctive among numerous Christians in how they emphasized that response to the call to obey the teachings and example of Jesus had epistemological significance. In the 16th century, Anabaptists critiqued Luther and Calvin for ignoring Jesus’s call to nonviolence due to an allegiance to the state. Again, this is excellent. However, Boyd does not seem to see that this critique could apply to his actual theology: his appropriation of “historic orthodoxy,” his discussion of the cross in isolation from Jesus’s life, his lack of attention to Jesus’s own teaching regarding law and salvation, and his apparent tendency to read Jesus through the eyes of Paul.

What kind of christocentric hermeneutic?

At the end of the chapter, Boyd does indicate some sensitivity to the kinds of questions I am asking here. In his words: “If a professed Christocentric hermeneutic does not make a difference in how one interprets portraits of God commanding and engaging in violence, one has to begin to wonder what real difference the allegedly Christocentric hermeneutic actually makes?” (138). This is a strong point—but shouldn’t this problem be recognized as present throughout all “historic orthodoxy” going back to the 4th century creeds?

I would suggest that we need a christocentric hermeneutic that is shaped by taking as central Jesus’s life and teaching and Jesus’s continuity with Torah. And we should allow such a hermeneutic to challenge us to question many of the elements of “historic orthodoxy” that Boyd still seems to accept as valid assumptions—such as: (1) the idea of “sin” as a general human condition (ala Augustine’s notion of “original sin”); (2) the notion of the cross (alone) as intrinsically salvific; (3) what we could call a deep or ontological Trinitarianism; and (4) a disregard for Jesus’s own teaching and practice regarding salvation as simply a gift from God with no need for sacrifice. I will elaborate more on these themes in the days to come.

Boyd concludes the chapter with the encouraging suggestion that the key to the most authentic christocentrism is to see that what “unites the person and work of Jesus is the self-sacrificial, other-oriented, agape-love of God that was supremely displayed when Jesus freely offered up his life on the cross out of love for his enemies and at the hands of his enemies…. [That is,] “the Christocentric hermeneutic … must be understood to be a cross-centered hermeneutic” (140).

What is especially important with this statement is its emphasis on God’s “self-sacrificial, other-oriented, agape-love.” Boyd makes it clear throughout the book that he believes this kind of love always characterizes how God relates to the world. And this kind of love always is the norm for how Christians are expected to live. So, whatever questions or disagreements I have (and there are plenty), they pale in relation to these two shared convictions. My challenges to Boyd are challenges for how he might better make his case.

On-going concerns

I’ll close here by raising a few questions.

(1) Is the center point of the biblical story the cross, or is it rather Jesus’s life where he embodied God’s love both in offering healing and in confronting the powers of evil? Jesus indeed shows God’s love like no one else ever has, but I believe the key is that the Bible’s center point is seen in his life even to the point of being killed for how he lived, not in his death per se.

(2) How do we best understand the place of the problem of sin in relation to Jesus’s life and death? We do accurately recognize that Jesus died due to human sin—but was it a general, endemic sinfulness characteristic of all humanity (including, especially, the children of Israel), or was it more the specific sins of the leaders of the empire and of the religious institutions who collaborated to torture and execute him? Isn’t the message of this story more about sinful social structures and idolatry that makes the person who embodies God’s radical love a criminal than it is about a sense that Jesus’s death reveals that we are all sinners?

(3) What is the main lesson we get from the story of Jesus and how his life ended? Is it that we should be grateful that God saves us from sin or, more, that we should follow the same path that Jesus followed—including actively resisting the powers of evil? It seems to me that only by disregarding the message of God’s mercy that permeates the OT and that especially is expressed in Jesus’s life, including his forgiveness of sins long before he was executed, can we imagine that the main lesson of the cross is that now, finally, God has effectively acted to free humanity from sin.

The next post in the series may be found here

An index for the series as a whole may be found here

3 thoughts on “Greg Boyd’s Christ-Centered Reading Strategy [CWG chapter three]

  1. Pingback: Greg Boyd’s Peaceable God as Revealed in Christ [CWG chapter two] | Peace Theology

  2. Pingback: Greg Boyd’s Insistence on Making the Cross Central [CWG chapter four] | Peace Theology

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