Greg Boyd’s Insistence on Making the Cross Central [CWG chapter four]

Ted Grimsrud—June 12, 2017

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

The cross

In chapter four, “The Cruciform Center, Part I: The Cross as the Supreme Revelation of God” (pages 141–171), Boyd begins to explain what he means by what he calls a “cruciform hermeneutic”—his approach to interpreting the entire Bible in light of Jesus’s crucifixion. This doesn’t simply mean saying that the crucifixion is the most important story in the Bible. More than that, Boyd believes that everything else in the Bible (including the OT) must be seen as in some sense pointing to the crucifixion. It will take a lot of writing to explain how this dynamic works. The key purpose of explaining “the cruciform center” here, we will ultimately learn, is that this is how we might resolve the challenge of properly understanding “the OT’s violent portraits of God.”

Boyd asserts that the OT must be interpreted in light of Jesus, never placed alongside him as though it was a supplementary revelation. We should be able to discern how the OT narrative, and how each aspect of it, bears witness to Christ (142), especially Christ’s cross. In contrast, I would tend to take the opposite approach in that I would see the fundamental revelation being the exodus and the gift of Torah. We recognize Jesus as truthful, as the Son of God, because of how he embodies that same revelation.

Boyd suggest, sadly, that for the past 1,600 years theologians have indeed tended to read scripture christologically but they have not rethought the meaning of the OT’s violent portraits of God. This dynamic shows that we need to go a step further and advocate a crucicentric, rather than merely christocentric, orientation (142). By “crucicentric” Boyd means “the nonviolent, self-sacrificial, enemy-embracing love of God revealed on the cross” (142). This is helpful, but I ask why center this notion of self-sacrificial love on the cross rather than on Jesus’s life? I suspect it is because on some level Boyd still accepts the evangelical focus on Jesus’s death as a necessary sacrifice. I will need to monitor this issue as I go through CWG—paying special attention to the problems for nonviolence that belief in a necessary sacrifice raise.

“Wrath” and love

Boyd understands God’s “wrath” not to be an independent characteristic of God’s character. He writes, “If God’s love alone is the one ‘absolute,’ then God’s ‘wrath,’ as well as every other aspect of God, must ultimately be understood to be a manifestation of this love from a particular perspective, including the perspective of those who are hardened against it and thus experience it as ‘wrath’” (146). I think this is a good statement, but I would suggest that if God’s love truly is absolute, God would not turn away and would protect everyoneif God could. That is, I think Boyd’s point bumps up against the idea that God’s love has to be seen to have limits if we accept (which I don’t) that there are people who are excluded from it. I think it’s better to understand the “limits” as intrinsic in God’s actual lack of power to control the world. God simply can’t protect people. More on this in future posts.

Boyd criticizes Augustine’s influential notion of love as compatible with the use of violence. He suggests that this is one reason Christian theologians could simultaneously affirm a christocentric theology and an acceptance of God as violent. In Augustine’s theology there was little incongruity between affirming God’s love and the violent portraits because “he defined love as an inner disposition that had no necessary behavioral implications…. For God as well as humans, loving enemies did not necessarily rule out torturing and killing them, if one were justified in doing so” (149). These are good, sharp criticisms.

Boyd goes on, “as the post-Constantinian church became acclimated to the use of violence and the OT’s violent portraits of God became less problematic, church leaders came to uniformly view these portraits as authoritative revelations alongside the revelation of God in Christ” (151). Hence came Christianity’s accommodation with war and violence that contradicted the revelation of God in Christ.

Boyd’s criticism seems right to me. However, I would see this point in the discussion to be a place to be more radical in formulating a critique of “historic orthodoxy.” Boyd has stated earlier that he continues to affirm “historic orthodoxy” in general. I would suggest that the change in theological sensibility that Boyd notes and applies to the problem of how Christian theology came to see the violent portraits, should also raise questions for us in regard to other core doctrines, such as the Trinity, the understanding of Christ, and the view of sin. More on this to come.

Boyd points out that the NT goes beyond providing an abstract conceptual definition of “love;” it points us to love’s extreme illustration. We see this, for example, with 1 John 3:16 where we are told that love equals Jesus laying down his life for us (153). However, I wonder if Boyd’s is the best understanding of that verse. Does John have in mind the cross per se, and Jesus’s death as a necessary sacrifice (which seems to be Boyd’s sense)? I think that we should note that John’s comment goes on to add an exhortation to his readers to do the same thing that Jesus did. So John seems to have in mind more Jesus’s self-sacrifice as representing an entire way of life (that is, Jesus’s life leading up to his execution), not simply a death.

We should also remember, in this context, Jesus’s own teaching about love, most notably in his encounter with a lawyer who asked about eternal life and responded himself, with Jesus’s affirmation, that it is all linked with love. Jesus went on to define love, in effect, by telling the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). Jesus’s illustration of the heart of love was a human action that gets a big part of its heft from the reality that this is to be imitated. Boyd surely agrees that Jesus’s definition of neighbor love in Luke 10 should be normative for Christians; I do not question that.

However, Boyd goes beyond imitatable neighbor love when he adds to his description of John’s definition the points that Jesus “humbled himself by becoming human” and that he “took upon himself the abandonment that we deserved” (153). In doing so, I think, he moves love as defined by Jesus away from elements that human beings may imitate and, in fact, toward a notion of God’s love expressed in the cross as a kind of theological transaction—that is, his definition itself becomes more of an “abstract conceptual definition” that a definition that is concrete and practical.

Jesus’s identity and mission

Boyd also makes a strong point when he asserts, “God’s self-sacrificial, agape-loving nature must be considered the thematic center of Jesus’s identity and mission” and “the quintessential expression of the character of … God” (156). However, I do not agree that the cross is “the unsurpassable revelation of God” (155)—at least the cross as a stand-alone event. If we mean the cross in conjunction with and as the culmination of Jesus’s life, I could see it as central. But even then, the point is not death (and certainly not necessary sacrifice) but life. Even if Boyd might insist that he has Jesus’s life in mind when he makes these points, he does not make that clear enough, in my view.

Boyd does helpfully point out that “the dominant theological tradition of the church,” with its emphasis on divine impassibility and immutability, problematically could not “fully embrace Jesus’s suffering on the cross as integral to God’s revealed identity” (156). Even Luther, who did talk about “a theology of the cross,” did not go far enough. The “revelatory significance of the cross” has only “recently begun to be fully appreciated” (157). Insofar as Boyd critiques notions of divine impassibility and immutability in his emphasis on Jesus as God Incarnate who actually suffered and was killed, he makes a crucial point. But, as I have noted and expect to keep noting, by centering Jesus’s message on his death, I think Boyd misses the actual heart of the biblical message about God and salvation.

In this section, Boyd draws heavily on Jürgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God: “The cross must constitute ‘the nucleus of everything that Christianity says about God’” (159). I think we could easily find many theological aphorisms that would be much worse than Moltmann’s point. We get closer to understanding God when we think in terms of the cross than we do with most other suggestions of the “nucleus.” And Boyd’s conviction about God as peaceable finds strong grounding in the cross. But it still feels like this sense of the cross is too autonomous and not linked closely enough with the message of God’s love seen in Jesus’s life.

The Unity of the Person and Work of Christ

I believe that the cross needs to be thought of in relation to the life of Jesus that preceded it. One of the big problems in traditional Christian theology has been an approach to the cross more or less as an autonomous event. So, when Boyd speaks of the unity of who Jesus was (his “person”) and what he did (his work), I’m glad: “Because we can never separate who Jesus is as the God-man from what he did, we also cannot separate Jesus’s revelatory and atoning work on the cross from the incarnation and/or any other aspect of his life and ministry” (163).

Yet, I am also a bit uneasy. Boyd seems to make theological constructs central (e.g., “God-man,” “atoning work,” “incarnation”), not the actual content of Jesus’s life and teaching. He seems to reflect “historic orthodoxy” when he treats these constructs more as autonomous truth than as always conclusions based on what Jesus said and did.

Boyd draws helpfully from the writing of N. T. Wright to make the point that all too often theologians write about the atonement without giving the gospels serious attention. But for Wright and Boyd, everything about Jesus’s ministry leads up to and culminates in sacrificial death. All of it is about atonement (164). That is, while they appropriately say they see the link between Jesus’s life and his death, they actually see the core meaning in the sacrificial death. I would rather see it the other way around; Jesus’s death has meaning only because of his life, the particular kind of life he led.

As well, though he claims to, I don’t think Boyd actually does “give the Gospels serious attention,” at least as I read this book so far. He refers to the cross over and over, but rarely if ever fleshes out Jesus’s life. I also disagree that Jesus’s “sacrificial death” was the “culmination,” as if it was the necessary outcome without which the rest is bereft of meaning. Perhaps Jesus’s death became inevitable as a consequence of the power elite’s response to his way of life, but what was necessary for him to be “savior” was that he would live a life of embodied agape love and restorative justice that confronted the Powers—not that he die as a necessary sacrifice.

Boyd insists he does affirm a unity between Jesus’s person and his work: “Jesus’s whole life and ministry [reveal] the love and [accomplish] the salvation that is supremely revealed and accomplished on the cross” (167). However, this portrayal of Jesus’s “work” is problematic insofar as Boyd means to say that Jesus’s death is a necessary sacrifice, apart from which there is no salvation. If that is his view, then Jesus’s life is absorbed into his death; it would not have saving value in itself.

To the contrary, I want to argue that Jesus’s life was his work, period. In his life, Jesus embodied God’s love, mercy, and transformative justice—that is, God’s saving initiative. Boyd does write, “I am not referring to the crucifixion event in isolation from any other aspect of Jesus’s identity and mission” (167). However, he does not demonstrate that this is what he actually is doing, because almost always he simply refers to “the cross.” If the cross is the purpose of Jesus’s saving actions (as Boyd says), then it does become kind of an autonomous event. If Jesus’s life is itself salvific, the cross loses its necessity (and its centrality).

Why it matters that God raised Jesus

Boyd makes good comments on Jesus’s resurrection: It “is the deliverance, vindication, and exaltation of the Son who had been perfectly obedient, even to the point of death…. By means of this deliverance, vindication, exaltation, God declared that the perfect life and obedient death … accomplished all he had come to accomplish” (168). I do wonder if by “perfect” here (“the Son who had been perfectly obedient”), Boyd has in mind the “spotless sacrifice,” and if by “accomplish,” he has in mind the cross as salvific in an autonomous sense. These points suggest something in the arena of satisfaction atonement theology where God needs Jesus’s death in order to provide for salvation—a view that does not allow God to be understood simply in terms of all-encompassing love. More on this in later posts.

Boyd goes on, drawing on Wright, to say, “the whole of Jesus’s life, and indeed the whole biblical narrative leading up to Jesus’s life, is oriented toward this sacrificial death” (168). And he directly quotes Wright: “The resurrection, ascension, and Spirit [are not] even thinkable unless a meaning is given to the death of Jesus” (168). I don’t know what “meaning” Wright could possibly have in mind apart from some sort of satisfaction theology. The “meaning” seems to imply that God needs something (as in a perfect sacrifice) before God can save.

This presence of satisfaction-like theology might explain why “judgment” and “wrath” remain integral parts of Boyd’s theology in this book. He takes pains to show that God is not the direct agent of the destruction that accompanies judgment and wrath—but this does not mean that judgment and wrath are not key parts of how God relates to the world. For both the cross and the violent portraits of God in the OT, God’s judgment and wrath are part of the meaning of those events. That is, it appears that God may still require some kind of satisfaction for Boyd. If that is the case, it will be much more difficult for him to construct a strong argument for God as nonviolent, I suspect. We will see as the argument unfolds.

Boyd does go on to make some more good points. “Only because the Son was vindicated can we know that the sacrificial love that Jesus exemplified throughout his life, and especially in his death, is the way God saves us and overcomes evil and the way God calls his followers to live and to overcome evil” (168). I like the notion of the resurrection as vindication of the love “Jesus exemplified throughout his life,” and I like the notion that God calls God’s followers to embody the same kind of love.

However, even in this helpful comment, Boyd’s use of the words “only” and “especially” in relation to Jesus’s death seems to point toward satisfaction theology. If so, they then point to a limitation to God’s love. The God of satisfaction theology cannot simply forgive. The moral fabric of the universe, in this theology, requires that God be satisfied by a necessary sacrifice (God’s “honor,” or “justice,” or “wrath”). The “sacrificial love” that Boyd mentions, then, is not simply self-sacrificial love but is still tied to the dynamics of payment and reciprocity—moral realities separate from love.

Finally, in relation to the resurrection, Boyd makes the excellent point that the resurrection is not “a kind of triumphant domineering power that replaces the power of [Jesus’s] humble, obedient, self-sacrificial love … displayed on the cross” (169). Again, though, note the troubling focus on the cross. Boyd simply does not emphasize the idea that Jesus’s especially embodied this love in positive, concrete, radical, politically subversive ways in his life. He always seems to boil Jesus’s love down to his death.

The next post in the series may be found here

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

5 thoughts on “Greg Boyd’s Insistence on Making the Cross Central [CWG chapter four]

  1. Berry Friesen

    “On the cross Jesus discarded the cosmic powers and authorities like a garment; he made a public spectacle of them and led them as captives in his triumphal procession.” Col. 2:15

    If sin is a power that has taken us captive, and if death is what entrenches that power and makes it inescapable and insurmountable, then we wouldn’t we say with Boyd and Wright that Jesus’ death on the cross was “necessary” for our salvation?

    This is not “satisfaction” theology. Rather, it’s an understanding of how the world used to work, and how Jesus’ death on the cross changed how the world works.

  2. Ted Grimsrud Post author

    Well, the issue with “necessity” in my mind is whether Jesus’s death was necessary for God to effect salvation—assuming that salvation comes from God. If one says it was, I would put one in the “satisfaction” camp. If one believes that God didn’t “need” this death, then I would say one actually would have a hard time insisting that the death itself is salvific.

    Or, we could say it like this. What does Col. 2:15 think that the actual mechanics of Jesus discarding the powers were? Is the victory to be found in the death itself or is the victory to be found in his faithful living? When God raises Jesus is God saying Jesus’s death made salvation possible now when it wasn’t before—or is God saying that the life that led to this death at the hand of the Empire is the kind of life that shows what truth is?

    The problem with saying that “Jesus’s death on the cross changed how the world works” is that there is little historical evidence to support that. The actual events of human history are too ambiguous to make such a categorical statement. There is evidence of (partial) victory over the Powers before Jesus’s death and little evidence of a dramatic and sustained increase in such victory since Jesus was killed. His own spiritual descendants soon became enthusiastic supports of the same Empire that killed him—and used that Empire’s sword to perpetuate the dynamics of injustice that killed Jesus.


      Ted, my small point is that Boyd understands Jesus’ death to be YHWH’s victory over evil, the Christus Victor understanding of the atonement. I thought some of your comments made it seem Boyd subscribed to a “satisfaction” view of the atonement.

      “Little historical evidence” that Jesus chcanged how the world works? Yes, that is the consensus position of the church for a very long time. And it is the reason we spend so much time and energy exploring dead-ends and blind-allies: the consensus position forces us to construct elaborate explanations of how an insignificant event (Jesus’s death) is at the center of our story as Christians and our understanding of “salvation.”

      Second Testament writers claim YHWH has made Jesus judge of all the Earth. Anthony Bartlett (Virtual Christianity and other texts) is one writer who has tried to understand this in historical terms.

      1. Ted Grimsrud Post author

        You’re definitely correct, Berry, that Boyd presents his understanding of the atonement as a version of Christus Victor. I haven’t quite grasped how that works yet, but it seems to me like he still frames things in “satisfaction” terms, too.

        He’s not clear what the precise problem with sin is, but since he does affirm that part of what is going on in the cross is God’s punitive judgment (albeit not expressed in direct violent acts by God), it seems like this fits more in the satisfaction camp. I have understood Christus Victor to be more about being set free from Satan’s idolatrous hold on our loyalties, not about punitive judgment.

        I am saying something very different than the “consensus position” about Jesus’s death. I do think that position says something has changed—our ability to go to heaven when we die. So, history doesn’t really matter and Jesus’s death is about getting us into heaven, not about an exposure of empire/institutional religion collusion. And because things are couched in terms of otherworldly salvation, nothing in history will change (at least insofar as official Christianity is concerned).

        My reading of scripture and history leads to my sense that it’s a mistake to look for something cosmic in the Christ event beyond its clarifying and reiterating the basic revelation in the exodus and Torah about what Millard Lind called “theo-politics.” As Jesus had Abraham say to the rich man, “you have Moses and the prophets” (Lk 16:29). I think we have plenty of “historical evidence” to see that that message has and can change the world.

  3. Pingback: More on Greg Boyd’s Insistence on Making the Cross Central [CWG chapter five] – Peace Theology

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s