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

Ted Grimsrud—June 16, 2017

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

The cross in the gospels

In chapter five, “The Cruciform Center, Part 2: The Cross as the Thematic Center of the Gospel” (pages 173–229), Boyd has a helpful treatment of the cross as presented in the gospels. His discussion perceptively makes clear how the God of nonviolent love is revealed in the story of Jesus’s crucifixion—and, so importantly, makes clear how this picture of God’s love provides a model for how we ourselves should live.

However, though I greatly appreciate these points that Boyd makes, I still felt that his focus was a bit off. I think this may be an issue of tone more than intended content, though I am not sure. I will continue to reflect on this as I work through CWG. I am concerned that Boyd seems to say that the cross was the point of Jesus’s life rather than being the (not precisely foreseen) consequence of Jesus’s life. Was Jesus’s purpose from the start that he would die a sacrificial death? The NT can seem to suggest this, but I think it is a problematic emphasis.

I believe that the true meaning of the story the gospels tell is to be found in Jesus’s life—and that it is his life that is exemplary for us. The way the Romans (in collaboration with the religious leaders) executed Jesus—and the fact that they executed him at all—followed directly from the way he lived. Whatever meaning the cross has, then, derives from Jesus’s life. It was because he so profoundly embodied God’s love (both in the sense of how he showed mercy toward and practiced solidarity with “the least of these” and in the sense of how he confronted the blasphemies and injustices of those seemingly all-powerful human structures that claimed to act on God’s behalf) that Jesus was executed. The cross, then, reveals the fullness of the Powers’ opposition to God-in-the-flesh. It is not intrinsically revelatory or salvific.

So, I would say that Jesus’s cross is more mundanely (this-worldly) practical than Boyd seems to allow for. Boyd presents the meaning of the cross as having relevance most of all on what we could call the cosmic or theological level, as a necessary sacrifice that makes salvation possible. In doing so, he treats it almost ahistorically, as if the specific context for Jesus being executed is not particularly relevant. I would say, in contrast, that it is precisely the context that is most important. Jesus in his life that ultimately led to his death exposes the idolatrous nature of the political and religious institutions of his day. In doing so, he reveals what kind of life God wants human beings to live and what kind of resistance to the Powers is called for. The central meaning of the cross is for this world and for how we live in this world.

To understand the cross in its mundane practicality is to then have a framework for interpreting the history of Christianity. The purpose of the story of the cross is not to make access to heaven in the afterlife possible in a way it was not possible before. Rather, one major purpose of the story of the cross is to help people of faith to discern how their communities relate to the Powers of their worlds. That is, for example, the story of the cross provides an important basis for critiquing Christian collaboration with latter day iterations of the Roman Empire on various macro and micro levels.

The cross as valorizing suffering and death

Boyd certainly provides material for such a critique, most centrally in his insistence that God is the God revealed on the cross as humble, non-coercive, self-giving, nonviolent love. However, I don’t believe he helps us as much as he could when he discusses the cross, because he does not bring in the political critique I just alluded to. Rather, he seems to leave the ethical relevance of the cross more on the personal-spiritual level as a call to a kind of non-resistance to the dynamics of prideful violence rather than a call to political radicalism.

Jesus’s suffering almost comes across in Boyd’s treatment as an end in itself, as intrinsically salvific—rather than the suffering being the likely consequence of a salvific life of justice and resistance and costly compassion, a consequence not to be feared or avoided but not in itself of value.

By such a focus on the cross in and of itself, the “autonomous cross” we could say, Boyd seems to see death itself as the point of Jesus’s message. Grace Jantzen’s important, though sadly under-noticed book, Violence to Eternity (Routledge, 2009), has helped me better understand the Bible as a book of life (emphasizing what she calls “natality”) rather than as a book of death. Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker’s book, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire (Beacon, 2008), complements Jantzen’s and helps us see how death came to be emphasized in Christian theology much later than the New Testament—and to detrimental effect.

I don’t mean to assert here that Boyd necessarily would disagree with many of the points those two books make, nor that he intends to present the gospel as a message about death. However, I am troubled by his simple emphasis on the cross without reflecting on the kinds of critiques that might be offered to the effect that in doing so he minimizes the life of Jesus and the ways that Jesus’s message does emphasize life over death.

How does Boyd’s cross work?

I believe that the emphasis on the cross in “historic orthodoxy” is problematic from the perspective of a commitment to Christian pacifism. The connection between theologies that affirm a retributive view of God and practices that support human acts of retributive violence provides one reason for taking a critical stance toward theologies that emphasize the cross. Boyd denies that he supports the penal substitution atonement view, but he does not actually discuss how his view of the cross as central differs from other theologies that put the cross central and also support war and capital punishment—all as expressions of retributive theology.

I believe that it would be important for Boyd to show how his approach is different, to show how the mechanics of the cross work for him and how those mechanics are fully consistent with his affirmation of God as nonviolent. How is Jesus’s death salvific? What does it specifically accomplish? In what sense is the cross necessary for God to make salvation available? At this point in my understanding of salvation theology, I don’t see how one can affirm that Jesus’s death is itself salvific, necessary for God to make salvation available, and not also affirm that God’s love is not sufficient. I would like Boyd to address this issue. Hopefully he will before the book is over.

As I read the gospels (see my book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness and various blog posts), I see first of all that Jesus himself taught God’s extraordinarily welcoming love that reaches out and accepts all who turn toward God in response to God’s unconditional invitation. And Jesus practices this kind of love, including his controversial offering of forgiveness to many excluded people, forgiveness that bypassed the sacrifice system. Salvation in Jesus’s practice and teaching was fully present, not dependent on some kind of necessary and necessarily violent sacrifice. Jesus’s God was not punitive or retributive, but sought always to restore relationships. Jesus’s understanding of salvation was not centered on the cross but on God’s always available, healing love.

The story of Jesus’s death actually reiterates this message. The religious and political leaders arrested and killed him because of his message of God’s healing love and his insistence that that love subverts human institutions that hindered access to that love (e.g., the temple system and the empire). When faced with the likelihood of death, Jesus remained committed to the way of love and witnessed to life to his very last breath.

The cross, then, does not provide for a new path to salvation. Rather, it shows just how radical and costly the already present path is. The final message in the story of Jesus, though, is a powerful affirmation of life: God defeats the Powers and raises Jesus from the dead, thereby vindicating his life and reemphasizing the truthfulness of his call for others to follow his path—even to the point of also dying as political revolutionaries (the meaning of his statement, “take up your cross and follow me”).

The power of God revealed in the cross

Though Boyd’s chapter 5 has left me with quite a few questions about what he means by “the cross” and whether his views of Jesus’s crucifixion are free enough from retributive theology, he certainly makes many important and helpful points about God’s self-giving as expressed in Jesus’s life and death. Those points establish this book as an important expression of peace theology.

A particularly insightful section focuses on Paul’s teaching about the cross, “God’s Cruciform Wisdom and Power” (194-6). “In sharp contrast to the controlling power and wisdom that has been ascribed to God or the gods throughout history—including in much of the OT and, unfortunately, throughout much of church history—Paul allowed the humble love expressed on the cross to completely reframe his understanding of God’s power and wisdom.” Paul allows the cross definitively to define God’s character and God’s ways (195).

The sense that God’s power should most of all be seen in the nonviolent, self-giving love of Jesus the led to his crucifixion stands at the center of Boyd’s theology in CWG. My questions and criticisms are mainly meant to suggest ways his case could be made even stronger. I am grateful for his clarity on this most important of all points.

However, even in the strong statement I just quoted, Boyd betrays the problems with his christocentric approach insofar as that approach leads him to diminish the content of the OT as in some sense contrary to what he sees as the message of the cross. Here, he adds the qualification, “including much of the OT,” with the sense (it seems) that the OT itself ascribes “controlling power and wisdom” to God. Certainly there are materials in the OT that do ascribe that kind of power to God, though I suspect there are fewer of these than many Christians think. However, what Boyd does not acknowledge is that the OT also bears powerful witness to a God portrayed as cruciform love. Or at least that is the argument (in so many words) of Jewish scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel in his book, The Prophets. Heschel argues that ultimately the definitive characteristic of the biblical God (that is, for Christians, the OT God; the God of Jesus’s Bible) is God’s “pathos,” God’s compassion, God’s self-giving love.

One problem when Boyd diminishes the witness of the OT is that he takes away counterveiling emphases in the OT that provide ways within that part of the story to critique and even overcome the problematic “violent portraits of God.” Another problem is that all too often Christians disparage the OT as a problem that Christianity is required to overcome. Such views tend to forget how “historic Christian orthodoxy” has been complicit in the very problems Christians project onto the OT. In this case, note the construction in 4th and 5th century Christianity of the very notion of God that Boyd critiques—a God of “controlling power and wisdom.” For many who have tried to counter that view of God, ironically, it is through an appeal to the God of the biblical tradition—that is, the God of the OT that Jesus called “Abba.”

What about pacifism and politics

Boyd makes a strong case for Christian pacifism in this chapter. He makes clear the connection between God’s self-giving love shown in relation to Jesus’s crucifixion and the call for Jesus’s followers to follow him on the same path. Boyd does not spend a great deal of time on this theme in this book, but it is clear that a major reason for his concern with the violent portraits of God is how taking those portraits too literally often has served to help justify Christians themselves taking up arms.

At the same time, Boyd’s version of pacifism is what he calls “kingdom pacifism.” This variety of pacifism emphasizes “that citizens of the kingdom of God are called to be unconditionally pacifist.” However, this does not mean that Christians should seek to persuade governments to refrain from violence. (208) Because he does not say more about these issues here, one is left with uncertainty about what the practical outworking of this distinction is for Boyd. Does he advocate a kind of two-kingdom approach that has been characteristic of many in Anabaptist/Mennonite traditions where they argue that Christians not participate in secular politics at all (no holding office, no voting)? Does he mean to suggest that Christian pacifism should not be based on pragmatic criteria in any significant way but instead should emphasize the call to follow Jesus come what may, regardless of the effects?

I wonder if part of Boyd’s understanding on these issues might be related to his failure to consider how the OT actually makes a case for a politically oriented kind of pacifism. That possibility emerges from the story’s rejection of the belief that territorial kingdoms might be a channel for the outworking of God’s promise to bless all the families of the earth. Such a perspective suggests not that God becomes apolitical and expects people of faith to withdraw from positions of responsibility in the world’s kingdoms. Rather, it points toward a new kind of political engagement of an anarchistic type (but one that still addresses the same issues as conventional politics). This will be another issue to track in the rest of the book.

The next post in the series may be found here

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

35 thoughts on “More on Greg Boyd’s Insistence on Making the Cross Central [CWG chapter five]

  1. lewispwordpesscom

    Fabulous Ted,
    What is this weird belief in the inherent need of God for a violent sacrifice to save us?
    It is ridiculous.
    The truth is staring us in the face!
    Thanks for spelling it out.

    1. Rick MacArthur

      I am thoroughly enjoying your series of reflections on Boyd’s book. I recognize that few 21st century Christians in America are interested in exploring the nuances and questions which Boyd and you raise. The myth of redemptive violence is one that is deeply ingrained in the American psyche and few alternatives to traditional understandings of Atonement are tolerated. Marcus Borg’s view is one of Participatory Atonement. Focusing on the life of Jesus and our participating in following Jesus’ teachings would seem to espouse a more acceptable Christology than one that promotes violence, whether it be human or Divine. Thanks for taking the time to reflect on all this.

      1. Howard Pepper

        Rick, it’s good to see you join the discussion and know you’ve been reading these articles. In recent years I’ve developed an increasing interest in helping spread the kind of emphasis Ted and others are bringing forth. While I had a family tie, on one side, to Mennonites, I was raised “generic” Evangelical (tho no such thing actually exists). Only in my mid-forties, 20+ years ago, did I have a paradigm shift and become a Process thinker.

        In more recent years, my interest has grown in trying to foster greater active cooperation among various strands of Christian progressives, particularly toward re-visioning what following Jesus means. That definitely includes the peace-building aspect and the understanding of God as expressing only uncontrolling love, never violence or coercion. As you imply, the aspect of powerful mythology, whether fully conscious or not (often not), is critical. I think we MUST take this dynamic into serious account, addressing it in various ways, in our efforts to get people to grow into more compassionate perspectives. With this, the choices and actions that flow from them can/will also be more compassionate and effective for personal and societal harmony.

        One of the best-analyzed and best-written pieces on Christian Myth in the American psyche and culture that I’ve encountered is the chapter or 2 on it in Burton Mack’s “Who Wrote the New Testament”. He has other excellent work as well on mythology as related to “social interest” theory, even if one doesn’t agree with some of his more speculative thinking on Christian origins or other specific points. His work, with that of Jonathan Z. Smith, is ground-breaking and vital to depth understanding of religious dynamics.


    Ted, you say: “Salvation in Jesus’s practice and teaching was fully present, not dependent on some kind of necessary and necessarily violent sacrifice.”

    I gather that for you “salvation” is a spiritual good, not a historical good; it entails be forgiven by YHWH, reconciled with YHWH, welcomed by YHWH, included in YHWH’s invisible community.

    Am I reading you accurately?

    If “love” were inserted in place of “salvation,” I would agree with your sentence. But not as it stands because for salvation to be present (as I see it and as I expect Boyd sees it), the corrupt and deceitful powers must be exposed and dethroned.

    1. Ted Grimsrud Post author

      I like your summary of salvation pretty well, Berry. I would say that is precisely what Jesus declared to be “at hand” and showed to be fully present with his own ministry of forgiveness (before he died). This is my main point—what Jesus taught and practiced is at least somewhat different from how Boyd describes salvation.

      The problem humanity has is that the Powers deceive us so we fail to recognize the at-handness of salvation. That deceit does need to end for us to embrace the salvation that is fully present should we turn back to God. But the issue is not that this couldn’t happen before Jesus died; it did happen for many. But Jesus’s death does help in the process of making the deceit more visible and hence more resistible.

      However, ironically, Christianity’s own atonement theology (to some degree echoed by Boyd) makes the recognition of the presence of salvation harder to see. As I read Boyd, it seems that one of differences between him and me is that I think the story of the cross simply cannot be separated from the specific Powers (empire and temple) that killed him. However we think of “Satan,” Satan is inextricably tied in with these human structures (I think “Satan” is a helpful metaphor for what Winks calls the fallen interiority of those structures).

      For Boyd, though, Satan seems to be a personal autonomous being which means that we can think of Satan as distinct from those structures. That seems to lead to a spiritualization of the Powers that then lets the empire and temple (and their perennial expressions) off the hook and hinders the process of people seeing the idolatrous character of those expressions (a problem you have so eloquently exposed in your work).


        “This is my main point—what Jesus taught and practiced is at least somewhat different from how Boyd describes salvation.”

        As I have read you so far, Ted, your main point in differing with Boyd is that Jesus’ death was not “necessary.” Maybe I haven’t read you carefully enough, but I haven’t been aware of you drawing a distinction from Boyd on the meaning of salvation.

        I expect Boyd would say (and I would agree) that YHWH’s love and YHWH’s victory over the powers are not one and the same. The first was there from the beginning, the second only in the sacrificial death of Jesus of Nazareth. The Second Testament tells us Jesus saw it that way, as did the Apostle Paul. Thus, Jesus’ death was necessary for our (historical) salvation.

        This is why I insist Jesus changed how the world works; the powers are now constrained, constantly having to justify themselves (prove their moral legitimacy) according to a standard set by this loser named Jesus, the one YHWH has made judge of the living and the dead. John the Revelator speaks of this too.

      2. lewispwordpesscom

        Jesus’s life shows how the world should work.
        His crucifixion shows how and why it actually works, apart from self-giving love.
        That God ultimately, emphatically and in plain sight reveals Godself to consist in self-giving love in a concrete way in our world reveals the problem and the answer – if we have eyes to see.
        The lesson (what salvation is and how we experience it) comes from Jesus’s life however.

    2. Ted Grimsrud Post author

      I’m sorry I missed your June 17 comment until now, Berry. I’m still trying to figure out Boyd’s understanding of salvation. When I’m done with my chapter by chapter commentary (Lord hasten the day!), I expect to write a few posts where I address the book as a whole. This will certainly be one theme I will address.

      I’d just say now that I think what you suggest is the “main point” of difference—that Jesus’s death was not “necessary”—actually seems to reflect some very deep-seated theological differences. For only one thing, I think the difference is seen in quite disparate emphases on Jesus’s life and teaching. I read Boyd to profoundly minimize the actual content of Jesus’s own message whereas I think his life and teaching are the entire content of his messianic witness. His death (and resurrection—something Boyd also minimizes) do not provide new content but only reiterate and vindicate Jesus’s life and teaching.

  3. Howard Pepper

    Great contribution, Ted! Thanks. Very helpful in both in the analysis and critique of Boyd’s book and in the things you add along the way. I have a couple things to add to the conversation but don’t have time right now, so will come back to do it. But I wanted to give my quick feedback right after finishing reading.

  4. Howard Pepper

    You say, “I believe that the emphasis on the cross in “historic orthodoxy” is problematic from the perspective of a commitment to Christian pacifism. The connection between theologies that affirm a retributive view of God and practices that support human acts of retributive violence provides one reason for taking a critical stance toward theologies that emphasize the cross.” Agreed. Such an emphasis on sacrificial atonement is a problem on many levels, especially when linked with “salvation by faith” and salvation is personal redemption… being reconciled with God.

    There was an important contribution to this issue by Albert Schweitzer that is seemingly almost overlooked (to my relatively limited knowledge). I presume he was “ahead of his time” in terms of additional later movement in the same direction. In a broader, more general way, the contribution was his entire last-written theological work, “The Kingdom of God and Primitive Christianity” (written 1951, published in English in 1968, after his death.) More specifically, in the book, written 45 years after “Quest”, Schweitzer reveals an important change in his thinking on Jesus’ own beliefs which he unfortunately does not give much explanation about. Here is how I’d cited it, with brief intro, in a blog post I’d done years ago on the book:

    “He notes that while writing the various editions of his The Quest… he had believed that Jesus,
    ‘… in accordance with the [Suffering] Servant passages, regarded his vicarious sacrifice as an atonement.  As the result of further study of late Jewish eschatology and the thought of Jesus on his passion, I find that I can no longer endorse this view.’ (p. 128, emphasis mine).” The post, reviewing the book, can be found here:

  5. Tom


    Thanks for taking the time to review things. After reading/rereading and thinking/rethinking through CWG, after all the pushback and subsequent posts by Greg to clarify, while there are clearly good points Greg makes and much that most Christians will want to agree on, core aspects of this project are dead on arrival. I won’t rehearse them here (aren’t you thankful!). But I would like to respond to a couple comments:

    First, you write: “I believe that the emphasis on the cross in ‘historic orthodoxy’ is problematic from the perspective of a commitment to Christian pacifism. The connection between theologies that affirm a retributive view of God and practices that support human acts of retributive violence provides one reason for taking a critical stance toward theologies that emphasize the cross.”

    I agree that theologies which view divine justice as retributive and construct theories of atonement around such an idea are incapable of consistently articulating a nonviolent ethics. I’m with ya there. But what’s the connection you see between such theories and ‘historic orthodoxy’? Who do you have in mind as representative of ‘historic orthodoxy’? It’s well known that the Orthodox reject penal or retributive views. My sense (which I’ve long held but am happy to recently see Darrin Balousek and others advocate) is that Orthodox Christology offers the best hope for a nonviolent ethics.

    Second, you write: “I believe that it would be important for Boyd to show how his approach is different, to show how the mechanics of the cross work for him and how those mechanics are fully consistent with his affirmation of God as nonviolent. How is Jesus’s death salvific? What does it specifically accomplish? In what sense is the cross necessary for God to make salvation available? At this point in my understanding of salvation theology, I don’t see how one can affirm that Jesus’s death is itself salvific, necessary for God to make salvation available, and not also affirm that God’s love is not sufficient. I would like Boyd to address this issue. Hopefully he will before the book is over.”

    Great questions, Ted. I think Greg’s answer to these are in his clarifying post over at ReKnew. He writes:

    “Because of a rebellion in our primordial past combined with our own sin, we are in bondage to ‘the power of Satan’ and ‘the kingdom of darkness’. The entire world system is under the corrupting influence of the powers, which is why Satan is called ‘the god of this age’, the ‘ruler of the world,’ and the one who ‘controls the entire world’. Because of this bondage, our hearts and wills are fundamentally corrupt, to the point that we are ‘slaves’ who are ‘dead in sin’ and who are spiritually blind. In this state, we are fundamentally estranged from God and destined for destruction, which is why the author of Ephesians says we were ‘enemies’ and ‘by nature children of wrath’. This is what God needed to solve through Jesus’ cross-centered life and ministry.”

    He adds:

    “In my view, the cross represents Jesus entering into our self-made death-domain as our representative head…Jesus entered into complete solidarity with our fallen humanity, our bondage to the powers and to sin, our corrupted nature, our spiritual blindness, our shame, guilt and condemnation, our scapegoat mechanism, and the self-inflicted estrangement from God that accompanies all these things. In solidarity with our sin and estrangement from God, and experiencing this from the inside, Jesus cries out, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’”

    There you have it. Jesus entered into complete solidarity with our fallenness, our bondage to the power of sin, our corrupt nature, our spiritual blindness, our guilt and condemnation, our estrangement from God – experiencing it all “from the inside.” I think that’s all the “mechanics” we’re going to get, and I don’t know what sense to make of this at all. On the surface of it, Greg seems to be saying Jesus became spiritually blind, guilty, was condemned, estranged from God, in bondage to sin, etc. What else does “experiencing” these states/realities “from the inside” mean? But since such a view would clearly be heresy, I want to assume Greg means something else. But precisely what I don’t know.

    More clarification:

    “The Father had indeed delivered Jesus over to people whom he knew would turn him into their scapegoat, but the Father had not forsaken Jesus, for this plan was agreed upon all three Persons of the Trinity from the start. Yet, in the physical and mental agony of the moment, Jesus was delirious – somewhat like a delirious woman in labor might blame her pain on her husband, forgetting for a moment that she had nine-months earlier agreed to the plan. Jesus’ cry can be understood to be a testament to the authenticity of his solidarity with us in our God-alienated state.”

    I don’t know what meaning to make of this. Greg wants an “objective” atonement, but in the end what does the saving is not what it objectively the case (Greg admits the Father doesn’t really forsake Jesus) but what is merely “subjectively” the case (Jesus’ own subjective and, in fact, mistaken feelings/perceptions about being abandoned by God).

    I think you’re right, Ted. In an important sense, the Cross is unnecessary. It doesn’t placate divine wrath or redistribute guilt or transfer the consequences of our evil choices from us to Jesus. I’d suggest two things:

    (1) As Girard said, the reason the Cross is necessary is because men ‘would not be reconciled to God without it’. He says that in a sense the Cross is banal; it really is just another innocent victim being scapegoated by religious violence. (Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute?) In addition to that, though…

    (2) God’s love and forgiveness are enough, but they have to be enough FOR US, and that means we have to perceive their truth. How are we to perceive the truth that we are loved unconditionally and forgiven? Given the fallen, scapegoating, violent mess we’re in, exactly how are we to perceive the truth nature of God’s love/forgiveness? In my view that’s what the Cross is about. Only a demonstration of that love and forgiveness in the world of our fabricated lies can expose and disarm those very lies. The love and forgiveness of God (that are enough apart from ‘having’ to suffer) must nevertheless be perceived by us. That’s what the Cross does. It manifests within fallen Creation the depth of the love and forgiveness that have always been the case. There’s no need for suffering per se, but there is need for a revelation of the truth powerful enough to expose the lies that hold our minds captive.

    Sorry for rambling. Dropped in to visit and said too much.

    1. lewispwordpesscom

      That’s it exactly Tom.
      It takes more perversion of thought, intellect and conscience to see the cross in any other way, yet so many people seem wedded to this way of thinking and believe they are being faithful and doing God a service.
      Simply mind-blowing!

    2. Ted Grimsrud Post author

      Thanks for the “visit,” Tom! What you say is encouraging and helpful. I want to spend some time with your discussion of Greg’s views and respond in more detail. Now, quickly, I will simply respond to your first question. By putting quotes around “historic orthodoxy” I mean to convey that I am using Greg’s term. I understand him to mean the western theological tradition as linked with affirmation of the creeds and, since the Reformation, the Protestant Confessions and, more recently, the core doctrinal beliefs of evangelicalism (primarily, North American evangelicalism). That is, it has nothing whatsoever to do with Eastern Orthodoxy except for the common ground concerning the creeds.

      As we know, atonement theology is post-creedal and post-East/West schism. I know that the Eastern tradition does not have the same problems as the post-Anselmian West, especially as the atonement theology evolved toward the penal substitution view and its retributivism. So the Orthodoxy surely does have helpful perspectives to offer concerning salvation. Though I have not done it yet, I know that I would be rewarded by investigating that tradition for guidance in constructing a salvation theology that is not corrupted by retributive ideas.

      At the same time, I was taken aback a few years ago when I spoke at a conference on world religions and peace. I gave the basic Christian pacifist schtick that emphasized the change that came with Constantine. An Orthodox woman approached me afterwards with words of praise, but she also pointed out that Constantine is an Orthodox saint. And there is the long, sad history of Orthodoxy being closely tied with various states. So it would seem likely that there is something missing in their theology that makes them vulnerable to such co-option. But maybe not.

    3. Berry Friesen

      Tom, thank you for bringing up Girard and his conclusion that the cross was “necessary.” I haven’t read Girard, but I’ve read some of his students, including Anthony Bartlett, who refers to Jesus on the cross as a “sign” that has produced “a revolution of incalculable significance . . . really, the only true cultural revolution” (Virtual Christianity at 114). And a bit like you, he says that the “world-changing work of Christ” to be “anthropological rather than metaphysical” (VC at 220).

      You use the word “perception” to explain what the cross changed in human history. It’s a good term but lightweight, a kind of attitude adjustment. In his critique of fundamentalists and liberals, Bartlett says “the scandal (among both) . . . is the failure to take history and humanity with absolute seriousness” (VC at 115). As he explains, we humans construct human meaning; it is our project. And before the cross, human meaning was built around violence and scapegoating. Thus, humanity’s project was humanity’s prison.

      The Apostle Paul spoke of “a new creation” and I think he meant it literally. Jesus on the cross provided the resources to reconstruct human meaning in an entirely new way, a way the continues to unwind and gather momentum yet today.

      Not sure Boyd wants us to go this direction, though, nor Ted. Both continue to emphasize metaphysics.

      1. Tom


        I like the Bartlett quote, “anthropological rather than metaphysical,” though I’m not sure we have to choose one other the other. I mean, what’s metaphysically the case embraces anthropology. But I think sometimes folks think metaphysics is an “out there” science that doesn’t have anything to do with anthropology (in terms of identity formation, questions of freedom, aesthetic perception, meaning-making, etc.). For me (and I have to admit some influence from Hartshorne and Process thought here, though I’m definitely not a Process theist), the job of metaphysics is precisely to explain such things. So by “perception” I mean something more heavy-weight, like what you describe as ‘(re)constructing meaning’ (what I like to call ‘meaning-making’). Our ‘meaning-making’ capacities (the whole range of our higher conscious and aptitude for rational-aesthetic perception – what I take the function of the human ‘spirit’ to be) dispose of themselves narratively; i.e., we experience ourselves and the world in terms of weaving together beliefs and convictions in a coherent story, and that story is the meaning of our life. That’s meaning-making capacity is ‘where’ the work of salvation is done, as far as I can tell. That’s why I’m OK with a ‘subjective’ atonement. I’m not quite sure what Greg’s ‘objective’ atonement even gets at, since in my view ‘subjectivity’ is ultimately what is ‘objectively’ true. Sorry if I’m sounding too far out there.


    4. Ted Grimsrud Post author

      Thanks, again, Tom. Your added comments from Boyd are helpful, if only to confirm my sense that his argument is not all that coherent. He seems to me to combine a quite negative view of humanity with a quite positive view of the almost overwhelming power of his personal devil. He doesn’t want the penal substitution atonement but I think he’s left with a kind of mystification about the cross—he knows it is world-changing, but he doesn’t really have much evidence to support that knowledge if he leaves out satisfying God’s need for a punitive sacrifice. So his crucicentrism rings a bit hollow.

      I love his emphasis on God’s character as self-sacrificial love that he sees revealed in the cross and as always present in the true God. I’m just not that persuaded by his way of explicating that insight.

      I like your thoughts on the cross’s “necessity,” though it seems like a rather weak necessity. I’d think your argument there actually makes Jesus’s resurrection more necessary. Isn’t that what would confirm the truth of his embodiment of God’s love more than simply his being executed by the Romans like so many others? I certainly agree with you and Girard that whatever point there is in the cross it has to do with helping humanity to perceive God’s love and forgiveness as already present.

      What I want to argue, though, is that the message of God’s love was already radically present in Jesus’s religious tradition. This is why we see Judaism continue as a vital faith after the Temple was destroyed and the surviving Palestinian Jews were driven out the “Holy Land.” And, in fact, the track record of Judaism for most of the past 2,000 years as a healing presence in the world does not look too bad compared to Christianity’s.

      1. Tom


        You have a great sense of where Greg hits the nail on the head (God’s loving character as quintessentially revealed in the Cross) and where he’s swinging at the air.

        I agree on the absolute importance of the resurrection too. Actually I think it’s all for naught without the resurrection, and that we can’t even begin to interpret the Cross as the sort of demonstration of love we require apart from the resurrection. We’d never know that the Cross ‘means’ God loves and forgives us unconditionally and that the threat of death and finitude that generates the fear which drives us to despair and violence (cf. Heb 2.15: “…and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” – there it is!). If “death” isn’t exposed and no longer a threat to the permanence and life we long for (and sinfully try to grasp a hold of), the “fear” that Heb 2.15 describes will always hold us in slavery and drive us to repeat the same insane and violent patterns of behavior. When the crucified one rises from the dead, THEN we’re forced to conclude his life and message are vindicated by God (i.e., from a power ‘outside’ the screwed-up matrix of lies and violence). Once that matrix is exposed, we have a new source from which to, as Berry says, “reconstruct our meaning.”

        I might be way off – but the meaning-making power of construing the Gospel in such terms demonstrates itself. Five years of sharing the Gospel in these terms within the Recovery community have demonstrated its transforming power. I could never tell someone in Recovery (whether someone who was abandoned by their parents, abused by someone they trust, or betrayed – all the pain that we learn to medicate with drugs) that they’re saved now because “God abandoned Jesus” (even if I qualify it per Greg’s post by saying the Father didn’t ‘really’ abandon Jesus – Jesus was only “delirious” on the Cross and temporarily lost his mind, but that this moment of despairing falsehood that defined his truest suffering is the suffering that saves us). God help us.

        Sorry to rant.

        I really like the idea that Judaism did succeed at preserving a sufficiently benevolent view of God. I think we have to assume there is enough truth in Judaism’s traditions to account for Jesus’ own sense of identity and mission.


      2. lewispwordpesscom

        All you guys, this discussion is excellent.
        I absolutely agree; Jesus’s incarnation, life, cross and resurrection allows us to perceive God, ourselves and the world, giving meaning in a way that nothing else can. The resurrection “proves” this reality.
        Why are so little of these thoughts exercising the vast majority of church???

  6. Tom

    Ted: By putting quotes around “historic orthodoxy” I mean to convey that I am using Greg’s term.

    Tom: Ah, I didn’t see that. Right. My bad.

    Ted: And there is the long, sad history of Orthodoxy being closely tied with various states. So it would seem likely that there is something missing in their theology that makes them vulnerable to such co-option.

    Tom: I’m suspicious of that same thing. One Orthodox writer (DBH) has recognized the perverting tendency of political power in Orthodox history. I’m not sure what particular Eastern doctrine (if any) he links that tendency to. It’s interesting that the same corrupting tendency is at work in American, Evangelical Christianity who have a very little theologically in common with the Orthodox, especially a very different Christology/Ecclesiology. That would be a fun discussion to have with the Orthodox.

    1. Howard Pepper

      Interesting exchange between you and Ted. I don’t know a lot about general Eastern Orthodoxy nor about Russian O. in particular. Comparisons re. “empire” co-option, etc. I do think are of importance, especially if we make applications toward countering the tendencies in the US currently. Or at least in our own circles of influence.

      Just yesterday, I was listening to a good lecture series on European history. It was mentioned that Russia (while linked with Orthodoxy), for at least a period after the Reformation, was more religiously tolerant than most of Europe. I don’t know much of the details, but from the professor’s remarks and Wikipedia, gather it was largely for pragmatic reasons: They’d admitted ethnic minorities and were somewhat dependent on their economic production (funny how THAT moderates theologies often, at least among gov’t leaders!).

      A family history tie-in appears there for me, maybe of interest to Mennonites generally…. One of those minorities were Dutch-German Mennonites. In my case, I remember my mother relating that her family line had migrated to Prussia prior to then moving, again (to avoid conscription), to Georgia/Russia. I’m not sure the exact dates they then left Georgia, but around 1875-79. Many of them, including my ancestors, settled in the Hillsboro and Newton, Kansas area, starting to farm the hard red winter wheat they brought with them from Georgia.

      In a very general way, my sense has been that Orthodoxy within Russia, with certain exceptional periods and regions such as toward the productive and fairly large Mennonite groups, was not very tolerant or “ecumenical/inclusive”. Thus, despite 70+ years of official atheism, it was mainly Russian Orthodoxy which sprang back fairly strongly after 1991. My relatively uninformed sense is that most other church groups have not had much growth despite serious evangelistic efforts by many Evangelicals, especially soon after the Union’s fall. Anyone have insights, especially relative to the theological issues in question?

  7. Tom

    I said: “…that the threat of death and finitude that generates the fear which drives us to despair and violence (cf. Heb 2.15: ‘…and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” – there it is!)’.” That’s not a complete sentence. Shoulda finished it: …that the threat of death and finitude…”is disarmed” or something like that. Kinda garbled.

    1. Ted Grimsrud Post author

      You make a good point that I haven’t thought about enough, Tom—the dynamics of the “threat of death and finitude.” I read Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death years ago and liked it, but never did the work to integrate his insights with the NT emphases you speak of.

      I have focused more on the specific kinds of Powers that use this threat to enhance the Domination System (the state, organized religion, capitalism, et al).

      I do think it’s important to try to hold together these two sets of dynamics—”death” and the Powers that use “death.”

      1. Tom

        Yep. 2Cor 10 (first paragraph I think) shows how the ‘powers’ retain their influence over us, it’s through “stronghold,” “arguments,” “pretensions” that set themselves up against the knowledge of God. That looks like he’s describing the meaning-making capacities (our perceptions, beliefs, convictions, emotions that form the narratives we tell ourselves about the meaning and purpose of life).

  8. Tom

    Another thought, Ted, about your wanting to affirm a good deal of the truth of the OT’s view of God. Like I said, the Hebrew Scriptures were ‘a’ huge source of spiritual formation for Jesus. He developed over time like any other human being. We don’t think through the implications of that.

    I’d like to ask Greg –

    If Jesus is the one, perfectly instantiated nonviolent love (and I agree he is), and there was no Cross from which Jesus read the OT (there couldn’t have been), then Jesus couldn’t have read the OT in the sense Greg believes we ought to read it, then FROM WHAT CENTER did Jesus read the Bible? If couldn’t have been the cruciform center Greg proposes. So what tradition or reading of the OT informed Jesus’ emerging sense of identity and mission?

    Now, Greg might say Jesus just WAS the living, walking, breathing incarnation of the cruciform love of God. True. But that begs the question entirely. Jesus derived his identity and sense of mission (his view of God!) to a very significant extent from the OT. That’s all he had. And the “Cross” per se couldn’t have been the thematic center in which his emerging identity engaged the OT. During the most crucial years, when he was young, it’s not likely that he had a fully formed belief that he’d be crucified. And yet Jesus became the loving person he became with JUST the OT (No Cross and no NT). So what WAS his hermeneutical center and why don’t we try to find THAT center and make it OUR center instead of something else?

    See what I mean?

    1. Ted Grimsrud Post author

      That is excellent, Tom. You articulate here very clearly the kind of thing I have been thinking. I do think it’s an good challenge to Greg. I wish he would say, “yes, that’s a good point and I hadn’t really thought of that before.” Is he the kind of person that could respond that way?

      To deepen your point about Jesus, I’d add that he actively forgave sins apart from the temple, implying that he understood God’s willingness and ability to forgive and transform lives to be sufficiently present before his death.

      I would want to say that much of what Greg sees as being present in the cross (God’s self-sacrificial, non-coercive love) was already understood in the tradition. I think we’d be better off, including better able to deal with the violent portraits of God, if we looked more within the OT story for the same expressions of love we see in the cross and did not try so much to “get behind” the story the way Greg does.

      1. Tom

        Totally agree. The whole life of Jesus is an act of redemption. And Girard actually argues that the OT is unique in that it manages (not always perfectly, but you see the self-critique ongoing in the texts in a way unlike other religious traditions) to expose scapegoating violence as unlike God. Sometimes the text takes the victim’s point of view, sometimes God’s, etc.

      2. Howard Pepper

        Ted, excellent points, especially this:
        “To deepen your point about Jesus, I’d add that he actively forgave sins apart from the temple, implying that he understood God’s willingness and ability to forgive and transform lives to be sufficiently present before his death.” I’ve long felt it very significant that Jesus was calling for difficult acts of forgiveness WITHOUT saying anything about his impending death making it possible – that it would become possible THEN; or that one would have to have faith in that “sacrificial atonement”, etc.

        I’ll also remind us that the vital context for Jesus’ teachings and self-understanding was the long prophetic tradition, particularly around the Kingdom of God. Our OT tracing of love, non-violence, inclusion has to be seen in that context and the concept of messiah… a man expected to be “supernatural”, in one sense, but certainly NOT deity (and Jesus certainly agreed with this… again I’d reference the strong, helpful last work by Schweitzer on this).

      3. Ted Grimsrud Post author

        I agree, Tom, that Girard does give the OT important props (more than Greg seems to). Wink follows him on that point. I still think that both of them present the OT too much as a problem. But clearly, as on most other issues in this discussion, Girard is on the side of the angels….

      4. Ted Grimsrud Post author

        Thanks, Howard. You are making me want to track down Schweitzer’s book!

        I certainly agree about the prophetic tradition Jesus drew on. Abraham Heschel’s great book, The Prophets, shows how it is possible for a Jew to read the prophets in this way without any reference to Jesus.

    2. Berry Friesen

      I expect Greg would say 2nd Isaiah. Wouldn’t you agree? That’s where we first find this “crazy” notion that self-giving love will change the world. The Gospel of John quotes Jesus as saying, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (3:14). “Must?” I know, that’s what’s in question here. As I see it, because what Jesus did on the cross uses the way the world works to change how the world works. As we say in If Not Empire, “for the world to be saved, the innocent must be willing to suffer while trusting YHWH for what happens next” (243).

  9. Pingback: Boyd Defends His “Cross Thesis” [CWG chapter six] | Peace Theology

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