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.