Boyd Defends His “Cross Thesis” [CWG chapter six]

Ted Grimsrud—June 22, 2017

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

Arguments against seeing the cross as central

In chapter six, “Is the Centrality of the Cross Thesis Defensible?” (pages 229–77), Boyd responds to what he sees as the two main objections to his argument about the centrality of the cross both for Jesus’s mission and for the overall message of the Bible. These objections are: (1) that early Christianity did not see the cross as central as evidenced by the lack of the use of the cross as a symbol in Christian art during Christianity’s first four centuries and (2) that not very many theologians in Christian history have recognized the centrality of the cross. Since these aren’t the main questions I have about Boyd’s cross thesis, I read through this chapter fairly quickly. It did raise a few issues for me, though.

A question I do have is whether the main problem with Boyd’s thesis is with regard to how he interprets the New Testament, not whether he’s consistent with understandings of the cross in the history of Christianity. As a pacifist, I am used to having convictions that most Christians don’t have. That early Christian art or that Christian theologians over the past 2,000 years would not share Boyd’s view of the centrality of the cross is not necessarily evidence against Boyd’s argument in my mind.

My question is simply whether Boyd is correct in seeming to understand the main referent in New Testament cross language to be simply to Jesus’s death. Is it not possible that “the cross” and related images more often allude to Jesus’s life, a life that resulted in his being executed by the Romans? A significant point if we think of the cross more broadly would be that along with Boyd’s important emphasis on the cross as conveying a message of Jesus’s self-giving love, it would also convey of message of Jesus’s practice of forgiveness apart from sacrifice, of Jesus’s political radicalism that led Rome to crucify him as a rebel, and of Jesus’s continuity with the OT prophets and his embrace of a prophetic understanding of Torah. If the cross is seen as a symbol of the entirety of Jesus’s ministry, we may make more sense of Jesus’s oft repeated call to his followers to take up the cross in imitation of his life of service, resistance, and courage. As I have mentioned before, I do not mean to suggest that Boyd would necessarily disagree with my comments here about imitating Jesus’s life—but this kind of language is rarely a part of his discussion of the cross.

The NT text I am most familiar with, the book of Revelation, illustrates my point here. Revelation does not speak of the cross overtly very often, but it does commonly use the term “blood,” which I imagine most readers would understand essentially to be a synonym with cross. When Revelation mentions “blood,” we could generally substitute the term “cross.” I believe, though, that Revelation uses the image of blood not to refer to Jesus’s death per se. Rather, blood has to do with the entirety of Jesus’s ministry, with the emphasis on the life he lived. Because this life involved resistance to the political and religious structures, it led to bloody responses. And Jesus did not swerve from his commitment to a life of love and healing even in the face of those responses. So, the message Revelation gives us about Jesus’s cross is a call to discipleship.

The crucicentrism of the Christian tradition

Part of Boyd’s response to the suggestion that his “crucicentrism” (i.e., making the cross central to his theology and reading of the Bible) is weakened by the supposed paucity of theologians in the history of the tradition who shared that view is to show that the cross actually has played a major role in a great deal of Christian theology. “The crucicentric orientation of this present work and its application as a hermeneutical principle is anything but novel in church history.” However, I am not convinced that this point is very persuasive. He goes on, “The only novel element in my approach—and even this has precedent in the pre-Constantinian church—is that I will be applying this crucicentric hermeneutic to the OT’s violent portraits of God.” (259)

I question whether the effort to apply crucicentrism to the OT violent portraits of God is as peripheral to the tradition’s understanding of the cross as Boyd seems to imply. One of the main reasons, I suggest, that theologians such as Calvin and Luther—and many 20th century Western evangelical theologians—did not apply their crucicentrism to the OT violent portraits of God is due to their anti-pacifism. That is, they lacked the core motivation of Boyd’s project. And I don’t believe that that anti-pacifism is incidental. In fact, I would guess that the anti-pacifism qualitatively changes the very meaning of crucicentrism. I am troubled by some of the emphases in Boyd’s crucicentrism, as I point out in these posts, but I do affirm that he strongly links his affirmation of the nonviolence of God (along with his resultant pacifism) with his understanding of crucicentrism. Whatever crucicentrism might have meant for, say, Luther, it was not linked with a nonviolent God or pacifism. That seems like a pretty fundamental difference.

So, I think Boyd should be much more critical of “historic orthodoxy” with regard to every element of theology, most centrally the elements that are central to his argument in this book about God, Christians, and violence. I think he should explicitly distance himself from the kind of crucicentrism that he sees in the tradition and be more radical in reconceptualizing his own understanding of the cross.

Boyd does have a brief but interesting discussion about the Anabaptists in the midst of his larger discussion about crucicentrism and the Christian theological tradition. For the Anabaptists, “because the cross tended to be viewed as the thematic center of everything Jesus was about, and because they stressed, in an unprecedented way, the call for believers to follow Jesus’s self-sacrificial example, the Anabaptists alone grasped the NT revelation that the cross is the thematic center of everything Jesus’s followers are supposed to be about. Which is to say, they grasped that the nonviolent, self-sacrificial, enemy-embracing love of God that Jesus displayed throughout his ministry, and especially in his death on the cross, is the same love disciples are called to display as we imitate him.” (255)

I’d suggest, contrary to Boyd’s intimation that the differences between the Anabaptists and the mainstream of “historic orthodoxy” are relatively minor, that the death-dealing hostility of the magisterial Reformers toward the Anabaptists in the 16th century show that we actually are talking about qualitatively different theologies. It is precisely the Anabaptists’ unique emphasis on “the call for believers to follow Jesus’s self-sacrificial example” that indicates that their theology in all its facets was something quite different. That sense of call shaped how they interpreted every other doctrine. Boyd indicates here that he shares the Anabaptist concern to make Jesus life and teaching central, and that that life and teaching is of a whole with the meaning of the cross. However, as I have been pointing out, Boyd’s actual use of the cross in his theology rarely makes this connection explicit and thus tends more to seem to be a theology about death than about life. I suspect part of the problem is that Boyd continues to think in terms of the evangelical theology that in fact does not link the cross with Jesus’s life and teaching in a way that makes the cross part of Jesus’s pacifist witness and theology.

Church tradition

So, Boyd does not actually see the “crucicentrism” of Calvin, Luther, and more recent evangelical theologians as itself much of a problem. I would tend to disagree, in part simply because it is difficult to see how any theological theme that is so important for anti-pacifist theologians can help but be problematic. In saying this, I am not thinking of “pacifism” as a political ideology or as simply a choice not to participate in war. Rather, I am thinking of “pacifism” as a shorthand way of referring to Jesus’s life and teaching that place at the center of faith the love of God and neighbor (reflecting the teaching of Luke 10:25-37 which defined “neighbor” broadly enough to include enemies). An anti-pacifist theologian by definition, I would say, has a different view of God, Jesus, and neighbor than Luke gives us.

Boyd actually seems to argue in this chapter that the presence of crucicentrism in the tradition supports his argument for a crucicentrism that strongly upholds a pacifist view of God and Christian living. He seems to say that the magisterial Reformation and more recent evangelical theologies are essentially sound in their crucicentrism. They just have this one (seemingly relatively small) problem of not applying crucicentricity to interpreting the OT violent portraits of God—a problem Boyd is correcting with this book (259).

Boyd believes that it is important to see his argument as being in continuity with “church tradition,” even though he voices criticism of the mainstream church’s rejection of pacifism. If we were to create a spectrum between, (1) on the one pole thinking continuity with church tradition is extremely important and (2) on the other pole thinking such continuity is not important at all, Boyd would likely tilt toward #1 and I would tilt toward #2, though we would both likely be toward the center of the spectrum.

I believe that for Christian pacifism in general, the mainstream Christian tradition has to be overcome, not treated as basically sound and tweaked a bit to add pacifism to the set of core doctrines we all can agree on. The tradition has been so uniform in its rejection of pacifism (with only a few, quite rare exceptions until very recently) that it is not to be seen as a trustworthy source for any theological conviction. To a large extent, I believe, present day Christians who want to embody the way of Jesus are faced with a choice between the biblical message and the tradition. And should elements of the tradition be affirmed, it would be because they are shown to be compatible with the message of Jesus, not simply because they are part of the tradition.

Again, what is “the cross”?

As has been the case with previous chapters, I ask again in this chapter for clarity about what the cross actually means for Boyd and how it works. He insists “the cross is the definitive revelation of God’s power precisely because it is the definitive revelation of his love.” (271) As I have commented before, I think this is a good statement, but so much depends on what we mean by “the cross.” How does it reveal God’s love? How does it reveal God’s power?

In this chapter, Boyd seems to conflate anti-pacifist theologians (e.g., Luther, more recent evangelicals) with thoroughly pacifist theologians (e.g., the early church, the Anabaptists) with the implication that they are essentially saying the same thing about the cross. I am doubtful whether these are compatible views. It’s hard to evaluate Boyd’s implications, though, because he still has not unpacked what he means by “the cross.” I tend to suspect that the more that is said about the cross, the more clear it would be that the pacifist and the anti-pacifist theologians have fundamentally different theologies on this theme.

It could be, as I have suggested before, that since Boyd does not emphasize the OT story nor Jesus’s own teaching and practice with regard to salvation in his discussion of the cross, that Boyd does still see the killing of Jesus as itself inherently salvific (though without saying how). If so, he remains in the Luther/evangelical camp and his efforts to use the cross as the basis for his pacifism and his refutation of the anti-pacifist lessons others draw from the violent OT portraits of God are less likely to be successful.

Jesus and the OT

Finally, in reading this chapter I was again pushed to reflect on how we should be thinking about the OT in general. I had the thought that we could apply that old “religion about Jesus” and “religion of Jesus” distinction.

If we think in terms of the religion about Jesus, we would tend to look at the OT mostly as material that has its meaning and significance as a preparatory story. We will be more likely to read the OT predictively or “christologically,” and filter it through Christian doctrine. There are various versions of this kind of approach; some try harder than others to understand the OT accurately. But for all of them, the OT is not taken that seriously as having inherent value. And, for example, Torah is understood mainly in negative terms and as something that Jesus overcomes. So far, I perceive Boyd to be in this camp, by and large (which is not to say that he does not take the OT seriously and at times have perceptive interpretations of specific texts—but the emphasis is still mainly on the OT as a problem and having value mostly as setting us up for the definitive revelation in Jesus).

If we think in terms of the religion of Jesus, we would have a much more positive view of the OT on its own terms. The OT would be seen less in terms of predicting Jesus and more in terms of shaping Jesus. Jesus obviously practiced self-sacrificial, nonviolent love and understood God in those terms before the cross. In this approach, we would assume that those convictions came from Jesus’s religious tradition and we would read the OT expecting to find them there.

The next post in the series may be found here

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

2 thoughts on “Boyd Defends His “Cross Thesis” [CWG chapter six]

  1. Howard Pepper

    Good points, Ted, and well “to the point”!
    I find this that you said particularly important: “I believe that for Christian pacifism in general, the mainstream Christian tradition has to be overcome, not treated as basically sound and tweaked a bit to add pacifism to the set of core doctrines we all can agree on.”

    I think there is little question that most of “Christian tradition” orients mainly around “the cross”, including its predominant current form. This shows in the teaching of the majority of churches, especially Evangelical, Reformed, Baptist, Lutheran, RC, etc. and I’ve read it directly stated by some leading conservative theologians. (Exceptions would be some of the progressive branches within those named, and others. “My” United Church of Christ is probably split and/or confused on this issue, somewhat by region, though not fully.) And I agree that “substitutionary atonement” and its implications for God and the mission of Jesus tends to lead more toward willingness to go to war than toward active alternatives and pursuing them doggedly. This distorted (wrong) doctrine is also emotionally unhealthy for many, many people, and tends to stunt growth.

    Not having read Boyd much, your analysis supports what I’d surmise: that he is primarily traditional and not able/willing to work out consistently a system that might force him into a break from most within his tradition, his “tribe”. Or it might be more inward resistance for any number of reasons. I think Clark Pinnock (now deceased) was in a similar position years ago in relation to “Open Theology”. And Peter Enns currently.

    Now… a couple more suggestions, maybe more important than Schweitzer: I am eager to get back to and finish “Process Theology and the Old Testament” by Robert Gnuse. I don’t know yet fully just how he deals with non-violence and the implications of it for current Christians, but I’ve been very impressed with the first couple chapters and glancing ahead some. A good summary on the development of Process thought and its key proponents in one chapter.

    Perhaps the most thorough analysis and compilation of works on “Penal Substitutionary Atonement” theory, at least that I know of, was done by an OT scholar, also now deceased too young (about 53 I think), Ken Pulliam, on his blog, “”. Many posts, and he has them pretty well indexed. He was working on a book on the subject when he died suddenly of a heart attack. Anyone seeking history, analysis, etc., of the issue should definitely check out the blog.

  2. Pingback: Boyd’s account of God-related violence in the OT [CWG chapter seven] | Peace Theology

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