Ted Grimsrud—July 7, 2017
[This is the ninth 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 eighth post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]
Three possible “solutions”
In chapter eight, “Wrestling with Yahweh’s Violence, Part I: The Dismissal Solution,” (pages 335-78), Boyd examines various approaches Christians have taken to resolve the challenges of understanding the violent portraits. He suggests three main options: (1) “The Dismissal Solution,” which is simply to dismiss the OT as an authority for Christians, in part due to the truthfulness of Jesus’ peaceable message; (2) “The Synthesis Solution,” the consensus approach since the 5th century, which is to accept that the “God-breathed” character of scripture requires accepting the violent portraits of God in the OT at face value in spite of Jesus’s message with the tension resolved by appeal to “the mysterious transcendence of God;” and (3) “The Reinterpretation Solution,” which is to accept the truthfulness of both the OT and the message of Jesus, but to reinterpret the OT so as to see it as consistent with the message of Jesus. (p. 336)
Boyd will argue for the third option. He will go to great lengths in the rest of the book to make the case for an reinterpreting approach where he argues that below the surface message of a violent God in many OT texts, “something else is going on” that ultimately affirms the message of a nonviolent God found in the story of the cross of Christ.
A different kind of approach
In my interaction with Boyd’s argument in the pages to come, I will make the case for a different kind of approach than any of these three. I find all three to be inadequate, including Boyd’s reinterpretation solution. Each of these approaches as described by Boyd misses the centrality to the OT when read as a whole of what my OT teacher Millard Lind called “theo-politics.” The politics of God as presented in the OT are best understood, in my view, by reading the OT as a whole and paying special attention to its Big Story.
The problem that Boyd’s three “solutions” all share is that they focus on discrete passages at least somewhat in isolation from the place each passage has in a bigger story with its theo-political emphasis. I will also argue that the politics of God as presented in the OT are pacifist politics, ultimately—and, the politics of God as presented in the OT are in close continuity with the politics of Jesus. And, I should add, by “politics” I don’t mean the partisan, state-focused politics that Boyd seems to understand politics to mean. Rather, I mean the broad sense of how human beings order our social lives, with the understanding that our social and spiritual lives are by definition part of one whole—so we cannot accurately talk of a separation between spiritual/religious life and political life.
What’s the “problem”?
In thinking about the relationship between the OT and NT, I suggest it is most helpful to recognize that for the NT there is no “problem with the OT” when it comes to understanding the relationship between the message of the Jesus and the OT stories and teachings. Jesus himself, the gospel writers, Paul, John who wrote Revelation, and the rest of the writers none seem to think there is a problem with reconciling the God of the OT with the life and teaching of Jesus, who they understood to be God’s Son.
If there is a “problem” or a tension within the Bible, it is not a tension between the OT God and the NT God, nor a tension between “Judaism” and Christianity.” In the Bible, these are unknown distinctions. If we do have a “problem” within the Bible it is between two competing notions of God’s politics—what we could call the prophetic consciousness versus the royal consciousness. This is a problem internal to the OT (as well, perhaps to some degree, internal to the NT); it is problem internal to the Hebrew tradition. We could say that the issue then is whether the violent portraits (and other writings and characters who operate, to some degree at least, within the royal consciousness) can be understood as in some sense being compatible with the peaceable message of the prophets (which culminates with the message of Jesus). The Bible itself seems to assume a “yes” to this question as we see, for example, in the lack of concern about this “problem” in the thoroughly pacifist witness of Jesus, Paul, and John who wrote Revelation.
The “problem” of OT violent portraits of God actually becomes a genuine problem only in the evolution of Christianity. By the 4th century, Christian leaders had embraced the idea of a “Christian” Roman Empire and a “Christian” emperor. By the 4th century, Christian leaders had turned theology in a creedal direction with the consequence that the growing schism between Christianity and rabbinic Judaism became permanent and unbridgeable and that the life and teaching of Jesus became marginal to Christian confessions and theological boundary maintenance. These moves meant that the prophetic consciousness no longer defined Christian self-understanding—with the direct consequence that Christians no longer embraced pacifism.
So, it appears that only after the engagement in war became normative for Christians did the violent portraits of God in the OT come to be seen as a “problem” in relation to Jesus’s peaceable message. That is, those violent portraits did not undermine Christian pacifism. First, Christian pacifism was rejected; only then did theologians beginning with Augustine begin regularly to cite OT violence in support of Christian warism.
The Jewish-Christian schism led to Christians positing a key theological break between the OT and the NT. Ironically, that break was not due to the presence of violent portraits of God in the OT (thinkers such as Augustine welcomed those portraits). Rather it was due to a belief in a totally new economy of salvation centered in belief in Christ as the prerequisite for knowing God, as articulated in a formal (and enforceable) way with the creeds. This belief solidified the schism and drastically marginalized the OT prophetic message that Jesus embodied. And Christian warism became the consensus stance.
Boyd does voice criticisms of many of the historical and theological developments that moved Christianity away from the pacifism of the early church. However, I do not think his critique is nearly radical enough. And Boyd’s critique is weakened by his acceptance of the idea of Christianity ultimately being in crucial ways different and truer than Judaism and of the idea that the OT is mostly a problem (this idea contributes to his mostly ignoring the prophetic message of the OT as part of how he resolves his “conundrum”).
Lack of clarity about “dismissal solution”
Boyd’s discussion of the “dismissal solution,” especially when he links it with specific writers, seems fairly unclear to me. When he initially defines this approach, he evokes the arch-heretic of the early Christian movement, Marcion (pp. 337-9). It seems to me to be almost always problematic when contemporary people refer to Marcion, because we know so little about him and his writing, and what we do know comes from his enemies. “Marcion,” then, works as a kind of vague short hand that adds a negative emotional dynamic to opposing more recent thinkers.
Sure enough, under the sub-heading, “The ongoing legacy of Marcion” (pp. 340-4), Boyd critiques several recent writers (such as Eric Seibert, Peter Enns, Derek Flood, and J. Denny Weaver). It goes without saying that none of these writers, each of which would affirm that the OT in general is revelatory and authoritative for Christian theology, would be happy with being discussed under the rubric of “the ongoing legacy of Marcion.” In this section, Boyd does state “I want to be perfectly clear that I am not suggesting that any of the Christian scholars I have mentioned could be by any stretch of the imagination be accused of ‘Marcionism’” (p. 343). I’m glad he wrote that sentence, but that makes it seem pretty careless that Boyd nonetheless discusses them under the rubric of Marcion’s legacy.
After reading this discussion, I still feel that I do not understand precisely what Boyd is getting at. It initially appears that he is saying that accepting the inspiration of the Bible requires accepting the historical veracity of, say, Joshua. The problem with the writers he critiques would then be that they explicitly assert that the story of the Conquest is not historically accurate. I would challenge Boyd if this is what he means. I think that the historical veracity of a biblical story should be determined on the basis of whatever evidence we have, not on a certain definition of what the inspiration of the Bible demands we believe.
As I have read further in CWG, I have sensed that it is not the literal historical veracity that matters so much to Boyd but the Bible’s “theological truthfulness”—I am not quite sure yet what that might mean. I suspect that Boyd never will explain how Seibert, Enns, Flood, and Weaver actually “dismiss” the “theological truthfulness” of the OT portraits. As far as I know, they each would agree that, say, the Joshua story is important for our work of discerning theological truth (I was in an online discussion that Flood was part of recently, and he denied that he “dismisses” the theological truth of the Joshua stories). So, though Boyd asserts that there is a major gulf between his approach and those of these other writers, I am not clear precisely what that “gulf” actually is.
In my view, the notion of “inspiration” or “God-breathed” may appropriately be applied to the OT as a whole (likewise to the NT). I’d say the Big Story, when all the books of the OT are read together, has a message and a characteristic of truthfulness that is more than the sum of the individual stories and books. So, I would not “dismiss” the violent portraits even as I would at the same time not look to any of these stories in isolation as revelatory. The violent portraits need to be taken seriously and wrestled with and understood as a necessary part of our understanding the God of the Bible.
Historical veracity and inspiration
On pp. 351-2, Boyd actually seems to argue for something similar to what I think about historical veracity: “Scripture’s ‘God-breathed’ authority remains intact even if one concludes that certain ‘historical’ narratives fail to align with ‘actual history’ (which, we must remember, is always someone’s imaginative reconstruction of ‘what actually happened’).” Apparently the “dismissal” that a scholar such as Eric Seibert is guilty of is not the same as denying historical veracity. But the difference between those two’s moves is not clear to me. I am glad for Boyd’s nuanced view of historicity, but then I don’t understand his antipathy towards Seibert’s approach (including discussing Seibert as part of Marcion’s legacy). And, I suspect that many evangelicals who criticize Seibert for not accepting the historical veracity of the OT violent portraits will also criticize Boyd for what seems to them to be a similar problem. I also suspect many evangelicals will have a hard time seeing how Boyd’s approach to those portraits is compatible with standard evangelical understandings of biblical inspiration and infallibility.
What Boyd actually says is that the problem with the “dismissers” is that they believe they have solved “the problem posed by violent depictions of God in Scripture when they believe they have demonstrated that the narratives containing these portraits are not historically reliable.” (367) That is, the problem is not denying the historical veracity but thinking that such a denial resolves the issue.
So, Boyd seems to say that “inspiration” means that each part of the Bible is “theologically” true, not historically true (though he does tend to affirm quite a bit of historical veracity). This seems to me to be a complicated point. In my view, to I conclude that, say, the Joshua stories are not historically reliable, is a way to recognize that God is not responsible for what is presented as divinely initiated violence in those stories. Then the question is why the writers told the (fictional) stories in the way they did, not why God actually did the things the stories describe. The Joshua stories then become a totally different order of problem—and one that is not nearly so serious.
I guess that for Boyd, though, his doctrine of biblical inspiration requires him to associate God much more closely to the text. He does at times even allude to the Bible as in some sense coming straight from God. Thus, it seems, that God, in Boyd’s understanding, could be content with a story that is not historically accurate (God wearing a “literary mask”), but God could not be content with a story that gives a wrong theological idea about God. I’m not sure this makes much sense.
I tend to think that we should take all the stories in the OT seriously, including the violent portraits. We should ask why the various stories were recorded and how they fit in the Big Story, which ultimately is a story of God’s shalom and healing mercy. Processing this “why” question, though, is simply about discerning the evidence about the content and historical veracity of the stories—not about defending the Bible’s “infallibility” or linking “inspiration” with “theological” truth. The content simply is what it is. If we do think in some sense the Bible is “God-breathed,” it would seem that respecting the authority of the Bible should require us to define God-breathed in relation to the Bible itself not our own humanly-constructed doctrines (which is what I fear that Boyd at times does).
I do affirm the truthfulness of the Bible on the level of the Big Story. I am willing to say that the Bible is “inspired”—but only on the level of the Big Story. I would not want to say that each passage is inspired or even that each passage on its own in isolation from the Big Story is necessarily truthful. I believe that we have to read the Bible as a human book if we are to do it justice. If it is truthful and inspired, it is such in the form in which it comes to us. To import a doctrinal commitment to “infallibility” that undermines a straightforward, evidence-oriented reading seems problematic. So, as I will discuss more in the pages to come, I think if we discern that the Joshua stories are not historically accurate and that a straightforward reading indicates that the stories do not give us a truthful picture of what God is like, we should simply accept that conclusion and adapt our understanding of inspiration to the data. It strikes me that Boyd’s complicated effort to “get behind” the straightforward Joshua materials and discern “what is really happening” could be a problematic attempt to retain the “biblical inspiration” side of his “conundrum” in a way that actually undermines the persuasiveness of his nonviolent reading of the character of God and of the Bible.