Boyd’s critique of the “synthesis solution” [CWG chapter nine]

Ted Grimsrud—July 13, 2017

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

The “synthesis solution”

In chapter nine, “Wrestling with Yahweh’s Violence, Part 2: The Synthesis Solution,” (pages 379-414), Boyd critiques and rejects what he sees as the most common view in Christian history concerning the violent portraits of God in the OT. He calls this the “synthesis solution” because it solves the apparent tension between how God is presented in much of the OT and how God is presented in the story of Jesus by positing a “synthesis” where “the OT’s violent portraits of God must be accepted as accurate revelations alongside of Christ” (p. 379).

Boyd writes, “the church’s major theologians over the last sixteen hundred years” have believed that “the only logical alternative to dismissing or reinterpreting violent divine portraits in the light of the revelation of God in the crucified Christ is to synthesize these portraits with this revelation.” For most, this “synthesis” meant defending the violent portraits as truthful about the character of God with the consequence that Jesus’s message of nonviolence has been marginalized, and most Christians have concluded that God affirms their going to war when called upon to do so.

In his critique of the synthesis solution, Boyd focuses on four ways the violent depictions of God have been defended. [1] “We fallen humans are in no position to question God’s actions. In this view, the transcendent and all-holy God is not subject to our fallen ethical intentions…. We must simply accept that everything God is said to have done and commanded in Scripture is perfectly good, regardless of how immoral it may appear to us” (381-2).

[2] “Throughout church history, the single most common defense of God’s apparent violence in the OT has been that it expresses God’s holy wrath against sin. In this view, if God sometimes commanded or engaged in violence against people, as we find throughout the OT, it was because they deserved it. Indeed, in this view, God would be unjust if he did not punish wrongdoers” (392).

[3] “The ‘Greater Good Defense’ [argues that] when God sanctions or engages in violent behavior, … it is to promote some greater good, or to at least prevent some greater evil” (395).

[4] “God has always had to accommodate his revelation to the limitations and fallen state of his people. His strategy was to gradually increase his people’s capacity to know him as he truly is. The revelation of God within the ‘God-breathed’ written witness to God’s covenantal faithfulness thus unfolds gradually” (399).

The most obvious critique (which Boyd does not accept)

In general, I think that Boyd’s various critiques of these different elements of the ways Christians have treated the violent portraits as truthful and as providing guidance for Christian ethics are pretty good. However, he avoids considering what seems to me to be the most obvious critique: None of these options used by the “synthetic solution” recognizes the profoundly human character of the OT. I think we should recognize that the OT is a collection of stories and legends, not factual reporting of past events.

Today, our question should be: Why did the people tell and remember and record these particular stories, some of which present God as committing and directly ordering terrible acts of violence, even on a genocidal level? This is a challenging question, but on a quite different level than the kind of question Boyd and others wrestle with, which is: What do we make of the way God acts in history according to the Old Testament? One question focuses on the human storytellers; the other focuses on God (with the assumption that God’s inspiration of the Bible means it is not actually a human book).

For us to emphasize the legendary and non-historical character of the OT stories is not to dismiss them or to deny their truthfulness or to reject their authenticity. It is not even to deny their “God-breathed” character. Such an emphasis actually provides a way to take the stories seriously and respectfully by approaching them as they actually are. To state, for example, that due to its being “inspired” the OT “must be” in line with modern notions of historicity and harmony often leads to a failure to read the texts straightforwardly, as quite often a straightforward reading indicates that there are historical problems and problems with internal consistency. I fear that Boyd has a tendency to do non-straightforward reading when he tries to filter the OT violent portraits through his “cruciform hermeneutic” and look behind the apparent content of the texts for the “something else that is going on.”

I believe that it could actually be seen as an act of “taking the Bible literally” to take the Bible as it comes to us and understand it based on the actual evidence it contains. I agree with Boyd that it is impossible for a follower of Jesus to believe that the stories the OT tells about a violent God might be truthful portraits of what the God of Jesus is like. However, it makes a lot more sense for me to say that that means we simply recognize that these are legends, borrowings from other Ancient Near Eastern stories and ideas, and should not be seen as truthful. At the same time, when we look at the Big Story of the Bible we can see how the OT writers and editors present these stories within a framework that points beyond the particular incidents to show how the God of Israel actually was different in important ways (note, for example, the redemptive elements of the Flood story, the near sacrifice of Isaac story, and the Sodom story).

The Big Story also helps us understand that the Conquest of the promised land was the beginning of a political expression of peoplehood that ultimately was rejected—the notion that the people of the promise would center their energies in possessing a boundaried territory. In light of the evolution of the dynamics of peoplehood, we can recognize that whatever the precise reasons were why the Hebrews ever told the stories of Conquest, those stories do not provide any kind of model for their continued common life and do not show what God actually is now like.

The emphases of the Big Story point ahead to the full revelation of God’s character and will in Jesus make it clear that we must reject any attempt to understand the violent portraits as in any way accurately showing us what God is like now and what God wants from God’s people. We must reject any efforts at a “synthesis solution” that defends as truthful the violent portraits of God because those efforts defend the indefensible.

What about “progressive revelation”?

Boyd’s longest discussion in this chapter is his treatment of what he calls “the progressive revelation explanation.” “Progressive revelation” interprets the humanness of the Bible as a matter of God (the ultimate author of the Bible) accommodating Godself to human limitations (400-1). God, it would seem, is like a person with great knowledge trying to explain something to a young child. Boyd is quite sympathetic to the notion of progressive revelation in general (402), but he does not think that it should be applied in a way that affirms the truthfulness of the violent portraits as definitive of God’s character and will.

However, it is difficult for me to conceive of God or the Bible in line with the progressive revelation notion. To me, the Bible is simply stories that human beings have told that often insightfully portray the human condition. But only in a quite weak way are these stories “revelation.” God is not their direct author, and they do not reflect God’s accommodation to human immaturity. And there is nothing “behind” them that has greater truth. They simply reflect the ways that their tellers understood the world. When they are told over generations and linked together with other stories, they begin to have a more revelatory character. In the aggregate, the Big Story corrects some of the misconstruals of God in some of the particular stories.

Boyd’s main critique of various progressive revelation arguments is that he believes “they cannot disclose how the OT’s violent divine portraits bear witness to the crucified Christ” (406). I appreciate that he continually insists that the God of the Bible, the God Christians worship, is completely nonviolent and loving. I strongly agree with him on that point. And I agree that our interpretative task has to do with insisting in an uncompromising way that any understanding of the OT God must always account for God’s core identity as nonviolent and loving.

I would add that when we read the OT in its entirety, we get various pictures of God. Bringing these various pictures together creates a quite complicated picture that no one can sort out with certainty. I think that because it is so complicated to account for the OT God, pacifist Christians need not apologize for arguing that it is appropriate to add material from the NT to our process of discerning how to best find coherence among the diverse OT materials about God. Jesus’s messages about God provide a method for prioritizing and sorting out the OT messages about God. That is, with Jesus’s messages about God in mind, we are better able to sort through the OT stories and find a nonviolent, consistently loving God. To some extent, I think this is Boyd’s approach as well. I am yet to be convinced that his overall argument is the best one for affirming God’s nonviolent character. However, that he does affirm that God is indeed nonviolent and consistently loving is a huge step in the right direction

Concerns about Boyd’s “cruciform” emphases

The heart of Boyd’s case for a nonviolent, consistently loving God rests on his constant evoking of Jesus’s crucifixion. He commonly uses the term, the God “revealed in the crucified Christ” and regularly writes of the cross of Christ and the various “cruciform” (or cross-centered) elements of his theology. I continue to be uncomfortable with that emphasis as I seek to understand what the significance of Boyd’s focus on the death of Jesus for a pacifist reading of the OT violent portraits of God might be.

I want more to emphasize Jesus’s life and teaching (not his death) as what is most relevant for this discussion from the overall Jesus story. My sense is that Boyd would agree with most of what I say about Jesus’s life and teaching and its relevance for our topic. However, I still suspect there may be not inconsequential differences between his point of focus and mine.

I do not believe that the cross itself is revelatory of God’s character. Rather, I see it as a confirmation of the truth of how God is revealed in Jesus’s life. We see God’s character most of all in Jesus’s acts of compassion, his peaceable witness of resistance against the Roman Empire and the domination dynamics of the Temple, and his staying close to God and God’s will even in the face of the violence of the Temple and Empire that ended up torturing and executing him.

What the cross itself does reveal, I would say, is the character of the Powers that colluded to execute Jesus—the inner dynamics (or spirituality) of the political and religious institutions that Jesus posed his restorative justice-infused embodied faith as an alternative to. Boyd says little about this aspect of what the cross reveals. He does talk some about the Powers, but seems mostly to be concerned with their supernatural and personal dimensions. He leaves his argument troublingly apolitical. Part of the problem I see in his approach is that by essentially ignoring the Big Story of the Old Testament, he fails to recognize how Jesus actually did focus on a politics that was in continuity with the prophetic stream of OT theo-politics.

Boyd does make an excellent point on p. 409: “Once we fully embrace the absoluteness of the cruciform revelation, we understand that our call is not to defend violent portraits of God over-and-against this cruciform revelation, but instead to interpret these portraits in the light of that revelation.” This is crucial; we pacifists should not be on the defensive, feeling we have to justify some sort of compatibility between Jesus and the violent portraits, as if these are equally truthful parts of the Bible. We do know that the message of Jesus is the core of the Bible, and that is not threatened by what seem to be counter-testimonies elsewhere.

At the same time, rather than Boyd’s “cruciform revelation” I would rather say that Jesus’s “loving ministry that embodies Torah” serves as good shorthand for Jesus’s message about God. So, I’d say “the absoluteness of Jesus’s ministry” rather than “the absoluteness of the cruciform revelation”—unless I also made it clear that by “cruciform revelation” I did not mean the crucifixion itself but the way of life that led to the crucifixion. I’m still not sure how fundamental of a distinction there is between Boyd’s “cruciform revelation” and my “Jesus’s ministry.” I don’t want to push the difference farther than I need to in order to be clear.

What does “fallen, culturally hearts” mean?

Boyd also makes the statement, “the cross provides the primary criterion by which we can assess the degree to which any given canonical portrait of God reflects God breaking through the fallen, culturally conditioned hearts of his people” (409). A key issue is: What does “cross” mean? If it only means Jesus’s death as a sacrifice for sin, I have a problem with the statement. If it rather means Jesus’s entire way of life that led to his defiance of the death-dealing structures of domination, I would say the statement is quite helpful.

Another key issue is: What does Boyd mean by “the fallen, culturally conditioned hearts of his people”? My sense right now is that he mostly has in mind the general condition of all humanity living under the power of sin (in the sense that we all as sinful people put Jesus on the cross), the reality of sin that Jesus’s sacrificial death addresses. On the other hand, I would say that the “fallen, culturally conditioned hearts” that are at the center of the story of the cross are those of the political and religious leaderstheir sins are the ones that more than any others put Jesus on the cross (and were at the heart of the failures of the Hebrew communities in the OT).

Boyd’s “conundrum” comes out when he goes on in this discussion to insist on the centrality of the confession “that all Scripture is ‘God-breathed’.” This means that “the fallen and culturally conditioned aspects of canonical portraits” are just as “God-breathed” as any other part of the Bible (410). That implies either that Boyd does not affirm “verbal plenary inspiration” where each individual word is directly placed in the Bible by God or that such a notion of inspiration does not require that each part of the Bible be totally accurate. Or, maybe, something else? I do find his explanation of his understanding of “God-breathed” to be confusing.

What does Boyd have in mind when he says that the “fallen aspects” of the Bible are revelatory of God’s character? I am still not clear if he has in mind more that the stories themselves have fallen aspects in conveying things that didn’t really happen or more that the people in the stories had “fallen” understandings of who was telling them to kill. In some sense, Boyd seems to be saying that we are bound to believe that the stories are inspired enough to convey “theological truth” in and of themselves, so we must look deeper to see what that truth is. This looking deeper for the truth is what Boyd will pursue in the many pages yet to come in CWG.

The next post in the series may be found here

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

3 thoughts on “Boyd’s critique of the “synthesis solution” [CWG chapter nine]

  1. Terry M. Wildman

    I have read the two books by Boyd and have many questions myself. I appreciate the pondering and clarifying you bring as you engage with these books. I have a couple of possible answers to your questions.

    First: by the ‘cross’ or the ‘cruciform hermeneutic’ I think Boyd means Jesus’ loving response on the cross. By not fighting back, or returning violence for violence, but allowing himself to be wrongfully killed, and then forgiving he demonstrated the true depth and power of God’s love. To Boyd (and I am sure to you and others) the cross is the ultimate demonstration of self-sacrificial love, the same love he demonstrated in his ministry, but intensified and brought to its greatest climax on the cross. I think this is why he focuses on the cross as a grand hermeneutic.

    Secondly: By ‘culturally conditioned hearts’ I think he means that the ancient Hebrews were influenced by their cultural milieu to view God as violent, but God was still able get some of the ‘truth’ about his nature through to them in places, despited their ‘culturally conditioned hearts.’

  2. Pingback: Boyd’s alternative: “The Reinterpretation Solution” [CWG chapter ten] | Peace Theology

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