Ted Grimsrud—July 17, 2017
[This is the 11th 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 tenth post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]
In chapter ten, “A Meaning Worthy of God: The Reinterpretation Solution,” (pages 417-62), Boyd sketches his alternative to the dismissal and synthesis “solutions” for the problem of the OT violent portraits of God. The “reinterpretation solution,” in a nutshell, involves understanding the cross of Christ as the key for interpreting every part of the Bible. Boyd will argue that if we keep the cross always central, we will ultimately be able to discern how every part of the “God-breathed” Bible confirms the truths revealed in the cross. As it turns out, such a reading strategy does involve some creative interpretations because the way that some texts confirm the message of the cross is not always obvious—perhaps at times not even apparent to the original writers and communities that produced the texts.
In developing this alternative, Boyd pays significant attention to early (pre-fourth century) Christian interpreters, especially the fascinating and controversial theologian, Origen. I think that Origen’s allegorical approach is fascinating. As Boyd points out, it is good—following Origen—not to obsess about “the original meaning” of a text (contrary to tendencies among both historical-critical and evangelical approaches). I tend to think that paying attention to the original context of a passage is important but that we also simultaneously should take other elements into account such as our own context, the broader biblical context, and the historical dynamics between our present and the time of the text; though I am not attracted to Origen-like allegorical readings. One big problem I have with Origen as presented by Boyd is a sense I have that Origen’s approach required a much more interventionist view of God as, in effect, controlling the production of the entire Bible (428).
I agree with Boyd to a degree when he emphasizes that the meaning of the whole Bible is best seen in Jesus as the culmination to the story (432-3). However, I would say that the Jesus who catches up the meaning of the rest of the Bible is not the same as the divine Christ and perfect savior of “historic orthodoxy” but is the prophet Jesus who taught and embodied the deepest meaning of Torah in continuity with the OT prophets. And unlike Origen, and maybe Boyd, I’d say the “deepest meaning” is not mysterious or hidden, but is open, mundane, concrete, practical, and embodied clearly and directly.
I see some parallels between the way Jesus embodied the prophetic tradition and the way much more recent prophets such as Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., (imperfectly) embodied that same tradition. What all three did as much as anything was make clear to the watching world what was potentially present all along—embodied restorative justice, love, and shalom. It strikes me that this kind of understanding of truth and meaning is a bit different than Origen’s sense of the “spiritual meaning” of texts and traditions (433) that the original writers and readers likely were not aware of.
Boyd points out that “Origen never separated the cross from the rest of Jesus’s life” (453). I agree that this is an extraordinarily important point. However, I fear that Origen (and Boyd) may mean something a bit different with this statement than I would. Origen (as presented by Boyd) seems to say that he interprets everything in terms of the salvific (or sacrificial) character of Jesus’s death (probably in a Christus Victor sense, 453-4). So, all of Jesus’s life is to be understood in terms his sacrificial death that makes salvation possible.
In contrast, in saying that I don’t separate the cross from the rest of Jesus’s life, I mean that the core meaning is found in Jesus’s witness to God’s love and his resistance to the human structures of domination—that happened to lead to the conflict that culminated in his execution by the Empire. The salvation is to be found in Jesus’s message of God’s mercy, not in Jesus’s death itself.
A “cruciform reinterpretation”
Boyd gives us a heads up that his approach in the pages that follow will be to base “the cruciform reinterpretation of the violent divine portraits … solely on the crucified Christ, not on the particular exegesis of any OT passages” (457). As I have discussed at some length already, this approach troubles me in two different ways. On the one hand, by basing his “cruciform reinterpretation … solely on the crucified Christ,” Boyd runs a major risk of actually distorting the message of the OT and, especially (I’d say), minimizing the peaceable theological and ethical insights that the OT provides. On the other hand, I also think Boyd’s reducing the entire message of Jesus to his crucifixion minimizes peaceable resources in Jesus’s life and teaching.
At the same time, Boyd does note that “these passages” that provide violent portraits of God often will confirm the Cruciform Hermeneutic when exegeted carefully and/or considered “within the broader canon” (457). I find the desire to bring in “the broader canon” encouraging. But I wonder if, even so, the broader canon will be under emphasized. I fear that for Boyd the “crucified Christ” has its own distinct content that could lead to his consulting the “wider canon” mainly for materials that directly confirm that “crucified Christ” content rather than considering the wider canon on its own terms or, as I think is so important, to consider the distinctive content of the Big Story of the Bible that surpasses the sum of the particular parts.
Boyd sees in Origen two core convictions that cohere closely with Boyd’s own core convictions and with the “conundrum” that is driving the plot of CWG as a whole. These two convictions are that God is nonviolent and that all scripture is God-breathed. Combining these two convictions means that for Origen (as for Boyd), biblical interpreters must look for a more-than-literal interpretation of the violent portraits of God—while avoiding the simple dismissal of problematic content.
The meaning of “God-breathed” continues to be a vexing issue as I read this book. I find it much more attractive not to posit a powerful sense of inspiration when engaging our issues. To me, it seems preferable (partly because it seems more respectful to the texts to read them on their own terms) to operate with a weaker sense of inspiration that sees each part contributing to a bigger story where the sense of inspiration is stronger with the Big Story than with the specific texts. I support more of what could be called a “mundane” reading strategy that avoids what seems to me to be more of a contradiction than “conundrum” when Origen (and Boyd) want to hold together a nonviolent God and a strong view of biblical inspiration. That contradiction seems to me to lead to a much more speculative than straightforward reading strategy—with many attendant dangers.
One of the big dangers is forced readings (cf. 459) where the text is interpreted in ways that seem more to confirm the interpreter’s assumptions than accurately reflect the actual content of the text. Another danger is what I would call “mystification” where against all contrary evidence a text is read as a witness to Jesus’s crucifixion—and any argument to the contrary is dismissed out of hand.
The mystification dynamic may well arise when Boyd insists that “if we do not fully trust the ‘God-breathed’ nature of the ugliest and most offensive violent portraits of God in Scripture and [instead] reserve for ourselves the right to dismiss these sorts of portraits,” we will fail to see how even these texts “beat witness to the crucified Christ” (459). This view requires a pious insistence on a “cruciform” reading that may actually simply be another way of dismissing the texts’ most obvious content. I’m not sure what is gained by this kind of move. It could, for example, lead to spiritualizing the texts and missing the political meaning of—say—the Joshua story (or the cross itself).
Boyd wants to look deeply in order to discern the cruciform character of God in the texts (460). I would rather look deeply in order to discern the loose coherence of the overall story. My approach seems to have more potential to do justice to the texts on their own terms and also to uncover the political radicality of the Bible.
The hermeneutics of obedience
I do agree with Boyd’s (very brief) invoking of the Anabaptist notion of a hermeneutics of obedience (459-60). The intent in that kind of hermeneutics is not to support objectivistic historical-critical reading, or a reading that buttresses the doctrines of historical orthodoxy, or a personal devotional reading. Rather, the goal of interpretation is to empower the interpreter’s quest to embody the way of Jesus.
I think my Big Picture approach fits with a hermeneutics of obedience better than Boyd’s because his “theological” reading is more about “Christ” than “Jesus.” That is, he seems to take his cues more from his theological interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’s death than the actual practice of Jesus that embodied radical love and resistance to domination. Nonetheless, Boyd indeed does explicitly advocate following a path inspired by the Anabaptist notion of obedience to the “bitter Christ.” I think anyone with that aspiration is going to be more right than wrong in their biblical interpretation.