Ted Grimsrud—July 28, 2017
[This is the 12th 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 11th post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]
The center of the Bible
In chapter eleven, “Through the lens of the cross: Finding the crucified Christ in violent depictions of God,” (pages 463–512), Boyd develops an especially important part of his argument. He discusses how Jesus Christ, and especially Jesus as the crucified Christ, stands at the center of the Bible and determines how we read everything else, including the violent portraits of God in the OT.
He begins the discussion with a quote from the Scottish theologian, T. F. Torrance: “The truth of Scripture is to be found in the living person of Jesus Christ to whom it points” (464). For Boyd (and Torrance) the centrality of Jesus Christ seems ultimately to point to one making a Christian confession (and, I assume, one being baptized and taking communion). I do agree that the key to understanding the Bible (at least for Christians) is to “know God through Jesus Christ.” But what does that mean? I think knowing God through Jesus has more to do with following Jesus’s way of life than it does with doctrinal beliefs and ritual observances.
I believe that the Bible presents the life of faith as practice-oriented, not doctrine- and ritual-oriented. So, one could even go so far as to say that Gandhi can serve as a guide to the deep meaning of the Bible, revealing to us what a life of shalom might look like. Gandhi as guide would contrast with the role of theologians and exegetes who marginalize Jesus’s message of love of neighbor. It is because of the practice-oriented character of biblical faith that I emphasize the “Bible’s salvation story” (see my book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness) that puts resistance to the Powers as central from the exodus through the prophets through Jesus through Revelation.
So, I believe that the notion of Jesus as the center of the Bible that Boyd affirms should be an inductively arrived at conclusion based on an objective reading of the entire Bible, not a doctrinal assumption that one imposes on the Bible. Approaching it my way means we have to be attentive to the story and to the way Jesus in his life and teaching link with the OT story. To do it the other way all too often may lead to minimizing or distorting the OT—and often also seems to lead to minimizing the actual ministry of Jesus, which is what I fear might at least somewhat be the case for Boyd.
A problem-centered approach
Boyd states that the key element in God’s participation in the cross is that God “bear[s] the sins of his people” (466). I think that that emphasis reflects an overly problem-centered view of the story. It reflects a sensibility that sees the key theme of the Bible as a whole is the problem of human sin. I tend not to agree. I would rather say that the key theme in the Bible as a whole is love. I read the Bible as, in effect, a guide to live in light of an understanding of life as good and of our human vocation being to be creative and loving like God is. Sin (understood in the Bible most of all in terms of idolatry) does slow us down; it binds us and its power can twist our creativity toward harmful practices and beliefs. However, what seems to me to be implied with Boyd’s approach is that sin most of all is a problem of impurity that leads to God’s punitive wrath. I’d say the issue is not that we need to be purified but that we need to be empowered and freed from the dynamics of idolatry.
What does it mean that the cross and resurrection “disclosed the key to all that had gone before” in the Bible (468; Boyd quoting Richard Hays)? I wonder if one of our big issues is which we choose between two possible ways to take that statement. (1) We could say that the cross is uniquely salvific and the rest of the Bible is inadequate in its soteriology. This inadequacy means that we need this new event to bring full salvation. And, in a sense, the rest of the Bible realizes that inadequacy which is what it means to say that it points toward the cross and resurrection. Or, (2) we could say that the Bible’s soteriology prior to the cross and resurrection is adequate, and the cross and resurrection are helpful because they help clarify what is already present in the biblical story and what can be sufficiently understood on its own.
A “one-off” event?
A key issue in Boyd’s entire project, though he does not seen to imagine this as a debatable point, is whether we should insist that “the cross [is] an absolutely historically unique ‘one-off event’ [where] Jesus’s identity and mission … conquered sin and evil and reconciled creation to God in a way that nothing else could” (473).
I can think of two kinds of problems with this statement about the cross as an “absolutely unique” reconciling act: (1) Such a perspective undermines the truthfulness of the OT (and, I’d say, Jesus’s own teaching) where salvation is seen to be already present. And, (2) it requires a lot of mystification to see historical evidence that Jesus’s “work” changed things in a way that this theology would seem to require. The history of Christianity, one could argue, actually belies this claim about the uniqueness of Jesus’s identity and mission. Boyd himself actually points out several times how profoundly the Christian tradition has failed to embody Jesus’s message—though he does not seem to want to allow that observation to challenge his general acceptance of “historic orthodoxy” and the idea that Jesus’s cross decisively changed history.
Boyd states, “Jesus changed the ontological state of creation and humanity vis-à-vis its standing with God” (473). But, in reality, the actual lives of Christians throughout history have not shown clear evidence of such a change. I’ll just mention one piece of evidence—the almost unanimous acceptance of the moral legitimacy of warfare that has been characteristic of almost all people in almost all branches of Christianity since the 4th century. And, Christians from almost all traditions in almost all the countries of the world have not merely “accepted” war, they have actively embraced it and over and over proclaimed that their particular war was God’s will.
So, what a statement such as Boyd’s might need to resort to is a claim that this change has happened on a cosmic level that is not available for our earthly perceptions. That is, it is a claim that can by definition not be verified until the end of history. It seems better to me to try to construct our theology around the straightforward teachings of the Bible and the evidence of historical human existence. Such theology will likely be less attractive to those who hope for certainty and a sense of being part of the only true faith. I find it difficult to see, though, how that kind of hope will contribute to blessing all the families of the earth.
Boyd makes the doctrinal core of his agenda a bit clearer when he writes that the character of the crucified Christ as the culmination of God’s redemptive work “holds true of God ‘for all times and all places’” (473). He states that we “retrospectively read Scripture through this lens” to see the unique and necessary work of Christ prefigured throughout the Bible. It is Boyd’s doctrine of Christ’s salvific (i.e., sacrificial) death as the only means of ultimate salvation that then becomes the key interpretive assumption for reading the entire Bible.
I think, in response, that Boyd’s crucicentric reading is actually a step away from trusting the biblical story on its own terms. My approach is a much more vulnerable approach, reflecting God’s weakness. My approach would also reflect a sense of the “weakness” of history that evidences no such change in the ontological state of creation and humanity vis-à-vis its standing with God that Boyd’s theology should lead us to expect. Now, perhaps one could say that this change happens only in “heaven” (or, as Boyd writes on occasion in CWG, “in principle”). Such otherworldliness would seem to stand in contradiction with the Bible’s this-worldliness where, among other things, “heaven” is portrayed as the “interiority” or “spirituality” of this world.
The role of “sin” in the story of Jesus’s death
Boyd uses terms such as “wickedness” when referring to Jesus’s death (481). I’d rather use a term such as “injustice.” Thinking in terms of “wickedness” may make the crucifixion make sense more as a religious or moralistic event than political—even though crucifixion was a political, not religious, type of punishment.
Part of what makes Jesus’s crucifixion more of an ambiguous event than Boyd (in line with “historic orthodoxy”) portrays it is the likelihood that the actual human actors in the arrest, “trials,” and execution of Jesus understood themselves to be acting on behalf of the moral order. Some saw themselves as serving God in taking care of Jesus the blasphemer; others saw themselves serving the God-ordained government in taking care of Jesus the rebel. They were doing “good” in removing a disrupter of public peace from the scene.
So, the injustice in the killing of Jesus is not to be seen so much in the sinfulness or wickedness of the people who did the deed nearly so much as in the human institutions that made crucifixion a “good thing.” The moral issue, then, was not about Jesus opposing “sin” or “wickedness” in the moralistic sense but Jesus resisting socially embedded injustice and idolatry—and the political and religious structures that seek to crush all such resistance in the name of defending the moral order.
Boyd surely is accurate when he writes, “the horror of the cross unmasks or reveals the sins of the world” (481). That statement leaves on the table though, the question: What actually are the “sins of the world” that the crucifixion reveals? I’d say that the revealed sins are the injustices of the Roman Empire and the Jerusalem Temple—not the sinfulness of humankind in general or of the individuals who directly killed Jesus. The purpose of the revelation we may see in the story of Jesus’s crucifixion is to free people from putting their trust in the Empire and the Temple—and the various other political and religious institutions since Jesus’s time that continue to scapegoat, persecute, and even execute those who resist their injustices.
I see several problems with Boyd’s statement, “The revelatory content of the cross is located not in the ugly, sin-mirroring surface appearance of this event but in God’s loving condescension to take on this ugly surface appearance” (497). First, this comment skims too quickly over the politics of the cross in first-century Rome. What is “ugly” is the Empire doing this kind of thing in collusion with the Temple leaders—not some kind of general human sinfulness. Second, it makes the cross to be about “sin” in general, not the specific violent, oppressive injustice done by God’s agents for “good.” And, third, it makes the cross about some abstract “divine condescension” that is specific to this unique event rather than the cross being a window into what is always true of the fallen powers and human politics.
More on “inspiration”
It seems ironic to me that Boyd’s notion of inspiration goes hand in glove with a “theological reading” that places a thick veneer of doctrine between the story and the reader. I would argue that a reading strategy that focuses on the story on its own terms, that trusts the story, could be said to respect the Bible’s inspiration more (especially if we think of inspiration as God’s presence in the text as it is; then inspiration becomes a conclusion based on how the Bible works rather than an assumption about how it must work—a point that 2 Tim 3:16 actually seems to make). I find, though, that I don’t really want to use the language of inspiration. I guess partly because I see how it puts Boyd in a straightjacket.
Perhaps we may see the dynamics of mystification in Boyd’s assertion that he believes, on the one hand, as a key absolute, in the “God-breathed” character of the Bible. Then, on the other hand, he looks below the “sin-mirroring surface appearance” of the OT stories in a similar way as how he reads the crucifixion story. He says the OT violent portraits are “God-breathed” but he doesn’t accept what they actually say. To hold on to his doctrine of an inspired scripture, he projects “God’s loving condescension” onto those hard stories.
Boyd’s treatment of the OT violent portraits is creative and seems to have potential to be helpful, though at this point I do not find it fully persuasive. However, I don’t find it persuasive at all that such “looking below the surface appearance” of the OT violent stories is a legitimate expression of what I have understood up to now to be Boyd’s doctrine of the inspiration of the Bible. It seems to me that he should candidly accept that he needs to make a choice in trying to understand the entirety of the Bible as giving us a portrayal of God as nonviolent. We either affirm that the Bible as a whole (though not each part) teaches God’s nonviolence or we affirm the traditional notion of each part of the Bible as inspired and infallible. I don’t think Boyd will be successful in arguing that we can do both.
A socially transformative message?
One of the main things I look for when I read a book that seeks to give us a helpful interpretation of the OT’s violent portraits of God is whether the book gives guidance into the socially transformative message of the Bible. I would expect help in seeing how the core messages of Torah and of Jesus’s life and teaching might provide a framework for them making sense of the violent portraits in a way that will strengthen our commitment to following Jesus’s way of healing justice in our lives today—what my OT teacher Millard Lind called the Bible’s “theo-politics.”
In CWG, as I read it, though Boyd writes continually about Christ on the cross, the theological perspective seems to be more Pauline than gospel centered. Like Paul is seen to do by many, Boyd makes the locus of concern a theology of the cross not the gospel story of Jesus and his love. It seems to be more Jesus filtered through Pauline lenses (and Paul filtered through Augustinian and Lutheran lenses) than Jesus aligned closely with Torah and the prophets and understood most of all through his teachings and actions.
I believe that Paul should be read in light of Jesus and the OT’s Big Story that centers on Torah and the prophets. I am not sure whether Boyd would agree with my assessment of his approach. He definitely alludes often to Jesus’s message of peace—which he thinks the cross illumines. So he might think I am misrepresenting his approach. In a sense, I hope I am wrong on this point and that Boyd does not mean to filter Jesus through Pauline, Augustinian, and Lutheran lenses. However, if that is the case I wish he would have made that more clear.
The “Cruciform Hermeneutic”
By “Cruciform Hermeneutic,” Boyd means the general approach that he argues for throughout CWG: The key to interpreting the Bible in general and the OT violent portraits in particular is to recognize that it is an unalterable fact that God is always the God-as-love that we see on the cross (508). The revelation of God in the cross of Christ takes precedence over everything else in the Bible. It is the core truth that then shapes how we interpret all the rest. So, ultimately, the Bible cannot be truthfully telling us something else about God that might contradict the way we understand God to be definitively revealed in the cross. This is all to the good.
However, at this point in reading CWG, I am still not sure just how profound this insistence on a Cruciform Hermeneutic actually is. It would be so much better if Boyd talked more about Jesus’s way of life and recognized its continuity with Torah and the prophets. His understanding of the cross seems to me to be too narrow and too closely linked with the Christ of later theology. I wonder some times if the Cruciform Hermeneutic might be more about defending a few theological principles (e.g., the infallibility of the Bible, Christ’s uniqueness as Savior) than about shaping an entire way of life and understanding of reality that leads to consistent and transformative nonviolent practices and a rethinking of all traditional Christian convictions in light of God as nonviolent, creative love.
I like Boyd’s assertion with which he concludes the chapter: “It is only as we yield to the Spirit that the ‘veil’ of our minds is removed and we are given the special depth perception of faith that enables us to embrace the cross as God’s definitive self-revelation” (508, with the caveat that I’m still not comfortable with Boyd’s understanding of the cross). I agree that God as revealed in Jesus is what should shape how we read the entire Bible—and without that sensibility we will still have a “veil” that hinders our ability to understand the rest of the Bible, and, really, everything else.
But Boyd goes on to state that only when we so yield “can we see what else is going on behind the scenes.” Here, I worry that Boyd’s commitment to his version of biblical infallibility will increase the odds that he will “see” something that does distort the biblical message—a seeing “behind” the text that tries to “save” the text and ends up as an unhelpful reading. We will consider these issues in the chapters to come.