Boyd’s “theological interpretation” of the Old Testament [CWG chapter twelve]

Ted Grimsrud—October 13, 2017

[After taking a break since July, I am back to writing about 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). This is the 13th in a long series of posts that will work through Boyd’s important book. The 12th post (on chapter 11) may be found here—and an index of the series here.]

An alternative to the historical-critical method

In chapter twelve, “Interpreting Scripture as God’s Word: The Cruciform Hermeneutic and the Theological Interpretation of Scripture,” (pages 513–552), Boyd completes the first volume of CWG (except for several contentful appendices) by elaborating on how his approach may be characterized as a particular expression of the “theological interpretation of scripture” (TIS) movement (514).

The TIS movement has at its heart a negative reaction against the hegemony of the historical-critical approach to scripture. In Boyd’s view, reflecting the sentiments of the TIS movement in general, the historical-critical approach “has, without question, had a rather devastating effect on the church” (516)—including delegitimizing “the traditional way of reading Scripture as a single ‘God-breathed’ book” (517).

In a nutshell, it seems, the focus of the TIS movement, amidst a great diversity of views, is to recover a sense of the uniqueness of scripture linked with reading it “as the word of God, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, and with the eyes of faith within the community of faith” (520). People within the TIS movement differ in their understandings of the precise role that historical-critical study of the Bible should play in the use of the Bible in churches. Perhaps most common is the belief that the use of historical-critical tools should be limited, but that they do have a role. This seems to be Boyd’s own view.

I like the idea of a “theological interpretation” of the Bible. I agree with Boyd that a strictly historical critical approach tends to render the Bible unavailable to the churches as they seek to empower faithful Christian living. However, I am not very comfortable with how he seems to seek to practice theological interpretation. A challenge for a “theological interpretation” is to avoid projecting (problematic) doctrinal theology back on the texts rather then discerning the theological element already present in the texts.

In my view, a “theological interpretation” should be about reading the parts of the Bible in light of the whole. This involves recognizing that “the whole” is a story, not a set of doctrines—theology in story form, not doctrinal form. The biblical story is “theological” (as in core convictions) in a very different way than post-Constantine, Greek-shaped Christendom. A theological interpretation of the Bible should still be in tension with much doctrinal theology.

The “original” meaning of the text

Boyd believes that critical study plays a crucial role in helping us “to determine the originally intended meaning of passages” (521). In part, Boyd fears the effects of a “radical postmodern perspective” that tends “to cut the tether to an author’s originally intended meaning” altogether, with problematic consequences (522). He recognizes that we will never fully get at the original meaning, but he believes we should still hold it as a goal to get as close as possible.

This commitment to seek the original meaning of the text leads to what Boyd calls the “Conservative Hermeneutical Principle,” the belief “that interpreters should assume that the originally intended meaning that is reflected in a text is the bedrock meaning God intended to have for us” (524). Boyd believes that his “Cruciform Thesis” actually is generally vindicated when seemingly problematic violent texts are read “closely” and in line with the “Conservative Hermeneutical Principle” (526).

I like Boyd’s desire to combine a focus on authorial intent with a sense of God’s intent. It does seem correct to consider our general understanding of God’s will for the world as conveyed in the Bible as a whole when we examine specific texts. Sometimes the authorial intent may seem to be in tension with the broader sense of God’s agenda in the Bible. Like Boyd, though, I believe we should work to see how we can hold these two perspectives as closely together as possible. It could be that keeping our sense of God’s agenda in mind might cause us to re-evaluate our first impression of the author’s intent. As well, understandings we get in specific texts also should have the potential of leading us to revise our big picture sense of God’s agenda.

Of course, a big issue that remains in making this point about trying to hold together authorial intent with God’s agenda is how we understand God’s agenda. I would say that here is where the idea of a “theological interpretation of scripture” is especially relevant. I believe we should let our “theological sensibility” be determined most of all by a sense of the biblical story itself—not so much later doctrinal formulations and traditions. A big concern I have with the TIS movement is what seems like a tendency to think of the “theological” element more in terms of later creedal formulations than in terms of the biblical story. For example, I suggest that God’s agenda in the Bible is best understood in terms of the social-ethical vision of shalom—a vision largely missing from the creeds.

What about the flood story?

I am unclear about what Boyd means when he applies the “Conservative Hermeneutical Principle” to the flood story. On the one hand, he says he must “accept the biblical report that the earth was once covered by a flood that wiped out all but a remnant of life on earth.” On the other hand, he says he’s not trying to interpret the text in light of some “historical-critical reconstruction of what ‘actually happened’” (525).

It appears to me that he means that “acceptance” does not require affirming historicity (I fault him for lack of clarity on this point). And his statement becomes even more unclear when he writes that he rejects “the biblical author’s theological assumption that it was God who directly unleashed the flood that destroyed all but a remnant of life on earth (Genesis 6–9).” He promises to pick up this story near the end of the book. My big question is what he means by “accept the biblical report”—since he also says that he is not interested in what actually happened and that he rejects the report that God directly unleashed the flood.

I think my idea of this story seems much simpler. I would say that we should read the story straightforwardly and recognize that it is a part of the big story that must be respected. But we must also assert that it is not historical in any way. It is a legend and the issue is not what it tells us about what God literally did but about what stories the Hebrews used to illumine their sense of God. Of course, it is also important to recognize that the point of the story is the rainbow promise that comes at the end. Thus, the story as a whole teaches about the promise that this will never happen again and implies that God learned not to punish in this way. Hence, the point of the story is not the terrible violence with which the story begins. I add that one way to look at this story is to recognize that it is a kind of standard Ancient Near Eastern story and that what we should be especially attentive to is how the story is adapted to fit into the big story of the Hebrew Bible, a story of peace and healing, not punitive violence.

The divine/human dynamic in relation to the Bible

Boyd reiterates his earlier point when he states that the truth that “God ‘breathed’ his definitive self-revelation … appropriating human limitations.” Therefore, “we should hardly expect the ‘God-breathed’ witness to his covenant faithfulness to be completely devoid of reflections of human limitations, sin, and godforsakenness” (527-8). This is an important qualification in relation to claims for the Bible’s inspiration (though it remains a challenge to incorporate this insight—how do we in practice distinguish between what is God-breathed and what is human?).

However, I believe that Boyd, as is typical of evangelical theologians in general, gets the orientation of the Bible backwards in relation to this divine/human issue. I believe that to affirm that the Bible is “God-breathed” should be a conclusion (like Jesus’s divinity) rather than a starting point. Boyd still acts as if inspiration is a given and that our task is to work back from the assumption of perfection. I understand the one place where the term “God-breathed” is used of the Bible (2 Tim 3:16) mainly makes the point that the Bible is useful. I think we should recognize that the Bible is a human artifact and then discern how it is useful and draw our conclusions about the inspired character of the Bible based on its usefulness.

To characterize the Bible as God-breathed should not be our starting point, especially when we are likely to perceive the “Godness” as defined in terms of perfection, omniscience, and omnipotence. Boyd’s idea regarding “divine accommodation” in relation to the Bible seems to be that God is all-powerful, autonomous, perfect—and then chooses to work within the human realm in ways that humans can relate to, to accommodate to the human realm. I would rather start with the phenomena themselves in relation to God and the Bible and then draw conclusions. I would say that it is because of the life-giving characteristics of the human phenomena of the biblical materials that we may use language such as “inspired” and “divine” to affirm that the Bible is exemplary and truthful, even paradigmatic.

The “deeper meaning” of the Bible

Boyd argues in favor of “the sensus plenior of Scripture” (534)—the idea of a fuller meaning in the Bible that goes deeper than the original writer realized. He links this deeper meaning with the cross. I appreciate his comment that “whatever a passage might have meant to its original audience, we should be able to directly or indirectly discern in it the same cruciform character of God that we see revealed on the cross” (534-5). I agree that each passage in the Bible ultimately tells us about the God that is revealed in Jesus. However, once again, so much depends on what we think was “revealed on the cross.”

I find Boyd’s understanding of the cross to be problematic, as I have pointed out before. I think his view is, we could say, too “cosmic” and “religious,” and not “political,” “social,” or “communal” enough. In my view, what was most “revealed on the cross” was: (1) The nature of the way of Torah that Jesus embodied in his life, and (2) the character of the Powers who used the cross as a tool for the “good” and thereby revealed themselves to be rebels against God rather than God’s agents as they claimed. The cross reveals the truthfulness of the path Jesus walked, showing that it was indeed life giving and counter to the Domination System. And the cross reveals that the state, the religious institutions, and the cultural prejudices all opposed how Jesus revealed God’s character and will. This revelation is much more concrete and practical than how Boyd understands it.

Another key question in this discussion of “Sensus Plenior and the Cruciform Hermeneutic” is how biblical texts reflect this “cruciform character” of God. I think of that mostly in how they contribute to the overall story, not that there is necessarily cruciformity within each text or story. Boyd, on the other hand, seems to see the “cruciform character” in each text, in some sense. This will be a major focus of the second half of CWG.

Boyd’s notion of the meaning of the cross has at its heart that God “suffered on the cross because of our disobedience” (535). This seems like a pretty narrow understanding. He seems to think that the core issue with Jesus’s crucifixion is that human beings broke some rules or were individually rebellious. Such a perspective pays little attention to the concrete political meaning of crucifixion in the 1st-century Roman Empire—where what the cross meant was that the empire executed those who resisted its rule, and did so in a public way so as to terrorize the population and deter other acts of resistance. Whatever meaning we might give to Jesus’s cross, we are likely to miss the point of the gospels if we don’t recognize this political dimension.

A big problem with Boyd’s understanding—an understanding that, of course, reflects the standard account of Christian theology in the West since Augustine (theology that, notably, emerged after Christianity made its peace with Rome)—is that it reflects a view of “sin” as having mostly to do with religious issues, not the structures of injustice and idolatry that Jesus resisted to the death. Such a view, in turn, depoliticizes Jesus’s (and God’s) nonviolence.

Two different portraits of God

Boyd makes a point important to his overall argument when he writes about how the Old Testament, on the level of the direct meaning of the texts in the sense of the authors’ intent (what he calls their “exegetical meaning”), gives us two different kinds of portraits of God. Some texts do “reflect the same character of God that was revealed on the cross” (535), but any text “that fails to reflect God’s true cruciform character” is to be seen as a matter of God entering “into solidarity with the godforsakenness of their fallen and culturally conditioned misperceptions of him.” This is where the sensus plenior approach helps Boyd, because he argues that the deeper meaning, beyond what the actual author was aware of, in reality “bears witness to the truth that God was continually taking up the cross on behalf of his people, thereby paying the price for their sin” (535).

I actually find this kind of argument a bit stunning and difficult to understand since it seems so arbitrary. Boyd insists that the entire Bible witnesses to Cruciform Hermeneutic, and he is able to sustain such an argument in the face of apparent counterevidence by appeal to some “deeper” meaning that the writer himself was not aware of. “The Cruciform Hermeneutic thus interprets canonical portraits of God commanding or engaging in violence to be permanent literary testaments to the obstinate fallen dimensions of the people’s conception of God and thus to God’s covenantal faithfulness and humble self-sacrificial love in stooping to accommodate the obstinate sin of his people” (535-6).

So, Boyd seems to claim both to believe without equivocation in the “God-breathed” character of the Bible and in the idea that violent portraits of God in the Bible reflect “obstinate fallen dimensions of the people’s conception of God.” I find it difficult to see how evangelical interpreters will find such a view acceptable. Still, in my view, the evangelical interpreters who contribute to books such as Holy War in the Bible: Christian Morality and an Old Testament Problem and Show Them No Mercy: Four Views on God and Canaanite Genocide and hold to a “high view” of inspiration that leads them to see the violent portraits as accurately portraying the Christian God articulate a view that may be more coherent than Boyd’s but is way more morally and theologically devastating. At least Boyd comes closer to getting God right. But, it seems to me, at the significant cost of interpretive incoherence.

God’s “agony and humiliation”

According to Boyd, when the Hebrews entered the promised land, God endured profound “agony and humiliation” because the people were “too spiritually dull and too culturally conditioned to embrace him as a God of peace who wanted his people to enter the land nonviolently” (536).

I love that Boyd insists on God’s nonviolent will, but his point here still seems problematic: (1) The text itself does not give any hint of this possibility that the people misunderstood God’s intention for how they would enter the promised land. How can Boyd’s imposition of a God of peace in this way not be seen as wishful thinking—and a violation of his doctrine of inspiration? (2) It infers an autonomous, never-changing God who is above the fray with his will for peace but is also at the mercy of human fallenness. I tend to think it’s an either/or—either God is capable of being all-powerful or God only works through human fallenness. (3) It portrays Joshua, et al, as “disobedient” and “unfaithful” when the text (and its memory throughout the Bible) present them as heroes of the faith.

“God-breathed”?

As I have been sketching in these chapter responses, I think we are much better off to give up on the notion of “God-breathed” that Boyd articulates. We may say that the Bible is inspired on the level of its overall story without being bound to see specific texts as themselves being anything more than human writing. The violent portraits may be rejected as giving us an invalid sense of what the God of Jesus truly is like. Then, we try to figure out how to respect those portraits and learn from them. Boyd perhaps ends up arguing for something similar, but in a convoluted and perhaps even dishonest way. I truly don’t think that God can be the way Boyd portrays God and the Bible be inspired in the way Boyd presents it both at the same time. And his way of arguing that they are seems pretty unhelpful.

It is good that Boyd insists that we “can discern God’s cruciform beauty in the depths of Scripture’s ugly divine portraits only to the degree that we believe God really is as beautiful as the cross reveals him to be, regardless of the way God’s people in ancient times sometimes depicted him” (537, Boyd’s italics). But this seems like a non-intuitive, heroic reading strategy. Given his views of God and of scripture, this may be the best Boyd can do. But I think that if this indeed the best he can do, it then becomes an indictment of his views of God and scripture. In my view, in order to affirm that “God really is as beautiful as the cross reveals,” we would do much better to embrace a more straightforward reading strategy that draws its sense of inspiration and the nature of God from the story itself and not later doctrinal theology.

Though Boyd does allude to materials in the OT that do picture God in ways that are compatible with the Cruciform Hermeneutic, he spends little time on those materials. He does give the impression that as a rule, the OT is best seen as a problem with many problematic views of God that we need the Cruciform Hermeneutic to correct. The more straightforward reading strategy I have in mind argues, to the contrary, that the ultimate picture of God in the OT, when read carefully, is fully compatible with the picture of God that Jesus gives us. It does certainly seem that Jesus believed his understanding of God was biblically faithful.

Jesus’s message and the Old Testament

Boyd gives us a summary of the core meaning of Jesus’s life. It “illustrates what his death supremely expressed—namely, that the true reign of God acknowledges no national boundaries, is not based on compliance with the Sinai law, and forbids all violence. This ‘supervening act’ fundamentally reframes the nationalism, the law orientation, and the violence of the OT” (546). I do strongly agree that these three points were central to Jesus’s message. However, they are present in the OT, too. So I strongly disagree that “the nationalism, the law orientation, and the violence” are the core message of the OT, at least if by “law orientation” we mean the kind of legalism that Jesus and Paul critiqued. The prophets already strongly challenge nationalism, legalism, and violence.

In fact, the Jewish tradition since Jesus has been more faithful to the teachings of the prophets than has Christianity. Judaism has been much less nationalistic and violent than Christianity (at least until 1948)—at least in terms of the core of the tradition and the linkage with states and crusades, and the like. Jesus didn’t “reframe” the OT as Boyd says, but lifted up the prophetic stream of the OT that already by and large emphasized no nationalism, legalism, or violence.

To see the message of peace already in the OT means that we do not need to do the kind of complicated maneuvering that Boyd does in order to understand God as nonviolent and the call of God’s people to be nonviolence. The OT does contain problematic texts for a consistent peace ethic, but so does the NT—and so does the history of Christianity. In all three areas, OT, NT, and Christian tradition, we do need something analogous to Boyd’s Cruciform Hermeneutic that will help us navigate the mixed messages the texts and history give us. However, if we understand the message of peace to be already present in the OT, we will not see the core of the peaceable reading strategy being in Jesus’s crucifixion so much as in the story of shalom that was told from the beginning.

So, my “big picture” hermeneutic is somewhat similar to Boyd’s Cruciform Hermeneutic. Both read particular texts in light of God’s nonviolent love and not only at face value. Both understand the violence actually to be against God’s will. However, Boyd looks beyond/behind the text while I look only at the text while placing it in its wider context. Boyd relies on divine inspiration while I read more naturalistically. Boyd diminishes the truth of the OT as a guide for our ethics while I see the OT as revelatory of the same gospel Jesus lived and taught (the gospel of Jesus rather than the gospel about Jesus). Boyd’s reading requires belief in the doctrinal Christ while mine requires only belief in love and a recognition that this love was definitively revealed in Torah, prophets, and Jesus’s ministry.

The next post in the series may be found here

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

5 thoughts on “Boyd’s “theological interpretation” of the Old Testament [CWG chapter twelve]

  1. Tom

    Thank you for this Ted. Reviewing in hard work! I’m amazed that your post here is so similar to what I just posted today. It’s uncanny, as if we’ve been thinking the same thoughts the past few days. Maybe our texts are inspired!

    With Greg, I want to rescue an understanding of inspiration that both grounds the uniqueness of the Bible “on site” in its composition and at the same time empowers us in reading those texts Christologically to confirm/affirm or judge the claims that OT passages make. I’m still not sure WHERE Greg locates the supervening and inspiring presence of God in the composition and editing of texts such that they bear a unique relationship in light of Christ, but I tried to express my own approach just today:

    https://anopenorthodoxy.wordpress.com/2017/10/13/inspiration-the-presence-of-final-causality/

    Tom

    Reply
  2. lewispwordpesscom

    Ted,
    This series has been gold and keeps getting better.
    With the exception of Rohr, I have yet to hear anything as cogent and concise, in plain English, that speaks to my soul as much as your stuff does.
    I totally agree, “Theology in story form, not doctrinal form.” is what the Bible is about.
    I cannot but ask whether Greg has responded to this series with you.
    I imagine that this would be an enormous challenge for him but I can’t help feeling that it would be massively helpful.
    .

    Reply
    1. Ted Grimsrud Post author

      I greatly appreciate the encouraging words, Lewis.

      As far as I know, Greg does not know about my posts. I had thought at first that he might, due to a Facebook group that he and I were both part of. But I have no indication that he has seen my pieces.

      Reply
  3. Pingback: Boyd’s peaceable reading of Revelation [CWG appendices] | Peace Theology

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