Ted Grimsrud—October 19, 2017
[This is the 14th in a long series of posts that will work through Greg Boyd’s important book, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (Fortress, 2017). The 13th post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]
Boyd’s reflections on some New Testament issues
At the end of the first volume of CWG, Boyd provides four Appendices that deal with questions that come up in the New Testament about violence and related themes. The two middle essays, which I will not respond do, address the questions of “Jesus and Violence” (563-82) and of “Violence in the Pauline Epistles” (583-91). In these pieces, Boyd basically presents a solid pacifist answer to allegations that elements of violence in these two sets of writings provide evidence against Christian pacifism.
I have a few comments to make about the first essay, “The Alleged Anti-Judaic Attitude of the Gospels” (553-62), and will respond at more length to the fourth essay, “Violence in the Book of Revelation” (592-626). I am not fully happy with Boyd’s comments on the alleged anti-Judaism. On the other hand, his discussion of Revelation is excellent—this essay is one of my favorite sections in the entire book.
Boyd on Jesus’s Death
Boyd will address the broader issue of alleged Christian supersessionism at the end of the second volume, and at that point I will raise my critique about Boyd’s general treatment of the Old Testament and of the relationship between Christianity and Judaism. In this initial appendix, he focuses only on the issue of whether the gospels themselves are anti-Jewish. I think his argument against that charge is solid.
However, along the way he makes a statement that I am troubled by. According to Boyd, for the NT writers, “Jesus was no one’s victim, and the crucifixion was no random act of violence…. This event unfolded according to God’s redemptive, predetermined plan (Acts 2:23; 4:28)…. If anyone is ultimately responsible for Jesus’s death, it is all of humanity” (558, Boyd’s italics).
This comment raises several issues for me. I do agree that the cross indeed was not a random event. But I don’t believe that God planned for it ahead of time. I believe that Jesus’s execution was the act of the political and religious institutions. That is, the powers-that-be killed Jesus, and they alone are responsible for that act. Jesus’s death was not the will of God as part of God’s plan nor was it some kind of event for which “all of humanity” was responsible.
It seems to me that to say anything other than that the political and religious powers were fully responsible for killing Jesus is to miss the lessons of this story. The cross is not per se redemptive; it is not a necessary act to satisfy God’s needs for justice nor to somehow defeat Satan. Jesus’s cross is redemptive only in the sense that it exposes the powers that in their idolatrous dynamics pretend to act in service of God. But by killing God’s Son they are shown to be God’s enemies and when we realize that, the powers’ idolatrous hold on human beings may be broken. [I have discussed this point at length in my book, Instead of Atonement]
To blame “all of humanity” for Jesus’s death is actually to blame nobody for the actual act. This failure to hold the political and religious powers responsible lets the Powers off the hook, keeps their idolatry intact (as we see later when Christians embrace the Emperor Constantine and even later when Anselm’s atonement theology helps buttress state-centered retributive justice in relation to crime and war), and reinforces an unwarranted and self-destructive negative anthropology.
Boyd on Revelation’s Non-Violent Message
Boyd’s 35-page treatment of the book of Revelation and the issue of violence is one of the best treatments of that topic that I have read. Boyd makes the case that Revelation does support a pacifist reading of the New Testament. He shows that the Jesus of Revelation (the “Lamb”) has the same basic message as the Jesus of the gospels. I have made a similar argument in many of my writings (and I actually gain a mention in Boyd’s footnotes 9, 79, and 109).
What does the “Dragon” signify?
There is one place where I would have gone a bit further than Boyd does. He discusses “the Deceiver” (that is, the Dragon, identified as Satan in Revelation), and what he says is completely good. The key concern in Revelation is truth, “the truth of God’s loving character and sovereign reign” that are to be witnessed to by “the countercultural lives and voluntary deaths of [the Lamb’s] followers” (604-5). Unfortunately, though, Boyd leaves things a bit vague in relation to this point rather than following the larger message of Revelation (and the Bible as a whole) and recognizing the political significance of this call to witness. In Revelation, John does portray an actual war (albeit one “fought” nonviolently through witness to the Lamb’s message) waged against the powers of evil—that actually signify the inner spirituality of the political structures that empower Empire.
Along the same lines, Boyd makes a good point when he challenges the perspective shared by most readers who assume that the violent judgments in Revelation are simply “acts of God.” This faulty assumption stems, Boyd accurately states, from the difficulty many readers have with taking Satan and other fallen powers seriously (607)—though I would add that part of the problem, as well, is that readers too easily assume that God is a violent and judgmental God (Boyd would surely agree with my point here).
However, I would characterize this failure to take Satan, et al, seriously enough quite a bit differently than Boyd does. I say the problem is the failure to recognize the “fallen” interiority of our human structures and ideologies (following closely Walter Wink’s analysis in his book Engaging the Powers). Boyd, on the other hand, has—I fear—a bit of a dualistic view with what seems to be an autonomous “Satan” who has a personal existence apart from inhabiting the structures and ideologies. I do not think we can separate the spirituality of fallenness and evil from the human structures and ideologies that they corrupt.
So, I think Boyd is correct—at least in an important sense—when he writes that the Dragon is the ultimate direct agent in the plagues (608-9). I think, like Boyd, that the message of Revelation presents the terrible events referred to in the series of plagues (the seals, the trumpets, and the bowls) not as God’s direct action but initiated by the Dragon. However, my understanding of the Dragon and of its actual power and role in the story is different than Boyd’s.
The plagues and God’s redemptive work
I think Boyd goes too far when he writes, “the world [is] perpetually assaulted by the forces of destruction” (609). And even more, he goes too far with his statement that “there comes a time when God sees he has no choice but to grant fallen humans their wish by withdrawing his protective presence” (609). Rather, I believe that the picture in Revelation is consistent with a God of love, a God whose power corresponds with the Lamb’s power—persevering love that is not coercive and that can result in suffering and even crucifixion.
The plagues are indeed fueled by the Dragon, but the Dragon is a symbol not of a personal being with power to intervene in the world that is almost equal to God’s (which seems to be Boyd’s view) but of the actual dynamics of history. In history, human structures and ideologies are “fallen” in that they tend to shape human beings toward idolatry and self-destructive practices and beliefs. The power of God in face of these fallen Powers is mainly giving human beings the insight into the character of the Powers and the need and possibility of turning from giving them ultimate loyalty.
It is not that people want to disbelieve in God and trust in idols (the Beast), but that they are deceived, as Revelation helps us see. The plagues are not discrete acts of “judgment” so much as the endemic dynamics of idolatry. Revelation’s message, though, is not focused on the plagues but on the method for turning from idolatry and its consequences. Trust in the Lamb and imitate his way of life. This will not lead to “safety” or “heaven on earth” but to suffering that is experienced together with some healing and “worship” where God’s life-sustaining presence is real and people find a measure of authenticity and wholeness amidst the ever-present “plagues.”
Boyd does seem to get the plagues at least partly right when he describes them as “God’s restraining hand lifting more and more with each cycle of judgment” (609). Certainly the plagues do get worse in the course of the book, so at least within John’s story the restraint on the destruction seems to be lessened. However, I would say that the dynamic of growing intensity is not chronological, as in the plagues gradually getting worse in history. Rather, the dynamic is rhetorical. John’s point is not to describe an evolution of intensity in actual plagues but to push his readers more and more to turn from idolatry and to trust in the Lamb’s way. It is as if he were steadily raising his voice in his call to turn from cultural conformity and toward Lamb-shaped nonconformity—as a means to find freedom from the Dragon-driven dynamics of idolatry and systemic injustice.
I think Boyd has it exactly right, though, when he challenges any notion that the plagues are God’s direct will (even though they do seem to be, on the surface at least, initiated by either the Lamb or God’s angels). The plagues are God’s will only in the sense that they help make more clear, when seen through the eyes of trust in the Lamb, that “God wills for truth and justice to prevail over deception and evil” (610). That God seems to be involved in the plagues conveys the message that the plagues do not defeat God and that God can, and will, use these works of the Dragon to help people to see the truth of the Lamb’s witness.
Another important point that Boyd makes is about the “living creature” who calls, “come,” to begin the series of plagues linked with the breaking of the seals of the great scroll in chapter 6. This command has the sense of egging the “kingdom of darkness” on to “make its program manifest.” The terrible events that accompany the breaking of the seals, as later with the sounding of the trumpets in the second plague series and the pouring out of the bowls in the third, will unveil “the true evil nature of the demonic realm” for those with eyes to see (612).
Boyd does not present this in overtly political terms, unfortunately. I would add that I read Revelation to teach that the “demonic realm” (to use Boyd’s term) is the “realm” of the Beast and False Prophet—that is, the realm of the fallen powers linked with empires and oppressive religious structures and the like. Boyd does add a crucial point, though, when he writes that along with the exposure in the plague visions of “the violent nature of the Dragon and his kingdom” is also exposed “the true self-sacrificial nature of God, the Lamb, and his martyred followers” (612). As well, I would note that in the worship visions where the multitude of the Lamb’s people witness to God’s persevering love, the sense of time is that these times of worship happen in the present, in the midst of the plagues—not in some far off future.
Boyd makes the same kind of point with regard to Revelation that he does about Jesus’s crucifixion and the violent portraits of God in the Old Testament—that at appropriate times God chooses to withdraw God’s protection from human beings. The Dragon, not God, is the cause of the violence of the plagues. However, God holds back the violence when it suits God purposes—and, times, God “with a weeping heart” allows the violence to happen as part of God’s providential work in ultimately judging and defeating the powers of evil (612).
I have a different view of these dynamics. I believe that God cannot prevent the plagues. God does not have that kind of power. God’s power is the power of love, the kind of power that the Lamb displays when he continues to love even in the face of great violence, the violence that ultimately kills him. But that persevering love is what defeats the Powers: “our comrades … have conquered [the accuser] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death” (Rev 12:11).
On the whole, though, I think that Boyd’s discussion of Revelation is quite good. It is too bad, though, that he places it in an appendix rather than making it more central to his overall argument. I see Revelation as a coda to the story of Jesus that ties all the elements of the Bible into a coherent message of shalom.
What Boyd does with Revelation is show that the actual content of Revelation is peaceable when read carefully and linked with the gospel accounts of Jesus. His approach to Revelation contrasts with his treatment of the Old Testament violent portraits. With the OT, Boyd does not seem confident enough in the inherent peaceableness of that part of the Bible to focus on its actual peaceable content. Instead, as we will see in the second volume, he creatively looks “beneath” the surface telling of the story with his “cruciform hermeneutic” that shows that “something else is going on.” Such an approach will significantly weaken his argument, as I will try to show in the posts to come.