Ted Grimsrud—October 23, 2017
[This is the 15th 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 14th post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]
An example of the “something else must be going on” dynamic
Boyd begins the second volume of CWG with an introduction (pages 629-38) where he tells a made-up story about his wife that illustrates his approach to the Old Testament’s violent portraits of God. He then outlines the four principles that make up his “Cruciform Thesis” that is the core argument of CWG. The thirteen chapters of the second volume will be an elaboration on these four principles.
In the fictional story, Boyd spots from a distance his kind, loving wife Shelley acting in a way that seems totally out of character. She slaps around a wheelchair-bound panhandler rather than acting compassionately and generously toward him, which is what Boyd would expect to see. He is shocked. But because he knows his wife so well, he assumes that something else was going on beyond what his naked eye observed.
Boyd tells this story as a way of suggesting his response to the violent portraits of God in the Old Testament. He knows, through his long experience and intellectual awareness as a follower of Jesus, that God is loving, self-giving, even nonviolent. Therefore, he has to assume when he encounters the Old Testament violent portraits that “something else is going on” beyond what his surface reading seems to tell him.
This is an arresting example, one to keep in mind as we are continually reminded in the chapters that follow that Boyd believes “something else is going on.” The power of the example, it seems to me, rests in the personal knowledge he has of his wife through the long, intimate relationship he has with her. Because he has come to trust her so profoundly, he can’t actually believe what his eyes had shown him.
I agree with Boyd that it makes sense to assume based on one’s personal knowledge of the God of Jesus that God could not have given the commands and done the deeds that are recounted in OT stories such as the genocide in the book of Joshua. That personal knowledge should carry a lot of weight and certainly it justifies a sense of strong suspicion about the truthfulness of the violent portraits. However, I do not find Boyd’s explanation of the “something else that is going on” all that persuasive, though I do deeply appreciate his effort and, most importantly, share his commitment to affirming the God of Jesus as the biblical God.
I also have some problems with Boyd’s use of this story. He actually physically sees what his wife does; there is no question about the event of her violent treatment of the panhandler. So the assumption with the story would seem to be that the OT violent portraits are factual in a parallel way to Boyd’s wife’s actions. I think a closer parallel would be if his story was that he had heard someone else describe his wife’s actions. Then, a big part of the question would be about the veracity of the story. Boyd could say, I can’t believe the story is true because I know my wife would not do something like that. That’s the way I think of the OT violent portraits.
Boyd makes things a bit more complicated (and confusing) when he acknowledges in a footnote that the difference between the story of his wife and the OT violent portraits is that “Yahweh only appeared to engage in violent behavior in the minds of the people he worked with and through whom he ‘breathed’ the written witnesses to his covenantal faithfulness” (633). There actually is a huge difference between God “appearing” to engage in violent behavior and his wife actually engaging in violent behavior. This difference undermines the usefulness of Boyd’s fictional story about his wife—since the violent behavior in the story was real, not in Boyd’s mind.
The four principles of the cruciform thesis
Boyd briefly outlines the rest of the book. “I will argue that there are four distinct dimensions to the revelation of the crucified God that ground four distinct principles, each of which sheds light on ‘what else is going on’ in narratives that depict Yahweh in violent terms. And these four principles together comprise the Cruciform Thesis” (634).
(1) The Principle of Cruciform Accommodation. The key content in the entire Bible for Boyd is that “on the cross, God stooped to accommodate our fallen state by bearing our sin and our curse, thereby taking on an appearance that reflects of ugliness of our sin and our curse.” The cross, thus, reveals what God truly is like, the God who inspired the writing of the Bible. And we should expect, then, that the rest of Bible will show us that “God sometimes stoops to bear the sin and curse of his people.” So, when we read the violent portraits, we should realize that they have a “surface appearance [that] reflects the limited and fallen way his people conceived of him.” Yet, because God also has “continued to remain in solidarity with his people,” God’s cruciform character has led God to “bear the sin of their fallen conceptions of him” (634-5). The point here seems to be that God allows God’s people to have a faulty view of God, even to present it in the Bible, in order that God might still remain in solidarity with God ‘s people.
(2) The Principle of Redemptive Withdrawal. On the cross, “Jesus suffered the death-consequences of sin—the ‘wrath’ of God—that we deserved.” God allowed this violence to occur as part of the working out of God’s redemptive purposes, but God was not the source of the violence. “The only thing the Father did was to withdraw his protective presence…. While God’s withdrawal is punitive in nature, it always has redemption as its ultimate goal, which is why this principle expresses God’s ‘redemptive withdrawal’…. We should interpret Scripture with the assumption that God always judges by withdrawing his protective presence from those who are coming under judgment” (634-5). The actual violence of this punitive judgment always comes at the hands of agents other than God—all God does is withdraw “and turn people over to the consequences of their sin” (635).
(3) The Principle of Cosmic Conflict. For Boyd, it is crucial to understand the violence against Jesus on the cross not being done “merely by fallen humans, for Satan and other fallen cosmic powers were also working ‘behind the scene’ to bring the crucifixion about” (636). A careful reading of the OT also, in Boyd’s view, shows that even violent judgmental acts that on the surface seem to be attributed to God, often “were actually done by these fallen powers” (637).
(4) The Principle of Semiautonomous Power. The events that occurred when Jesus went to the cross took place, Boyd argues, only because Jesus consistently chose to obey Gods will—and let them happen. In this way, Jesus helps us see “that when God entrusts agents with supernatural authority, he does not meticulously control how these agents use this authority.” That is, God “causes his authority to reside in agents in a semiautonomous way” (637). The significance of this principle is that these agents may act on their own. “We cannot assume that the way particular biblical characters use the divine authority they were entrusted with reflects the way God wanted them to use the authority he entrusted them with” (637).
I will consider these principles in detail and offer criticisms and affirmations in the rest of this post and in numerous posts to come. Right now, I will offer just one brief evaluative comment concerning Boyd’s cruciform thesis. I am struck with how complicated his argument is. It takes a lot of concentration to follow and at several points seems to be in tension either with the evidence in the text or the logic of his theological assumptions about biblical authority. I will offer alternative interpretations along the way that seem much simpler and more straightforward —and therefore more compelling. In the end, I don’t believe Boyd can succeed at holding together his two core convictions, that God is nonviolent and that the Bible is the infallible Word of God. My choice is to affirm the first conviction and reconfigure the second.
Boyd on God: “Stooping” and Trinitarian emphases
In chapter thirteen, “The ‘Masks’ of a Humble God: Revelation and the Eternal Outpouring of the Triune God,” (pages 641-700), Boyd presents the first of the four principles that make up his “Cruciform Thesis”: the principle of “cruciform accommodation.” The Cruciform Thesis is the center of his explanation in CWG of how he can hold together his two seemingly contradictory convictions—that God is nonviolent and that the Bible is the inspired and infallible Word of God.
I am uneasy with what seems like Boyd’s overstatement about God “stooping” to connect with humanity. To say, “God stoops an infinite distance to enter into complete solidarity with the limitations, sin, and cursed state of humanity” (643) seems to posit a God who is way “up there” to begin with. And it seems to overstate and over-dramatize human depravity. I’d say, on the other hand, that the Bible in many ways (though not unanimously) denies such divine/human dualism. There certainly is an otherness to the biblical God, but I don’t think it’s as absolute as Boyd portrays it.
I am also uneasy with Boyd’s framing God’s identification with humanity so strongly in Trinitarian dogma (646-7). It seems to me that a great deal of theologizing in overtly Trinitarian terms is overly speculative. Now, I do not believe that we are bound simply to use biblical language and to go no further than where the Bible explicitly takes us. At the same time, I think trying to remain mostly in the biblical idiom is useful, in part because such an emphasis helps us remain more concrete and practical—which seems to be characteristic of Jesus and the Old Testament prophets.
So I think that when Boyd uses Trinitarian imagery (see his section under the heading, “Our Incorporation into the Triune Fellowship,” 647), he tends to make the dynamics of the message about God, Jesus, and salvation more speculative and less concrete than they should be. I recognize that Boyd uses the Trinitarian imagery as a way to emphasize that Jesus’s self-giving on the cross reflects God’s character. And that is a crucial truth, in fact one of the most crucial truths in this entire discussion. However, it strikes me that framing the closeness of Jesus and God in terms of speculative, abstract, doctrinal theology means that we won’t understand the closeness in the practical, historical sense of Jesus living a certain kind of life so much as of Jesus “offering himself up in love to” God and the Holy Spirit (whatever that means). Again, there seems to be in Boyd’s imagery a strong divine/human dualism that God chooses to bridge by God’s “stooping” to cover “an infinite distance.”
Boyd sees the cross to be about “the Son [stooping] to the infinite extremity of completely identifying with our sin and experiencing our godforsakenness” so that “the content of what is revealed and shared with us on the cross” is “the loving outpouring and mutual indwelling of the three divine persons” (648). This seems to me to marginalize the core political and historical message of the resistance of Jesus being crushed by the Powers, a resistance that catches up the prophetic message of the tradition. For Boyd, the cross becomes more a religious and cosmic revelation than a story of resistance, oppression, and ultimate vindication through resurrection that has the effect of providing a political blueprint for breaking the hold of idolatry and the Powers.
Reading Jesus through doctrine?
I also note the lack of emphasis on Jesus’s resurrection in Boyd’s construal. I would say that for understanding the message of Jesus the resurrection is the key more than the cross (regardless of Paul’s rhetoric). It points to Jesus’s life as having priority over Jesus’s death. I have the impression that for Boyd (likely faithfully echoing the Christian theological tradition—which is a tradition that ignores the political relevance of the story of Jesus), the cross has positive meaning rather than being the negation of meaning (an attempt to erase Jesus’s life). I see this negation as only itself negated by the resurrection (that serves as a prototype for how all acts of resistance partake in the richness of meaning we are pointed to in Jesus’s life).
At the same time, I think Boyd powerfully moves in the correct direction in how he seeks to reorient “divine accommodation” in the direction of, say, emphasizing “the moral character of God’s transcendence over his metaphysical attributes” (648). Boyd definitely seeks to make his theology morally engaged and not simply abstract and speculative. I can easily imagine some theologians critiquing him from the opposite side from where I stand with in my critique. Nonetheless, I still think Boyd is too committed to the language of “orthodoxy.”
Boyd does try to push the Christian theological tradition as far as it can go in the direction of God’s nonviolence and cruciformity. I appreciate that effort and I hope that he persuades many who are loyal to the tradition to accept his argument. Nonetheless, I would rather step outside the tradition. I think “historic orthodoxy” provides (even at its best) a distorting veneer between us and the Bible—especially, but not only, between us and the biblical Jesus. The tradition (and, thus, Boyd) still place the locus of the drama located in the otherworldly heavens rather than in the concreteness of the story. As well, they operate with a divine/human dualism that overemphasizes both divine otherness and human depravity.
What Boyd does here, as I read him, is start with doctrinal dynamics—the Trinity and the notion of divine accommodation—rather than with the story itself. He will seek within that approach to reorient how we think of divine accommodation in order to push us in a “cruciform” direction (649ff)—but I think he still misses the heart of the message of the Bible by making it doctrinal, not political. It is crucial, I agree, to challenge theology to recognize that God as revealed in Jesus’s crucifixion is the truest picture of God we get in the Bible. However, such a challenge will have limited effectiveness unless it shows that God is definitively revealed in Jesus’s entire life, his ministry and teaching, and his conflict with the human structures of injustice that put him to death.
Boyd’s sense of how the cross challenges “classical” theology
I do like that Boyd recognizes that the “classical” view of God “has undermined the most distinctive and most distinctly beautiful dimension of the Bible’s portrait of God” when it disallows “the depictions of God’s sequential, dynamic, personal, mutually influential relationship with his people to reflect the way God truly is” (662). My concern is that Boyd does not take this insight far enough. It seems to me that he still leaves the meaning of the cross too much within the “classical” paradigm.
I agree with Boyd’s critique of “the classical conception of God” for insisting that we define “God” before reflecting on Jesus and Scripture (666). However, he then goes on to insist we start with the crucified Christ rather than the Jesus of the gospel stories (667). Certainly it is true (and good) to point out, “if we fully trust in the cross to be the definitive revelation of God, it completely refutes the classical conception of God” (667). I affirm that refutation. But I fear that for Boyd, “the cross” stands almost as a self-contained revelation where its meaning is inherent in the cross itself rather than the cross being the culmination of Jesus’s entire ministry in the context of the Powers’ reaction to his politics of compassion and resistance where its meaning must be seen as part of the bigger story—including the story the OT tells.
Boyd points out that God as revealed in the cross, contrary to the classical view, can change (is not immutable), does experience a “before” and “after,” is impacted by what transpires in the world, can suffer, did “hang in agony,” and does experience the relationship with the world as real (667). These are important points, but I would point out that these points are all true of the story before the cross, too. We don’t need the cross to know these things about God—so I’m again unsure about Boyd’s focus on the cross.
I believe that it is right to assert (as Boyd does) that the “classical theists” can’t “resolve the ontological problems that the revelation of God in Christ creates for the classical view of God” (669). An incarnated God cannot embody the various attributes that the classical view attributes to God (e.g., omnipotence, impassability, omniscience). However, I remain uneasy with Boyd’s alternative, which is anchoring “all our thinking about God in the cross.” I think we have things to learn about God from the cross, but they are mainly reiterating what we learn about God from Jesus’s way of life and his teaching and how he caught up the core message of the law and prophets. That is, I think we need to emphasize the entire Big Story, not just (or even mainly) the cross.
Does God wear “masks”?
Boyd borrows Martin Luther’s notion of God wearing “masks,” using this image as a way of understanding God’s “cruciform accommodation.” For Luther, according to Boyd, the idea of masks comes with a belief that God is “deterministically behind every event in human history.” This determinism includes the belief that God’s will is at times “accomplished by controlling the thoughts and actions of evil agents…. Since the evil work that God accomplishes through evil agents contradicts the holy and loving character of God revealed in the crucified Christ, Luther appropriately referred to it as God’s ‘alien work’” (684). This means that “the work that God deterministically accomplishes through evil agents was a terrifying mask behind which God is hopelessly hidden from us” (685).
Over against Luther, though, Boyd argues that God “wears masks” not because God “meticulously controls agents,” but, to the contrary, “because God refuses to control agents” (688). God’s “accommodation” has to do, in part, with God allowing these agents some “say-so” over and against God (688). The “masks,” then are not so much hiding God’s face when God exercises God’s total control by using evil agents to do God’s will but more are a way of imagining how God steps back and lets bad things happen.
Boyd notes, “Luther believed that God actually engaged in and commanded the violence that OT authors ascribe to him” (690). This view means that Luther does not actually “find in Scripture ‘nothing but Christ crucified’.” Thus, “he could never demonstrate how God’s violent masks in Scripture point to the nonviolent, self-sacrificial, sin-bearing love of God revealed in the cross” (690).
However, I think it remains to be seen how successful Boyd will be in making the case for his alternative—God’s “masks” are literary; that is, the contradiction is between what the inspired writers thought they saw and what God actually is like (691). The “mask” metaphor is necessary because the incorrect portraits are still inspired. I’d rather do away with the masks altogether. I would say the “wrong” portraits are simply wrong. But they belong in the Bible because they help move the plot and clarify how we get to where we get.
The place and meaning of “sin”
Sin is central for Boyd’s theology. It is the core element of the cross. But I have not noticed him unpacking what “sin” means. One of the big issues about “sin” is whether it angers, offends, or in any other way alienates God. Boyd’s tone seems to convey that God is alienated. Or at least Satan’s hold is profound. There is deep alienation that can’t be treated simply by enlightenment. Hence the cross is a necessary sacrifice. Boyd’s cross seems apolitical in that what’s at stake for him in the cross is something cosmic, not the exposure of political idolatry.
So, for Boyd “sin” seems to be moralistic, ontological, and condemning. A moralistic view of sin gets into the arena of satisfaction atonement because part of the alienation is on God’s side since God condemns sin (and sinners). For me, the meaning of “sin” has to do with what one could call a “public health” kind of dynamic, not a moralistic kind of dynamic with blame, guilt, and punishment. “Salvation from sin” in my view is not about eternal destiny so much as about getting healthy—socially, emotionally, mentally, spiritually.
I think Boyd’s Girardian point about Jesus exposing the “scapegoating mechanism to be the lie that it is” (698) is good as far as it goes. But this also exchanges the concrete specificity of the Empire’s violence for a more general (apolitical) view in which it doesn’t really matter who killed Jesus. The point, I think, is not that Jesus was “innocent,” but that he was “just” and thereby exposes imperial justice as injustice. It’s not that “God became our sin” (699); it’s that God exposed the Powers’ sin. The impact is to expose the Powers publicly on the cross, as Paul writes in Colossians.
I agree with Boyd that we should “read the OT through the lens of the cross” and that when we do, “we will find God behaving the same way he does on the cross” (699). But as we will see in the chapters to come, I take reading the OT through the lens of the cross in a somewhat different direction than Boyd does. I think what we see with such a reading strategy is that the basic story of the OT includes God and God’s people resisting empire and standing for Torah justice—and suffering as a consequence. Jesus then follows the same path of resistance and suffering at the hands of the Powers of the state and religious institutions.
At the same time, part of what makes interpreting the OT complicated, surely more so than the NT, is that the OT also contains stories and images where the violence, even allegedly God-ordained violence, seems to be in tension with the general stance of resisting oppressive power. We see this in a couple of different ways where violence seems to be approved by God and by the story: (1) Sometimes there is unjust violence, undertaken in service of oppressive structures and (2) sometimes the resistance is against injustice but uses the wrong means.
I would suggest that we need the story of Jesus to help us discern the dynamics of resistance against oppressive violence in the OT. Jesus helps us to separate resistance that contributes to the Bible’s overall message of healing justice from resistances that does not. However, in light of the message of Jesus, we can look back at the OT story and see within the story guidance for discernment and an ultimate affirmation of Jesus’s way of nonviolent resistance as the norm.