Ted Grimsrud—November 13, 2017
[This is the 17th 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 16h post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]
Chapter fifteen, “Divine Aikido: The Cross as the Revelation of God’s ‘Wrath’” (pages 767-804) expands on the second key point in Boyd’s Cruciform Hermeneutic, which is “the Principle of Redemptive Withdrawal.”
Depoliticizing Jesus’s execution
Boyd begins the chapter with a brief statement about “the Principle of Redemptive Withdrawal”: It “is anchored in the fact that God the Father did not act violently toward the Son when the Son bore the judgment of our sin that we deserved. Rather, with a grieving heart, the Father simply withdrew his protective hand, thereby delivering his Son over to wicked humans and fallen powers that were already ‘bend on destruction’ (Isa 51:13). Yet by abandoning his Son to suffer the destructive consequences of sin that we deserved, the Father wisely turned the violent aggression of these evildoers back on themselves, causing evil to self-implode and thereby liberating creation” (768).
This statement raises a number of concerns for me. The idea that “the Son bore the judgment of our sin that we deserved” seems to me to depoliticize Jesus’s execution. Here is an idea that the key element of Jesus’s execution is that in it he was judged for our sin. The only judgment I see in the story is the false judgment by the Empire and the religious leaders that Jesus deserved to die. I guess there is a sense that in making this judgment, these powers actually judged themselves as false claimants to be acting on behalf of God.
However, the idea that in some sense “we” deserved the “judgment” Jesus received because we are the sinful ones seems to reflect a purity, collective guilt notion of sin. It’s as if the presence of sin in this story is not the injustice of the powers that be but the inherent sinfulness of all human beings. That is, the dynamic in the picture is not idolatrous politics that continue to turn people from Jesus’s way even now but rather something much more vague and pervasive—a dynamic that blinds us to the on-going political relevance of this story.
Another concern I have with Boyd’s statement comes when he writes that “the Father simply withdrew his protective hand” and let Jesus be executed. This point seems to imply that God actively “protected” Jesus until God chose not to, with an assumption that God can and does intervene directly to shape what happens—except when God chooses to step back. I find it difficult to differentiate morally between an interventionist God who directly causes an evil act such as Jesus’s execution to happen and an interventionist God who definitely could have stopped the execution and chose not to.
Finally, there is Boyd’s additional point, “the father … [caused] evil to self-implode and thereby [liberated] creation.” It is not clear to me how creation was more liberated after the cross than it was before. I do not see how Jesus’s execution affected life on earth in a positive way. There is one element of the story that could have a redemptive impact, the exposure of the Powers that killed Jesus as God’s enemies and not God’s agents. Obviously, though, this is not the lesson that the Christian tradition has taken from the story, given the strong support Christianity has tended to offer political and religious leaders in the years since Jesus.
I think that Boyd sees God as too directly involved in a controlling way in the events in the biblical story with his “Principle of Redemptive Withdrawal” (768-9). He writes: “God who, with a grieving heart, brings judgment on people by simply withdrawing from them, thereby allowing them to experience the destructive consequences that are inherent in their sin … in hopes of eventually redeeming these people and causing all sin and evil to self-destruct” (769). I would rather say that God simply can’t directly intervene, that God doesn’t have the ability to control events. What God can do is, more than ever before, help people see the dynamics of idolatry through the events of Jesus’s arrest, torture, and resurrection.
So, I think that God does not “bring judgment” beyond simply having ordered the world so that sin has natural consequences. There is nothing more cosmic than that going on in this story. Boyd speaks of God bringing judgment with “a grieving heart.” This seems perverse. If God has both a “grieving heart” and the capability to intervene and “protect” human beings and does not do it, God becomes a moral monster, directly complicit in the injustice.
Nuancing the meaning of “wrath”
I do think that Boyd makes a good point when he writes that we should interpret “wrath” through the lens of the cross rather than “through the lens of Scripture’s violent divine portraits” (771). He does not want to present God as acting out of anger and punitive judgment. Boyd thinks that our understanding of what God’s wrath means, especially in trying to understand it in the context of the Bible’s core message, the cross, must not be determined by a sense of God’s wrath being defined by the punitive judgment in some OT stories.
Rather, he suggests, God’s “wrath” is better understood in relation to God stepping back and allowing evil doers and the Powers behind them to suffer the inevitable consequences of their problematic actions and attitudes. I think the relevance of this insight is lessened, though, by Boyd’s retaining the broader framework of sin and judgment. His God still ends up being complicit in punitive judgment, even if the actual violence of that judgment comes at the hand of the evil Powers and their human agents.
A Trinitarian dilemma?
Some of the discussion of Boyd’s treatment of the cross has challenged his notion of how God and Jesus relate to each other in this event, especially Boyd’s argument about God abandoning Jesus—or not—on the cross. I do not find this supposed Trinitarian dilemma particularly interesting. However, I am bothered by Boyd’s statement that “Jesus did … bear the ‘wrath’ of God that we deserved” (774).
I do think the image of Jesus as God’s Son being executed by the Empire is a powerful image. But not in terms of any inner dynamics of the Trinity or in terms of Jesus “bearing” God’s wrath. Rather, the power in the image comes from its portrayal of Jesus (and God) sharing the despair and pain of all who have been tortured, lynched (see James Cone’s book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree), humiliated, and executed. The point here, though, I believe, is that the story of Jesus on the cross reveals that the Powers who killed him as an act of defiance against God also defy God whenever they torture, execute, or humiliate anyone.
It seems deeply problematic to think “we deserve” this kind of treatment simply for sharing in human sinfulness—not that any wrongdoing “deserves” it. The Bible makes it clear that God is merciful long before the cross. Many OT stories of God’s mercy and Jesus’s entire ministry in effect boil God’s disposition (apparent throughout the Big Story) down to mercy. So, in the end the Big Story of the Bible makes it clear that Jesus’s death can have nothing to do with bearing punitive judgment that we deserve because of our sinfulness because no one deserves punishment in God’s eyes.
What kind of “separation”?
When Jesus cries “my God, my God, why have your forsaken me,” I think we are meant to see not a puzzle about the relationship between the Father and the Son. The message of this cry is that we have Jesus experiencing the same kind of separation from God that is felt by all victims of state violence (and other violence as well). This violence can be so profound that it drives away the sense of the one thing that God can actually do in face of such injustice—to be present (see the profound meditation on God’s presence in the face of the worst ever state violence, Melissa Raphael’s book, The Female Face of God in Auschwitz).
The cry reveals the depths of Jesus’s pain, not God’s actual abandonment. The story here ends with proof that God did not actually abandon Jesus, even if Jesus felt abandoned. That God is present is the only “redemptive” element of the story—and is confirmed by Jesus’s resurrection.
I wonder if Boyd will explain what exactly he means when he writes, “by standing in our place as a sinner and by experiencing the godforsaken curse we deserved, Jesus became the paradigmatic recipient of the ‘wrath’ of God” (779). I think it is good to make the “wrath” more impersonal and more a lack of a positive than God’s active punitive anger. But how can it work for Jesus to “stand in our place”? What good could that possibly do? Why do we “deserve” the “godforsaken curse”? Writing about this deserved curse seems to assume a purity narrative and/or a perfectionist narrative when humanity is condemned for its impurity, for its state of being sinful. This seems quite different from the central message in the Bible about humanity living relationally based on God’s mercy.
Boyd insists that he rejects the Calvinist penal substitution atonement theology where Jesus’s death is necessary so he can receive God’s punitive wrath as a substitute for us. I am willing to take him at his word. But comments about what we “deserve” do still seem to operate within an economy of exchange where God must somehow be satisfied in order to offer us forgiveness—a view associated with Anselm. Boyd’s talk about our deserved curse does seem to presuppose a punitive view of God. So it’s confusing. How do the mechanics of all this work?
I wonder if part of the dynamic for Boyd is that since he starts with Jesus’s “godness” and his membership in the Trinity, he then has to explain why this God-man had to die. From this starting point follows some kind atonement scheme, “atonement” having to do with Jesus’s death as a saving act. If we start instead with the actual events that happened we do not need to assume that Jesus’s death was a saving act but can interpret on its own terms. To focus on the story itself helps us to take seriously the political dynamics in the story of Jesus’s death—where reading the story through the lens of atonement theology marginalizes the social context for Jesus’s execution and makes it a religious and not political event.
God’s “withdrawal” from Jesus on the cross
I don’t find Boyd’s point helpful when he writes, “the Father merely [my italics] withdrew his loving, protective presence, thereby delivering his Son over to these violent agents” (781). Morally, it seems to me, if “the Father” could have prevented the execution and didn’t, how is this not a profound culpability? And what exactly would this “deliverance” accomplish? Why was it necessary, what did it achieve that wasn’t already in place in the economy of salvation that we see articulated in the OT and in Jesus’s life and teaching?
It makes more sense to me to understand the story of Jesus’s execution as follows: Jesus embodied God’s resisting love against both Empire and Temple. The Powers tortured and killed him—something God was helpless to stop, terrible as it was (as with other torture and execution victims throughout history). Still, God was present with Jesus in his suffering and humiliation, even to the point of resurrecting him to vindicate his life. In being present with and vindicating Jesus in this way, God helps expose the idolatrous character of Empire/Temple so we might learn not to trust them (see my book length discussion of these ideas, Instead of Atonement).
Most atonement theologies—certainly Anselm’s satisfaction view and Calvin’s penal substitution view—distract us from understanding the story of Jesus’s execution in terms of the Powers’ idolatrous acts and God’s vindication of Jesus’s life of creative nonviolent resistance. For those theologies, what emerges rather is a death-centered, ethically numbing theology (see the import critique of death-centered, as opposed to life-centered, Christian theology in Grace Jantzen’s book, Violence to Eternity).
It is true that Boyd rejects the penal substitution view. He writes: “The judgment Jesus endured was not a matter of setting God right by allowing him to vent his rage” (783). However, he still sees something necessary in Jesus’s violent death. It was “a matter of God setting the world right by overcoming sin and evil with his self-sacrificial love.” But how does Jesus being executed “set the world right”? If the death doesn’t “satisfy” something in God that “sets God right,” what else could it do?
“Wrath” and Compassion
Boyd makes a good point: “The redemptive nature of God’s ‘wrath,’ revealed in the cross … exposes the error of those who construe God’s ‘wrath’ and God’s love as competing attributes within God” (796). I agree that the biblical notion of God’s “wrath” does not present wrath as being independent of and over against God’s love. In some sense, God’s wrath serves God’s love.
However, I am still uneasy with Boyd’s way of stating this. He seems to say that God’s wrathful involvement in human history is active and volitional; it is the way God chooses to punish. That seems different than saying, as I would, that God’s wrath is about God having created the world in a way that there are cause and effect consequences of our actions—for better and worse. In this latter view, “wrath” is more metaphorical language about God’s non-involvement in the dynamics of history—but where God does use the consequences, in a providential way, as part of God’s work to bring healing to creation (see the dynamics in Revelation that culminate in the New Jerusalem).
Boyd turns briefly back to the OT near the end of the chapter and points out the OT portrays God as fundamentally compassionate. Though Boyd sees “wrath” as active, he notes that as God “withdraws” and allows the judgment to happen, God is deeply grieved. The OT bears “witness to the same divine character we see supremely revealed on Calvary” (800). It is good to see this acknowledgment, but I still perceive that Boyd thinks of this note about God’s compassion in the OT mainly as kind of a fleeting (see p. 801) glimpse of a future revelation. I’d argue instead that the OT God is fundamentally compassionate, so much so that I think it’s best to say that Jesus does not reveal a new picture of God but rather only confirmed what was already known about God.
Finally, I see a significant difference between Boyd’s views and mine that is made clear in this discussion. Boyd sees God mourning in the sense that God regretfully “must withdraw his protective hand and allow people to experience the death-consequences of their rebellion” (801). In contrast, I would say that God’s mourning is due to God’s inability to stop the “death-consequences.” This is true not because God is constrained by the moral fabric of the universe from offering mercy without payment, but due to God’s weakness as a God of love. I don’t understand why God “must withdraw.” If God is love, God would not withdraw while having the power to stop the “death-consequences.”