Boyd on judgment and “divine withdrawal” [chapters 17 and 18]

Ted Grimsrud—December 7, 2017

[This is the 19th 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 18th post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]

In Chapter 17, “Doing and Allowing: The Crucicentric Significance of Scripture’s Dual Speech Pattern” (pages 851-890) and Chapter 18, “A Question of Divine Culpability: Responding to Objections to the Principle of Redemptive Withdrawal” (pages 891-916), Boyd develops further his arguments about how God exercises punitive judgment in ways that are compatible with how the nonviolent God is revealed in the cross of Jesus.

What does the Bible mean when it speaks of God’s actions?

Boyd makes a good point in his discussion of what he calls “Scripture’s ‘dual speech’ pattern.” He suggests we recognize that the Bible’s authors acknowledge “that God merely allowed the actions they elsewhere directly ascribe to God.” The language of God directly acting to bring about judgment thus should not be read overly literally. It is God’s universe and everything that happens in some sense happens under God’s directing providence. But that does not mean that God directly acts every time God is mentioned.

Boyd links this “dual speech pattern” with his belief that “God merely withdraws protection when he brings about judgment” (852). I would rather say that to note this “dual speech pattern” is simply to note that we have in the text a rhetorical projection of God’s agency onto the events. Boyd takes an additional step that I cannot accept, that the biblical writers implicitly recognize “that their violent depictions of God are divine accommodations to their own fallen and culturally conditioned hearts and minds” (852). I would rather say that this “dual speech pattern” is simply a reflection of the human nature of the Bible’s books.

Boyd seems to claim that the Bible is still “inspired” and even “infallible” when it reflects such “divine accommodation.” It is not that the Bible is a human book that cannot help but reflect its human sources and in fact could not be otherwise. Rather, for Boyd it is that the Bible is still a divine book where God chooses to allow the human limitations to be evident even though God could fashion the Bible otherwise if God wanted to.

It strikes me that Boyd wants to retain a view of a profoundly powerful God who could control things and chooses not to. In face of the evidence that the Bible indeed does reflect human limitations, Boyd argues for this “divine accommodation” without any clear evidence to support such a move beyond the need to hold on to his understanding of the inspiration and infallibility of the Bible.

God and the “destroyer” of Exodus 12

I appreciate Boyd’s discussion of “the destroyer” in Exodus 12 that killed the Egyptian children (870). He suggests that this reference helps us see that other powers were at work in that story beyond the Hebrews’ God and the Pharaoh. This “destroyer” may be seen as one of the evil powers in the world that wreaks havoc in many times and places. The issue in the Exodus story then is not that God or God’s agent intervened directly to kill the children. Rather, the issue is that God chose to protect only the Hebrew children in the face of this evil force.

So, God in the story—in Boyd’s account—does not cause the deaths but protects only the Hebrews and not the Egyptians. Certainly, Pharaoh is the one who loosed the violence that the broader story recounts, not God. Boyd cites the writing of New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham on Revelation, where Bauckham compares the “seal” that protects God’s people in Revelation to the blood on the doorposts in the Exodus story. In both cases, the people are protected from “the destroyer,” not from God’s own destructive anger (unlike the perspective given in the penal substitution atonement theology that Boyd rejects, 871).

Boyd makes the point that Exodus 12 attributes the killing both to “the destroyer” and to God, citing Psalm 78 as support for this point. He concludes that by allowing the biblical writers to attribute the violence to God that was actually performed by the destroyer, God accommodates “to the fallen and culturally conditioned minds and hearts of his people” (872). To me, this analysis makes the dynamic of the writing of the Bible too complicated—as if it’s more “inspired” to have God voluntarily “accommodate” like this.

It makes more sense to me to see this “dual way of speaking” more as a matter of the rhetorical flourish of the writers who see God involved in everything. If God is involved in everything, good and bad, then they aren’t actually saying God does each specific act. It’s more a manner of speaking, having a sense of God’s omnipresence without meaning that God directly does intervene in evil ways.

Jeremiah’s account of violence versus Judah

Boyd turns to the book of Jeremiah for another example to illustrate his point. Who is the source of the violence that Judah faced that destroyed the Hebrew kingdom and its temple? Jeremiah first attributes the violence to God (13:14) and then later attributes it to the Babylonian emperor Nebuchadnezzar (21:7). Boyd argues that in fact the latter is true; the violence did not actually come from God. It is “Cruciform Accommodation” for God to allow Jeremiah to attribute the violence to God—this is a case where God accommodates to the inaccurate perceptions of the writer of the Bible.

I would rather think of it a bit differently. What we read in Jeremiah reflects the prophet’s attempt to find meaning in the midst of terrible, faith-shattering events. God “causes” the violence only in the sense that those catastrophic events when Judah was conquered by Babylon show that God holds Judah’s leaders accountable for what Jeremiah understood to be a legacy multi-generational unfaithfulness. The events point not to judgment by God’s direct acts but to the need to learn from what was happening so the people would return decisively to Torah faithfulness.

I believe that a key interpretive element for us here is to recognize that the Bible’s Big Story tells us that God actually is weak. God does not directly intervene to control events; in fact, God simply does not have the power to do that. However, what God can (and does) do is help people of faith to gain deeper understanding from the events. In this case, people of faith (such as Jeremiah) might learn that for the Hebrews, territoriality was a moral disaster. To remain people of the promise and a channel for God’s healing work in the world, the Hebrews must understand that their community needs to focus on Torah-faithfulness and recognize that such faithfulness will lead to a stance over-against territorial kingdoms (including any sense that the Hebrews should try to recreate a territorial kingdom like the ones that became corrupted and were destroyed). The word of hope from these events is that God’s promise and the relevance of Torah continued even after the territorial kingdom ended. That is, the former did not require the latter in order to continue.

Boyd, in his discussion of Babylon’s attacks on Judah as reported in Jeremiah and Ezekiel, points out “that while Jeremiah and Ezekiel regularly impose their violent ancient Near Eastern conceptions of Yahweh onto the revelation God ‘breathes’ through them, their own narratives confirm that God was actually employing his Aikida-like strategy for punishing sin and vanquishing evil” (880). This comment echoes many of the problems we have already seen—such as Boyd’s understanding of the inspiration of the Bible and his belief that God “punishes sin.”

However, I want to focus on a different idea here. Boyd makes a point in differentiating between prophets’ analyses (where they say “God did this” imposing “their violent ancient Near Eastern conceptions of Yahwah” onto the story) and the actual description of events (the events unfold with human actions, the prophets’ “narratives confirm that God was actually” not directly intervening with violence). I think that Boyd’s explanation of this distinction does not work very well—that God “was actually employing his Aikida-like strategy for punishing sin and vanquishing evil.” Boyd implies that the distinction between the prophetic analysis and the actual events has mostly to do with God’s choice to withdraw God’s protection in order to “punish sin” indirectly—and to allow the prophets incorrectly to believe that God punished directly. So, Boyd still does kind of have an all-powerful, punishing God.

I would say, rather, that, yes, Boyd is right to note this distinction, but that the distinction has to do with the reality that the prophets’ concern is not with what actually happened in history. I suspect that the prophets never did actually think that God directly intervened to punish but that they were concerned with what kind of lessons might be learned from the events that might encourage faithful living going forward.

I think the recognition that the prophetic attribution of direct punitive action to God is not historical points toward my Big Story reading strategy. On the level of particulars, the human writers use God-did-this language, but the Big Story shows us something very different. It was Babylon, not God, that destroyed the Temple and killed innumerable Hebrews. God couldn’t stop these events, but God could help the people find resolve to return to Torah in the aftermath. This is why I’d only ever attribute “inspiration” to the Big Story. What is “inspired” about the words of the prophets is how they help us understand the movement of the larger narrative, not what they tell us about specific events in history.

Lamentations and “divine withdrawal”

Boyd develops his argument about God withdrawing God’s protection as the main means by which God effects judgment and punishment against human unfaithfulness in his interpretation of the book of Lamentations. Lamentations captures an emotional outpouring of grief in face of Babylon’s crushing of Judah. He suggests that the “divine withdrawal” serves God’s purposes in the actual destruction (881) and argues that God could not have directly caused such destruction because we know God mostly clearly through Jesus, and Jesus could never possibly cause the kinds of atrocities Lamentations recounts.

I certainly agree that the God of Jesus (who is the God of the ancient Hebrews) would never do the kind of violence Lamentations recounts. However, I also believe that the God of Jesus would not punish in the indirect way that Boyd discusses; Jesus would not do “punitive withdrawal.”

Boyd’s idea that God “withdraws from people” when God decides “to give people what they want” (903)—that is, separation from God and devastating “punishment”—seems to me to undermine the entire biblical account of God as healer. The biblical portrayal of sin links it inextricably with idolatry. And idolatry in the Bible has to do with blindness, false trust and the resultant damage; it’s a kind of sickness, an addiction to false gods. That is, under the deceiving power of sin people no longer want the things that bring health. So, if God decided to give people “what they want” it would be as if God decided to give up on the work God has been doing since Cain and Abel to bring healing from the disease of idolatry.

In contrast to Boyd, I want to say that the dynamic with sin is that God always seeks to help people see what actually is good. In helping people to see the dynamics of idolatry and its concomitant disease, God seeks thereby to change what people want. This attempt to change operates only on the level of gentle persuasion. In a certain sense God can never but “give people what they want” (or, better, allow people to do what they want)—but this is never about an all-powerful God deciding to “withdraw” in order passively to punish. God seeks to change what we want, not to punish us for wanting the wrong things.

So, I disagree with Boyd when he writes, “God allows people to suffer the destructive consequences of their sin … because this is what they desire” (903). In my understanding, God’s moral calculus is never about what people “deserve” but is instead about the healing the people need. In God’s eyes, no one “deserves” destructive consequences because everyone “deserves” love, respect, compassion, and healing.

The moral fabric of the universe

Boyd’s deep-seated evangelical sensibility is seen clearly when he in effect denies that God is free simply to offer mercy to human beings. In this way, he remains in the same framework as John Calvin and his theological descendents. Boyd writes: “It would undermine the moral fabric of the universe if [God continued to] stave off the negative consequences of sinful decisions … when there is no longer hope for change. When this point has been reached, God’s only option is to give incorrigible sinners what they want and what they deserve” (904).

I find it fascinating that Boyd reverts to the “moral fabric of the universe” and “God’s only option” language here. So he seems to accept that there is some kind of reality independent of and more powerful than God’s love. For Boyd, the moral fabric of the universe is not “love all the way down.” I believe that if we grant that human beings are made in God’s image, we are bound to conclude there are no incorrigible sinners and no one will “want and desire” destruction. There is no point with a living human being created in God’s image where “there is no longer hope for change.” All sinners are victims of how they have been damaged and all “deserve” infinite compassion—no matter how profound their damage is.

Boyd suggests that “the possibility of innocent people and animals suffering the negative consequences of the poor choices of those were responsible for them was the metaphysical price God had to pay when he decided to create a cosmos in which agents have the moral responsibility ‘say-so’ to impact others” (905). This is one way to think about the theodicy question. It is attractive that Boyd wants to protect the significance of human choices.

However, in my view, this dynamic should not be seen as part of God’s moral processes—as if it is morally appropriate for God to decide to sacrifice “innocent people and animals” as part of God’s choice to allow for free will. I think Boyd is way too sanguine about the moral difficulties of positing a God who is in control and yet chooses to allow such suffering. Such a view seems like the “collatoral damage” rationale where in order to hold wrongdoers accountable God must also sacrifice the wellbeing of countless others. I would much rather say that God simply doesn’t have the power to prevent the suffering of the innocent.

Boyd’s idea that God is not “morally culpable” when God acts to “withdraw his protection” with the direct consequence of the suffering of the innocent (906) seems deeply problematic to me. I think any God that has the kind of power Boyd attributes to his God ends up being profoundly immoral in the world we actually live in given just how broken the world is. Boyd, in effect, holds God to less moral accountability than he claims God holds humans to. If, say, a human father left a two-year old child vulnerable to violence in order to “passively punish” a six-year-old, he would be condemned for child abuse.

The emphasis on human free will is only somewhat helpful in relation to the problem of evil. Is God as powerful as Boyd seems to think that God is and also, as Boyd insists, loving in the same way as Jesus is? If so, then God should be powerful enough to guide the world toward wholeness without “innocent people and animals suffering the [immense] negative consequences of the poor choices of those were responsible for them” (905). Let me add, as well, that if God is this powerful and truly is loving in the same way that Jesus is, then God would not be “bound by the moral fabric of the universe” with the “only option” being to allow massive destruction in order to punish sinners.

In the end, I believe, the only morally consistent view is that God is a weak God whose power is only the power of love. God is not an all-powerful God who chooses to allow human freedom but must, due to the moral fabric of the universe, allow sinful humans to suffer destructive punitive judgment. Besides the implication that a God who is in this way subject to the moral fabric of the universe that in some sense exists apart from God’s love is hardly all that powerful, the conclusion I am led to is that a God of love will simply not be a God who can prevent plagues, evil, and destruction in the way that Boyd’s God seems able to do.

The next post in the series may be found here

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


6 thoughts on “Boyd on judgment and “divine withdrawal” [chapters 17 and 18]

  1. Pingback: Boyd on how God judges sin [chapter 16] | Peace Theology

  2. Berry Friesen

    Jesus said that those who live by the sword will die by the sword. Does that imply YHWH will carry this out? Maybe, but generally we take it to mean that YHWH has laid the Earth on foundations that make this sort of reciprocity of results inevitable. I cannot say this implies a weak god, but rather a strong one who rescues us based on our desires from what otherwise would be inevitable.

  3. Tom

    Ted: Boyd writes: “It would undermine the moral fabric of the universe if [God continued to] stave off the negative consequences of sinful decisions … when there is no longer hope for change. When this point has been reached, God’s only option is to give incorrigible sinners what they want and what they deserve” (904). I find it fascinating that Boyd reverts to the “moral fabric of the universe” and “God’s only option” language here. So he seems to accept that there is some kind of reality independent of and more powerful than God’s love. For Boyd, the moral fabric of the universe is not “love all the way down.”

    Tom: Great point. If created ‘wills’ can exceed the limits of divine love and grace and render themselves incorrigible/hopeless, then some divine reality other than ‘love’ (‘God as love’) lies at the foundation of things. Greg has argued that it is in fact love that makes it the case that choices must have consequences, etc., and so far as that goes, he’s right. A universe of no consequences whatsoever is unintelligible. But it’s no violation of the necessary link between ‘choice’ and ‘consequence’ to preclude from the consequences the possibility of absolute, metaphysical hopelessness. Moral sense can be made of things AND God’s love be truly (always, infinitely, in all conceivable worlds) ‘unconditional’.

    In imagining the possibility of becoming incorrigibly, hopeless lost to God’s love based on the integrity of the moral nature of our choices, Greg essentially posits something other than the absolute, unconditional and gratuitous nature of divine love as the first and last truth of all things – which I find ironic given his desire to ground all things in a metaphysics of ‘love’. Now a truly gratuitous and love-centered understanding of things is in the end circumscribed by a more fundamental ‘condition’ or ‘reality’ that can make divine love inaccessible.


  4. Ted Grimsrud

    Thanks, Tom. I really like how you say it. In Boyd’s view (which is truly much better than most evangelicals) there is indeed something other than love at the foundation of things. This is the case even though you’re surely right that that is not actually Boyd’s intention. As I read CWG, I’m struck with how Boyd still follows the evangelical script even as he seeks with great energy to break free from it.

  5. Pingback: Boyd’s critique of divine genocide defenders [chapter 19] | Peace Theology

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