Ted Grimsrud—December 21, 2017
[This is the 22nd 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 21st post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]
In Chapter 21, “The Battle of the Gods: Cosmic Conflict and the Old Testament” (pages 1005-40), Boyd turns to the next major theme in his cruciform hermeneutic—analyses of the third key type of actor in the stories that contain the violent portraits of God, the powers of evil (the first two types of actors being God and human beings). Boyd attributes much of the violence in the OT to these powers, who certainly were not acting directly as God’s agents for good but nonetheless were used by God.
An engaging parable
Boyd began volume 2 of CWG with a fictional story about how, from a distance, he saw his wife, Shelley, acting violently toward a seemingly defenseless panhandler—that is, acting in a way that seems totally out of character (629-30). Because he knows her so well, Boyd assumes that rather than taking what he saw her do at face value, he should assume that “something else is going on.” This is an engaging parable that he uses to illustrate his approach to the violent portraits in the Old Testament. Because he knows God’s character so well, Boyd cannot believe that the stories in the OT that portray God as acting violently actually tell us what they seem, at face value, to be saying. “Something else is going on.”
Boyd leaves the story unresolved when he first brings it up. Now, as he begins Part IV of CWG (“The Principle of Cosmic Conflict”), Boyd returns to his fictional story. He comes to find out that indeed “something else was going on” with Shelley. She was working for the Department of Homeland Security, and the seemingly defenseless panhandler was actually a terrorist. Shelley, in her violent acts, helped thwart the terrorist plot—and was indeed acting totally consistently with her character (1006-7).
I have two points to make in relation to this story. First, while I give Boyd credit for creating an arresting metaphor to help illumine his book’s main argument, I am troubled that he would present the Department of Homeland Security in such a positive light and would further the “terrorism paranoia” that so fuels American militarism. Boyd himself obviously is a committed pacifist who does make some negative allusions to our militarism elsewhere, so it’s too bad he couldn’t have come up with a story that could make his point in another way.
More importantly, as I have discussed earlier, I think Boyd’s “something else must be going on” motif gives the wrong kind of message regarding the violent portrait texts. In his story about his wife, nothing in the scene he observed indicated anything morally positive about his wife—all he could possibly know contributed to a negative perception. It took some totally unobservable information to help him see the actual reality. Likewise, with the violent portraits Boyd’s reading strategy leaves intact a totally negative perception based on the observable content of the portraits and requires some totally unobservable information (the message of Jesus’s cross) to help us see the actual reality. I want, in contrast, to argue against the truthfulness of the violent portraits based on looking at the stories themselves in the context of the role they play in the Bible’s peaceable Big Story.
Boyd has his own version of what I call the Big Story—his term is the Bible’s “meta-narrative.” For him, it is “the definitive revelation of God on the cross … [that is] the thematic center of everything Jesus was about. [It] should serve as the meta-narrative within which all Scripture, including its violent portraits of God, should be interpreted…. This cross-centered meta-narrative allows us to see how OT portraits of God that on the surface contradict the revelation of God on the cross actually bear witness to this definitive revelation” (1007).
It strikes me that though there may be some surface commonality between Boyd’s “meta-narrative” and my Big Story, I think they are actually quite different. Boyd’s cross is not in continuity with and the culmination of what Walter Brueggemann calls the “primal narrative” and I call the Big Story. In a way Boyd’s notion of the cross is the negation of that narrative. For Boyd, it is because of the failure of the primal narrative that the cross is necessary (because the cross is the one way that sin can be dealt with that will work).
With Boyd’s approach, we don’t look for a transformative embodied peaceable politics that is drawn from all elements of the Big Story. Instead, for Boyd, we look for hidden clues for how the story of the defeat and failure of God’s work in the history of God’s people might be redeemed when God achieves victory that breaks the cycle of defeat and failure when God allows Jesus to be killed. Instead of reading the OT stories straightforwardly, with Boyd’s approach we need a complicated sleight-of-hand to get behind what’s on “the surface” to the prefiguring of the revelation of God on the cross. We don’t put much weight on the on-going revelation of the peaceable God and we don’t try to discern how the peaceable God actually trumps the violent God within the story itself (which is how the prophets and Jesus himself seem to have approached these stories).
Boyd’s “meta-narrative” gives us a God who is “a heavenly missionary who reveals his true other-oriented nature by stooping out of love to don masks that appear contrary to his true nature” and “who responds to sin and evil simply by ceasing to prevent them from running their self-destructive course” (1008). It seems to me that this construal of the Bible’s meta-narrative actually does not follow from a careful inductive reading of the story. The story itself seems to expect manifestations of God’s “other-oriented nature” that are clear and straightforward not hidden by a “mask.” In contrast, Boyd’s approach seems mostly deductive, as he reads back onto the story his understanding of the cross (which I believe is flawed) that requires disregarding the stories themselves in many ways.
The key thing the cross accomplished, in Boyd’s view, was “that it in principle defeated Satan and all other forces of destruction that had held us captive and corrupted the creation in eons” (1009). I do think this motif is preferable to the penal substitutionary atonement view, but it raises several questions for me. (1) How does the cross defeat Satan? What are the mechanics? It seems counterintuitive (apart from Christian theology) to conclude that Satan and the Powers using human institutions such as the Empire and the Temple to execute Jesus were in that act defeated. So it seems important to explain how this could have been. (2) What is meant by Satan? Is there a distinction between Satan and the power elite that actually killed Jesus? (3) Why did “the forces of destruction” continue unabated after Jesus was killed if he defeated them? For example, within a generation of Jesus’s death the Roman Empire destroyed the Temple and massacred tens of thousands of people in the Jerusalem area—and similar acts have been repeated over and over throughout history. As Boyd details his understanding of Satan and spiritual warfare, these will be questions I will keep in mind.
A world engulfed with forces of destruction?
Part of Boyd’s “demonology” is a strongly negative sense of life on earth in the here and now. He tends to see the forces of evil as exerting a tremendous amount of influence on the present world. He suggests that we must recognize that “the world is engulfed by forces of destruction according to the biblical narrative” (1010). Perhaps the key word in this quote is “engulfed.” I fear that Boyd will overstate the severity of the “Fall.” It seems that he locates the problem not in the human heart such as Augustine did but more in the world around us. Still, Boyd may project an overly strong hostility toward humanness onto the Bible. If he, as I fear, insists on a dualism that separates “Satan” from human social structures and ideologies, his analysis will cause more problems than offer insights.
I do think, in Boyd’s discussion of the exodus, that there is great promise in his idea that we should understand the “sea” that the children of Israel passed through on their way out of Egypt that then destroyed the Egyptian army not as simply a body of water but “an anti-creational agent” (1015). It seems helpful to see that there are indeed forces at work in the world that are present in this story that are destructive and not direct agents of God.
I worry, though, that Boyd seems inclined to see this “agent” as a tool for God’s punitive judgment (rather than, perhaps, simply an agent of chaos). It is not much of a moral advance to say that God uses such a force in order to punish the Egyptians over saying that God directly reached down and punished. As I discussed earlier, I think the notion of punishment itself is problematic and that Boyd is too sanguine about such a notion.
Another possible danger in Boyd’s argument is that he will too easily leave the social/political/imperialistic powers off the hook. Rather than keeping Pharaoh (and empire in general) at the center in this story (and others in the Bible), by making these forces of destruction autonomous, personal spiritual beings, Boyd may undermine the crucial biblical critique of the social and political powers of empire and other structures of domination.
Boyd argues that the key idea with his principle of cosmic conflict (recognizing the “thoroughly mythic” character of the “raging waters” imagery in Exodus) is this: “The creation must be continually protected by God from hostile forces that perpetually seek to ‘kill and steal and destroy’ (John 10:10) the good order that God established by restraining these forces, and thereby to revert creation back into chaos” (1015). That is, the on-going default position of the world is “chaos” except for when God actively restrains the ever-present forces of evil. Now, God does do this—most of the time. This seems to be one of the main ways God influences the world in Boyd’s view, by strategically choosing when not to restrain the forces of chaos.
This way of thinking does not sit well with me. I think it is good to see an element of conflict in the cosmos and in the world. As we learn from Walter Wink (Engaging the Powers), the world does include actors beyond humans, animals, and God. And some of these actors are malevolent. However, I do not see the conflict as so fundamental as Boyd does. As well, again, a big danger with his theology is that these “hostile forces” might easily be depoliticized and seen as autonomous beings and not linked with our structures and institutions. I would say that these “forces” are not inherently hostile and in fact can be “tamed” and returned to their place as part of the good ordering of human social life.
Boyd suggests that the Old Testament’s “cosmic monsters and deities,” while “obviously mythic,” “have been appropriated into the canon”—since Jesus and the NT “emphatically affirm the realities of cosmic forces of evil … we should consider them to be ancient ways of returning to Satan and to other menacing principalities and powers” (1019).
Again, this idea is suggestive if we don’t separate “Satan” from the human structures and ideologies. I do think there is continuity between Paul’s Powers language and the rest of the Bible. But the Powers metaphor is a way to see the human social/cultural world, not a way to underwrite belief in autonomous, personal creatures of evil. So, when Boyd applies the notion of “cosmic monsters and deities” to understanding, say, the violence in the exodus story, I think he offers a helpful insight that can help us see the complexities of the events and recognize that the story is not telling of God’s direct intervention to kill people. However, I also believe that we must never let Pharaoh in the story off the hook. We should recognize a close connection between the “cosmic monsters” and the human monster whose actions triggered the entire dynamic of violence in the story (and who has many successors in history’s emperors, kings, and presidents).
One last point from Boyd: “The earth is surrounded by threatening cosmic forces of destruction (i.e., raging waters, cosmic sea creatures, rebel gods). God and his heavenly hosts must continually hold those forces at bay to keep them from destroying people and undoing the order of creation” (1038). I find this characterization overly dramatic. Boyd takes a relatively minor motif and makes it central. I do find it helpful to note the “spiritual” dimension to reality and to think of how it should be understood in the context of a story such as the exodus, but I also think that Boyd edges toward a dualistic view. These “cosmic forces” should not be separated from their social/political expression and seen as autonomous entities.