Boyd and New Testament Spiritual Warfare [chapter 22]—Part one

Ted Grimsrud—December 30, 2017

[This is the 23rd 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 22nd post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]

In Chapter 22, “Caught in the Cross Fire: Cosmic Conflict and the New Testament” (pages 1041-1098), Boyd expands on the place of the spiritual forces of evil in his theology—most specifically in relation to the theme of CWG (how to hold together a commitment to Christian pacifism with a belief that the violent portraits of God in the Old Testament are part of inspired scripture) but also, more generally, in relation to his entire theological project.

Depoliticizing the New Testament critique of the powers that be?

It becomes clear in this chapter just how important a role his understanding of Satan plays for Boyd’s theology and ethics. My sense is that he has some important insights and helpfully challenges us to be more attentive to what has been in many circles a neglected aspect of the biblical story. Yet, I fear that he goes too far in many of his emphases and unfortunately undermines his case for divine nonviolence and Christian pacifism.

Boyd seems to take pretty literally scattered NT allusions to Satan’s control of the world: “The role given to Satan throughout the NT is absolutely without precedent. For example, according to John, Jesus three times refers to Satan as ‘the prince of this world’ (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11). The word translated ‘prince’ customarily referred to ‘the highest official in a city or region in the Greco-Roman world.’ Hence, while Jesus and his followers of course believed that God was the ultimate Lord over creation, it is apparent that Jesus viewed Satan as the functional ruler over the earth at the present time” (1044-5).

It seems to me that Boyd takes what is more a rhetorical flourish indicating the fallenness of human institutions (and the problem of humans giving loyalty to these institutions) and posits instead the existence of extraordinarily powerful spirit beings. This literalness can have the effect of depoliticizing the NT critique of the powers that be. One big danger with Boyd’s argument is that he tends to see Satan as an autonomous being with an existence independent of the various structures, institutions, belief systems, and the like that can shape human life for evil. What may result is a dualism where evil becomes a disembodied spiritual force and not always embedded in oppressive human structures and ideologies.

“While the NT never minimizes human responsibility for sin, it also consistently depicts Satan, fallen powers, and/or demons as ever-present forces of evil that spiritually oppress people and lure them toward sin” (1048). I fear, though, that Boyd actually does “minimize human responsibility” when he thinks of Satan, et al, too much as personal beings, separate from the human structures and ideologies.

I believe that “Satan” is a helpful metaphor for the personal, active, seductive dynamics of those structures and ideologies. However, to think of Satan as an autonomous, purely evil being may have the effect of depoliticizing these forces and of making it more likely that we will think of evil more in personal, spiritual ways and less in structural, socio-political ways. I am reminded of “The Father’s Song,” by British folksinger Ewan MacColl: “There’s no bogeyman to get you, never fear/There’s no ogres, wicked witches/ Only greedy sons of bitches/Who are waiting to exploit your life away.”

I think that Boyd overstates how the book of Revelation depicts Satan and other forces of evil possessing “great authority” (1049). In contrast, I think that Revelation’s intent is to undermine the claims of authority of the spiritual forces of evil (the Dragon, the Beast, the False Prophet) that are invariably linked closely with human structures such as the Roman Empire. In the end in Revelation, there is no battle. After being anticipated by the Powers, the actual “battle” in Revelation 19 consists simply in the already victorious Jesus Christ capturing the Beast and False prophet. Revelation represents the power of the Dragon as simply the power of deception. To recognize the victory the Lamb already won is to be freed here and now from the power of the Dragon and Beast. In fact, to believe that Satan truly did possess great authority was to play into the deception that Revelation counters.

Walter Wink argues in Engaging the Powers that to become a Christian and believe in the demonic without recognizing the social dimension makes things worse. This failure to see the social and spiritual as intertwined is one of the main reasons that Christians have tended to side with the powers of domination and undermine the message of Jesus. Boyd does indeed get the message of Jesus mostly right and seeks to apply that message to reading the violent portraits of God. He clearly hopes that his presentation will further Jesus’s way of peace in the world. However, along with problems I have already discussed, I fear that we will have to add the problem of depoliticizing and overly empowering Satan.

Boyd makes an important point when he notes that the NT (especially Paul) teaches that our genuine struggle is not against humans but against the spiritual powers. “God’s people are to only engage in spiritual battles, never in violent human-against-human battles” (1052). Insofar as he here calls for a profound commitment to nonviolence, he gets the biblical call right. However, he seems to go further and to lean against the importance of nonviolent direct action vs. injustice and injustice. I agree we should not engage in “violent human-against-human battles” with violence of our own. However, as Gandhi showed us, it is possible to engage in such battles without violence and thereby to resist our world’s spiral of violence and domination.

Boyd seems to separate the spiritual powers from human structures. Rather than separating “spiritual” from “human-against-human” battles, I would say that all “spiritual battles” are also human battles. The issue actually has to do with the means with which we “fight” human battles, not some kind of autonomous “spiritual” battle. I do note that in the very next paragraph, Boyd says good things about Jesus engaging “in spiritual warfare … by living a life that revolted against the ungodly systemic aspects of his culture” (1052). I wish he would do more with this insight.

How the cross works

Boyd understands his view of the meaning of the cross in terms of what is called the “Christus Victor” understanding of the atonement. The key motif in this view is that Jesus is the victor over the powers of evil in the cross: “By choosing to give his life for his enemies rather than to fight ‘flesh and blood,’ Jesus wages the ultimate battle against [the Powers]. This ultimate expression of nonviolent, self-sacrificial love for a race of lost rebels ‘disarmed’ the powers and authorities’ (Col 2:15), broke ‘the power of him who holds the power of death’ (Heb 2:14), destroyed ‘the devil’s work’ (Jn 12:31), and thus, in principle, brought an end to his reign” (1054-5). These words make it clear why Boyd sees the cross as the centerpiece to his affirmation of nonviolence. I believe that we could also cite Revelation 19:11-21 with its picture of the victorious rider on the white horse riding forth into “battle” against the evil powers with his blood already shed as another NT passage that points toward the Christus Victor view.

However, I believe that within the broad picture Boyd paints here, we need one more step where we learn how this “battle” actually works and what makes Jesus victorious. A big question I have for Boyd’s cruciocentric argument is what is the mechanism whereby the cross defeats the evil powers. How does it actually work? Here, he affirms that the cross is the means to victory, but he does not actually explain how.

Boyd posits that the “wicked powers” (which he apparently understands to be personal beings with intelligence and volition) perceived that when Jesus “became human,” he “placed himself under their jurisdiction” and became “killable.” They, thus, were deluded to think “God had finally taken a misstep” and took the chance “to strike back.” To do this, “they manipulated people who had acquired wicked hearts and were thus susceptible to their evil influence to bring about Jesus’s execution” (1058).

I think Boyd enters the realm of the unhelpfully speculative here. He takes what should be seen as metaphorical language in Paul about the powers being “deceived” too literally. Again, a big problem arises when he separates the human and spiritual powers from each other and sees the human power elite as mere tools of the demons. I would rather understand the power elite as themselves the actors in the arrest, torture, and execution of Jesus—just as they have been in treating countless other “trouble makers” the same. The language of Powers is a metaphorical way of talking about the social, ideological, and religious dynamics that shape the perspectives and actions of the elite when they bring death.

Though Boyd affirms a “Christus Victor” view that focuses on the spiritual conflict between the Powers and God (and that can be adapted in ways where the Powers are, in a sense, demythologized and have to do with what Wink calls the “interiority” or “spirituality” of oppressive human structures), he also sees the heart of the problem as legal faults. He uses language such as “covenant breaking” and “the unfaithfulness of the first Adam.” It is not clear how moving the drama into the legal realm fits with the idea that the key element is the defeat of Satan. The legal themes fit better with the satisfaction and penal substitution approaches.

Though Boyd emphasizes the role of Satan, he does not discuss idolatry here when he talks about the human problem. That seems like a major oversight since idolatry is the core human problem in the Bible. And idolatry links more closely to Satan. We can see how defeating Satan would solve the problem of idolatry since Satan is the “deceiver.” How does defeating Satan resolve the covenant-breaking problem?

What happens in Jesus’s cross?

The “victory” that Jesus won on the cross is accomplished, Boyd says, “by God simply withdrawing his protective hand as an act of judgment on sin, thereby allowing the fallen powers and wicked humans to carry out the violence against Jesus that they wanted to carry out” (1059). I am not clear how this works. What is “judgment on sin”? Does it mean judgment against human beings for their sin? And how would a punishment-centered understanding of the cross not be a version of the penal substitution atonement view?

Boyd does not tell us what this “violence against Jesus” accomplishes. Is it a kind of divine rope-a-dope where God wears Satan out by letting Satan visit violence upon God through killing Jesus? But what would wearing Satan out accomplish? Or is the violence against Jesus a kind of substitutionary violence where Jesus receives that “judgment on sin” that we deserve? Or is “God … allowing the … violence against Jesus” about exposing the Powers as rebels against God? This last is what I would say—that whatever “victory” there is in the cross is found in how those events reveal the state and temple as rebels against God and not God’s agents, and hence not worthy of our trust. However, I do not see how such an exposure of the Powers is “judgment vs. sin”—or a defeat of the literal Satan.

This is how Boyd summarizes what happened with the cross: (1) It caused evil to self-implode and broke the power of all deceptive images of God; (2) it gives the most perfect revelation of God’s true self-sacrificial character and abolishes Satan’s efforts to assassinate God’s character; (3) it brings the greatest conceivable good out of the greatest conceivable evil; (4) it frees humanity from the self-destructive consequences of all covenant breaking and incorporates us into Christ so we may now share in Christ’s faithfulness; (5) it frees us from the fear of death that Satan uses to hold us captive; and (6) it makes up the supreme example that God’s people may now emulate in all our relations—especially to love our enemies (1059-60).

This is a good list, and it certainly makes clear why Boyd bases his convictions about Christian nonviolence on the cross. However, the list remains pretty abstract and not particularly closely connected to the actual events of the story of the end of Jesus’s life. For example, there is nothing in Boyd’s list about the specificities of the Roman Empire’s antipathy toward Jesus nor the political meaning of crucifixion as the Empire’s form of the execution of political “criminals.” Boyd’s summary makes the cross seem ahistorical and apolitical.

Jesus bears our sin “in the sense that he fully identifies with our fallen, demonically oppressed, godforsaken condition”—but without being a penal substitute. (1061) Well, I think first of all that this notion seems like way too negative a view of the human condition. It posits a kind of collective guilt, original sin view. It makes the problem our condition, not what we actually do. And it generalizes about all human beings. In what sense are “we” all “godforsaken”? Does he mean that literally—God actually forsakes us? And, then, how does Jesus’s identifying with us in our terrible state “bear our sin”? I am not sure what that means. This points to a big question: What is the human condition that Jesus needs to address? I would say that our “condition” is mainly living in an environment dominated by the idolatry of fallen social structures—being deceived and disempowered. We are basically good and always loved and always sought after by God—but weak, deceived, and disempowered.

Dealing with sin

Boyd insists that his view differs significantly from the penal substitution atonement view (p.s.a.). He rejects the idea that God needed to vent God’s wrath “by murdering his Son.” Rather, “Jesus bore our punishment in the sense that he voluntarily suffered the divine abandonment that we deserved and suffered all the destructive consequences that are inherent in sin” (1061-2). This was a “battle” versus the Powers waged nonviolently in that Jesus agreed to be delivered over to the violent powers and their human minions.

Though I am glad Boyd rejects the idea of God killing Jesus, I want to distance myself further from that view than Boyd does. I don’t believe that God in any way wants to punish human beings nor that we deserve “divine abandonment,” nor that God wants anyone to suffer “destructive consequences that are inherent in sin.” It seems that Boyd does accept the basic guilt/punishment/moral order dynamics of the p.s.a., but instead of seeing God actively involved in violence versus Jesus, he sees the (necessary) violence as coming from Satan and, aikido-like, is used by God. However, Boyd’s discussion is still replete with the dynamics of desert, reciprocity, payment, punishment, judgment, et al. I think his way of thinking here is too “cosmic”—putting the dynamics of salvation in the heavenly, spiritual realm rather than the on the ground dynamics that characterize the story of Jesus’s death.

Instead, of thinking on this cosmic level, I would say that the actual issues are empowerment and ignorance in relation to living faithfully to the message of Torah as summarized in Jesus’s teaching (e.g., loving enemies, forgiving, resisting the Powers, etc.). The story itself has none of the guilt/punishment stuff Boyd reads into it, but the story focuses instead on God’s constant love and mercy that seek always to help us. God shows us God’s love in Jesus’s faithful life in order to break through our ignorance and bondage and “free us from our sins” (that is, free us from the false gods and ideologies that we tend to embrace out of fear and oppression and that enlist us to support and acquiesce to the Domination System).

Boyd clearly also intends to challenge the hegemony of violence in the story and in Christian ethics. He writes: “The Christus Victor model places enemy-loving nonviolence in center stage and thereby subverts the ‘myth of redemptive violence’” (1062). He adds that his view of atonement can influence us to be nonviolent ourselves. I, of course, strongly approve of Boyd’s desire to validate nonviolence and to present his atonement theology as pointing in that direction. However, I don’t see how Boyd’s atonement theology actually does what he says he wants it to. He has not rooted out the presence of violence in the tradition’s cosmology that posits a metaphysics of love plus retributive justice. His theology is grounded in a negative anthropology and the need for punishment, albeit the “punishment” of divine withdrawal, not direct engagement. Boyd’s God does not strike us directly, but this God does decide that the inherent violence of the Powers will be loosed on Jesus, so he might “bear our sins.”

Satan and the dynamics of sin

Boyd makes a good statement: “The entire biblical drama of God’s working to restore us to himself is a conflict between God’s truth and Satan’s deception” (1065). I would add, though, that the insight about the cosmic conflict has to be made concrete and be linked with the practice of idolatry and with the social/political embodiment of Satan in the structures and ideologies. We must remember how idolatry and injustice are intertwined in the prophets. It is a helpful interpretive angle to read the prophets in light of the “spiritual warfare” dynamic. This way we can recognize that spiritual warfare is always socio-political (as the book of Revelation shows us). However, Boyd seems to minimize the “spiritual”/“socio-political” connection. As a consequence, his discussion tends toward being mystification and toward operating on the level of religion/theology/personal spirituality rather than concrete socio-political life.

Boyd continues: “If we accept the NT’s perspective that we exist in the cross fire of a cosmic battle, we should no longer assume that peace and harmony are the norm in our world, for in the midst of a fierce battle, conflict and destruction are the norm” (1069). I think this statement is problematic. By seeing “Satan” as a literal and extremely powerful personal being, Boyd sets us up with a conflict-centered view of reality as a permanent battle. Now, if he developed a thick notion of nonviolent action that was thoroughly political emphasizing conflict would not be totally bad. However, his two-kingdomish view of politics undermines that. Boyd seems little interested in imagining how a thoroughly nonviolent Christian social ethics could have direct relevance in peacemaking in the actual historical conflicts and struggles for social justice we live amidst. He tends to see Christian pacifism to be relevant mainly for how Christians can avoid being enmeshed in worldly politics rather than make a distinctive contribution to those politics.

As well, Boyd’s view of the satanic as exceedingly powerful goes against biblical ideas of reality as good, of harmony as our default condition, and of the problems we face being mainly about the deception of not realizing how simple and easy connecting with God and living in love is. I think it is very different to see deception as the problem as opposed to seeing a living and extremely powerful Satan as the problem.

Now, I do think “Satan” is a useful symbol for helping us see how the dynamics of deception are active and seductive and do draw us in and shape us. I also find the notion of the “demonic” as helpful when I encounter the craziness of many hurtful views (such as white supremacy, patriarchy, homophobia, and—perhaps most of all—warism). With these issues, there is some force at work in people’s minds that heightens irrationality and hatred. Overcoming deception is difficult and our systems of deceit run deep (e.g., warism, racism, sexism, homophobia, capitalism, nationalism). However, people can be freed from such idolatry and turn from siding with oppression to commitment to resist oppression.

I also think that “warfare” can be a helpful metaphor in relation to the struggle against these deceptions that underwrite oppression. However, to think of the “warfare” as mainly being about “fighting” a personal Satan seems less helpful. I think of Revelation’s picture of the “Lamb’s war” that involves following Jesus’s path of persevering love that led to resistance against the ways of the Empire and against hierarchical, oppressive religion—resistance that led to his execution. The “weapons” of this “war” were “following the Lamb wherever he goes” (Rev 12:11; 14:4).

Due to the unusual length of this post, it has been divided into two parts. The second part may be found here.

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


6 thoughts on “Boyd and New Testament Spiritual Warfare [chapter 22]—Part one

  1. Pingback: Boyd and New Testament Spiritual Warfare [chapter 22]—Part two | Peace Theology

  2. Rob

    “It seems that Boyd does accept the basic guilt/punishment/moral order dynamics of the p.s.a., but instead of seeing God actively involved in violence versus Jesus, he sees the (necessary) violence as coming from Satan and, aikido-like, is used by God.” Yep, that’s pretty much how I’d characterise Boyd’s view too.

    When I reviewed CWG, one of my major critiques was that Boyd’s hermeneutic only holds up if you believe in the ontological reality of satan/demons. In his response, one of the arguments Boyd offered in defence of believing in the existence of angels and demons was that “doing so allows us to affirm the full inspiration of Scripture without accepting that God actually engaged in the violence that OT authors sometimes ascribe to him”. Does that seem as circular to you as it does to me?

  3. Ted Grimsrud Post author

    Maybe not, Rob. The circularity doesn’t jump out at me. But the self-contradictory nature of saying that believing in demons allows us to affirm inspiration in order that we can explain why the violent portraits aren’t actually true does seem clear.

    1. Rob Grayson

      You’re right, Ted. Circular wasn’t the right word. Back-to-front is more like it. What I mean is, it seems back-to-front to suggest that we should believe in angels and demons in order to be able to hold to scriptural inspiration. The opposite position – believing in angels and demons because the Bible talks about them and you believe the Bible to be divinely inspired – seems much more logical (though I would still disagree with it).

      1. Ted Grimsrud Post author

        This is helpful, Rob. I do think Boyd’s argument seems as “back-to-front” as you do! Wrestling with CWG has really helped me understand much better the problems with the evangelical approach to “inspiration.”

        I can see “inspiration” as a helpful metaphor to make a point about how insightful the Bible is—applied to the Bible as a conclusion based on experiencing the profundity of the Bible. To use it as a starting point and unassailable doctrine as Boyd (and so many others) do, though, leads to a very distorted reading of the Bible.

  4. Pingback: Boyd and Old Testament Spiritual Warfare [chapter 21] | Peace Theology

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