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

Ted Grimsrud—December 30, 2017

[This is the 24th 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 23rd post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]

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

God’s way of dealing with sin and evil

Boyd once more emphasizes the role of the withdrawal of God’s “protection” in dealing with the sin problem. “In a world that is presently caught in the cross fire of a cosmic war and that is engulfed by violent forces of destruction, God need never throw people down to have them experience the destructive consequence of their sin. Rather, God needs only to stop preventing people from falling to have them experience this” (1070).

Now, I do think that Boyd’s sensibility here could be helpful if it were part of a strategy to cultivate love as our only weapon—and if such a strategy were applied to socio-political analysis and action. Martin Luther King, Jr., would be a well-known example of a Christian leader who understood the call to resist evil being about both “spiritual warfare” and concrete political acts of resistance—all undertaken in the name of love. Boyd certainly does affirm love, but he offers little help in discerning our socio-political context (I have noted his tone deaf positive allusions to our militarized Department of Homeland Security in its work vs. “terrorism” in his story about his wife). A second thought is that Boyd’s discussion of God’s way of causing people to suffer the consequences of their sin turns our attention in precisely the wrong direction. It gives “Satan” way too much power, and it seems to reduce the struggle against evil and sin to a moralistic process where God mainly wants to punish sinners—albeit indirectly.

Boyd disagrees with the idea that he has a Manichaean-like dualism that gives equal power to good powers and evil powers. In his defense against that charge (1071), he argues for a biblical portrayal of the ability of Satan to corrupt nature, but that (unlike Manichaeanism) God is the sole creator and that creation was originally good and not a mixture of good and evil. I think, though, that even seeing Satan as a personal being who actively corrupts nature is problematic. I believe, instead, that we are better off using Satan as a metaphor for the corruption that is already there. Is Satan actually an active personal agent or simply a way of talking about the dynamics of the world we live in (that include human idolatry).

Boyd makes a good point about “Manichaeanism” being used in a dismissive way as an arch heresy. The label “Manichaean” has served to marginalize those who dissent from Augustine’s “blue print theology” and “challenged the orthodoxy and/or piety of the institutional church” (1072). The use of “Manichaean” as a dismissive label that illuminates little provides one reason why I would not want to use the term Manichaean of Boyd. However, that Manichaean is an unhelpful label is not evidence that Boyd’s argument is not nonetheless dualistic in a less extreme but still problematic way. The problem is not that Boyd makes Satan equal in power with God (though I do think he gives Satan too much power). Rather, it seems to me that the problem (following Walter Wink) is that Boyd imports an ancient idea (spiritual warfare) into the modern world without being clear enough that he rejects any kind of spiritual/material dualism (as the ancients did and the moderns do not) that would separate spiritual realities from their embeddedness in socio-political realities.

Boyd says he is not a Manichaean because he only believes in an “ethical cosmic dualism,” not a “metaphysical dualism.” He does think the world is “torn between forces of God and evil at every level” but this is true only in the present—“the creation was not so originally and will not always be so” (1074).

So, in effect, Boyd’s is only a temporary good/evil dualism! It strikes me that even a “temporary good/evil dualism” is deeply problematic. It is fatalistic, passivity inducing, lends itself to quietism, and contributes to a depoliticized reading of the Bible. I read the Bible as portraying life as to be lived in the present, not in light of an otherworldly futurism. A big point, it seems to me, is whether we can trust in the inherent goodness (though fragility) of the cosmos. I think civilized life depends on this trust—and such trust is undermined by Boyd’s “ethical cosmic dualism.”

Jesus’s means of “warfare”

I appreciate Boyd’s point when he writes about “the way Jesus, in principle, defeated Satan and the powers on the cross” (1075)—“he waged war simply by living under the other-oriented, agape-loving reign of God.” So, we could argue (and it seems that Boyd does) that the main strategic ramifications of his conflict-oriented worldview are to find ways to live in love.

However, such a commitment to living in love does not for Boyd seem to be part of a sense that living in this way links us with the basic dynamics of the universe. Rather, for Boyd living in love is more a part of a “revolt against every aspect of society and creation that is yet under the corrupting influence of the [evil] powers” (1075). I do appreciate Boyd’s call to nonviolence and his awareness of the dynamics of the Powers that adds a deeper dimension than simply the sum of individual parts in social groups. However, in contrast to Wink’s teaching on the Powers, Boyd seems too pessimistic and his views seem inherently over-againstish in relation to the world we live in.

Boyd surprises me a bit when he goes on to assert, drawing on Revelation, “the only power Satan and other rebel powers have over people is the power of deception” (1076). This statement (which I fully agree with) seems to be in tension with his earlier statements about Satan. Maybe the difference between his view and mine is mostly that he believes in an ontological Satan whose deceptive efforts are more relentless, while I believe in a metaphorical Satan whose “efforts” are more easily resisted—even if we agree about the centrality of deception to the dynamics of what we each may call “Satan.” For both of us, Jesus and his message of love at the center of everything is the main “weapon” in spiritual warfare.

It is interesting that in a comment on the irrevocability of human “morally responsible freedom,” Boyd states that the reality of such freedom is “why God must, for a time, rely on his wisdom and loving influence, rather than sheer power, to work around the lie-based existence of rebels in order to accomplish his providential plans” (1077). I think Boyd’s “for a time” might be telling. It implies that at some point, when the “time is up,” God will use God’s “sheer power” to “accomplish” God’s “providential plans.” Perhaps a key point in all this is that Boyd’s cosmology does require an all-powerful God, one who is always capable of using “sheer power” and who will, in the end, get everything “he” wants. This, perhaps, is what gives Boyd a sense of magnanimity in his portrayal of the evils of present-day existence (including things such as the OT genocides)—things are bad, he seems to say, but God will for sure win in the end.

God’s struggle against chaos

Boyd uses the German term chaoskampf of the on-going struggle of God with the forces of chaos in the universe. He thinks of this struggle in terms of God’s “spiritual warfare.” “The chaoskampf motif depicts God as a cosmic warrior prior to the creation of humans.” The centrality of that struggle shows “that humans were created with an impulse to reflect God’s image not only by loving the way he loves and ruling the way he rules but also by fighting the cosmic forces the way he fights them” (1081). These all seem to be part of a single whole—love, rule, fight. I think Boyd has good insights here. I find it attractive to think about a human “instinct” to resist injustice this way, though I wish this point would push Boyd more think of the struggle in political terms.

With my affirmation, though, I also have a problem with Boyd’s thought here. I am not sure that it is helpful to think of primordial “chaos” as demonic. I tend to think of the chaos more in terms of randomness and God’s lack of controlling power. Boyd’s view hints at an inherent evil in the cosmos, not a universe created good. I am more attracted to the idea that the fallenness of the Powers should be linked more closely to humanity and that there is not some inherent evil in the cosmos itself.

Jesus and Moses

Boyd’s discussion of the parallels between Moses and Jesus is good. He writes, quoting Kenton Sparks: “Like Moses, Jesus was born as a savior. Like Moses, a foreign king tried to kill him. Like Moses, Jesus was hidden from the threatening king in Egypt. Like Moses, Jesus fasted in the desert wilderness for forty days and forty nights. And in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus presented his teaching as a new law that reversed and fulfilled the law of Moses” (1085-6).

However, I understand the differences between Moses and Jesus not in the sense that Jesus replaces Moses so much as Jesus clarifies Moses and reiterates the heart of what Moses was about. Though it may be true that Jesus’s Great Commission (“go and make disciples”) contrasts with Moses’s final words (“go and kill all the nations,” Dt 11:23 LXX; Josh 23:4; 24:18), we should note that the Old Testament call to bless all the families of the earth (Gen 12:1-3, et al) precedes Moses and provides a broader context for the Moses story.

The Old Testament presents even the Conquest as part of the founding vocation of the Hebrews to bless all the families of the earth. The big problem the prophets had with the territorial kingdom that followed was that the kings led the people in lives of injustice and idolatry. The prophets point to the core meaning of Torah as a calling to embody genuine justice and shalom—and to teach the entire world to “study war no more” (Isa 2:2-4; Mic 4:1-3).

Repudiating the myth of redemptive violence

I think that Boyd actually gives mixed messages concerning the place of violence in the divine economy of salvation. He explicitly reject “Anselm’s satisfaction model” because it places “the myth of redemptive violence” at the center. “If any group becomes convinced that God solves the ultimate problem facing humanity and creation by engaging in violence, they will be more inclined to assume that this is the ‘godly way’ they too are to solve problems” (1087).

Such an affirmation of the problem for human practices that follows from accepting that God requires violence for salvation is great as far as it goes. However, I think the repudiation of violence needs to go deeper. Boyd still sees the presence of punishment (which I see as inherently violent) in God’s response to wrongdoing and he still understands the “ultimate problem” to be our sinfulness as a condition (which would seem to require some kind of sacrificial dynamic that makes sinful humanity acceptable to God). I simply do not see how Boyd actually does escape satisfaction dynamics.

Boyd does say here that the Christus Victor model, in contrast to satisfaction views, “places at the heart of Christian theology the example of God fighting forces of evil with nonviolent, self-sacrificial love” (1087). Yet, it still seems that Christus Victor (as Boyd presents it) requires Jesus’s violent death. Boyd continually reiterates that he makes the cross (violent death) central while he rarely emphasizes Jesus’s life of nonviolent love prior to his death. Boyd’s model is Jesus as crucified more than Jesus as nonviolent resister to the Powers of Empire and hierarchical religion.

Boyd portrays human history fundamentally as being, “for the most part, … a hellish record of cyclical bloodshed.” He attributes this to “the world [being] engulfed by the forces of evil” (1087). I’d rather see, informed by Andrew Bard Schmookler and Walter Wink among others, that human history is mainly peaceable (we wouldn’t have evolved and survived otherwise). Our big danger is the mutation of “civilization” and its attendant Powers linked with the structures of domination, not personal demonic beings. The Powers analysis is helpful when we link the structures of civilization inextricably with the Powers. However, Boyd’s view of Satan as personal and autonomous and inherently powerful separates the Powers from the structures and becomes unhelpful and depoliticized in many ways.

Boyd suggests that the problem with the story of the Conquest was that the Hebrews wrongly “tended to associate their earthly enemies with their true cosmic enemies” (1089-90). This is a tricky point in that, as I see it, it is the embodiment of the Powers in the structures of domination that the Exodus and Conquest were indeed challenging. This sensibility is emphasized at the end of the Bible with the link between the Dragon (Satan) and the Beast (the Roman Empire—and it successors).

Boyd seems to imply that the Hebrews taking over the land and establishing a territorial kingdom was fine. I would rather say that it was kind of a divine experiment that resulted in the lesson that territoriality itself was the problem. We learn through the unfolding of the story that you can’t have territoriality, it turns out, without the Powers’ corruption that turns kings and other political and religious elite into agents of domination. Territoriality in many ways stands as the human political problem. As the saying goes: human beings first create borders and then borders create human beings.

“Violence with a godly motivation”

Boyd, taking the story of the Conquest as historical, argues that we can learn positive lessons from it. “Even though the Israelites were, to some degree, held captive by their fallen, violence-prone Ancient Near Eastern culture, the fact that they often engaged in violence with a godly motivation, combined with the fact that the cruciform God was willing to continue to further his sovereign purposes through them, despite their violence, means that … we can discern truths about spiritual warfare in the midst of their physical warfare” (1093). That is, we can learn from those stories how better to engage in our struggle with Satan and the demons. For example, we may interpret “the Canaanites and their false gods as symbols of sin and evil that must be mercilessly driven out if we are to inherit the promised land of our inheritance in Christ” (1095).

Among many problems with this sentiment, I will mention just one here. Boyd seems to think that there was something distinctive in the Israelites having a “godly motivation” that makes their violence less problematic and able to teach us lessons for our lives. I would point out that most violence in human history has been engaged in “with a godly motivation.” That motivation is precisely the problem—divine “support” motivating atrocity after atrocity. In contrast, a Jesus-centered approach would say that engaging in violence “with a godly motivation” is always twisting God’s will to serve human purposes. That is, such violence is precisely clear evidence that one is engaged in idolatry. That is one of the main lessons of the cross—those who killed Jesus claimed to engage in “godly violence” when they were in truth showing that they were following idols. With his misreading of the cross, Boyd seemingly misses this message.

He makes a similar point regarding the imprecatory prayers in the Psalms and their desire for divine violence to be visited on their enemies (e.g., Ps 58:10’s joy in the possibility of wading in enemies’ blood and Ps 137:9’s hope to smash the heads of the enemy’s infants on rocks). “The primary motivation of these authors was to see Yahweh vanquish evil, injustice, and sin as they yearned for God’s glory and honor to be put on display to the nations” (1096). This same kind of “motivation” was surely present during many of the Crusades in the Middle Ages—and the consequence of the violence was exactly the opposite of vanquishing evil, injustice, and sin.

I believe that we may learn some positive lessons from these psalms about the validity of emotions and seeing prayer as a substitute for actual human violence. But the biggest lesson to be learned has to be negative. We must recognize that there is nothing of God in these psalms—or in the genocide stories—or in the execution of Jesus.

The next post in the series may be found here

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


3 thoughts on “Boyd and New Testament Spiritual Warfare [chapter 22]—Part two

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

  2. Pingback: More on Boyd and Spiritual Warfare [chapter 23] | Peace Theology

  3. Rob

    “Such an affirmation of the problem for human practices that follows from accepting that God requires violence for salvation is great as far as it goes. However, I think the repudiation of violence needs to go deeper. Boyd still sees the presence of punishment (which I see as inherently violent) in God’s response to wrongdoing and he still understands the “ultimate problem” to be our sinfulness as a condition (which would seem to require some kind of sacrificial dynamic that makes sinful humanity acceptable to God). I simply do not see how Boyd actually does escape satisfaction dynamics.”

    This, for me, is a summation of the number problem that underlies most of the other issues in CWG: at the very heart of Boyd’s theology is a kernel of violence (in the form of a satisfaction-based atonement model) that infects everything else.


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