Ted Grimsrud—January 24, 2018
[This is the 27th (and last) in a long series of posts that have worked 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 26th post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]
In Chapter 25, “Mauling Bears and a Lethal Palladium” (pages 1195–1248), Boyd discusses his final category of violent divine portraits, what he calls “The Principle of Semiautonomous Power.” He then has a short “Postscript” (pages 1249–61), subtitled “Unlocking the Secret of the Scroll,” that is essentially a summary of the core argument of CWG as a whole. He concludes the book with a series of “Appendices” (pages 1263–1301) that elaborate on various issues that have arisen in the book.
Misusing God’s power
Boyd discusses several stories that tell of God giving someone superhuman powers—and then having those individuals use the powers to do violence. Examples are Samson and the prophets Elijah and Elisha. It what sense should we attribute such violence to God? Boyd coins the term “semiautonomous power” to describe how the violence should not be laid at God’s feet. “When God gives someone divine power, he … places [it] under the control of their own power” (1196).
These stories don’t seem particularly important to me, partly because they are rare and peripheral. More to the point, to me the question is why these stories were told. What contribution do they make to the Big Story? The story of Samson seems relatively easy to deal with since Samson is presented as a less than exemplary character and to a significant extent, his violent deeds illustrate the chaos that the book of Judges shows—“when there was no king in Israel.” The violence of Elijah and Elisha seems to make a less obvious contribution to the story. Certainly, though, the violence is not normative.
Boyd asserts, regarding Samson, that “the immature, immoral, and violent ways Samson used the power of [God’s] Spirit can only be understood as reflecting Samson’s will and character, not God’s” (1230). But I wonder—isn’t God the one who gave Samson this power? Doesn’t that make God in some sense responsible for the consequences of how it was used? Again, it seems that Boyd is too focused on keeping God’s hands clean. That focus seems to follow from Boyd’s problematic view of inspiration. In a move that may make things worse, Boyd wants to turn God’s seeming irresponsibility into a virtue: “We can only marvel at the humility of a God who, out of covenantal solidarity with his people, would stoop to work through legends of a man who was as infantile and degenerate as Samson” (1231). I’m not sure what I think we should learn from the Samson story, but I do think it shows God in a pretty bad light.
Boyd’s point with the principle of semiautonomous power is that “God is not implicated in the violent way his servants sometimes used his power” (1197). I find this argument to be unpersuasive—the stories themselves don’t seem to tell us this. They celebrate God’s involvement. The power for violence seems unambiguously attributed to God. So, Boyd’s principle seems like another convoluted effort to leave God with clean hands.
The alternative, of course, is to recognize these stories as simply stories, legends that are not in themselves directly inspired and do not tell us what exactly happened in history. The stories of Elijah and Elisha do advance the plot of the Big Story and, along with so many other morally problematic stories, help us see the problems endemic to territorial kingdoms and the need for an alternative politics—which we see pointed toward in Torah itself and Torah as interpreted by later prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah. And these alternative politics are fully embodied by Jesus.
Boyd’s argument in CWG, it seems to me, ends with a whimper, not a bang. In relation to the OT violent portraits of God, Boyd argument creates several “principals” that make a coherent, logical argument and then it makes the case for these principals by examining various texts. But Boyd does not bring these principles together to show how the argument as a whole works. What he gives us is more of a linear, first one point then the next approach in which the whole is not spelled out.
More importantly, Boyd’s approach is a kind of dissecting the Bible into simply a collection of pieces. He seems to have little interest in a sense that, when read as a whole, the stories give us a coherent Big Story that provides its own level of meaning beyond the individual stories. Boyd has little sense for seeing the issue of the violent portraits of God in the context of a grand narrative where the whole is more than simply a collection of the parts. I think the issue of the violent portraits is best examined, ultimately, in relation to what’s going on in the Big Story.
What CWG is about
Boyd’s “postscript” helpfully gives a nutshell look at his argument in CWG. I would have liked him to expand on his summary a bit, especially saying more about the key theological and ethical implications of his perspective on the violent portraits.
He begins by using Revelation’s Lamb as the paradigmatic expression of how Yahweh may be seen as “a nonviolent, self-sacrificial God” (1249). I belief he is exactly right to use Revelation’s Lamb as his core image for the nonviolence of Jesus (and hence, God). One reason this image works so well is because using the Lamb in this way is precisely what Revelation itself does with its high christology that links Jesus and God more closely together than any other New Testament book.
I’d still, nonetheless, frame the Lamb image a bit differently. I believe that with the image, Revelation has in mind Jesus’s entire way of life and not his death as an autonomous event—which is how Boyd could be read as presenting it. I am sure that Boyd would at least somewhat agree that the Lamb image has Jesus’ life as well as death in mind. However, his tone (as throughout the book) is too death-centered. He also does not emphasize the intrinsically political nature of John’s account of the “revelation of Jesus Christ.”
I mostly agree with Boyd’s sense of the centrality to everything of God’s revelation in Jesus: “If we fail to fully trust the revelation of the crucified Christ and thereby credit ancient authors who depicted God in violent ways with getting it right, we are essentially trading the unclouded revelation of the Son … for the cloudy perspective of ancient authors who could only catch ‘glimpses of truth’ (Heb 1:1)” (1252).
However, it seems to me that this approach of talking about “the cloudy perspective of ancient authors” is not very compatible with Boyd’s “Conservative Hermeneutical Principle” or with the general understanding of people who use the term “biblical infallibility.” I take the basic insight about choosing Jesus over “violent portraits” in a somewhat different direction than Boyd. I say we expect the Jesus story (not only his death) to help us find points of contact with the OT story (since that was his Bible, and he didn’t have the cross to determine his theology)—and we find in that story the guidance for responding to the violent portraits (which seem not to have deterred Jesus from his peaceable convictions). That is, I make less use of language of “biblical infallibility” while actually valuing the OT materials more.
While Boyd’s “Principle of Cruciform Accommodation” helpfully insists that it is “the cross, rather than a presupposed philosophical conception of what a ‘perfect being’ should be like” that should shape our view of God, I am troubled by assumptions about God’s being that seem to retain many “perfect being” elements. The idea of God “stooping” an “infinite distance … to become his own antithesis on Calvary” (1253) seems to reflect such a sense of God’s perfection. As well, Boyd’s speculative comments about “the manner in which the Father, Son, and Spirit utterly pour themselves out for each other to constitute God’s own eternal essence” (1253) seem too much like a “philosophical conception” of what God must be like. This all distracts from the concreteness of Jesus’s life and the OT story as our core revelation of God.
In his summary of the message of CWG in this postscript, Boyd’s retributive assumptions again come up: “When God sees that his merciful protection of people from the destructive consequences of their choices is only serving to further harden these people in their sin, God has no choice but to withdraw this protection and allow their sin to ricochet back on them as divine judgment” (1255). I think it is telling, and disappointing, that Boyd does not notice that his language here actually qualifies/limits God’s mercy: “God has no choice” but to quit being merciful. I believe that in the biblical picture God’s mercy has no limits. It is precisely people who make bad choices that God pursues and seeks to turn toward reconciliations and healing. Now, I do believe that God does not have the power to intervene to stop consequences of sin, but this is due to limits to God’s power, not to “divine judgment” that limits God’s mercy.
Boyd does assert that such judgment “is not God’s last word” (1255). He points out that God acts in raising Jesus “with a view toward … the ultimate restoration of humanity and the whole creation” (1256). But it seems to me that if Boyd actually believes in such “ultimate restoration,” he should not use the language of punishment and judgment so carelessly.
I note gratefully Boyd’s final conclusion: The Cruciform Thesis requires “us to repudiate all the violence that is ascribed to God in Scripture” (1261). I do agree that followers of Jesus must repudiate this violence. I believe that such repudiation is the key point in all of CWG and because Boyd makes such an assertion, I end up with a positive evaluation of his book.
However, I don’t think Boyd actually makes a very good case for his conclusion in this book. He holds on to an “infallible” Bible, an all-powerful God, and maybe most importantly a God bound by the moral fabric of the universe to be retributive and to exercise punitive judgment by “redemptive withdrawal.” He also holds on to a view of the world as deeply in bondage to sin and the very powerful evil Powers who are under the sway of a personal Satan. He also has a problematic, apparently sacrificial view of the cross and seems uninterested in the Big Story of the Bible as a major source for ethics.
I tend to think that nonviolence is ultimately not very compatible with that set of beliefs I just listed from Boyd’s book. I believe that the case for repudiating “all the violence that is ascribed to God in Scripture” requires of us:
- We should focus most of all on Jesus’s life and teaching (not his death) and make a case for how that life and teaching are based on the message about God that is contained in the OT story, especially in the prophets (rather than mainly approaching the OT as a problem and seeing Jesus and Torah in opposition).
- We should be ready to understand that many of the particulars in the OT are not inspired and to recognize that the Bible’s truthfulness is found most of all in the Big Story, with some specific parts being untrue except insofar as they play a role in the Big Story.
- We should recognize that God can not be good and all-powerful at the same time. We should embrace God’s weakness and reject both that God is retributive and that God exercises selective protective control.
- We should understand creation to be good, evil to be impersonal and founded in active deception by the Powers, and Satan as metaphorical. We should recognize that we must go into our essence as good creatures of God in a good universe to be able to resist evil. The problem we need to recognize as central is not Satan or fallenness/sinfulness that corrupts us all, but the dynamics of idolatry as expressed by the human power elite and too easily accepted by others. Jesus brings salvation not by a sacrificial death but by a life lived free from idolatry, illuminating for us how to live freely ourselves.
Appendix IX: The Testing of Abraham. Boyd spends a bit of time on the famous difficult passage where God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Boyd suggests that in order to free Abraham from his pagan views of God, “God stooped to temporarily bear Abraham’s sinful and culturally conditioned suspicions about his character and to therefore momentarily take on an appearance that seemed to confirm these suspicions” (1292). In a parallel way in the New Testament, “when Jesus tested the faith of a Canaanite woman [he] momentarily [took] on the appearance of an all-too-typical first-century Jewish racist (Mt 15:21-28)” (1292) and referred to her as one of “the dogs.”
It strikes me, then, that in order to protect his notion of the Bible’s inspiration and infallibility, Boyd argues that clearly problematic stories simply don’t mean what they obviously say. I agree that God and Jesus in these stories are not compatible with a God that is good. So either they are not accurate because they are not inspired or they are not accurate because “something else is going on” (Boyd). Boyd’s move makes his doctrine of inspiration unfalsifiable. I think the answer is to reimagine inspiration in relation to the Big Story and the ethical emphasis of 2 Tim 3:16 that insists that the purpose of affirming the Bible as inspired is that it is useful for ethical formation.
Appendix X: The Issue of Supersessionism. Boyd writes that it is a theological travesty to blame “the Jews” for Jesus’s death, pointing out that: (1) The Romans actually killed him, and, more importantly, (2) “it was ultimately every sin that humans have ever committed that placed Christ on the cross” (1299). This first point is crucial as a way to reject the-Jews-killed-Jesus motif. However the second point, pushing the “we all killed Jesus” motif is in tension with the first. The Romans did kill Jesus, not “every sin that humans have ever committed.” I think we need to linger a lot longer on the actual story and reflect on the “why” of the Roman act. The meaning of Jesus’s death is mainly to be found in the specificity of the Roman responsibility for torturing and executing Jesus, not in some vague assertion of collective guilt.
Boyd makes a very significant point that gives insight into his theology: No one “who affirms the authority of the NT can deny that the Christocentric perspective of these authors afforded them a vantage point that allowed them to discern truths in Scripture that the original Jewish authors, and all who interpret the OT without that vantage point could not see. If we accept that all Scripture is intended by God to bear witness to Christ, how can we deny that reading Scripture in a way that places Christ at the center provides a more accurate perspective than reading it in an alternative fashion” (1299).
I note first the almost authoritarian move that Boyd makes. Instead of saying that it is his human theological construct that shapes his conclusion about the NT’s “Christocentric perspective” (which is a construct shaped deeply by post-biblical doctrinal christology), he writes “all Scripture is intended by God to bear witness to Christ,” as if he has special insight into the mind of God.
I’ll just once more mention a major problem I have with Boyd’s thought—his notion of “Christ.” When he writes that “Christ [is] at the center,” it seems that what he really means is Christ’s sacrificial death. I think it’s much better to say that “the life and teaching of Jesus” are at the center. And, I’d add, the way Jesus’s life works as an interpretive key is to reinforce what (some) Jewish authors and interpreters also saw and see in the Bible. I would even argue that in many areas (a key one being atonement theology), that later “Christ-centered” (that is, creed- and doctrine-centered) interpretations actually oft-times result in inaccurate perspectives.
I am not sure that I would want to use the term “supercessionist” of Boyd—probably not, at least, in the sense of his definition of “supersessionism” as being the belief that the Jews are under God’s wrath due to their role in Jesus’s crucifixion (1297)—though I think this is likely way too narrow a definition of “supercessionism.” However, I find what he writes here to be deeply problematic. And his thoughts on this issue point to some of the major problems I have with his book as a whole.
Boyd in this way gives himself permission to do a kind of distorted reading of the OT in continuity with “historic orthodoxy” by projecting a doctrinal christology upon it as the most “accurate” reading. Ironically, his cross-centered reading not only leads to a distorted reading of the OT but also leads to marginalizing the gospel accounts of Jesus’s life and teaching in favor of Paul’s interpretation of what matters most about Jesus (or, that is, the post-Augustine Paul’s interpretation). It strikes me that such a doctrine-centered reading actually stands in tension with claims for the Bible’s authority since there is little basis in the text itself for such a reading.
Boyd makes a comment that does not seem very self-aware: “While Christians of course believe [that their Christocentric] way [of interpreting the Bible] captures crucial truths that traditional Jewish interpretations miss, this does not warrant the arrogant assumption that Christians have an exclusive corner on truth” (1300). But it strikes me that the first part of this sentence does seem “arrogant.”
Boyd concludes that he is not being supersessionist because he believes that for him to say “that the ‘divine reality’ is fully disclosed in Jesus” commits Christians like him to be profoundly humble “in relation to Judaism” (1301). It seems to me that a kind of implicit replacement theology like his can be articulated with a humble spirit. But such a humble spirit would not change the actual content of Boyd’s belief that only a Christian Jesus can bring salvation, that Jesus overturned Torah, and that the OT is not really revelation on its own terms but only when read in light of the cross.
Part of my thoughts in relation to Boyd’s arguments in CWG is that he does seem perhaps to have (maybe inadvertently) a bit of an anti-Judaism approach that is actually characteristic of “historic orthodoxy” in general. However, I am not so interested here in a debate about the right attitude toward Judaism as a religion (though that’s a very important issue) as I am interested in how “historic orthodoxy” (as embodied by Boyd in this book) misunderstands Jesus by failing to read him in conjunction with the OT, by placing him in tension with Torah, by depoliticizing the cross, by understanding sin in Augustinian ways, and by failing to link Jesus more explicitly with the prophets and their message of shalom.
[This completes my series of posts directly interacting with Crucifixion of the Warrior God (here is a list of all the posts). I hope in the near future to write one more post where I pull together a review of CWG that summarizes points I have made in these 27 posts. Then I hope to write a response in only one or two posts to Boyd’s popularized version of CWG, called Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence. I purposely did not read Cross Vision until I finished responding to CWG. Finally, I hope before long to write an essay where I develop my own answer to the question of what to do with the OT violent portraits of God, drawing on various comments made in these posts on CWG.]