Category Archives: God

Violence as a theological problem

Published in Justice Reflections: 2005, Issue 10

We live in a world where too many people “purposefully contribute to the harm of another human being, either by action or inaction” (my working definition of violence). In such a world, an unavoidable moral question arises, how do we respondto violence, or more generally, how do we respond to evil?

Despite widespread occurrences of inter-human violence, the case may be made that most human beings tend to want to avoid lethal violence toward other human beings. If this were not true, the human race could never have survived to evolve to the point it has. In human experience people need some overriding reason to go against the tendency to avoidlethal violence. To act violently, especially to kill, other human beings, is serious business, undertaken because some other value overrides the tendency not to be violent.

Almost all violence emerges with some kind of rationale that justifies its use. Psychiatrist James Gilligan, who worked in the criminal justice system for many years, argues, based on his extensive work with extremely violent offenders, that even the most seemingly pointless acts of violence usually nonetheless have some justification in the mind of the perpetrator.[i]

Other more obviously rational or self-conscious uses of violence (for example, warfare, capital punishment, corporal punishment of children) generally follow a self-conscious logic. At the core of this “logic” rests a commitment to the necessity of retribution. When the moral order is violated by wrongdoing, “justice” requires retribution (that is, repayment of violence with violence, pain with pain).

The legitimacy of retribution is widely accepted in the United States. Where does this belief in retribution come from? One key source is Christian theology, the belief that retribution is God’s will, or that the need for retribution stems from the nature of the universe. That the nature of the universe requires retribution is a part of what most WesternChristiansbelieve, leading to strong support for retribution (that is, for justifying violence as the appropriate response to violence). Continue reading

Wrapping up Boyd’s CWG [chapter 25; Postscript; Appendices]

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. Continue reading

Even more on Boyd and Spiritual Warfare [chapter 24]

Ted Grimsrud—January 15, 2018

[This is the 26th 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 25th post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]

In Chapter 24, “The Dragon-Swallowing Dragon: Examples of Cosmic-Level Aikido Warfare” (pages 1143-92), Boyd continues to make the case both for his understanding of the role of cosmic evil powers being responsible for most of the OT violence that is attributed to God and for centrality of the dynamic of God’s strategic withdrawal as God’s method of judgment.

The violence in Numbers 16

One of the most violent passages in the OT is Numbers 16, where God is said to judge rebellious Israelites by killing nearly 15,000 of them. Boyd uses this text to illustrate his crucicentric reading strategy. “There is no question but that this gruesome narrative presumes that it was Yahweh who performed these supernatural destructive acts” (1145)—but we cannot “theologically interpret this passage” as actually meaning that it truly was God who did the violence. We must “assess this portrait to be a literary crucifix, reflecting the same willingness of God to stoop as low as necessary to bear the limitations and sin of his people that is reflected on Calvary” (1145-6). That is, as I understand Boyd, God was willing to have this passage attribute the violence to God in order to “bear the limitations and sin of his people.” Presumably, then, God did not actually cause all these deaths.

It seems to me that in order to save his “commitment to treat all Scripture as ‘God-breathed’ as well as his commitment to the Conservative Hermeneutical Principle (1144), Boyd is compelled to read Numbers 16 as if the clear meaning the writer gives the story is wrong! I fail to see how his argument actually does save the infallibility of the text. One could say the story is wrong (and not directly inspired) and yet take it seriously as part of the Big Story (which is inspired in its overall message). People who affirm both the inspiration or truthfulness of the Bible and the normativity of the peaceable revelation of God in Jesus need not follow Boyd’s path. We may see the truthfulness as present in the Big Story as a whole, not in each element of that story.

I find it ironic that Boyd presumably affirms the validity of the need for punishment in this story. What he thinks is not true is simply the idea that God “himself” “pulls the trigger” and causes the deaths. I would respect his crucicentric method more if he would recognize that the cross simply is not about divinely needed punishing judgment (beyond the evil actions of Rome and the religious leaders). I wish he would recognize that the cross refutes the validity of punishment and shows it to be evil in relation to Jesus. Then Boyd could use his method to deconstruct the idea itself that God needs to punish. Continue reading

More on Boyd and Spiritual Warfare [chapter 23]

Ted Grimsrud—January 9, 2018

[This is the 25th 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 24th post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]

In Chapter 23, “When Hell Breaks Loose: Redemptive Withdrawal and Cosmic Conflict” (pages 1099-1142), Boyd reflects further on the implications of his cruciform hermeneutic for understanding OT violent portraits, focusing especially on the Genesis story of the Flood. A key element of his perspective is his emphasis on the cosmic evil powers who actually are the agents of the destruction, while God’s role is simply to withhold God’s protections and let the powers do their damage.

The way to justice: divine withdrawal or something else?

Boyd begins the chapter by summarizing his basic argument concerning spiritual warfare: “When God decides he must withdraw his protective presence to allow one form of evil to punish another form of evil…. Satan and other cosmic powers are … present, looking for every opportunity to kill, steal, and destroy” (1099–1100). I sense that in order to save his belief in God as in ultimate control, Boyd must project onto God a will to punish. Why “must” God “withdraw his protective presence”? I suspect that Boyd wants to hold on to the belief that God is in ultimate control of what happens in the world. The only way God can be in control and still be nonviolent is if God exercises “control” by “withdrawing” and letting Satan, et al, be the actual enforcers of the needed punishment that a “just” world requires.

One way this notion ends up being deeply problematic is the extraordinary imprecision of this punishment with its enormous collateral damage. The “killing, stealing, and destroying” that Satan, et al, do in this scenario catches up everyone in its path, just and unjust, innocent and guilty. And it is not only human beings that are crushed but also the rest of creation. Not only does God actually remain complicit in the violence if God could stop it, but God’s means of punishing sin are extraordinarily unjust toward those who don’t deserve to be punished.

I tend to think that the only moral alternative to Boyd’s scenario (because I agree with him that a violent God who actively punishes contradicts the truthfulness of the definitive picture of God we have in Jesus) is a weak God who is not all-powerful. God does not exercise brute power to destroy God’s enemies. For example, Satan (i.e., the Dragon) is not punished in Revelation but defeated and robbed of existence simply through disbelief—disbelief that emerges from the self-sacrificial, persevering love of the Lamb and those who follow him wherever he goes. The power of the Powers rests solely on the power given them through idolatry, through people’s consent. Continue reading

Boyd and Old Testament Spiritual Warfare [chapter 21]

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. Continue reading

Boyd’s “cruciform interpretation” of the Conquest [chapter 20]

Ted Grimsrud—December 13, 2017

[This is the 21st 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 20th post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]

In Chapter 20, “When God’s Nonviolent Plans Fail: The Cruciform Interpretation of the Conquest Narrative” (pages 961–1002), Boyd elaborates in more detail the way his understanding of Jesus’s cross shapes his response to the violent portraits of God in the Old Testament.

The “Spirit-inspired depth” of God’s self-revelation?

Boyd’s “crucicentric theological approach” focuses on what the violent OT portraits of God now communicate to us in light of the message of Jesus’s cross (963). In light of the cross, we can say, according to Boyd, that God “acts toward his people, as much as possible, but because God persuades rather than coerces, God allows his people to act on him.” As a consequence of this non-coercive stance, God’s self-revelation is shaped by human sinfulness. Because of the presence of human sinfulness, we must work hard to discern “the revelatory content of all depictions of God that fall short of the self-giving God revealed on the cross.” The revelatory content may be found “in the Spirit-inspired depth of those portraits” (963).

So, Boyd is looking for revelatory content deep within the violent portraits of God. He is not content with looking for the meaning only on the surface. Now, it is true, I think, that the surface meaning of those portraits seems to be reprehensible. Boyd’s approach to dealing with this is to retain his high view of biblical inspiration but to look deep within the story for meaning that is quite different from the surface meaning. I worry that such an approach is in tension with seeing the meaning of the Bible as straightforward and clear. Boyd seems almost to advocate a kind of hidden meaning available only to “enlightened” readers. I’d rather work with the “surface” meaning and place the Joshua story in the context of the Big Story of the rest of the Bible in order to find peaceable meaning there.

Part of the problem with Boyd’s approach may also be seen in how he applies only a quite narrow sense of the “cross” to his interpretation of the violent portraits. It’s just the actual event of Jesus being killed and the sacrificial meaning of that death rather than looking at the much broader context of Jesus’ life and teaching understood, in turn, in the context of the story of God’s promise to Israel. The broader view makes possible linking the revelation of God’s politics as seen in the rise and fall of the Hebrews’ territorial kingdom with the politics that were embodied and taught by Jesus that led to his execution by the Romans.

Boyd clearly rejects the assumption that the genocidal message actually came from God. “The macabre portraits of Yahweh uttering the herem command to Moses and then helping his people carry it out … was not, in fact, God’s plan. Viewed through the lens of the cross, these genocidal portraits of God rather reflect the fallen heart and mind of Moses and of God’s people as a whole at this point in history” (963).

Now, I strongly agree that the portraits here are indeed “macabre” and that they cannot possibly accurately portray God. I would also say, though, that the story itself, which is all that we’ve got, does think the command came from God. The text gives no indication of the view Boyd draws from it. To read a “mask” on God into the text seems like a strange way to affirm its “inspiration.” If we can ignore the text’s own intention, why not see the whole thing as not inspired? And it does seem as if Boyd is inferring some sense of historicity when he talks about Moses as the source of the command and not the storyteller—if God inspires the written text and it tells us what God told Moses, how does it make sense that it is not telling us the truth about God? Continue reading

Boyd’s critique of divine genocide defenders [chapter 19]

Ted Grimsrud—December 11, 2017

[This is the 20th 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 19th post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]

In Chapter 19, “Defending Divine Genocide: The Inadequacy of Traditional Defenses of the Conquest Narrative” (pages 917-60), Boyd develops a detailed critique of the argument presented by evangelical theologian Paul Copan’s book Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Copan stands in as a thinker who has argued thoroughly for reading the Joshua story as an accurate account of God’s activity in the world. As we would expect by now, Boyd argues sharply against Copan’s acceptance of that story as accurate in its portrayal of God while agreeing with Copan’s general affirmation of the inspired character of all of the OT.

What to make of the Joshua story as Scripture?

Boyd starts by making the point that indeed we have no alternative but to recognize that the story in Joshua does report genocidal actions empowered by God (922). He then adds, “if we refrain from calling the Israelites’ slaughtering of entire populations ‘genocide,’ we are implicitly admitting that wiping out entire populations in the name of God is sometimes, at least in principle, justified” (922). And, if we take Jesus seriously, we have no option but to deny the truthfulness of that picture of God and God’s will. These points seem important and true.

However, Boyd’s rejection of the picture of God presented in Joshua is only one side of his “conundrum”—that our affirmation of God as love requires us to deny that God could have done what Joshua tells us. He points to the other side of his conundrum here, too: “This narrative is completely God-breathed” (922). By God-breathed, Boyd means that God was directly involved in the writing of this text, that the book of Joshua says what God wanted it to say.

Perhaps the most profound problem with Boyd’s theology of scripture is not that he would insist that Joshua is “God-breathed.” It is that Boyd would argue that any of the Bible at all is “God-breathed” in the sense that he uses that term. In my view, the Bible from start to finish was written by human beings in human language—and then translated and interpreted by human beings. I believe that texts such as the genocidal stories in Joshua are useful in part because they challenge us to rethink our traditional understanding of the Bible as revelation.

If we truly believe that the Bible’s God (seen most clearly in the story of Jesus) could not possibly have given the commands that Joshua presents as from God, then we should not present the story of those commands as “God-breathed”—if “God-breathed” means that God was directly involved the writing and that the words are what God wanted written. We need to rework how we think of scripture as revelation. Unfortunately, Boyd does not seem interested in such a reworking and instead constructs a quite convoluted argument that tries to hold on to a traditional view of inspiration while denying that the picture of God presented in Joshua is true. I find it hard to believe that many will be persuaded, and I find it hard to understand what he hopes to gain with this view of inspiration. Continue reading