Category Archives: God

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

Boyd on judgment and “divine withdrawal” [chapters 17 and 18]

Ted Grimsrud—December 7, 2017

[This is the 19th 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 18th post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]

In Chapter 17, “Doing and Allowing: The Crucicentric Significance of Scripture’s Dual Speech Pattern” (pages 851-890) and Chapter 18, “A Question of Divine Culpability: Responding to Objections to the Principle of Redemptive Withdrawal” (pages 891-916), Boyd develops further his arguments about how God exercises punitive judgment in ways that are compatible with how the nonviolent God is revealed in the cross of Jesus.

What does the Bible mean when it speaks of God’s actions?

Boyd makes a good point in his discussion of what he calls “Scripture’s ‘dual speech’ pattern.” He suggests we recognize that the Bible’s authors acknowledge “that God merely allowed the actions they elsewhere directly ascribe to God.” The language of God directly acting to bring about judgment thus should not be read overly literally. It is God’s universe and everything that happens in some sense happens under God’s directing providence. But that does not mean that God directly acts every time God is mentioned.

Boyd links this “dual speech pattern” with his belief that “God merely withdraws protection when he brings about judgment” (852). I would rather say that to note this “dual speech pattern” is simply to note that we have in the text a rhetorical projection of God’s agency onto the events. Boyd takes an additional step that I cannot accept, that the biblical writers implicitly recognize “that their violent depictions of God are divine accommodations to their own fallen and culturally conditioned hearts and minds” (852). I would rather say that this “dual speech pattern” is simply a reflection of the human nature of the Bible’s books.

Boyd seems to claim that the Bible is still “inspired” and even “infallible” when it reflects such “divine accommodation.” It is not that the Bible is a human book that cannot help but reflect its human sources and in fact could not be otherwise. Rather, for Boyd it is that the Bible is still a divine book where God chooses to allow the human limitations to be evident even though God could fashion the Bible otherwise if God wanted to.

It strikes me that Boyd wants to retain a view of a profoundly powerful God who could control things and chooses not to. In face of the evidence that the Bible indeed does reflect human limitations, Boyd argues for this “divine accommodation” without any clear evidence to support such a move beyond the need to hold on to his understanding of the inspiration and infallibility of the Bible. Continue reading

Boyd’s cruciform hermeneutic applied [CWG chapter eleven]

Ted Grimsrud—July 28, 2017

[This is the 12th in a long series of posts that will work through an important new book, Greg Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (Fortress Press, 2017). The 11th post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]

The center of the Bible

In chapter eleven, “Through the lens of the cross: Finding the crucified Christ in violent depictions of God,” (pages 463–512), Boyd develops an especially important part of his argument. He discusses how Jesus Christ, and especially Jesus as the crucified Christ, stands at the center of the Bible and determines how we read everything else, including the violent portraits of God in the OT.

He begins the discussion with a quote from the Scottish theologian, T. F. Torrance: “The truth of Scripture is to be found in the living person of Jesus Christ to whom it points” (464). For Boyd (and Torrance) the centrality of Jesus Christ seems ultimately to point to one making a Christian confession (and, I assume, one being baptized and taking communion). I do agree that the key to understanding the Bible (at least for Christians) is to “know God through Jesus Christ.” But what does that mean? I think knowing God through Jesus has more to do with following Jesus’s way of life than it does with doctrinal beliefs and ritual observances.

I believe that the Bible presents the life of faith as practice-oriented, not doctrine- and ritual-oriented. So, one could even go so far as to say that Gandhi can serve as a guide to the deep meaning of the Bible, revealing to us what a life of shalom might look like. Gandhi as guide would contrast with the role of theologians and exegetes who marginalize Jesus’s message of love of neighbor. It is because of the practice-oriented character of biblical faith that I emphasize the “Bible’s salvation story” (see my book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness) that puts resistance to the Powers as central from the exodus through the prophets through Jesus through Revelation.

So, I believe that the notion of Jesus as the center of the Bible that Boyd affirms should be an inductively arrived at conclusion based on an objective reading of the entire Bible, not a doctrinal assumption that one imposes on the Bible. Approaching it my way means we have to be attentive to the story and to the way Jesus in his life and teaching link with the OT story. To do it the other way all too often may lead to minimizing or distorting the OT—and often also seems to lead to minimizing the actual ministry of Jesus, which is what I fear might at least somewhat be the case for Boyd. Continue reading

Boyd’s critique of the “synthesis solution” [CWG chapter nine]

Ted Grimsrud—July 13, 2017

[This is the tenth in a long series of posts that will work through an important new book, Greg Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (Fortress Press, 2017). The ninth post may be found here—and an index of the series here.] 

The “synthesis solution”

In chapter nine, “Wrestling with Yahweh’s Violence, Part 2: The Synthesis Solution,” (pages 379-414), Boyd critiques and rejects what he sees as the most common view in Christian history concerning the violent portraits of God in the OT. He calls this the “synthesis solution” because it solves the apparent tension between how God is presented in much of the OT and how God is presented in the story of Jesus by positing a “synthesis” where “the OT’s violent portraits of God must be accepted as accurate revelations alongside of Christ” (p. 379).

Boyd writes, “the church’s major theologians over the last sixteen hundred years” have believed that “the only logical alternative to dismissing or reinterpreting violent divine portraits in the light of the revelation of God in the crucified Christ is to synthesize these portraits with this revelation.” For most, this “synthesis” meant defending the violent portraits as truthful about the character of God with the consequence that Jesus’s message of nonviolence has been marginalized, and most Christians have concluded that God affirms their going to war when called upon to do so.

In his critique of the synthesis solution, Boyd focuses on four ways the violent depictions of God have been defended. [1] “We fallen humans are in no position to question God’s actions. In this view, the transcendent and all-holy God is not subject to our fallen ethical intentions…. We must simply accept that everything God is said to have done and commanded in Scripture is perfectly good, regardless of how immoral it may appear to us” (381-2).

[2] “Throughout church history, the single most common defense of God’s apparent violence in the OT has been that it expresses God’s holy wrath against sin. In this view, if God sometimes commanded or engaged in violence against people, as we find throughout the OT, it was because they deserved it. Indeed, in this view, God would be unjust if he did not punish wrongdoers” (392).

[3] “The ‘Greater Good Defense’ [argues that] when God sanctions or engages in violent behavior, … it is to promote some greater good, or to at least prevent some greater evil” (395).

[4] “God has always had to accommodate his revelation to the limitations and fallen state of his people. His strategy was to gradually increase his people’s capacity to know him as he truly is. The revelation of God within the ‘God-breathed’ written witness to God’s covenantal faithfulness thus unfolds gradually” (399). Continue reading

Boyd’s critique of the “dismissal solution” to the problem [CWG chapter eight]

Ted Grimsrud—July 7, 2017

[This is the ninth in a long series of posts that will work through an important new book, Greg Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (Fortress Press, 2017). The eighth post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]

Three possible “solutions”

In chapter eight, “Wrestling with Yahweh’s Violence, Part I: The Dismissal Solution,” (pages 335-78), Boyd examines various approaches Christians have taken to resolve the challenges of understanding the violent portraits. He suggests three main options: (1) “The Dismissal Solution,” which is simply to dismiss the OT as an authority for Christians, in part due to the truthfulness of Jesus’ peaceable message; (2) “The Synthesis Solution,” the consensus approach since the 5th century, which is to accept that the “God-breathed” character of scripture requires accepting the violent portraits of God in the OT at face value in spite of Jesus’s message with the tension resolved by appeal to “the mysterious transcendence of God;” and (3) “The Reinterpretation Solution,” which is to accept the truthfulness of both the OT and the message of Jesus, but to reinterpret the OT so as to see it as consistent with the message of Jesus. (p. 336)

Boyd will argue for the third option. He will go to great lengths in the rest of the book to make the case for an reinterpreting approach where he argues that below the surface message of a violent God in many OT texts, “something else is going on” that ultimately affirms the message of a nonviolent God found in the story of the cross of Christ.

A different kind of approach

In my interaction with Boyd’s argument in the pages to come, I will make the case for a different kind of approach than any of these three. I find all three to be inadequate, including Boyd’s reinterpretation solution. Each of these approaches as described by Boyd misses the centrality to the OT when read as a whole of what my OT teacher Millard Lind called “theo-politics.” The politics of God as presented in the OT are best understood, in my view, by reading the OT as a whole and paying special attention to its Big Story.

The problem that Boyd’s three “solutions” all share is that they focus on discrete passages at least somewhat in isolation from the place each passage has in a bigger story with its theo-political emphasis. I will also argue that the politics of God as presented in the OT are pacifist politics, ultimately—and, the politics of God as presented in the OT are in close continuity with the politics of Jesus. And, I should add, by “politics” I don’t mean the partisan, state-focused politics that Boyd seems to understand politics to mean. Rather, I mean the broad sense of how human beings order our social lives, with the understanding that our social and spiritual lives are by definition part of one whole—so we cannot accurately talk of a separation between spiritual/religious life and political life. Continue reading

Boyd’s account of God-related violence in the OT [CWG chapter seven]

Ted Grimsrud—June 28, 2017

[This is the eighth in a long series of posts that will work through an important new book, Greg Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (Fortress Press, 2017). The seventh post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]

The breadth and depth of OT violence

In chapter seven, “The Dark Side of the Bible: Taking a Hard Look at Scripture’s ‘Texts of Terror’” (pages 279–334), Boyd gives an overview of various OT passages that present God as the direct or indirect author of profoundly violent acts. He tries to be fairly comprehensive. He succeeds in helping us see just how big the problem of affirmation of violence in the OT is.

In order to help us “appreciate the enormous gulf that exists between the violent warrior deity depicted within the ‘dark side’ of the OT and the crucified God who is at the center of the NT” (332), Boyd begins the chapter with a very brief mention of “the OT’s Christ-like portraits of God.” (281) While the contrast between the “bright side” and the “dark side” does make the point that the “dark side” shows us a God who actually is not compatible with the God we see in Jesus, I am troubled by Boyd’s method here.

He writes, “Contrary to the overly generalized and sensationalized description of the God of the OT provided by [a “new atheist” such as] Richard Dawkins …, people who read Scripture sympathetically generally find that the God of the OT is by-and-large a relational God of hesed (i.e., covenant-love) who continually strives to bring all people—first the Israelites and then, through them, all the ‘families of the earth’ (Gen 12:3; cf. Exod 19:5-6)—into relationships of shalom and covenantal righteousness/justice with himself as well as each other” (281). This is well said and I completely agree with it. However, in the course of CWG it’s as if this affirmation of the peaceableness of the God of the OT is irrelevant to Boyd’s argument about the OT’s violent portraits. I would say, on the other hand, that the predominantly positive view of God in the OT should be at the core of our efforts to interpret the violent portraits of God in ways that are compatible with the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.

One clue to Boyd’s method might be discerned in his summary comments at the end of this chapter when he writes of the contrast being not between the two visions of God in the OT but between the “violent warrior deity” and the “crucified God” at the center of the NT. (332) It is as if he is so invested in making the cross central to his argument that he will not want to pursue a path that minimizes the contrast between the OT and NT—which would make the “newness” and distinctiveness of Christianity in relation to Judaism less apparent. He’s not so much interested in exploring the internal debate within the OT but more in pursuing a debate between the testaments. Continue reading

Boyd Defends His “Cross Thesis” [CWG chapter six]

Ted Grimsrud—June 22, 2017

[This is the seventh in a long series of posts that will work through an important new book, Greg Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (Fortress Press, 2017). The sixth post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]

Arguments against seeing the cross as central

In chapter six, “Is the Centrality of the Cross Thesis Defensible?” (pages 229–77), Boyd responds to what he sees as the two main objections to his argument about the centrality of the cross both for Jesus’s mission and for the overall message of the Bible. These objections are: (1) that early Christianity did not see the cross as central as evidenced by the lack of the use of the cross as a symbol in Christian art during Christianity’s first four centuries and (2) that not very many theologians in Christian history have recognized the centrality of the cross. Since these aren’t the main questions I have about Boyd’s cross thesis, I read through this chapter fairly quickly. It did raise a few issues for me, though.

A question I do have is whether the main problem with Boyd’s thesis is with regard to how he interprets the New Testament, not whether he’s consistent with understandings of the cross in the history of Christianity. As a pacifist, I am used to having convictions that most Christians don’t have. That early Christian art or that Christian theologians over the past 2,000 years would not share Boyd’s view of the centrality of the cross is not necessarily evidence against Boyd’s argument in my mind.

My question is simply whether Boyd is correct in seeming to understand the main referent in New Testament cross language to be simply to Jesus’s death. Is it not possible that “the cross” and related images more often allude to Jesus’s life, a life that resulted in his being executed by the Romans? A significant point if we think of the cross more broadly would be that along with Boyd’s important emphasis on the cross as conveying a message of Jesus’s self-giving love, it would also convey of message of Jesus’s practice of forgiveness apart from sacrifice, of Jesus’s political radicalism that led Rome to crucify him as a rebel, and of Jesus’s continuity with the OT prophets and his embrace of a prophetic understanding of Torah. If the cross is seen as a symbol of the entirety of Jesus’s ministry, we may make more sense of Jesus’s oft repeated call to his followers to take up the cross in imitation of his life of service, resistance, and courage. As I have mentioned before, I do not mean to suggest that Boyd would necessarily disagree with my comments here about imitating Jesus’s life—but this kind of language is rarely a part of his discussion of the cross.

The NT text I am most familiar with, the book of Revelation, illustrates my point here. Revelation does not speak of the cross overtly very often, but it does commonly use the term “blood,” which I imagine most readers would understand essentially to be a synonym with cross. When Revelation mentions “blood,” we could generally substitute the term “cross.” I believe, though, that Revelation uses the image of blood not to refer to Jesus’s death per se. Rather, blood has to do with the entirety of Jesus’s ministry, with the emphasis on the life he lived. Because this life involved resistance to the political and religious structures, it led to bloody responses. And Jesus did not swerve from his commitment to a life of love and healing even in the face of those responses. So, the message Revelation gives us about Jesus’s cross is a call to discipleship. Continue reading