Category Archives: Theology

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

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 on how God judges sin [chapter 16]

Ted Grimsrud—December 1, 2017

[This is the 18th 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 17h post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]

Chapter 16, “Crime and Punishment: Divine Withdrawal and the Self-Destructive Nature of Sin” (pages 805-50) develops more of Boyd’s thinking on the second key point in his Cruciform Hermeneutic, which is “the Principle of Redemptive Withdrawal.”

Does God, in effect, grant Israel’s “wish” when Rome destroys Jerusalem?

Boyd explains Jesus’s teaching in Luke 19 that seems to prophesy the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman Empire in 70 CE: “For centuries, God’s covenant people had been pushing him away, and they were now about to push him away in a definitive way by participating in Jesus’s crucifixion. By 70 CE, the time had come when God did, in essence, grant them their wish. And in doing so, God was leaving them vulnerable to the Roman military, who would inflict on them the death-consequences of their sin” (809).

I believe that there are a number of problems with Boyd’s statement. First of all, his statement that “God’s covenant people” (by which he surely means “the Jews” as a people) for centuries “had been pushing [God] away” needs to be challenged. Certainly, the community, as always before and since (and as has always been the case for Christian communities at least as much), struggled with faithfully following God’s will. However, it seems deeply problematic to say they were “pushing God away” in any sense differently than God’s people ever have.

The leadership of Israel in the generations prior to Jesus’s birth, indeed, seems to have been quite corrupt with its use of the temple to exploit the people and in its collaboration with Rome. Again, though, the leadership of Christian communities has over the centuries been just as corrupt. “The [common] people of the covenant” (as always) surely struggled to get by in life and to live as best they could in harmony with God.

Second, to say that “God’s covenant people” would push God away in a “definitive way” by participating in Jesus’s crucifixion seems like a fundamental misreading of the story. It was only the Jewish leaders who collaborated with Rome in killing Jesus, not “God’s covenant people.” Jesus’s execution as a political criminal was not an act of “the covenant people” against God. It was an act by the power elite of the temple structure collaborating with the power elite of the Empire to defy God. That is, the killing of Jesus was most of all about the political dynamics of the power elite versus the efforts of Jesus to minister to the common people, not about Judaism as a religion versus emergent Christianity. 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 “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