Category Archives: Theology

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

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

More on Greg Boyd’s Insistence on Making the Cross Central [CWG chapter five]

Ted Grimsrud—June 16, 2017

[This is the sixth 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 fifth post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]

The cross in the gospels

In chapter five, “The Cruciform Center, Part 2: The Cross as the Thematic Center of the Gospel” (pages 173–229), Boyd has a helpful treatment of the cross as presented in the gospels. His discussion perceptively makes clear how the God of nonviolent love is revealed in the story of Jesus’s crucifixion—and, so importantly, makes clear how this picture of God’s love provides a model for how we ourselves should live.

However, though I greatly appreciate these points that Boyd makes, I still felt that his focus was a bit off. I think this may be an issue of tone more than intended content, though I am not sure. I will continue to reflect on this as I work through CWG. I am concerned that Boyd seems to say that the cross was the point of Jesus’s life rather than being the (not precisely foreseen) consequence of Jesus’s life. Was Jesus’s purpose from the start that he would die a sacrificial death? The NT can seem to suggest this, but I think it is a problematic emphasis.

I believe that the true meaning of the story the gospels tell is to be found in Jesus’s life—and that it is his life that is exemplary for us. The way the Romans (in collaboration with the religious leaders) executed Jesus—and the fact that they executed him at all—followed directly from the way he lived. Whatever meaning the cross has, then, derives from Jesus’s life. It was because he so profoundly embodied God’s love (both in the sense of how he showed mercy toward and practiced solidarity with “the least of these” and in the sense of how he confronted the blasphemies and injustices of those seemingly all-powerful human structures that claimed to act on God’s behalf) that Jesus was executed. The cross, then, reveals the fullness of the Powers’ opposition to God-in-the-flesh. It is not intrinsically revelatory or salvific.

So, I would say that Jesus’s cross is more mundanely (this-worldly) practical than Boyd seems to allow for. Boyd presents the meaning of the cross as having relevance most of all on what we could call the cosmic or theological level, as a necessary sacrifice that makes salvation possible. In doing so, he treats it almost ahistorically, as if the specific context for Jesus being executed is not particularly relevant. I would say, in contrast, that it is precisely the context that is most important. Jesus in his life that ultimately led to his death exposes the idolatrous nature of the political and religious institutions of his day. In doing so, he reveals what kind of life God wants human beings to live and what kind of resistance to the Powers is called for. The central meaning of the cross is for this world and for how we live in this world. Continue reading

Greg Boyd’s Christ-Centered Reading Strategy [CWG chapter three]

Ted Grimsrud—June 2, 2017

[This is the fourth 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 third post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]

Christ as the center?

In chapter three, “Finding Jesus in the Old Testament: The Christocentric Hermeneutic of the Early Church” (pages 93–141), Boyd further deepens his analysis of how Christians might manage to find even the violent portraits of God in the Old Testament to be positive expressions of God’s nonviolent love. The key, he suggests, is to embrace the approach the first Christians used, which was to operate with the assumption that Christ was the goal and fulfillment of the entire OT, that is, of each part of the OT. The way they interpreted the Bible—and the way we should interpret the Bible—is to read it all christocentrically. For Boyd, that kind of reading boils down to seeing every part of the Bible in some sense witnessing to Christ on the cross.

He criticizes “the historic-orthodox church” for not “wrestling with a Christocentric way of interpreting the Old Testament’s violent portraits of God” (95). In effect, notably after the epoch-changing reign of Constantine as the first “Christian” emperor, Christians tended simply to affirm that the violent portraits provided a justification for their affirmation of the use of violence by their governments.

Insofar as Boyd means that Christians should have wrestled with applying the centrality of Jesus Christ to learning to embrace the way of nonviolence in face of the “violent portraits” instead of using those portraits to justify warism, I strongly agree. However, I suspect that the failure to do such wrestling is indicative of problems at the root of the “historic-orthodox” project in general and specifically with the version of “christocentrism” that came to characterize post-Constantine Christianity. What changed from the NT and early Christianity, among other things, was the meaning of “Christ” itself. Rather than hinting that the failure to wrestle with the violent portraits in a pacifist way is incongruous, I think Boyd would do better to scrutinize more critically the “historic-orthodox” tradition itself. How was it that the tradition could in some sense be “christocentric” without being pacifist?

The “orthodox” evasion of Jesus’s message of peace

One of my major theological concerns for years has been to try to understand why Christianity has been almost unanimously non-pacifist for the vast majority of history down to the present. I find it difficult to imagine that such a strong non-pacifist consensus could help but be a product of theological assumptions central to the tradition. Hence, I have reason to be critical of the entire theological framework of “historic-orthodoxy,” a framework that Boyd, amidst a few critical comments, seems to accept as valid. Continue reading

Greg Boyd’s Peaceable God as Revealed in Christ [CWG chapter two]

Ted Grimsrud—May 30, 2017

[This is the third 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 second post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]

Reading the Bible with Christ as the center

In chapter two, “The True Face of God: The Absoluteness of the Revelation of God in Christ” (pages 35–92), Boyd’s main interest seems to be to establish the validity of his Christ-centered approach to interpreting the Bible. Based on extensive citations from the New Testament, Boyd makes the case that the Christian Bible as a whole should be read in light of Christ on the cross. He asserts that the Old Testament ultimately, for Christians, needs to be read in service to an affirmation of Jesus as Savior. This approach to reading the Bible will be the basis for Boyd’s cruciform reading of the OT violent portraits of God. He will argue that in the end those portraits (and everything else in the Bible) actually support the conviction that God is nonviolent love. More on that conclusion as we work through the rest of the book.

It strikes me that Boyd bases the case for Jesus as the center of the entire Bible more on his doctrinal beliefs about Jesus’s identity than on an inductive front to back reading that weighs the evidence as one goes along. I’m uncomfortable with his approach, though I will grant that he is able to marshal a great deal of evidence that the NT sees Christ as having authority over the OT and sees him to have an exalted identity as Son of God. Still, I am more attracted to an approach that understands Jesus’s authority and identity and his relationship with the rest of the Bible more based on his actions and teachings as presented in the first three gospels (I will call this a “Jesus”-emphasis) than on his crucifixion and exaltation (a “Christ”-emphasis).

A basic question will trouble me throughout Boyd’s book. Is the center of scripture best seem as Jesus’s death in itself or is the center best seen as the love of God shown to the world throughout the story—love that Jesus’s death witnesses to? That leads to a second question more directly tied to the book’s overt focus: How does the cross reveal God’s nonviolence? Is the core meaning of the nonviolence of the cross to be found in Christ (as God incarnate) taking general human sin upon himself or in Jesus’s life of active love that in its nonviolence shows both the character of God and the character of the human institutions who execute him because of his active nonviolence?

Boyd seems to operate with a “high” (or doctrine-first) christology that has as a starting point Jesus’s identity as God incarnate rather than understanding Jesus’s messianic identity as an inductively arrived-at conclusion drawn from the details of his life. The story of Jesus’s way of life does not seem necessary for Boyd’s description of his identity—or at least Boyd does not present it as such. Continue reading