Category Archives: Theology

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

Greg Boyd’s Peaceable God and the Bible [Chapter one]

Ted Grimsrud—May 27, 2017

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

In chapter one, “The Faith of Jacob: Wrestling with ‘Strange’ and ‘Alien’ Portraits of God” (pages 3–34), Boyd addresses several foundational issues. He writes about the importance of understanding the Bible as inspired (“God-breathed”) Christian scripture, the difference between reading the Bible in covenantal (traditional) rather than psychological (modern) terms, the profound problems that arise when God is seen as “a god who fights” (21) rather than a god who “refuses to fight,” and the need for his sympathetic readers actively to “renounce” the “violence in our own sacred Scripture” (31).

The authority of the Bible

Boyd’s first word about the Bible is that it is “God-breathed” (or, an alternative translation of 2 Timothy 3:16, “inspired”). He agrees “with the historic-orthodox tradition that this ‘breathing’ entails that God is, in some sense, the ultimate author of all canonical works” (5) I can’t say that I find the metaphor of God as the “author” of the Bible to be very helpful. I believe we should start with the assumption that the Bible is written by human beings—some of whom are identified for us, some about whose authorship we may gain pretty good guesses, and some who will remain anonymous. I find any hint that God in some sense overrode the humanness of these texts to be problematic, and a misleading detour from our needed work genuinely to understand the texts and their meaning.

Part of the issue in talking about “divine authorship” (this term strikes me mainly as a rhetorical device to strengthen claims concerning the authority of the Bible), though, is how we apply that idea. I’m not totally opposed to affirming some weak sense of divine involvement in the fitting together of the entire collection of books we call our Bible. Not that God was the “author” but that there was a gentle guidance in bringing the various writings together. We could call this a kind of a macro-inspiration that is best discerned not in the Bible’s “infallibility” (a word Boyd will affirm later in the book) as much as in its coherence and its applicability for “training in the ways of justice” (the words, actually, of 2 Timothy 3:16).

Boyd seems to want to apply authority and inspiration more on a micro-level in giving God-authored status to each particular text. He will qualify this application in major ways; surely many strong inerrantists will find his approach woefully problematic. However, I suspect that part of the “conundrum” he will wrestle with in this book is made more difficult by the priority he seems to place on finding each specific text in the Bible to be “infallible” in its theology, if not literal historicity. Continue reading

Is the Bible a Peace Book? Engaging Greg Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God [Intro]

Ted Grimsrud—May 25, 2017

It is a measure of Greg Boyd’s stature that Fortress Press, perhaps the most highly respected publisher of theological books in the United States, would indulge him by publishing Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross in the form that it has. Crucifixion of the Warrior God (hereafter CWG) comes to us as a single book in two volumes, a total of 1,486 pages.

CWG, though, is not an esoteric work of high-level academic density, accessible only to elite initiates. Certainly its size and detailed argumentation are not for the faint of heart, but CWG is the kind of book one might expect from a pastor-scholar—which is what Boyd is. It is clearly written, passionate in tone, and pursues a deeply practical agenda: How do Christians who are committed to the message of Jesus, the Peacemaker, understand their faith in light of biblical materials that paint a picture of God as a God of war and violence?

I find wrestling with this book to be one of most engaging and challenging investments of intellectual and spiritual energy I have made in quite some time. I have had a hard time putting the book down, though it’s not exactly a page-turner. In fact, I have turned the pages very slowly because there are so many ideas that demand my attention. Given the number of pages the book contains, I have decided that the only way I can justify to myself the energy I put into wrestling with CWG is to write about it. So I am embarking on a series of blog posts that will work through the book at some length.

I am not going to write a review exactly nor a summary of the book’s main ideas. Rather, I will reflect on issues that arise for me as I read and thereby develop my thinking about peace, the Bible, Jesus’s crucifixion, and the character of God with Boyd’s impressive book as a catalyst. There will be chunks of the book that I will not address and there will be some parts that I will pay a great deal of attention to. And I won’t claim that in focusing on what I will focus on I will be reflect Boyd’s own priorities so much as my priorities.

We already have many reviews and many more will come. Boyd himself has provided summaries of his main ideas in writings and on-line sermons and lectures (see his ReKnew site). As well, he will publish a shorter and more accessible version of his argument this summer (Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence). What I offer here is more about my own thinking—as a pacifist, Anabaptist, anarchistically-inclined social ethicist who has deeply ambivalent feelings about mainstream Christianity, theological orthodoxy, and the legacy of the Christian tradition. However, I also offer one critical reading of CWG that will probably provide a distinctive angle for understanding Boyd’s project. Continue reading

How the light gets in: A book review

Graham Ward. How the Light Gets In: Ethical Life I. Oxford University Press, 2016. xv + 354 pages.

Reviewed by Ted Grimsrud—December 2016

How the Light Gets In is the first of a projected four-volume systematic theology by Graham Ward, Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford University. Ward is pulling together his wide range of research and writing interests into an integrated whole that will emphasize the ethical dimension of Christian theology.

This first volume serves as a kind of prolegomena. It addresses a wide variety of themes in order to establish the grounding for what Ward calls “engaged systematic theology.” Volume II (which will be called, Another Kind of Normal: Ethical Life II) will focus on christology, and in light of christology take up themes such as revelation, anthropology, and creation. Volume III (The Vision of God: Ethical Life III) will deal with ecclesiology, pneumatology, and the doctrine of God. The series will conclude with a fourth volume (Communio Santorum: A Theology of Religions) that will consider both world Christianities and non-Christian religions in light of the systematic account Ward will provide in volumes II and III.

This series promises to be a distinctive take on these crucial themes given Ward’s emphasis on Christianity’s engagement with culture, his “radical orthodox” sensibility, and his practical concerns.

In volume one, Ward begins with a historical survey that traces the evolution of Christian systematic theology from the creedal formulations through the emergence of the Summa and culminating in the creation of Protestant dogmatics. He chooses somewhat surprising exemplars to illumine these three approaches: Cyril of Jerusalem (died 386), Hugh of St. Victor (died 1141), and Philip Melanchthon (died 1560).

He then explains what he means by “engaged systematics.” He sees his approach as a “corrective” to the “disembedded” and adversarial character of most Christian systematic theology ever since it emerged. He hopes for a theology that will empower “a life of embodied practices all of which can be summed up as prayer” (p. 117). Continue reading

A Future for American Evangelicalism: A book review

Harold Heie. A Future for American Evangelicalism: Commitment, Openness, and Conversation. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015. xvii + 156 pp.

Reviewed by Ted Grimsrud—August 2016

Harold Heie, a retired college administrator (Gordon College, Messiah College, Northwestern College), has embarked on a second career as the coordinator of a series of impressive conversations among evangelical Christian thinkers on important and oven conflicted issues.

Heie has created a website (Respectful Conversation) that hosts these conversations. The archives are a fascinating record of conversations on issues such as same-sex relationships, political philosophies, biblical authority, human origins, and numerous others. Remarkably, these conversations are respectful—but also honest and in-depth, revealing differences and agreements in insightful ways.

In A Future for American Evangelicalism, Heie provides an account of a number of these conversations. The chapters are each titled “Evangelicalism and …” and cover topics such as the exclusivity of Christianity, the modern study of scripture, morality, politics, human origins, and higher education. Each conversation included several invited participants, selected in large part to provide a fair amount of diversity in perspective.

To Heie’s immense credit, he has chosen topics that genuinely matter, and he has chosen participants who do differ from one another. The book is Heie’s report on the conversations, not a transcript of the conversations (though those are available on the website). As such, it is a good summary on current thinking on these various issues.
Perhaps more importantly to Heie, though, the book is a report on a process. Clearly, at the heart of this work is a desire to help evangelical Christians not only examine particular issues but even more, to learn how to talk together respectfully and honestly. This is an excellent challenge, and Heie’s book gives us a good sense that such conversations are possible and when engaged in with good will, thought provoking and insightful.

So, for example, in the chapter, “Evangelicalism and the Modern Study of Scripture,” we learn from a spectrum of thinkers about what’s at stake in current debates about how biblical authority does and should work. Heie emphasizes that all the participants affirm the centrality of “biblical authority,” but they disagree on the meaning of that commitment. Continue reading

Revelation Notes (Chapter 16)

Ted Grimsrud

[See notes of Revelation 15]

Revelation sixteen describes all seven of the final set of plagues—the “bowl plagues” where seven angels pour out onto the earth “the wrath of God” (16:1). Unlike the partial destruction that the two early series of plagues (seals and trumpets) describe (in turn, one-quarter and one-third—perhaps the thunder plagues that were “sealed up” and not reported [10:4] would have told of one-half destruction), here the destruction is total (“every living thing in the sea died,” 16:3). With the seventh plague “a loud voice came out of the temple, from the throne, saying ‘It is done!’” (16:17). Now, John’s reporting of the “revelation of Jesus Christ” is not done. We still have six more chapters and several important visions to go. But this is the final plague and the expanding circle of destruction has reached its climax. The dynamics of wrath and destruction seem to have reached their culmination here. We will need to think carefully about these plague visions and also consider what is to come in Revelation—all in light of the core visions we have already heard, especially chapter five’s vision of the triumph of the Lamb—before we draw conclusions about what is being communicated in this chapter.

Revelation 16:1-11

The “loud voice from the temple” almost certainly is God’s voice telling the angels to “pour out on the earth” bowls of the “wrath of God” (16:1). We should read this description in light of what we have already discerned about God, the plagues, and wrath. The basic idea may be we are again going to have described for us the dynamics on earth during the “three and a half years” where the Dragon and his minions are wreaking havoc—but not in a way that will actually defeat God. “God’s wrath,” thus is not God direct anger being visited upon the earth in order to punish wrongdoing. Rather, it is what results when people turn against God and order their lives on the values of domination and exploitation—gaining their marching orders from the Beast and not from the Lamb. On a certain level, we may say that God allows the spiral of destruction loosed by the Dragon, but also that this spiral of destruction actually leads to the destruction of the Dragon himself along with the Beast and the False Prophet. Continue reading

Revelation Notes (Chapter 14)

Ted Grimsrud

[See notes on Revelation 13]

Chapter thirteen concludes with a call to wisdom. The picture of the Beast and the False Prophet exercising domination reflects the perspective many of John’s readers would have had. Some would have welcomed the Empire’s kind of “peace” and sought to accommodate with its ways to protect themselves from the kinds of consequences to resistance that are alluded to with the Beast “making war on the saints” (13:7). Others would have still believed in resisting the Beast but would have despaired of fighting “against it” (13:4).

So the call to wisdom is crucial (much more so than the exact meaning of the 666). The Beast might simply destroy the witness of the Lamb’s assembly—either by crushing the resisters or, more likely, by converting them to an accommodating approach to faith where the Beast and the Lamb seemingly coexist.

John wastes no time, though, in countering the temptation to accommodate or despair. Of course, the content in Revelation leading up to the vision in chapter thirteen also gave powerful reasons not to take that vision as definitive of the actual situation. Jesus already has been identified as the ruler of the kings of the earth, worthy to be worshiped by all creation and the one who brings healing to countless multitudes from all corners of the earth. Chapter fourteen, then, actually does not provide the antidote to the Beast’s claims so much as reiterate what has already been asserted—but with new depth.

Revelation 14:1-5

The impact of the contrast between the “I saw…” of 13:1 and the “then I saw…” of 13:11 with the “then I looked…” of 14:1 is lessened a bit by the chapter division. However, the three need to be read together. The vision of 14:1-5 is the conclusion to the Beast account. What is seen in chapter thirteen only has meaning in Revelation in light of the conclusion in 14:1-5. Continue reading