The Centrality of God’s Love: A Response to Greg Boyd’s Cross Vision, part 1

Ted Grimsrud—9/5/18

Greg Boyd recognizes that standard account of Christianity has at its core a deeply problematic belief. This belief is the claim that because the Old Testament at times portrays God as harsh, judgmental, and violent, Christians are bound to believe that God is indeed that way. Boyd, though, knows that God is absolutely notharsh, judgmental, and violent. To the contrary, since we know what God is like most of all from God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ (especially Jesus’s crucifixion), we must affirm that God is loving, merciful, and nonviolent.

Now, of course, many Christians agree with Boyd. And some of these find little tension within such beliefs because they have no problem simply accepting that the violent portraits of God are not truthful revelation. The Bible, for these Christians, is a document with materials that are not inspired by God and may comfortably be dismissed as revelation. However, Boyd’s own belief system will not let him dismiss parts of the Bible like those non-evangelical Christians do. So, he has a more complicated path to follow.

Boyd writes about having struggled with the basic question for some time—how do we hold together our understanding of God as love revealed most clearly revealed in the cross of Christ with our affirmation of the full inspiration, even infallibility, of the Bible? He spent about ten years researching and writing on this issue and believes he has come to a satisfactory solution. We have two versions of Boyd’s proposal. The first to be published, Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (Fortress Press, 2017), takes up about 1,400 pages. It was followed a few months later by a much shorter work, Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence (Fortress Press, 2017).

I have written at great length about Crucifixion of the Warrior God (CWG)—a 27-part series of blog posts that offer a close-grained and quite critical reading with many suggestions along the way of an alternative approach that shares Boyd’s belief in a nonviolent God. Now I am writing a much shorter response to Cross Vision (CV)—and I expect I will revise some of my criticisms of the first book.

Two approaches to Old Testament violence

Between reading CWG and CV, I read another new book, Making Sense of Old Testament Genocide: Christian Interpretations of HeremPassages by Christian Hofreiter (Oxford University Press, 2018). Hofreiter surveys various ways Christian writers have “made sense of OT genocide” over the past 2,000 years. He suggests they break down into two broad categories.

One we might associate with Origen (and which arose in the 3rdcentury CE, a time when church leaders were essentially pacifist) and simplify by describing it as a view that ultimately suggests that the OT text does not accurately describe historical reality. There are to different versions of this approach—the first, echoing Origen’s own views, reads “beneath” the surface level on an allegorical or theological level, suggesting that a surface, more historical reading gives us an unacceptable view of God as a terrible killer and enabler of killers. The second version of the non-historical approach, much more modern, is to divide the OT between revealed portions (such as the stories that show God in ways consistent with the message of Jesus) and non-revealed (and non-historical) portions (such as the genocide texts).

The second general approach we associate with Augustine (and arose after the 4thcentury “Constantinian shift” when church leaders affirmed the moral validity of Roman wars) and simplify as a view that suggests God has the prerogative to command (or intervene with) violent actions to serve God’s own purposes. This second approach certainly reflects the views of most Christians over most of history since Augustine’s time in their willingness to fight in and support wars. However, many pacifists have also affirmed a version of this approach with the notion that God indeed has the prerogative to intervene with violence even while God also chooses to command Christians themselves not to use violence. This approach has the advantage of straightforwardness, in being able to accept the truthfulness of the OT stories as historical events.

Holding together (or not) five key propositions

Hofreiter helpfully provides a set of five propositions that give us a framework for thinking about these issues (p. 9). An interpretation of the OT genocide texts must in some way come to terms with each of these propositions and with the set of five as a whole.

  • God is good.
  • The Bible is true.
  • Genocide is atrocious.
  • According to the Bible, God commanded and commended genocide.
  • A good being, let alone the supremely good Being, would never command or commend an atrocity.

There surely have been Christians who would try to hold that all five of these propositions are true, and that it should be possible to explain how that can be the case. However, as Hofreiter tells the story, the Christian thinkers who have carefully engaged these issues tend to equivocate on one or more of the propositions.

Just taking Augustine and Origen, we see several such equivocations. Origen would have strongly affirmed #1, #3, and #5. His understandings of #2 and #4 were a bit complicated. The Bible is indeed true, but in a spiritual or theological sense, not always in a historical sense. The truthfulness of #5 challenges us to think carefully about #4. God is said, when the Bible is read in a literal sense, to have commanded and commended genocide—but that is not the case if we read the Bible in the best way, which is to say that when the Bible seems to say God commanded and commended genocide, something else actually is going on that we see only when we read the Bible with the eyes of faith.

For Augustine, we could see some equivocation with regard to #1, #3, and especially #5. Augustine certainly would say “God is good,” but this “goodness” could involve God acting in ways that would not be seen as “good” in normal human behavior. Augustine’s God is beyond human understanding and, it would appear, beyond human concepts of moral goodness. So, genocide may not be atrocious when it is commanded or enacted by God. Augustine does not hesitate to use the violence of the OT as a basis for accepting violence in the present if the violence is just. Because the Bible is true, in Augustine’s perspective, it must not be the case that God would never command an atrocity.

Boyd clearly identifies much more closely with Origen than with Augustine and in fact does name Origen as one of his main influences. Boyd does not call the OT violent stories allegories, but he does look beneath the surface story to discover what actually is “going on” when the text speaks of genocidal and other violent behavior that is attributed to God. However, he is not as clear as he could be about what he means by the Bible being “true.” He does seem to want to affirm each of these five propositions. I tend to think that that is a problematic affirmation.

However, I strongly affirm what I see to be Boyd’s central conviction: God should always be seen definitively in light of the self-giving and nonviolent love shown in Jesus’s crucifixion. This conviction means that we must reject the truthfulness of the surface reading of the OT texts that seem to contradict the cross-centered revelation of God in the story of Jesus. With this conviction settled, the discussion of exactly how to think of the OT violence in the light the cross remains important and interesting, but perhaps not as crucial.

Boyd’s argument: The problem

The starting point for Boyd’s discussion in CVis what he calls the “ugliness” of the pictures the OT gives of a violent, warring, punitive, and harsh God. This ugliness stands in sharp contrast (or, maybe better, contradiction) with the “beautiful” pictures the story of Jesus’s crucifixion gives us about God as loving, merciful, healing, and nonviolent.

This contradiction has created enormous problems for Christianity down through the years—partly simply by sowing confusion as to what God is like, truly. It also hinders the clarity that we need to affirm Jesus as Lord and follow his way in our lives. It is also the case, Boyd notes, that when people believe in a violent God they are more likely to be violent themselves.

At the same time, Boyd notes that we cannot deny the OT’s teaching about God’s violence. And, crucially, those of us who (like Boyd) affirm the full inspiration and even infallibility of the Bible are not in a place to dismiss the revealed character of those violent portraits. Boyd affirms the Bible’s character as inspired scripture because he believes Jesus himself did so. So, Boyd draws from Jesus and Jesus’s authoritative witness to us that (1) God is nonviolent and definitively revealed in Jesus’s cross and(2) the Bible is inspired and truthful in every detail.

However, for Boyd, the profound tension between God’s nonviolence and the Bible’s inspired character does not result in a confused stance about what to believe about God. Christ is at the center. Christ takes priority over the Old Testament. The inspiration of the Bible means that each and every part points to Christ crucified and the cross’s witness to a nonviolent God. Boyd insists that the violent portraits of God point toChrist rather than standing as “supplementary revelations alongside Christ.” That is, the tension ultimately is not between a truthful view of God as nonviolent and an equally truthful view of God as violent. There is only one truthful view of God in the Bible—the nonviolent savior on the cross.

The centrality of the cross of Christ

Boyd approaches this issue not as one of trying to figure out whether we should affirm God as nonviolent or not—God is nonviolent and so should we be. The challenge, rather, is simply to discern how best to figure out how it is that the difficult passages confirm (the violent portraits) the clear ones (the story of Christ crucified). Part of how Boyd reaches his conclusion is his belief that the OT is best understood as only being a “shadow” of the ultimate truth the Bible conveys. We get glimpses of truth in the OT law codes and sacrificial systems, but only in how they point ahead to Christ. The OT’s revelatory authority, for Boyd, rests only in its Christ-pointing function.

Boyd believes that the Bible teaches that God is like Jesus. How do we know what Jesus is like? We look first of all to the cross, the story of Christ’s suffering love that paid the ultimate price in order to bring us salvation. The cross reveals the character of God’s love as “cruciform,” cross-shaped—self-giving, nonviolent, meant for everyone. And, crucially, what is revealed is that God has always been like that and will always be like that. We find hints of this truth in the OT, important hints. But the revelation is only made clear in Christ. “God is cruciform love, and in him there is no non-cruciform love at all” (p. 46).

Boyd proposes that we must not try to defend any of the violence in the OT that is linked with God’s will as direct truth. Rather, we trust that the crucified Christ is the full revelation of God. Therefore (and this gets us to the heart of his proposal), we must recognize that “something else must be going on” in the OT stories of divine violence. This something is deeper than the surface story that indeed does present God as violent. In perhaps his most challenging assertion, Boyd insists that it is theologically coherent to affirm, on the one hand, the inspired and infallible character of all the Bible, and on the other hand, the reality that the true God is not like the God presented in the violent portraits.

This “something else is going on” dynamic may be seen most definitely in the stories the gospels tell of Christ’s crucifixion. On the surface, we see an account of the ugly violence, a terrible tragedy characterized by the worst manifestations of human sin and even a God-forsaken curse that Christ suffers under. However, underneath the surface, the deeper and truest meaning is found in seeing these stories as telling us about God’s love, about how God stoops to bear our sin for the sake of our salvation, about how God allows the ugly surface appearance as an accommodation to human sinfulness but ultimately reveals the beautiful deeper reality of God’s love that nonviolently overcomes human sin.

As an example of this dynamic in the OT, Boyd cites Jeremiah 13. He will, of course, go into much more detail with other examples later in the book. God allows Jeremiah to misrepresent God’s punitive judgment in that text, presenting God as horribly vicious. Now, we know from the deepest revelation of God in the cross that God can’t truly be like that. And we also accept that God breathed the writing of Jeremiah 13 and that it accurately reflects the thought of Jeremiah. However, we also should recognize that God allowed Jeremiah to write about God in that way (even if it wasn’t an accurate picture of God’s true character) out of God’s respect for Jeremiah and God’s willingness for us to misunderstand God. God accommodates to the OT writer’s misunderstandings rather than overrule them and dictate what they wrote.

Though Boyd asserts that the Bible is inspired (“God-breathed”) and even “infallible,” he understands this attribute of the Bible to be compatible with the reality God allows for human frailty and sinfulness to be part of the process, too. God is not a controlling God who “breathes” only in a unilateral or unidirectional way. God allows also for human freedom. God allows also for the sin of humanity to act on God (most significantly in the cross) and to manifest itself in the writing of wrong, even sinful, concepts of God into the biblical record. So, the violent portraits may be best understood as what happens when God steps back in the process of producing the Bible and is willing to be vulnerable and allow misperceptions to enter the story.

Our challenge, then, as we interpret the Bible, is always to look beyond the surface meaning of the text. For this point, Boyd actually cites Origen and aligns himself (to some degree) with Origen’s way of dealing with the presence of materials in the text that contradict the revelation of God in Jesus. While not literally following Origen’s strongly allegorical approach, Boyd sees the modern approach as over-emphasizing the original meaning of the text for its author, and not being attentive enough to deeper spiritual and theological meanings (p. 66). At the same time, he insists that we should place the spiritual meaning over the original author’s only occasionally and only when we have warrant to do so. The most important warrant, he suggests, is when portraits of God conflict with the supreme revelation of God on the cross.

It is very important, then, when we interpret the Bible that we discern between when portraits of God are actually true and when the portraits reflect God’s accommodation to human sin in the “breathing” process. To do this, we need clarity about what God is like apart from any such accommodation. We get that clarity from the cross. It serves as our interpretive key for reading the entire Bible because God was never different than as revealed in the cross.