The Centrality of God’s Love: A Response to Greg Boyd’s Cross Vision, part 2

Ted Grimsrud—9/12/18

An accommodating God

One of Boyd’s most important affirmations is that God creates people free, with the potential for love—and the potential for rebellion and sin. Because of this value placed on freedom, God must work among human beings by means of loving influence rather than coercion. What this means, for Boyd, is that God reveals as much of God’s true character as is possible for people to understand and that God accommodates to human fallenness and allows humans to misperceive God only as much as necessary.

Our key for discerning the difference between the true character of God and the distorted views of God’s character that God’s accommodations allow is the cross. In light of the cross’s portrayal of God’s true character, we can read the OT with insight into how God “stooped” in order “to accommodate the fallen culturally conditioned beliefs and practices of his people” (p. 85). We must do this work because the OT rarely indicates that what it is telling us is an accommodation by God that leads to the text itself containing misleading portraits of God.

Boyd discusses four key examples of how this dynamic of God’s accommodation works. For each of these examples, we have texts that actually present the accommodating behavior as being God’s will. But with our cross-centered reading strategy, we can discern that God in fact does not approve of behavior and beliefs that contradict God’s self-revelation in the cross—rather, God mercifully and vulnerably allows the distorting accounts to go forward in the lead up to the final revelation of God’s character in the cross.

Marriage.The initial norm for marriage in the Bible is revealed in Genesis 1–3, the key elements being monogamy and fidelity. However, very early in the story that Genesis tells we encounter polygamy. God never speaks out against polygamy and in fact seems at times to accept it and even approve of it. So, according to Boyd God decides to allow God’s people to believe that God is a typical Ancient Near Eastern deity who approves of polygamy. And God allows this incorrect belief to be recorded as true in the Bible. This accommodation is what you would expect from God’s self-sacrificial, sin-bearing love that is shown on the cross.

Human kingship. Once the Israelites settle in the promised land, with the insecurities of retaining control of their territory, their elders decide that they need a human king, one who will lead them in the way the nations’ kings lead them. In effect, they at the same time ask Yahweh to be like the gods of the nations who exercise top-down power through the authority of the human king. We know from the Bible that human kingship was not actually God’s will, but God not only accommodates by giving the elders their king, God also accommodates by letting many biblical writers present the king as someone God calls and supports.

Boyd asks the question, if we recognize that God is accommodating with human kingship—allowing the people to believe and report that God supports it—is it not also possible that God would do the same with the violent portraits of God (p. 88). Does God not follow the same pattern with both human kingship and genocidal violence?

Animal sacrifices. Ancient Israelites borrowed from Ancient Near Eastern practices when they instituted animal sacrifices as a central part of their religious life. They believed that God commanded them to do so, and God accommodated to that false belief by letting the use the sacrificial system. And God accommodated to that false belief by letting them write that false belief into their scriptures.

All three of these examples seem pretty straightforward. The OT itself presents mixed messages concerning these three practices. The ideal is present—marriage as monogamous, a rejection of human kingship, and a deep skepticism about animal sacrifices—alongside the acceptance and even divine approval of the opposite (polygamy, human kingship as blessed by God, and animal sacrifices as necessary). Boyd, though, adds a fourth example of accommodation that seems a bit less straightforward.

The Law. Boyd asserts that the entire Mosaic law, together with the law-oriented portrait of God that it presupposes is an accommodation along the same lines as the others (p. 93). Part of his basis for saying this comes from the writing of Paul the Apostle in the NT. According to Boyd, Paul taught that the spiritual state of OT people was such that God “first needed to demonstrate how people cannot be rightly related to him—namely, by perfectly complying with the law—before he could reveal the only way people canbe rightly related to him, which is by faith in Christ” (p. 95).

So, for Boyd the way God is presented as being so law-oriented in the OT is itself an accommodation, God allowing a false view of God to be entered into the text. God “stoops” to let the misperception be believed and written about. This accommodation was God’s loving means to demonstrate “that no one can ever be rightly related to this sort of deity” (p. 96).

However, the OT does not present the same kind of critique of the law as it does of human kingship and animal sacrifices. It is actually the law (as properly understood, according to the prophets) that provides the bases for critiquing those other practices. The issue with the law seems more to be about the proper understanding and application of the law. More problematic for Boyd’s argument, Jesus also seems to affirm the law (as properly understood) and to use it to critique the legalism and oppression of his opponents. Jesus opposed the Pharisees not because they affirmed the law but because they misapplied it. It is telling that Boyd’s core NT basis for rejecting the law is the writing of Paul, not the teaching of Jesus.

Boyd does retreat a bit from his antipathy of the law, though. He suggests that there are laws that do improve on Ancient Near Eastern laws and move toward the revelation of God in the cross. Any such law, he writes, “reflects God acting toward God’s people” (p. 98). That is, they are accurately and directly inspired by God. Any law that points away from the revelation of God on the cross, though, should be seen as only indirectly inspired. These laws are accommodations where God allows the resistance of God’s people to the Spirit nonetheless to be treated as revelation from God—that is, God allows God’s people to act on God (p. 99).

One reason why the OT presents incorrect views of God

It is due to God’s accommodation that such incorrect views of God have such a prominent place in the OT. Of course, God does not place those views there, but only allows fallen, sinful human perspectives to find expression. Boyd reflects of the human dynamics that are the driving force in those perspectives.

Human beings tend to project their own expectations of what is true onto reality when they try to describe the way things are. “We all tend to interpret what we see and hear through a grid of what we want or expect to see and hear” (p. 104). And this is the case with the ways OT writers portray God. What they expect to see (based on being shaped by the Ancient Near Eastern they had absorbed) about God conforms, as it turns out, more to surrounding values than the actual revelation of God (which, Boyd insists, has always been consistent with the revelation of God in Christ’s cross).

The OT helps us get a sense of how this dynamic worked in how it “repeatedly stresses that the Israelites were a stiff-necked people who continually resisted the Spirit and broke God’s heart.” So, it stands to reason that this “stiff-neckedness” would determine their very awareness of God’s character and will. They would tend to project their will toward violence onto God. “This goes a long way toward explaining why they could only grasp glimpses of God’s true character and will” (pp. 105-6).

God continually (through non-coercive self-revelation) does enter the world. It is always possible for the Spirit to break through the hearts and minds of people and for people to see God accurately. And that did happen at times in the OT record. However, because the default nature of human awareness reflects our “twisted minds and hearts that suppress God’s Spirit,” it stands to reason that usually we will not see God accurately—as is generally the case in the OT.

However, that the failure for God’s people to see God accurately is so powerfully present in the OT, we may now (in light of the cross) appreciate just how forbearing God was and how low God was willing to stoop to accommodate to human freedom. An example of this that Boyd discusses is the story of Abraham nearly sacrificing his son Isaac. We who know what God is like due to the cross can realize how profound God’s accommodation was (p. 108).

The difficulty of overcoming human “blindness”

Boyd suggests that it would have been extraordinarily difficult for the children of Israel to understand God’s actual will for them when they went to enter the promised land. He thinks God did have an alternative plan for the entrance, an alternative way to take over the land from its inhabitants other than violent conquest. However, when it is the case that everyone in the cultures surrounding Israel trusted their gods to help them fight, it is hard to imagine how any of the people of Israel could possibly have imagined that their God did not want them to fight (p. 113).

The OT does contain numerous hints that Yahweh would have wanted people to trust their God to be different, to trust their God to provide for victory without their fighting. Hosea 7 reports a vision of victory “not by bow, sword, or battle … but by God.” Numerous psalms (e.g., 20; 33; 146) echo those sentiments. God tried to get the people to substitute trust in the divine over trusting in violence.

That God may have had a nonviolent plan for taking over the land may be perceived in a couple of places. Exodus 23:28-30 alludes to a more gradual takeover where hornets would gradually drive out the Canaanites (p. 114), an approach significantly less violent than holy war. And Leviticus 18:24-25 speaks of the land itself “vomiting out” the Canaanites, which could perhaps be understood as simply the dynamics of injustice and disregard of the land leading to a failure to thrive that would make the Canaanites want to find “greener pastures.” It would appear, though, that these nonviolent approaches simply were unimaginable to the culturally-conformed Israelites (with their “twisted minds and hearts”—p. 116).

A culture where sea monsters are “real”

There is another type of how Israel was influenced by their surrounding cultures that Boyd sees as important but not so problematic. He writes about what he calls the OT’s “conflict-with-chaos” motif where the life in the world is understood as a constant struggle with forces of chaos (and even evil). The seas are full of monsters, the land itself can swallow people up, the winds and rains, floods and earthquakes are not random, impersonal events but the work of malevolent beings and forces.

For Boyd, the accommodation in relation to these forces is not so much the sense that they are real (that sense certainly was characteristic of Ancient Near Eastern cultures but it happened to be mostly true and is picked up on in the NT’s awareness of the reality of Satan, and the principalities and powers). Rather, the accommodation comes in the way that the OT presents it as God’s will that the people act with violence toward other human beings who are seen as allied with the forces of chaos. What was mistaken was that human beings are part of the God’s conflict-with-chaos struggle and that it is appropriate for God’s people to use violence against them (p. 125).

The NT provides a more clear awareness of God’s actual will regarding the struggle—which, as Ephesians tells us, is not against flesh-and-blood but against the spiritual forces of evil (an awareness also powerfully expressed in the book of Revelation).