Tag Archives: Theology

Boyd’s critique of divine genocide defenders [chapter 19]

Ted Grimsrud—December 11, 2017

[This is the 20th 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 19th post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]

In Chapter 19, “Defending Divine Genocide: The Inadequacy of Traditional Defenses of the Conquest Narrative” (pages 917-60), Boyd develops a detailed critique of the argument presented by evangelical theologian Paul Copan’s book Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Copan stands in as a thinker who has argued thoroughly for reading the Joshua story as an accurate account of God’s activity in the world. As we would expect by now, Boyd argues sharply against Copan’s acceptance of that story as accurate in its portrayal of God while agreeing with Copan’s general affirmation of the inspired character of all of the OT.

What to make of the Joshua story as Scripture?

Boyd starts by making the point that indeed we have no alternative but to recognize that the story in Joshua does report genocidal actions empowered by God (922). He then adds, “if we refrain from calling the Israelites’ slaughtering of entire populations ‘genocide,’ we are implicitly admitting that wiping out entire populations in the name of God is sometimes, at least in principle, justified” (922). And, if we take Jesus seriously, we have no option but to deny the truthfulness of that picture of God and God’s will. These points seem important and true.

However, Boyd’s rejection of the picture of God presented in Joshua is only one side of his “conundrum”—that our affirmation of God as love requires us to deny that God could have done what Joshua tells us. He points to the other side of his conundrum here, too: “This narrative is completely God-breathed” (922). By God-breathed, Boyd means that God was directly involved in the writing of this text, that the book of Joshua says what God wanted it to say.

Perhaps the most profound problem with Boyd’s theology of scripture is not that he would insist that Joshua is “God-breathed.” It is that Boyd would argue that any of the Bible at all is “God-breathed” in the sense that he uses that term. In my view, the Bible from start to finish was written by human beings in human language—and then translated and interpreted by human beings. I believe that texts such as the genocidal stories in Joshua are useful in part because they challenge us to rethink our traditional understanding of the Bible as revelation.

If we truly believe that the Bible’s God (seen most clearly in the story of Jesus) could not possibly have given the commands that Joshua presents as from God, then we should not present the story of those commands as “God-breathed”—if “God-breathed” means that God was directly involved the writing and that the words are what God wanted written. We need to rework how we think of scripture as revelation. Unfortunately, Boyd does not seem interested in such a reworking and instead constructs a quite convoluted argument that tries to hold on to a traditional view of inspiration while denying that the picture of God presented in Joshua is true. I find it hard to believe that many will be persuaded, and I find it hard to understand what he hopes to gain with this view of inspiration. Continue reading

Boyd on judgment and “divine withdrawal” [chapters 17 and 18]

Ted Grimsrud—December 7, 2017

[This is the 19th 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 18th post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]

In Chapter 17, “Doing and Allowing: The Crucicentric Significance of Scripture’s Dual Speech Pattern” (pages 851-890) and Chapter 18, “A Question of Divine Culpability: Responding to Objections to the Principle of Redemptive Withdrawal” (pages 891-916), Boyd develops further his arguments about how God exercises punitive judgment in ways that are compatible with how the nonviolent God is revealed in the cross of Jesus.

What does the Bible mean when it speaks of God’s actions?

Boyd makes a good point in his discussion of what he calls “Scripture’s ‘dual speech’ pattern.” He suggests we recognize that the Bible’s authors acknowledge “that God merely allowed the actions they elsewhere directly ascribe to God.” The language of God directly acting to bring about judgment thus should not be read overly literally. It is God’s universe and everything that happens in some sense happens under God’s directing providence. But that does not mean that God directly acts every time God is mentioned.

Boyd links this “dual speech pattern” with his belief that “God merely withdraws protection when he brings about judgment” (852). I would rather say that to note this “dual speech pattern” is simply to note that we have in the text a rhetorical projection of God’s agency onto the events. Boyd takes an additional step that I cannot accept, that the biblical writers implicitly recognize “that their violent depictions of God are divine accommodations to their own fallen and culturally conditioned hearts and minds” (852). I would rather say that this “dual speech pattern” is simply a reflection of the human nature of the Bible’s books.

Boyd seems to claim that the Bible is still “inspired” and even “infallible” when it reflects such “divine accommodation.” It is not that the Bible is a human book that cannot help but reflect its human sources and in fact could not be otherwise. Rather, for Boyd it is that the Bible is still a divine book where God chooses to allow the human limitations to be evident even though God could fashion the Bible otherwise if God wanted to.

It strikes me that Boyd wants to retain a view of a profoundly powerful God who could control things and chooses not to. In face of the evidence that the Bible indeed does reflect human limitations, Boyd argues for this “divine accommodation” without any clear evidence to support such a move beyond the need to hold on to his understanding of the inspiration and infallibility of the Bible. 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 Insistence on Making the Cross Central [CWG chapter four]

Ted Grimsrud—June 12, 2017

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

The cross

In chapter four, “The Cruciform Center, Part I: The Cross as the Supreme Revelation of God” (pages 141–171), Boyd begins to explain what he means by what he calls a “cruciform hermeneutic”—his approach to interpreting the entire Bible in light of Jesus’s crucifixion. This doesn’t simply mean saying that the crucifixion is the most important story in the Bible. More than that, Boyd believes that everything else in the Bible (including the OT) must be seen as in some sense pointing to the crucifixion. It will take a lot of writing to explain how this dynamic works. The key purpose of explaining “the cruciform center” here, we will ultimately learn, is that this is how we might resolve the challenge of properly understanding “the OT’s violent portraits of God.”

Boyd asserts that the OT must be interpreted in light of Jesus, never placed alongside him as though it was a supplementary revelation. We should be able to discern how the OT narrative, and how each aspect of it, bears witness to Christ (142), especially Christ’s cross. In contrast, I would tend to take the opposite approach in that I would see the fundamental revelation being the exodus and the gift of Torah. We recognize Jesus as truthful, as the Son of God, because of how he embodies that same revelation.

Boyd suggest, sadly, that for the past 1,600 years theologians have indeed tended to read scripture christologically but they have not rethought the meaning of the OT’s violent portraits of God. This dynamic shows that we need to go a step further and advocate a crucicentric, rather than merely christocentric, orientation (142). By “crucicentric” Boyd means “the nonviolent, self-sacrificial, enemy-embracing love of God revealed on the cross” (142). This is helpful, but I ask why center this notion of self-sacrificial love on the cross rather than on Jesus’s life? I suspect it is because on some level Boyd still accepts the evangelical focus on Jesus’s death as a necessary sacrifice. I will need to monitor this issue as I go through CWG—paying special attention to the problems for nonviolence that belief in a necessary sacrifice raise.

“Wrath” and love

Boyd understands God’s “wrath” not to be an independent characteristic of God’s character. He writes, “If God’s love alone is the one ‘absolute,’ then God’s ‘wrath,’ as well as every other aspect of God, must ultimately be understood to be a manifestation of this love from a particular perspective, including the perspective of those who are hardened against it and thus experience it as ‘wrath’” (146). I think this is a good statement, but I would suggest that if God’s love truly is absolute, God would not turn away and would protect everyoneif God could. That is, I think Boyd’s point bumps up against the idea that God’s love has to be seen to have limits if we accept (which I don’t) that there are people who are excluded from it. I think it’s better to understand the “limits” as intrinsic in God’s actual lack of power to control the world. God simply can’t protect people. More on this in future posts. 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