Ted Grimsrud—July 18, 2017
I recently finished reading a fascinating, challenging book, Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (Fortress Press, 2017). I have invested a lot of energy in this book because I think the subject matter is extremely important, and not only for Christian pacifists such as myself. And I think Boyd has done an impressive job of examining the issues related to violence in the Old Testament.
I am pretty sure I spent more time reading this book than anything since I read Ernst Troeltsch’s Social Teaching of the Christian Churches in grad school 30 years ago. Crucifixion of the Warrior God (henceforth, CWG) is a huge book—it actually takes up two large volumes, 1,487 pages in all. I have gotten so absorbed with this book, that I decided to blog my way through it. I have written an essay per chapter (I’m through chapter 10 so far) and have posted them at my Peace Theology site. I started on that before I had actually finished the whole book. Since I just now finished, I thought I would take a moment and write a quick reflection on the book as a whole. When I finish with my detailed, chapter-by-chapter critique, I will write a comprehensive review of the whole.
I started reading feeling very excited. Here was someone who promised to give this important question of how to deal with the “violent portraits of God” the attention it deserved. I was also excited because I knew that Boyd would be working from a pacifist perspective.
I’ll admit that the book became a bit of a slog at times. I’m looking forward to seeing how he boils things down when he publishes his much shorter, “popular” volume on the same topic, Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of the Old Testament (due out August 15, 2017). Though Boyd writes clearly, as a rule, his argument is complicated and the detail with which he examines the various issues make it a hard to follow at times.
I remain delighted with Boyd’s consistent commitment to affirming that God is a God of humble, self-giving, nonviolent love—period. That commitment makes me want to recommend this book highly and to express my gratitude to him taking the huge risks and devoting the huge amount of energy to putting this volume together and to following it up with a more accessible version that will widen the book’s reach.
A different approach
And yet, on just about every point, I have concluded that I would make the case for reading the Bible as a consistent witness to this humble, self-giving, nonviolent, loving God in a different way. I strongly agree with Boyd that followers of Jesus must imitate God and always turn away from violent acts. But I don’t really think he makes as good case for this conviction as I had hoped he would.
He holds on to an “infallible” Bible (albeit defined and applied in a distinctive way vis-a-vis typical evangelical approaches). He affirms that God is all-powerful (albeit in a way that is not directly violent or even coercive). And, maybe most importantly, he understands God, in effect, to be bound by “the moral fabric of the universe” in a way that requires God to exercise punitive judgment (albeit in a way where the actual pain is caused by the powers of evil, not God Godself). He sees the world as profoundly under the influence of very powerful and personal evil powers who work in conjunction with the dominating effect of universal human sinfulness. And he centers his understanding of God and God’s involvement in the world on the death of Jesus.
Four points where I differ from Boyd
In contrast, I center my argument about the centrality of God as a peaceable God who calls us to follow in the same path on different points:
(1) I focus most of all on Jesus’s life and teaching (not his death) and make a case for how that life and teaching are based on the message about God contained in the OT, especially the prophets (rather than seeing the OT mainly as a problem for peace convictions and seeing Jesus and Torah in opposition). I develop this point at great length in my own book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness.
(2) I am ready to understand many particular elements of the OT not to be inspired—recognizing that the Bible’s truthfulness rests most of all on its Big Story, with some parts untrue except insofar as they play a role in the Big Story (e.g., key elements of the accounts of the Conquest; the destruction of Sodom; and the Flood of Noah).
(3) I conclude that God cannot be all-powerful and good at the same time. I embrace God’s “weakness” (following John Caputo, to some degree)—and reject the ideas of God’s ultimate control and God exercising punitive judgment through “redemptive withdrawal.” The universe rests on love all the way down and God’s justice is never retributive.
(4) I understand creation as good, evil as impersonal, deception and idolatry as at the heart of the dynamics of sin, and Satan as metaphorical for real evil. I believe that we must go into our essence as good creatures of God in a good universe to be able to resist evil (which finds its paradigmatic expressions in injustice, idolatries of nation and religion, and the myth of redemptive violence).
I am not trying to insist that my points here are necessarily all that contrary to many elements in Boyd’s theology. I’m mainly thinking of tone and emphasis in how the case for a peaceable God might be made. And, in the end, I am grateful for Boyd’s work in this book and its follow-up volume. He has helped me think through my views better, and he has helped all of us in our urgent and crucial work to construct a usable peace theology for our contemporary setting.