Ted Grimsrud—November 5, 2018
Greg Boyd is a rare combination of academic theologian (Princeton PhD, former professor, author of important and sometimes technical theological books) and parish pastor (at Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, since 1992). His pastoral work infuses Boyd’s heavyweight theology with a practical dimension that helps explain his wide popularity.
Boyd recognizes that the 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, in reality, that way. Boyd, though, knows that God is 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), Christians must affirm that God is loving, merciful, and nonviolent.
Now, of course, many Christians agree with Boyd. Some feel little tension because they have no problem simply accepting that the violent portraits of God are not truthful revelations. The Bible, for these Christians, contains materials that are not inspired by God and may be dismissed as non-revelatory. However, Boyd’s own beliefs will not let him dismiss parts of the Bible like some others do. So, he has a more complicated path to follow.
Boyd struggled with this question: How do we hold together our understanding of God as nonviolent love 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. He released Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (Fortress Press, 2017), which 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. Here I offer a shorter three-part response to Cross Vision (CV). In part one I will summarize Boyd’s basic argument followed in part two by my assessment of this argument and in part three by my alternative way of addressing these issues.
Boyd’s argument: The problem
This is Boyd’s central conviction: God should always be seen definitively in light of Jesus’s nonviolent love. Boyd focuses especially on how God’s character is shown in Jesus’s crucifixion. This conviction means that we must reject the truthfulness of the surface reading of the OT texts that contradict the cross-centered revelation of God in the story of Jesus.
The starting point for Boyd’s discussion in CV is the “ugliness” of the pictures the OT gives of a violent, warring, punitive, and harsh God. This ugliness stands in sharp contrast with the “beautiful” pictures the story of Jesus’s crucifixion gives us about God as loving, merciful, healing, and nonviolent. This contrast has created enormous problems for Christianity through the years—partly simply by sowing confusion as to what God is truly like. It also hinders the clarity that we need when we 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.
Boyd grants, though, that we cannot deny that the OT at times presents God as violent. Those who (like Boyd) affirm the full inspiration of the Bible dare not dismiss the revealed character of those violent portraits. Boyd affirms the Bible as inspired because he believes Jesus did so. He 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.
For Boyd, the 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 takes priority over the OT. The inspiration of the Bible means that each part points to the witness of Christ crucified to a nonviolent God (p. 31). Boyd insists that the violent portraits of God do not stand as “supplementary revelations alongside Christ” (p. 23). 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. For Boyd, the actual tension is, we could say, between accurate (seeing God as always nonviolent) and inaccurate (failing to see that God is always nonviolent) readings of the Bible.
The centrality of the cross of Christ
Boyd’s God is nonviolent, period. His challenge is simply to discern how best to figure out how the difficult passages (the violent portraits of God) confirm the clear ones (the story of Christ crucified). Boyd reaches his conclusion in part due to 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.
To know what Jesus is like, we look first of all to the story of his suffering love that paid the price to bring us salvation. The cross reveals God’s love to be “cruciform” (cross-shaped)—that is, self-giving and nonviolent. It reveals that God has always been like that and will always be like that. We find hints of this truth in the OT, but the revelation is only made clear in Christ.
Because we trust that the crucified Christ is the full revelation of God, we recognize that “something else must be going on” in the OT stories of divine violence (p. xii). 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.
We see this “something else is going on” dynamic in the stories of Christ’s crucifixion. On the surface, we see an account of the ugly violence, the worst manifestations of human sin and even a God-forsaken curse that Christ suffers under. However, underneath the surface, we find the deeper meaning when we see that these stories tell us about God’s love. God stoops to bear our sin in order to bring salvation, and God allows the ugly surface appearance as an accommodation to human sinfulness. Ultimately, God reveals the beautiful deeper reality of a love that nonviolently overcomes human sin.
For Boyd, that the Bible is inspired (“God-breathed”) is compatible with God allowing human frailty and sinfulness to be part of the process. God does not “breathe” only in a unilateral way. God allows for human freedom. The sin of humanity acts on God (most significantly in the cross) and manifests itself in the writing of wrong concepts of God in the Bible. The violent portraits happen when God steps back and is willing to allow misperceptions to enter the story.
We must work to discern when portraits of God are actually true and when the portraits reflect God’s accommodation to human sin. To do this, we need clarity about what God is like apart from such accommodation. We get that clarity from the cross. It serves as our interpretive key for reading the entire Bible because God was neverdifferent than as revealed in the cross.
An accommodating God
Because God places a high value on human freedom, loving influence rather than coercion must be how God works with us. Thus, for Boyd, God reveals as much of God’s true character as is possible for people to understand, and 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 distorted views of God’s character 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 itself rarely indicates when such accommodation occurs.
God’s accommodation explains why incorrect views of God have such a prominent place in the OT. God does not place those views there, but only allows human perspectives to find expression. “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)—as with the ways OT writers portray God. What they expect to see about God conforms more to surrounding cultural values than the actual revelation of God (which, Boyd insists, has always been consistent with the revelation of God in Christ’s cross).
God continually (through non-coercive self-revelation) does enter the world. The Spirit may always break through the hearts and minds of people so they may see God accurately. That did happen at times in the OT. However, because the default nature of human awareness reflects our “twisted minds and hearts that suppress God’s Spirit” (p. 106), usually we will not see God accurately. However, since the failure of 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 in allowing the fallen human perspective to be in the Bible and how low God was willing to stoop to accommodate to human freedom.
Is punitive violence God’s default response to wrongdoing?
Boyd suggests that we tend to assume that God must resort to violence when God judges sin. We tend to project onto God our own age-old assumption that violence fixes problems, “the myth of redemptive violence” (p. 139). Instead of having this God-as-violent-judge assumption, we should begin with the crucified Christ as our window into God’s approach to sin and evil. The entire history of God in the world is one where “the power and wisdom that God has always used to punish sin” is in fact the same as the power shown in the cross (p. 137).
That God indeed is a God of love does not mean that God does not work in the world to hold wrongdoers accountable. But this work is consistent with God’s nonviolence. God’s way of dealing with sin finds its paradigmatic expression in Jesus’s crucifixion. All that God did then was “withdraw his protection” and allow Satanic elements bent on destruction to do what they wanted to do with Jesus (p. 139). God was in no way directly involved in that act of violence.
This withdrawal of protection is God’s method of exercising judgment against sin and evil. God thereby turns people over to the death-consequences of their sin. God does this reluctantly; this is the only way that God can bring salvation in face of human intransigence. The judgment of God we see typified in the cross occurs when “people are not willing to be protected and God sees that his mercy is simply enabling their sin.” At that point, the wisdom of God discerns that there is no redemptive option other than God “handing people over” to the consequences of their sins (p. 141). God is not an active agent in the punitive dynamics. The violence does not come from God. All God does is withdraw the protection that heretofore prevented the violence.
God defeats evil through God’s “Aikido-style of judgment” (p. 144). Aikido is where a person turns the aggressor’s violence back against the aggressor. The divine Aikido at work in Christ’s cross has three elements: First, the actual orchestration of the crucifixion is done by Satan, not God. Second, though the demons know exactly who Jesus is, they do not understand why he is on earth. All they know is that he is present and vulnerable. They have the opportunity to do him in, and they do so. But, then, third, by raising Jesus from the dead, God turns the crucifixion from Satan’s seeming victory to his decisive defeat. God turns the momentum of the violence back on Satan and crushes him (p. 144).
In the cross, through these three elements, “God used evil to defeat evil.” This is God’s Aikido strategy in action and establishes the “looking glass” that Boyd looks through to interpret God’s work throughout history. Since the cross shows what God has always been like, we see in it how God has always and continues to deal with sin and vanquish evil (p. 146).
According to Boyd, the Bible shows two types of punishment. The first, “judicial,” is externally imposed and separate from the wrongdoing that leads to the punishment. It is when a person is determined to be guilty by some kind of judge and is punished. The second, “organic,” consists of negative consequences that are inherent in the sin itself. “The Bible generally construes God’s punishment of sin as organic in nature. God doesn’t impose punishment on people. The destructive consequences of sin are built into the sin itself. God only needs to withdraw and let sin run its self-destructive course when he judges people” (p. 148-9).
The Bible does attribute judicial punishment to God. But at these points we do not have “direct” (accurate) revelation that shows God truthfully. Rather, we have “indirect” revelation where human beings misunderstand what God actually does. This misattribution of violence is an example of how God allows the Bible to contain inaccurate portraits of God. Once we realize God is nonviolent we will see in the OT a great deal more nuance in the ways it presents how God’s judgment works. We will notice numerous cases where “direct” revelation does occur and where God’s essentially organic style of punishment is present—and mainly consists of God’s withdrawal of protection against hostile forces.
Boyd asserts that the organic conception of sin reflects the Bible’s direct revelation. It serves as our norm for understanding the dynamics of sin and judgment in the Bible. The violent portraits of God in the Bible that portray God’s response to sin as direct and violent punishment are indirect revelation—telling us not what God is like but telling us of mistaken human notions of God that are nonetheless allowed by the forebearing God to remain in the Bible.
The OT often shows how people’s sin led to natural destructive consequences, showing that sin is inherently self-destructive. The presence of these cases makes an important theological point about how God ultimately exercises judgment. These cases are more central to the true portrait of God than the accounts of God’s direct intervention to punish. With the dynamics of organic punishment, things are necessarily imprecise. Boyd sees the moral order of creation as “a complex, loose causal weave of act and consequences” (p. 158). Sin reaps consequences, but the process takes time, is often messy, and may at times be unpredictable in the details.
While the OT stories do often (inaccurately) tell of God’s direct involvement in violence, quite often they “contain indications that confirm that the violence they ascribe to God was actually carried out by other agents” (p. 163). If we read the stories in light of the cross, we will more likely notice within the stories both the “indirect revelation” of the misattribution of violence to God and the “direct revelation” that helps us see that it was not God who actually did the violence.
The Exodus stands at the center of any list of OT violent portraits, especially when the first-born Egyptians are killed. Boyd points out that the agent of the death is not God. The killer is called “the destroyer” in Exodus 12, and we are given no indication it operates on God’s behalf. We may infer that the destroyer is independent, bent on destruction, and would have destroyed the Hebrew children as well if given a chance. God’s only involvement here is to protect some in face of the violence (p. 164).
The Babylonian conquest of Judah was an example of God’s indirect punishment, not an example of God acting violently. The parts of the story that attribute the violence to God reflect misunderstandings. God allows those inaccuracies to stand, even though they slander God. “The true God actually … humbly allowed himself to appear guilty of things he merely allowed.” For us to recognize this dynamic we must trust that the true God is revealed in the cross (p. 169).
God and the Satanic cosmic powers
In the final part of CV (“Seeing Something Else Through the Looking-Glass Cross”), Boyd focuses on the place of cosmic forces of evil in the dynamics of OT violence. His argument runs like this: (1) Yahweh is a humble, sin-bearing God. We should read the Bible backwards and start with the definitive revelation of God in the cross and consider everything earlier in the story from that perspective. God has always been like the God revealed in Jesus.
(2) God does judge when it is appropriate, with negative consequences. However, in line with God’s nonviolent, sin-bearing character, God does not use violence to effect the judgment. Rather, God’s method of dealing with the worst wrongdoers is to withdraw “his restraining Spirit to allow sin to punish sin and evil to vanquish evil” (p. 179).
(3) That God is always consistent with what is revealed in the cross and that God judges by withdrawal and allowing for “organic punishment” are truths present throughout the Bible. We need to read with a “cruciform hermeneutic” to see the truths as present in the text, especially in the OT. The Bible contains numerous cases where God allows the flawed perspective of the writers to shape texts in ways that obscure the cruciform character of God, especially in the OT. But read carefully, the texts often yield insights that do confirm Boyd’s account.
(4) Often the violence in the Bible that is attributed to God is done by human beings. In cases such as the events of punitive judgment recounted in Jeremiah, it is relatively easy to see that God did not actually want the violence to happen. In Boyd’s view, God only allowed the distorted accounts to go forward out of respect for the free will of the writers.
(5) However, the Bible also contains stories when punitive violence occurs that cannot have been perpetrated by human actors. Boyd asserts that, since it is impossible that God could have authored the violence (we know this because we read everything in light of the cross), it “must be attributed to violent cosmic agents” (p. 179). Boyd argues it is not only deductive logic that leads to this attribution. If read carefully, the texts themselves do point in the direction of the presence of violent cosmic agents in the stories.
We live in a world “saturated with powerful, corrupting demonic agents” (p. 181). Because of these “rebel cosmic agents,” God need not “engage in destructive acts to punish people.” God need only step aside. “For people to fall under God’s judgment, God needn’t do anything. He needs only to stop doing something: namely [to stop] preventing the cosmic forces that are bent on destruction from doing what they are perpetually trying to do” (p. 183).
The evil cosmic powers at work
Boyd’s first example of the actions where cosmic forces of evil serve the purposes of God’s judgment is the role they played in punishing “grumblers” who undermined Moses’s leadership in Numbers 6. These “grumblers” defied Moses while the children of Israel were in the wilderness. The text presents what follows as actions of God’s punitive will. However, the actual events suggest other, independent, agents were involved. The grumblers were swallowed by the earth—to their presumed destruction. “What actually happened was that God, with a grieving heart, allowed evil to punish evil by turning these rebels over to experience the destructive consequences of their sin at the hands of agents who were already bent on violence” (p. 184). God did not open the earth to cause people to die. The grumblers “were swallowed by a menacing cosmic beast that is always hungry for someone to devour” (p. 188).
Boyd writes of the Bible’s most destructive punitive judgment story that we mustsee the Flood as a “literary crucifix” because of what we know about God’s character as revealed in the cross. God could not have been the agent of violence in the Flood. Hence, the only logical option is that the Flood was caused by Satan and his evil minions (pp. 194-5). The Flood story shows “what collective human sin looks like when God withdraws his merciful restraints to allow it to run its self-destructive course” (p. 196). The events in this story are organic rather than judicial judgment. “When God saw that his merciful striving had no hope of turning the earth’s landlords around, he had no choice but to withdraw his Spirit.” By this withdrawal, God used evil to punish evil (pp. 196-7). The waters (which were an agent of the cosmic powers of evil), act based on their own destructive intentions. God, though, is also involved when God steps back, ceases to prevent the powers from destroying, and allows the just punishment to find expression.
Boyd’s third example is the exodus. In the story of the exodus of the enslaved Hebrews from Egypt there is no human agent bringing the violent judgment—and we know from the cross that it can’t be God doing violence. So, “we must assume that destructive cosmic agents were behind [the exodus’s] violence” (p. 206). The Red Sea should be linked with God’s “cosmic foe” that was tamed when the waters of chaos were tamed in the creation story and in the Flood story. “It was the sea monster, not God, who devoured Pharaoh’s army” when the waters slammed down on the Egyptian soldiers as they pursued the escaping Hebrews (p. 201).
Boyd offers no grand summary of his argument to conclude CV, only a few inspirational comments. He offers this challenge: If you still imagine that the OT authors might be right about God when they present God as directly doing violence, then you will be compromised in your passion for God—and in your own movement toward wholeness (p. 248). These issues have profound ramifications for how we live.
We must remember, Boyd concludes, that the key truth here is that God as revealed in the cross is the true God. This revelation provides us with a perspective that helps us accurately to interpret everything else in the Bible. In this way, our struggles with fitting all the seemingly contradictory elements of the stories the Bible tells are resolved. However, crucially, the cross only works as a “looking-glass” for discerning the meaning of the OT when we fully affirm that “Jesus’s cross-centered life and ministry fully reveal what God is like” (p. 248).
Finally, Boyd offers an encouraging response to the concern that his affirmation of a nonviolent God is wishful thinking. His view is often dismissed as a projection of human values of peace and wellbeing onto God. Boyd would agree with my paraphrase of a comment by the great Jewish theologian of God’s compassion, Abraham Joshua Heschel: Understanding God as nonviolent is not an anthropomorphism. Rather, understanding that human beings are called to nonviolence is a theopomorphism. As Boyd writes, “If the God you’re envisioning feels too good to be true, that simply means that you are moving in the right direction” (p. 249).
[Part two of this review, “An Assessment,” critiques Boyd’s book. Part three, “An Alternative,” sketches my approach to these issues.]