The centrality of God’s love: A response to Greg Boyd’s Cross Vision (Part 2: An assessment)

Ted Grimsrud—November 6, 2018

 Greg Boyd’s book, Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence (Fortress Press, 2017), deserves praise simply for being a book of serious theological scholarship with an original and creative argument about a crucially important issue that is written for a wide audience. I don’t find Boyd’s effort totally successful, but even as I raise some sharp criticisms I want to emphasize how grateful I am for Boyd’s book. This post is the second of three. The first summarizes Boyd’s argument and the third sketches an alternative view on the issues Boyd addresses.

For many years, I have been deeply troubled about the role Christianity plays in the acceptance of state-sponsored violence in the United States—to the point where self-professing Christians are quite a bit more likely to support wars and capital punishment than those who make no such profession. I’ve concluded that a key problem that contributes to this undermining of the message of Jesus Christ is theological—convictions Christians have that actually make acceptance of violence more likely.

Boyd may not fully share my critique, but he certainly is aware of the problem. And he is willing to write some gutsy and accessible books that take the problem on head on. Cross Vision (CV) is a much shorter and less academically rigorous adaptation of his two-volume work, Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (Fortress Press, 2017). I recommend starting with the shorter book, which does a nice job summarizing Boyd’s argument—but the longer book is also pretty accessible and contains a wealth of analysis that those who are attracted to Boyd’s argument will want to explore (I have written a long response to Crucifixion of the Warrior God). 

What Boyd gets right

The main contribution CV makes is actually an assumption Boyd starts with more than a proposition he demonstrates. He asserts that Jesus Christ is the central truth for Christianity, that Jesus shows us the character of God more definitively than anything else, and that because Jesus was (and is) resolutely nonviolent we should recognize that God also is nonviolent—and always has been. Making such an affirmation about God a starting point means that Boyd does not equivocate when he comes face to face with difficult biblical materials. He focuses on how those materials might be understood in relation to the core convictions about God as nonviolent. This clarity is bracing and empowering. What the world needs now, I believe, are people who are committed to embodying healing love, not people who struggle over whether or not to kill others or whether or not to support the killing of others. It’s that simple, and Boyd gives us an important resource for following such a path.

Now, certainly the violent portraits of God that are all too common in the Old Testament raise problems for someone with Boyd’s convictions. Surely, part of his motivation for this work is simply to help him strengthen the coherence of his own theology. How does one who believes in nonviolence andin the truthfulness of the Bible understand the Bible’s (occasional) affirmations of violence? However, Boyd is also motivated by a more pragmatic concern that is all too often given short shrift by those who are not troubled by OT violence: What can we do as Christians to counter the pervasive and devastating violence in our culture that embraces the myth that this violence is redemptive?

Those who are sanguine about the Bible’s violence tend to be sanguine about violence in our world and, as a consequence, contribute to an enormous problem. Part of this problem is the way that accepting violence undermines the witness of Christianity and leads even Christians themselves to misunderstand and contradict the testimony of Jesus that our world so needs in order to find healing. So, this is not mainly an intellectual project for Boyd. Much more so, it is—we could say—a kind of evangelistic project. It has to do with the practical expression of the good news (the “evangel”) of God’s healing love. To embrace and embody that healing love, we have to be clear about its reality, clarity that affirming the ugly images of God that are contained at times in the Bible renders unavailable.

The centrality of the cross

Boyd powerfully affirms the centrality of what he calls the “cruciform motif” for understanding Jesus, God, the Bible, and life in the world. The heart of everything is the love that led Jesus to a life of compassionate service and resolute nonviolent resistance. Such a life inevitably put Jesus in conflict with the powers that be, human and demonic, and led to his terrible death on the cross. God, though, did not desert Jesus but instead raised him from the dead, turning terrible defeat into victory. The love of God that conquers sin and death found its defining expression in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Everything about God and God’s revelation in the Bible must be understood in light of the cross (by which Boyd means all the events leading up to and following Jesus’s crucifixion). God is not and has never has been different than the God revealed in the cross. We may take that as a certainty. Sure, we may struggle with understanding how best to understand this notion of God in relation to what other parts of the Bible teach. But the issue is never, for Boyd, whether or not God is always the cruciform God of the cross. It is always only an issue of understanding how to affirm God’s love and nonviolence in relation to various portraits.

Now, as I will discuss when I get to my critique of Boyd, I want to apply the centrality of Jesus for understanding God and the Bible differently than Boyd does. However, my differences with him on these issues arise within a much more profound agreement—that God has always been nonviolent and that we understand God’s character, always, in light of the revelation of God in Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection.

Implications of cruciform theology

A key part of Boyd’s application of his cruciform theology is his affirmation that God relates to human beings through loving influence rather than through coercion. He reads the texts that seem to imply otherwise as God’s accommodation to human weakness. The people who wrote those texts indeed were writing inspired scripture, Boyd says, but God allowed them to record their distorted views of the story shaped by cultural values that were contrary to God’s values. I do not find this approach particularly persuasive in the end (as will discuss below), but I do affirm Boyd’s sense of God’s non-coercive approach to relating to humanity. And I also affirm that the biblical texts that conflict with God’s nonviolence are not to be understood as accurate historical accounts—and, in fact, are to be rejected as truthful portrayals of what God truly is like.

Boyd discusses God’s judgment at length. I find his acceptance of the motif of “punishment” to be troubling (again, to be discussed below). However, his sense of God’s judgment as Aikido-like seems pretty attractive to me as is his distinction between “judicial” and “organic” punishment. These insights follow from the notion of God as non-coercive, a notion that leads to a careful (and attractive) description of God’s “wrath” not a active, interventionist anger but as God’s willingness to let human beings experience natural consequences for their moral failures.

Boyd suggests that God’s willingness, out of non-coercive love, to allow Jesus to suffer the consequences of human sin at the cross serves as a paradigm for God’s general approach. I’m not totally convinced by this comparison, but I do like that the way the story of Jesus portrays God as non-coercive shapes how Boyd reads everything else. To reject the common notion of God as an angry and punitive judge seems essential for an authentic peace theology.

Boyd helpfully discusses a number of examples in the OT of where the judgment that is described is of an organic and not judicial variety. And he points out, in fact, that scholars argue that the OT actually does not even have a word that directly means “punishment.” The entire Bible supports the idea that God’s judgment tends to be non-interventionist. So, though Boyd is willing to apply his “something else is going on” to the texts where the intervention seems to be direct, he also makes the case that as a rule the texts themselves do support his approach once one is sensitized to look for this.

The cosmic powers

I found Boyd’s discussion of the presence of evil cosmic powers in OT stories such as the Flood and the Exodus to be helpful. Even if I don’t want to take this insight as far as he does, it does make sense to me that we should recognize the reality of other forces at work in the world than only human beings and God. I don’t think of Satan and the Powers as malevolent personal beings so much as personifications of the more impersonal social and cultural dynamics at work in our world where human choices for evil take on a social dimension.

However, that the world can be an unfriendly place, that idols do seek to separate human beings from God, and that when we do not trust in the healing love of God we suffer consequences all seem true. Boyd’s point, as I understand it, that much of the organic judgment described in the OT can be seen in terms of malevolent forces taking advantage of human vulnerability when people separate themselves from God seems true. The destructive consequences are not the result of direct punitive actions by God but rather the result of the malevolence exploiting human vulnerability when people have separated themselves from God.

Peace and God

Boyd’s conclusion, while stated a bit more frankly than one might expect in book such as CV, seems accurate to me. “The depth of your passion for God and of your transformation into his likeness will never outrun the beauty of your mental representation of God…. To the extent that you entertain lingering suspicions that OT authors might be right when they ascribe atrocious behavior and attitudes to God, it can’t help but compromise your passion for God and, therefore, the beauty of the person you’re becoming” (p. 248).

And yet…

Perhaps it is because of my appreciation for Boyd’s effort to apply his unapologetic commitment to nonviolence to his way of interpreting the Bible that I nonetheless finish with strong ambivalence about CV. In the end, I do not think he actually does read the Bible with as much of a consistently nonviolent hermeneutic as he could (and should). And because of this lack of consistency, I wonder about how well CVwill actually effect the nonviolent transformation Boyd seeks.

Biblical inspiration

I think Boyd offers his readers a worthy challenge when he sets up the problem as the tension between both affirming the inspiration and authority of the Bible as a whole and believing that God is definitively revealed in the thoroughly nonviolent Jesus. However, in working at that challenge, I think he gets us off track with his understanding of “inspiration” in terms of “infallibility” (that is, the sense that each detail in the Bible is in some sense approved by God and to be understood as truthful).

At the same time, Boyd seems throughout CVto treat the violent portraits as if they are not actually truthful, at least when read in the most direct and straightforward ways. To deal with this confusing dynamic, he develops what he calls the “divine accommodation” approach where the most straightforward readings of the OT violent text show us that God accommodates to human sinfulness by allowing the writers to tell us things that are untrue (e.g., that God commanded the Hebrews to massacre every man, woman, and child in the story of Joshua). I fear that this approach is a kind of mystification—where in order to hold on to what he calls a high view of biblical inspiration he makes incoherent moves. I doubt that very many readers with a typically evangelical view of biblical authority would agree that Boyd does in fact demonstrate a “high view” of the Bible (I have seen a few responses that support this point).

I will admit that the issues Boyd addresses are indeed challenging and do not lend themselves to easy resolution (I will outline my alternative approach to affirming both an inspired Bible and confessing of God as nonviolent in the third part of this series of posts). But the idea that God “steps back” and allows untruths to be present in inspired scripture (untruths that Boyd himself acknowledges have had quite a destructive impact on Christian behavior these past 2,000 years in wars, crusades, and the like) seems unacceptable.

That “something else is going on” in such texts at times is a helpful thought (Boyd does provide some persuasive readings where he points to details in the texts we have often missed—e.g., the likelihood of the presence of a demonic “sea monster” in Exodus’s Red Sea). But often it seems that the claim that the text doesn’t mean what it clearly states is simply special pleading. I think part of the problem is Boyd’s claim to affirm an evangelical understanding of biblical inspiration rather than admit his approach does allow for seeing that the Bible is not inspired in the details of the text. It seems okay (I’d say, necessary) to admit that the Bible is fundamentally a human book (with many inaccurate portrayals), and that “divine inspiration,” however it works, does not mean that the Bible transcends its humanness.

How do we think of the Old Testament?

Another element of Boyd’s approach to the Old Testament that I see as problematic is his characterizing it as only a “shadow” revelation in relation to the New Testament. He denigrates the Law as presented in the OT. In general, though he hints at some positive elements in that part of the Bible, he presents the Old Testament as mainly a problem. He tends to treat the violent parts as self-contained stories rather than as part of a bigger story.

This leads to him giving the sense that in his understanding, Christ and the cross and Christian revelation replace the teaching of the OT. Such an emphasis on discontinuities between the OT and NT actually makes the OT violence seem worse and more definitive of the message of the OT than it actually is. And, ironically given Boyd’s own pacifism, it unhelpfully narrows the meaning of Jesus’s life, teaching, death, and resurrection to being more religious and doctrinal (in line with later Christendom) rather than more social and political (in line with the OT story).

The reader of CV gets little sense of the peace vision of the OT and its powerful critique of empires, injustice, and militarism. For Boyd, the problem of the violence in the OT can only be resolved, we could say, Christologically—that is, by reference to the cross of Christ understood as a uniquely salvific event. I will suggest in my next post that a much better approach to the violent texts is to read them in the context of the bigger OT presentation of God’s shalom (peace, justice, and loving kindness). Seeing much more continuity between Jesus and the OT also, I will explain, leads to a quite different understanding of the cross than we get in CV.

The “cross”?

For Boyd, the cross is at the center of everything else he addresses in CV. The cross reveals what Jesus (and therefore God) is about more than anything else. All of his main arguments go back to this revelation. While I strongly affirm making Jesus the center of how we read the Bible (and of our theology; see my book, Theology as if Jesus Matters), I am uncomfortable with how Boyd seems to reduce Jesus to the cross—and to construe the cross in an overly narrow sense.

Boyd certainly intends to include Jesus life, teaching, and resurrection in his sense of what the cross means, but in practice throughout CV (and also throughout the much longer Crucifixion of the Warrior God) he abbreviates things to “the cross.” And I don’t think this is simply for convenience sake. The actual crucifixion of Jesus is where it all comes together for Boyd. Something happens in the cross itself that matters more than anything else before or after.

That Boyd makes the cross so central, though, makes it unfortunate that he does not discuss more clearly how exactly the cross works for his theology. He rejects the penal substitutionary atonement theology so prominent in evangelical and fundamentalist circles. He does not believe that Jesus died as a necessary sacrifice to take the punishment God owes to us onto himself as a means of gaining us salvation otherwise not available. But he still seems to see Jesus’s death as uniquely salvific. Due to his reticence on spelling out the mechanics of the cross, Boyd leaves me with a sense that God is not necessarily free simply to forgive and heal.

How is the cross a revelation of a thoroughly nonviolent and loving God if it is a required element of God’s offer of salvation to humankind? What is the “curse of sin” that the cross is necessary to release humankind from? How is there not an angry and punitive God behind the necessary crucifixion? I am not sure how Boyd would answer these questions.

Boyd does seem to have a pretty negative view of humanity. We are characteristically imbued with “twisted minds and hearts that suppress God’s Spirit” and dominated by an all-powerful Satan who is earth’s ruler in the present. This kind of theological anthropology typically is linked with the idea that for human beings to find salvation we need some intervention from the outside—usually seen as Jesus’s necessary sacrifice on the cross. And the negative anthropology is often linked with a notion of God as punitive. I do not believe that God can be both punitive and nonviolent at the same time since punishment seems by definition to be violent.

God and punishment

Boyd gives us some mixed signals about God and punishment. As mentioned above, I appreciate his discussion of God’s “wrath” not as angry, punitive judgment but more as allowing human beings to experience the natural consequences of their wrongdoing. And he helpfully points out that the OT itself seems to place little emphasis on punishment.

At the same time, Boyd still commonly uses the term “punishment” as if he still wants to see God as in some sense a punitive God. One way this comes up is the common reference to God’s strategy of withdrawing protection when God wants to exercise judgment against human wrongdoing. It’s as if what matters in making a case for a nonviolent God is that God does not directly intervene effecting violent judgment by God’s own hand. But it does not seem consistent with being nonviolent for God to choose to step back and allow violence to fall upon wrongdoers that God could otherwise have prevented—and that in doing so God actually does want this violence to be punitive.

Boyd’s move on this topic seems a bit like casuistry. God’s hands remain clean when God only intentionally allows the judgment bearing violence to occur rather than directly causing it. This distinction seems problematic. Boyd’s God still seems governed by the logic of retribution where wrongdoing must be met by retributive, punitive violence. I believe that in arguing that God does punish by withdrawing protection, Boyd draws the line in the wrong place. Rather than presenting the line of violence/nonviolence being between direct and indirect punishment, I believe that a Jesus-shaped reading of the Bible would help us to see that we should draw the line between punishment of all kinds and restorative justice.

The issue with so much of the violence in the world—and at times in the Bible—is that it reflects the myth of redemptive violence and the logic of retribution that tell us that punishment is the necessary response to wrongdoing. The Bible, including parts of the OT, tells us that efforts to restore the relationships violated by wrongdoing do not require punishment. A consistently nonviolent God may been seen in stories such as Esau’s response to Jacob, Joseph’s response to his brothers, and the father’s response to the prodigal son. Boyd’s retention of necessary punishment undermines his hope for a nonviolent understanding of God.

Back to the Bible

In the end, my take on CV is that Boyd has made a useful start in the right direction. His assertion that the best way to read the Bible is to understand it to be presenting us with a thoroughly nonviolent God is precisely what Christians need in our present day—especially Christians in the United States. And, as Boyd insists, the way we get to the nonviolent character of the biblical God is through the story of Jesus. And when we read the Bible in light of Jesus, and hence with a nonviolent God, we will be able properly to understand the violent portraits not as an unresolvable contradiction but as only one non-authoritative part of a bigger picture.

However, I also think the residue of Boyd’s doctrinal evangelicalism has prevented him trusting the Bible enough to resolve his conundrum without his special pleading. His notion of biblical inspiration appears to be a theological construct imposed on the Bible more than an inductive approach that reads the Bible as it comes to us. His notion of the cross also owes more to doctrinal theology than to a straightforward reading of the story told in the gospels that presents Jesus’s crucifixion as the culmination of his life of radical obedience (and disobedience to the ways of empire and establishment religion). When Jesus called on his followers to “take up the cross” he wasn’t talking about a one-off cosmic transaction that deals with the “curse of sin.” Rather he is talking about the social strategy that was to be imitated, in line with the prophets and the embodied Torah.

Indeed, we need a “cross vision” that envisions the way of Jesus and his nonviolent God as the way his followers share in fulfilling the calling for all the children of Abraham to bless all the families of the earth. I think Boyd gets us started on that journey. I’ll share in my next post more about how I would suggest reading the Bible as guidance for pursuing the journey further.

[Post one of this series summarizes Boyd’s argument.

Post three sketches an alternative approach to the issues of violence in the Bible.]

10 thoughts on “The centrality of God’s love: A response to Greg Boyd’s Cross Vision (Part 2: An assessment)

  1. I really like what you’ve said about him not mentioning “the context of the bigger OT presentation of God’s shalom (peace, justice, and loving kindness).” I think I remember him mentioning in CWG somewhere that he was aware that those themes were there but it wasn’t his focus… or something like that. Which is fine I suppose, but it reminds me that I need to not look at the OT as a despicable book with only portraits of violence that I have to reinterpret. Even if I were to take his hermeneutic to be true, it’s still only part of the story.

    “It’s as if what matters in making a case for a nonviolent God is that God does not directly intervene effecting violent judgment by God’s own hand.” That’s very much how I feel about his principal of withdrawal. Even if it’s true, it doesn’t seem to quite lead in the direction he thinks it does. I think it could still help Jesus’ followers however. If God does not strike others down, neither can we. But I’m not sure it makes God as nonviolent as Boyd is attempting to prove.

    I’m not sure how I feel about his commitment to the conservative hermeneutic.. I’ve been reading some Origen (and I think he’s right, he basically is just making a modern system of Origen’s interpretations) and I think it’s interesting that, as far as I’ve seen, Origen doesn’t typically seem particularly concerned about whether or not these events are historical. It felt at times that perhaps Greg was making sure that his method worked for even more conservative ends of the spectrum. And if it works there then it will work further down the line as well. When reading Origen (I most recently read his homilies on Joshua) some of his interpretations were very much a stretch. Then again, even if I sort of chuckled and rolled my eyes, I still found them very helpful!

    And that’s a lot of where I’ve personally been taken with Boyd’s work. Certainly the authors didn’t see what I’m looking into them. And perhaps God orchestrated it so that they will unknowingly write something that thousands of years later will reveal a deeper truth (or the untruth the author unwittingly wrote down).. or perhaps it’s myth and never happened.. or perhaps it’s simply humans mucking it all up and the OT is largely a display of our follies, but I’ve found this method to be very beneficial in my understanding of God.

    Very excited for part three!

    1. Thank for this! From reading Boyd and some other things just lately, I have come to more appreciation of Origen. I agree with you both about the eye-rolling and helpfulness.

  2. Another solid critique, Ted. I think you’ve been very fair to Boyd here. I also note that your first major conclusion is pretty much the same as mine was on reading CWG: “in order to hold on to what he calls a high view of biblical inspiration he makes incoherent moves”.

  3. Very thought-provoking Ted. It is an important point that certain interpretations of God and the Bible can lead to more acceptance of violence. It does seem Boyd’s acceptance that God inspired the entire Bible leads down confusing paths linguistically, thus making God more than less mysterious. I know you next Post will address how to read the Bible. Do you anywhere discuss individual/family/nation protective violence as it relates to pacifism? I am not persuaded non-violence is always the answer.

    1. Thanks.

      I haven’t done much writing on “protective violence.” I would say, though, that I am persuaded that nonviolence is always the answer. Of course, sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes we are not able to have an “answer.” But in such cases, I suspect violence almost always is worse.

      One time, I did get into these things more directly. See the post: Is pacifism for “when life happens”? If you find the initial post interesting, be sure to read the long comment section. And also, a follow-up post that is linked at the end of the initial post.

      If that elicits some thoughts, I would enjoy further conversation.

      1. There was some amazing dialogue in the Posts you referred me to Ted. Your kindly responses are so powerful when topics can generate so many emotions. I will try to center my thoughts on one main idea. I believe we agree Boyd doesn’t define well what he means by all of the Bible being inspired. I just think language breaks down when one argues God inspired words that God believed were mistaken. Similarly, I don’t think we can say what Jesus would always advise because of the Bible. The meaning of his words require interpretation and we don’t always agree. It is possible Jesus in our circumstances may advise using violence.

        We agree love is the overriding principle though there are different nuances of love. Sometimes love must be tough such as with a wayward teenager. Evil at times may require tough love. Maybe such love can be done in a compassionate way – always looking for alternatives – though violence may result. I may protect someone in danger if armed but hopefully I wouldn’t shoot but hold hostage until the police arrived if such a choice was possible.

        I guess I am concerned if it is suggested that God or Jesus would never advocate violence – this is an added burden on soldiers or individuals who may get involved in helping others according to their convictions. I think we can lay out hopeful, loving principles – though good luck with that when it comes to nations – but to suggest violence is never necessary seems too burdensome or simplistic.

      2. Thanks for the thoughts.

        To keep it really short for now, I guess I’d say that the statement that God or Jesus would never advocate violence is a confessional statement in the sense that that is what I believe, not what I know for sure to be a fact for everyone. I respect that others believe differently.

        Still, it comes down to the question of whether one can love someone and kill them at the same time. Augustine and his descendants (that is, the large majority of Christians) have said yes. I believe the answer should be no. But because I am such a small minority and because as a pacifist I don’t believe in coercion, I have no power to enforce my belief. But I can make the case for why I think I’m right….

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