Ted Grimsrud—November 8, 2018
Greg Boyd’s book on reading the Bible nonviolently, Cross Vision (CV), sets before us a challenge. Is it possible to accept the Bible’s truthfulness while also affirming a consistently pacifist worldview? I conclude, after reading both CV and its more scholarly companion, Crucifixion of the Warrior God, that indeed the best, most respectful, reading of the Bible does support a pacifist commitment. However, I think the case for this might be made more persuasively following a somewhat different approach than Boyd’s. In this post I will sketch an alternative approach to Boyd’s for a biblical theology that also places God’s nonviolent love at the center.
Starting with God’s nonviolence
Like Boyd, I begin with God’s nonviolence (see my blog post, “Why we should think of God as pacifist”). I believe that the fundamental reality in our world is love. And God is love. So my interest in writing this piece is not to try to persuade people who might think otherwise that God is nonviolent. Rather, I want to explain why I think the Bible supports that conviction. What in the Bible leads to confessing God’s nonviolence? And what should we think about the parts of the Bible traditionally cited as the bases for denying that God is nonviolent?
Let me first, though, say just a bit about what saying “God is nonviolent” means for me. In a nutshell, to make such an affirmation is to confess that the Bible teaches that God created what is out love and for the sake of love. It also teaches that God participates in the world most directly in how God brings healing in the face of brokenness, binding wounds, reconciling alienated relationships, and empowering creativity and compassion.
And also like Boyd, I believe that the Bible’s definitive portrayal of God is found in the story of Jesus. That is, God is most clearly and reliably known to humanity in the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus. My affirmation of God’s nonviolence finds its strongest grounding in my affirmation of Jesus’s nonviolence. Just as it is unthinkable to me that Jesus would punish, hate, exploit, or violently coerce, so is it unthinkable that God would.
After these agreements with Boyd, my differences begin to emerge in the discussion of how we best understand Jesus’s nonviolence. Boyd centers his emphasis on the crucifixion of Jesus, following Protestant theology by understanding the cross as a sacrificial act necessary for the effecting of salvation—though he does differ from most other Protestants in drawing pacifist conclusions from this affirmation. He does not deny that the meaning of the cross extends to understanding Jesus’s life as exemplary. However, in his rhetoric, the cross is almost always mentioned all by itself and not spoken of in relation to Jesus’s life and teaching or in relation to the cross being the Empire’s method of executing political offenders.
I focus more on Jesus’s life than his death. I see the meaning of Jesus’s death having most to do with the hostile reaction of the powers-that-be of empire and temple to his subversive way of living. When God vindicates Jesus by raising him from the dead, God vindicates Jesus’s entire way of life and declares it as the model for all people of good will. So, I would say that we know that God is nonviolent because we confess that Jesus shows us what God is like and Jesus’s life and teaching were thoroughly and consistently nonviolent. The cross is the consequence of that life, not itself actually a core revelatory moment. In itself, the cross is simply an act of terrible violence where the powers-that-be once more simply crush dissenters. The cross only becomes meaningful when God raised Jesus from the dead, defeating his killers, and vindicating his life. Such an act by God shows that Jesus reveals the true God. The self-important leaders of empire and institutional religion do not serve God but usually are in rebellion against God. They should not be given loyalty due to God.
So, for me it is not the cross as the central truth about Jesus and God. The meaning of the cross is mainly that it demonstrates what happens when political and religious institutions seek to silent the message of God’s rejection of domination and violence. They try desperately and ruthlessly to silence that message. The resurrection shows that they fail in their efforts. Jesus’s life and teaching are vindicated and proven to witness to God’s healing and reconciling love that cannot be defeated by the powers-that-be.
I believe a key element of the NT’s portrayal of God as revealed in Jesus is that Jesus’s witness, in his life and teaching, is in full continuity with the witness of the Old Testament (properly interpreted). Boyd tends to portray the OT as deficient and in many ways in tension with Jesus’s message of God’s nonviolence. I disagree. The revelation of God we see in Jesus is not a new revelation that relativizes Torah and the prophets. As Jesus himself said, he confirms the law and prophets.
Jesus’s message may be summarized by his central affirmation—that what matters most is to love God and neighbor with all one’s heart. He insists these words summarize the message of Torah and the prophets. When we recognize this connection, we will see that Jesus provides a lens for reading the OT on its own terms. Read in light of Jesus’s core command, the OT is not mainly a source of predictions or foreshadowings of a future messianic figure whose death would move things in a different direction—where the death is the central revelation.
I believe Jesus helps us see that the main message of the OT is the same as his message—the call to love God and neighbor with our whole hearts. As Jesus does, so does the OT place love and compassion at the center both of the human vocation and of the self-revelation of God. As well, Jesus and the OT both teach us that the flip side of the coin that tells us to love is the call to critique and resist domination and oppression. Jesus’s message clarifies and continues the OT message that affirms God’s mercy and rejects domination and violence. Jesus himself does not so much offer a new or distinct message centered on his identity as God Incarnate revealed in his death, but more a message that God’s kingdom is distinctively present in his life and teaching.
The Big Story
I believe that affirming the Bible’s truthfulness and inspiration is important for Christian theology. However, I understand the meaning of that affirmation quite a bit differently than Boyd seems to. Boyd cites 2 Timothy 3:16 without discussion as his proof text for insisting that the Bible is inspired (or, “God-breathed”, CV, pp. 4, 7). He implies that “God-breathed” means each verse, maybe even each word, is from God. This view leads him to pit texts against texts and to understand differences between specific texts to be a problem. He constructs an ingenious argument to resolve those problems—his “something else must be going on” approach. As I discussed in the second post of this series, I have some problems with that approach.
Ironically, the main evidence Boyd cites to justify his approach—2 Tim 3:16 and the idea that Jesus affirmed the truthfulness of the Bible—need not necessarily lead to this kind of “verbal plenary” (that is, individual word-based) sense of inspiration (here Boyd seems simply to echo standard evangelical theology). Both 2 Tim 3:16 and Jesus actually take a more practice-centered view of the Bible. The 2 Tim text emphasizes the practical significance of inspiration—that the Bible seems inspired because it is useful for guiding us to live faithfully—not some kind of more formal definition of inspiration. Likewise, Jesus emphasizes in his use of the Bible that it is useful for helping people of faith to embody his message of shalom.
I believe, consistently with 2 Tim and Jesus, that the best way to appropriate the Bible as useful for faithful living is to read it in terms of its overall message when read as a whole—what I call its “Big Story” of “God’s healing strategy” (articulated in my book with that name). God is a God of healing and wholeness whose character as such is the central theme of the Bible. The way the Bible’s inspiration works is on the level of the truthfulness of the Big Story—not on the level of each particular text being equally authoritative or truthful nor on the level of the historical facticity or the accuracy of each text. Rather, the inspiration is to be seen in how the story as a whole provides life-shaping guidance into key themes such as God’s character, the human predicament, the path we are offered for faithful living, and the critical insights the Bible provides for understanding the world we live in.
The key move for understanding the Bible, then, is to orient each part of the Bible toward the Big Story. We read the parts in light of the whole, and recognize that some times we will encounter tensions in that reading where some specific parts do not seem to be in harmony with the Big Story. Those tensions are important and deserve careful attention. However, they do not lesson the truthfulness of the Big Story when we consider all the pieces together.
The centrality of peace
I will acknowledge that it’s not totally accurate to say that the Bible obviously has a single Big Story. Or, at least, not everyone will agree precisely about the content of the Big Story. Identifying this story is a bit of a subjective exercise. And I agree that we shouldn’t want to insist on a single interpretation of the Bible’s storyline. Part of what it means to be part of the community that respects the message of the Bible is that we engage in conversations with different versions of what that message actually is. We are not given an objectively provable interpretation of the Bible. What we should do is engage the Bible as an exercise in discernment for how it speaks to our lives in our world, expecting that it will offer guidance and encouragement.
At the same time, though, I think that most serious readers of the Bible over the ages do share a general sense of what the Big Story is about—a story of creation, fall, peoplehood, and ultimate healing. My version of the Big Story emphasizes what I call “God’s healing strategy” (see Ted Grimsrud, God’s Healing Strategy, 2nd edition). God creates the world out of love; humans exercise their freedom in ways that disrupt their relationships with God, each other, and the natural world; God initiates a long process to bring healing to all those relationships centered on communities of faith that culminates in the ministry of Jesus; and story ends with hope of completed healing in New Jerusalem.
To say that this Big Story is where the inspiration of the Bible finds its central expression is to say that the reader of the Bible should consider each discrete part of the Bible in light of this Big Story. The Big Story is about God’s commitment to peace, to wholeness, to healing. Along the way it tells of many human acts, beliefs, and commitments that violate peace and lead to brokenness. The ways of healing only ever find partial expression—often characterized by mixed motives on the part of the human players in the story. But there is a direction, a trajectory, a hope that understands the plot in terms of growing knowledge, wisdom, and understanding of God’s healing strategy.
So, the Bible as a whole is a book of peace. The God of the Bible is a God of peace. The clearest manifestation of God’s will to peace comes in the life, death, and resurrection of the one called “the Prince of Peace.” A reading strategy for the Bible that places the Big Story at the center will not see the presence of violent portraits of God as contradicting or threatening the message of peace and of God as the nonviolent author of peace. The discordant bits are to be expected in an ancient human document. They provide context, creative tension, and a counter-narrative that must be overcome for the story to be resolved. It is altogether possible that at times specific biblical authors intend to present a violent God, a God who approves of human violence. However, the intention that matters more, the intention of the Big Story, is to illumine how God is a God of peace. The various bits, including the discordant ones, do together give a peaceable portrait of God.
So, when we read the violent portraits we ask how they serve the Big Story, not how to understand them as autonomous accounts that contradict the centrality of the overall message of peace. We privilege the parts that reinforce the message of peace and subordinate the parts that challenge that part—recognizing, though, that the violent parts are necessary parts of the peaceable whole and should not be simply ignored and discarded.
We recognize that the Story finds its culmination in Jesus. With Jesus as the outcome, we read the OT with special attention to its elements that Jesus makes clear are the center of the Story. We don’t pit Jesus over against the OT (something Boyd at times comes precariously close to doing), but we look for how Jesus catches up the core aspects of the Big Story, especially the aspects that portray God as merciful, healing, just, and peaceable. Jesus’s message confirms that from the start the Bible presents a vision of peace—which includes a sense of perspective about the non-peaceable elements. These non-peaceable elements are a genuine part of the Story, but are subordinate to and interpreted by God’s healing work.
Israel and the land
Perhaps the most difficult text in the OT for the reading strategy I advocate is the Conquest story in the book of Joshua. This well-known account of the entry of the Hebrews into Canaan, the takeover the Promised Land, celebrates extreme violence both by God and by God’s people. Taken as a straightforward account of how Israel gained the land, the Conquest creates many difficulties, not only for pacifists but for any believer who does not believe that their God is the author of genocide.
A Big Story reading strategy does not provide a magic resolution for the difficulties. But it does allow for a more peaceable interpretation. A key point is that we should read the Conquest story in the context of the rest of the Big Story, asking how this particular story contributes to the peaceable message of the overall story. When so read, we may recognize that the takeover of the land actually was the first move in what proved to be a failed strategy for sustaining the community of the Promise. This community was established in Genesis 12 with the calling of Abraham to found a people that would ultimately bless all the families of the earth. With the takeover of the land, the community entered into an era of territoriality.
The community in the land required boundaries that required violent protection, fostered a sense of possessiveness, and ultimately led to efforts to expand the territory. Before long, the community desired to be like the other nations and its elders requested and received a human king—who, among other things, gathered weapons of war. The story that follows is largely a story of the failure of this kingdom to embody the main directives of Torah. Prophets rose to challenge Israel’s leadership for its injustices. Before long, the prophetic warnings of the ending of the territorial kingdom were fulfilled.
Dramatically, the story tells how shortly before the destruction of the Hebrew kingdom of Judah, servants of King Josiah found an old law book that triggered a reform movement that sought to reinstate observance of Torah. The reforms did not prevent the destruction of the kingdom, but they did provide the key element that allowed the community to sustain its identity—which from then on was to be a people centered around Torah that would be scattered widely, not a people in a particular territorial kingdom.
So, the meaning of the Conquest became not a story of the permanent founding of a territorial kingdom requiring profound violence at the start and on-going violence to sustain its existence. Rather, the Conquest is the beginning of the story of a path that proved to be a dead end. The promise remained in effect, but its sustenance became non-territorial, centered around the practice of Torah in communities where the people of faith were often a relatively powerless minority in relation to the wider society. So the peaceable meaning of the Conquest story is that territorial conquest and a territorial kingdom are not ever again going to be part of God’s healing strategy.
Jesus seems to have embraced this change of focus when he proclaimed as his central message the presence of God’s kingdom as a decidedly non-territorial kingdom—that would be constituted of scattered communities of faith that did not require violence for their sustenance. A kingdom of peace. Jesus, the new “Joshua,” rejected violent conquest when tempted by Satan at the beginning of his ministry. Instead, he offered a vision echoing the call that Jeremiah made to the people of the promise to seek the peace of the city where they lived (Jer 29:7)—to embody nonviolence. Jesus was not apolitical and only concerned about getting people to heaven. But his politics were the flexible, resilient politics of witness to God’s will for humanity through local communities of faith in nations that they did not govern.
The Bible and peace
What I have all too briefly sketched above is a reading strategy that takes as its starting point the conviction that the Bible as a whole presents God as a loving and healing God whose justice seeks to restore wholeness in human relationships with God, each other, and the natural world. The coherence of this understanding of God and the Bible does not depend upon a perfect harmony where each part of the Bible directly supports the whole. We may accept the presence of counter-images and seek to learn from those “problematic” texts.
However, the plot is clear, and from the very beginning we find testimony to God’s peaceable character and intentions for humanity. The Bible presents the life of faith as being a process of choosing among various options for understanding what’s most important in life—some options contribute to the healing project of God and some do not. The process of choosing appropriately requires wisdom, collaboration with other people of faith, and the willingness to turn away from paths that lead to brokenness—even when turning is difficult.
The choices also involve discernment into the teachings and stories of the Bible. How might we use the Bible as a resource for peace and not for brokenness? That God’s people have made wrong choices about how to read the Bible is shown within the Big Story itself—and certainly is visible in the past 2,000 years. Simply saying that we believe in the authority of Bible is not enough to assure that we choose the healing path over the path of brokenness. I believe, though, that when we read the Bible in light of the message of Jesus and with confidence that the Bible indeed does guide us toward wholeness when we let it, we will perceive the Bible’s Big Story and be empowered to move toward peace.
The first two parts to this three part series responding to Boyd’s Cross Vision: