Did Jesus ever command genocide, violence, and war? The answer, of course, is no. Then why does the Bible depict God as doing so? If we take Jesus seriously as the representation of God’s purposes, embodying love, how does that fact square with all these other, less savory, portraits of God in the Bible? It’s inconceivable to imagine Jesus ordering, let alone condoning, the massacre of nations and people groups. Yet simply compare 1 John 3:16 with Jeremiah 13:14 to see how radically different conceptions of God exist in the Bible: “Here is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us, so too we should lay down our life for one another,” versus “’I will smash them one against the other, parents and children alike,’ declares the LORD. ‘I will allow no pity or mercy or compassion to keep me from destroying them.’”
What’s going on here? Is Jesus loving and God wrathful?
This is the question Greg Boyd seeks to answer in his new book, Crucifixion of the Warrior God. In this hefty two-volume text Boyd goes to great lengths to wrestle with how Jesus can be the manifestation of God’s intentions, while also accounting for the passages of Scripture that seemingly portray God’s commands as contradictory to the inclusive, non-violent, and merciful teachings of Jesus. For Boyd, throwing out portions of the Bible simply because you don’t like them is not an option. His conviction is that both the Old and New Testament point to who God is, and to ignore certain verses is a misuse of the Bible. In doing so, Boyd strikes a delicate middle ground between conservative and liberal interpreters, contending neither camp is as consistent in their beliefs as they claim. So, if the whole Bible needs to be taken as God’s authoritative Word (for Boyd this means it is neither literally true, nor simply the testimonies of particular persons), what do we do with this seemingly dualistic picture of God?
Boyd argues it is through the lens of the cross that we can more holistically understand the violent depictions of God throughout the Bible – but not in the way one may expect. The meaning of the cross is traditionally understood as a satisfaction of sin, meaning Jesus died to save humanity from the wrath of God, incurred because of our sin. This is a violent image of God as an angry legislator. But this is not what is portrayed in the action and teachings of Jesus as he commands his followers to love both their enemies and neighbors, without distinction. If satisfaction theories of the cross are true, God’s aims appear quite different from Jesus’s. An alternative approach to the cross being understood as a release valve for God’s wrath is that the cross actually demonstrated God’s willingness to act non-violently as a response to violence. If that is the true character of God, making that claim runs into differing depictions of God in the Bible (commanding genocide, war, etc.) – so what do we do?
Boyd claims that those violent depictions are ‘cloudy,’ if not flat out incorrect examples of cultural context overwhelming the authors. But since God will not lobotomize individuals, God works by means of influence to illustrate God’s actual character by meeting them where they are at, even if there are misguided elements inherent to their thinking. And for Boyd, this is most clearly seen in Jesus’ nonviolent, other-embracing, enemy-loving action on the cross. When we see the cross as God’s radical pronouncement of self-sacrificial love for all humanity, violent portraits of God take completely new meaning. Just as Jesus was willing to die for humanity in love, God was willing to be portrayed incorrectly in love.
Here is where Boyd enters seriously tricky ground. He acknowledges that many descriptions and words attributed to God in fact reveal more about the contextual and cultural location of the authors than they do about the nature of God and that the revelation of God is progressive. One of Boyd’s principal passages elucidating his position is Hebrews 1:1-3: “God, who gave our forefathers many different glimpses of the truth in the words of the prophets, has now, at the end of the present age, given us the truth in the Son. Through the Son God made the whole universe, and to the Son he has ordained that all creation shall ultimately belong. This Son, radiance of the glory of God, flawless expression of the nature of God….” Utilizing Christ’s action on the cross as the primary lens through which the character of God is revealed, any contradicting version of God’s identity is a cloudy image that needs to be more comprehensively articulated according to this criteria.
Yet, at the same time, Boyd maintains these cloudy passages are indeed invaluable (if not also inspired) because they illuminate the lengths God goes to remain faithful to God’s people. Boyd uses ancient Christian thought from figures such as Novation (200-258 C.E.) to bolster his argument: “God sometimes had prophets use symbolic language that was fitted to (the Israelite’s) state of belief and that reflects God not as God actually is, but as the people were able to understand. God, therefore, is not mediocre, but the people’s understanding is mediocre; God is not limited, but the intellectual capacity of the people’s mind is limited.” So in a sense, God stooped to the level of comprehension of the Israelites, even if they misportrayed God’s character.
The centerpiece of Boyd’s argument is God is a non-coercive God, a fact he believes must exist for any concept of genuine love to be realized in Christian theology. Otherwise, if God can manipulate the wills and minds of free agents, it would be analogous to the programming of a robot, eliminating any notion of what makes love sincere. As a result, God cannot change anyone’s mind if they have developed a distorted picture of God, but instead, through the ultimate declaration of love on the cross, God’s method is one of influence. God remains faithful despite confusion. What makes the meaning of Jesus on the cross definitive and not just another cloudy image? While Boyd would need to answer this question for himself, for me, it is the crowd of witnesses in the New Testament that argue for the consistency of faithfulness between YHWH’s steadfast devotion to YHWH’s people and Jesus’ parallel faithfulness unto death. This is not an airtight logical argument because it requires trust, but theology is not always airtight.
Greg Boyd certainly continues to foster his reputation as too conservative for liberals and too liberal for conservatives with his new treatise. His arguments will definitely upset theologians who hold inerrancy tight, but might also anger more progressive Christian thinkers through his insistence on the inspired nature of all Scripture. My own personal critiques are of a different sort however.
First, while Boyd upholds the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament as bearing equal value, a possible issue appears in the easy dichotomy that arises from reading the Old Testament in light of and as answered by the New Testament. This is a common practice for many Christians because the person of Jesus and his teachings are central to Christianity. Innocence and ignorance is often the primary reason for this tendency, but perpetuating the New Testament as ‘better’ than the Old Testament effortlessly leads to supersessionism and even anti-Judaism. As such, there is a possible implicit comprehension of Boyd’s argument that perpetuates the Christian tradition legacy of painting Judaism as completely misguided. After experiencing a Jewish-Christian dialogue class, such a profoundly humbling endeavor made me sensitive to making theological claims that could continue to expand the divide between Jews and Christians. And so while I find Boyd’s book to be compelling, the danger that I am aware of is an unconscious bias created by prioritizing the New Testament over the Old. I think that it’s possible to still hold to Boyd’s perspective in a respectful, interreligious manner, but when done thoughtlessly, it could morph into anti-Jewish rhetoric. Boyd’s treatment of the Torah, Prophets, and Writings is insightful and respectful, but unconsciously supporting the assumption of Christian truth superseding Jewish truth is Christianity’s oldest sin.
Second, in using primarily Old Testament passages to illuminate where cultural bias distorts the genuine character of God, similar cases in the New Testament go unrecognized. For instance, simply taking Boyd’s hermeneutic to its logical end could be effectively used to illustrate why suppression of women in the church is very obviously a contextual effort by authors of the Epistles. One could argue condemnation of homosexuality is a comparable example. If God’s purposes of inclusivity, mercy, and love are shown in Jesus, that same criteria should also be applied to New Testament passages that discriminate against someone’s gender or sexual orientation, as such passages do not reflect the character of Christ but rather the prejudicial culture of the time.
Overall, Crucifixion of the Warrior God will be a challenging and engaging read for those on either side of the theological aisle. While his arguments are not necessarily new, they bring forth important questions. Most profoundly, Crucifixion of the Warrior God shows a struggle of what to do with differing depictions of God in the Bible, thus the underlying issue is how to interpret the Scripture consistently instead of turning God into a dualistic entity. For Boyd, Christ on the cross is the starting point of biblical interpretation, which demands a thoughtful approach to contradicting versions of God in the Bible, contributing a compelling perspective to this discussion. Almost certainly, you will have a bone to pick, yet I think Boyd wants it that way.
Click The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Volumes 1 & 2 to purchase the book now!
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