Wednesday, April 22, 2015
If you missed it, here's part 1 of this three part series.
Last time, in part 2, I explored how Boyd and I both agree that Old Testament texts, which contain portraits of God that are clearly in conflict with the way of Jesus, must not be normative for how we as Christians see God or treat others. This raises the question of how then such texts can be considered part of our sacred biblical canon. In this final installment I will explore the different ways Boyd and I address this question.
“Since Jesus taught that all Scripture is inspired for the purpose of bearing witness to him, I submit that we should not be trying to discern if a passage is inspired, we should be trying to discern how a passage is inspired to serve this function. The question I believe we ought to be wrestling with is this: How do portraits depicting God commanding genocide (Deut 7:2; 20:16-8), causing parents to cannibalize their children (Lev 26:29; Jer 19:9; Lam 2:20), or engaging in any number of other macabre acts, bear witness to the non-violent, self-sacrificial, enemy loving God revealed in Jesus?” (emphasis added)
“I asked myself the question: How does the cross function as the definitive revelation of God? Looking at it with the natural eye (in a first century Jewish context), there is nothing to suggest that this guilty-appearing, God-forsaken, crucified criminal is the definitive revelation of God. This crucified criminal can only be understood to be the definitive revelation of God when we by faith discern what else is going on behind this appearance. And what faith sees going on behind this horrific appearance is a God of unfathomable love stooping an infinite distance to become our sin and our curse and to thereby take on a hideous appearance that mirrors our sin and our curse.”
"We must by faith look past the ugly, sin-mirroring surface to behold the beauty of the divine revelation, for the revelation is not located on the surface appearance, but in God’s loving condescension to assume this appearance."
I submit that part of the problem here is coming from a misunderstanding of how the cross functions.[*] A better understanding of the cross—one we find reflected both in the Gospels and in Paul’s epistles—shows how Jesus on the cross is condemned by the authority and powers that be, and those powers are thus unveiled as unjust. How does this work? The Gospels continually stress that Jesus was sinless, innocent, blameless. It is by recognizing God incarnate upon the cross (i.e. recognizing that the one who is condemned is innocent and holy— that we see the reversal, where the powers (what we had esteemed as good and right) are unmasked and stand condemned. Thus Paul can exclaim, “Disarming the rulers and authorities, he has made a public disgrace of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:15 NET). The unjust suffering of the righteous servant (Isa 53) exposes the world’s false conceptions of power and violence. We thought he was stricken by God, but it was we who were guilty. The cross exposes the lie of violence committed in God's name. That includes those false conceptions of power and violence where we find them upheld in the Old Testament.
Now, I should note that Boyd does not appear to think that God actually committed or commanded these heinous acts. In Benefit of the Doubt he writes, “I can’t for a moment imagine Jesus ... commanding anyone to mercilessly slaughter anyone.” The question Boyd therfore instead asks is, “why God would stoop to appear to act in certain ways that reflect a character that is very different from his true character, revealed in Christ.”
Indeed. As I noted above, the question for me is: If God were to do this, how would this point us to Christ? How would God being falsely portrayed in a way that is not Christlike point us to Christ? After all, God is not seen in the Roman soldiers who beat Jesus, God is seen in Jesus, the victim of that beating.
There are also other questions currently left unanswered in Boyd's proposal. If God did not actually do this, who did? Did it happen at all? Most importantly, if God did not command killing, but purposely let people think he had commanded the killing, how is that not morally irresponsible?
Perhaps such questions are worked out in his forthcoming book The Crucifixion of the Warrior God, but as it stands these are some of the difficulties I see with Boyd's proposal.
The answer, I propose, is neither to justify these acts as good, nor is it to say that the text is not saying what it says. Instead, I insist that we need to face these morally troubling passages for what they are. Not tossing them out, but looking at them in all of their ugliness, with our eyes wide open.
While we may go to a second reading as Boyd proposes, we need to begin with a first reading; and on that first reading (i.e. reading the texts for what they actually say, and in the way their authors intended them to be understood), the genocide accounts are exactly what they seem to be—texts promoting genocide in God’s name. They are not about love of enemies, they are about mercilessly slaughtering enemies. Genocide is immoral and wrong. If we are to have a redemptive reading, as Boyd proposes, we must begin by first facing these texts for what they are.
This is not simply a problem of our mistaken interpretations, but the reality of moral problems inherent in the texts themselves. Those problems are real, and we dare not deny them. To read a text purposely in a way that runs counter to how it was intended is not to read the text “correctly” (as if it were somehow incorrect to interpret something as it was intended). It is to read in protest against the text. It is to undo it, subvert it—or more positively we might say convert it to Christ.
In Disarming Scripture I offer several examples of how Paul takes Old Testament passages that promote hatred of enemy gentiles, editing them by omitting the violent parts, so they instead promote God's love towards those same enemy gentiles. Since Paul was very familiar with the Scriptures, and in the past had likely employed those same violent texts to justify his violent persecution of the church, I argue that Paul is intentionally misquoting these texts. He is subverting them, disarming them, converting them.
In many ways Boyd's approach is similar to Paul's. Both intentionally read the text in a way that is counter to the authorial intent in order to promote the gospel and Christ's way of enemy love. So seeing that, I am genuinely thankful for people like Boyd who are trying to find creative ways to approach these texts coupled with a commitment to Jesus’ way of enemy love. I fully support such redemptive readings.
So how do I understand the Old Testament to function as part of our sacred canon despite the fact that it contains much that we would consider to be profoundly immoral and wrong?
As I illustrate in Disarming Scripture, drawing from the work of Walter Brueggemann, the reality is that the Old Testament is multi-vocal. That is, it does not contain one view of God, one view of what morality looks like, but instead is made up of multiple authors voicing multiple conflicting visions of who God is, and how we should love. Some depictions of God in the Old Testament are focused on love and compassion. Others focus on the opposite. That is simply the reality of the Bible we have. The Old Testament is multi-vocal.
Reading as Christians, the key to knowing which of these to embrace (ie. which should shape how we see God and treat others, and which should not) is in understanding which ones Jesus embraced, and which he repudiated. As I detail in Disarming Scripture, looking at how Jesus read the Hebrew Scriptures, we can observe that he embraces the understanding of God found in the Old Testament characterized by compassion, and rejects depictions that instead promote harm and hate. Jesus reads the multi-vocal Old Testament and identifies with and embraces certain voices, while repudiating others.
Now, this raises the question: If there are things in the Old Testament that we must reject, how can it be said to be inspired? The Old Testament is clearly not "inspired" in the sense of being a book that we can pick up, flip to any page, and apply what it says to how we see God or treat others. Because it is multi-vocal it must be read with discernment, knowing what to embrace and what not to. Our model in this, as I said above, is looking at how Jesus read Scripture, and learning to see what he sees.
What I affirm is that the Hebrew canon as a whole is inspired in that we can read it in a way that we recognize it pointing us to Jesus. The Hebrew canon as a whole, through the very process of dispute, takes us on a journey (albeit along a rocky road with ups and downs) of a people discovering who God is. That journey culminates in Jesus.
Through faith we can recognize God working in all of this, behind the scenes and between the lines. Through faith we can witness that God is present in the middle of our human wretchedness, working through the disputes, contradictions, and many wrong and hurtful understandings of a primitive people that we see cataloged in the many books of the Old Testament. Through faith we can recognize how God raises up the voices of the marginalized and victimized are extraordinarily included as part of the Hebrew canon, giving them a voice of protest alongside the voices of power. Through faith we can see how God is gradually guiding us towards Jesus. We can find God in the Old Testament in the same way we see God in our own lives—a treasure contained in a jar of clay, a flower (Isaiah would say a wild and beautiful weed) growing out of the dirt.
This is a way of understanding the Old Testament as inspired that is rooted in God rather than in a book, and which does not require us to deny the very real problems of violence that we find in the Hebrew Scriptures.
In the end, while there are some difficulties I see currently with his proposal, I am confident that Boyd can address these, and I applaud his desire to redeem texts, just as Christ redeems us. As I mention above, Paul does something very similar, so Boyd is in some very good company! I hope I have also shown that, rather than being in conflict, our two approaches can work together, and indeed are needed parts of the whole, allowing us to read scripture in honest and morally responsible ways.
[*] Boyd’s above understanding of the cross seems akin to a view of the atonement that is known as “penal substitution,” which as I argue in Healing the Gospel represents a misunderstanding of how the cross functions. This misunderstanding results in justifying retributive violence, rather than unmasking it, and is therefore incompatible with the commitment to nonviolence that both Boyd and I share.