A Theological Review of the Crucifixion of the Warrior God (part 3)

Saturday, May 06, 2017

Must there be skate goats?
This post is part 3 in a series reviewing Greg Boyd’s The Crucifixion of the Warrior God. In Part1 I cited lots of quotes from the book that I liked. In Part2 I respond to Greg's critique of me (which I did not like).

In this post I would like to offer a theological and ethical review of the central argument of The Crucifixion of the Warrior God, noting some problems I see and proposing possible solutions to them. I’ll begin with a broad overview of the argument in the book. The first 10 chapters of volume I set up the problem which, simply put, is that genocide and Jesus don’t mix. Boyd thus proposes reading Scripture through the lens of Christ crucified, understood in terms of self-sacrificing nonviolent enemy-love. The last two chapters of volume I present Boyd’s proposed solution, a “Cruciform Hermeneutic” which seeks to show how we can find the love of Jesus in these OT portraits of God’s violence. This is then further developed in the first two chapters of volume II (ch 13 & 14).

Boyd admits that these OT texts—as the biblical author intended them to be understood, and insofar as what the texts actually say and promote—do, in fact, present a “revolting” portrait of an enemy-hating violent “warrior” God, and are used to justify horrific violence being committed in God’s name. Examples given of this divine violence found in the OT include genocide, cannibalism, and public gang rape. Citing these disturbing examples, Boyd proposes that in the very ugliness of such passages we can see Christ’s beauty, just as we see this in the ugliness of the cross. For example, he cites the prophet Nathan’s decree of God’s punishment of king David (2 Sam 12:11), noting that this divine punishment consists of the “public raping of a multitude of unfortunate women” (718). Boyd first proposes that, in light of the cross, we know that God is in fact “outraged” by this, and further declares that this passage of Scripture reflects the “twisted and culturally conditioned heart of the biblical author” (719), which is clearly a “sub-Christlike portrait” (720). However, he continues, when read through “the lens of the cross” we can discern how this story of divine-decreed rape “bears witness to the same sin-bearing faithfulness that God displayed on the cross” (720).

The problem with this, of course, is that it does not. This is categorically not a parallel to the cross, but its polar opposite. This is something that Boyd acknowledges as he develops this in volume 2, stating that these violent OT passages present God as “a perpetrator of violence” whereas on the cross we see God as “a victim of violence on Calvary” (642). So despite his earlier claim in volume I that “we discern him in these literary crucifixes in the exact same way we discern him in the historical crucifixion” (511, emphasis added), he acknowledges here in volume II that these are in fact not parallels, but, rather obviously, complete opposites.

Behind all this appears to be a fundamental misunderstanding of how the cross functions as an expression of non-violent enemy-love. Properly understood, the cross is about seeing God in Jesus as the innocent victim of violence. In contrast, these OT depictions present God as the alleged perpetrator of violence. While both are indeed ugly, they are absolutely and in no way parallel. For instance, the above example of God’s punishment of David’s sin is clearly not a story of God “bearing sin” at all, but of God allegedly decreeing the sin of rape, portrayed as just punishment. Simply put: Seeing God in Jesus as the victim of religious and political violence, and seeing God in the Old Testament as the perpetrator of that violence are not parallels, they are polar opposites.

As the Gospels stress, Jesus on the cross is falsely accused of sin, not by God but by the religious and political powers. Through the cross, as Paul says, those powers are thus exposed as unjust, including unveiling their violence as unjust. This represents a Girardian reading of the cross, and in this same section of his book Boyd continues on to favorably reference Girard, affirming this understanding of the atonement (696-697). He quotes Walter Wink who states,

“The violence of Scripture, so embarrassing to us today, became the means by which the sacred violence was revealed for what it is: a lie perpetrated against victims in the name of a God who, through violence, was working to expose violence for what it is and to reveal the divine nature as nonviolent.” (697)

Read out of context one can see how the above quote does sound a lot like what Boyd is proposing. However, Wink is not claiming, as Boyd is, that these violent OT depictions of God as the perpetrator of gang rape, cannibalism, and genocide are in themselves “a testament to God’s covenantal faithfulness and his self-sacrificial, sin-bearing nature” (689) either on the “surface” or with a “deeper” reading. In contrast to Boyd’s going “deeper,” Wink (following Raymund Schwager and Girard) instead proposes a reading that I will describe as looking wider, understanding these violent passages in the larger context of the whole story of the Bible which culminates in Jesus. I therefore wish to propose that we can find a way in Wink, Schwager, and Girard’s looking wider to see how even these dark passages can, when read through the lens of Christ, play a vital and revelatory part in the wider context of the entire canon of Scripture, leading us to Christ. Allow me to unpack this a bit...

Throughout the multivocal Old Testament we encounter many conflicting and contradictory voices, each claiming to speak for God. Many, as we have seen, claim that God commands horrific violence. However we also find minority voices within that same Hebrew canon which give voice to the victim of violence. As Wink says, the OT can be thus understood as “a long and laborious exodus out of the world of violence and sacred projections, an exodus plagued with many reversals and falling short of its goal” (Engaging the Powers, 146). As Girard asserts, it is not until Jesus that the scapegoating mechanism is fully revealed and exposed. We can thus look back from Jesus and see these violent passages, which project human violence onto God, serving now with opened eyes to mirror our own proclivity to make violence sacred. These disturbing passages therefore stand as a record of how religious people like you and me can use God to justify our hate and violence.

If we look only at a particular passage of Scripture in isolation, portraying God as violent, it is simply not true that it shows us Christ’s self-sacrificial love. If you dig deep here it becomes no less ugly. In such passages we see our sin mirrored, and specifically we see the sin of religiously justified violence mirrored before us. This is revelatory when read in this way in the light of Christ, and I stress that it is not what the original authors intended. We can thus, as Boyd proposes, see here a divine revelatory intent in that, when we read these passages in light of Christ, we can now see them exposed as sinful projections. The original authors of course, themselves, under the grip of the lie of redemptive violence, intended these judgments to be seen as good and right. Through the perspective of the cross we now can see that they instead reflect the sin of religiously justified violence.

These violent passages mark the point on that exodus story when we are still in bondage to the lie that violence will save us. It is the point in the story when we are still blind like Saul. However, when we learn to read wide by beginning with the perspective of Jesus opening our eyes to the lie of redemptive violence, we can then look back and discern all of Scripture chronicling humanity’s messy and often failing struggle to break free of this lie. That of course is not to say that we are today somehow beyond it, nor to say that we as Christians are immune. On the contrary, seeing violence as “good” and “just” still grips us as a society today, particularly in America. Indeed, one could say that more than 80% of white evangelicals are deeply under this spell today. God revealed in Christ crucified, understood from a Girardian frame, unmasks that lie. Our eyes are opened to seeing that the way of Jesus is the way of God and the way of violence and power are not. To truly see this is amazing, revelatory. With opened eyes, these dark passages serve as a permanent reminder documenting the sinfulness and profound hurt that comes through religion, lest we ever think we are immune.

Whether or not Greg will find this approach compelling I cannot say. But while I find significant problems with his particular solution, as I have outlined here, I do see something worth salvaging in his larger project of developing a cruciform hermeneutic, and hope that others may find the solution of looking wider, found in the Girardian perspective of Wink and others, to be a viable means to do this. In other words, my intent is to provide a means to overcome the shortcomings of Boyd’s good proposal, in the hopes of furthering it. I believe that when we learn to look wide through the eyes of Jesus we can indeed see how even the most disturbing parts of Scripture can have a revelatory content that ultimately points us to Christ, just as seeing our own sin exposed drives us to the cross.

I wish I could stop here, but I cannot, because Boyd does not. Volume II continues for another 11 chapters (ch 15-25) presenting an apologetic for God’s violent judgments in the OT as loving and just, seemingly taking a u-turn from the nonviolent course Boyd had been establishing up to this point in the book. You can read that part here.

UPDATE: Greg has responded to this post on his blog. The main substance of his reply focuses on our differing understandings of how the cross functions. Greg seems a bit perplexed and that is probably my fault as I do not really unpack this in the above post here. In the next installment of this series, part4, I deal with this extensively, and hopefully this will serve to clear things up, explaining the difficulties I see in regards to Greg's understanding of the cross, and how this impacts how he then reads violent OT passages with that lens. Since the foundation of Greg's entire hermenutical approach is rooted in the cross, we definitively need to get that understanding right.

Since Greg's reply to me I've been thinking about the principle of Cruciform Accommodation and how these OT texts might be read through the same Girardian frame that the Gospel writers used to understand the crucifixion.

I still don't think it makes sense to draw a parallel between Jesus (as the victim of violence) and Yahweh (being the perpetrator of violence), even if we agree that both are falsely accused. The parallel would be between Yahweh in the OT who is falsely seen as behind the violence, and God the Father in the NT who is also falsely seen as behind the crucifixion (which is how Rome and advocates of PSA would see it). In other words, I think that Greg is right in saying that we can legitimately see Yahweh in the OT as being falsely accused of being the perpetrator, but I don't think this is where we find Christ in the story, at least not if we are reading with a Girardian frame...

Basically we look at who in the story plays the role of the righteous authority, and in the Girardian reading that authority is unmasked as being illegitimate. In the NT the authority that executed Jesus is delegitimized (i.e. the cross was not just) and in the OT the slaughter of the Canaanites was also delegitimized as an unjust judgment. In both we can say that the God figure behind all this is falsely portrayed, and is instead of being with the perpetrators is with the victims of that violence done in the name of justice.

That's where God in heaven is in these stories. However, if we want to find Christ, I'd say we need to ask who the scapegoat is in the story. Who is the victim of violence who is being described as bad and deserving of death? In this story it is obviously the Canaanites who are being scapegoated. Just as we find God in Christ on the cross, so too we find God among all those who are scapegoated.

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At 3:42 PM, Blogger Owen said...

interesting. I haven't read Boyd - I'll wait for the non-seminary version, bit I've long waited to see what he had to say, as this is a huge theological matter ..
looking forward to read your next post.. course I need to re-read this one first

At 10:24 AM, Blogger anneb said...

Brilliant, and with a terrible beauty we see our own violence. This is another profound turning point for me, just as your first book did for me to see God's passion for expiation on the cross. Thank you, Derek.

At 3:32 AM, Anonymous Rob Grayson said...

I appreciate your comments here, Derek. I think you've hit on an important difference between the cross and violent OT depictions of God that Boyd fails to account for. I wonder how he'll respond to this (I hope he does).

At 5:17 AM, Blogger Paul Nuechterlein said...

Well done. I think your "wider" vs. "deeper" metaphor-change speaks to an anthropological approach (horizontal relations) vs. theological (vertical relations). These should never be mutually exclusive. But emphasis or priority makes a difference in how we read texts. I continue to watch with interest Derek's commentary here, but I'm pausing in my own reading of Boyd's book (due to some prior commitments) and will probably pull back a bit from the great conversation here.

At 7:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A distinction without significant difference? Your difference with Boyd seems centered on different, noncontradictory aspects of the OT violence incidents. You blame violence-prone, religious people as the perpetrators while Greg emphasizes God's self-sacrificial willingness to accept their blame even as Jesus did on the cross. Yes, God was at work on a completely different level and manifestation of his love on the cross (atonement, salvation), but I'm not understanding the need to dismiss entirely Boyd's parallelism. But I haven't read his book and will reread your review. Thank you for addressing this important topic the Church seems to largely ignore.

At 7:58 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

I wanted to add a thought regarding God's purposes here. Some have asked whether I am proposing that the above was God's plan and purpose to use Scripture in this way. I don't like to say that this was God's "purpose" because (1) how the heck would I know? and (2) it creates all sorts of problems when we say things like "the reason you suffered that horrible tragedy was because God wanted to..." (pro tip: never say that to a grieving person)

What I am instead saying is simply that IF we read the texts in this way they can then practically function to make us aware of our own violence, and point us away from justifying that and towards Jesus. I choose to read in that way because it is revalatory, meaning it opens my eyes to see the way that leads to life and liberty and love.

The texts can also of course be read to justify our violence. Lots of people have read it that way, and bloodshed was the result. That is the reading I want to reject because of where it leads.

At 7:10 PM, Blogger lewis schofield said...

It seems blatantly obvious. We are meant to compare and contrast what we tend to think God is like (and how we tend to behave) with the God Jesus reveals. Trying to justify the terror texts in any way but to acknowledge they are a record of the misunderstanding of God in order to make us question Good and Evil in ourselves demands voluminous verbiage precisely because it is impossible to do. It would be tragic if Greg does not respond to this.
Thanks for your insights both of you. I have really benefitted from the thoughts you share.

At 1:26 AM, Blogger Saxofonmannen™ said...

Boyd's response:

At 1:35 AM, Blogger Saxofonmannen™ said...

Seems to me you have misunderstood some central aspects of Boyd's thesis, or that you've skipped large parts of his book. For example, describing any part of the book as "an apologetic for God’s violent judgments in the OT as loving and just" is not just misrepresenting, it's the complete opposite if what Boyd argues.

I see he's posted a clarifying answer himself:

At 7:59 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


In my next post I will unpack the "apologetic for God’s violent judgments in the OT as loving and just" part. That was just a hint for what was coming up. Have you read the book?


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