Boyd and Copan's Unbelievable Debate, and the Problem of Unquestioning Obedience

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Premier Christian Radio's show "Unbelievable" recently hosted part 1 of a 2-part debate  between Greg Boyd and Paul Copan, discussing Greg's book The Crucifixion of the Warrior God. Those of you who are familiar with my own  debate with Greg on this topic (which you can read here, here, here and here) know I have had my own critiques of Greg's approach to the problem of violence in Scripture, so let me begin here by saying that in comparison to Copan, Greg and I are totally on the same page. I thought Greg did a great job presenting and defending his position, and I encourage folks to have a listen.

What I noticed more than anything listening to the two talk is that Boyd and Copan have very different ways of reading the Bible. Boyd speaks of the "humanness" of the Bible and how his understanding of the incarnation allows for him to see the Bible as divine, even with its flawed human parts. This is very much in line with the approach outlined by Pete Enns in his book Inspiration and Incarnation which I see as a healthy and realistic approach to Scripture. Indeed, Boyd pastorally warns that people who look for a "perfect" Bible set themselves up for disappointment and even a challenge to their faith by expecting the Bible to be something that it is not.

On the opposite side is Copan who exhibits what I describe as the hermeneutic of "unquestioning obedience" where one uncritically accepts everything the Bible says, no matter how unloving or morally irresponsible that may be. For example, in the debate the subject of the OT command to kill children who are disobedient to their parents is brought up (Matthew 15:4, citing Exodus 21:17 and Leviticus 20:9). Greg somewhat incredulously suggests that no one in their right mind could seriously propose that we follow that today. Paul Copan however argues that since Jesus called this a "command"  this implies that Jesus endorsed it. QED: so does Paul Copan.

The idea that a 21st century theologian who is focused on ethics could with a straight face and zero sense of irony endorse the execution of children is of course just jaw-droppingly morally irresponsible--not to mention a truly atrocious reading of the passage (which I'll return to in a second)--but it illustrates what the hermeneutic of "unquestioning obedience" looks like in action. Copan seems oblivious to how morally problematic his reading is. That's the "unquestioning" part of the hermeneutic. What is the alternative hermeneutic that we see both Jesus and the Apostle Paul demonstrating in how they read Scripture? The hermeneutic of faithful questioning, and the key question is "how can I read this in a way that will result in loving action? In this case, as Greg points out, the key take-away is that actually killing children seems pretty obviously not the loving thing to do, and so Greg presses on to dig into the passage, trying to find a way to read it that does result in love. If you listen to the interview, I think you'll agree that Greg does a pretty good job with his reading.

Copan on the other hand does not wrestle to find the reading that results in love, but instead approaches the Bible with the assumption that everything it says is good, and thus looks for ways to argue that the profoundly immoral and unloving things we find in Scripture -- like killing disobedient children, like genocide, like cannibalism, like slavery, and on and on -- are actually good and right and God's will. More specifically, because the a priori assumption Copan works with is that everything in the Bible must be good, he encounters a problem when he gets to the New Testament. This is be because the NT as a whole, and the teaching of Jesus in particular, constitutes a healthy Jewish critique of the OT. I stress that this is a Jewish critique because Jesus here is following in the tradition found throughout the Old Testament of a healthy introspective critique of one's own religion and institutions and systems in the name of love. In other words, Jesus does not agree with everything in the OT, and in fact the OT often does not agree with itself. The prophets and Psalmists (not to mention Job) frequently question the law, and do so in the name of love. However, that is not in the realm of the possible for Copan. His assumption is that the Bible must harmonize, and so Jesus can't be disagreeing. The result of this reading (which is extremely common among neo-Calvinists) is to end up missing (kind of by design of how their hermeneutic functions) most of the major teachings of the NT in a pained attempt to read Scripture as if it all agrees. This is the approach identified in the interview as "synthesis" but in the end it mostly means accepting all the authoritarian and militaristic parts of the OT as good, and mostly ignoring the NT and the way of Jesus. In contrast to this, the aim of Boyd's "cruciform hermeneutic" is to do the opposite: He begins with the revelation of God in Christ crucified, and reads everything else in Scripture in that light.

What I want to stress here is that Copan's approach is not an exception, but characteristic of how most conservative evangelicals read Scripture. This is what conservative apologetics looks like: Faithfulness to Scripture is understood to mean justify everything in the Bible, no matter what.

Let me give another example from the interview of this. Boyd brings up the subject of the Amelikite genocide, where the Israelites slaughtered every living thing, including slaughtering infants, under the command to "show them no mercy." This for Boyd is a clear example of a deeply problematic violent text, and it's hard to imagine that anyone could possibly disagree with him. Copan's response is to pontificate on how sometimes we "need to defend the innocent." Sorry, what? Are we even having the same conversation? How in God's green earth is slaughtering infants "without mercy" an example of defending the innocent!? Again this is an example of how in Copan's hermeneutic absolutely everything is justified and defended. That's how faithfulness is understood.

It's not a very big step to go from this kind of cognitive dissonance in biblical interpretation, and carry this into the public sphere and politics. We recently have seen examples of this from folks like Jerry Falwell Jr, Franklin Graham, and most recently Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council who, in a truly mind-boggling interview (be sure to listen to the audio of the interview in the link above)  justifies everything Trump does (including committing adultery with a porn star), saying--much to the apparent shock of the interviewer--that Perkins sees no problem morally at all in any of this for him as an evangelical.

So there you have it: Copan justifies everything in his authoritative book, and Perkins justifies everything the authority (here in the form of the President) does. It's not hard to see how one leads to the next. Within authoritarian evangelicalism, those in authority are typically unquestioned, and even more so the system itself remains unquestioned. When this makes its way into the public sphere as it has now with Trump and evangelicals' overwhelming support, the hermeneutic of unquestioning obedience has given birth to a Frankenstein monster. But in this version of the story the villagers can't seem to recognize the monster.  As an article in the Washington Post puts it, "evangelicals have lost their gag-reflex," they have seemingly lost all ability to be introspective and reflect morally on who and what they endorse and represent. This is painfully obvious to everyone but conservative evangelicals themselves. They have come to champion all that is untrue, whatever is ignoble, whatever is not right, whatever is impure, whatever is unlovely, whatever is not admirable.

What we need to do instead, as morally responsible adults, is to learn how to reflect on our own lives, as well as reflect on our public institutions and systems and sacred texts. That kind of introspection is what allows us to grow and develop and heal and reform and repent. That is precisely what Jesus taught us to do.

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At 6:38 PM, Blogger gingoro said...

But Jesus rebukes some beliefs founded in OT scripture. How then can everything in the OT be good and directly from God. I think sometimes that the OT Jews misunderstood God and wrote that misunderstanding into scripture just as we misunderstand Jesus too often.

At 6:59 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

"How then can everything in the OT be good and directly from God?"

This is not what I would say, but what Paul Copan and neo-Calvinsits would say. If it was not already clear in the above article, I very much disagree with this hermeneutic.

At 11:00 AM, Blogger gingoro said...

I agree with you and think that Copan's method of interpretation is flat out wrong. One of only a very few posts where we don't strongly disagree. By the way I am a Calvinist and maybe you would consider me a neo Calvinist but I am not an evangelical.

At 8:18 AM, Blogger Mike said...

Glad to see you posting again Derek. Funnily enough, I am just finishing Boyd's book "Is God to Blame?" in which he compares the blueprint view of the Calvinists to his open theist/spiritual warfare view in trying to answer the problem of evil. The debate there has some similarities to the debate around violence in the Old Testament. I was just wondering what you think about his spiritual warfare view and more generally about how Satan might or might not be involved in OT violence and genuine evil.

At 1:26 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Boyd's "warfare" view was a big eye-opener for me and was quite formative for my theology entering into seminary. Especially powerful was the idea of systemic evil that it entailed. I later read further along the same lines and was heavily influenced by Walter Wink. I find Wink's view of the powers to be more compelling than Boyd's so I think that's where I veered away from Boyd's view at that point. In other words, I would see the roll of how Satan might or might not be involved in OT violence and genuine evil in the same way as Wink describes in Engaging the Powers.

At 2:07 AM, Blogger Mike said...

Interesting, thanks. Walter Wink has come up a few times in my explorations. His books are not so easy to get now as they are old, although I notice there is a 25th anniversary edition of "Engaging the Powers" just released. I came across this book: "Richard Beck, Reviving Old Scratch: Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted." which apparently is "An easy-to-read popularizing of some of Wink’s ideas." (according to this article: Have you come across that one?

At 8:51 AM, Blogger Ryan said...

Hi Derek,
Glad to have you posting again! I'm thoroughly disgusted by Coplan's approach, though I don't find Boyd's all that persuasive either. Pete Enns, and yourself, I think deal with the violence in the OT best in viewing it as how a tribal people worshiped a tribal God, and the OT is simply their developing understanding of this God, who is more perfectly revealed to us in Jesus. I'm curious however on your thoughts on Hebrews 11:32-39 which Coplan references, as it appears that the author of Hebrews is celebrating Israel's violent past and commending them for their faith.

At 10:40 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Well, let's begin with doing our best to get the point of the author of Hebrews here:
He begins with a thesis statement "faith is about putting your hope in good stuff you don't have... in stuff that seems far away and impossible" (verse 1). He then gives all sorts of examples of people putting their faith in God even when it seems that all the odds were against them (vv 4-31). I suspect the audience he is writing to is a persecuted church who are currently suffering. So he is giving all these examples of Israel's similar history as the underdog, persecuted, enslaved, etc. Note he says of Moses that "he refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter choosing to be ill-treated with the people of God" alluding to their experience of denying Caesar as lord and suffering for it. He continues to say that Moses "regarded abuse suffered for Christ to be greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt." That makes it pretty clear to me that he is addressing people who are suffering for Christ under Rome.

Next we come to the part Copan cites. In verses 32-35 there are examples of people who overcame, including examples of those who overcame through violent force. But beginning at verse 35 he switches to contrast this with other examples, saying "but others were tortured... experienced mocking and flogging... imprisonment, and so on. He stresses that they too were commended for their faith. The idea here is that of righteous suffering. In the early parts of the OT suffering is associated with guilt. If you suffer you must deserve it. If you repented you would be free and happy. There is a shift however, beginning in the OT towards the idea that people can suffer and still be innocent. That changed even more to be the idea that suffering can be an act of righteousness. This is something that the disciples very much saw in Jesus, and it was how they understood their own suffering. So here in verses 32-39 he is basically saying "you know there are lots of examples of people who trusted God and were victors, but there are also examples of those who did not see that victory, but were still faithful and good." If you continue to read into chapter 12 you see he says "therefore, with all these examples before us... keep your eyes fixed on Jesus who looking beyond the shame of the cross, enduring it to get to the joy beyond it.

It's true that he does not directly critique those in the past who used the sword. That's really not his aim here. At the same time, no where in here is he saying "so take up swords and fight back like these guys." Rather, he is encouraging people who are suffering and enduring violence to hold on, to trust, to hope.

At 9:03 PM, Blogger Paul Copan said...

Derek, you write: "Copan on the other hand does not wrestle to find the reading that results in love, but instead approaches the Bible with the assumption that everything it says is good, and thus looks for ways to argue that the profoundly immoral and unloving things we find in Scripture -- like killing disobedient children, like genocide, like cannibalism, like slavery, and on and on -- are actually good and right and God's will."

I must say that I’m surprised at some of the caricatures and the less-than-charitable treatment of my view that I read--and I'm incredulous that you attribute to me what I do not hold (e.g., that Mt. 15:3-4 is in force today; Jesus clearly seems to take this as divinely commanded under the Mosaic Law, which Boyd denies). I am trying to treat the OT as Jesus and the apostles do. Jesus speaks of less-than-ideal Mosaic laws (Mt. 19:8); I acknowledge such things. I’ve also noted that a number of actions in the OT are descriptive rather than prescriptive. Moreover, we know of moral actions that are morally justifiable though regrettable and tragic--for example, helping save a mother's life who has an ectopic pregnancy. Perhaps there are other tragic actions requiring necessary coercive force that are nevertheless morally justifiable. In my recent response to Boyd’s book (, I indicated that I was trying to approach the OT as Jesus and the apostles did. In all honesty, their approach doesn’t strike me as the conforming to the parameters of Boyd’s definition of “cruciformity.” For example, these include Jesus' words, "I will strike her children dead" (Rev. 2:23), mention of the "just penalty" (Heb. 2:1-2), or even Jesus' seemingly non-cruciform temple-cleansing. Even J. Moltmann, the theologian whom Boyd cites so approvingly, acknowledged that acts done in Christian love may require severe coercive force to subdue someone in order to protect innocents, albeit regrettably. I agree.

By the way, I’m not a Calvinist.

At 10:32 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Hi Paul,

Thanks for posting. Since my reply was rather lengthy, I have opted to post it as a new blog post, which you can read here:
I look forward to further conversation.


At 12:48 PM, Blogger Paul Copan said...

Thanks, Derek. Will have a look.


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