A Reply to Greg Boyd's Critique of Disarming Scripture (Part 1)

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Greg Boyd has posted a four part critique of my book Disarming Scripture on his blog Reknew.org. You can read Greg's whole series here: part 1part 2, part 3, part 4

Beginning with this post I will address Boyd's criticisms (and offer a few of my own) in a three part series.

Let me begin by saying that I am honored that Greg felt that Disarming Scripture was important enough to offer a four part rebuttal. Let me also say that while we do genuinely disagree on some important points, there is much more that we do agree on.

We both are strong advocates for Jesus' way of enemy love. We both are consequently wrestling with violent passages in the Bible in an attempt to read it so that it leads us to Jesus-shaped lives and praxis. Additionally, I have personally appreciated and been helped by Boyd's work. In particular, his book God at War was influential to me during my formative years, along with Walter Wink's Engaging the Powers. So when I disagree with Boyd, I do so with both respect and admiration, recognizing we are not only brothers in Christ but also are both working towards the common goal of promoting enemy love. I hope I can exhibit that spirit of peacemaking in my reply to him as well.

As the saying goes, iron sharpens iron, so while we may disagree on some points, I hope that by voicing our disagreement we might together arrive at a better expression in dialog than either of us could on our own. I also hope others listening could likewise benefit from the discussion, even in our disagreement.

Let me begin with a bit about scholarship. In part 2 of his review Boyd discusses what he liked and disliked in Disarming Scripture. Boyd begins with our shared focus on the centrality of enemy love in the New Testament,

“There is a great deal in Disarming Scripture that I appreciate. Perhaps the most significant thing is that Flood fully grasps, and effectively communicates, the truth that Jesus, Paul, and in varying degrees the entire New Testament, reveal a God who loves enemies and who is altogether non-violent.”

This however is immediately followed by a criticism,

“Unfortunately, I don’t believe Flood’s treatment of the centrality of enemy-loving non-violence in the New Testament will persuade many dissenting scholars, for in the course of making his case, Flood failed to engage in the multitude of disputed exegetical and historical issues that surround the biblical material he cites... Disarming Scripture would have been academically stronger had Flood forged his position in dialogue with dissenting academics voices, but, of course, this also would have made his book less accessible to a lay audience.”

Here Boyd has actually answered his own question. As he notes, the book is not written for an academic audience but for “lay readers.” In other words, my audience is not scholars, but rather disciples of Jesus, and consequently I am concerned with articulating how we can, as Christ's followers, practically interpret and apply Scripture in our lives.

Scholarship has a role to play in this of course. I have drawn from scholars such as James Dunn, Walter Brueggemann, and many others where I felt their work was helpful. But we should not get the cart before the horse here. Scholarship plays a servant role to the church in helping us to better read the Bible, but from a pastoral perspective the audience is not fellow scholars, but fellow disciples.

Employing the work of scholarship towards that end means reading lots of books that are thicker than the NYC phone book, and then distilling the relevant parts from them in a way that people can understand. In doing the research for Disarming Scripture I read through literally hundreds of books and scholarly articles, as well as engaging in many personal dialogs with those scholars. I am consequently well aware of the various scholarly debates and issues involved, and where I felt they were helpful and relevant I have included discussions of them in Disarming Scripture.

This is a matter of connecting the dots, so we can see how the insights of scholars can help us to read the Bible well as Christians. It's important to understand here however that often these dots are not connected in the scholarly works themselves because the goal of scholarship — as an academic pursuit — is not primarily or even necessarily to address questions of faith at all, but rather to address academic and scholarly concerns. So part of my task — and many have said my particular strength— is to connect the dots between scholarship and faith, oftentimes when there are no dots made by the scholars themselves.

What I have not done — and this is very intentional — is attempt to address scholars with the book. That would have dragged us into a quagmire of rabbit trails that characterize scholarly works that would have bored most lay readers to tears. You’re welcome.

Again, my aim is to speak to disciples, to fellow followers, and offer a practical way to read Scripture — including taking on the problem of violence in Scripture — in a way that leads us to a life of love and compassion.

Finally, while we are on the subject of scholarship, I must say I was a bit surprised to read Boyd’s charge that my “perspective of Jesus and Paul on this matter runs counter to the views of most New Testament scholars, conservative and liberal alike.” I think this would come as quite a surprise to the many New Testament scholars who I worked together with as well. I trust that a brief glance at the book’s endorsements should make this point abundantly clear.

Infallibility: Two Definitions

The real disagreement that Boyd has with me however has to do with my rejection of the doctrine of infallibility. In fact, I think it would be fair to say that Boyd agrees with the major points of my book, and simply disagrees on the one point of infallibility. What we will find — if I could tip my cards here — is that Boyd and I have very different understandings of what infallibility means, and as a result I believe that, at least to a certain extent, we are talking past one another.

So with that in mind, let’s take a look at the doctrine of infallibility, beginning with a little history. The doctrine of infallibility arose from fundamentalism's reaction against modernism in the 19th and early 20th century. Infallibility is often contrasted with inerrancy. Inerrancy asserts that there are no errors in the Bible. That's of course a very difficult position to hold in the light of textual criticism which demonstrated that the Bible contains many typos as well as historical and scientific inaccuracies. The doctrine of infallibility is often presented as a lighter version that does not try to maintain that the Bible is without error (inerrant), but that it is trustworthy in all matters to which it speaks (the word infallible derives from the Latin fallere, literally “cause to fall”). Affirming infallibility means you can therefore take what Scripture says as authoritative and apply it to your life.

This is how infallibility is understood in its original context of fundamentalism's response to modernism. It says in effect, “Okay, maybe there are some typos and errors in here that we need to acknowledge in the light of science, but what the text teaches on faith and morals is still the authoritative and trustworthy final word on the matter.”

That sounds good, but what do we do with texts that promote things like slavery? Well, in the pre-Civil War South many conservative Christians argued that if the Bible says slaves should submit to their masters, then that is the final word. The Bible is our infallible guide, so that settles it. Nevermind that it seems wrong. Nevermind the harm you can see that slavery causes.

Similarly today some conservatives maintain that if the Bible says that women should submit under men, then that is the final word on the matter. This is how the doctrine of infallibility — which again is historically a doctrine that arose out of fundamentalism’s reaction to modernism — is understood and applied by conservative Evangelicals, both from the past as well as today. It is this understanding that I reject. I think this focus is quite clear in my book.

Let me stress here that I am by no means saying that this reflects how Boyd understands infallibility, nor would it characterize his approach to reading the Bible. That is precisely where the problem lies. I am rejecting the fundamentalist doctrine of infallibility, and Boyd is upholding something entirely different which he also calls “infallibility.”

As he states repeatedly, Boyd does not maintain that we should adhere to the “surface meaning” of the biblical text. He further states in no uncertain terms, “I completely agree that we must, in the light of Christ, reject violent interpretations of Scripture.” So his understanding of infallibility is clearly not the same as the typical conservative Evangelical understanding (thank God!).

That’s why when Boyd asks, “If the problem was the belief in biblical infallibility itself, how would Flood explain people like myself whose faith in the infallibility of Scripture leads them to unconditionally refrain from violence and to instead commit to loving enemies?” the answer is simple:

Because we are talking about two completely different things.

What I am referring to as “infallibility” is directly connected to a stance of unquestioningly embracing the violent surface meaning of biblical texts, which leads to justifying and perpetuating violence in God’s name. In contrast, what Boyd upholds as “infallibility” is not bound to the surface meaning of a text, and as Boyd notes, he is committed to finding nonviolent ways of interpreting such “morally repugnant” biblical texts.

Let me be clear that I am not saying that my understanding of infallibility is the “right” one, and Boyd’s is the “wrong” one. Boyd is more than welcome to creatively re-define the term in a redemptive way. I think that’s awesome. What I am claiming however is that it is simply a fact that there are a whole lot of people (i.e. conservative Evangelicals) who do understand infallibility in exactly the way I am using the term, and so I am drawing attention to the moral problems inherent in this interpretive approach in Disarming Scripture.

So what does infallibility mean then for Boyd? One thing I note is that Boyd seems to connect infallibility with the inspiration and authority of Scripture as if these terms were synonymous and inseparable. So when I question the fundamentalist doctrine of infallibility, Boyd apparently translates that in his head to thinking that I am questioning the inspiration of Scripture. He says this kind of thing frequently, speaking of liberals “cutting the tether with … the supreme authority and infallibility of the entire canon” and “deny[ing] the inspiration and infallibility of all Scripture” et cetera.

Boyd apparently assumes that when I reject infallibility that I am rejecting the inspiration and authority of Scripture. So let me be clear that I affirm the inspiration and authority of Scripture, and in particular of the New Testament. That is, I maintain that all of Scripture (OT and NT) should, as part of our sacred canon, be read in a way that leads us to Christ. I think that is actually very similar to what Boyd would affirm.

Now, this of course brings up the question of how we can recognize on the one hand that the Old Testament contains, as Boyd notes, “violent divine portraits that conflict with the revelation of God in the crucified Christ,” and at the same time maintain that the Old Testament is a part of our sacred canon. This however is a question that applies to us both equally, since neither of us think that one can simply take the surface meaning of such violence portraits as normative. On the contrary, we both recognize that “when conservative Christian apologists condone these violent portraits, they are allowing them to continue to influence believers toward violence.”

Therefore, we need to answer the question of how we can affirm the Old Testament — with its many morally troubling parts — as part of our sacred canon, while at the same time being committed to the nonviolent vision of God revealed in Christ. That's the big question.

In part two I will address Boyd's central critique that I deny the inspiration of Scripture (spoiler: I don't deny it). Then, in part three we will get into the above big question, looking at the differing ways Boyd and I both attempt to address it.

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At 9:22 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Two of my favorite minds mixing it up and hashing it out. I am so privileged to witness it and learn from you two. Thank you both for your dedication to this most important of subjects.

At 4:52 PM, Blogger captjbeppler.blogspot.com said...

You win this bout with Boyd if infallibility means that "it is not possible to be misled" by that which is infallible. Does the infallible become fallible if misunderstood by "unquestioning biblicism"?. Inspiration and authority are not as problematic as your definition of infallible. The best supporting evidence I could find for your definition is the 3rd option of that term in the Webster's Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary; "unfailing in effectiveness or operation". However even then, if the purpose of the Bible is to bring people like yourself to God can it truly be taken as fallible? The definition on page 232 supports your case for fallibility. If it fails I'm afraid you loose or at best tie rowed one. Good luck old friend.

At 11:31 PM, Blogger Juan C. Torres said...

Great post, Derek.

I was really baffled when I saw how much emphasis Boyd placed on the infallibility of scripture. Even more where he claimed your work had no scholarly backing. I was just stunned at such a review.

Glad you now have a chance to respond;)

At 7:13 AM, Blogger Judy Gale said...

"My audience is not scholars, but rather disciples of Jesus, and consequently I am concerned with articulating how we can, as Christ's followers, practically interpret and apply Scripture in our lives...So part of my task...is to connect the dots between scholarship and faith, oftentimes when there are no dots made by the scholars themselves." ~ DF
THAT is precisely why I so appreciate your work, Derek!

At 7:20 AM, Blogger Clay Feet said...

I arrived at the same conclusion you make here a few years ago wrestling with the same issues involving the OT. I finally came to see that only God is infallible, not people's writings about God. Separating inspiration from infallibility came as a tremendous relief to my tortured mind that had created confusion for so many years. Now I point to Jesus as Hebrews 1 says as the only reliable "infallible" version of God that must be used to interpret every other report or writing or opinion about truth.
Looking forward to your next installment.

At 7:23 AM, Blogger Clay Feet said...

I would like to add that the problem you describe involving seeing the Bible as infallible is what Brian Zhand calls 'bibliolatry' - the elevation of Scripture in authority above Jesus. The religious leaders in His day were called out on this by Jesus confronting them with their stubborn insistence that Scripture was more reliable than Jesus' version of God. We still are in danger of that same tragic mistake.

At 10:44 AM, Blogger Curtis M. said...

So, on a scale from Inerrancy to ignorant, what is the highest view of scripture the following statements could claim:

Genesis 1 is literally and scientifically true.

Genesis 1 is a lovely metaphor that attempts to explain the mystery of creation. God clearly is the force behind the Evolutionary. Process.

Genesis one is a myth. God didn't have anything to do with creation-he doesn't exist. The Bible can't be true
either because it starts off with a mistake.

At 5:50 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Boyd's metaphor of the cross being the "magic eye" that allows us to find God in even the most violent of biblical passages is a helpful one. Ultimately it makes Jesus the infallible or inspired authority through which we can make sense of the bible. In my opinion, this metaphor undermines Boyd's claim of biblical infallibility, inspiration, and/or authority because it's the "magic eye" of who God is through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that gives the bible any authority, inspiration, or makes it infallible (as described by Boyd not fundamentalists). If this is the case, then can't anything be authoritative, inspired, or infallible if viewed through the "magic eye" of Jesus? So the bible and everything else can and can't be authoritative at the same time depending on the lens it's viewed through.

At 9:29 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

I consider your treatment of Boyds first post refreshing. I hope he sees how much you are laboring to do what leads to peace and mutual edification. His first comments appear more reactionary to the war over words in the world of scholarship. Had he assumed or given you the benefit of the doubt, it would have seemed like he was much closer to your position or you to his. Obviously an honor, obviously very busy man, quickly reading and trying to decipher your meaning. Perhaps had he not been so rushed he may have had personal correspondence with you and made sure he understood what you meant before he critiqued it. Pretty cool.

At 7:00 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Great comments everyone. Lots of great insights, and I appreciate all the kind words, too :)

At 7:03 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


I'm glad you noticed that. My main goal is not to "win the argument" but to "win over Greg" thru peace, as it were :). Love first.

At 10:08 PM, Blogger Ugh said...

I attend Boyd's Church in Minnesota and can say he is a deeply convicted and passionate man and it looks like your book hits him right where he has been living for the last 9 years as he writes his magnum opus. I can say that he and I differ greatly on certain cultural (counter-cultural) topics, but he absolutely encourages disagreements and exploring differing views as we consider his. It is always with an abundance of love that you can feel when he preaches that makes you understand what a remarkable person he is. He was clearly intrigued by Disarming Scripture -

At 10:58 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 10:59 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

In reading the dialogue between you and Greg, my real issue is how to cope with the direct commands of YHWH to wipe out the Canannites. Were they put there as a result of consulting the High Priest with the Ephod who threw Urim and Thummim — the result being assumed as God's will? If so, do we see the Old Testament as being 'Salvation History' but not verbally inspired? Is the real question whether we believe in inspiration or verbal inspiration? Can you help me think this through? mwarner@sailors-society.org

At 12:06 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Thanks for your insights and perspective here, that's helpful to know.

At 12:16 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


My conclusion is that the verses that claim the God commanded them to commit genocide are wrong and and God did not ever say that. I base this on a lot of factors, including how the OT itself often has the prophets saying that people in the past got it wrong when they claimed God told them stuff. In other words, I don't think a view that "whatever it says here must be from God" fits with the OT itself. The OT as a whole is simply not that kind of a book, and it tells us so.

Based on that, in part 3 of my response, I discuss how the OT functions as a whole to lead us to Christ (despite the parts where it gets God wrong). Hope that helps.

At 9:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Latin verb "fallere" does not mean "cause to fall." It simply means "to deceive." It can refer to maliciously lying to trick another person, or to mistakenly deceive oneself.

At 12:14 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

If you take a look at this book you'll see that the Latin Fallere indeed did mean "cause to fail." Words are fluid and change with usage over time. Fallere later came to take on its figurative meaning of "deceive" as you say.

The English word fallible does not mean "fall" nor does it mean "deceive" but has come to be connected with failing. So to say that a person is a "fallible human being" means they are capable of failing, of being wrong. I am fallible. I'm just not wrong about what fallere means... and neither are you.


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