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Crucifixion of the Warrior God, by Gregory A. Boyd – Review Part 1

The Warrior God…

Like most kids from Christian backgrounds, I grew up hearing the stories of flood, conquest, and war that we find in the Old Testament. These flannel-graphed (fuzzy-felt for Brits) stories captivated my imagination, and formed me in important ways. As I grew older, I learned the paleological arguments for a literal global flood, and the archaeological arguments for the destruction of Jericho. Those arguments built my faith, and gave me confidence—within a literalistic framework—that the Bible was true.

It never occurred to me that the same stories that built my faith were also horrifically violent. Perhaps it was the abstraction of violence in children’s Bibles, or the ‘moral of the story’ approach to the Old Testament, which shifted the focus elsewhere, but I didn’t ever mind the violence. That didn’t happen until later. I can’t remember the first time I grew uneasy with biblical violence, but I do remember that reading Richard Hays’ Moral Vision of the New Testament at the end of my undergraduate studies made a deep impression on me. Hays makes a powerful case for non-violence in the New Testament. I found it convincing at the time, and as a consequence, the radical non-violence of Jesus and the early Church caused me real problems as I read backward toward the Old Testament. The violence suddenly seemed at odds with Jesus’ teachings, and most significantly, his death for, and forgiveness of, enemies on the cross. This sent me on a challenging and difficult search through the Old Testament, looking for ways that the Old Testament might at least point toward Jesus.

Greg Boyd

In his Crucifixion of the Warrior God, Greg shares a similar story. Not all parts of his story are the same, but he describes how he became increasingly drawn toward Jesus’ radical non-violence. This experience prompted his first attempt to ‘put the best possible “spin” on the OT’s violent portraits of God’ (xxix). His hope was that this would resolve the tension Jesus ‘affirmation of the OT as divinely inspired’ and Jesus’ ‘nonviolent revelation of God’ (xxix). But unable to put a positive spin on the OT, he went back to the drawing board to propose something different. The result is a 1,445 tome. It’s a hard-hitting, astonishingly well-read, and deeply creative work.

Key Points

I don’t plan to rehash all the arguments in Greg’s book. At 1,445 pages, it’s too large for that. Greg covers a wide range of topics, to say the least. I suspect that some will fizzle out before reaching Volume 2, when Greg actually interprets OT texts, limiting the impact of some of his richer insights. This isn’t a comment on his writing, but instead on the simple challenge of reading a long book.

Here are a few key insights from Volume 1. I’ll offer some comment, but will save most evaluation for later posts:

On Scripture
  1. The Old Testament is inspired. Boyd insists that he cannot dispense with the Old Testament. His commitment to the idea that Scripture is God-breathed will not allow for him to dispense with it. The specific entailments of that claim are not determined, Boyd points out, and need to be considered along with the Church Fathers who employed allegorical methods of reading. Boyd prefers the term theopneustos (following 2 Tim 3:16) to ‘divine inspiration’ because the latter tends to place the locus of inspiration on the individual author rather than on biblical texts as such, where Boyd locates revelatory activity. I think this is a helpful distinction.
  2. Cloudy with patches of sunshine, or, direct revelation in the OT is episodic. On countless occasions Boyd says that amidst the fog and horrifying ugliness of violence in the OT, one can often witness the Spirit ‘breaking through.’ He says this too many times to count, but just to give a few examples from one section of the book: On p. 738 he says that ‘we see the Spirit of the cruciform God breaking through with remarkable clarity and beauty,’ in reference to God’s hatred for war in Ps 46, 120, and 140. On p. 745 we read about the ‘Spirit of the cruciform God breaking through’ again, within the conquest narrative (Josh 5:13-15). We ‘discern the influence of the Spirit’ (p. 752), the ‘Spirit further breaking through’ (p. 753), the ‘Spirit breaking through even further’ (p. 754), and so on. And this was just within 20 pages! Each of these ‘breakthroughs’ have to do with some move away from either violence or so-called ‘tribalistic’ religion (e.g., animals sacrifice). The way one discerns the activity of the Spirit in Scripture, in Boyd’s system, is by degree of likeness to the cruciform picture of Christ in the NT. Presumably, then, while the OT is inspired, it is not inspired in the same way as texts that portray divine love, or ultimately, the passages about the crucifixion.
  1. Misrepresentation as revelation. The correlate of those passages where the Spirit ‘breaks through’ is that countless OT passages are said to misrepresent and distort God, to present readers with a grotesque and horrific image of God. But these images are, in an odd sort of way, revelatory of a God who is willing to be misrepresented. I will discuss this more in a future post. For now, it’s important to note that for Boyd large swathes of the OT misrepresent God. They are ‘sin-stained portraits of Yahweh as a violent warrior god’ that should be ‘forever set aside’ (p. 552). 
  1. Maximal Discontinuity between OT and NT portraits of God. When read according to what some call its ‘plain sense,’ or in its literary presentation, Scripture offers wildly different portraits of God in the OT and NT. The OT offers ‘savage’ and ‘violent’ depictions of God that are, in Boyd’s estimation, directly repudiated by the NT portrait of Christ (p. 290). This is not to say that Boyd thinks the OT and NT are incompatible, but rather that one needs to re-read the OT through the lens of the cross to come up with anything other than a monster, especially in passages like we find in the book of Joshua.
  1. The OT nevertheless foreshadows Christ. Though much of the violence in the OT is ‘directly repudiated’ in the NT, ‘there is no dimension of the Old Testament message that does not in some way foreshadow Christ.’[1] This sets up a central question driving the book, namely, how can ‘macabre’ (p. 91), ‘horrific,’ and ‘revolting’ (p. 290) portraits of God testify to Christ? To what extent does his characterization of the OT stretch the bounds of Scripture’s God-breathed quality?
  1. Abductive scriptural hermeneutics. Rather than inductive reasoning (building a ground-up picture from the data), or deductive reasoning (starting from premises toward ‘necessary conclusions’), abductive reasoning asks, What state of affairs best accounts for all the data, and specifically for this case, the puzzling violent data?[2] In other words, abductive reasoning posits a scenario to account for what we have in Scripture, but is not in Scripture directly. Greg uses a helpful (fictional!) analogy of seeing his wife beat up a homeless person (puzzling data, given Greg’s knowledge of his wife), where by abductive reasoning he posits a number of scenarios that might account for this strange behavior (staged social experiment, he was harbouring a bomb, etc.).
  1. Jesus is the definitive revelation of God. Boyd makes this point forcefully on nearly every page of his book. He argues that the NT authors read the OT in this way, and that we should too. Heb 1:3 is thus central to Boyd’s project: ‘The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being’ (Heb 1:3). To know the character of God, Boyd contends, look at Jesus! Boyd thus considers his project Christocentric. For Boyd this means that ‘the ultimate God-intended meaning of any given passage, and of the OT as a whole, [is] only found when seen in relation to Christ’ (p. 98). In this, Boyd sees himself following the lead of NT writers and later Patristic authors, and ‘preaching nothing else but Christ, and him crucified’ (1 Cor 2:2). Boyd probably means Jesus-centric, since Christocentric would encompass the universal Christ, i.e., Christ in his pre-incarnate state all the way through his ascension. Boyd doesn’t mean that.[3] 
  1. More specifically, the cross shows us what God is like. It’s important to emphasize that Boyd’s hermeneutic if crucicentric, and not just Christocentric. Boyd uses a ‘Magic Eye’ analogy to describe his hermeneutic. ‘Magic Eye’ art looks like unimpressive 2D patterns to standard observation. But if viewed correctly, a 3D picture emerges. Boyd contends that looking at the OT through the lens of the cross ‘enables us to discern the beauty of the crucified God rising out of portraits of God that on the surface appear profoundly ugly’ (xxxv). He insists that interpreters ought to give the cross the ‘unrivalled authority to reveal God that the NT gives it’ (771). Giving it that authority yields, in Boyd’s estimation, a new outlook on violent texts in Scripture.
  1. The OT revelation of God is inferior to what we see in the NT. Calling Jesus the ‘definitive revelation’ of God (a phrase he uses over 70x in the book) has a specific connotation for Boyd. He means that Jesus supersedes all previous revelations of God in the OT. His point is not just that the OT is unclear about the coming Christ, but that it is inferior in its revelation of God, at least if read according to its literal sense (pp. 38, 110). The upshot of their inferiority is that all texts that do not meet the criteria of the cross, which I’ll discuss later, need to be re-read until they meet the cruciform standard of the cross. So for instance, if an OT texts depicts God exacting vengeance on enemies, that text will need to be re-read in light of the fact that God forgives his enemies from the cross. Boyd is thus critical of approaches that treat the OT and NT as ‘two equally authoritative revelations’ (p. 115), that in the language of Hebrews privilege the ‘reality’ in favour of the ‘shadow.’ Or, as he states elsewhere, one should not privilege ‘fallen’ representations over the cross. This sets the interpreter up for a very disruptive form of re-interpretation, such that the OT needs to be read radically against its grain in many places where the Spirit doesn’t ‘break through.’
  1. We need to read the OT like NT writers. Following the lead of NT writers in how they interpret the OT has been controversial over the years,[4] but Boyd maintains that we most certainly should follow the lead of NT writers as they ‘see Jesus’ in the OT.
  1. Tension is eschewed. It should be clear that Boyd’s proposal aims to resolve tension around the problem of violence in the OT. In contrast to most other approaches I know of—which typically include some measure of … ‘I know this doesn’t resolve all the problems around violence in the Bible, but …’—Boyd moves resolutely toward a comprehensive solution to the problem of violence.

In the next posts I’ll review and evaluate several specific portions of Greg’s weighty tome.

See here for part 2. 

[1] Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics: Foundations and Principles of Evangelical Biblical Interpretation (IVP, 2010), 252 qtd Boyd, Crucifixion, 91.

[2] Boyd, Crucifixion, 631.

[3] Special thanks to Lucy Peppiatt for raising this point. Lucy notes Ian McFarland’s query on this point, from his book The Divine Image: Envisioning the Invisible God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005), 13-14: ‘We see and know God when and as we look at Jesus as the one, true image of God. As the myriad images of Jesus that mark Christian literature and iconography show, however, there is no shortage of mutually inconsistent pictures of Jesus to choose from; and the fact that Jesus himself is now confessed to have ascended to heaven does not help matters.’ pp.13-14.

[4] Richard N. Longenecker, ‘Can We Reproduce the Exegesis of the New Testament?’ Tyndale Bulletin 21 (1970): 3-38.

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