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Crucifixion of the Warrior God, by Gregory A. Boyd – Review Part 2

crucifixion of the warrior god

In the previous post I noted several of Boyd’s hermeneutical starting points, as well as his expressed and tacit assumptions about Scripture. After this post, I’ll stick with his second volume, where he develops four principles for understanding the ‘cruciform’ God revealed in both the Old and New Testaments. But for now, I want to consider the cruciform thesis itself, and whether it yields enough explanatory power to solve the riddle of violence in Scripture. As a caveat, Boyd’s book does a nice job raising and responding to possible objections to his thesis, so I highly recommend that readers of this review get his book to see his responses to other parts of his argument.

The Cruciform Thesis

As noted in my last post, Boyd’s proposal is crucicentric. According to Boyd, the cross reveals most fully what God is like—even more than other aspects of Jesus’ life. He’s non-violent and self-sacrificial in his love. All other (biblical) portraits of God pale in importance to the revelation of the non-violent love of God on the cross, even if they are God-breathed portraits.

Boyd ties his cruciform thesis closely to a doctrine of inspiration. Because (a) the cross is the fullest revelation of God, and (b) all Scripture is God-breathed, (c) we should expect a cruciform God across all the pages of Scripture … if we look deeply enough. Moreover, (d) any portrait of God that seems to conflict ‘should never be allowed to undercut, compromise, or qualify in any way the portrait of God we are given in the crucified Christ’ (p. 280).

Thus, as one interprets the OT—even its ‘dark side’—the driving concern should be to discern ‘how it [the OT] bears witness to this very portrait’ of the crucified Christ (p. 280), and to reject all portraits of God that hint of violence. This task is easy for Boyd when reading of God’s covenantal love for Israel—often portrayed as a marriage—and his overwhelming commitment to show mercy and grace to his people, which Boyd beautifully details (pp. 281-285).[1] Boyd calls those texts ‘direct revelations.’[2] But it proves immensely challenging when peering into the heart of ‘damnable texts’ (p. 287).[3] In these cases, OT texts confront us with portraits of God that contradict the portrait of God in the crucified Christ.[4]

This puts the interpreter in a bind. The OT is God-breathed, but when interpreted in its literal, or even literary (i.e., in accordance with its presentation in the literature of the OT) sense, the Warrior God of the OT is not the Slain Lamb of the NT. Abiding with the literal sense of the text would require a Marcionite rejection of the OT, according to Boyd. But while he is sympathetic to Marcion, he parts ways. He writes:

To be perfectly honest, I have a certain respect for Marcion and his followers who decided it was better to “cast away the Old Testament than tarnish the image of the Father of Jesus Christ by mixing in traces of a warlike God.”[5] Given their mistaken belief that they had to choose between Jesus and the OT, I admire their bold choice. But it is this false either-or proposition that I strongly reject. (p. 344)

So what options does an interpreter have?

Literary Crucifixes

To work out of that bind without succumbing to the Marcionite temptation, Boyd sides with Origen and other church fathers who pursued more admirable images of God in the OT. For Origen, the OT was to be read allegorically to conform to the image of Christ, and often in striking agreement with Greek philosophical and moral concepts.[6] Of course Origen also sought to discern the spiritual meaning of the whole Bible, including the NT, when the literal made no sense.[7] His pursuit of meaning beneath or beyond the surface was not a specific mode of OT interpretation.[8]

While Boyd rejects the allegorical method he perceives in Origen, he embraces Origen’s effort to resist literal readings of violent texts. Boyd’s particular method is abductive. Though critical of interpreters who try to put the ‘best spin’ on the OT,[9] Boyd assumes the best of the whole OT by suggesting that God allows himself to be misrepresented, and in that allowance, we see—as a literary crucifix—the God who ‘became sin,’ and ‘bore’ humanity’s sin on the cross.

We can, in a word, discern in these violent portraits that God was bearing the sins of his people and was thereby taking on an ugly literary semblance that reflected that sin, just as he did in a historical way for all humanity on Calvary. (p. 457)

In other words, he ‘postulates a hypothetical scenario that, if true, … [renders] otherwise puzzling data intelligible’ (631). While the OT’s texts ‘conceal God’s true nature on their surface, they reveal God’s true nature in their depths’ (650). Those depths, however, are not native to OT texts. Instead, they come from elsewhere, from the NT. When adopted as an interpretive grid, finding that deeper meaning proves easy to predict, since the outcome is always the same—a cruciform image of God.

7 Questions & Critiques

In light of what I’ve just sketched, I want to offer a few reflections, critiques, and questions. I realised once writing the 7 points below that each relates to my distrust of approaches to extremely complex issues that resolve all tension. The danger, by my reckoning, is that there are always hidden costs when we do this. I’ll discuss those later, but for now, a few questions/critiques:

  1. To what extent is the cruciform hermeneutic really a hermeneutic? Boyd insists that cross can function like a ‘magic eye’ to make sense of otherwise horrific OT texts. But in practice, those violent OT texts are simply re-written so that they look like the cross. I don’t see this as a reading of the OT so much as it is a case of finding what one needs to find. I wasn’t always sure why Boyd went through all the trouble of interpreting OT stories (e.g., the conquest) when he knows what he’ll find anyway, namely, a crucifixion-like image of God. Boyd says as much. For instance, when, according to Boyd, Israel projected its own violent plan for conquest onto God (pp. 979ff.), we see that ‘the presence of these plans within the canon confirms what the cross leads us to expect—namely, that the depictions of God ordering his people to annihilate others as an act of worship to him are sin-bearing, literary crucifixes’ (p. 980).
  2. To what extent is allowing oneself to be misrepresented like ‘bearing sin’? Allowing oneself to be depicted as a malevolent bully (in Boyd’s estimation) would only be 1 of 10 steps toward actually ‘bearing sin.’ To even look like ‘bearing sin,’ wouldn’t there need to be some actual move to deal with that sin? Sin-bearing and atonement are about actually dealing with sin, removing it, and cleansing its stain. In Boyd’s rendering, the God of the OT does no such thing. He only allows himself to be misrepresented. So how does Boyd gain access to the true state of affairs to know that the misrepresentation is actually a crucifix, and part of a fully reality leading to the cross? Falling back on the idea that the cross requires us to see things this way does not work, unless you see the cross as a static and timeless (and wholly transparent) revelation of God, which I’ll address later. This leads me to my next question.
  3. Why should Boyd’s hypothetical scenario/solution commend itself more than any other? Boyd believes that God not only accommodated so as to allow violent misrepresentations of himself, but that those misrepresentations are ‘literary crucifixes’ that point the way toward the sin-bearing God revealed in Christ. If Boyd’s concern was to somehow stay with the OT as God-breathed (even though as a misrepresentation in many places), why couldn’t the OT texts of terror just be literary foils that God inspired to allow the cross to shine ever brighter? Or, why couldn’t the OT texts of terror be about how the cross enables us to put to death the deeds of the flesh? (I’m not actually suggesting those as options). Boyd’s model has no anchor holding it to the OT itself (it’s a cruciform re-interpretation), I see no text-driven reason to choose the particular benefit-of-the-doubt scenario he posits.
  4. Boyd’s thesis requires us to read decidedly against the grain of the OT. To the best of my knowledge, allegorical and/or spiritualizing interpretations of the OT always try to read along the grain of the OT. For instance, even when Origen critiqued violent passages of the OT, they always ended up being—somehow—about putting to death the passions or some such act.[10] By contrast, Boyd’s proposal requires us to read vast portions of the OT as (a) straightforward misrepresentations of God that are simultaneously (b) revelatory of a God who is willing to be misrepresented. In other words, the deeper reality runs directly cross current to the surface reality. I wonder, then, what brings together the surface and deeper realities of the text, besides some kind of yin and yang balance of opposites.
  5. Boyd’s cruciform hermeneutic ends up flattening the full witness of Scripture. For Boyd, if anything in the OT does not meet the criterion of enemy-love, it requires reinterpretation (p. 475). If it looks like enemy love, then it can be left alone. As a result, the OT ends up chopped into bits, with one pile that can be read according to its surface meaning, and another pile that is read against itself. This is part of the collateral damage of solving one problem. Boyd loses the tension and difference between different acts of God in history.

The NT itself assumes difference between (or narrative development) between the cross and other acts of God. For instance, in Peter’s sermon in Acts 3, Peter distinguishes between the way Jesus treated those who crucified Jesus in ignorance, and the way he would judge those who knew Jesus as exalted Lord and yet rejected him (v. 23; cf. 13:40-41; Heb 2:2-3). Paul also recognizes that God treated him differently when he was, unwittingly, a blasphemer: ‘I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a violent man; yet because I had acted in ignorance and unbelief, I was shown mercy’ (1 Tim 1:13). Or take Jesus’ own imprecation against Judas in John 13:18 (cf. Ps 41:8-10), who knew him and yet betrayed, or the disciples’ treatment of the same (Acts 1:16-20; cf. Ps 69:25; 109:8). My point here is not to overplay the contrast between crucifixion and other acts of God, but to observe that God’s response to enemies is not exactly and always the same (insofar as we can tell, but I’m up for surprises!). The examples I’ve given suggest that God treats ignorant enemies different than those who possess fuller knowledge yet act against him.

  1. Boyd renders timeless the revelation of God on the cross. For Boyd, the cross shows us that God only and always deals with his enemies non-violently (hence the strong re-reading of other texts). But would this timelessness still obtain for other dimensions of the cross? E.g., does God only and always wield power through suffering?[11] Does God only and always remain (mostly) silent in the face of enemy aggression? I don’t think Boyd would say yes, but on what basis?
  2. Boyd underplays the extent to which the NT writers anchor their interpretation of the crucifixion in the OT. In other words, the NT writers are at pains to demonstrate that what God revealed in Christ is consistent with, and not in direct opposition to the revelation of God in the OT. But what, in Boyd’s analysis, gives the cross its meaning? Boyd is choosing some interpretive framework for making sense of the crucifixion. What I didn’t see in the book was a clear sense of how NT interpreters consistently looked back to the OT to make sense of the cross. At least four lament psalms, for instance, shape Mark’s passion narrative. Matthew’s passion narrative, including the very stories the narrator chooses to tell, are clearly influenced by the events of Ps 22. The Passover shapes John’s understanding of the cross. This is not to mention the way that the sacrificial system shaped Paul’s and the author of Hebrews’ understanding of the cross. How, then, can the cross function as a lens for re-interpreting the texts that give it meaning?

I am sympathetic to some of Boyd’s concerns over violence in the OT, and have made attempts myself to try to wrestle through it. But unfortunately, the way Boyd unfolds his cruciform hermeneutic pulls the OT-shaped legs out from under the NT’s presentation of the cross. To that extent, it doesn’t give adequate privilege to the entire kerygma—or core teaching about Jesus, which begins with the story of God and Israel, and moves through the incarnation to the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, and presupposes the unity of divine revelation.[12] Nor does he give adequate attention to the discreet witness of the OT, including its nuanced and complex wrestling with the problem of violence itself.

But more on that in the next posts.

See here for part 3.

[1] Of course the specifics of that covenant, which involve threats against disloyalty, would not meet Boyd’s cruciform standard.

[2] See my previous post for examples of this phrase in use.

[3] Boyd, Crucifixion, 287 quoting Thom Stark, The Human Faces of God, 218.

[4] E.g., p. 327.

[5] Quoting Harnack, Militia Christi, 47

[6] See Provan, The Reformation and the Right Reading of Scripture, 179. F

[7] Cf. p. 122 for an interesting parallel in Luther.

[8] See especially Origin’s On First Principles: Book IV, pp 178ff in Rowan A. Greer trans. Origin (Classics of Western Spirituality; Paulist Press, 1979).

[9] Cf. xxix, xxxi-xxxii, 333.

[10] Origen recognizes the problems of divine vengeance and anger in the OT that his opponents address, and claims that the problem is ‘quite simply that they understand Scripture not according to the spiritual meaning but according to the sound of the letter’ (On First Principles 2.2)

[11] My thanks to Matt Bates for that question.

[12] Matt Bates raised a question to this effect in our podcast interview with Boyd.

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