Dismissing Violence

Screen Shot 2017-04-18 at 5.35.23 PMThere are two features of Greg Boyd’s massive study The Crucifixion of the Warrior God that I most appreciate: his squaring with the facts about violence and his relentless push to understand the Bible through the lens of the cruciform nature of God revealed in Christ.

You may not like Boyd’s conclusions or theories, but to offer a better theory you have to square yourself with the facts of violence and you must offer a thorough and compelling explanation.

In the book he discusses three possible solutions to the violence of God in the Old Testament as compared with the enemy-loving God of the NT: dismissing, synthesizing, and reinterpreting. It is the synthesizing theory, which we will look at in our next post, that has gained the upper hand with many evangelicals today. But is it the best?

Many have dismissed, many dismiss today and many dismiss but shudder at that the thought they are actually dismissing what the Bible says. Which is why Boyd takes on those who end up dismissing the violence connected to God in the Old Testament.

The most famous dismissal theory is that of Marcion.

In fact, Marcion did not even deny that the OT was divinely inspired. It was inspired, he believed, but by an evil god whom he believed created the material world, not by the good God revealed in Christ. In keeping with certain Gnostic groups that influenced him, Marcion believed that Jesus came to reveal the good God over and against the malevolent deity revealed in the OT. Thus, as Sebastian Moll has convincingly argued, the OT continued to play a central, albeit entirely negative, role in Marcion’s theology (338).

The church both saw through Marcion and faithfully rejected his theories. When the church arose with power and authority, it was able to silence Marcion’s followers — until (roughly) the Enlightenment and critical thinking in biblical and theological studies.

This trend culminated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when a number of noteworthy German scholars, including, most famously, Friedrich Delitzsch and Adolf von Harnack, made an explicit alignment with Marcion and boldly called for the church to sever its ties with the OT (340-341).

With differences, some evangelicals today are breathing the same air, and Boyd points at Eric Seibert and Pete Enns:

For example, despite his overall high view of Scripture, and despite offering many excellent insights regarding troubling portraits of God, Eric Seibert’s treatment of the OT’s violent divine portraits arguably falls into this category. “Acknowledging that there are some things in the Bible that did not happen,” he argues, “effectively exonerates God from certain kinds of morally questionable behavior.” [Also see this second book.] Seibert thus responds to the moral problems posed by the portrait of God commanding the merciless genocide of the Canaanites, for example, by citing contemporary scholarship that argues that the canonical conquest narrative is largely, if not completely, historically unreliable. For example, if it can be demonstrated that God did not actually (viz. in history) give the herem command, the thinking goes, then we have resolved the challenge posed by the biblical portrait of God giving this command.

Along similar lines, while I deeply appreciate much of the work of Peter Enns, he reflects the same perspective when he notes that most archeologists are certain that “the Bible’s version of events” recounted in the conquest narrative “is not what happened.” And this, he contends, “puts the question: ‘How could God have all those Canaanite’s put to death?’ in a different light.” For this scholarship, Enns concludes, means “He didn’t” ever give this command (342).

Boyd continues pointing fingers:

Something similar could be argued about the work of C. S. Cowles, Derek Flood, and Dora Mbuwayesango, who reject violent depictions of God primarily on theological grounds, as well as about the work of Wes Morriston, Randal Rauser, and Paul Anderson, who advocate similar solutions, primarily on ethical grounds (342-343).

But he wants to be clear about what he’s saying about these scholars:

want it to be perfectly clear that I am not suggesting that any of the Christian scholars I have mentioned could by any stretch of the imagination be accused of “Marcionism,” or even of “Apeleism.” Indeed, as I have said, far from rejecting the OT, most of these scholars affirm its overall divine inspiration. Nor am I suggesting that these scholars altogether dismiss violent divine portraits, as if they found nothing of value in them. To the contrary, Seibert, Enns, Flood, and others have worked hard to pull positive lessons out of them.25 Yet, each author ultimately assumes that the problem posed by biblical authors ascribing violence to God is to be solved by denying that this violence ever took place. So too, while some of these authors continue to work to find redemptive value in the narratives containing these portraits, they all stop looking for the revelatory content of the portrait itself, and it is at this point that I find I must part ways with them (343).

[On the next page:] 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.

Boyd then turns to four objections to the Dismissal Theory:

1. The whole Bible is inspired and therefore every passage is summoned to witness to Christ; one can’t dismiss a passage and find it witnessing to Christ.
2. They dismiss large portions of Scripture. The Bible’s narrative unravels without the thread of violence.
3. Dismissing intensifies the problem of evil in the Bible. Thus,

Despite the fact that Jesus reveals a God who abhors all forms of sword wielding, and despite the fact that Paul had just instructed believers to relinquish all violence and to instead love and serve enemies (Rom 12:14-21), it is clear from this and a number of other passages that Paul did not think God was above working within the fallen conditions of the world’s violent-prone governments to minimize evil and to maximize good (348).

4. Biblical infallibility:

The primary concern that leads me to embrace biblical infallibility is that I believe that confessing this is a foundational aspect of what it means to confess Jesus Christ as Lord (349).

Boyd believes we have to learn to read the Bible theologically and not simply as a part of the historical-critical method, and he stands here mostly with Hans Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative.

For while the historical-critical approach subjects Scripture to our questions, the theological approach, at least as I am espousing it, seeks to enter into the “God-breathed” “realism” of the biblical narrative and to allow it to shape us (359).

He examines such concepts as infallibility and inerrancy, preferring the former term, but connecting it to the central message of the Bible as the guiding hermeneutic while noticing the fallibility of humans who wrote Scripture.

Bloesch’s perspective reflects my own in as much as he understands that if biblical infallibility is defined in appropriate ways, it is not threatened by the presence of human fallibility or sinfulness in Scripture (376).

So Boyd thinks the Dismissal view dismisses itself from the stage when the opportunity arises for its most important performance:

In this light, I could say that my most fundamental objection to the Dismissal Solution is not that it dismisses Scripture’s violent portraits of God as “unworthy of God.” My most fundamental objection is rather that advocates of this approach assume they have thereby solved the challenge posed by these portraits. Having rejected the surface meaning of these portraits, they fail to patiently press in to discern the deeper cruciform meaning these portraits are intended to have for us. As I noted earlier, while many advocates of this approach work hard to bring some redemptive value out of these violent divine portraits, they abandon any attempt to find the cross-centered revelatory value of the portraits themselves. In a word, they stop short of disclosing how these often horrendous appearing divine portraits are the “swaddling cloths and the manger in which Christ lies,” as Luther put it.124 For, as Luther also noted, our ultimate goal in interpreting Scripture must be to “see nothing in Scripture”—including its violent portraits of God—”except Christ crucified” (377).

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