Review of Greg Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God
Have you ever been perplexed about the Old Testament’s “texts of terror” including especially those in which God is reported to have commanded the merciless slaughter of not only men and animals but also non-combatant women and children? If you’re still perplexed and care enough about the problems these texts present for Christian theology (and Christianity’s reputation in a skeptical world), you need to read Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross published this year (2017) by Fortress Press in two volumes: Volume 1: The Cruciform Hermeneutic and Volume 2: The Cruciform Thesis. Don’t let the size of this work stop you. I just read it and you can, too, even though the total number of pages comes to 1301 not counting “Acknowledgements” and indexes, etc. (Volume 2 ends at page 1445.) Needless to say, this is a massive work on the subject that covers every conceivable problem presented by the Old Testament texts of terror and every conceivable solution to those problems. Most interestingly, though, it presents Boyd’s own proposed solution which is unique so far as I know.
I simply do not have the time or the wherewithal to describe or critique the whole work here. I can do no better than urge you to read it for yourself unless this set of problems simply doesn’t interest you. However, I will offer here a few very basic and broad indications of what Boyd says in this tome.
First, as an evangelical Christian Boyd finds that he cannot simply dismiss the narratives of violence attributed to God (or to God’s command) as historically untrue (that is, never happened). Throughout this work he takes the whole Bible seriously without taking all of it literally. While he does not embrace or make use of Origen’s allegorical method of interpretation (which he describes in depth and detail), he finds ways to embrace many Old Testament narratives of God’s violence as both historical and yet not literally true. That is, in many cases, he argues, “something else is going on” in the background of the stories that we can only surmise based on the character of God revealed in Jesus Christ. (His overall approach to hermeneutics is Christocentric and cross-centered.) That “something else” includes, in some cases, God’s permission and withdrawal, allowing humans and evil cosmic powers to commit the violence due to people’s rejection of God, and, in some other cases, God’s people’s committing the violence and attributing it to God due to their cultural captivity to ancient Near Eastern ideas about God. However, even though he does not believe God, the Father of Jesus Christ, the Trinity, ever commits violence, Boyd does believe God inspired the narratives that wrongly attribute such acts to his instigation. This, he argues, is an example of God’s accommodation to people’s inability to understand him rightly and of progressive revelation. For Boyd, the Bible must be read backwards, all of it in the light of Jesus Christ who is the crucified God and whose suffering love reveals finally and fully the true character of God.
Now, if you are thinking “O, well, I can think of twenty-five problems with that thesis,” you need to read Crucifixion of the Warrior God in which Boyd anticipates and responds to every conceivable problem with his own view and argues that every other view than his suffers greater problems. For example, he wrestles long and hard with Paul Copan’s defense of God’s good character from within a conservative evangelical literalism of the Old Testament texts of terror. He also wrestles with Walter Brueggemann’s non-literalist, liberationist interpretation of the Old Testament texts of terror.
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In order to buy into Boyd’s interpretation one has to buy into his overall “spiritual warfare worldview” approach to reality in which, as described in God at War and Satan and the Problem of Evil (both IVP) this world is a battleground between unseen cosmic “powers and principalities.” (In Crucifixion he repeats much of that materials and responds to its critics.) Also, one has to buy into his pacifism in which even God does not commit violence and in which violence is always wrong (i.e., not God’s will and even against God’s will). One has to buy into his general cross-centered hermeneutic in which the cross event is the key to understanding God’s character and the whole of God’s revelation in the whole of Scripture. And yet he doesn’t merely uncritically pose, presuppose or propose these ideas but defends them with great, sometimes excruciating, detail.
I will just mention here one example of the numerous steps in Boyd’s overall argument. According to him, God never commits deadly violence, even when it is deserved, because his nature is love, but he does (often has and will) “withdraw,” step aside, as it were, to allow others (nations, armies, evil men, Satan and his minions) to wreak havoc with deadly force. But God only does this when people reject God’s loving embrace and non-violent defense and protection and insist on disobeying God with idolatry and violence. It is interesting how many examples Boyd mines from the Old Testament of references to non-divine agents actually doing violence the authors then attribute to God!
If you are thinking something like “This whole line of reasoning just sounds implausible” you really just need to read Crucifixion. Boyd masterfully anticipates every counter-argument and deftly deflects it.
Although I have read Origen, I was quite amazed at how much support for his overall view Boyd found in that extremely important church father who seems also to have believed that God never commits violence. But Boyd does not follow Origen’s allegorizing method; he instead argues that “something else is going on” in (behind) Old Testament texts of terror that we can discern only through focusing on the cross as the perfect revelation of God’s character.
You say “Well, this all sounds very interesting, but I just don’t have time to read 1300 pages.” That’s what I thought. But Greg (I’ll switch to using his first name because I count him a friend) finally convinced me to read it and the publisher sent me a complimentary copy (two volumes) and I finally read it all—cover to cover and cover to cover. Admittedly, it took me almost a month, but it was worth it. Not because I found it convincing (I’m still considering it) but because of the wealth of information and insight I found “along the way.” Boyd references scores of books and articles and discusses numerous theories and explanations—of the Old Testament texts of terror.
Even before reading Crucifixion I had concluded that all the known explanations of the Old Testament texts of terror (and there are a lot of them!) fall short of being plausible and satisfying. Whether Greg’s explanation is plausible and satisfying is something I will have to think about for a long time. Perhaps, right now, at this moment, the one problem I find in it is the claim Greg makes (repeatedly throughout the volumes!) that these Old Testament texts of terror are “God-breathed,” inspired by God, and also at the same time “literary masks” (put on God by human authors) largely drawn from the human authors’ cultural limitations. (And not only this but also that God wanted these “literary masks” put on him to exemplify his accommodating character displayed perfectly in the cross event.) It seems to me, right now, at this moment, that Greg wants to have his cake (viz., inspiration) and eat it, too (viz., believe the inspired texts are not really true—insofar as they attribute the command to commit extreme violence to God). In other words, in order to hold onto a weak kind of infallibility of the Bible Greg insists that these events recounted in the texts of terror really happened except insofar as they attribute the violence to God’s will, agency, and/or command. While I am tempted to agree with that explanation of the Old Testament texts of terror I am perplexed, right now, at this moment, as to why and how that can be reconciled with “inspiration” and “infallibility” of these texts. But, admittedly, Greg does define those terms and concepts very loosely so that they are compatible with much that is not literally true—including attributing “Show them no mercy!” to God.
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