Greg Boyd’s warfare theology part 2–God at war in Scripture

Greg Boyd’s warfare theology part 2–God at war in Scripture November 13, 2014

The first of Boyd’s two books on “warfare theology,”  God at War, focuses primarily on the Scriptural evidence for a God who fights evil. Boyd places this picture of God over against what he calls “blueprint theology” in which God stands above the fray, having ordained in detail everything that happens. Boyd argues that the “blueprint” view is both un-Scriptural and practically harmful, because it leads Christians to accept evil as part of God’s plan rather than fighting against it. i’ll say more about that in later posts. Hence, I am omitting consideration of chapter 1 of God at War, “Hearing Zosia,” not because it is unimportant, but because it is so powerful and so important that it needs to be discussed separately, along with similar material in the second book.

Much of God at War outlines the Biblical evidence for “warfare theology,” from Genesis to Revelation, with the first part of the book naturally dealing with the OT and the second with the NT.  Chapter 2, “Locking up the Raging Sea,” draws a broad picture of the ancient Near Eastern world as one dominated by a consciousness of hostile, demonic forces. Chapter 3 speaks more specifically of the primordial monsters of chaos and their role in the creation story, chap. 4 deals with the “gods” and their relationship to YHWH, the God of Israel, and chap. 5 addresses Satan in particular.

Boyd argues that the Old Testament posits the existence of a number of superhuman beings, many of whom (the “gods”) have genuine authority over human beings, particularly over individual nations and cities. The evidence, for this, is of course plentiful–there are a number of OT passages that speak of YHWH addressing a council of gods, or imply that other nations have their own gods which have given them territory, etc., or command Israelites not to worship other gods, with the implication that these gods are real. For many modern Christians, these passages are somewhat of an embarrassment. Many scholars have spoken of a development within the OT from “henotheism,” the view that there are many gods but that YHWH is the one Israel worships, to true “monotheism,” which holds that only one God is real. The former view is often spoken of as more primitive or obviously erroneous, and some conservative scholars are reluctant to admit that any of the canonical writers actually held it. Boyd bites the bullet: of course the OT speaks of other gods as real. Furthermore, Boyd does not argue–as many Christians do–that if real these “gods” are simply “demons” who are enemies of God and have no legitimate authority. Rather, picking up on Jewish and early Christian hints, Boyd argues that the “gods” were given genuine authority over creation by God, which they then misused.

This allows Boyd to portray Satan, in chap. 5, as the most powerful and malevolent of these “gods.” Here he is in line with early Christian theologians such as Gregory of Nyssa, who believed that Satan was originally the angel in charge of our planet (a view picked up by Lewis in the Space Trilogy). However, there’s a certain jarring shift between the earlier chapters, which draw richly on ancient Near Eastern mythology and take it seriously as a picture of the world, and chapter 5. After all, there is no “Satan” in ANE mythology. Nor is Satan mentioned in most of the OT. One can certainly think of explanations as to why both Israel’s pagan neighbors and Israelites for most of their history would be unaware of this particularly powerful and evil “god.” (Perhaps Satan works through minions, and the Israelites were aware only of the minions until late in their history, while their polytheistic neighbors had even less reason to look behind the “gods” they worshiped to see who was really pulling the strings.) But as Boyd treats the subject, it feels too much as if he is suddenly bringing in Satan because Scripture and Christian doctrine require him to.

A similar problem is that, as Boyd admits, the OT does not in fact have anywhere near as much to say about demons and evil spirits as other ANE sources do. The absence of such language, with a few exceptions, is a striking difference between Israel and its neighbors. Similarly, the Israelite creation story is free from the conflict that marks many other creation narratives from surrounding cultures. Whereas Babylonian and Canaanite myths involve a god battling a chaos monster to create the world, Genesis 1 describes a single almighty God speaking the universe into existence. Boyd mines the text for hints that in fact a cosmic battle does lie in the background of the Genesis 1 creation story. Also, following scholars such as Frank Moore Cross, Boyd points to other passages in the OT that speak of God “smiting the heads of the dragons in the waters” or “wounding Leviathan” as part of the work of creation. Cross and other historical-critical scholars see these passages as pointing to an earlier, “mythological” layer of Hebrew tradition, which has been heavily edited in the version we now have. Boyd’s position is a bit more complex than this. He argues that the OT downplays the role of evil spirits as well as the “warfare” aspect of creation because the primary need in OT times was to stress God’s sovereignty over creation and the qualitative difference between God and other superhuman beings. Thus, rather than a mythological layer that was buried by more monotheistic developments, Boyd sees a subtle, understated theme of conflict between God and the forces of chaos and evil, becoming more explicit in Daniel and in the NT.

Another common scholarly approach to the Old Testament which Boyd rejects is the “demonic-in-YHWH theory.” In this view, the earlier texts of the OT portray God as in some sense morally ambiguous. Evil spirits, such as the one who afflicted Saul  or the one who deceived Ahab, are sent by YHWH and seem to act at his bidding. In 2 Samuel, YHWH tempts David to conduct a census, thus bringing YHWH’s wrath on him (whereas the presumably later 1 Chronicles account ascribes the temptation to Satan). Even in Job, Satan is seen as a member of the heavenly court rather than an enemy of God. Boyd rejects this interpretation at every point. He argues that while God may use Satan and evil spirits to accomplish just judgment, and while God always seeks to bring good out of the evil they do, these spirits should always be seen as acting in conscious opposition to God’s good purposes. 1 Chronicles and 2 Samuel describe two different agents behind the “tempting of David,” because both God and Satan wanted it to happen, for very different reasons. Ironically, this sounds a lot like Calvin’s view that Job’s calamities were caused by God, Satan, and evil human beings at the same time, but that each agent was acting with a different motivation. The difference is that Calvin thinks this is _always_ the case, while Boyd thinks it just happened to be the case in specific instances. In his own comments on Job, Boyd argues that Satan is portrayed as God’s antagonist, not God’s servant. Boyd takes God’s question “where have you come from” to mean something like “what are you doing here?” Supporters of the “Satan as member of the heavenly court” theory would take it to mean something more like “which of my subjects have you been spying on for me today?” But even if it doesn’t mean that Satan was acting on God’s orders, I don’t see that it necessarily indicates surprise.

This is, to my mind, one of Boyd’s less successful arguments in God at War. Nothing whatever in 1 Kings 22 indicates that the “lying spirit” was an enemy of YHWH. Boyd brings that assumption to the text. 1 Samuel 16:14 poses even more difficulties for Boyd, saying that “an evil spirit from YHWH” afflicted Saul. that sounds, on the face of it, as if evil spirits come from YHWH. Now the word “ra’,” usually translated as “evil,” doesn’t have to mean moral evil. So “evil spirit” could be interpreted as “spirit causing harm.” But that won’t yield the “warfare” view of even natural evil that Boyd is after. Therefore, Boyd interprets all such passages as referring to occasional instances in which God and evil spirits are after the same thing.

I don’t think the best way to describe these difficult passages is to speak of YHWH as “demonic.” But it does seem that authors in the earlier strata of the OT thought about “evil” primarily in terms of harmful, destructive things, and they had no problem saying that God sent these evils in judgment, using “destructive spirits” to do so. After all, the surrounding pagan cultures did not (as far as I know) think of evil spirits in primarily moral terms either. An evil spirit was a destructive spirit. For the authors of passages such as 1 Samuel 16 and 2 Kings 22, what mattered was that YHWH was ultimately in control of events that appeared evil. Of course, this works against Boyd’s overall theological argument, but it is quite possible to argue that with fuller revelation, it became clear that God was not directly causing or ordaining these harmful actions so much as using them for his own purposes. Still, these passages in themselves do seem to point toward a somewhat more complex view of divine causality in evil than Boyd wants to allow. Similarly, I think there’s a strong case that Satan was first seen as an official in the heavenly court and came to be seen more as an adversary over time. Boyd’s basic point that much of the OT rightly emphasizes God’s sovereignty, with more emphasis on the demonic in the later parts of the OT and in the NT, would then still be correct. But Boyd’s attempt to make all of the OT support this paradigm is not wholly convincing. In part, this is because of Boyd’s very conservative reading of Scripture–he doesn’t want to ascribe an imperfect understanding to the human authors, but rather sees each passage, in its historical context, as direct divine revelation. (More on this in the next post, on Boyd’s understanding of creation.)

The NT poses fewer problems for Boyd’s argument. The NT clearly does portray Jesus as being at war with the kingdom of Satan, and the casting out of demons is an important part of Jesus’ ministry. I skip over this part of the book not because it is lacking in interest or value, but just because this post has already become very long and there aren’t (in my view) a lot of complications or difficulties in this section. The NT clearly supports Boyd’s “warfare worldview.” (Whether it also supports his open theism is much more dubious–but more on that later.) That being the case, in a Christian paradigm in which the NT fulfills the OT, I don’t think the difficulties posed by the OT “evil spirit from YHWH” passages are fatal to Boyd’s thesis at all. They do, perhaps, point toward the value of a more paradoxical approach to the question. But overall, Boyd makes a thoroughly compelling argument that the Bible presents God as being genuinely “at war” with rebellious evil forces, and that the overcoming of that rebellion is a central part of Christ’s work of redemption and of the Church’s mission. Whatever qualifications we may want to make to his criticisms of the “blueprint model,” any adequate understanding of God’s purposes in the world must take the “warfare” theme seriously.

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