Greg Boyd’s warfare theology part 3–Creation

Greg Boyd’s warfare theology part 3–Creation December 8, 2014

Boyd’s “warfare theology” rests on a doctrine of creation as an act whereby God gives radical freedom to His creatures. This means that, for Boyd, the ultimate explanation of the acts of free beings is to be found in their own choice, not in some further cause such as the providential purpose of God. The world is what it is not solely because of God’s will, but because of the interplay of many wills, which may be acting against God. This doesn’t undermine God’s sovereignty, which is shown precisely in the fact that God can bring about His ultimate purposes through interacting with many free created wills. But it does mean that in the short run many things happen that God does not want. Hence, the creation of free beings involves the possibility of warfare, and this warfare is real, consisting of real opposition to God which God (within the limits He has set Himself) can only overcome through a lengthy struggle.

Boyd uses this “warfare theodicy” to explain not only moral evil but also natural evil. (“Theodicy”=a defense of the wisdom and justice of God’s actions in the world in the face of the problem of evil; “moral evil”=the actions of free creatures that go against the moral law; “natural evil”=things that cause harm and suffering but are not in themselves moral actions, such as diseases, earthquakes, etc.) The standard Christian “free will defense” (evil exists because God creates free beings, which means that these beings may choose to act in evil ways) does not do much to explain natural evil. Why, for instance, is there an Ebola virus? Christians traditionally tend to say that natural evil results from the Fall. We get sick and die, natural disasters happen, etc., because the sin of Adam and Eve caused something to go awry in our relationship with the natural world, and indeed in the natural world’s relationship to itself. The “groaning of creation” mentioned in Romans 8 would then be one of the consequences of the sin of Adam. Conservative Protestants generally hold this view in a more thoroughgoing way than do Catholics. Most of us who grew up in conservative evangelical contexts were taught that all animals were vegetarians before the Fall, for instance. Catholics, particularly those following the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas (“Thomists”) are more likely to say that nature is “red in tooth and claw” because that’s the way God made it. Without sentient beings, this isn’t in itself an evil thing.  A triceratops being eaten by a tyrannosaur is experiencing some degree of suffering, but this is not, in the Thomistic view, incompatible with the goodness of creation. The Fall, in this view, is seen as the explanation for human evil and the suffering that flows from our evil choices. This would include human sickness and death, but not animal suffering. The most defensible version of this view would hold, as I understand it, that human beings were created in order to bring order to creation, which would include reducing animal suffering, the potential for natural disasters, etc. In other words, the evolutionary process, guided by God, produced human beings, whose task it was to rule creation with justice and mercy. But because humans messed up, creation has continued to be racked by natural evils, to which “moral evil” has been added.

Boyd, in contrast, believes that natural evils and moral evils have a single source: the activity of created wills which choose to rebel against God. This involves giving Satan and evil spirits generally a much more important role in salvation history than Western theology for the past millennium or so has given them. But Boyd’s argument goes beyond simply suggesting that Satan is behind particular disasters. Creation itself, as we know it, is full of suffering and conflict. Boyd argues that this was not God’s original plan. Thus, the world as we know it does not reflect God’s purposes entirely, but is the result of a conflict between God and rebellious “gods,” principally Satan. Animals may be carnivorous, he suggests, because of Satan’s influence. Extremes of hot and cold may result from the same source.

A case can be made that this is perilously close to the ancient heresy of Manicheanism, which taught that certain kinds of animals and other aspects of the physical world were created by Satan and not by God. Of course, Boyd does not believe that Satan is an independent source of anything. I’m not sure that his view is heretical, but I’d like to see more discussion of it. To what extent does Boyd’s theology allow us to say that a tiger, say, is good? If the tiger is only carnivorous because Satan has messed with creation, then how can we see the tiger as a reflection of God’s glory? Isn’t carnivorousness kind of essential to the nature of a tiger?

Another difficulty Boyd faces is that Genesis 1 seems to portray a “conflict-free” creation. God creates solely through speech, and finds creation “very good.” This in contrast to other Near Eastern creation stories in which Marduk or some other god creates through defeating a monster of chaos. As Boyd notes, there are other passages in the OT that seem to refer to such a cosmic battle–but Genesis 1 doesn’t appear to be one of them. Boyd deals with this difficulty by tentatively embracing a form of the “gap theory”–the view that v. 1 of Genesis describes an initial act of creation, followed by some kind of cosmic catastrophe resulting in “tohu vabohu” chaos. The rest of Gen. 1 would then describe the re-creation of the world following this catastrophe. The cosmic battle referred to cryptically in passages such as Isaiah 51:9 and Psalm 74:13-14 would then have taken place between v. 1 and v. 2. Boyd draws support from the work of Arthur Custance, a creationist author and probably the best-known proponent of the Gap Theory. This, I have to admit, was one of Boyd’s most surprising moves for me, underlining how fundamentally conservative Boyd’s approach to Scripture is (or was when these books were written). He has certainly made me take the gap theory seriously again for the first time in quite a while. At the same time, I’m not sure it does all the work Boyd wants it to do. Boyd seems to think (as other advocates do) that it reconciles a literal reading of Genesis 1 with the scientific record, whether one accepts evolution or not. But I don’t see this. A literal 7-day “re-creation” is no more compatible with the scientific evidence as we have it than a literal 7-day creation. Boyd also suggests that the extinction of carnivorous dinosaurs was part of God’s correction of a creation that had become hopelessly corrupted by satanic forces. Well, maybe. . . I’m still chewing on that one!

The bigger problem, I think, is that God’s “very good” would apply neither to the original creation (corrupted by satanic forces before the seven-day narrative begins) nor to creation as we know it, but to something that only existed briefly. Perhaps I’m trying to take Boyd too literally here. Perhaps his point is simply that creation is a constant struggle between God and the forces seeking to corrupt creation. But he seems to think that his ideas constitute some kind of olive branch to conservative Christians who want a more literal reading of Gen. 1, and I don’t really see it.

That being said, the fundamental issue with regard to Boyd’s doctrine of creation is whether it is too “Manichean.” And I think this feeds into the larger question of whether Boyd’s theology as a whole does justice to the complex interplay between God’s good purposes in creation and the rebellious wills of fallen beings. Boyd speaks of God bringing good out of evil, but because his main concern is to “rescue” God from being involved in responsibility for evil (including “natural evil”), he does not use this theme in as thorough-going a manner as I think he needs to do in order to have a coherent and orthodox position. With regard to the specific issue of “natural evil,” any position that does not allow us to look at a tiger or an earthquake and see it as a reflection of God’s glory is a flawed position. (OK, I grant that Ebola and tapeworms fit Boyd’s theories better!) In the next post, I’ll address this bigger question: how do Boyd’s understanding of “God at war” and his doctrine of creation function to address questions of theodicy, and how does this theodicy compare to what Boyd calls the “blueprint model”?

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