Greg Boyd’s warfare theology part 4–the “blueprint model”

Greg Boyd’s warfare theology part 4–the “blueprint model” January 15, 2015

Boyd’s antagonist throughout his two volumes of “warfare theology” is something he calls the “blueprint model” or “the myth of the blueprint.” This view of Divine providence, according to Boyd, became prominent with Augustine, replacing the “warfare model” which had prevailed in the first three centuries of the Church’s history. In “blueprint theology,” God ordains in some way everything that happens. This may take Calvinist or Arminian forms, may use the language of “permission” rather than saying that God directly causes everything. For Boyd (a point where he ironically agrees with Calvin) this doesn’t make a lot of difference. If God’s will is seen as the ultimate reason why everything (including evil) is the way it is, then we have “blueprint theology.”

Boyd acknowledges the comfort this confidence that “God’s is in charge” brings to believers. But he believes this comfort to be an illusion. He drives this point home in several places throughout the two books by means of harrowing examples. The first, from which Boyd names the first chapter of God at War, is the horrifying story of a girl named Zosia whose eyes were ripped out by Nazi soldiers. The second example is the story of a young woman who was raped as a child and who, as a college student, continued to struggle to find “God’s purpose” in what had happened to her. The third is the story of a couple whose two children contracted a rare genetic disease that caused them to degenerate physically and mentally, eventually dying horribly and leaving the parents’ marriage and faith utterly shattered.

Boyd argues that terrible things like this–and any of us could easily come up with dozens more examples–are not best explained by some hidden providential purpose of God. Their ultimate explanation–the only explanation possible or necessary for the specific event–is that fallen beings (human or demonic) abused their freedom in ways that led to these tragedies. God does use evil to bring forth good, but God does this by fighting against evil, not by choosing sovereignly to permit it to happen for a higher purpose. God’s response to evil produces good, but the evil itself is not part of a “higher plan.”

This distinction is, perhaps, just as subtle and tricky to make as the one Boyd rejects between God actively causing evil and choosing to permit it. Furthermore, God does still choose to permit evil in the sense that God chose to create a world of free creatures knowing every possibility and indeed every probability. (More on this in the next post, on open theism.) Boyd has to admit, then, that on his theory our universe has had some pretty bad “luck” in terms of the choices made by free creatures, choices God (in Boyd’s view) hoped the creatures would not make. Thus, Boyd does not entirely “get God off the hook.” Instead of a blueprint, Boyd paints a picture of a chaotic universe in which God allows millions of free agents to make free choices in ways that interact with each other (and with God’s choices, and with the behavior of non-sentient creation) in a dance of infinite complexity. And yet, this chaotic universe still has a kind of pattern, a pattern willed by God, and for the sake of which God is willing to risk the very real possibility of horrific tragedy. In that sense, then, the differences between Boyd’s view and the “blueprint” theory are somewhat less than Boyd admits.

Boyd argues that the “blueprint” has radically warped our understanding of God’s relationship to evil. Instead of fighting evil, we seek to understand it as an intellectual “problem.” Boyd points to hymns enjoining humble submission to God’s loving providence as poisonous fruit of the “blueprint myth.” He points, for instance, to William Cowper’s “God moves in a mysterious way,” with its famous lines

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,

But trust him for his grace;

Behind a frowning providence

He hides a smiling face.

 This is a particularly infelicitous example for Boyd’s argument. William Cowper, who wrote it, was a passionate opponent of slavery and a close friend and colleague of John Newton, one of the major figures behind the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire. And there are plenty more examples of Christians whose confidence in God’s sovereignty and providential care empowered their efforts to change the world.

The narrative “Christians have made X theological mistake, which has led to all the problems of Christian history, but I will correct the mistake and then everything will be great” is a deeply tempting one. On this particular issue, I’m particularly tempted by it, because clearly Christians have a huge intellectual problem explaining evil in traditional terms. And clearly this problem is linked to the broader problem of how we understand power, how we think of God’s power, and how we exercise power as Christians on earth in the service of righteousness. But the temptation to place our hopes for the future effectiveness and purity of the Christian faith in a particular theological “tweak” must, I think, be resisted. That is not to say that the tweak may not be a good and much-needed one. But we will probably find some way of compromising with the powers of the world no matter what our theology. We can only try to make it as hard for ourselves as possible.

Historically, is Boyd right to blame Augustine for the shift to “blueprint theology”? I expect that he will flesh out his argument more fully when he finally comes out with the third volume in his trilogy, The Myth of the Blueprint. Elaine Pagels makes a related argument in her Adam, Eve, and the Serpent. She contrasts pre-Augustinian theologians such as Justin Martyr, for whom Christianity was a message of freedom, with Augustine’s conviction that human depravity needed continual repression and correction by coercive authorities in both church and state. Clearly there is a contrast between the theology of figures like Irenaeus and Justin Martyr and that of Augustine. How much of it is Greek/Latin and how much is due to Augustine’s influence or other historical shifts within Western theology is open to debate, I think, since figures like Tertullian and Cyprian don’t quite fit with either Augustine or with the Greeks. And far too much often gets blamed on Augustine (for instance, penal substitution is often linked to him even though his atonement theology is actually primarily “ransom”). But I think Boyd is on to something in arguing that the second-century apologists were much more willing to ascribe real agency to created beings, human and angelic/demonic, while Augustine’s theology seeks to explain everything in terms of the divine will. However, Augustine does not in fact say that evil has its origin in the divine plan. For Augustine, God uses evil and sovereignly chooses to permit it, but Augustine explicitly ascribes the origins of evil to a defective will falling away from the divine goodness. William S. Babcock has argued (“Augustine on Sin and Moral Agency” in The Journal of Religious Ethics 1998, and “The Human and Angelic Fall” in Augustine: From Rhetor to Theologian, 1992) that Augustine never managed to explain just how this defective will could originate. So perhaps rather than painting Augustine as straightforwardly ascribing the origin of evil to God, it would be better to say that even in Augustine there is a tension between a “blueprint” view and a more free-will-oriented approach. In short, I think Boyd’s account could be more nuanced, and no doubt will be in the forthcoming volume. But I think he’s right that Augustine contributed heavily to the development of an approach to evil that explains it primarily in terms of God’s mysterious purposes, thus leaving the question of the origins of evil as a thorny if not insoluble problem.

But does Boyd in fact have a more satisfactory explanation of the origin of evil? Boyd leaves free will as a basic assumption for which no explanation is necessary. Free beings make the choices they make and there’s an end of it. His glorification of the pre-Augustinian tradition clearly is due in part to the fact that they simply don’t ask the difficult questions Augustine asks about the nature of free will. But once the genie is out of the bottle–once the Augustinian questions have been raised–I don’t think we can simply return to the pre-Augustinian naivete just because it’s convenient to do so. (I recognize that Boyd doesn’t think it’s naivete–he thinks it’s a sensible recognition that free choices need no explanation beyond themselves.) Once again, my fundamental disagreement with Boyd and with open theists in general lies in their discomfort with paradox and mystery. On this issue, in particular, paradox and mystery are unavoidable.

That being said, I’m on board with Boyd’s passionate denunciation of the way “blueprint” explanations make a mockery of the reality of evil and harm people who have suffered terrible evil. Clearly, whatever we say at the philosophical level, on the practical level “Satan and evil people have done terrible things to you, but God loves you and is fighting for you, and so am I” is a much better response to people who have been raped or abused than “God allowed this for a reason and you need to figure out the reason.” And clearly there are philosophical questions that need to be asked if we are going to give the second answer and not the first. Boyd has done the Christian community a service in raising these questions.

But alas, I’ve heard very little discussion about these issues in the 13 years since Satan and the Problem of Evil came out, or the 17 years since God at War was published. No doubt some of this is due to the fact that Boyd’s open theism has led to the subsuming of his powerful and provocative “warfare thesis” under the broader category of open theism. In the next post, I’m going to address Boyd’s arguments for open theism and how they relate to his “warfare theology.”

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