Greg Boyd’s warfare theology part 7–final thoughts

Greg Boyd’s warfare theology part 7–final thoughts May 16, 2015

When I began this series, I made it clear that I approached Boyd’s theology with a very different attitude to its two major components. I was quite willing to be persuaded of his “warfare theology,” which appealed to many intuitions I already had about major themes in Scripture. But I very much wanted to find a way to take warfare theology and leave open theism.

So where do I stand now?

With regard to open theism, Boyd has further confirmed an opinion I had already formed on the basis of my previous reading and conversations with William Hasker. My objection to open theism is not so much that it limits divine power, but that it is insufficiently open to mystery and paradox in the way it speaks of God. Both Hasker and Boyd have made an excellent case that “simple foreknowledge” offers no substantial advantage over open theism in terms of God’s providential care. Middle knowledge or Thomist “knowledge-by-causation” do. But if both those options are rejected, then open theism does nothing further to limit God’s power. If God only knows what will happen, and does not cause free choices to occur, then God’s way of dealing with human beings is no different than it would be under open theism. (I understand that there are counter-arguments to this, and perhaps I will be persuaded when I read them. But I have to go on what I see at present, since I can’t read everything there is to be read.)

My primary objection to open theism has been, and remains, that it makes God too “anthropomorphic.” I have no reason to believe that a being of the kind described by open theism exists. That is to say, the rational reasons for believing in God point to a reality that surpasses the power of our minds to understand or our language to describe. Open theists generally reject this traditional “apophatic” picture of God as a piece of mystification overly influenced by Greek philosophy. (It isn’t, in fact, the way the pagan Greeks thought about God, but that’s a separate dispute.) If this transcendent, mysterious, ultimately indescribable reality does not exist, then it seems unlikely that some lesser, more comprehensible being exists who created the universe and is worthy of worship.

It’s important to be clear here: I’m not saying that open theists don’t worship the true God. We all have inadequate ideas about God–that’s the point of the apophatic view I just described. And insofar as I think their views are inadequate, they are “inadequate” because of very real and genuine concerns on their part, including a desire to be faithful to the Biblical (particularly OT) picture of God, which is thoroughly relational and usually anthropomorphic. A dispute about how we describe God philosophically is not the same thing as a fundamental disagreement about the object of our worship. But it’s still an important dispute, and I’m not convinced that the open theists are on the right side.

Ironically, I find the theology of Tom Oord (who has been on my mind quite a bit recently because of his university’s botched and reprehensible attempt to fire him for “budgetary reasons”) more convincing in this regard than that of more orthodox open theists like Boyd, Hasker, and Sanders. Oord argues from a conception of God’s nature which stands as an alternative (a powerful alternative, though I’m not convinced by it) to more classic formulations. But now that I’ve read some Boyd, I need to read some Oord (I know his work from blog posts and conference talks, which isn’t a good way to understand someone’s ideas in depth).

But I also find Boyd’s theology more appealing than that of Sanders and Hasker for the reasons I gave in my first post. Boyd’s open theism is tied up with his commitment to what I acknowledge to be a thoroughly Biblical picture of God as a warrior against the forces of evil. Yet my attraction to “warfare theology” isn’t enough to overcome my misgivings about the overly anthropomorphic picture of God that Boyd shares with Sanders and Hasker.

Furthermore, while I find the broad outlines of warfare theology compelling, I have some serious problems with several aspects of it, which are related to my problems with open theism.

In the first place, Boyd sets up what I think is an untenable dichotomy between “warfare theology” and traditional “blueprint theology,” instead of accepting that we may need to hold both in tension. Boyd blames “blueprint theology” for the Church’s frequent inability to make a difference in the world. As he sees it, Christians accept that evil is the result of God’s providential plan and thus are not motivated to fight it. Evil becomes an intellectual problem to be solved rather than an enemy to overcome. This is a powerful critique and undoubtedly has some basis. Certainly we need a shift in understanding to a more vigorous, unabashed affirmation of God’s opposition to evil, and this will involve rethinking what we mean by divine omnipotence to some degree. God’s omnipotence is shown above all in Jesus’ victory over the powers of darkness on the Cross. Everything must start there.

But historically, Boyd is just wrong in claiming that a traditional view of providence has been consistently and inevitably stultifying to Christian efforts to oppose evil. He cites Cowper’s famous “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” as an example of piety shaped by blueprint theology. This is a very poor example for his argument, because Cowper was a strong abolitionist and had close ties to the people responsible for ending British participation in the slave trade–one of the more striking examples of Christians making a clear positive difference in history. For Cowper and other evangelical Calvinists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, trust in God’s providence was energizing, not enervating. Boyd sets up a straw man and sweepingly condemns the historic Christian faith in God’s inscrutable ways, a faith which has frequently _inspired_ just the kind of radical resistance to the powers of evil that Boyd calls for. Boyd thus falls into the common trap of blaming all the ills of Christian history on a theology he disagrees with, and promising that if we jettison that theology for theology he approves of we will be able to turn things around. This is a harsh way to put it–Boyd’s motives are commendable and his passion for justice is a great gift to the Church. But the typical open theist distaste for mystery and paradox causes him to oversimplify the case and set up traditional Christian providentialism as the enemy instead of offering a more modest corrective.

If God exists at all, any true description of God is going to be paradoxical and contain apparently incongruous elements. Any attempt to eliminate paradox impoverishes our view of God.  Christians have, historically, used warfare language alongside “blueprint” language in varying ways and to varying degrees. Boyd makes an excellent case for shifting our emphasis. The popular, semi-Christian belief prevalent in our culture, especially among the poor, is blueprint theology. Most people believe in a God who plans and governs everything, and when a loved one dies they interpret this as God’s inscrutable decision to “take” the person. The message that God is on the side of life against death and has defeated the forces of evil on the Cross has not been clearly heard. This needs to be reversed. Rather than speaking as if God were the Master Controller in the sky who in some inscrutable way still opposes the evil that he ordains, we should speak of God as the one who fights against the evil his creatures freely do, while acknowledging that in some inscrutable way God is in control and that even evil, in the end, works toward the ends God has ordained.

Boyd, of course, affirms that God is ultimately in control and that God has freely chosen to allow creation “room” to exercise freedom. And this leads to my second major problem with his “warfare theodicy” as well as with the open theism that underlies it. In Boyd’s account, God is still ultimately responsible for evil. If, as Boyd claims, God knows exactly what the probabilities are for any possible world God chooses to create, then God knew that the world we live in was possible. Boyd deals with this by suggesting that a situation as bad as ours had a relatively low probability of happening. In other words, instead of living in the best of all possible worlds, we live in something very close to the worst. God, essentially, took a bet and lost.

Of course, for Boyd this doesn’t mean that God loses control or gives up. But it does force Boyd into a dilemma. Logically, either God would have made the creative choices he did if he knew how it would all turn out, or he wouldn’t have. In the former case, we are back with the difficulty Boyd seeks to escape. In the second–if God really regrets creating the world, as Boyd’s literal reading of Gen. 6 suggests–then we live in a kind of cosmic mistake. God loves us, but not so much that he would still have created us if he had known what terrible evil some of us would do and suffer.

And that is why, in the end, I think Boyd’s effort to create an alternative to traditional “blueprint theology” fails. But his picture of God as a warrior against evil, and his rejection of any view that leads us to be complacent with evil, is clearly correct. As with other open theists I’ve read, Boyd seems to me to pose overly sharp dichotomies and tell me that I must choose one of them. I refuse to do so, even if that means that my answer to the difficult questions Boyd raises has to be, “I’m still wrestling.”

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