Greg Boyd’s New Book about the Bible
First, this is not a traditional book review; it is simply my musings about Inspired Imperfection: How the Bible’s Problems Enhance Its Divine Authority (Fortress Press, 2020). Second, Greg is my friend, so I tend to give him the benefit of the doubt in all things. However, I am not averse to raising critical questions. When we were colleagues we had wonderful arguments. We both love to argue—with the goal of “iron sharpening iron.” Third, I do not think I can do justice to this book in one blog post and so I will not try. I encourage you to read it for yourself and take in its argument and think about it.
One thing is crystal clear in the book: Greg believes in the plenary inspiration of the Bible. He is impatient with liberals who reduce the Bible to “our sacred stories” and to progressive evangelicals who believe only parts of the Bible are divinely inspired. And he is, to say the least, critical of strong believers in biblical inerrancy who insist that the Bible contains no real problems and attack as heretics those who admit the Bible contains problems. So he does not belong to any of those three camps. What’s left?
Greg’s view—which he regards as fully supported by at least one ancient church father—Origen who believed that all of scripture is divinely inspired (possibly even dictated by God but Greg does not acknowledge that about Origen) but also believed that some of what is found especially in the Old Testament is false—historically speaking. (I know this to be the case as I have read and studied Origen and found that he ridiculed belief in a literal Garden of Eden yet took the Genesis story of creation and fall very seriously.)
In this book Greg interacts much with Karl Barth and C. S. Lewis—giving them both credit for his awakening to the Bible’s “problems” while holding firmly to the Bible as “God’s story”—a term he prefers to “God’s Word” who is Jesus Christ (a nod to Barth’s theology). However, his own proposal is not one either Barth or Lewis would automatically approve.
The publisher’s promotional blurb on the back of the book says: “In Inspired Imperfection, Gregory A. Boyd adds another counterintuitive and provocative thesis to his corpus. While conservative scholars and pastors have struggled for years to show that the Bible is without errors, Boyd considers this a fool’s errand. Instead, he says, we should embrace the mistakes and contradictions in Scripture, for they show us that God chose to use fallible humans to communicate timeless truths.”
I am hesitant to provide quotes from the book as no one says it all. But there are several passages that seem to me to present Greg’s main thesis in the book, so I will quote one with the caveat that you cannot understand it without reading the entire book. Greg is a genius at anticipating objections to his theses and answering them in each one of his books. So if you are tempted to say “But what about…?” My answer is “Read the book.”
On page 95 (middle of the book) Greg writes: “Despite the fact that the sin and curse that Jesus bore were antithetical to God’s true eternal nature, they nevertheless contributed to the self-revelation that God breathes through them. And if the sin and curse that Jesus bore contribute to God’s fullest self-revelation on the cross, why should we not expect to find sinful, cursed, and erroneous material contributing to the God-breathed story of God that bears witness to and culminates on the cross? Similarly, since on the cross God revealed God’s supreme wisdom and power by stooping to enter into solidarity with our foolishness and weakness, thereby taking on a foolish and weak appearance, why should we not expect to find God doing the same in Scripture, especially since God breathed Scripture for the ultimate purpose of pointing people to this foolish and weak-appearing cross?”
For Greg, the cross of Jesus Christ is the central event of God’s self-revelation and the act of God through which we should understand God’s nature. He does not mean “apart from the life and resurrection of Jesus” but at the center of Jesus’s life and destiny. If in the cross God took on what humans consider weakness, foolishness, and also took on himself sin, error, frailty, then why should we object if in Scripture God did the same?
So let’s look at a case study in this. According to Greg, God DID NOT command the Israelites to commit genocide against the Amalakites but he DID permit the human authors of Scripture to THINK and REPORT that God commanded it. How do we know God didn’t actually command it? Jesus Christ. Then how should we interpret the OT texts of terror IF they are historically false (in terms of God’s involvement) and yet divinely inspired?
Greg could there appeal to Origen who used allegorical interpretation, but he does not. Instead he appeals to God’s self-limitation in accommodating to the Bible’s authors’ historical and cultural situatedness (weakness, inability) and allowing them to portray him in ways that are not true to who he is.
Here is just one example of how Greg anticipates and turns aside objections to his view. He demonstrates how both the later Hebrew prophets and Jesus and Paul simply contradicted the earlier stages of Scripture. But Greg denies that this makes any of the earlier reports simply false. They are false from a modern perspective “true” and “false” but they are true from the perspective of the cross and what God did there in ALLOWING humanity to affect him in his very being.In other words, God is NOT sinful, but in the cross event God allowed humans to accuse him of sin (blasphemy) and he actually took on that sin and died a sinner’s death.
So, Greg’s point, insofar as I understand it, is that we should NOT regard the historically inaccurate stories of the OT as undermining Scirpture’s authority or inspiration. Instead we should regard them as part of God’s unfolding, progressive self-revelation THROUGH imperfect and even sinful human beings. In some of them God was allowing his people (Moses among others) to put their ideas of God (often drawn from religions and cultures around them) onto God. This was an act of God’s own nature which is participatory such that God allows himself to be acted on—even in ways that contradict his eternal character. In other words, the OT texts of terror should be read through the lens of divine “kenosis.”
For those who read Greg’s massive two volume The Crucifixion of the Warrior God this argument should sound familiar.
So, to “cut to the chase,” so to speak. Greg believes in and argues for “plenary inspiration” of Scripture but denies biblical inerrancy thus breaking away from BOTH progressives and conservatives in theology.
Some questions naturally arise and I expect Greg to answer them in another book and probably on his web site.
When did God stop permitting biblical authors to portray him in ways that are false historically and ontologically? What is to prevent someone who agrees with Greg’s view from saying that even much or all of the New Testament bears this stamp of being “inspired” but “false?” Well, to understand this question you really have to read the book! I don’t find a clear answer to it in this book but I suspect Greg would appeal to the cross event as the central event of all of God’s actions toward the world such that everything else in the Bible must be interpreted in its light. But that does not really answer the anticipated question about, say, Paul’s ethical instructions. Could they also be examples of God allowing Paul to put his own cultural stamp of God? I suspect Greg would say yes, but…. What comes after the “but?”
What exactly is meant by “inspiration?” What theory of inspiration is being assumed throughout this book? Greg talks about “verbal inspiration” and seems to have some sympathy with that but at the same time definitely does NOT believe in anything like divine dictation. this inquiring mind wants to know more about Greg’s theory of inspiration.
Now let me leave Greg’s specific proposal behind and just ask the same question I ask EVERYONE who insists on believing that God actually DID command the Hebrew people/Israel (then) to commit genocide against the Amalekites (and others) including “showing no mercy” to children. If you believe God did that, how can you be sure God did not do that later—even in more recent history—and will not do it again? How can you say to someone who claims God commanded him to slaughter children “You’re absolutely wrong”? And don’t tell me that this has not happened. We’ve discussed that here before and several people have quoted from diaries and testimonies of Christians who claimed that God commanded them to slaughter whole groups of Native Americans (for example). We KNOW some Christians (so-called) HAVE claimed their acts of genocide or at least mass slaughter of whole groups of innocent people—women and children who did nothing to deserve being killed—were commanded by God. How can you contradict them IF you believe God ever did that in the past?
I encourage everyone who has ever felt the “pinch” of believing in the plenary inspiration of Scripture while at the same time believing that some things reported in the Bible to have been commanded by God are false (historically and ontologically). Greg is saying they are NOT simply or merely “false.” They are false in one sense but not in a more important sense—when we start with awareness of God’s kenotic act of inspiration.
And P.S. Don’t just brush away Greg’s use of Origen by claiming that Origen was a heretic. He was only declared a heretic at the Second Council of Constantinople in 553 at the behest of certain Western bishops and theologians because of the dubious belief that he taught the eventual salvation of Satan and his demons and because his influence on Arius (or Arius’s claim to have Origen on his side in denying the full and true deity of the Son of God). I believe the condemnation of Origen was based on politics and a misunderstanding. So do many other scholars.
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