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ReKnewing Hermeneutics, Part 1: A Review of Crucifixion of the Warrior God by Greg Boyd

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

— Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, p.51

Advancing the Conversation Once Again

Most people are unlikely to have as much vitriolic contempt for the God of the Bible as Richard Dawkins. But even sincere people of faith, though they might live in the violence-saturated culture of America, sometimes recoil at the portraits of divine violence (hereafter “PDVs”) in the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible). We tell our children censored versions of its stories so often that we end up believing our own versions. Then, when someone points us to the actual text, we’re shocked. “Was that in there the whole time?” we think. For at least some of us who are repulsed by these portrayals of God, it has caused significant doubt. We’ve asked, “Is God really as loving and beautiful as the portrayal of Jesus in the New Testament—or have we been duped?”

Defenders of the Bible’s PDVs will likely claim this is merely a modern dilemma caused by moral decay, secularism, or some other excuse. Those with vested interest in preserving the idea that God carries out violence, because it justifies their own use of violence, will claim that it’s only in recent times that anyone has questioned the interpretation of these passages. They’re incorrect. As far back as Christian thinkers have written about the Bible they have wrestled with the obvious tension between God, as revealed in the Hebrew Bible, and God, as revealed in Jesus. It may be that today the tension is again highlighted in a world that has extreme violence fatigue due to the ubiquity of violence in our media. But whatever the cause may be, today, millions of Christians are deeply troubled by PDVs, as the many solutions on offer in academia and the local Christian bookstore can attest.

Maybe there are Christians for which PDVs pose no challenge whatsoever. But that’s certainly not my story. When I began to follow Jesus as a teenager I exited a very violent lifestyle with a lot of trauma caused by the violence of which I’d been both victim and perpetrator. For me, following Jesus necessarily meant embracing Jesus’s peacemaking, enemy-loving nonviolence. There was no other “Way” of Jesus. The idea that God could be anything other than who God is revealed to be in Jesus was unthinkable to me—and still is. Back when George W. Bush was claiming Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, I vividly remember talking with a seminary-educated Christian pastor and hearing her say that the United States’ invasion of Iraq was justified because God commanded wars in the Old Testament. I’m just as offended by that reasoning today as I was then.

Problem is, the solutions to this tension on offer until now have been unfortunately insufficient. Each one I’ve read has left me wanting. Some offer insights meant to reduce the recoil, reduce the repulsiveness of the PDVs. Others have encouraged me to simply ignore them as the hyperbolic rhetoric of primitive peoples. Either the solutions proposed have not gone far enough, or they’ve gone too far. I’ve been in search of a proposal that preserves the Bible’s integrity as a God-breathed canon of scripture, while also providing a robust hermeneutic that can be applied to these texts in light of the world-changing Jesus event.

Enter: Crucifixion of the Warrior God (hereafter “CWG”) by Greg Boyd.

This work is ten years in the making and is borne from the same mind that has labored over questions of theodicy, providence, and politics with scholarly acumen and pastoral sensitivity for decades. While researching and writing this book, Boyd has written several other works in the intervening years. More than just a prolific author, Boyd is also a pastor with a heart for everyday people who have genuine questions. His books aren’t all massive, 1,300-page tomes like this one. Many of his books are tailored to a lay audience and are on subjects like imaginative prayer (Seeing is Believing) and judgmental religiosity (Repenting of Religion). But Boyd is also known for advocating controversial ideas that have made him a target of attacks from self-appointed gatekeepers of American Christianity.

In the late 90s, in addition to pastoring a rapidly-growing church, Boyd was also a professor at Bethel Seminary along with John Piper. Due to Boyd’s controversial views on divine providence, Piper attempted to have him ousted. Since then, it seems he’s been a lightning rod for criticism for one reason or another. It happened again in 2004 when Boyd began a sermon series at the church he serves, Woodland Hills, on the distinctiveness of the Kingdom of God from all other “kingdoms,” including the United States. That series resulted in over 1,000 people leaving the church and in the publication of Myth of a Christian Nation, a New York Times bestseller.

CWG is no exception to this pattern. In this two-volume tome, Boyd merges many of his break-through theological insights into a new break-through approach to the problem of PDVs. While this book is geared more toward serious theology nerds, later this year Boyd will release a condensed version geared more toward everyday people with questions. So, if you were discouraged when you read that the book is 1,300 pages long, I’d highly recommend grabbing Cross Vision next month.

Until then, I’d like to offer some thoughts on CWG for those considering whether to dive into the deep end. In this first post, I’ll summarize what Boyd calls the “Cruciform Hermeneutic” (Volume I). In the next post, I’ll summarize what Boyd calls the “Cruciform Thesis” (Volume II). Then in a final post, I’ll unpack some of Boyd’s ideas the way they landed with me, address some common objections, and offer some thoughts of my own.

Who Does Greg Boyd Think He Is?

Before I describe the layout of the physical book and summarize the Cruciform Hermeneutic, perhaps a word needs to be said in anticipation of those critics who will question Boyd’s qualification to advance this proposal at all. This is an odd phenomenon I find all too common today. What qualifies a theologian to write theological works? Well, in one sense anyone is entitled to wax theological and their proposal should be judged on its own merits. I have no doubt there are brilliant theologians among the lay members of congregations the world over. However, there is a particular gift given to the church of persons who are called and especially gifted to study, teach, and write theology. Boyd is such a gift. Yes, Boyd is a pastor; he’s also a legit scholar. Not only has he completed rigorous theological programs at both Yale and Princeton (with honors), he’s also taught theology at the seminary level for many years. He’s written or co-written over 20 books, and he’s contributed essays to another 16, at least. Boyd is a rare breed of theologian; both academically gifted yet grounded in local church ministry.

Furthermore, CWG is flanked by endorsements from some serious heavy-hitters. Scott McKnight, Terrence Frietheim, Walter Brueggemann, and Michael J. Gorman all lent their support to this project. Not to mention, Boyd draws on the work of several of the most influential and groundbreaking thinkers in modern theology: Moltmann, Urs von Balthasar, Torrance, and many more. CWG’s bibliography is 37 pages long! If you’re going to mount a counter-argument to this proposal, you’d better eat your Wheaties!

In reality, there are few people (if any) alive today more qualified than Boyd to write this book. He is a highly sought-after speaker on nonviolence, also regularly writing on the subject at his ministry’s website (ReKnew.org). He’s also one of the most vocal proponents of a Jesus-looking picture of God, with corresponding biblical interpretation. With all of his qualifications in mind, there is little doubt Boyd is eminently qualified to write this book. He might even be uniquely qualified.

Navigating the Physical Book

Now, before one can even begin processing the thoughts and concepts contained in CWG, he or she has to find their way around the physical book. The organization of this book has the potential to be a bit confusing at first. There are two main ideas in the book: The Cruciform Hermeneutic and The Cruciform Thesis. While one volume has been devoted to each, there is a quite a bit of overlap of ideas. And, already, one might ask, What’s the difference between the two anyway? Truth is, it wasn’t immediately or always clear to me since each idea seem to inform the other. But, at minimum, the Cruciform Hermeneutic is Boyd’s attempt to explain how he conceptualizes his method of biblical interpretation, before addressing the specific PDVs in question. Boyd wants readers to understand where he’s coming from before he begins explaining the conclusions at which he’s arrived regarding the interpretation of particular passages. The Cruciform Thesis is composed of four principles which inform Boyd’s theological interpretation of biblical passages.

It was helpful for me to think of the composition of the book in terms of its division of “parts.” There are seven parts to CWG, three in Volume I and four in Volume II.

  • Volume I: The Cruciform Hermeneutic is divided into the following three parts
    • Part 1: The Centrality of the Crucified Christ
    • Part 2: The Problem of Divine Violence
    • Part 3: The Cruciform Hermeneutic
  • Volume II: The Cruciform Thesis is made up of four parts that are each a principle
    • Part 4: The Principle of Cruciform Accommodation
    • Part 5: The Principle of Redemptive Withdrawal
    • Part 6: The Principle of Cosmic Conflict
    • Part 7: The Principle of Semiautonomous Power

Laying a Foundation

Before I can get into a summary of Boyd’s arguments in parts 1-3, I can’t neglect Boyd’s work of laying a foundation for the proposal he’ll advance. There is a metaphor he uses as an imaginative guide to the approach he’s taking (A). Then there is a foundational approach to Scripture that undergirds the entire project (B).

A. The Cruciform Magic Eye

Magic Eye

Boyd begins Volume I with an analogy that frames his aim well. If you’ve ever struggled to see the 3D image pop off the page of a “Magic Eye” poster (as I have!) you’ll understand why Boyd’s use of this metaphor makes so much sense. Boyd contends,

“The driving conviction of the Cruciform Hermeneutic is that since Calvary gives us a perspective of God’s character that is superior to what people in the OT had, we can also enjoy a superior perspective of what was actually going on when OT authors depicted God engaging in and commanding violence. If we remain committed to the conviction that all Scripture is inspired for the ultimate purpose of bearing witness to the revelation of God on the cross, and if we therefore humbly look for the crucified God in the depths of the OT’s violent depictions of God, my claim is that we do, in fact, find him. Like a beautiful three-dimensional object rising out of a two-dimensional mundane pattern in a ‘Magic Eye’ book, I believe the Cruciform Hermeneutic enables us to discern the beauty of the crucified God rising out of the portraits of God that on the surface appear profoundly ugly. The crucified Christ, in short, gives us the ‘Magic Eye’ to discern him in the depths of even the most horrifically violent portraits of God.” (xxxiv-xxxv)

Time and again as I read, this analogy helped me when the rich layers of Boyd’s method began to feel overwhelming. He’s suggesting that there is a surface view to Scripture that is immediately apparent. It’s two-dimensional. But, with patience and a little guidance, one can adjust their focus in such a way as to see a picture emerge from the surface as if it’s leaping off the page. That image is the Cross. I think if readers keep this analogy in mind, it will help prevent getting bogged down in the complex techniques Boyd is exploring. But there is still one more foundational element to cover before getting to a summary of the the Cruciform Hermeneutic.

B. Wrestling with Scripture

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One of Boyd’s core convictions is that “faith” is not mutually exclusive with “doubt” (cf. Benefit of the Doubt). He demonstrates this through his own scholarship, which in large part is driven by his own wrestling with Scripture. It’s what Boyd calls “Israelite” faith.

“[..]the essence of faith in Scripture is not about blind submission to authoritative traditions or the quest for psychological certainty. It is rather an ‘Israelite’ faith in which the depth of a person’s faith in God is sometimes reflected precisely in their willingness to authentically ‘wrestle’ with him.” (13)

It’s important to keep this in mind as one reads CWG. Otherwise, more conservative readers will be tempted to view Boyd’s exploration as disrespectful. It isn’t. As a member of the body of Christ, Boyd views himself as a covenant partner with God. As the Scriptures themselves attest, God doesn’t want a ‘Stepford wife’; God wants a fully and freely participating covenant partner. Therefore, Boyd writes with the boldness of a partner and the humility of a finite human being on a journey. In proposing this well-researched approach to a serious theological conundrum, he doesn’t claim to have all the answers. In fact, I found it particularly humble for Boyd to present CWG this way:

“[…]I will constantly place my own perspectives in dialogue with the views of others, past and present. Indeed, it is precisely for this reason I am now submitting my proposal to the larger body of Christ for consideration.” (17)

Boyd fully expects to receive push back, and he has. The question is: Will his interlocutors be as humble as he? If the early discussions I’ve witnessed online are any indicator, I’m not hopeful.

Part 1: The Centrality of the Crucified Christ

The rest of part one can be further divided into three parts. Chapters 2 and 3 demonstrate Boyd’s radically Jesus-centered hermeneutic. He argues that the New Testament authors present Christ as the supreme and definitive revelation of God. This will strike some readers as wholly unnoteworthy and others as completely insane. It’s quite remarkable to me how often I’ve witnessed both reactions. I’ve read people who basically yawn at this suggestion and others who completely freak out. But this suggestion really shouldn’t be shocking. A cursory introduction to the New Testament makes this point emphatically. There is no space here to support that claim. I think Boyd does a fantastic job supporting it in CWG. So, I’d suggest you read the book!

In this part, Boyd draws on some of the church’s most groundbreaking theologians like Martin Luther and Karl Barth. For example, Boyd quotes T. F. Torrance:

“In Christ, what God communicates to man is not something, but his very self. This is distinct from all other acts of God. This is God’s unique act, his reality-in-the-act … in Jesus Christ God acts in such a way that he is himself in his act, and what he acts he is, and what he is he acts… Jesus Christ as act of God in humanity is identical with God’s own person.” (39, emphasis added by Boyd)

However, Boyd’s approach is a bit more novel than the typical “Christ-centered” hermeneutic. Not only does Boyd argue (thoroughly!) that the New Testament authors describe Jesus as the pinnacle of divine revelation, he also argues (thoroughly!) that the Cross is the thematic center of the New Testament’s testimony about Jesus. He does this in chapters 4 and 5.
In this part, Boyd draws on the work of such luminaries as Richard Baukham and Jürgen Moltmann. For example, he quotes Moltmann:

“The death of Jesus on the cross is the centre of all Christian theology… All Christian statements about God, about creation, about sin and death have their focal point in the crucified Christ.” (159)

Unsurprisingly, some have already expressed objection to this radically cross-centered approach. They argue that Jesus’s entire life must be considered. This is a simple misunderstanding of what Boyd is saying. Boyd is certainly not saying the rest of Jesus’s life is unimportant; only the cross. Boyd is saying “we must understand the person and work of Jesus as a perfectly integrated union.” (161) With Torrance, Boyd is arguing that “in Christ, ‘Person, Word and Act coinhere indivisibly in one another.’ ” (162) “Incarnational union was also an atoning union, in and through which our lost and damned humanity is redeemed, healed and sanctified in Jesus Christ.” (163) Boyd summarizes this way:

“[…]everything about Jesus’s ministry leads up to, and culminates in, his sacrificial death, and all of it is about the Atonement. […]the crucifixion and the message of the kingdom ‘belong together’ and ‘explain one another. The kingdom comes through Jesus’s entire work.’ […] this work ‘finds its intended fulfillment in his shameful death.’ […]the cross is the quintessential expression of who Jesus was and of everything Jesus was about. The indivisible and perfectly integrated wholeness of the one in whom God became human is oriented, from start to finish, around the cross.” (164-5)

But someone will object saying, What about the Resurrection? Boyd isn’t discounting the Resurrection either. For Boyd, resurrection power is “cruciform,” as Michael J. Gorman has emphasized in his work.

“[…]it is only because of the resurrection that we can know that the self-sacrificial love that was supremely revealed on the cross reveals the true character of God. Only because the Son was delivered can we know that this self-sacrificial love reveals the character of the life God calls humans to live. And only because the Son was vindicated can we know that the sacrificial love that Jesus exemplified throughout his life, and especially in his death, is the way God saves us and overcomes evil and the way God calls his followers to life and to overcome evil.

The resurrection is thus not to be understood as manifesting a kind of triumphant domineering power that replaces the power of the humble, obedient, self-sacrificial love that Jesus displayed on the cross. […]we cannot think of the cross as an inglorious temporary interruption to the way God is otherwise sovereign. The cross is rather the quintessential manifestation of the glorious way God is always sovereign.” (168-9)

For Boyd, the cross is the center of gravity for all of Scripture because the cross is the climactic expression of God’s character and nature of love. This love is embodied in Jesus’s life from his Incarnation to his Ascension and sending of the Spirit. This crucio-centric focus is not exclusionary of the other aspects of Jesus’s life and ministry: it summarizes it all.

Still, some will have difficulty with this essential aspect of Boyd’s method and so their journey into the remainder of CWG will be hindered. If one is unwilling or unable to grant this crucio-centric point, the rest of CWG will likely strike them as fatally flawed. That’s why it was smart for Boyd to include an entire chapter of responses to potential objections (chapter 6). I’d encourage critics to read this chapter before posting an objection to which Boyd has already offered a response; save yourself the embarrassment.

Part 2: The Problem of Divine Violence

By establishing the cross-centered topography of Scripture, Boyd exacerbates the contrast between the revelation of God in Christ and the revelation of God in portraits of divine violence (PDVs). That is what part two is all about. Boyd builds the tension to highlight as clearly as possible the need for a solution.

Part two has three chapters (7-9). In chapter 7, Boyd provides a survey of the so-called “texts of terror,” (PDVs). But, he doesn’t start with the PDVs, because, contrary to the claims of critics, Boyd is no Marcionite. He believes God is revealed in the Hebrew Bible as beautiful, loving, and redeeming. Boyd believes the normative picture of God in the Old Testament is one of a God of covenantally-faithful love. Nevertheless, Boyd must invite readers, with him, to wrestle with the “dark side of the Bible.” And as you’d expect, all the usual suspects are present: so-called “holy” war, the genocidal ‘herem’ command, violence in the psalms, using nations against one another, etc.

The next two chapters survey solutions to this tension, which Boyd frames in two categories. The first he calls the “Dismissal Solution” (chapter 8). The second he calls the “Synthesis Solution” (chapter 9). Already some have predictably objected to Boyd’s characterization on both sides, but I have read several of the books in these categories and I found Boyd to be fair. An entire book could be devoted to surveying the solutions on offer. Boyd has to get to his proposed solution and the book is long enough already!

As an example of the Dismissal Solution, Boyd points to a paradigmatic statement from Eric Seibert’s book Disturbing Divine Behavior: “Acknowledging that there are some things in the Bible that did not happen, effectively exonerates God from certain kinds of morally questionable behavior.” (342) Does it though?

I agree with Boyd that, while Peter Enns is incredibly insightful, he too falls into this category when he writes, “[…]the Bible’s version of events is not what happened.” Within the confines of the historical-critical method, Enns’ conclusions are completely justifiable. But, as Boyd will contend, we need not be so confined. Others Boyd cites as examples are also scholars for whom Boyd has deep respect: Dennis Weaver, C. S. Cowles, Derek Flood, and more. Boyd does not condemn these scholars, as others have. Boyd simply contends there is a better way forward.

But, before he gets to his proposed hermeneutic, he must also survey those of the “Synthesis Solution.” Honestly, this solution has never appealed to me. Even as a new Christian, whenever I heard arguments that God was both mercilessly violent and revealed in the crucified Christ, such a notion was entirely unacceptable. Nevertheless, if Boyd is going to accurately survey the solutions on offer, he must draw attention to some of the most common arguments for synthesis. Two of these are the “Beyond-Our-Categories” defense and the “Might-is-Right” perspective.

As you can probably guess from their labels, these arguments aren’t very persuasive to anyone with the conviction that Jesus’s Way is a way of nonviolence. Were God to be utterly beyond our categories, Jesus’s Incarnation would be incomplete at best but more likely a complete hoax. If God were utterly beyond our categories how could the church claim with any integrity that God is revealed in Christ? And if might made right, then Paul’s characteristic way of talking about Jesus and the cross’s power-in-weakness (e.g. I Cor. 1) would likewise make no sense.

I found Boyd’s straightforward rebuttals of these arguments more than sufficient.

“[…]there is no basis for thinking that our moral compasses were so completely obliterated [by the fall] that we cannot know that certain behaviors (e.g., commanding people to mercilessly kill infants) are always wrong.” (386)

“In Christ, God does not coerce our submission with an unassailable divine authority; he wins our allegiance by displaying his humble, self-sacrificial character.” (391)

One of the best parts of this section was Boyd’s exposing of the hypocrisy with which classical theists treat PDVs. Classical theists are those who privilege divine characteristics derived from philosophical reflection over divine characteristics derived from the biblical narrative. While the Bible provides straightforward accounts of God regretting outcomes in the narrative, changing God’s mind, and speaking as though the future is partly open, the classical theological tradition has taught Christians to reinterpret these passages as not reflecting the truth about God’s nature. Since their philosophical assumptions are incompatible with these portraits, they teach us we must read such anthropomorphisms as devoid of any actual correspondence to the divine nature. However, when the same narrative speaks of God committing or commanding grotesque violence, in clear contrast to the nonviolent revelation of God in Christ, those in the same tradition teach that these PDVs are meant to be taken quite literally. (409)

While the Synthesis Solution attempts to preserve the integrity of the Bible, it compromises the unique and supreme revelation of God in Christ. And while the Dismissal Solution attempts to preserve the unique and supreme revelation of God in Christ, it compromises the integrity of the Bible. That’s why Boyd believes he must forge a new way forward. This “Reinterpretation Solution” is what Boyd calls “The Cruciform Hermeneutic.”

Part 3: The Cruciform Hermeneutic

Part Three of Volume I is made up of three chapters (10-12). After first establishing the crucio-centric paradigm of Scripture in part one, then setting up the problem of PDVs in part two, he now turns to constructing a positive proposal. He has already shown the insufficiency of both the Dismissal Solution and the Synthesis Solution. So, what strategy is left? Answer: the Reinterpretation Solution.

The ‘Origen’ of the Reinterpretation Solution

Chapter 10 is largely devoted to exploring the contribution of one of the church’s most brilliant thinkers. Origen lived from late second century to the middle of the third. Boyd’s interest in Origen is as the “most prolific” and “most insightful proponent” of the early church tradition of allegorical interpretation of Scripture. Origen is an important precedent-setter for Boyd for several reasons. First, Origen was committed to the Scriptures as divinely-inspired. This didn’t, however, commit Origen to accepting surface readings of troubling passages. For Origen, an interpretation needed to be “worthy of God.” This meant that when he encountered a passage that, on the surface seemed to contradict the revelation of God in Christ, Origen searched for a deeper meaning.

“ ‘The Holy Spirit supervised’ the writing of Scripture, Origen says, such that there are things that ‘at first glance,’ seem ‘neither… true nor useful.’ These are inspired ‘stumbling blocks,’ ‘interruptions of the historical sense,’ ‘impossibilities,’ ‘incongruities,’ and things that ‘could not have happened at all.’ Such things, Origen holds, ‘present a barrier to the reader and lead him to refuse to proceed along the pathway of the ordinary meaning.’ By ‘shutting us out’ and ‘debarring us from that [literal interpretation],’ the Holy Spirit motivates us to consider ‘another way’ that ‘can bring us, through the entrance of a narrow footpath, to a higher and loftier road and lay open the immense breath of the divine wisdom.’ In cases such as these, Origen continues, we are forced to ‘search for a truth deeper down’ as we ‘try to discover in the Scriptures which we believe to be inspired by God a meaning worthy of God.’” (428)

Throughout CWG, Boyd will make frequent use of Origen’s language and concept here. Like Origen, he will contend that the treasure hidden in the text is discovered when we uncover the meaning worthy of God in its cruciform depths, not on the violent surface. Boyd recognizes that allegorical interpretation will seem “forced” to Modern readers. He isn’t advocating a return to that particular method. Instead, Boyd is proposing a species of reinterpretation in the same genus.

“[…]while the particular way in which Origen and other early Christian thinkers found nonviolent interpretations for violent depictions of God is no longer feasible, I am convinced there assumption that there had to be a Christ-centered, nonviolent way of interpreting these portraits was absolutely correct.” (456)

Cruciform Forerunners

Chapter 11 starts out with a section I really enjoyed. Boyd highlights six “forerunners” whose thought mirrors and in some cases has contributed to Boyd’s own. In each case, the forerunner has made the connection between the cruciform nature of God revealed in Christ and the way the Scriptures are intended to be interpreted. One of the reasons I loved this section was because so many of these thinkers have been influential for me also. I confess that I have not read as much of their work as I would like, but I have read enough to taste a sampling of what Boyd points to and I have savored it.

For example, I’ve been very grateful for John Goldingay’s contribution to the For Everyone series of commentaries on the Old Testament. As I’ve read his writing in that series, I’ve been struck time and again by his commitment to the biblical narrative over and against systematic theologies and metaphysics. In that series, as well as in other works, Goldingay follows the evidence the narrative gives to its reasonable conclusions, regardless of how troubling those conclusions might be to Reformed theologians, for example. In the tradition of Walter Brueggemann, Goldingay is not beholden to such theological constructs. This means that Goldingay routinely comes to conclusions that are in line with those of Open theists like Boyd and myself. Where those who are beholden to a particular systematic theology feel compelled to interpret passages which depict God in dynamic relationship with human history in a way that directly contradicts the text, Goldingay is more inclined to contradict such traditions instead. For that reason, I have appreciated his scholarship for many years.

Likewise, Richard Hays has been a voice in academic theology that I have appreciated for many years. In his writings, I have sensed his deliberate attempts to take a fresh look at biblical passages untethered to theological traditions. Where I’ve seen this most evident has been in his willingness to reimagine the Judaism of Paul’s day in light of the best scholarship available today, rather than relying on traditions which impose foreign ideology upon the text.

Finally, I was excited to see Jürgen Moltmann on the list. Of those on the list, he is by far the thinker who has most challenged me and stretched my theological imagination. One of the aspects of his thought that has most impressed and inspired me is precisely the aspect which gains him place on this list: his crucio-centrism. For Moltmann, the cross is the clearest window into the character and nature of God. So too, the cross is the key to the interpretation of the biblical narrative. With the immense depth that Moltmann captures in his writing on this subject, it’s no surprise Boyd writes, “[…]I consider him to be the thinker who most keenly anticipates the hermeneutic I am putting forth[…]” (476)

Nevertheless, as pioneering as each of the six forerunners are, none of them applies their crucio-centrism to the PDVs as Boyd does in CWG. Boyd sees himself as someone in the same stream of thought as these six, but allowing himself to be carried further down on the current. “The hermeneutic I am proposing is simply attempting to take the insights of Moltmann—along with those of the previous five thinkers—and apply them consistently to all Scripture, and hence to the OT’s violent portraits of God that none of these thinkers addressed.” (480) Adding T. F. Torrance to the three names mentioned above, I find Boyd to be in very good company.

God-breathed

In chapter 12, Boyd begins to make some very specific claims about the way his unique contribution will give rise to the 3D cross from the two-dimensional text. The first of these claims is that the “God-breathed” nature of Scripture is a two-way street. This means that not only did God breath the Scriptures in the sense that God acted upon the characters in the narrative and upon the authors of Scripture, but that God was acted upon by them. This means that the stories are not one-sided. God is not the only actor in the drama. God is not the only agent at work. This is tacitly affirmed by many, if not most, Christians. But Boyd will flesh out its implications to an extent that will make some feel uncomfortable and others feel liberated.

The cross reveals that God only acts in history to demonstrate God’s love, it also reveals that God also allows Godself to be acted upon by human agents. Boyd is saying this relational self-giving and self-taking is indicative of the cruciform character and nature of God. And, Boyd is saying this cruciform character is reflected directly in the way God is depicted in the text itself.

In the same way God reveals God’s love by allowing Godself to be crucified in the Son, God reveals God’s love by allowing Godself to be crucified in the Bible.

Here’s how Boyd puts it:

“Given that God is a relational God, even within his own eternal being, and given that the biblical narrative as a whole reveals that God accomplishes everything—including, especially, the crucifixion—by working through non-coercive mutually impacting relationships, it ought not surprise us that his revelatory ‘breathing’ is accomplished by this means.” (482)

Just as the cross involved human beings sinfully acting upon Christ, crucifying him, and just as the cross had God acting toward human beings by the Father giving over the Son and the Son giving up himself for our sake, the biblical narrative also reflects this dialectical nature. The divine author acts upon the chapter of God in the text of Scripture and human authors act upon the character of God in the text of Scripture. Just as the cross is a two-way street, so is Scripture.

“God certainly takes the initiative as the Holy Spirit works in the hearts and minds of the human authors, but he also leaves the personhood of the human authors intact, which conditions the results of his ‘breathing’ through them. Hence we find, to one degree or another, something of God and something of the human authors in all biblical writings.” (484)

At this point, astute critics will shout “Aha! I found a flaw in Boyd’s logic!” They will connect the dots and claim that even the New Testament which claims Christ is the climax of revelation would also bear the conditioning of its human authors. To this, Boyd offers two arguments why this does not undercut his premise.

First, as he has argued in many places, including earlier in CWG, Boyd has reasons beyond the inspiration of Scripture to center his faith on the person of Jesus Christ. These reasons include, but aren’t limited to historical, philosophical, and existential. Boyd’s faith, and thus, Boyd’s cruciform hermeneutic is not itself solely reliant on the inspiration of the New Testament. By contrast, Boyd’s faith that the New Testament (and the whole canon of Scripture) is inspired by God is instead reliant on all of Boyd’s reasons for believing that Jesus is Lord and Christ.

Second, Boyd argues, along the same lines as the apostle Paul in I Corinthians chapter 1, the cross upends typical human conceptions of power and wisdom. Thus, the counter-intuitive nature of the cross supports Boyd’s claim that its revelation is the criteria by which all other portions of the canon are to be judged.

“[…]far from reflecting people’s fallen and culturally conditioned views of God, the revelation of God on the cross contradicts not only the dominant way first-century people viewed God, but the dominant way fallen and culturally conditioned people have always tended to imagine God/gods.” (490)

So, Boyd’s contention in this portion of the chapter is that the Scriptures themselves demonstrate a quality that is reflected in the cross event itself. Namely, the Scriptures possess the quality of revealing human sinfulness acting toward God, and God’s revelatory love acting toward humanity. Boyd argues that both of these aspects of Scripture are entailed in what is meant by “God-breathed”.

Seeing Scripture in 3D

Yet, there is still another point Boyd wants to make in this chapter. It’s not enough to merely acknowledge that Scripture contains both a sinful, human-facing aspect as well as a revelatory, God-facing aspect. To begin employing the Cruciform Hermeneutic, one must begin to differentiate between that which is human-facing and that which is God-facing, with the cross as the criteria. The cross is a model for seeing in 3D because on the two-dimensional surface the cross is a horrible picture of human cruelty and terrorism. There’s nothing redemptive about the story on the surface. Yet, for Christians, the cross takes on an entirely different meaning from the surface appearance. “The revelatory content of the cross, is located not in the ugly, sin-mirroring surface appearance of the event but in God’s loving condescension to take on this ugly surface appearance.” (497) So, how does the cross take on an entirely different meaning from what the surface shows? Boyd’s answer is faith.

Faith is a lens that allows those with it to see what is hidden to those without it. Faith has an unveiling effect on those who have been gifted with it. Faith is what changed Saul of Tarsus’s “worldly point of view” on Jesus (II Cor. 5.16), and it’s only faith that changes any person’s “worldly point of view” on Jesus or anyone else. As Boyd writes,

“[…]we must exercise faith to see beyond the sin-mirroring appearance of the crucified, godforsaken criminal to behold God stooping out of love to bear our sin and to thereby take on an ugly appearance that mirrors that sin, so too we must be prepared to exercise faith when reading Scripture to see beyond the sin-mirroring literary appearances of a violent God in order to behold God stooping out of love to bear the sin of his people and to thereby take on these ugly literary appearances.” (497)

Faith is what grants a person access to “indirect” revelation in the Scriptures, to borrow again from Origen, and faith is what allows readers to hear the “voice behind the voice.” (504) Boyd points out this is what Paul is getting at with his contrast of the “letter that kills” and the Spirit that “gives life” (cf. II Cor. 3.6). Also, Paul assumes this with this discussion of the “veil” that has been taken away in Christ.

We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. — II Cor. 3.13-16 NIV

Paul taught that there is a Christological meaning to “Moses” (i.e. Torah) that is “unveiled” by faith in Christ. That is precisely what Boyd is saying. But, so that readers are able to track with him, Boyd will go into more detail in the next chapter (13), the final chapter of Volume I.

A Question of Method

To understand what Boyd is teaching, some will need to be convinced by more in-depth scholarly support. That is what chapter 13 is all about. In this chapter, Boyd goes into great detail regarding the relationship of the Cruciform Hermeneutic to other hermeneutics. This chapter gets very technical at points and that is probably why many of the objections I’ve read to CWG either ignore this chapter or grossly misunderstand it. Few people want to admit they read this chapter but didn’t fully grasp what Boyd was saying. I get that; it’s not the easiest chapter to understand. So, let’s try to walk through it slowly.

First, Boyd introduces readers to a school of hermeneutics called “TIS,” which stands for “Theological Interpretation of Scripture.” Since it’s likely some of CWG’s readers will not be familiar with this approach, they will likely find it suspicious. I think this is why Boyd goes to great lengths not only to explain what TIS is, but also to show that it has proponents from “the entire liberal-conservative spectrum” (518). But there really is no reason to be suspicious of TIS. In short, TIS is simply an acknowledgment that the Bible is unlike other “books,” and must be read with “the eyes of faith within the community of faith.” (520) This is in direct contrast to the historical-critical method that developed in the context of the Enlightenment’s scientific fervor. Because of the Enlightenment values such as the power of reason to obtain truth apart from religious tradition, the discipline of biblical scholarship came to be treated no different than scholarship of any other ancient literature. Faith commitments came to be viewed as a corrupting influence on what could otherwise be “objective” analysis. Boyd points to Karl Barth’s contribution as a major catalyst for a shift in this regard. Barth’s work reinvigorated an interest in scholarly study of the Scriptures as the “word of God,” within and for the church. In fact, Boyd will go as far as to say that a strictly historical-critical hermeneutical approach even changes the nature of the Bible for the one studying it since it rejects submission to the divine authority which underwrites the Bible (521).

However, Boyd is also not prepared to go as far as what he calls a “radical postmodern” approach which, with Vanhoozer, Boyd thinks falls into a “muddy ditch” (523). Boyd nobly attempts to split the difference by acknowledging the impossibility of flawlessly discovering the originally intended meaning, while simultaneously reaffirming the pursuit of that originally intended meaning, within certain reasonable limits.

“I do not mean to suggest that it is possible to fully enter the ‘horizon’ of the original meaning of a text. This is not even possible when reading contemporary works, let alone when reading ancient works whose culture and worldview is vastly different from our own. But I am convinced that discovering the original meaning of a passage must nevertheless remain an ideal to which we must asymptotically strive.” (523)

This section reminded me of the view expressed by both John Polkinghorne and N. T. Wright, which they call “critical realism.” This view holds that there is an objective reality (hence, “realism”). However, it also contends that none of us will arrive that that reality perfectly (hence, “critical”). Boyd prefers to call this conviction the “Conservative Hermeneutical Principle.” This means that, while he holds that one must seek the originally intended meaning of a passage, there will be times when he will advocate that one go beyond that meaning because it conflicts with another principle. For example, he writes, “[…]if anything should be allowed to move us beyond the original meaning of a passage, it should be when we find anything ascribed to God that conflicts with the revelation of God in the crucified Christ.” (525)

With these things in mind, Boyd makes a couple more qualifications of his view. He wants readers to know specifically what he means by “infallibility,” since that can be a hot-button word for some. What Boyd means by it is constrained by what he has previously proposed. Namely,

“[…]if we approach Scripture with a humble and respectful attitude, interpret it in an informed way and within a community of believers, and trust it to bring us into an ever-deepening, covenantal, life-giving relationship with God through the crucified Christ, then Scripture will never fail us.” (527)

This a far cry from the claims of evangelicals who appeal to the Bible’s inherent “inerrancy.”

Boyd also wants readers to know that he is assuming that the Cruciform Hermeneutic is deeply shaped by the covenantal nature of Scripture. Covenant is the intersection of history and divine revelation. God’s covenantal faithfulness is what the story of the Bible is all about—and that story culminates in the story of Jesus, and particularly in his cruciformity. As Boyd puts it, “[…]every depiction of God within the written record of God’s covenantal faithfulness is ultimately intended to either directly or indirectly express the same covenantal faithfulness that is fully revealed on the cross.” (529) As more and more of these qualifications are added, it becomes clearer and clearer what the Cruciform Hermeneutic entails. That is why, as difficult as it may be, readers will need to forge through this chapter or they will limp into Volume II.

Nerd Level: Overdrive

If you’ve stuck with Boyd this far, you may have just enough energy to get through the last few sections of chapter 13, which are highly technical. Boyd goes into great detail regarding a way that Scripture can have multiple meanings for different audiences at different times, without succumbing to the “muddy ditch” of radical postmodernity. He does this with two final hermeneutical considerations: Speech-Act Theory and the Reader Response approach.

In short, speech-act theory proposes that there are three dimensions to every act of communication:

  1. The Locutionary Act — i.e. the act of vocalizing or inscribing words
  2. The Illocutionary Act — i.e. what the act is intended to accomplish
  3. The Perlocutionary Act — i.e. what the act actually accomplishes

Where multiple meanings enters this theory is at the point of illocution. As Boyd writes, “[…]a single locutionary act can involve any number of different illocutionary acts and can result in any number of different perlocutionary acts, depending on the context in which it is communicated and received.” (532)

As Brevard Childs puts it,

“[…]the ability of biblical language to resonate in a new and creative fashion when read from the vantage point of a fuller understanding of Christian truth […]is not intended to threaten the sensus literalis of the text, but to extend through figuration a reality which has been only partially heard.” (533)

This results in multiple “senses” in which Scripture speaks to us, and so we must discern not only what God said to the original audience (as near as we can), but also what God is saying to us today. (534)

Christ, the Supervening Act

Within the canon of Scripture itself, there is evidence of this sensus plenior as the authors of the New Testament reflect upon the Hebrew Bible in light of the Jesus Event. They viewed the story of God’s covenant faithfulness to Israel culminating in the story of Jesus. From a speech-act theory point of view, this could be stated this way, a “[…]central illocutionary act may supervene in such a way that it creates an entirely ‘new’ illocutionary act that the human author could never have understood or intended.” (541) This means that the authors of the Hebrew Bible did not need to “predict” Christ’s coming in any specific detail for the supervening act of Jesus’s incarnation to create new illocutions which would “fulfill” their writings. This way of thinking also pairs nicely with what Boyd next introduces into the mix: Narrative hermeneutics. Jesus’s cruciform life is the “supervening act” that opens up an entire new world of illocutionary acts within the narrative itself. It is the conclusion toward which the story has been moving and aiming all along. It’s the plot twist that resolves and makes sense of all that came before it.

Speech-act theory, coupled with canonical and narrative approaches, gives parameters to what Boyd means when he proposes that the Bible can have multiple layers of meaning without sacrificing its God’s breathed nature, it’s authoritative-in-community nature, and its correspondence to its original meaning (as far as that can be discerned). But there is one more remaining piece to the hermeneutical puzzle: Reader Response.

Developing a Mature Response to Violence

For some CWG readers, “reader response” will set off alarms. Boyd wants to make sure he properly situates his own Cruciform Hermeneutic in relationship to reader response so as to not over-identify while capitalizing on its most valuable aspects. Not unlike speech-act theory, reader response recognizes the reality of many different accomplishments which are possible because of the text. Reader response simply gives more labels to what happens when we read the text from our multiple social locations in time, class, race, gender, etc. Boyd points out that the divine intent of the text may entail a rejection of the text as a means by which the text aids in our maturing process. The Bible itself may give us reason to reject some aspects of the Bible as an expression of our faith in the God of the Bible. An example might be that, due to the biblical message of gender equality and the human dignity of women, we are called to reject portraits of divinely sanctioned oppression and dehumanization of women. Or, for example, due to the trajectory of liberation the Bible teaches, we are called to reject depictions of divinely sanctioned slavery. In the same way, the Bible itself points to the supreme revelation of God’s character and nature in the crucified Christ, calling us to reject depictions of God as a violent warlord. Because we are meant to approach the Bible within the context of covenantal faith, humility, and submission to God’s Spirit, we are called to act upon what the Bible teaches, even if that act includes critically engaging with the Bible itself. (548)

This calling to respond to the Bible itself, according to what the Bible teaches about God and humanity, is part of the training program the Bible itself outlines. Perhaps one could say that one of the perlocutionary acts of the biblical call to cruciform discipleship is the reinterpretation of PDVs. This is what Boyd is contending, going all the way back to his foundational concept of “Israelite” faith. We are called not to blindly obey God’s commands, but to wrestle with God’s word as covenant partners who bear God’s image and who will one day reign with Christ. This means we are called to critically engage with God’s word as Moses and Abraham did, when they negotiated with God or reminded God of God’s own faithful character. In renouncing the sin-mirroring surface meaning of PDVs, we are demonstrating fidelity to the cruciform love of God revealed in the crucified Christ.

Volume I Summary

In Volume I of CWG, Greg Boyd has charted a course toward a groundbreaking new interpretive approach that makes nonviolent hermeneutics a real possibility. He has established important foundational principles like our call to wrestle with Scripture as covenant partners of God and Scripture’s multi-dimensional nature due to its essential relationship to its culturally conditioned authors, the narrative that runs through it, and the people of faith called to read it. And Boyd has meticulously detailed the way that his Cruciform Hermeneutic fits within the broader tradition of Christian hermeneutics going back to Origen and on through to modern developments like TIS, speech-act theory, and reader response. Boyd doesn’t totally discount the role of the historical-critical approach, but he also doesn’t fully embrace a radical postmodern approach. Instead, he forges a new way forward that is both critical and realistic. He isn’t the first to emphasize the cross-shaped nature of God and of divine revelation in Christ, nor to apply such a cruciform hermeneutic to the Scriptures. He highlights six forerunners of this approach, upon whose work he builds. But Boyd’s unique contribution is carrying forward the Cruciform Hermeneutic into the uncharted territory of PDVs. And this is a great need today, when America’s violence-saturated culture has enveloped much of the Christian church and blinded it to the cruciform Way of Jesus. Boyd’s proposal is a breath of fresh air to those who have felt trapped on the horns of a dilemma between a commitment to the “God-breathed” Scripture on one side and fidelity to the nonviolent, crucified Messiah who supremely reveals God’s character and nature in those same Scriptures on the other. Boyd’s Cruciform Hermeneutic acts as a “Magic Eye” bringing into focus the 3D cross that leaps off the two-dimensional page of the Scriptures. And it is this 3D cross that draws us into the heart of God and develops our maturity as Jesus’s disciples. The Cruciform Hermeneutic isn’t only an academic exercise, but also an exercise in discipleship. Will we submit even our hermeneutics to the Lordship of Christ, and humbly seek to follow his cruciform Way, even if it means wrestling with our strongly-held beliefs about the Bible?

Stay tuned for parts two and three of this review as I summarize Volume II, the Cruciform Thesis, and then offer my thoughts on some of the more challenging aspects of the book.

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Treasures in the Attic: A Brief Review of Water to Wine by Brian Zahnd

When Old Wineskins are New Again

In Mark 2.22, Jesus said,

And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.

I’m no wine aficionado, but I think it’s common knowledge that wine gets better with age. Maybe there is something about the aging process that brings out the wine’s flavor and texture. But Jesus is clearly doing a new thing among the people in Judea. He teaches with authority, unlike the scribes and Pharisees. He takes authority over demons, heals people of their diseases, and even commands the wind and waves. Jesus welcomes sinners to his table and forgives people of their sins. This is “new wine” indeed! So, people need renewed thinking to understand what God is doing in and through Jesus. They need new “wineskins.”

But, what if you’re not a first-century Judean witnessing the ministry of Jesus firsthand? What if you’re a twenty-first century Westerner who has been immersed in an Americanized form of Christianity that looks very little like the faith of Jesus. Well, in that event, the “old” wineskins of an ancient faith might feel quite “new” to you. And, in fact, many Christians today are discovering just that. They are discovering for the first time what Christianity has been for hundreds of years and to them it tastes as rich as aged wine.

In Water to Wine, pastor Zahnd tells “some of [his] story” around cultivating a richer Christian faith. But this journey hasn’t let Zahnd to some novel form of Christianity. No, it has led Zahnd to recover much of what has characterized Christian faith since the time of the early church. Water to Wine is about an American evangelical pastor who had been successful at being an American evangelical, but not at being a faithful Christian. The beauty and power of Water to Wine is seeing snapshots of Zahnd rediscovering Christianity like a man who finds priceless treasures in his own attic.

One way of reading Water to Wine is to see in it a prophetic indictment of Americanized Christianity. Another way is to read it as an invitation into a journey that Zahnd and many others have embarked upon. It’s a journey for those Christians who have grown dissatisfied with grape juice Christianity, are craving “new wine,” and are discovering it in “old wineskins.”

Potter’s Wheel Prayer

One of the most profound transitions Zahnd has underwent is out of consumer Christianity and into the Spiritual Formation movement made popular by authors and thinkers like Dallas Willard and Eugene Peterson. In “Jerusalem Bells,” Zahnd recounts how God began to teach him how, after being a pastor for several decades, to finally pray well. It was similar to a movement I’ve described as going from wielding prayer like a tool, to viewing prayer as a potter’s wheel on which one is being formed. At first, Zahnd is annoyed by the Muslim call to prayer he hears in Middle Eastern countries in which he’s led pilgrims. But God’s Spirit uses this occasion of discomfort to lead Zahnd into the ancient practice of formative prayer. This was one of my favorite sections of the book. Like Zahnd, formative prayer has breathed new life into my Christian faith. It has caused me to rely more on God and to situate myself in the global and historic body of Christ. I love what Zahnd says here,

“If we think of prayer as ‘just talking to God’ and that it consists mostly in asking God to do this or that, then we don’t need to be given prayers to pray. Just tell God what we want. But if prayer is spiritual formation and not God-management, then we cannot depend on our self to pray properly. If we trust our self to pray, we just end up recycling our own issues—mostly anger and anxiety—without experiencing any transformation. We pray in circles. We pray and stay put. We pray prayers that begin and end in our own little self. When it comes to spiritual formation, we are what we pray. Without wise input that comes from outside ourselves, we will never change. We will just keep praying what we already are. A selfish person prays selfish prayers. An angry person prays angry prayers. A greedy person prays greedy prayers. A manipulative person prays manipulative prayers. Nothing changes. We make no progress. But it’s worse than that. Not only do we not make progress, we actually harden our heart. To consistently pray in a wrong way reinforces a wrong spiritual formation.” (p.75)

Due to this insight, Zahnd has now made teaching Jesus-disciples how to be properly formed in prayer a pillar of his ministry. He regularly teaches a “prayer school” at Word of Life, the church he leads as pastor and he says it’s the best thing he does as a pastor. Even though he staunchly refuses to bottle up his teaching on prayer and sell it or give it away in video form online, he nevertheless includes a central component of his prayer insight in Water to Wine. “Jerusalem Bells” concludes with a morning liturgy of prayer Zahnd himself uses and teaches others to use. It’s a wonderful collection of Psalms, prayers from the Book of Common Prayer, passages of Scripture, and prayers from a wide variety of Christian traditions. When one prays this liturgy, she can be assured she is being properly formed.

A Journey into Maturity

Overall, Water to Wine is about growing up in the faith. It’s about being weaned off milk and learning to eat meat. Many American Christians have been taught that milk is all there is, or that milk is actually the stuff of maturity. But Zahnd exposes the immaturity of consumeristic, militaristic, tribalist, dualistic, and secular Christianity. And instead of merely replacing them with an equal and opposite list of -isms, Zahnd invites readers into an experiential practice of discipleship that is rooted in the global and historic church. Zahnd’s gift is helping readers taste the richness of a Christianity that’s been aged to maturity through his eyes of wonder and joy as he discovers it anew. His pastoral gift comes through as he invites us to join him on his journey.

This is a wonderful and timely little book that I would recommend to just about anyone. For many it will rekindle a faith that has laid dormant. For others it will kick open the doors to new rooms of Christianity that haven’t yet been explored. For others still, this may be the best introduction to Christianity they’ve ever read. For all who read it, it offers a fascinating glimpse at the spirituality of an American Christianity that is discovering treasures in the attic of the church.

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PDF available at Academia.edu

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Evil and the God Who is Love: A Review of The Uncontrolling Love of God by Thomas Jay Oord

When Blueprints Fail

In 15 years of full-time Christian ministry, I had not presided over a funeral service until yesterday. The funeral was for a 24 year old man who was brutally stabbed to death a few days before Christmas by a complete stranger.

He died mere hours before he was due to enter an expensive in-patient rehab program, to which he’d miraculously gained admission, after years of battling alcoholism. And from what I can gather from the police report given to the family, the young man’s murderer was an L.A. school teacher.

The sheer absurdity and brutality of his murder continues to deeply sadden and confound me. How could something like this have even happened?

The day before the funeral, I met with and listened to the victim’s mother as she told me just how completely devastating his death has been for her. She is a single mother of three and he was her oldest son. While I was listening and praying with her, she asked me a critical question that should give any sincere minister pause. She asked, “Do you think he was destined to die this way or do you think it was just bad luck?”

How would you have answered her?

As I imagine how pastors and ministers all over the United States would engage with that question, I’m deeply concerned that many are shamefully ill-equipped. They’ve been sold a model of divine providence that is not only biblical unfounded but also ethically bankrupt. Far too many well-meaning Christian ministers in the United States today would actually tell this grieving mother it was God’s will that her son die the way he did. Others, aware of how cruel such a statement would be, would attempt to find some creative way to avoid answering her directly, while secretly believing her son was predestined to be murdered.

John Piper, a famous Calvinist pastor revered by thousands of American Christians, was once asked his thoughts on the brutal violence depicted in the Hebrew Bible—particular the killing of women and children noncombatants in holy wars. His response was chilling and grotesque:

“It’s right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases. God gives life and he takes life. Everybody who dies, dies because God wills that they die. God is taking life every day. He will take 50,000 lives today. Life is in God’s hand. God decides when your last heartbeat will be, and whether it ends through cancer or a bullet wound. God governs.”

Yes, pastor Piper claims that when someone dies because they’ve been murdered (shot to death, for example), that is necessarily God’s will because, well, “God governs.”

Some will write Piper’s statement off as an extreme example. But, I’m afraid the reality is, this type of theological determinism is far more common than many American Christians are either aware of or willing to admit. This type of “blueprint theology,” the conception of divine providence as meticulous omni-causality, has grown in popularity due to the ministries of Neo-Puritans like John Piper, John MacArthur, and Mark Driscoll. And, if the next generation of ministers are trained with this view, the pastoral ramifications are potentially disastrous.

A Timely Book from a Well-qualified Thinker

It’s tragedies like the murder of this 24 year old man that make Dr. Thomas Jay Oord’s latest book, The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence (hereafter, ULG), so important and timely. Dr. Oord is one of the most well-known and prolific American theologians in the Wesleyan tradition. He has written and contributed to over twenty books on philosophy, theology, science, and more. He has served in academic moderator roles and consulted for groups including the American Academy of Religion (AAR), Biologos, and the Wesleyan Philosophical Society.

I’ve had the privilege of knowing Tom since 2007, when we met at a conference he co-directed in Quincy, MA (just outside of Boston) called the “Open Theology and Science” conference. I was a bright-eyed seminary student excited to meet the authors of the ground-breaking 1994 book The Openness of God. Since then, I was honored to co-direct an Open theology conference with Tom that focused on the implications of Open theology for the church in 2013.

I haven’t always agreed with all his views, but Tom has consistently challenged and inspired my thinking over the years and I am very grateful for his scholarship and friendship.

Seeking a Better Solution to the Problem of Evil

ULG opens with several accounts of events Oord calls “genuine evil.”

Oord recounts the story of a woman who was killed when a stone was flung from a truck, came through the windshield of her car, and killed her instantly. He also tells the story of a Congolese woman who was raped and brutalized by militiamen who also killed her husband and children in front of her.

One of these chilling stories hit particularly close to home for me. In 2013, I lived in West Cambridge and saw the police in paramilitary uniforms and armored personnel units rolling through Watertown during the hunt for the Boston Marathon bombers. It terrified my wife and children. We also personally knew runners who missed being in the blast radius of the bombings by minutes, if not seconds.

Oord uses these chilling accounts to establish the reality of evil, and the urgency of a more plausible solution to the problem of evil. As an Open and Relational theologian, he’s already part of a tradition of thought that has made significant progress in this regard. The “Free Will Defense,” as it’s sometimes called, provides a not insignificant amount of relief. However, Oord contends it remains nevertheless insufficient. In this book, he will propose a more radical solution—one that will make many uncomfortable, but will provide much needed comfort to others.

The Science of Randomness and Free Will

One of the best features of ULG is it’s integration of science, philosophy, theology and pastoral sensibilities. When I was a seminary student in Boston, I learned an approach to urban ministry that differs from the traditional approach taught in many evangelical seminaries. Instead of viewing the city as a machine, like a toaster, that can be disassembled and reassembled without harm, the city is conceptualized as an organic, “living system” more like a cat. While a toaster may be able to be repaired with conventional mechanical tools, a cat must be operated on by a surgeon using delicate instruments, because the subject is alive.

What this approach did for me was provided a framework for understanding the complexities of the city. Linear, cause-and-effect approaches to urban ministry are relics of a bygone era. We now know that the world is far more complex than we previously thought.

This is where Oord’s thinking future-proofs Open and Relational theology. It combines the latest in philosophy and science on the subjects of randomness and indeterminacy. While Newtonian physics was easily compatible with “blueprint theology,” it falls flat when confronted with the “world of true becoming” that has been discovered by quantum physics.

Oord has worked with some of the world’s leading thinkers in this area, including Sir Dr. John Polkinghorne, who is perhaps the most prolific and profound thinker on science and faith alive today.

Oord argues that randomness is real. Indeterminacy is not a lack of sufficient data, but an actual aspect of reality. This is an important part of Open and Relational theology. In this broad category of theologies, the world is conceptualized not a static place, but a dynamic one. Dr. Polkinghorne calls it a “world of true becoming.”

If this is the case, as Oord argues, then the way is opened for genuine agency—“free will.” The conception of free will Oord, as an Open and Relational theologian, proposes is called “Libertarian.” It contrasts with “Compatibilist” free will. Libertarian free will is the power of choosing agents to deliberate between and actualize real options which emerge in a world populate by moral, rational, and sentient beings. Compatibilist free will does not recognize the power of contrary choice, that options are legitimately open to choosing agents other than what they in fact actualize. As he succinctly writes, “A free being is an agent who chooses among options.”

In ULG, Oord argues that the world is made up of both choices and constraints on our freedom. Agents are not free to choose anything they can imagine, but agents are free to choose between the available options. This conception of free will, and only this one, provides the necessary framework for moral and ethical outcomes. Once again pinpoint precise in his language, he writes, “We cannot be morally responsible unless we are freely response-able.”

This is a cornerstone of Ood’s argument. Unless we understand moral responsibility, we will misunderstand God’s providence.

Problematizing Divine Permission

When God is brought into the puzzle of evil, often this formula is used to make providence problematic: if evil is real, either God is not all-loving or God is not all-powerful. Classical theism has snubbed its nose at this problem in one way or another and continued to assert both the omni-benevolence and omnipotence of God. Some simply say that evil is necessary for God’s goodness and power to be displayed. This would be John Piper’s answer. Evil is as much under the control of God as goodness. God decrees evil. Problem solved, he thinks. Others construct appeals to mystery. Oord cites the Bible verse commonly quoted out of context, “God’s ways are not our ways.”

But Oord, like many others, is unsatisfied with either approach.

Oord is perhaps just as unsatisfied with the language of divine “permission.” Some theologies, in an attempt to salvage God’s omni-benevolence, have proposed that God is not responsible for evil because creaturely agents have free will. God merely “permits” evil to exist. But one of Oord’s main goals in this book is to show that even this approach is ethically dubious and problematic. He sets out to problematize even the “permissive” approach to providence to which many in his own Open and Relational camp ascribe. He writes,

“Careful readers may have also noticed I have often talked about God failing to prevent evil. Some people think they solve the problem by simply saying God gives freedom and agency to creatures, and, therefore, God does not cause evil. Creatures effect evil, they say, so God should not be blamed.

I also believe God is not the primary cause of evil. But to solve the problem of evil, we must say more than this. After all, a perfectly loving individual would do whatever possible to prevent—not just fail to cause—genuine evil. A person does not have to cause evil directly to be morally culpable for failing to prevent it.”

By holding the feet of those who use “permission” language to the fire, Oord has upped the ante. This sets a much higher standard of moral righteousness on our model of providence. This was what actually made the book exciting for this reader.

How will Oord solve the problem?

The Landscape of Providence

Every attempt to “solve” the problem of evil entails an implicit model of providence. In ULG, Oord makes explicit his model of providence in his proposal for a solution to the problem of evil. But, before he does that, he provides readers with a very helpful overview of the theological landscape. “Models of Providence” is perhaps the most helpful chapter in all of ULG.

Besides being a gifted philosopher and teacher, Dr. Oord is also a very talented photographer.

From surveying his work over many years, it appears that one of his favorite things to capture is a beaming sunset over an beautifully textured landscape. He goes on long hikes into deserts and mountains to compose the perfect shot at the perfect moment. Dr. Oord’s photographic instincts mirror his theological proposal in ULG in many ways. In a timely and winsome way, he has composed a snapshot of providence that is a shining ray of light in the very textured landscape of theologies of divine providence. Chapter four frames the terrain in a way that allows Oord to distinguish his model from its closest comrades. On one end of the landscape are the rocky mountains of omnicausality. They are jagged, treacherous, and inhospitable for human residence. Besides the obvious way this model calls into question the goodness of God since it makes God the “ultimate cause over every rape, torture, disease and terrorist attack,”

Oord also points out its logical inconsistency. He writes, “…it makes no sense to say that God totally causes something and that creatures also cause it.”

On the other side of the frame are the Weeping Willow trees of appeals to mystery. Appeals to mystery are comparable to Weeping Willows because they appear sad and are frail. I loved what Oord said about this model: “…we should be wary of worshipping the entirely inscrutable God because we never know who the devil he may be!”

Most models of providence occupy the center of the frame. But even toward the center of the shot, there is much texture. The closest comrade to Oord’s proposal is the one employed by most Open theists. It is the model of divine providence Oord calls “God is voluntarily self-limited.”

Oord helpfully summarizes the pros and cons of this model:

“In sum, I find the model of providence as voluntarily self-limited attractive in many ways. I like that it says love motivates God to give freedom/agency to others and to uphold the regularities/laws of the universe. But I can’t embrace the model fully because its view of voluntary divine self-limitation leads to a major problem: If God has the ability not to give freedom/agency or not to uphold the regularities/laws of the universe, God should sometimes use those abilities, in the name of love, to prevent genuine evil. A loving God would become un-self-limited, if God were able, in order to stop evil. Claiming that a God capable of control nevertheless permits evil leaves crucial questions unanswered.”

This criticism of the voluntary divine self-limitation view is powerfully damning. How can one claim that God is love, has the ability to prevent evil if God so chose, and yet has not prevented such horrifying evil as have been described? As Oord indicates, this model leaves too many people scratching their heads asking, “what kind of love is that?”

A Friendly, Open Debate

One proponent of the voluntary divine self-limitation model of providence is a friend of Oord’s. He and Oord have collaborated on a number of projects, including the OPEN 2013 theology conference at which Oord and I were co-directors. Dr. John Sanders was a fellow keynote speaker with Oord (along with Greg Boyd) at that conference, and has was also a participant in the 2007 Open Theology and Science conference where I first met both of them. Dr. Sanders is one of the few Open theists who have written a full-length monograph on Open theology. His is entitled The God Who Risks: A Theology of Divine Providence, and it’s one of the most comprehensive.

Both Sanders and Oord are committed to a conception of God that is centered around God’s dynamic relational love for the world. Both Sanders and Oord also agree that the future is partly ‘open,’ meaning partly made up of possibilities/contingencies that are yet to be actualized. Both Sanders and Oord agree that God’s nature is love and that Jesus reveals God fully. However, as Oord shows in chapter six, “Does Love Come First?”, Sanders and he differ on the logical priority of God’s nature of love and God’s sovereign will.

“Up to this point in my summary of Sanders’s version of open and relational theology, I completely agree with him. I might articulate some points slightly differently, but we both endorse main themes of open and relational theology. We agree on so much!

I disagree, however, with Sanders’s view of how God’s love and power relate. I also disagree when Sanders says God allows or permits genuine evil. These disagreements matter when it comes to thinking about how God acts providentially in a world of randomness and evil.”

Oord’s critique of Sanders’s view is weighty. He follows Sanders’s logic to its end and arrives at the conclusion Sanders excludes. Both Oord and Sanders agree that God’s nature of love is the kind of love that does not coerce. As Sanders puts it, “love does not force its own way on the beloved.”

Oord agrees. But Oord questions why Sanders is unwilling to follow his own logic to its end. If God’s nature is love, and love does not “force its own way on the beloved,” then how can Sanders conclude that God sometimes intervenes to control creatures against their will? Would this not be an action precluded by the constraints of God’s nature? Here’s how Oord puts it:

“If God’s preeminent attribute is love and love invites cooperation without forcing its own way, however, it makes little sense to say ‘sovereign freedom’ allows God to create in an unloving way. It makes little sense, for instance, to say that God voluntarily decided against ‘exercising meticulous providence.’ If love comes first and love does not force others to comply, it makes little sense to say ‘God is free to sovereignly decide not to determine everything.’ If love comes first, God cannot exercise meticulous providence or determine everything.

To put it in question form using Sander’s [sic] own language, why should we think  a loving God who ‘does not force the beloved’ is truly free ‘to tightly control every event that happens’? Why should we think a loving God is free to control others entirely, even if God never exercised that freedom? If love doesn’t force the beloved and God is love, God can’t force the beloved.”

Oord has a strong point. What value has it to say God is love, and that love is noncoercive, if we also say that God can be coercive any time God wants? The proposition that “God is love” is stripped of all meaningfulness. What kind of “love” would that be?

God’s Kenotic Essence

While the voluntary divine self-limitation model of providence is the closest to Oord’s own, he nevertheless makes it clear where the two differ. In his model, God’s nature is in fact the constraint on God’s power and will. God is essentially kenotic. So, understandably Oord calls his model of providence “Essential Kenosis.”

While those already familiar with kenosis may recognize it as a subject confined to christology, the history of theological exploration does not bear that out. For example, in his book The Paradox of a Suffering God,

African theologian Amuluche Gregory Nnamani highlights the development of kenotic theology throughout church history. In particular, Russian Orthodox theologian Sergei Nikolaevich Bulgakov, American philosopher Geddes MacGregor, Catholic theologians Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar, and even German theologian Jürgen Moltmann espoused forms of the “essential kenosis” view. Each affirm Oord’s central thesis, that God’s nature is “uncontrolling” (i.e. kenotic) love, and that God cannot deny God’s own kenotic essence.

However, Oord does offer a unique formulation of this view and makes it far more accessible to the layperson. Oord uses common parlance to explain esoteric theological concepts better than most theologians. For example, he writes,

“God’s nature of love logically precedes God’s sovereign will. This means that God’s self-limiting kenosis derives primarily from God’s eternal and unchanging nature of love and not from voluntary divine decisions. Because God’s nature is love, God always gives freedom, agency and self-organization to creatures, and God sustains the regularities of nature.”

What’s important to note about the logic of Oord’s proposal is that God’s nature of love constrains what God is capable of doing. This is where those with leanings toward classical theism will begin to feel very uncomfortable. They will want God to be unlimited, even by God’s own nature. But Oord’s case is sound biblically and logically.

What the Bible Says God Can’t Do

It may come as a shock to classical theists, but it’s true that Scripture says God’s actions are constrained by God’s nature. Scripture says that God cannot lie because God’s nature is truth (Numbers 23.19; Hebrews 6.18; John 1.14, 14.6, 17.17). Scripture also says that God cannot be capricious because God’s nature is faithful (I Samuel 15.29; Psalm 89.35). Scripture also says that God cannot change like shifting shadows because God is light (James 1.17; I John 1.5). What all these constrains imply is what Oord makes explicit: “God’s nature of love logically precedes God’s sovereign will.”

In fact, as Oord makes explicit, Open theism, like all Christian theology, looks to Jesus as the fullest revelation of God’s character and nature. Oord quotes the late Clark Pinnock, whose Open and Relational theology was explicitly Christ-centered and Cross-centered.

“ ‘God’s true power is revealed in the cross of Jesus Christ,’ says Pinnock. ‘In this act of self-sacrificing, God deploys power in the mode of servanthood, overcoming enemies not by annihilating them but by loving them.’ This means that ‘the power of love is the power that wills genuine relationships.’ and this view ‘is certainly not a diminished or inferior view of power.’ ”

Oord’s proposal follows in the tradition of postconservative evangelical theologians like Pinnock in allowing Scripture to challenge the models of providence that have been constructed by classical theism. Jesus breaks these models wide open.

“…theologians today use kenosis primarily to describe how Jesus reveals God’s nature. Instead of imagining how God may have relinquished attributes when becoming incarnate, many now think Jesus’ kenosis tells us who God is and how God acts.”

And, once again, Oord points to the cross of Jesus as God’s supreme self-disclosure in history:

“We especially see God’s noncoercive power revealed in the cross of Christ, which suggests that God’s power is cruciform…”

Oord’s model of providence is cruciform-centric, and that makes Oord’s model both thoroughly biblical and thoroughly Christian.

The Distance from Process

Some of Oord’s more well-read and studied readers will wonder what, if anything, separates Oord’s “Essential Kenosis” view from Process theology, which is adamantly rejected by conservative evangelicals who believe it limits God to an unbiblical extent. Oord answers this concern in a very brief statement—perhaps too brief.

“The other view standing near essential kenosis says external forces or worlds essentially limit God. This view gives the impression that outside actors and powers not of God’s making hinder divine power. Or it says God is subject to laws of nature, imposed on God from without. God is caught in the clutches of exterior authorities and dominions, and these superpowers restrict sovereignty.

This view seems to describe God as a helpless victim to external realities. Some criticize this view as presenting a ‘finite God’ because outside forces or imposed laws curb divine activity. While I think we have good reasons to think God’s power is limited in certain respects, this view places God under foreign authority. This God is too small.

Essential kenosis stands between these two views. It rejects both voluntary self-limitation of God and the view that external powers, gods, worlds or laws limit God. Essential kenosis says limitations to divine freedom derive from God’s nature of love.”

Conservative evangelical readers who find Process theology repulsive may not find Oord’s disclaimer sufficient. They may demand more distance. However, I think Oord does sufficiently detail the specific distinction between his view and Process: from where derives the limitations on divine sovereignty. Process says the laws of nature external to God; Essential kenosis says from God’s own nature.

Those Pesky Miracles

All of this talk of constraints on the sovereign will of God and limitations on God’s ability to intervene in the world naturally lead to the question that will be stirring in the minds of any knowledgable reader by this point: What about miracles?

Traditionally, miracles have been conceptualized as divine “intervention” in the world. In fact, some have defined a miracle as the violation of the laws of nature by God. But Oord’s model of providence will not allow such definitions. But neither are such definitions logically necessary or biblically warranted. Theologians like N. T. Wright constantly remind us that the distinction between what is called the “natural” world and the “supernatural” is an artificial divide invented during the so-called Enlightenment. Scriptural theology knows no such distinction. In fact, Wright and others would argue that such a distinction is a heresy in the same vein as Gnosticism. It is dualistic, and runs the risk of denying the goodness of creation or the reality of the Incarnation. However, Oord does not heavily lean on this kind of argumentation. Instead, he chooses to argue positively for the cooperative nature of miracles by pointing out that all the miracles detailed in the Bible involved willing agents who cooperated with God. Even the miracle of the Incarnation famously involves the “yes” of Mary to God’s plan.

In chapter eight, “Miracles and God’s Providence,” Oord works hard to assuage readers’ fears that he has cut miracles out of his model of providence. He clearly hasn’t. However, when it comes to how God providentially works with inanimate matter, it was not always clear why God could not coercively control it. In all the strong argumentation this book provides, this chapter felt the least strong.

Conclusion: Deepening the Discussion

Open and Relational theology has long provided adherents a more coherent model of divine providence than theologically deterministic models. In fact, Open theism in particular has provided many Arminians with a much need dose of logical consistency. However, Open theism has long struggled with its familial relationship to conservative evangelical theology, which has caused it to seem defensive at times. Perhaps this is an expected response to the alarmist classical theists who loudly condemned it as heresy. But Tom Oord’s project is not defensive. He is willing to follow the logic and the biblical data to the most consistent conclusion. He will no doubt receive criticism from both conservative evangelicals who wish to preserve their view of divine sovereignty as unilateral coercive force, and from Process theologians who will find his proposal insufficient for other reasons. Regardless, what is clear is that The Uncontrolling Love of God furthers the conversations and confronts all sides with important questions about our models of divine providence and their implications for the problem of evil. I’m very grateful for this contribution to that on-going discussion, and highly recommend this book to anyone exploring these subjects.

If I had one criticism for Oord, it would be that Open and Relational theologies like this “Essential Kenosis” continue to conceptualize providence and the problem of evil apart from important aspects of human life like community (ecclesiology), politics, missions, and social justice. I would have liked to see Oord at least point in those directions. Essential kenosis has the potential to be a liberating model for those who have all too often been the victims of societies that are emulating a “sovereignty” of coercive and violent control.

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PDF version available at Academia.edu