Reforming Justification, Again: Salvation by Allegiance Alone 
and the Protestant Quincentennial

Still Reforming

Today, all around the world, Protestants will commemorate 500 years since the Reformation. October 31st is called “Reformation Day,” after the tradition that Martin Luther nailed his “95 Thesis” to the door of All Saints’ Church in 1517. Therefore, this year marks the quincentennial of that event, which many consider the spark that lit the fires of the Reformation. The Reformation is a highly complex phenomenon; it was of course theological, but also cultural and historical. Perhaps there are even facets of the Reformation that continue to remain unexplored. At least one aspect of the Reformation’s legacy that has been explored in great detail has been the doctrine of “justification by grace through faith.” Among Protestants, this is the doctrine that is held in highest esteem, and which ostensibly distinguishes the Protestant movement from all others. Nevertheless, even as a cornerstone of Protestant theology, the Reformation laid the groundwork for this doctrine, like everything else in Protestantism, to be continually reforming. As goes the phrase which became a Reformation slogan: semper reformanda.

For example, in his lightning rod of a book, Justification [1], N. T. Wright responded to criticism from his fellow Protestant scholar (of a different sort) John Piper. In it, Wright lambasts the stale way Piper and his particular tribe of “Reformed” thinkers have clung to a centuries-old traditional interpretation while other scholars, drawing from the best, recent scholarship, were making new discoveries. As Scot McKnight so succinctly and bitingly put it in an endorsement:

“Tom Wright has out-Reformed America’s newest religious zealots—the neo-Reformed—by taking them back to Scripture and to its meaning in its historical context. Wright reveals that the net-reformed are more committed to tradition than to the sacred text. This irony is palpable on every page of this judicious, hard-hitting, respectful study.” [2]

One of the great marks of the Reformation, one for which all Christians can be grateful, is its challenge to all such ecclesial structures which would prevent any gifted member of Christ’s body access to the Scriptures themselves. Of course, there have been and continue to be further challenges associated with such a democratization. One particularly biting criticism is that the Reformation exchanged a personal Pope for a paper one. However, a return to the sacred text in a serious effort to honor Christ and follow him faithfully, even if it requires challenging some strongly-held beliefs and traditions, is a noble endeavor insofar as it succeeds. One problem is that not all Protestants agree upon the extent to which tradition has run amok or is in need of reform. Many Protestants recognize the wisdom of the church having an educated clergy and a scholarly academy for the equipping of disciples. Many more recognize the wisdom of creeds which express the kergimatic Gospel of the Christian faith. Yet, in any case, whether Anglo-Catholic or Fundamentalist Baptist, Protestants have looked to the Scriptures first for their rule of faith, with lesser or greater respect to the tradition of the church catholic.

This has led to various positions on the hallowed doctrine of justification. Some Protestants have clung to the traditional Lutheran dichotomy of “works” and “faith,” or “law” and “grace,” with its accompanying characterizations of Judean faith, and have railed against “works righteousness” as a particularly seditious evil. Others, like N. T. Wright, have continued to seek the reform of the church’s theology, pursuing ever greater knowledge and understanding of the sacred text in its contexts, having unearthed new ways of conceptualizing the doctrine. Hence the need for his 2009 book. In this effort, there has arisen a school of thought which has come to be known as “the New Perspective.” However, as Wright himself points out, this is an unfortunate moniker since there is a more diverse collection of views than the term signifies. “…there is no such thing as the new perspective… There is only a disparate family of perspectives, some with more, some with less family likeness, and with fierce squabbles and sibling rivalries going on inside.” [3] A family trait these new perspectives all share is their exploration of the relationship between the covenants, the role of the church, and meaning of faith (among others). These are complex, interrelated subjects. Subjects that reach into many other areas of Christian theological exploration. For now, we turn to a recent entrance into this on-going discussion, one that has promise for reforming the Reformation yet again.

A New Proposal

Into the fray of this churning sea change of new perspectives dives a new book by New Testament scholar Matthew Bates, called how to buy Seroquel without a prescription Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King. Bates’s proposal is nuanced but essentially builds upon a Wrightian-style new perspective combined with the “King Jesus Gospel” of Scot McKnight. It also sets out to create a shared confession between the Roman Catholic conception of justification and that of Protestants. Though his thesis is broad, it’s also incisive. In the introduction he writes some of the most exciting and radical statements I’ve read in recent years.

“…the gospel cannot be accurately summarized by saying, ‘I trust that Jesus paid the price for me, so I am saved,’ or ‘Faith in Jesus’s death for my sins saves me as a free gift apart from my works,’ or even ‘I am saved because I am trusting in Jesus’s righteousness alone.’ ” (3)

“The best corrective is that ‘faith’ and ‘belief,’ insofar as they serve as overarching terms to describe what brings about eternal salvation, should be excised from Christian discourse. That is, English-speaking Christian leaders should entirely cease to speak of ‘salvation by faith’ or of ‘faith in Jesus’ or ‘believing in Christ’ when summarizing Christian salvation. For the sake of the gospel we need to revise our vocabulary.” (4)

Bates’s straightforwardness continues in the book’s introduction where offers a welcome and very concise summary of the book’s main premises.

“1. The true climax of the gospel—Jesus’s enthronement—has generally been deemphasized or omitted from the gospel.

2. Consequently, pistis has been misaimed and inappropriately nuanced with respect to the gospel. It is regarded as ‘trust’ in Jesus’s righteousness alone or ‘faith’ that Jesus’s death covers my sins rather than ‘allegiance’ to Jesus as king.
3. Final salvation is not about attainment of heaven but about embodied participation in the new creation. When the trust goal of salvation is recognized, terms such as ‘faith,’ ‘works,’ ‘righteousness,’ and ‘the gospel’ can be more accurately reframed.

4. Once it is agreed that salvation is by allegiance alone, matters that have traditionally divided Catholics and Protestants—the essence of the gospel, faith alone versus works, declared righteousness versus infused righteousness—are reconfigured in ways that may prove helpful for reconciliation.” (9)

With his thesis clearly spelled-out, Bates takes some time in preparation for his arguments to more precisely specify what faith is not.


An important exercise in a discussion as contentious as this one is ground-clearing. In the first chapter, Bates sets out to distinguish biblical “faith” from many common, modern misconceptions. While Bates invites some readers to skip this chapter, I think this may be one of the book’s most important. Too many conversations about Pauline theology, justification, salvation, or faith are sidelined before they ever fully start due to these pernicious preconceptions. Therefore, this ground-clearing exercise isn’t just academic; it’s highly practical.

There are at least five misconceptions of faith from which Bates disabuses readers. The first is “ fideism,” the view that faith is opposed to evidence-based assessment of truth, or is reducible to some kind of private, subjective experience. Bates’s example is that of a Mormon missionary who describes a ‘warm sensation’ in one’s heart. This Bates insists is “neither a biblical nor a Christian understanding of faith.” (17) Here, too, I’m reminded of conversations I’ve had with many modern skeptics influenced by the so-called “New Atheism” movement. It has been assumed by many that “faith” is opposed to reason or science. Bates disposes of such a distortion clearly saying, “…we should all agree that the ‘faith’ God requires of us has nothing to do with ignoring relevant evidence that is easily available when adjudicating truth claims.” (17)

The second misconception of faith Bates corrects is that which correlates “faith” with stepping out of security or rationality or common sense. We might call this “ blind faith.” Bates uses the classic example of Indiana Jones’s “step of faith” off a ledge into a dark chasm. Bates points out that this distortion is dangerous because it is partly true. While faith does require trusting action that may be uncertain, “stepping out in faith is not intrinsically good in and of itself.” (20) Rather, as Hebrews 11 teaches, “the true people of God are willing to act decisively in the visible world not for reasons that are immediately apparent but because an unseen yet even more genuine underlaying substance (hypostasis), God’s reality, compels the action.” (19) In other words, stepping out onto an unseen bridge that spans a chasm is only laudable if the bridge is trustworthy. “…it must be remembered that neither Noah nor Abraham launched out into the void, but rather each responded to God’s command. They acted in response to the call of a promise-fulfilling God with whom they had experience.” (19)

A third distortion of faith Bates confronts is what McKnight calls “ grace-ism” in the book’s foreword. This is perhaps the most pervasive and pernicious distortion. This misconception is particularly common in the Western world influenced by the Reformation. In it, “faith and works are pitted against one another as opposite paths to salvation.” (21) As Bates points out, once it is discovered what Paul really means by “works of the law,” this schema of works/faith dichotomy comes tumbling down. In fact, one comes to realize that biblical faith, by its very definition, includes works. (22) More on this later!

Fourthly, Bates distinguishes faith from “faith-as-optimism.” (23) This one is unfortunately very common in popular culture. Faith is merely the belief that things will work out favorably in spite of seemingly bleak circumstances. Similar to “blind faith,” the fatal flaw of this distortion is that by it faith is divorced from the object of faith. Faith becomes a good in and of itself, like the power of “intention” from New Age philosophy like The Secret.

Fifth and finally, Bates tackles the misconception of faith as affirmation of propositional truths or “faith-as-intellectual-assent.” I was grateful that Bates did not shy away from naming names, by identifying the Free-Grace movement. It’s important that these schools of thought be called out because they often have influence beyond the knowledge of their explicit teaching. For example, many are likely unaware that popular television preacher Charles Stanley (In Touch Ministries), father of megachurch pastor, Andy Stanley, is a proponent of this view. [5] I was also encouraged by Bates willingness to associate this distortion of faith with the ancient heresy of Gnosticism. There have been some who have resisted this correlation, but I think it is more than apt. I would have liked to have also seen Bates make the correlation between this misconception of faith and Enlightenment compartmentalization of “reason” from “tradition.” N. T. Wright has sufficiently explicated this connection in many of his writings.

With its clear sections, direct language, and some labels which can be used as shorthand, I found this chapter highly practical and a vital part of the overall argument. From here, Bates can begin to establish his argument by starting with the Gospel itself.

The Full Gospel

Five hundred years since Luther’s protest and the Gospel is still very misunderstood by a significant portion of Christians in the United States. Before Bates can fully extend his arguments regarding faith, he must address the misconceptions of the Gospel that calls for exercising faith. So, in chapters two and three, Bates will establish not only how the Gospel has been distorted in modern conceptualizations and presentations, but also the fact that Jesus preached the Gospel. (One might think it a given that Jesus preached the Gospel, but one would be wrong.)

In chapter two, Bates takes aim at the modern distortion of the Gospel that has taken such root in the American church that entire groups have formed to promote it. [6] The Gospel’s perversion has not happened overnight, but it has morphed over the last several hundred years. Bates does a great job pinpointing several of the key areas of distortion.

The very first error Bates points out is a critical one: many so-called “gospel” presentations paint discipleship as optional. (28) What Bates calls the “truncated” gospel has at least two distorted aspects he identities. First, it is in reality not the Gospel at all, but is instead a “Plan of Salvation” presentation. To the untrained, this distinction will be difficult to recognize. But placed side-by-side with the Full Gospel it becomes obvious.

Truncated (Plan of Salvation) “Gospel” Full Gospel
1. You and I have a problem called “sin,” and we are currently on the road to perdition. 1. Jesus, the pre-existent Son of God, took on a human life (incarnation) fulfilling the promises made to Abraham, David, the Hebrew prophets, and Israel.
2. Jesus died for your sins. 2. Jesus lived a fully human life, he
 proclaimed and demonstrated (through 
 miraculous signs) that in and through him 
God’s Kingdom was breaking into this 
 world. He was crucified, died, and was 
 buried, in accordance with the Scriptures.
 3. If you make a decision to believe in Jesus, you’ll be saved and go to heaven when you die. 3. On the third day, Jesus rose from the  dead, in accordance with the Scriptures,
 appeared to many, ascended to heaven, 
 where he is seated at the right hand of God 
 the Father, from which he reigns as Lord,
 and will come again to judge and unite 
 heaven and earth in a renewed creation 

One of the first and most obvious differences between these two presentations is that the Truncated (or Plan of Salvation) “Gospel” is self-centered, not Jesus-centered. It’s primarily about me and you, not primarily about Jesus. Jesus only shows up in the Plan of Salvation “Gospel” as a mechanism by which you and I are “saved.” In the Plan of Salvation “Gospel,” Jesus is less a person (much less Lord) than a salvation device. This is just one of the many destructive effects of placing Jesus in the wrong story. It fits within the broader destructive effect of distorting the concept of salvation itself. The very concept of salvation has to be reconsidered if we are to properly assess our presentations of the Gospel.

“…this truncated gospel assumes that the ultimate goal for humanity is spiritual bliss in heaven rather than… embodied participation in the new heavens and new earth. The difference has radical implications for what salvation actually means. In short, the story into which the truncated gospel has been made to fit needs to be rethought…” (29)

The incarnation rarely factors into the Plan of Salvation “Gospel,” because it doesn’t easily fit it into a guilt/forgiveness conception of salvation. Change one’s conception of salvation from guilt/forgiveness to embodied participation in a flourishing world and suddenly incarnation matters. This merely illustrates one particular way the controlling narrative either accentuates or attenuates the Gospel.

Bates shows that the Plan of Salvation “Gospel” has led to the neglect of at least two of the most important parts of the Gospel: Incarnation and Enthronement. When it comes to the Gospel, the story that frames our presentation is key! If creation and Israel are somehow left out, not only is the Gospel truncated, but our very concept of salvation is distorted, perhaps beyond recognition. “…the gospel cannot be holistically comprehended without seeing the manner in which the incarnation fulfills God’s promise to David, a promise God spoke shortly after David had secured the throne…” (32) Bates makes this connection between incarnation and enthronement explicit by way of the Resurrection.

“Yet the gospel is not just about the Davidic promise; it is also about the resurrection. The most compact yet explicit articulation of the gospel, as found in Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy, makes this clear: ‘Remember Jesus the Christ, raised from among the dead ones, of the seed of David—that is my gospel” (2:8). […]the resurrection in turn is intimately connected with the coronation of Jesus.” (33)

Bates has a wonderful section called “The V Pattern” to make the connection between resurrection and exaltation more accessible to lay-persons. He uses more common parlance to teach some highly important yet sometimes overly technical theology. Bates shows that many of the most didactic of Paul’s teachings about Jesus’s life and what it means have a similar “down, then up” pattern to them. That is, they describe Jesus’s voluntary submission, humility, suffering, and sacrifice (down) as an expression of God’s very nature of love. Which leads to resurrection and exaltation (up) as an expression of Christ’s victory over sin and death and sovereign reign over the world. “The Son of God is now the enthroned and actively ruling Son of God, the cosmic Lord. […]this new super-exalted status as cosmic Lord is not peripheral to the good news about Jesus. It is at the very heard and center—the climax of the gospel. Jesus has been enthroned as the king. To him allegiance is owed.” (37)

So, now that Bates has cleared the ground, and has re-established the controlling narrative, he can begin to make this definitive summary of the gospel. Here’s a hinge on which he turns to it: “the gospel proper is not in the first instance a story about human need for salvation but a story about Jesus’s career, a career that culminates in his attainment of heavenly authority. The gospel story integrally involves Jesus’s death for sins, but that is only part of the story, and the gospel narrative draws our eyes above all to Jesus’s kingship.” (51)

Here’s Bates’s outline of the Gospel proper:

“Jesus the king

preexisted with the Father,
took on human flesh, fulfilling God’s promises to David,
died for sins in accordance with the Scriptures,
was buried,
was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,
appeared to many,
is seated at the right hand of God as Lord, and
will come again as judge.” (52)

If it is not yet obvious, salvation, grace, and faith, what so often are exclusively thought to be “the gospel” are missing. That is because, with other New Testament scholars like N. T. Wright and Scot McKnight, Bates identifies the Gospel Proper as “the power-releasing story of Jesus’s life, death for sins, resurrection, and installation as king[…] The gospel is not… justification by faith alone.” (30) Rather, “Properly speaking, pistis is not part of the gospel but the fitting response to the gospel. Moreover, our justification is not part of the content of the gospel proper either… Our justification is a result of the gospel when we are united by pistis to Jesus the atonement-making king.” (54)

This brings us to the crucial discussion of the doctrine of justification. No doubt few doctrines are more hotly-contested than this one. And many powerful institutions, organizations, and networks are all built on a particular understanding of this doctrine. It’s no wonder, then, why that understand it so fiercely protected nor why it is supported by so much money. These groups must continue to survive to ensure the preservation of the status quo. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that some of the reviews of Bates’s book have been scathing. One such review included this statement: “…the writing is peppered with outrageous statements, caricatures, logical leaps, confusing language, theological imprecisions, and deficient scholarship, making the book unsuitable for a general audience.” One thing you can be sure of, whatever it is that Bates is saying in this book, it has ignited passionate discussion. Now we will turn to the heart of that matter.

Keeping Faith

Translation of the Bible is a political act. There’s simply no avoiding its ramifications for the Christian community and its mission. So too is the translation of crucial terms in the Bible. And few terms in the Bible are more crucial than “faith,” or more precisely the Greek word transliterated “pistis.” The moment someone suggests an innovative translation for such an important term, there is bound to be pushback. Bates anticipates this, of course, and lays out the kind of disclaimer one might expect:

“The word pistis is Greek has a much wider range of possible definitions than the English allegiance. (Put more technically, scholars speak of its large semantic domain.) My intention is not to flatten the rich multiple meanings and nuances of pistis into a bland singleness. Rather it is to claim that, when discussing salvation in generalized terms, allegiance is a better overarching English-language term for what Paul intends with his use of the pistis word group than the more customary faith, belief, and trust.” (78)

But make no mistake, even with this disclaimer, people will no doubt criticize Bates’s proposal. They will caricature it as reductionistic. That is why it is important to note that Bates also finds many contexts in the New Testament when “loyalty” and “faithfulness” are adequate translations. With such a range of possible translations, Bates is in good company with New Testament scholars the likes of N. T. Wright, Michael J. Gorman, John Barclay, and Richard Hays. (83) But this will not be enough for many readers; they will need to see evidence from the Scriptures themselves. That’s fine; Bates is happy to oblige.

Chapter four is chock-full of biblical evidence for his proposal. However, for me the most persuasive is the political/imperial cultural and historical context of the New Testament. Given the vocabulary utilized in the New Testament, there is no way to avoid the direct confrontation with their political connotations. As Bates puts it:

“In the broader Greco-Roman world, the word euangelion, ‘gospel,’ could mean good news of military victory or of the emperor’s birth or reign. The term kyrios, ‘lord,’ along with soter, ‘savior,’ was a favored term used by the emperor. In fact if one had ceased to be a Christian and wanted to prove that to the Roman authorities, then one could offer a sacrifice in the presence of a statue of the emperor while saying ‘Caesar is Lord,’ which was understood in such contexts as incompatible with the sworn confession ‘Jesus is Lord.’ ” (88)

For a more concrete example, Bates points to the Philippian jailor from Acts 16. The context is the Roman colony of Philippi, which Luke is keen to make readers aware of. Paul and Silas’s appeal is to “pisteuson upon the Lord Jesus…” Note the “Lord” title. Any Roman official knows who their Lord is, and it isn’t a Crucified Jewish rabbi. Bates describes this as “…an exhortation to the jailor to transfer his ultimate allegiance from the emperor to the enthroned Jesus.” (88) What happens next demonstrates his choice. He defies the command of the magistrates and embodies obedience to his new Lord. “…the jailor has transferred his allegiance by bodily serving the ambassadors of the Lord Jesus (Paul and Silas) rather than the clients of the emperor (the magistrates).” (89)

One particularly interesting section of this chapter is where Bates takes on Reformed definitions of faith inherited from Augustine.

“[Translating pistis as allegiance] is a deliberate alternative to the classic definitions of ‘faith.’ For instance, Saint Augustine determined that faith (fides) has two primary components: (1) ‘the faith which is believed’—the content that must be intellectually affirmed; and (2) ‘the by which it is believed’—the interior commitment of ‘faith’ that takes place in the heart/mind. Meanwhile, during the Reformation a threefold definition of faith developed among Luther’s followers: (2) notitia—the content to be intellectually apprehended; (2) assensus—intellectual agreement that the content is true; and (3) fiducia—trust or a disposition of reliance (rooted in the will/affections as variously defined). This trifold definition of faith is still used by many Lutheran and Reformed theologians today.” (92)

Instead of 1. Content; 2. Agreement; and 3. Trust, Bates proposes: “Mental affirmation that the gospel is true; professed fealty to Jesus alone as the cosmic Lord, and enacted loyalty through obedience to Jesus as the king.” (92) On each of these Bates spends a few pages expounding. By mental affirmation, he does not mean absolute certainty (as some are likely to misunderstand). Instead, he means something closer to the “sufficient” confidence to obey. I would have used the term “conviction.” Bates writes, “If a person is intellectually confident enough in the truth of the gospel that she or he is willing to give allegiance to the Jesus who is described in that gospel as the universal Lord, then the intellectual-agreement for salvation has been satisfied.” (95) This dispenses with long doctrinal requirements or even technically-specific theological nuances. This is not about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, but is instead about whether you agree enough with the Gospel to act upon that agreement.
Where ‘confession of fealty’ is concerned, Bates doesn’t imagine the “praying of the sinners’ prayer,” as so many Evangelicals are keen to emphasize. Instead, Bates has a much more public and political “confession” in mind.

“Paul does not envision raising your hand in church or silently praying a prayer in your heart as a sufficient ‘confession’ (nor does Paul say that such an action couldn’t initiate salvation, but he clearly intends something more substantive). Paul is talking about something public and verbal, like what might happen at an ancient baptism…” (98)

Bates biblical example is when Paul is on trial before Felix in Acts 24 and he “confesses” he belongs to “the Way.”

Likely it’s Bates’s third element that will ruffle the most feathers. I can already hear the chants of “works righteousness” coming from the Reformed camp. Nevertheless, Bates is smart to point directly to Jesus’s teachings on works in the Sermon on the Mount. Like any Anabaptist would, Bates shows that Jesus wasn’t concerned merely with professed loyalty, but embodied loyalty. “Jesus himself indicates, in what is perhaps the most terrifying statement in the New Testament, that confessing that he is Lord is not on its own sufficient to secure eternal salvation [referring to Matt. 7:21-23]. Allegiance includes obedient action.” (99) Bates goes on to summarize this point, “Professed allegiance is not sufficient; the allegiance must be realized by genuine, albeit not perfect, obedience. Pistis must be embodied. In fact, because salvation is a bodily journey, it cannot be any other way.” (99)

About Objections

When an author who is providing such an innovative proposal as this one, I personally love it when she or he includes an entire chapter addressing potential objections—especially when the potential objections are so thoughtfully considered and responded to. On a related note, few things aggravate me more in a book review than a reviewer who raises questions the book addresses as if they are left unanswered by the author. This is precisely what happened when this book was reviewed in Christianity Today. [8] The reviewer asks, “When, for instance, have I shown enough allegiance?” This a very good question—one the author absolutely anticipated! That is why the author devoted four pages to answering it in an entire chapter devoted to addressing potential objections (cf. p.124-127). Honestly, when I read a review that raises questions a book answers, I question whether the reviewer actually read the book. Whether the Christianity Today reviewer actually read chapter five or not, you should! Bates thoughtfully responds to the questions that came up for me and which I anticipated others may have. And, unlike that reviewer, I paid close attention to how Bates nuanced his arguments. I thought he did a fine job.

There was a footnote (8 on page 107) in which Bates lumps Open theism and Process theism together in one group and dismisses both. I found that to be very unfortunate. Wright has made similar dismissive statements. I’m not sure why New Testament scholars remain so ignorant of the distinction between these two groups, but it continues to be a source of frustration for those of us who have studied the subject extensively. If I had been Bates’s editor, I would have advised him to only comment on what he has actually researched.

Bates’s specific discussion of “The New Perspective on Paul,” (114-117) is nuanced, but he ultimately and correctly sides with scholars like Sanders and Wright that a reassessment of Paul’s theology apart from Reformation goggles reveals the deep distortions that have haunted Pauline studies ever since. For example, he writes, “E. P. Sanders and others have shown that most ancient Jews believe that they were born into covenant membership as an ethnic privilege (chosen by God by race as much as by grace), and hence that they were moving toward final salvation so long as they did not flagrantly disregard the commands.” (114) And later in that same section, “[In Galatians for example] Paul is probably not as concerned with perversions regarding how an individual might enter into right relationship with God as he is with false ideas about what can truly demarcate the people of God as the genuinely ‘declared to be in the right’ people of God…” (114) Those who have read any of Wright or McKnight’s work in this area will surely recognize these cues and see that Bates is drinking from the same wells (so to speak). That is not to say that Bates does not make a point to distinguish himself from Wright on a couple of occasions like in a footnote on page 181.

All in all, this chapter should serve to settle some minds enough to continue reading, or it will clarify Bates’s thesis so much that those with prior commitments too big to fail will simply stop reading. And that is very unfortunate, because the next two chapters form a hook on which Bates’s entire thesis hangs. Unless Bates can show that the Gospel is part of an altogether different meta-narrative (overarching story), then his proposal of salvation by allegiance alone will fall flat. He must show that the very concept of salvation has been distorted and that will require reimagining the human person and human destiny.

Restored and Reigning

Chapters six and seven demonstrate that the primary reason why Christians have traded in the Full and True Gospel for a Truncated (Plan of Salvation) “Gospel” is because they have misunderstood the overarching story the Bible is telling. If one is convinced that the story the Bible is telling is one of legal-indebtedness to a wrathful judge in a cloudy realm somewhere up above, and that Jesus died to settle that debt, appease that wrath, so that those who accept his free gift of grace can go to heaven when they die, then the Plan of Salvation “Gospel” makes perfect sense. Problem: Angry debt-collector in the sky. Solution: Human sacrifice to pay the debt and appease the wrathful god. But if this story is shown not to be the one the Bible tells, suddenly this “gospel” doesn’t seem like such “good news” after all.

In fact, the reality is, this is not the story the Bible is telling. Bates, like Wright and McKnight before him, stands in a long line of New Testament scholars who have been championing a new vision of the biblical narrative. Instead of the angry divine banker in heaven, these scholars have shown that the God of the Bible is the God of love whose original covenant of vocation (the “Image of God”) still stands today. This God created human beings to be “idols” (as Bates puts it), who rule and cultivate the world God made. “The purpose of bearing the image [of God] is so that the created order can receive proper governance, so that humans can bring the wise rule of God in a tangible fashion to creation.” (148) This “idol” language is important because it gets at a very central part of the biblical story, immersed in the ancient Near Eastern cultural context in which the Bible was written. In the ancient Near East, the best possible location for an idol to reside was in a temple where worshippers access the power and healing of the deity. In this section, Bates wisely draws upon some of the ground-breaking and highly relevant work of acclaimed Old Testament scholars like John Walton and Nijay Gupta.

Together, these two chapters pack a powerful one-two punch. They shape an alternative narrative from that which N. T. Wright calls the “works contract” story. Instead, Bates shows that the Bible is telling the story of humans having the image of God restored in them by Christ so that they can rule and reign over the created order alongside God as they were always intended. This new meta-narrative forms a compelling foundation upon which Bates’s salvation-by-allegiance-alone thesis can build.

“For if final salvation is not primarily about the individual soul going to heaven, but about embodied transformation as the individual participates alongside others in the holistic restoration of the entire cosmos, then the logic of the allegiance-alone proposal takes on greater coherence. Moreover allegiance entails an invitation to rule alongside him and is the foundation for transformation into his image.” (131)

“The good news, on the other hand, is that when we participate in worship of the one true God, the result is that we become increasingly sensate and insightful—we see, hear, smell, and touch the God-crafted reality of the created order, and we correctly recognize that it points to truths about God’s very self. And in so doing we are set free to be fully human one again; that is, we are increasingly conformed to the image of the Son, the truly human one, the one who fully images God. […]

In the incarnation, Jesus comes to us as the genuinely human one, the fulfillment of God’s intentions for what it means to be most completely human. The stunning mystery of what it means to be a flourishing human is this: to be fully human doesn’t mean to be the opposite of God; it means to fully image God, to reflect and represent God flawlessly in God’s entirety, glory, and splendor.” (155)

This new meta-narrative also cuts against all individualism that has crept into our conception of salvation and of justification. I’m particularly grateful to Bates for the phrase “allegiant community” for it inspired my imagination in ways I can only attribute to the work of the Holy Spirit. A better summary of overarching story of the Bible, I have not read in some time.

“God placed humans in Eden as idols imbued with his own spirit so that other humans and all creation could dynamically experience the sovereignty of God through the image of God borne by each human. Yet immediately the Adamic image of God became defaced and distorted through sin so that creation failed to receive its proper stewardship. Jesus the Messiah is the authentic, full image of God, the faultless representation. Jesus, who died for our sins, fully bears the image of God, and subsequently our own image can be renewed as we join the allegiant community in gazing upon him. So the end goal of salvation is that through allegiance we become fully human—that is, that we flawlessly mirror God because we have been fully conformed to the image of Jesus the Christ.” (162)

This telling of the biblical story directly contrasts with the “works contract” narrative and undermines the individualistic, transactional, and escapist connotations of the Truncated (Plan of Salvation) “Gospel.” Which makes it a great segue into chapter eight, which is no doubt the crux of Bates’s proposal.


Bates’s proposal thus far has cleared the ground of misconceptions about pistis, clarified the content of the Gospel proper, and established the correct biblical narrative in which the Gospel is situated. Now it’s time to turn to that contentious doctrine of justification. What does the allegiance proposal have to say about justification?

First, Bates supplies readers with a bit of historical and theological background. An essential part of Reformation’s theological dimension was its development of an alternative doctrine of justification from the Roman Catholic church. Here Bates summarizes the two contrasting views succinctly: “Protestants tend to favor a model of ‘imputed’ righteousness… and Catholics ‘imparted’ or ‘infused’ [righteousness].” (166) Then he discusses the famous Pauline doctrine of being in Christ: “…if union with Jesus the king is key to understanding personal salvation, then it is worth asking what this union entails.” (167) Indeed, that’s what the debate is all about.

But before Bates can put forth his proposal regarding justification, he has one last stop to make at notoriously arcane and extraneous discussion of “order of salvation.” Reformed thinkers in particular are often obsessed with it! Here, I found Bates discussion fine overall, but best in the places where he critiques individual election and where he contrasts the systematic options with an approach that employs “biblical theology.” (170) There was one place in this section that disappointed me, however. I was disappointed by his brief comments on divine foreknowledge. Like the footnote on Open theism and Process earlier, Bates again wades into philosophical waters well over his head while devoting far too little space to a very complex subject. In cases like this, it would be better not to discuss it at all than to discuss it with a single sentence and a string of proof texts. Readers deserve better.

In this section, I was most appreciative of Bates’s argument for union with Christ beginning at baptism along with the footnote on page 174 which outlines an early church baptism. Overall, his discussion of the order of salvation was well done, especially in the places where he shows the artificial nature of systems that are imposed upon Romans to create an order that isn’t inherent in the text. To top it all off, Bates includes a wonderful quote from Michael J. Gorman in a footnote on page 175 that includes the phrase “cruciform theosis.” Bonus points!

But, by far, the most important part of this chapter is the development of “incorporated righteousness.” This is where the proverbial rubber meets the road. Here is where Bates intends to propose a way forward between Catholics and Protestants. On the one hand, Protestants are insistent that righteousness be God’s alone and never ours alone. But, on the other hand, Catholics are equally insistent that righteousness be something that God grants to human beings. The first step to bridging this divide is to deconstruct some unhelpful categories. The legal nature of the Protestant doctrine of justification has led to some implications which do not square with the text. Bates wants to be sure to begin his proposal with the text as the center-piece, not a borrowed systematic theology from centuries ago. I particularly liked this section:

“Protestants urgently need to reassess their grammar of salvation. For such distinctions between initial righteousness (so-called justification) and subsequent righteousness (so-called sanctification) simply cannot be consistently maintained by a careful exegesis of the specific terms, thought structures, and categories actually used by even a single one of our biblical authors. Such terminology promotes an individualistic, one-time transaction model of justification and in so doing does not deal seriously with justification’s past, present, future, communal, and creational dimensions. In the final analysis Scripture does not make consistent qualitative distinctions between the declared righteousness of the Messiah attained at our initial moment of justification (when we are united with him) and our righteousness in the Messiah as subsequently nurtured and maintained by the Holy Spirit, as if one or the other were more primal or important for our final salvation.” (186)

This passage alone might make the entire chapter worth reading. But, Bates goes on to show how “incorporated righteousness” does the most justice to the biblical material. He has criticisms for both “imputed” as well as “infused” righteousness. For Protestants, he argues:

“…unless classical notions of imputation are reduced from instantly ‘covering’ to an in-the-Christ ‘reckoning’ or ‘considering’ (per logizomai in Gal. 3:6 and elsewhere)—which does not really clarify how the ‘reckoning’ transpires, then imputation cannot be regarded as a biblical concept or term. That is, apart from a prior (or simultaneous) union with the Messiah, imputed righteousness collapses.” (188)

Meanwhile, for the “infusion” view, Bates writes,

“On the other hand, infused righteousness does front union, and so it is a helpful metaphor; but it is inadequate as a standalone description of how we attain a right standing before God. […] An organic metaphor, such as infusion, that suggests the flowing over of the Messiah’s righteousness and resurrection life into us upon declaration of allegiance is totally appropriate so long as it is clear that the righteousness communicated properly belongs to Jesus as the Christ and only derivatively to us (that is, it is never imparted so that it becomes our own independently.” (189)

So both conceptions have shortcomings. Imputation is a legal fiction that does not comport with the biblical witness, while infusion can devolve into impartation if it is not guarded against independence. Bates’s solution is “incorporated” righteousness.

“In-the-Messiah or incorporated righteousness can be defined as the saving perfect righteousness of Jesus the Christ that is counted entirely ours when we join the Spirit-filled body that is already united to the righteous one, Christ the kingly head.” (190)

That is, Christ’s righteousness overflows to the allegiance-yielding community empowered by the Spirit. All those who are joined to that body through baptism and communion, who share in its embodied obedience share too in Christ’s declaration of being in the right before God. Bates’s proposal demonstrates a high ecclesiology that combats the endemic individualism of too much Protestant soteriology. However, only time will tell what kind of reception it receives. As for me, I welcome it happily.

Allegiant Applications

All of this is wonderful, provided it finds legs and feet in our everyday lives. But how? In Bates’s final chapter, he homes in on practical ways the allegiant proposal can be applied.

First, this new proposal must yield new modes of presentation. “…a true gospel invitation must summon the hearer toward a confession of allegiance to Jesus as the king or cosmic Lord.” (199) To do this, the presentation of the Gospel must cease to be direction to invite Jesus into one’s heart, and instead be the proclamation of the Jesus story in all it’s power-releasing glory. Bates calls it “a grand, sweeping cosmic drama that encompasses Jesus’s entire career.” (199) But this especially means that the preaching of the Gospel cannot be reduced to “forgiveness transaction.” (200) And this means keeping the focus squarely on Jesus, not on the individual.

“The gospel proper is not a salvation procedure focused on the individual. It is the universal-wide story of Jesus’s entire life—from preexistence to anticipated return—a story that unveils God’s saving power for the whole created order. It is a salvation story into which the individual can be whisked up when he or she joins the allegiant community.” (201)

Furthermore, this means we must be sure to center Gospel proclamation in the right meta-narrative. Rather than polemics against “works,” as in the meta-narrative N. T. Wright calls the “works contract,” the allegiant proposal puts works in their proper context, as embodied union with Christ in obedience and discipleship. An appropriate proclamation of the Gospel is one which is nested in the entire breath and depth of the biblical story, from creation to New Creation. (What Wright calls the “covenant of vocation.”) And, finally, a proper Gospel presentation will not give hearers a false sense of assurance, suggesting that a one-time prayer guarantees ultimate salvation. Such glib promises are more harmful than good. As Bates puts it, “Instantaneous assurance compromises the allegiance-demanding gospel and spiritually endangers anyone who blithely accepts it.” (204)

Second, the allegiant proposal connects the Gospel to ministries of compassion, justice, and mercy in way that the truncated, “Plan of Salvation,” false gospel never could. Since salvation is no longer conceptualized as an escape from the world, or as opposed to doing good works, all the aspects of the church’s mission that strengthen and empower this-worldly lives. While the Plan of Salvation “gospel” tells people that they get a ticket to heaven when they die, the Full Gospel contained in the allegiant proposal proclaims that God is making all things right, redeeming the whole world, and that whole communities can be restored in anticipation of their ultimate restoration. The allegiant proposal puts the proleptic Kingdom of God back into the Gospel that was hacked off by the Plan of Salvation “gospel.”

This breathes new life into the church’s mission, as it ennobles the work of believers in all manner of spheres. Artists are joining with God in the aesthetic beatification of the world in anticipation of the new creation. Activists are fighting for a world of equity characterized by justice in anticipation of the new creation. Engineers, medical professionals, first responders, —the list goes on and on; in every sphere of life, the work that Jesus-disciples take up with integrity and intentionality is a contribution to the restorative mission of God in the world.

Third, the allegiant proposal gives us eyes to see the ways our allegiance is demanded by powers other than Christ. The more aware we become of the Gospel demands of obedience and discipleship, the more evident it is that we must resist the non-Gospel demands of other powers of this world. Bates clearly contrasts the United States “pledge of allegiance” with the Apostles’ Creed. While the flag pledge inculcates allegiance to America, the Apostles’ Creed inculcates allegiance to Jesus Christ.

“Each week children in the United States place their right hands over their hearts, face the flag, and pledge allegiance. […] The Apostles’ Creed needs to be mobilized so that it functions like a flag pledge—to become the Christian pledge of allegiance for the universal church.” (210)

Practices such as these are formative, whether we realize we are being formed in the moment, or not. The allegiant proposal simply makes the obedience-demanding aspect of these practices more overt. While we cannot live our embodied lives free from formative practices, we can be more intentional about which practices we allow ourselves to formed by. The liturgical confession of the Apostles’ Creed has been forming Christian communities for centuries. Bates only encourages readers to recover this ancient, powerful practice and harness its formative potential.

There are many additional applications not covered here. The allegiant proposal will likely give rise to several new expressions of Gospel proclamation that are faithful to the New Testament. And those proclamations will unleash the creative Spirit to empower Jesus-disciples to embody the restorative Kingdom of God in myriad ways and by myriad means.

Criticism: Atonement Mishaps

Overall, Bates does an excellent job summarizing complex theological concepts for a lay, if informed, audience. However, there was one area of the book that fell flat in this regard. That was Bates’ treatment of atonement. Obviously, a book of this brief length cannot comprehensively express all the many nuances of atonement theology. Nevertheless, there were a few frustratingly poor sections in this regard. In particular, it was very disappointing to read Bates take up the language of “wrath satisfaction” in regard to atonement. Considering that he seems very well-read in McKnight and Wright’s work, I expected a much more careful and rich exploration of these themes than was often present. For example, Bates writes, “The Messiah was put forth by God as a hilasterion (‘mercy seat’), the place where atonement was made, which involved the satisfaction of God’s wrath and the removal of sins.” (180) Well, the first half of that sentence is correct and the second half is patently incorrect. No one disputes that the authors of the New Testament use the temple imagery to metaphorically describe what happened in the death and resurrection of Jesus. They also use a wide range of other metaphors which Bates makes very little mention of. But, to make such a direct correspondence between a fact like: the hilasterion is the mercy seat where atonement was made, and the unbiblical theory that God’s “wrath” was somehow “satisfied” is sloppy at best, but possibly grossly irresponsible.

Perhaps Bates completed this book before having the benefit of reading N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began. One could forgive him if that were the case. But, either way, such a terse and self-assured statement loaded with centuries of false presuppositions does not belong in what is otherwise a thoughtful and precisely-written book. In any case, these few off-handed references to debunked and destructive atonement theories do not constitute a large enough component of Bates’ overall proposal to call it into question. However, his case would be strengthened if they were not included.

The Future of Justification

Nearly two thousand years ago, the apostle Paul warned that there will be false presentations of the Gospel. Today, a truncated, “Plan of Salvation” “gospel” (if it can be called that) has become pervasive. Many millions of people who profess faith in Christ believe they have a ticket to heaven, to evacuate the planet, because their guilt vanished in a legal fiction called “justification” when they intellectually affirmed an abstract concept of Jesus’s death somehow taking away their sins. Many of these millions of people continue living their lives unchanged by this gospel, and unchanging of the world they inhabit, because this gospel makes no demands upon them, and grants them no vision of a God restoring the world. It is a discount gospel, a gospel of “free stuff,” which can be collected and discarded at will like all the other disposable products consumed or wasted in so many American malls. This false gospel has in recent years been confronted by several of the world’s leading New Testament scholars and practitioners. And it is time to lay it to rest once and for all. In the place of this truncated, “Plan of Salvation” gospel, the church must embrace the ancient-yet-ever-new Gospel of King Jesus and its accompanying demands of allegiance and discipleship. With a renewed focus on the Gospel story of God in Christ redeeming the world, the church can once again take up its holistic mission and resist all other allegiance-demanding powers. Without it, the church may cease to be a relevant movement in the world, while other powers dictate the narrative of history.

The allegiant proposal has the potential to produce fruitful dialogue among Christian traditions who have long held seemingly-irreconcilable differences. But, Bates’ theses are so straightforward, an optimistic person could be forgiven for dreaming of the day when Christians from all three major branches of the church could share in the same power-unleashing and world-transforming Gospel of King Jesus. The reality is far more complex, of course. Dialogue between Catholics and Protestants has not always been as diplomatic as it has in recent decades. Nevertheless, I am choosing to allow this book to give me hope for the future of the church and our understand and practice of salvation. And I’m grateful to Matthew Bates for giving the church this gift.


  1. Justification by N. T. Wright
  2. McKnight’s endorsement of Justification
  3. .p28
  4. Ibid
  5. “Free Grace Theology, History”
  6. “The Gospel Coalition”
  7. Anthony Daw, Review in Journal for Baptist Theology & Ministry, Fall 2017, Vol. 14, No. 2, p.106-108.
  8. Kelly M. Kapic, “Do We Need a Stronger Word for ‘Faith’?” Christianity Today, June 21, 2017 []

ReKnewing Hermeneutics, Part 3: A Review of Crucifixion of the Warrior God by Greg Boyd

Crucifixion of the Warrior God (hereafter CWG) is a two-volume, 1,300-page tome written by Greg Boyd. It addresses the dilemma posed by the contradictory portrayals of God’s relationship to violence between the Hebrew Bible and in the New Testament’s testimony to Jesus. In the Hebrew Bible, God is portrayed as committing and commanding violence. But in the New Testament, the crucified Messiah who eschewed violence is portrayed as the definitive and final revelation of God’s character and nature. This creates tension within the text itself for those, like Boyd, who are committed to both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament as “God-breathed.” It is that tension that Boyd seeks to resolve by use of a Cruciform Hermeneutic and with his Cruciform Thesis, which form Volumes I and II of CWG.

In part one of this review, I summarized and commented on Volume I: The Cruciform Hermeneutic. In part two, I summarized and commented on Volume II: The Cruciform Thesis.

Originally, part three was meant to be something close to a comprehensive collection of the top objections to CWG and responses. But, after attending the ReKnew: Cross Vision conference last week, I am more than satisfied that Greg has addressed the most pressing concerns that have been raised. ReKnew will be releasing Greg’s responses in chunks in the weeks to come. So, stay tuned for those.

However, from my involvement in a 500-member Facebook group discussing the book, I have gotten a good sense of who are Greg’s primary critics. In this post, I’ll survey the landscape of criticism in a non-comprehensive way, then I will home in on the criticism that has been the most pernicious and divisive.

The Three Camps of Critics

There are three primary camps of CWG critics. Here I’ll elucidate each group and their distinctive angle of attack.

1. From the Right: The Fundamentalist Critique

As usual, Greg’s willingness to rethink traditional theological positions and traditional biblical interpretation has once again garnered him criticism from Traditionalists or Conservatives. No one is really shocked by this. By now, given Greg’s advocacy for Open theism and nonviolence, most Conservatives have already “farewelled” him long ago. But, this time around, a new accusation is being leveled against him: the charge of Marcionism. For those of you not familiar, Marcion was a second-century heretic who is famous for rejecting the God depicted in the Old Testament, claiming that God was instead a “demiurge” (a lesser, created being that is not wholly good or perfect). Some also note that he also rejected much of the New Testament as out of line with his preferred portrait of God, which centered around the Gospel of Luke and Paul’s letters. Today, when Conservatives want to shame and condemn free thinkers who dare to question the violent portraits of God in the Hebrew Bible, they immediately go to their new favorite accusation: Marcionism.

One of the reasons this accusation falls completely flat is that Greg goes out of his way in CWG to argue extensively that Christians are not free to reject any of the canonical Scriptures. He argues that, on the authority of Jesus’s trust in them as God’s word, we who are Jesus’s followers are not allowed to merely dismiss them. Greg even goes to great lengths, employing many creative and new frameworks (e.g. speech-act theory), to claim that all of Scripture, including the Old Testament, is “God-breathed.” Much of his hermeneutic/thesis rests on this, in fact, as he argues that in the Scriptures’ “God-breathed” nature lies its “cross-shaped” dimension.

One would think all this would be enough to repel the accusation of Marcionism, but one would be wrong. That assumes that such an accusation is made by folks who have thoroughly read the book, and from firsthand experience I can testify that this is typically not the case. Instead, the accusation is made reflexively by those who read or heard somewhere that Greg reinterprets the portraits of divine violence and these folks immediately slam down the Marcionite button without thought. Polarization isn’t just something that has heightened in North American, partisan, political area, it is also something that has heightened in the North American, partisan, religious area as well.

The folks in this camp largely hold the solution Greg rejects in CWG, which he called the “Synthesis Solution.” This rejected solution seeks to hold in tension the violent portraits of God in the Hebrew Bible together with the nonviolent life and teachings of Jesus. For these “Flat Bible” folks, both are equally valid and authoritative revelations of God’s character and nature.

One very unfortunate aspect of this critique from the Right is the implications it has for discipleship in the local church. When the Bible’s teaching is flattened in the way that Greg’s Fundamentalist critics have, any story of ethnic cleansing in the Hebrew Bible holds the same weight for Christian discipleship as the Sermon on the Mount, for example. The effect is to completely nullify any weight Jesus’s teaching might have for discipleship if it runs counter to what we find in the history of Israel’s wrestling with God. Instead of taking Jesus seriously, this way of reading Scripture sets “Love your enemies” alongside “Eye for an eye” and allows them to cancel one another out. In this view, Jesus is not the “Word made flesh,” Jesus is simply one word among many.

This is where Greg’s Neo-Anabaptist convictions have sharpened his hermeneutics and made his approach to interpreting Scripture incredibly vital for Christian discipleship. For a Neo-Anabaptist like Greg, the teachings of Jesus are not on the same level as Joshua’s Canaanite massacre. In fact, any modern person employing a “narrative” hermeneutic, will recognize the error of the Flat Bible approach. The canonical Scriptures form one, unified story that culminates and is fulfilled in the life of Jesus. Therefore, to hold any part of the Old Testament on par with the life of Jesus is misunderstand the metanarrative the Bible provides. It is only when we recognize the rightful, privileged place Jesus’s teachings occupy for the equipping and edification of the church, will we even begin to read the Scriptures in a faithful and useful way.

2. From the Left: The Liberal Critique

Greg’s work naturally attracts many Post-Evangelicals because, like him, they are rethinking traditional ideas. However, many Post-Evangelicals have simply drank the Liberal Kool-Aid but may not be educated enough to realize it. Many Post-Evangelicals have absorbed demythologization by osmosis. They haven’t studied Bultmann per se, but they are his disciples nonetheless. Others have simply followed the lead of other, more-educated Post-Evangelicals who have rejected the Fundamentalists doctrine of “Inerrancy” with prejudice. For them, Greg’s cogent, thorough, and nuanced defense of the “God-breathed” nature of Scripture fell on unhearing ears. All they heard was “Inerrancy” and stopped listening.

The folks in this camp largely hold the solution Greg rejects in CWG, which he calls the “Dismissal Solution.” Recently, several very gifted and intelligent scholars and writers have produced books which demonstrate that Christians needn’t be concerned about the portraits of divine violence in the Old Testament because they either didn’t happen (from the historical and/or archeological records), or they are dismissed by Jesus and the apostles. For many of Greg’s Post-Evangelical readers, these books have brought great comfort and ammunition against their former Fundamentalist comrades. These books have provided a very clean and neat washing of their hands of those messy and ugly parts of the Bible that “good” Modern Christians want to pretend aren’t there. These books have also complemented well the teachings Greg and others have pioneered which reject any moral ambiguity in God’s character. For these folks, for God to be truly Good, these aspects of the Bible must be cut out.

As with the Fundamentalist critique, this end of the spectrum also has a problem with discipleship. Teaching people that what they don’t like they can simply discarded may be a very attractive prospect for people formed by consumeristic and wasteful Western culture, but it fails to form disciples in the patient and faithful Way of Jesus. In other words, Western Christians are accustomed to having a faith that caters to them—“McChurch” as some have called it. Typically, Post-Evangelicals lead the charge against such a distortion of true Christianity. But, the reality is that the Left has just as big of problem with self-indulgence. Both ends of the spectrum tailor their faith to their liking in the same way that our cable channel packages are tailored to our viewing preferences and our Facebook news feeds are tailored to our political preferences. In the same way that people have created echo-chambers and thought bubbles in their social lives, these Post-Evangelicals seek to create a biblical bubble and an exegetical echo-chamber. They want the Bible to be a “safe space” with no “triggers.” But it simply isn’t and no amount of Jeffersonian editing will change that.

3. From “Above”: The Purist Critique

The Liberal Critique has also given birth to a third and more pernicious camp that are even more upset by the Cruciform Hermeneutic/Thesis than the Liberals. These are those who are 99.9% on board with Greg’s ideas, but spend 99.9% of their time and energy critiquing the .1% with which they disagree. Theirs is a strain of the Liberal Critique, but a much more virulent one. Instead of simply wanting to excise large portions of the Bible from the Christian faith, they want to also excise large portions of Christian theology as well.

In particular, these “Purists” want to completely expel that nasty part of Christian theology which relentlessly contends that Jesus suffered in his human nature, because Jesus was a united person, not a half-human/half-god hybrid person. They want a god who never suffers at all and instead lives impassible bliss, high above the sorrows and woes of humanity. They couch their critique in Patristic fidelity, but they fail to grasp that early church thinkers wanted to be faithful to the life of Jesus, not to Greek concepts. If there a points at which these two clash—the life of Jesus prevails, not Plato! What the early church thinkers thought it most important to preserve was the unity of Christ’s person: One Person, Two Natures. They did not want a schizophrenic Jesus! But this camp wants a Jesus who is never touched by human infirmities, never counted among humanity in our fallen state: “separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.” (Eph. 2.12) In short, the Jesus they want can’t help us because he has no clue what we’re going through. As Bonhoeffer famously put it, “Only a suffering God can help.” (Letters and Papers from Prison)

Along with their need for a Jesus cut off from the human experience of alienation, this camp also chaffs at the notion of divine judgment. Greg’s game-changing Cruciform Hermeneutic/Thesis, which contends that God is never violent, doesn’t go far enough to insulate them from bad feelings. They need a God who never judges, period. No judgment whatsoever!

You might be thinking: But the Bible speaks of God’s judgment …a lot. Yeah, they know. They just don’t like how that makes them feel. So, it’s got to go. And if they can’t just cut those passages from the Bible (as in the “Dismissal Solution”), then they will seek a way to simply explain all judgment away. Some even attempt to extend Greg’s work in that effort. Their logic sounds like: “If the Cruciform Hermeneutic/Thesis can be used to reinterpret the portraits of divine violence, why can’t they just reinterpret all judgment away, so we don’t have to worry about it at all?”

The reason why is fairly simple, actually. Unlike the Purist Critique, the Cruciform Hermeneutic/Thesis isn’t an attempt to rid the Bible of everything that offends Liberal sensibilities to create some sort of “safe” Scripture. No, the Cruciform Hermeneutic/Thesis is, instead, an attempt to faithfully interpret the Scriptures in accordance with their climatic revelation—the life of Jesus. The life of Jesus, which itself is climatically summarized in the Cross—is not devoid of divine judgment. No, the life of Jesus is the breaking in of the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom that stands in judgment of all other kingdoms. The life of Jesus is the invasion of the holy into a world that has been hijacked by principalities and powers at odds with God. This life, particularly on the Cross, exposes, disarms, makes a spectacle of, and defeats the kingdoms of this world, characterized by their anti-God, anti-creation corruption. God’s Kingdom must judge if it is to redeem. God’s Kingdom must judge if it is to liberate. God’s Kingdom must judge if it is the truth entering a world of lies. God’s Kingdom must judge if it is the rightful Kingdom.

What’s ironic is that Greg has championed nonviolence and unconditional love for decades. He has been such an outspoken proponent of God’s unending agape that he has been judged by Conservatives as a Liberal who rejects all judgment. But, with the publication of CWG, now Greg is judged by the Purists as not being enough of a proponent of God’s love.

That’s the problem with Purists; you can never measure up to their impossible standards. Their idealism ruins the very progress they claim to want, but doesn’t happen fast enough or completely enough. With Purists “the Perfect” is the enemy of “the Good.” And when Purists succeed in vilifying the Good in contrast to “the Perfect,” evil wins. Ask Hilary Clinton.

Defending Redemptive Withdrawal

The number one complaint from the Purist camp is that Greg’s “Principle of Redemptive Withdrawal” is mean. They don’t like it because it seems negative and gives them bad feelings. Instead, they want a God who never judges anyone, never exposes evil, never stands against injustice. Just a big, soft Teddy Bear god who only hugs people.

Problem is: That’s not love. Love doesn’t only embrace the broken or lift up the oppressed. Love also holds a mirror up to the ugliness of the world. Love also forms a contrast to that which is hateful, destructive, indifferent, impassible, and corrupt. Without malice, love judges. Love is a standard up to which evil does not measure. That’s not love’s fault—that’s evil’s fault.

I remember when I was a teenager and had not surrendered my life to Christ. The last people on the planet I wanted to spend time with were goody two shoes Christians! This wasn’t because I’d had horrible experiences of emotional abuse or judgment by Christians. That’s actually not the case at all. The Christians I knew were incredibly loving and compassionate people. But the reason I wanted nothing to do with them is because their very existence reminded me of my alienation from God. Their love reminded me of my rage-filled, self-destructive depression. Their forgiveness reminded me of the people I’ve hurt. And on and on and on. They never had to mistreat me at all for me to want nothing to do with them. Their love judged me. This is the love the Purists want nothing to do with. They only want the part of love that washes away sin, the part that welcomes and accepts.

As someone who cares deeply about those who suffer from injustice and labor under systemic oppression, I don’t want the love that only accepts and never judges. In fact, I’d say a love that never judges but only accepts, isn’t truly love at all. Only a love that stands against evil is true love. Only a love that condemns injustice is true love. Anything less is enablement and co-conspiracy. God and the devil would be in league together. Anything less is unworthy of the God revealed in Jesus.

Love Makes Space

Divine Redemptive Withdrawal is the most loving way God can judge free agents. When God created a world populated by semi-autonomous beings, God withdrew some of God’s say-so over the universe. God withdrew out of love to make space for other beings who are not controlled by God. In order for God, who is all in all, to have not-God, there had to be a withdrawal. Human agents need space to be free. Without space—space to fail, space to sin, space to reject God, space to mistreat creation—there could be no true freedom. Open theists like Boyd aren’t the only ones who believe this. All non-determinists believe this. This is the Libertarian concept of Free Will.

In this act of making space for the other, God’s love is manifestly demonstrated, even when the space results in the human other experiencing the consequences of misusing that freedom. The Purist camp hates parenting analogies, because they have all kinds of impractical theories about parenting borne of modern psychology. But, it remains true, regardless of what parenting guru says otherwise, that human development happens through experiencing the consequences of our actions. If we never experienced the consequences of our actions, we could never learn what actions are harmful or which are beneficial. A good parent makes space for their children to develop to maturity. There is no possibly way for a human being to develop to maturity without that human experiencing the consequences of their actions.

The alternative is a “Helicopter God,” from the term “Helicopter Parent.” The Helicopter Parent is one who hovers over their children shielding them from experiencing the consequences of the child’s negative actions. It comes from a deep desire to protect the child—which is good—but it is a perverse overreaction. Instead of protecting the child, it insulates the child from important feedback that will help the child grow. In time, this can have long-term negative effects. A person who is shielded from the consequences of their actions may never develop the necessary empathy to become a healthy person—a person who understands how and why their actions may hurt others.

The God of the Bible—the God revealed in Jesus—is not a “Helicopter” God.

Similarly, in relationships there is a need for healthy individuation. Even in the closest relationships, like those between marriage partners or those between parents and children, healthy individuation is necessary to prevent codependency. Codependency has been identified as a major source of social and emotional illness. In order for participants in these relationships to individuate, they need space to fail, space to experience the consequences of their actions. One of the most acute and painful examples of this is when one member of such a relationship struggles with addiction. The loving thing for the other person in the relationship to do is not to become an enabler. This can mean that the other person in the relationship may need to make space for the addict to get help that requires separation. To an outside observer, this could appear unloving. But, in reality, it is the most loving thing to do. It is most loving to make space, not to enable the actions that are destroying the beloved.I won’t belabor the point anymore. Hopefully not even the Purist camp would argue for the virtues of codependency.

The God of the Bible—the God revealed in Jesus—is not an enabler.


Greg Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God is a game-changing approach to reading Scripture. For years to come, everyone who studies the relationship between the portraits of divine violence in the Old Testament and the nonviolent life and teachings of Jesus will in some way have to engage with this work. My hope is that it will receive as wide acceptance as possible, because I haven’t encountered an approach that is more faithful to the climatic self-revelation of God in Christ yet.




ReKnewing Hermeneutics, Part 2: A Review of Crucifixion of the Warrior God by Greg Boyd

Crucifixion of the Warrior God (hereafter CWG) is a two-volume, 1,300-page tome written by Greg Boyd. It addresses the dilemma posed by the contradictory portrayals of God’s relationship to violence between the Hebrew Bible and in the New Testament’s testimony to Jesus. In the Hebrew Bible, God is portrayed as committing and commanding violence. But in the New Testament, the crucified Messiah who eschewed violence is portrayed as the definitive and final revelation of God’s character and nature. This creates tension within the text itself for those, like Boyd, who are committed to both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament as “God-breathed.” It is that tension that Boyd seeks to resolve by use of a Cruciform Hermeneutic and with his Cruciform Thesis, which form Volumes I and II of CWG.

In part one of this review, I summarized and commented on Volume I: The Cruciform Hermeneutic. In part two, I will summarize and comment on Volume II: The Cruciform Thesis. Then, part three will be my review of the book overall, including especially my thoughts on its most controversial aspects.

Navigating Volume II

To reiterate, with a book of this size, I’ve found it helpful to think of it in terms of its “parts”. There are seven parts total—three parts in Volume I and four parts in Volume II. The four parts of Volume II, which will be covered here, correspond to the four Principles of the Cruciform Thesis. This is important to keep in mind. Read together, the principles of the Cruciform Thesis inform the Cruciform Hermeneutic and vice versa. Taken together, they form a ground-breaking new way of understanding God’s relationship to violence in the Bible.

  • Part 4 corresponds to the Principle of Cruciform Accommodation
  • Part 5 corresponds to the Principle of Redemptive Withdrawal
  • Part 6 corresponds to the Principle of Cosmic Conflict
  • Part 7 corresponds to the Principle of Semiautonomous Power

And, as with Volume I, there are also several chapters of bonus content. In the case of Volume I, there are four appendices:
Appendix I: The Alleged Anti-Judaic Attitude

  • Appendix II: Jesus and Violence
  • Appendix III: Violence in the Pauline Epistles
  • Appendix IV: Violence in the Book of Revelation
  • In the case of Volume II, there is a postscript and six more appendices:
    Postscript: Unlocking the Secret of the Scroll
  • Appendix V: The Escalation of Violence in the Promised Land
  • Appendix VI: Hardening People’s Hearts
  • Appendix VII: Can Satan’s Kingdom Be Divided Against Itself?
  • Appendix VIII: The Quail Plague
  • Appendix IX: The Testing of Abraham
  • Appendix X: The Issue of Supersessionism

The current three-part review will not include summaries of the ten appendices nor the postscript. But I did find them useful and am very glad Boyd chose to include them.

Shelley Boyd and Abductive Reasoning

When you read as many of Greg Boyd’s books as I have (which is most of them), one of the aspects of his writing that you come to appreciate the most are his meaningful metaphors, adept analogies, and imaginative imagery. Even though CWG is clearly geared more toward serious theology nerds like me—those who can and will devote time to reading a tome of this magnitude—Boyd nevertheless incorporates elements that capture readers’ imaginations so that they are able to appreciate complex concepts in a more straightforward way.

Boyd began Volume I with the analogy of the “Magic Eye.” Like the computer-generated visual puzzle, the Scriptures are multi-dimensional. And just as one must learn how to adjust their vision to see the “3D” aspect of the image, so too a person must learn how to think about the PDVs in the Hebrew Bible to “see” how they reflect the God who is cruciform love. This analogy helps to frame the message of Volume I so that readers can track with Boyd through some rather complex hermeneutical techniques. Volume II is no different. Boyd again begins with an analogy that will stick with readers. And to help the analogy stick, he incorporates his own wife of thirty-seven years, Shelley Boyd. I don’t know how enthused Shelley was about her depiction in this analogy, or even her incorporation into the book at all, but I find it both adorable and memorable.

The analogy goes like this: It’s safe to say Greg and Shelley know each other pretty well. Naturally, Greg thinks he knows how Shelley would be likely to respond to just about any situation, considering they’ve faced quite a few situations together over the course of their life together. But does he really?

One hypothetical day, Greg is out and about and happens to spot his wife on a public street before she spots him. For a brief moment, he’s able to observe her without her knowing that her husband is watching. As he watches her fondly, he notices her passing a homeless veteran in a wheelchair, panhandling. From his vantage point, he can see that this person seems to know Shelley. It seems as though she has addressed him by name. Greg can practically complete the scene in his mind before it happens, he thinks. He knows his wife and he knows she is a loving, compassionate person. So, he confidently anticipates how this scene will unfold—that Shelley will greet this man kindly and perhaps even give him some money. But, much to Greg’s surprise, instead of giving the man some money, or even greeting him kindly, she instead gives him a piece of her mind and a knuckle sandwich!

Now, here’s where the teeth of the analogy sink in. What is Greg to make of what he has just witnessed. It doesn’t make sense to him. On the one hand, he has had decades of experience with a person he knows to be a loving, compassionate, and nonviolent person. But, on the other hand, he has just witnessed that same person verbally and physically abuse a vulnerable person in a fit of rage. He seems to have to choose: Is Shelley still who he has known her to be? Or, based on this new evidence, is Shelley now a completely different person Greg no longer knows?

This is analogous to the place many Christians and Bible-readers find themselves when they have grown to know and love the God revealed in Jesus Christ—the God who stoops to take on our humanity, who stands up for justice, who embraces outcasts, who suffers for those he loves, who refuses to resort to violence, and who even lays down his own life for those who are murdering him. Then, these same Christians and Bible-readers are confronted by the PDVs in the Hebrew Bible and they find themselves asking, “Is this the same God?”

This is where Boyd introduces readers to an important exercise that will color his theological reasoning throughout this volume. Boyd proposes that we use “Abductive” reasoning. Abductive reasoning stands in contrast to the kind of reasoning we are likely more familiar with: “Deductive” reasoning. Here’s how Boyd relates this type of reasoning to the Shelley-and-the-Panhandler analogy:

“In contrast to deductive reasoning, which moves from assumed premises to necessary conclusions, as well as inductive logic, which draws generalized probable conclusions from specific observations, abductive logic postulates a hypothetical scenario that, if true, would render otherwise puzzling data intelligible. In my case, the puzzling data is my wife’s uncharacteristic violent behavior toward this disabled panhandler, and my goal is to render this behavior intelligible by adducting hypothetical scenarios about ‘what else might have been going on.’ ” (631)

The phrase “something else must be going on” will become an important one as readers continue into Volume II. This phrase captures the intention of Boyd’s theological reflections in the four principles. In other words, the four principles of the Cruciform Thesis are Boyd’s attempt to get to the bottom of “what else is going on” when it comes to uncharacteristic behavior of God we see in the Hebrew Bible’s PDVs, which clash with the characteristic nonviolent nature of God revealed in Jesus.

As with the “Magic Eye” analogy from Volume I, I also found the Shelley-and-the-Panhandler analogy helpful when I began to feel bogged down by complex theological concepts in this volume. I think it was very wise for Boyd to give this mental tool to readers up front so that they can use it throughout the rest of the book. It’d also be good for you to keep it in mind as you read the summary of Volume II that follows.

Part 4: The Principle of Cruciform Accommodation

The first principle of the Cruciform Thesis is the “Principle of Cruciform Accommodation.” Boyd covers this principle in two chapters, “The ‘Masks’ of a Humble God: Revelation and the Eternal Outpouring of the Triune God” (chapter 13) and “The Heavenly Missionary: Yahweh’s Accommodation of the Law, Nationalism, and Violence” (chapter 14).

Boyd kindly gives a definition of each of the four principles at the start of each part. In chapter 13, Boyd defines the Principle of Cruciform Accommodation this way:

“In the process of God ‘breathing’ the written witness to his covenantal faithfulness, God sometimes displayed his triune, cruciform agape-love by stooping to accommodate his self-revelation to the fallen and culturally conditioned state of his covenant people.” (644)

The Principle of Cruciform Accommodation is the best principle with which to start the Cruciform Thesis, since it is the principle which most closely relates to the Cruciform Hermeneutic. Boyd is showing that the way God works through the Bible (i.e. the dual nature of God’s “breathing”) corresponds to the very nature of God. In the same way God allows the authors of Scripture to act upon God, by attributing violence to God, God’s nature is actually susceptible to being acted upon. This nature of others-centered “stooping,” as Boyd describes it, is the nature of vulnerable love that Paul uses the word “kenosis” to describe in Philippians chapter 2. Like Moltmann and Gorman, Boyd believes this kenotic love revealed in Jesus is not at odds with the nature of God, but is precisely revelatory of God’s eternal nature.

“The orthodox doctrine of the Trinity states that from all eternity, God exists as three Divine Persons who fully pour themselves out for one another who fully dwell within one another in perfect, other-oriented agape-love. This triune pouring out and mutual indwelling was best expressed in the Cappadocian doctrine of the ‘perichoresis’ of the three divine Persons and, with Balthasar, Moltmann, and others, I contend that this divine perichoresis entails a sort of self-emptying (kenosis) in the very essence of the Trinity. That is, the very identity of each distinct divine Person is found in the unique way each selflessly and completely offers himself up in love to the other two. And this is precisely why the manner in which the Son selflessly and completely offers himself up in love to the Father’s will, and on behalf of humanity, by dying on the cross corresponds to, and thereby reveals, the eternal nature of the triune God (Phil 2:6).” (646)

This principle immediately runs into an obstacle when it encounters the Classical theological tradition since this tradition proposes God exists outside of and apart from any suffering, any change, or any sequence. So, Boyd must spend some space in the book confronting this tradition.

Starting Points are Crucial

In order to assess whether or not a portrait of God in Scripture is an accommodation of God’s nature, we must have some concept of God’s nature from which to start. This starting point is what is in dispute between Boyd’s cruciocentric model and the Classical theological tradition. In the Classical tradition, as exemplified by Thomas Aquinas, God’s nature Must be altogether unlike the world, altogether “necessary, simple, timeless, unchanging, and perfect.” (653) Boyd will spend several pages summarizing Aquinas’s argument for such a belief. None of Aquinas’s arguments are rooted in Scripture, nor especially in the crucified Christ. They are purely rationalistic. In fact, they are so disconnected from the Bible, Aquinas even discounts “revelation” in general, saying “revelation does not tell us what God is,” it can only “join us to him as if to an unknown.” (657) What a strikingly different picture of God than that which is painted by the Bible, and particularly the New Testament!

So, if Classical theism’s answer to the question of who God is amounts to a philosophical shrug, what then should be the criteria? Boyd’s answer is, very unsurprisingly, the crucified Christ!

“The only reason it was concluded that Jesus and Scripture have nothing to say about God’s transcendent nature is because classical theologians felt they needed to define ‘God’ before reflecting on Jesus and Scripture.” (666)

“If we anchored all our thinking in the cross, would it ever occur to us to suspect that God is altogether immutable or ‘above’ experiencing sequence? The Word was made flesh and became our sin and our curse. If we trust this revelation, God apparently can change and God apparently does experience a ‘before’ and ‘after.’ Along the same lines, if our complete trust was in this supreme revelation and not in our own reasoning processes, would we ever suspect that God cannot be impacted by what transpires in the world or that God cannot suffer? If we trust that the one who hung in agony on the cross reveals God’s true nature, would we not rather conclude that God is profoundly impacted by what transpires in the world and is capable of the greatest suffering imaginable?” (667, emphasis Boyd’s)

By starting with the crucified Christ, as Boyd suggests, all of the most challenging metaphysical conundrums posed by Classical theism are rendered irrelevant. Rather than focusing on the metaphysical nature of God, the Biblical witness calls us to focus on the functional and moral nature of God—particular God’s covenantal faithfulness. (674-675) And, more fundamentally, the Classical tradition twists the biblical concept of power from that which is rooted in others-oriented love to one that is concerned with unilateral control and determinism. (679-682)

Why then is God depicted in many other ways, ways that seem to be at odds with the revelation of God in the crucified Messiah? To explain this, Boyd turns to a rhetorical technique employed by the Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther.

God Wearing ‘Masks’

In order to lovingly accommodate God’s people in the literature of the Old Testament, God often takes on an appearance that closely resembles the other gods of the Ancient Near East. Like all the other gods around Israel, YHWH seems to at times condone things like animal sacrifice, polygamy, and even ethnic cleansing. Martin Luther referred to this phenomenon as God “wearing masks.” Only later, in the New Testament, do we learn from Jesus that such masks were a concession due to the hardness of human hearts. In this section, Boyd quotes Goldingay who captures this sentiment succinctly:

“ ‘Since the framework of Deuteronomy’s laws so forcefully portrays Israel’s sinfulness,’ [Goldingay] writes, ‘it is not strange that the laws themselves presuppose acts and events which are less than ideal,’ For example, ‘they do not forbid slavery, monarchy, war, polygamy, or divorce.’ As such, Goldingay notes, all such laws are ‘open to the statement that Jesus makes regarding the last of them (Mark 10:6),’ which is that they ‘reflect God’s accommodation to the ‘hardness’ of human hearts, rather than God’s actual desire for how his people would live in the world.’ We find accommodations such as these running throughout the entire OT.” (715-716)

The Principle of Divine Accommodation means that, just as we see in the cross of Jesus, God is willing to “stoop” to look like someone or something God is not, out of love. In the case of the cross, God was willing to take on the appearance of a condemned criminal, someone deserving of death. In the case of the OT, God was willing to take on the appearance of an ANE tribal deity. Both the cross and these ‘masks’ in the OT reveal a God who loves people more than God’s own image—a humble God who is more self-giving than face-saving.

Part 5: The Principle of Redemptive Withdrawal

Boyd second principle in the Cruciform Thesis has most certainly proved to be the most controversial for those on the left of the cultural spectrum. In this principle, Boyd’s use of the concept of withdrawal has angered those who do not wish to believe that God ever abandons or judges anyone. This was a predictable response, one I’m sure Boyd anticipated.
Boyd uses another metaphor to frame this principle—one that I’ve also used for years. Boyd compares God’s strategy of turning violence and evil against itself, thus defeating it without employing it, to the martial art of Aikido. Aikido is different from other martial arts such as Karate, since Aikido’s goal is “nonresistant combat, turning the force of aggressors back on themselves in order to neutralize their opponent and hopefully to enlighten them regarding the evil in their heart that fueled their aggression.” (768) The Principle of Redemptive Withdrawal, as Boyd defines it is:

“God judges sin, defeats evil, and works for the redemption of creation by withdrawing his protective presence, thereby allowing evil to run its self-destructive course and ultimately to self-destruct.” (768)

How this relates to Jesus’s cross is this:

“God the Father did not act violently toward the Son when the Son bore the judgment of our sin that we deserved. Rather, with a grieving heart, the Father simply withdrew his protective hand, thereby delivering his Son over to wicked humans and fallen powers that were already ‘bent on destruction’ (Isa 51:13). Yet, by abandoning the Son to suffer the destructive consequences of sin that we deserved, the Father wisely turned the violent aggression of these evildoers back on themselves, causing evil to self-implode and thereby liberating creation.” (768)

The core of Boyd’s conviction about this principle stems from his interpretation of the “Cry of Abandonment” (hereafter simple “the Cry”). This is a hotly-contested point of contention among theologians. There are many lined up against Boyd who contend that the Cry did not signify genuine suffering or a truthful statement about the reality of that moment. Instead, many contend that Jesus was merely alluding to Psalm 22 in some teaching or preaching manner. However, I think Boyd sufficiently refutes such interpretations by showing that not only that such an intentional use of a subtle teaching technique would have been highly improbable considering Jesus’s present excruciating (from the word for crucifixion) agony and torturous pain, but also that were that the case, Mark’s effect of the Cry would be completely undermined. In fact, Boyd does not shy away from calling out the Nestorianist tendency of those who make this claim (772)—which was particular encouraging to me, since I too have recognized this tendency in some of my writings.

What, Then, of the Trinity?

Theologically-astute readers may be puzzled by Boyd’s insistence on the genuineness of Jesus’s abandonment on the cross. They may rightly question what effect such an event would have on the Trinity. From reading the complaints of critics, you’d think Boyd doesn’t specifically address this objection, but he does.

“[…]if God’s eternal essence is the perfect loving unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then any suggestion that this perfect unity could be ‘severed,’ even for a moment, would, by definition, entail that God’s eternal triune essence would have ceased to exist, which is to say that God would have ceased to exist! I consider this a metaphysical impossibility on both biblical and philosophical grounds. The existence of God, is a necessary, not a contingent, reality. Along the same lines, any suggestion that the triune essence of God could be conceivably severed presupposes either a rather tritheistic conception of three divine Persons who are only contingently united or a modalistic form of monotheism for which the three divine Persons are only a contingent expression. Either implication is obviously contrary to the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity.

Contrary to the thinking of some, I do not believe we need to downplay the reality of Jesus’s divine abandonment on the cross to avoid these logically impossible and theological heretical conclusions. For we can simultaneously affirm the ‘unbroken continuity of divine presence and activity between Christ and God,’ as Torrance puts it, while also affirming the authenticity of Christ’s abandonment if we simply remember that this horrific separation was entered into by all three divine Person’s [sic] as an expression of perfect agape-love for humanity. That is, since it was agape-love—the very essence of the triune God—that led the Father and Son to decide to experience this separation, the anguished experience of separation of the Father and the Son during the crucifixion constitutes the quintessential expression of the perfect love that constitutes the essential unity of the Father and the Son. Indeed, the unsurpassable cost of this divine separation expresses the unsurpassable perfection of the love of this divine union.” (776-777)

Or, more concisely, Boyd writes,

“[…]the three divine Person’s [sic] sacrificed their previously uninterrupted experience of perfect loving union in order to express the perfect loving union that defines them as God […] the Holy Spirit ‘unites Father and Son together in their extreme separation’ on the cross. […]Jesus’s despairing cry on the cross expresses rather than negates the real, perfect, eternal love that necessarily binds the three divine Persons.” (778)

Far from dissolving the Trinity, of which Boyd has been accused, Boyd specifically explains that the love demonstrated on the cross, by Jesus giving himself over and the Father giving Jesus over, demonstrates their loving unity, the same loving unity that defines God as Trinity. Another way of simplifying this is that Jesus was abandoned in one sense but not another. In the sense that Jesus was given over to evil persons to be destroyed he was abandoned to the consequences of sin. But in the sense that this giving over by the Father was an expression of the love that is the quintessential characteristic of both the Father and Jesus, Jesus was not abandoned. Nevertheless, Jesus’s experience of abandonment was real and genuine.

On Wrath…

This leads to Boyd discussion of “wrath.” What should be clear by this point is that Boyd does not believe God commits violence. That’s one of the central convictions of CWG. But there is a long tradition in Western Christianity of associating God’s wrath with direct violence, particular in the “Penal Substitution” theory of atonement. In this chapter, Boyd reframes wrath from the idea that God directly employs violence to the biblical motif of God’s “giving over” of persons to the consequences of sin and evil. The apostle Paul specifically makes this connection in Romans chapter one. God’s “wrath,” Paul writes is “revealed” against all ungodliness and suppression of the truth by God’s “giving over” (repeated three times) of persons to the consequences of sin.

Even more specifically, Boyd is saying the Father does not employ violence against the Son on the cross.

“[…]the suffering of the cross is shared, in different but equal ways, by all three divine Persons, and that none of the violence suffered by Jesus throughout his passion was caused by God. […]this expression of divine ‘wrath’ against sin involved no personal animosity on the part of the Father toward Jesus, let alone any act of violence on the part of the Father toward Jesus. It was wicked humans, under the influence of demonic powers, who carried out all the violence described in the passion accounts.” (781)

An important part of Boyd’s atonement theology that sets his view in contrast to Penal Substitution is that Boyd does not believe God needed to be appeased or satisfied in any way. Boyd emphatically states that God’s essence is love and only love and is never anything but love. The cross was not to change God, but to change us.

“The judgment Jesus endured was not a matter of setting God right by allowing him to vent his rage but a matter of God setting the world right by overcoming sin and evil with his self-sacrificial love.” (783)

Boyd thoroughly teaches readers that the withdrawal he is talking about is redemptive, not punitive. God gives over people to the consequences of sin and evil because ultimately this is how God defeats sin and evil—by turning it in on itself. Recall the Aikido metaphor. God redirects the coercive and destructive power of sin and evil back on itself without having to exert coercive or destructive power himself. God’s power is the power of self-giving, uncontrolling love.

One of the biblical areas where Boyd demonstrates this is through church discipline. If you did not understand the Principle of Redemptive Withdrawal, you’d have to conclude that the apostle Paul is prescribing violent punishment upon sinful church members. But, the more one understands the Principle of Redemptive Withdrawal, the more compassionate and merciful Paul’s instructions are revealed to be.

“While it certainly collides with the contemporary western world view, the assumption behind Paul’s instruction—and it arguably is behind Jesus’s instruction on church discipline as well—is that when a person is turned outside the kingdom community, they are, in effect, turned over to Satan, the destroyer, who lords over the entire domain outside the kingdom community (e.g. 2 Cor 4:4; 1 John 5:19; Rev 12:9). This further implies that there is a sort of protection afforded members of the kingdom community that is not available to outsiders. Hence, imitating God’s methods of redemptive withdrawal, Paul instructs this community to discipline this unrepentant man by withdrawing their fellowship from him, thereby turning him over to the destructive ‘god of this age’ (2 Cor 4:4).” (817)

There’s no doubt Boyd is correct when he says Paul’s instructions clash with certain Western sensibilities. Already, in the criticism of CWG, the bulk of the backlash is against this principle, however rooted in the revelation of Scripture it is shown to be. Nevertheless, Boyd is thorough. He spends the next 70+ pages showing that the Principle of Redemptive Withdrawal is a significant biblical motif. Yet, Boyd knows this will likely be his most controversial principle, so after the chapters of “Crime and Punishment” and “Doing and Allowing,” he includes a chapter wholly devoted to objections. Critics would be wise to read that chapter before leveling any accusations.

I think it’s especially important that people do not misrepresent Boyd as saying God is does not always love people or seek their good. That would be a mischaracterization of Boyd’s position. Boyd specifically teaches that God does always love and always seek the good of creatures. I’ll say more about my take on Boyd’s position in Part 3 of this review. For now, I’ll simply cite Boyd saying what critics won’t quote him saying,

“Scripture indicates that God is always working to influence people in various ways, including, most importantly, to search for him and possibly find him, whatever ‘finding him’ looks like in their particular culture and circumstances (Acts 17:27). Yet, so long as God’s influence remains noncoercive, it in no way threatens anyone’s freedom agency.” (908)

In Part 3, I’ll address one of the most common objections I’ve read against this principle. Namely, that it can be wielded like a weapon to judge and condemn others, especially those who are actually victims themselves. Many from the left who are protective of minority and vulnerable populations have leveled this objection. Unfortunately, few if any have actually interacted with Boyd’s written responses to this objection which he anticipated and included in the book itself. I couldn’t tell you why.

Part 6: The Principle of Cosmic Conflict

Not only does Boyd propose that all violence depicted in the Bible is attributable to agents other than God, he also proposes that some of those agents are entities (or forces) that are typically unseen. Now, if you’re at all familiar with Boyd’s body of scholarly work, you’d already know he has written extensively on this topic in the past. In 1997 and 2001, Boyd published the first two installments of his his trilogy introduction of the “Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy,” that is due to be completed some time before Jesus returns with a third book entitled The Myth of a Blueprint. In God at War and Satan and the Problem of Evil, Boyd shows how the authors of Scripture held a “warfare worldview” that included the existence of typically unseen entities (or forces) that nevertheless exert influence over our dimension. The principle, succinctly stated is:

“The agents that carry out violence when God withdraws his protective presence to bring about a divine judgment include perpetually-threatening cosmic forces of destruction.”

This hypothesis is important for a number of reasons, not least of which it begins to fill in the picture of what else is really going on when the OT depicts God as committing or condoning violence. Boyd’s conviction that the biblical worldview is populated by typically unseen entities (or forces) led him to reexamine the texts of terror with a new lens. What he found surprised him. Not only could a case be made that what appears to be the work of YHWH in the text is actually the work of these other entities (or forces), it was everywhere!

Part six is made up of four chapters: “The Battle of the Gods,” “Caught in the Cross Fire,” “When Hell Breaks Loose,” and “The Dragon-Swallowing Dragon.” In what could have been a stand-alone book, Boyd summarizes and focuses massive amounts of biblical research and insight into just under 200 pages, to show that the biblical authors attribute violence to typically unseen entities or forces against which God is in conflict. Much of the violence humans experience is, according to the warfare worldview, the fallout of cosmic conflict between God and evil, not the result of God’s will.

In this section, Boyd isn’t primarily concerned with convincing readers of the existence of “demons,” as conceived of by many Modern, Western Evangelicals. Instead, Boyd is primarily concerned with convincing readers to adopt a hermeneutic that takes into consideration the worldview of Scripture’s authors—namely, one that takes seriously the existence of that which is typically unseen and working to undo creation.

“[…]the fact that we no longer conceive of demonic agents the way ANE people did (viz., by associating them with the earth, netherworld, sea, sea monsters, etc.) does not affect the theological meaning of this narrative. For our purposes, it suffices to simply note that it was a demonic agent, however conceived, and not God that carried out this violent judgment with the world of this biblical narrative.” (1165)

How Boyd’s Principle of Cosmic Warfare, as one part of the Cruciform Thesis, meets with the Cruciform Hermeneutic becomes a bit clearer when Boyd homes in on an important example from the New Testament. When Paul refers to Korah’s rebellion in I Corinthians 10, he replaces God with a destroying angel. What prompted Paul to reinterpret the OT narrative is the all-surpassing revelation of God in Christ. Boyd argues that in this instance, Paul illustrates both the Cruciform Hermeneutic and the Principle of Cosmic Conflict. Paul reasoned that “something else was going on,” and reinterpreted the text based on what he knew to be true about God because of Jesus.

Regardless of whether you approach the demonic the way Boyd does or not, the operative aspect of this principle is that there is something else going on besides God simply causing or condoning violence. The biblical narrative itself testifies to this principle through the warfare worldview of its authors. We moderns would do well not to mistakenly think we are more aware of what’s going on than the ancients. It is likely that our Enlightenment worldview has blinded us to as much as the ancients’ warfare worldview illuminated for them.

Part 7: The Principle of Semiautonomous Power

The fourth and final principle of the Cruciform Thesis is defined by Boyd this way:

“When God confers divine power on select people, he does not meticulously control how they use it.” (1196)

This principle is set out in only one chapter, entitled “Mauling Bears and a Lethal Palladium.” Boyd’s task with this principle is to explain why some stories from the OT seems to indict God in the use of violence by God’s agents or artifacts. Boyd’s basic argument is that God does not micromanage divine power God grants select people. Those agents are are free to use that power in ways at cross purposes with God.

Jesus is an apt example, considering Boyd argues extensively that Jesus is the all-surpassing revelation of God’s character and nature. At one point in the passion narrative, after Peter has presumptuously attempted to defend Jesus against arrest, Jesus makes a curious claim. He remarks that if he wanted he could “call twelve legions of angels.” The number is clearly not the point here. The point is that if Jesus had desired to defend himself against arrest, he certainly wouldn’t need Peter’s puny sword. But, this remark also betrays an important aspect of Jesus’s power. Jesus had the capacity to misuse it.

“Notice that this statement not only presupposes that Jesus believed he had the power to do this; it also presupposes that Jesus believed that, had he done so, the angeles would have obeyed. And yet, as I said, had Jesus used his authority in this way, it would have been contrary to the Father’s will. Indeed, had Jesus done this, the plan for Jesus to be delivered over and crucified would have been aborted. And this demonstrates that the way Jesus’s divine authority was used depended on what Jesus, as a full human, decided to do with it.” (1212)

Jesus is a model and example of a human being entrusted with divine power and authority. He is our model because he proved entirely trustworthy. He is an example because he had the capacity to use that power and authority in a way that was at cross purposes with the Father. Jesus willingly submitted his human-divine will to the Father.

This, however, isn’t the case for all human being entrusted with divine power and authority. Boyd spends the next nearly 50 pages giving examples of the way God has granted power and authority to agents other than Godself and those agents, not God, have used that power and authority to commit violence.

This principle draws upon much of the work Boyd has done in the area of Free Will Theism. Boyd is an ardent advocated for what is known as “Libertarian” free will. In contrast to “Compatibilism,” the Libertarian conception of free will holds that for an agent to be truly free, their choices must be at least partially unconstrained by the control of another agent resulting a choice that could have been otherwise. Boyd often calls this power of to create an outcome that could have been otherwise “say-so.” Here’s how Boyd explains it:

“Every time we deliberate about a choice we need to make, we are acting on the conviction that the Creator has given us the power to resolve possible courses of action into a single course of action. Whatever theoretical beliefs about free will and/or determinism we might espouse, we all act on the assumption that it is up to us to choose between options. And we do so for the simple reason that it is impossible to deliberate without assuming this. Not only this, but regardless of what we believe about free will and/or determinism, we all act on the assumption that we can use the ‘say-so’ God has given us in ways that either alight with or conflict with God’s will. Which is to say, we all act on the assumption that the power that God has given us to affect what comes to pass resides in us in a semiautonomous way.” (1217-1218, emphasis Boyd’s)

Free will, as an example of divine power and authority entrusted to us, can be misused. In the same way, many of the stories in the OT that contain agents committing violence in ways that seem only attributable to God, are actually stories of agents misusing power and authority granted by God.



In 1,300 pages, Greg Boyd has reframed biblical interpretation for a postmodern world so that Christ is magnified and faith is maximized. The frame Boyd provides has four sides. Each of the four principles of the Cruciform Thesis form a side to the frame. In the center of the frame is the biblical narrative, reinterpreted using the lens of the Cruciform Hermeneutic. When this frame and lens are applied, the Cross comes into focus like a 3D hologram rising out of the text.

God looks like Jesus. Jesus is the all-surpassing revelation of who God is. Jesus taught and modeled and revealed God’s cruciform character and nature. God is cruciform. As such, God takes upon Godself our violence and our projection of violence, taking on the appearance of a violent, tribal, warrior deity. Just as Jesus willingly took on the appearance of a shameful criminal insurrectionist, yet the reality was Jesus was innocent, God is innocent. And just as, viewed through the eyes of faith, the cross becomes the quintessential revelation of God’s self-giving love, so too, when viewed through the cruciform lens, do the portraits of divine violence in the OT become crucifixes that reveal the loving heart of the God who stooped to take on our sin and evil.

Boyd’s hermeneutic and thesis have already begun to be challenged. This was expected. Boyd is accustomed to being misunderstood and misrepresented. It’s not fair, but he has learned to cope. Nevertheless, CWG will, from now on, be represent a hermeneutic and thesis with which theologians and biblical scholars will be forced to wrestle. It marks a turning point in modern biblical interpretation that will likely characterize this period for decades to come. Any serious proposal that attempts to contend with the Bible’s portraits of violence will have to contend with Boyd’s proposal in CWG.

Be on the lookout for Part 3, where I will address common objections I’ve read and give my overall thoughts on CWG.


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 ( 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

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.


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.


3 Insights from The Cross and the Lynching Tree: A Good Friday Sermon

Today is Good Friday, the day of the Christian year set aside for prayer, deep reflection, and contemplation upon the Cross of Jesus—his suffering and death. However, I must warn you that none of the activities we engage in today will divest the Cross entirely of its mystery. The crucifixion and death of Messiah Jesus, the Son of God, is one of the great mysteries of the Christian faith, alongside the Incarnation (which we celebrate at Christmas), and the Resurrection (which we will celebrate on Easter Sunday). To our Modern ears, a “mystery” sounds like a challenge. Because of our conditioning as Modern people, we instinctually think something is only a mystery because we have not cracked it yet, put all the pieces together, figured it out. But the Cross, like the Incarnation and the Resurrection, is not that kind of mystery. It’s not a case waiting to be cracked; it’s not puzzle waiting to be solved. No, the Cross is an inexhaustible mystery. The Cross is a mystery like its a portal to the incomprehensible life of God. We can never fully comprehend it, though many of humanity’s most brilliant minds have tried. In fact, it’s a symptom of our Modern disease that we constantly try to reduce the Cross to a formula, a theory, and use punchy one-liners to define it. We constrain and reduce what God has done, by trying to explain what we are called to contemplate with awe and humility. The Cross is a mystery, not a mechanism for having our guilt removed or going to heaven. So, there won’t be any attempt at an exhaustive explanation for how the cross “works” this evening. Instead, my goal is merely to invite you to stand with me in awe and humility at this great mystery.

At the same time, while we can never fully explain the Cross, or fully comprehend the Cross, there are ways that God gives us insight into aspects or dimensions of the Cross that have profound implications for our lives. Simply because we cannot know all there is to know about the Cross, doesn’t mean we can know nothing.

During the season of Lent, I’ve read a book by the preeminent theologian Dr. James Cone, entitled The Cross and the Lynching Tree. As you can probably tell simply by the title, this book was a deeply challenging read emotionally. Dr. Cone does not hold back from describing in detail the horrific and grotesque practice of lynching which has characterized this country since Reconstruction after the Civil War until only recently. Reading this book during Lent was the most meaningful Lenten practice I’ve ever participated in. As I’ve read it, I’ve been praying. I’ve been attentive to my thoughts and emotions. That’s one of the ways we discern what God is saying to us and how God is at work in our lives—we pay attention to what’s going on, on the inside of us—how we’re being moved. We open an internal dialogue with God. What does this feeling mean, God? I’ve been asking God questions like that a lot lately. I want to invite you to do some of that discernment work this evening. As I share a few insights I’ve gleaned from Dr. Cone’s work. I want to invite you to pay attention to what’s going on, on the inside of you. Have an internal dialogue with God about what you’re feeling. I think that’s one of the ways we can make of the most of Holy Week and experience lasting transformation.

I want to share with you a few insights I’ll take away from The Cross and Lynching Tree, because I truly believe Dr. Cone’s thoughts on the Cross are incredibly timely for you and me in the United States in 2017. This American context we share right now is fraught with racial conflict and I believe that the Cross gives us lenses through which to see our world that will help us to make better sense of racial conflict and help us to see God at work.

1. De-sanitize the Cross

The first insight I’ve gleaned is that if we’re going to have any hope of making sense of racial conflict in our nation today, we’ve got to De-sanitize the Cross. Did you know we have sanitized the Cross? For tens of millions of people in the United States, the Cross is nothing more than a religious symbol that means forgiveness or grace or something like that. We make crosses out of dainty little pieces of gold and we wear them around our necks as jewelry. The Cross has become so innocuous that we hardly notice them when they are plastered everywhere! I’m a pastor and I hardly notice them!

When the Cross is plastered everywhere, and is thought of by nearly everyone as simply a religious symbol of grace and forgiveness, it’s easy to forget what the Cross originally was—Terrorism! Crucifixion was terrorism! Deliberate, calculated terrorism! Crucifixion was designed to send a death threat to all who saw it. Romans used crucifixion to terrorize Jewish people in Jesus’s day—to intimidate them, so that they would remain subservient to Rome. They used it to maintain their control over the minds of the Jewish people.

How many of you saw the movie Get Out? If you haven’t seen it, you have to. It’s an important film. I won’t give any spoilers, because I think you really need to see it. But I bring it up because of this point about mind control. It wasn’t just fear that made the terrorism of the Cross powerful—it was the sense of utter powerlessness that it rendered in any onlooker. That sense of utter powerlessness was brilliantly depicted in the movie as a “sunken place” from which a person can’t escape. When Jesus was still a small child, Jewish Galileans, Jesus’s neighbors, perhaps even some relatives, staged a revolt against Rome. The Romans decided to send Galilee a message, so they crucified 2,000 of the Galilean rebels. Crosses with people Jesus might have known, writhing in pain, along the road, as far as the eye can see. Think of the trauma that inflicted upon the Galilean onlookers. That’s a tactic designed to force people into a “sunken place.”

If we’re ever going to get insight into the racial conflict in our country, we’ve got to start by de-sanitizing the Cross. Dr. Cone puts it so well,

“As Jesus was an innocent victim of mob hysteria and Roman imperial violence, many African Americans were innocent victims of white mobs, thirsty for blood in the name of God and in defense of segregation, white supremacy, and the purity of the Anglo-Saxon race. Both the cross and the lynching tree were symbols of terror, instruments of torture and execution, reserved primarily for slaves, criminals, and insurrectionists—the lowest of the low in society.” (p.31)

There was a political rally during the election season, in which a older white man violently attacked a younger black man as he was being escorted out of the stadium as a protester. Afterward, the man who attacked him was asked some questions on video. He was asked why he attacked the young man and he responded that the young man wasn’t acting “very American” and then he said that next time he “might have to kill him.” At another political rally, a man who was video recorded shouting obscenities at a protester was asked about it and he responded saying, “I can’t believe I did that. It was me, but I’m not a hateful man. I just got caught up. When I saw the video all over the news of me doing that to that young man, I was just disgusted with myself.” This is called “scapegoating,” putting all the blame and shame on a person or a group of people, and punishing or expelling them to free the community or society from their sense of their own sin. Make no mistake, scapegoating unifies people. But it doesn’t unify them in the Holy Spirit, it unifies them in the unholy spirit of accusation—the spirit of the accuser (ha-satan).

In the Gospels, we read of the crowds who cheered for Jesus as he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday with shouts of “Hosanna” and “Son of David”. That very same crowd had turned into an angry, violent mob by Friday. They freely allowed themselves to be swept up in the spirit of hatred and violence.

The De-Sanitized Cross is a Lynching tree. We see reflected in it all the anti-creation, anti-human forces of evil that are work in our world converging on an innocent human being. That’s why Peter says to the ruling council in Acts, “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.” (5.30)

The world-renowned historian and theologian N. T. Wright wrote,

“Anyone looking at the cross of Jesus with a normal understanding of the first-century world would think: the rulers and authorities stripped him naked and celebrated a public triumph over him. That’s what they normally did to such people.” (Paul for Everyone, p.170)

When we De-sanitize the Cross, we can see the Crosses in our own society. We can see the ways innocent people are victimized and scapegoated. We can see the powers at work, sweeping people up in hatred and violence.

Let’s do some of that attentiveness and discernment work now.  How’s your internal dialogue with God going? Are you being attentive to your emotions? Let me ask you some more general questions: Who are the scapegoated in our nation today? Who are those who the powerful have scapegoated? And now, how about some more personal questions: Who have you and I scapegoated? Who do we wish to heap all of the shame and blame and guilt upon?

While the De-sanitized Cross is an instrument of terror and a death threat, the second paradoxical insight I’ve gleaned from Dr. Cone’s book is how the Cross “Dis-arms the Powers.”

2. Disarm the Powers

Colossians 2.15 is one of my favorite verses in all of Scripture. “Having disarmed the powers and authorities, [Jesus] made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”

Dr. Cone uses a powerful analogy in the book that stuck with me. In 1955, Emmett Till was brutally lynched at 14 years old in Mississippi. Dr. Cone writes,

“If anything was remarkable about the Till lynching, it was not so much the callousness of the deed as the militant response it evoked. If lynching was intended to instill silence and passivity, this event had the opposite effect, inspiring [African Americans] to rise in defiance, to cast off centuries of paralyzing fear. The signal of this change was marked by the actions of Mamie Till Bradley, Emmett’s mother, who refused to allow this heinous act, like so many similar cases, to remain in the shadows or to fade from public memory. When Emmett’s body was brought back to Chicago, she insisted that the sealed casket be opened for a three-day viewing, exposing ‘his battered and bloated corpse’ so that ‘everybody can see what they did to my boy.’ She exposed white brutality and black faith to the world and, significantly, expressed a parallel meaning between her son’s lynching and the crucifixion of Jesus. “Lord you gave your son to remedy a condition,” she cried out, “but who knows, but what the death of my only son might bring an end to lynching.” (p.66-67)

If the enemy thinks it has the atomic bomb, the ultimate weapon: Death, and it uses it, but it doesn’t work, what does it have left? Pontius Pilate said to Jesus “Don’t you know I have the power to kill you?” And Jesus essentially says back, “Is that all you got?”

The Cross is paradoxically the destruction of Jesus and the triumph of Jesus. On the Cross, Jesus somehow disarms the powers and authorities, rendered their ultimate weapon, not only useless, but uses it as a weapon against them! This is Divine Aikido! Somehow, God is able to fold the enemies’ attack back in on it. We don’t know how this works, we can’t explain it, but it has worked. For two-thousand years, Christians continue to follow Jesus even though it has often resulted in their death. Over 30 Christians were murdered by ISIS on Palm Sunday in Cairo, Egypt. But Coptic Christians will be back worshipping on Easter Sunday, because we don’t fear death.

Hebrews 2.14 says, “Since [God’s] children have flesh and blood, [Christ] too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”

Jesus was the scapegoat to end all scapegoating. Jesus took onto himself all the blame and shame and he absorbed it. Human beings violently sinned our sins into Jesus, and he took them. All the principalities and powers of the world tried to crush him, but he broke their power—the power of the fear of death—and he triumphed over them! The devil and the rulers and powers didn’t know their plan would backfire on them. Paul said, “None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” (1 Cor. 2.8) Jesus took it all for us, and what he gave us in its place is forgiveness, purification, new life, new humanity, oneness with God.

Here’s how Dr. Cone puts it in his book,

“God’s word is paradoxical […] a mystery that one can neither control nor fully understand. It is here and not here, revealed and hidden at the same time. “Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior” (Isa 45.15) Nowhere is that paradox, that ‘inscrutability,’ more evident than in the cross. A symbol of death and defeat, God turned it into a sign of liberation and new life.” (p.156)

You and I disarm the powers when we refuse to use the power of death, the power of the sword, coercive power.
You and I disarm the powers when we speak the truth to rulers and authorities prophetically without fear.
You and I disarm the powers when we embody the alternative new humanity created by Jesus in our communities of faith.

That’s one of the primary reasons I’m at New City Church. Because the way you and I disarm the power of racial hatred and violence is through intentionally forming and participating in interracial Christian community. The way you and I disarm the powers is by taking down the crucified ones of society from their crosses and joining with them as family. (p.161)

When we De-sanitize the Cross, we can see how it was an instrument of terror used by the powers. We can also see how the fear of death is the atomic bomb of the powers. But Jesus absorbs that blow and comes out the other side. He disarms the powers of their ultimate weapon and frees us from the fear of death.

Which leads me to the last insight I gleaned from Dr. Cone’s book I’d like to share with you. The Cross “Directs our Creativity.”

3. Direct our Creativity

One of my favorite aspects of Dr. Cone book is his commentary on black Christian art.

“The spirituals, gospel songs, and hymns focused on how Jesus achieved salvation for the least through his solidarity with them even unto death. There were more songs, sermons, prayers, and testimonies about the cross than any other theme. The cross was the foundation on which their faith was built. In the mystery of God’s revelation, black Christians believed that just knowing that Jesus went through an experience of suffering in a manner similar to theirs gave them faith that God was with them in suffering on lynching trees, just as God was present with Jesus in suffering on the cross.” (p.21-22)

Black preachers, artists, poets, musicians had a De-sanitized Cross. They saw its brutality reflected in their own lives and in the history of American racism. Part of Disarming the Powers for them was Directing their Creativity into artistic expression. Dr. Cone quotes Shawn Copeland, professor of theology at Boston College,

“If the makers of the spirituals gloried in singing of the cross of Jesus, it was not because they were masochistic and enjoyed suffering. Rather, [they] sang because they saw on the rugged wooden planks One who had endured what was their daily portion. The cross was treasured because it enthroned the One who went all the way with them and for them. [They] sang because they saw the results of the cross—triumph over the principalities and powers of death, triumph over evil in this world.” (p.151)

Art is also not the only way the Cross Directs our Creativity. Dr. King is one of the best examples of how the Cross Directs Creativity into nonviolent direct action. Cone writes,

“…for King nonviolence was more than a strategy; it was the way of life defined by love for others—the only way to heal broken humanity. Hate created more hate and violence more violence. King believed that the cycle of violence and hate could be broken only with nonviolence and love, as revealed in Jesus’ rejection of violence and his acceptance of a shameful death on a cruel cross.”

“King saw the cross as a source of strength and courage, the ultimate expression of God’s love for humanity.” (p.85)

As we meditate on what the Cross might have to say to our American context in 2017, I want to invite you to enter into this deep mystery with awe and humility. When we contemplate the de-sanitized Cross, we’re rightly disgusted by it; we’re rightly repelled by it. But when we see how Jesus turned what was an instrument of terrorism and torture into his own triumph over the powers, we are emboldened to confront the powers and authorities in our world. When we see how Jesus took the blow and absorbed it, overpowering death with love, we are freed from the fear of death and we can lives of hope even in the midst of a world still plagued by racism and violence. The de-sanitized Cross that disarms the powers directs our creativity into joining God in the renewal of all things. It beacons us to imagine that a new world is possible. We are empowered with courage to enter into the messy but beautiful work of seeking racial righteousness and justice in community.


The “Real” Jesus: Why Reza Aslan is Right! (…and Wrong)—Jesus, Revolution, and Objectivity

Reza_AslanFor those who are not familiar with Dr. Reza Aslan (like his Fox News interviewer, apparently), he is religion scholar (1) who has published several books on terrorism, Islam, and radical Islamic fundamentalism.(2) I became familiar with Aslan when he appeared twice on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, once in 2009 to promote his book How to Win a Cosmic War and again in 2010 to promote a different book: Beyond Fundamentalism. Both books deal with religion, globalization, and terrorism.(3)

Recently, Aslan has returned to The Daily Show, this time to promote his new book on Jesus, but not Christianity.(4) At the start of the interview, John Oliver (the interviewer) says:

“Let’s be clear, this book is about Jesus the man, not so much Jesus the Christ.”

To which Aslan responds, nodding his head in the affirmative:

“It’s about the historical Jesus, not the Christ of faith.”

The tricky thing about evaluating Aslan’s take on Jesus is that so much of what he says is exactly correct. But in the fine details, Aslan makes many critical errors that are both historical and theological. In this post, I’d like to give Aslan credit for what he gets correct, while also pointing out the mistakes he makes and offering a possible reason why he’s made them.

Who is the “Real” Jesus?

In the Daily Show interview, Aslan argues firstly that to understand Jesus—whether you are a Christian or not—you must understand Jesus’s historical, cultural context: first-century Palestine.

“[Jesus] lived in a specific time and place, and that time and place kinda matters. You know, I mean, it’s like, if you really want to know who he was, you’d have to put his words and his actions in the context of the world in which he lived. The teachings have to be seen according to the social ills that he confronted, and the political forces that he confronted.”

You’ll get no counter-argument from me. This is just plain true! To understand who Jesus was, we not only need the dogmas of the Church, but we also need the history of the Jewish people, of the Roman world, and the rest of his cultural context. One of the most important things we learn about Jesus from the New Testament evangelists is that Jesus didn’t live “long ago and far far away” but lived at a particular time in history, in a particular place in the world, as a particular man. Understanding those particularities is crucial to understanding Jesus and his Good News.

Aslan goes on to argue that, at the particular time when Jesus lived in the particular place he did (Palestine), that region was experienced unprecedented turmoil and tumult.

“[It was] a time of apocalyptic fervor. A time when we’re slowly moving toward this huge Jewish revolt against the Roman empire, that ultimately resulted in the leveling of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple, the exile of the Jews…”

I see nothing to argue with here either. The New Testament itself seems to not only confirm this, but to underscore it.

Aslan continues by pointing out that the one historical fact everyone agrees on—whether they are Christians or not—is that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified. This, Aslan takes to be the common denominator between all historical accounts and all religious claims. Everyone agrees on this one thing. From there, Aslan argues that this form of execution was reserved for just one set of persons: revolutionaries. He argues that Rome exclusively crucified insurgents, brigands or “bandits”. (This is actually what the Greek word translated “thief” meant, says Aslan). Based on these facts, Aslan takes the next logical step to claim that Jesus was, in fact, a revolutionary leading a cultural uprising against his people’s oppressors: Rome.

Here’s where the waters begin to get muddied. Aslan is correct in one sense and incorrect in an important second sense. Aslan is correct that Jesus’s crucifixion is a historical fact on which we can hang our hats. And Aslan is correct that Jesus began a movement of people that threatened the established powers that be. But from there, he chooses to make this the sole historical fact by which he evaluates all other claims. Even more so, he makes all instances of crucifixion entirely uniform. By flattening out the cause for crucifixion, to the point that there was never any variation whatsoever, he can build an airtight historical reconstruction from the one fact that Jesus was crucified alone.

This is a clear example of historical reductionism. While it is certainly true that very few, if any, credible historians would argue that Jesus was not crucified, this is far from the only historical fact upon which a reconstruction can be built. It is clear that Aslan has drawn a line around the New Testament Gospels and placed them firmly in the realm of “religious claims,” allowing none of their narratives to enter his historical imagination. Instead, only what he deems universally accepted about Jesus, by secular and critical sources alike, can be admitted. This is a very extreme view.

To demonstrate just how extreme this view is, let’s compare this view with that of Bart Ehrman, an agnostic New Testament scholar who is critical of Christianity. His most recent book is titled Did Jesus Exist? A Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. In it, Ehrman dedicates an entire chapter to the Gospels as sources of reliable history. As a critical scholar, Ehrman believes it is wrong to treat the Gospels as privileged texts. Instead, he evaluates them on the same bases that he would any other ancient narrative account. He writes,

“Sometimes the Gospels of the New Testament are separated from all other pieces of historical evidence and given a different kind of treatment because they happen to be found in the Bible, the collection of books that Christians gathered together declared sacred scripture. The Gospels are treated this way by two fundamentally opposed camps of readers, and my contention is both are wrong.

“At one end of the spectrum, fundamentalist and conservative evangelical Christians often treat the Gospels as literature unlike anything else that has ever been produced because, in their opinion, these books were inspired by God.

“At the other end of the spectrum is another group insisting that that the books of the Bible need to be given separate treatment. These are certain agnostics or atheists who claim that since, say, the Gospels are part of the Christian sacred scripture, they have less value than other books for establishing historical information.

“[The] authors [of the Gospels] were human authors… they wrote in human languages and in human contexts; their books are recognizable as human books, written according to the rhetorical conventions of their historical period. They are human and historical, whatever else you may think about them, and to treat them differently is to mistreat them and to misunderstand them.

“To dismiss the Gospels from the historical record is neither fair nor scholarly.” (5)

To read Ehrman, a vocal and prolific critic of Christianity’s claims about Jesus, prescribe a far more generous reading of the New Testament Gospels than affords Aslan, gives us a fixed point from which to place Aslan’s methodology. It is more than apparent that Aslan’s methodology is far beyond “left” or “liberal” and off into the void of profoundly spurious opinion.

So this raises the question: Why would Aslan be so dismissive of the Gospels as sources of true history?

The answer I propose is derived from Aslan’s repeated appeals to both controlled scholarship and objectivity. The facts, however, all point in the opposite direction. Not only are Aslan’s scholarly opinions not objective (which is always the case), he has at least one very good personal motive for creating a less-than-historical “historical Jesus”.

Reza Aslan’s De-Conversion from Evangelical Christianity

Perhaps the most revealing portion of Aslan’s Daily Show interview was when John Oliver began to share the powerful way he could relate to the humanity of Jesus, which for him as a child was most poignantly expressed in Jesus’s agonizing cry from the cross. For Oliver, this humanized Jesus and made him a person with whom he could relate. (It seems that more than ever, people who have not read the New Testament book of Hebrews, are desperately searching for a High Priest who “can empathize with

Aslan agrees, and then relates his own story of journeying from a convert to “evangelical Christianity” to an academic historian who admires his own historical reconstruction of Jesus. Aslan says,

“In college, when I began to study the New Testament, I became far more interested in this historical person, than I ever was of this (sort of) celestial ‘Christ’. This man who lived 2000 years ago, who defied the most powerful empire the world had ever know—and lost!—but nevertheless stood up for the weak and the powerless, the outcasts and the dispossessed, and ultimately sacrificed his life for those people.”

If he stopped here, I would be waving my Pentecostal hanky and shouting Amen! Aslan could be a Preacher!

But he goes on…

“Christians believe that he sacrificed his life to free us from sin. That’s a perfectly fine interpretation—for ‘the Christ’. But what we know about the man Jesus, is that he went to the cross on behalf these outcasts that he was fighting for.”

In part 2 of the extended interview, Aslan goes on to argue that Jesus was deeply involved in the politics of his day simply by virtue of assuming the Messianic role. Aslan correctly relates to viewers that “Messiah means ‘anointed one’. The entire purpose of the Messiah is to recreate the kingdom of David on earth, to usher in the reign of God. Well if you’re ushering in the reign of God, you’re ushering out the reign of Caesar”.

Aslan is precisely correct. The role of Messiah was a direct affront to the Roman empire, the assertion that a new empire was taking over. Simply by virtue of Jesus fulfilling the Messianic prophecies (e.g. entering Jerusalem on a donkey, etc.), Jesus’s actions proclaimed his purpose and telos.

The fundamental problem with Aslan’s assessment of Jesus is that he creates a very clear false dichotomy. One can either believe that Jesus was a revolutionary who went to the cross for his brothers and sisters fighting against the oppression of the Roman empire… OR… one can believe that Jesus went to the cross for the “sins” of all humanity. Aslan presents these options as mutually exclusive, but are they? Put simply, the answer is no.

Jesus most certainly was crucified under the charge of revolution, insurrection, revolt; Jesus most certainly did “fight for his people”; and Jesus most certainly did assume the highly political Messianic role that carried with it the implication that he would usher in the reign of God. On each one of these points, Aslan and the Church are in total agreement. The Church, however, understands something about history that Aslan does not. Namely, what the “reign of God” is actually all about.

For Aslan, the “reign of God” was merely coded Jewish language for a Jewish State, Jewish autonomy, Jewish sovereignty. But even a cursory reading of the Hebrew Bible reveals that for the Jewish people, the “reign of God” was far more than a nationalistic victory. The “reign of God” was the ushering in of an entirely new world order—a new way of all people relating to one another in love. In fact, in the Hebrew worldview, the “reign of God” would culminate in a “new heave and a new earth” (Isaiah 65.17). The Hebrew prophets foretold of a day when the “lion will lay down with the lamb” (11.6) and when “swords will be beaten into plowshares” (2.4), when people will “train for war no more” (2.4) and when God’s perfect justice will flow like a river, and cover the whole earth (Amos 5.24).

Therefore, when Jesus comes on the scene, deliberately walking in the political, revolutionary role of Messiah, he’s not only “opposing Rome on behalf of his people,” but he’s also announcing the beginning of a new age—the very “reign of God!” For Aslan to acknowledge that Jesus was fulfilling the role of the Jewish Messiah without acknowledging that the “reign of God” the Messiah would usher in was as “spiritual” as it was “political” betrays a deep, deep misunderstanding of the ancient Hebrew worldview. Ancient Hebrews didn’t divide the world into neat compartments of “spiritual” and “political.” Ancient Hebrews didn’t see their nationalistic sovereignty as something separate from the new age of shalom the Messiah would bring. They saw them as one and the same! The type of dualism that Aslan is dealing in is a Platonic (Greek) way of viewing the world that the historical Jesus would not recognize!

Objectivity, Scholarship, and the Pain of Loosing the Jesus of Faith

In both his Daily Show and Fox News interviews, Dr. Reza Aslan has attempted to disclaim his historical reconstruction of Jesus in two ways. First, he goes out of his way to assure viewers that he is not “attacking Christianity” by letting us know that his own wife and mother are Christians, and that his brother-in-law is an “evangelical pastor.” This is what I’m calling the “control” defense. By making this claim, Aslan is essentially using another version of the “I have a black friend” defense for the accusation of racism. Instead of a “black friend,” Aslan has a “Christian mother,” a “Christian wife,” and an “evangelical pastor brother-in-law.” So he’s triple protected from anti-Christian bias—see how that works?!

The second way Aslan insulates himself from the accusation of bias is by claiming his education grants him scholarly objectivity. Aslan’s Fox News interview is a debacle for multiple reasons. The interviewer obviously did not do her homework, does not know who Aslan is, and for some reason assumes one must be a Christian to write about Jesus. Her biases are obvious and aren’t surprising in the least, considering where she works. But Aslan’s defensive posture also went overboard. The first time he countered her questioning about why a Muslim would choose to write a book on Jesus with his academic credentials, I applauded him. Aslan has more than adequate academic credentials to author a book on Jesus. It’s clear her questioning was purely out of fear of his Muslim faith. There’s no doubt the interviewer would not have started with the same line of question for a Christian author writing about Muhammed, for example. But, nevertheless, Aslan’s defense crossed the line when his insistence of his academic credentials then led him to deny any and all biases whatsoever. At that point, I felt disappointed in Dr. Aslan.

The beginning of scholarship is recognizing one’s limitations, preconceived notions, and biases, because every human being has them. None of our motives are pure, and none of us is perfectly capable of interpreting “facts.” Aslan insisted several times that he has been studying religion and Jesus in particular for 20 years. That is a long time to remain completely objective about a figure who has literally changed the world. I submit, it is impossible. Scholars with PhD are least of all objective. They have reached the end of an arduous program honing their focus tighter and tighter until it reaches a fine point. PhDs have more opinions than should be expected on subjects they have researched for decades, spending countless hours reading and writing. To remain objective on a subject onto which one has poured so much attention isn’t even feasible let alone expected. Of course Aslan is biased! Of course he has strong opinions! That’s completely normal, and doesn’t necessarily negate his scholarship. What does, however, besmirch his scholarship is adamant insistence that he is objective.

I want to suggest that there is no greater reason for Aslan’s bias than his own testimony of loosing the Jesus of Faith for himself. In his Daily Show interview he described himself when he became an evangelical Christian as a young person. He said, “I really burned with [Jesus’s] Gospel message. I really felt it deep in my life.” That’s not a dispassionate description at all. In fact, that sounds like the testimony of someone who deeply wanted to believe in Jesus. But as his testimony goes on, it’s clear that he felt he had to choose between the Christ of Faith whom he’d encountered and the Jesus of History whom he’d begun to study in school. That choice drove a wedge between Aslan and the Jesus who he’d encountered—the Risen Christ.

N. T. Wright, who is arguably the world’s foremost New Testament scholar and historian, has written an enormous amount about Jesus and his first-century context. In an article for Christianity Today from several years ago, Wright defending the need for history, but also discussed history’s limitations and our own vested interest in history. I wonder if Wright’s insight isn’t wholly relevant for Aslan.

“…history isn’t enough by itself. […] It isn’t enough to know that Jesus is the Savior; I must know that he is the Savior for me. History cannot tell me that. But it can reconstruct the framework within which it makes sense—the biblical framework that Jesus and his followers took for granted. If Jesus didn’t really exist, or was really a revolutionary Zealot, or a proto-Buddhist mystic, or an Egyptian freemason, the “for me” floats like a detached helium balloon on the thin, vulnerable air of subjectivism. It is when we put Jesus in his proper historical context that the Resurrection proposes that he was the Messiah, that the Messiah is Lord of the world, and that he died and was raised for me. History is challenging, but also reassuring.” (7)

1. Alsan’s academic religion credentials start with a BA in Religions from Santa Clara University, an MTh from Harvard Divinity, and a PhD in Sociology of Religion from UC Santa Barbara. Sources: [,,]



4. Aslan’s book on Jesus is titled: Zealot, the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth []

5. Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth by Bart Ehrman (HarperOne, 2012), p.71-73 []


7. “Abandon Studying the Historical Jesus? No, We Need History” by N. T. Wright


When I Met a Prophet: A Reflection on the Legacy of Dr. Richard Twiss and His Personal Impact on Me

On February 9th, 2013, Dr. Richard Leo Twiss (Taoyato Obnajin “He Stands with His People”) went to be with Creator, after suffering a major heart attack and spending several days in critical condition. He was only 58 years old. In his final days he was surrounded by his immediate family, his wife and his four sons, who all loved him dearly. Though Dr. Twiss is no longer with us in his first body, he remains with us in spirit.

Richard Twiss Legacy

A Prophetic Voice Calling Us to Repentance

Richard Twiss was a devoted husband and father; he loved children. And he was of course a noted theologian, pastor, and evangelist. But Richard Twiss was also a prophet to North America (and the world), in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets of Israel—but even more so in the tradition of Jesus! Dr. Twiss called North Americans to account. He called us to repentance, and he called us to justice. He minced no words: white, Euro-American people have committed terrible sins against his people. And he made no apologizes for it. And like all true prophets, including Jesus, he was often misunderstood, dismissed, marginalized, and attacked. Maybe you’ve noticed what I have: that white people in the United States—even the Christian ones—aren’t particularly found of being reminded of the way they treated Native peoples. They often become very defensive and angry. (In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if I get a few angry emails just for brining it up now). Dr. Twiss didn’t let that stop him. He was faithful to his calling to prophetically witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ. And as any Bible student can tell you, that calling also entails calling people to repentance. Dr. Twiss was called by God to call we white North Americans to repentance, and he did!

The history of “missions” among the Native tribes of North America was a disaster, with very, very few exceptions. Rather than bringing Good News, much of the earliest “missionary” initiatives were little more than cultural assimilation, robbery, and violence. It’s common knowledge that Western “missions” has been virtually indistinguishable from Colonialism. But few textbooks, or even Christian books about the history of missions in North America, ever come close to recording the mass devastation that it caused. The closest any of us come to understanding even a small portion of it, is when some of us we read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee in high school (or at least those of us from more “progressive” school districts). Just the small sampling of stories Dr. Twiss shares in his first book One Church, Many Tribes turns the stomach and boils the blood. In story after story, case after case, Western “missionaries” were guided more by greed, violence, and a myopic, culturally-captive biblicism than the actual Gospel of Jesus. The vast majority of “missions” to Native tribes was a program of cultural assimilation and domination.

Perhaps one of Twiss’s most poignant and prophetic insights was just how easily 21st century Evangelicals gloss over the heinous sin of covenant-breaking. While we claim to hold a high view of Scripture, how many of our churches have repented for the covenant-breaking our ancestors committed against the people who God first gave the land on which our building now stand? Another powerful wake up call Dr. Twiss gave us was the reality of the failure of North American “missions.” After 400 years of “missions,” most white Evangelicals cannot even name a Native Christian leader. They are often not welcome at our megachurches, let alone asked to speak. They are not speakers at our conferences. They are not the authors of the books in Christian bookstores. Where are the leaders produced by the “missionaries?”

I’m well aware these words are not pleasant. I’m well aware that they sting. I’m also aware that God used Dr. Twiss to deliver this stinging message to me, and I will be forever grateful for it.

A Prophetic Voice Calling us to Follow the Jesus Way

Dr. Twiss was not only a prophet because he called us to repentance. He was also a prophet because he cast a vision for a Way forward. He pointed the Church to Jesus and His Way. Twiss believed that Jesus could meet and transform any person into His disciple—a follower of the Jesus Way. He also believed that following the Jesus Way meant living out your allegiance to Jesus the Way God has made you. He believed that the Jesus Way could be followed without adopting the Western cultural packaging that has been associated with “Christianity” in North America. He believed following the Jesus Way for Native believers meant using their language, their symbols, their customs, their music, their dance to glorify Jesus.

This is actually not a new concept. Because of Paul, most of the New Testament deals with the cultural clash between Jewish and Gentile cultural expression. Read with the lens of cultural analysis, its not difficult to see that Paul is adamant that Gentile believers do not have to adopt Jewish cultural practices in order to follow the Jesus Way. Instead, inspired by Holy Spirit, Paul teaches the Church that in Jesus a new Way of being human is created that both transcends and includes all human cultures. Because of Jesus, we can now be united. And as Dr. Twiss would say: Unity is only possible where there is diversity. The body of Christ requires both: unity and diversity!

Thanks to Dr. Twiss’s teaching and example, I’ve begun to explore more deeply the concept of “cultural hybridity.” Twiss would say that his Native culture is a gift to and for the larger body of Christ. He also believed that his Native culture could be used as a tool for world evangelism. Part of his legacy will be an army of Indigenous Christian leaders from all over the world, using their God-given cultures to express worship to Jesus and spread His Gospel!

How Meeting a Prophet has Changed Me

While I did not know Richard Twiss well, the brief time I was able to spend with him (along with reading his books) has changed me irrevocably. I encountered a Native man transformed by Jesus, proud of who God made him to be, and called by God to preach the Gospel. I encountered a man who loved life, loved people, and loved God’s Word. I also encountered a prophet who challenged the status quo, called God’s people to repentance, and cast a vision for a Way forward in the Church. Meeting Richard Twiss has challenged me to examine myself—my sins and privilege as a white male—repent on behalf of all my ancestors, and work for justice. Meeting Richard Twiss has renewed my sense of calling to preach the Gospel, to oppose oppression, and to stand up for the oppressed. Meeting Richard Twiss has granted me to a new perspective on the biblical vision of shalom.

I can’t wait to see Richard again, in full regalia, surrounded by a sea of souls from every tribe and every tongue, all worshiping Creator together! He will lead us all in a Lakota song about Jesus, and we will dance around God’s throne to his drum!


Additional Resources:

One Church, Many Tribes

Rescuing the Gospel From the Cowboys

The Jesus Way: A Review of One Church Many Tribes

Wiconi International

Christian Community Development Association (CCDA)


The “Big God Theology” Lie and Why It’s Dangerously Wrong

Being black and Reformed is hot right now. If you’re a black, Christian male in the U.S. and you want to be cool and sound smart, all you have to do is talk about the “doctrines of grace,” God’s glory, and Penal Substitution. It’s not just for Christian rappers anymore! Now, there’s even a black version of the Gospel Coalition!

Some black Calvinists now want to spread their gospel of predestination to the laypeople of black churches. But the problem they immediately run into is: How do we make it seem like the theology of dead, sixteenth-century, white and European men is relevant to black U.S. Americans in the 21st century—when it obviously isn’t?

One entrepreneurial black Calvinist thinks he has the answer: Marketing! See, if you have an illogical idea, that really is quite counter-intuitive to the people you want to adopt it, all you have to do is come up with a slick way to package your idea so that it sounds normal and good. Jemar Tisby, a black student at Reformed Theological Seminary, has figured out just such a solution for delivering Calvinism to black church-goers. He’s calling it “Big God theology.”

Could Tisby be more incredibly patronizing? Tisby is clearly convinced the ends justify the means. He’s convinced black parishioners need to intellectually affirm the meticulous providence of an all-controlling deity to have biblical theology. So he’s come up with this way of presenting Calvinism to make it sound normal and good. Papa Piper would be so proud!

But not only is Tisby wrong, Tisby is dangerously wrong. In what follows, I’ll show that being “big” has never been a priority for God, and why exalting ‘big-ness’ can backfire and lead to destructive Christian practice Jesus wouldn’t recognize.

God Isn’t Insecure

Perhaps someone with little exposure to the Scriptures might get the idea that when God reveals Godself in the Bible, it is always through “big” signs like the Israelite cloud by day and pillar of fire by night, or Moses’s parting of the Red Sea, or Job’s whirlwind. But careful students of Scripture know that the God revealed therein is constantly surprising God’s human covenant partners by showing up in unexpected and often non-grandiose ways. For example, how about when God wasn’t in the mighty wind, the earthquake, or the fire, but in a gentle whisper. (I Kings 19.9-14) Or what about when God’s anointed one who would be the King of God’s people Israel wasn’t the strongest, “biggest,” soldier, but a small shepherd boy who everyone overlooked. (I Samuel 16.1-13) Or how about when God reveals Godself to Moses in a burning bush—I’m sure it was fascinating, but when I think “bush” I don’t exactly think “big.”

Most importantly, God has revealed Godself definitively in King Jesus of Nazareth—the fullness of the Godhead, the exact imprint of God’s being (Col. 1.19; Heb. 1.3). No other revelation compares to the final and complete revelation of God’s nature in the Messiah. So if Tisby is correct, we would expect to see a “big” Jesus. Instead, God shows up in the Jesus who was unknown, unappreciated. “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?” Sure, Jesus drew a crowd later in his ministry, but before he moved the crowd, he was a vulnerable twelve year old separated from his mother. And before he was a twelve year old teaching and dialoging with the elders of Israel, he was an embryo in his mother’s womb.

See, the fundamental error Calvinists make is misunderstanding divine power. The only way Calvinists can conceptualize divine power is as strength and control. This is what fuels Tisby’s “big God” metaphor. In their minds, an omni-controlling conception of God is “bigger,” more powerful, than a conception of God in which God’s power is revealed in weakness. But the God revealed in Jesus isn’t insecure. Jesus did not view equality with God as something to be grasped, clung to, but was secure enough to humble himself and serve his human creation in vulnerability (Phil. 2.6-8). In fact, Jesus was so secure in his true power, that he even went to the cross—allowing sinful, finite human and demonic creatures exhaust their wrath on him. Scripture teaches that the power of God revealed in Jesus is made perfect in weakness, vulnerability (I Cor. 15.43; II Cor. 12.9, 13.4)—not strength and control.

Might Doesn’t Make Right

This “big God” marketing scheme might seem innocuous to many U.S. American Christians, but I submit that it is actually very dangerous. First, conceptualizing power exclusively as strength and control leads to the belief that might makes right. The conception of God that attributes the most strength and control must be the most honoring, the most pious. This is patently false. Human thinkers do not get to decide what is appropriate for God, or what God “should” be like. Our conception of God is constrained by God’s self-revelation in Jesus. All other conceptions are idolatry—and the idolatry of power as strength and control is ubiquitous. Everwhere in human culture strength and control are worshipped. Throughout history, cultures worshipped the king or conquerer who exhibited the most brute force, the most uncompromising control, expanding their kingdom across the globe with no regard for others. It’s why they called Alexander “Great.” It’s why we know the names of Napoleon, Attila, Hitler, and George W. Bush.

No single ethnic group in the U.S. has more reason to be suspicious of “might makes right” theology than black Americans—with the possible exception of Native peoples. It was “might makes right” theology (and “special chosen-ness” belief of Calvinism) that precipitated the chattel slavery of Africans in the Americas and Europe. It was “might makes right” theology that precipitated the systemic injustice of the Jim Crow South. And it is “might makes right” theology that continues to fuel systemic racism in the U.S. today!

Reformed theology precipitates a dangerous lie about God that lies at the very heart of idolatry: Seeking power apart from God. God’s power isn’t found in chariots, or soldiers, or numbers, or law. God’s power is found in God’s Spirit (Zech. 4.6). The Spirit does not control people, the Spirit guides people. The Spirit does not over-power people, the Spirit woos people. The Spirit does not pre-determine history, the Spirit is at work in history bringing good out of evil.


Theology changes the way people live—for better or for worse. Good theology leads people to live worshipful lives of discipleship (following Jesus). Bad theology leads people to worship idols of power. Calvinism is therefore bad theology.

How can I say such a thing? Easy: Calvinism perpetuates the demonic lie that power is best demonstrated in strength and control. This conception of power is rejected by Jesus—the definitive revelation of God. All theology that does not exalt the revelation of God in Jesus is destructive and must be rejected.

Black U.S. Americans are not well-served by Calvinism and they never have been. The Calvinist conceptions of power as control and special chosen-ness are directly responsible for centuries of racial injustice and oppression. Black U.S. Americans must reject Calvinism and embrace the beautiful power-in-weakness of Jesus.


Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner: The Gospel, Keeping Torah, Power and Table Fellowship (A Tribute to Dr. King)

On this day of national remembrance for a minister of the Gospel, I thought it appropriate to write a piece that both honors Dr. King’s memory while also issuing a fresh challenge for today to the church in the US. I’d like to briefly reflect on the Gospel in the New Testament with an eye toward how it might have implications for race, power, and table fellowship in US churches.

Peter’s Prejudice

After Jesus’ ascension, and after the church was endued with the power of the Holy Spirit, God used Peter to share the Gospel with the Gentile centurion named Cornelius. Peter initially objected to this mission (Acts 10.9-23). He was a ”good Jew.” He obeyed the Torah, including the call to be undefiled, separate from “the nations.” Father Abraham was promised that his offspring would be a blessing, would reveal the Most High God, to the whole world—including the Gentiles. But by Jesus’ time, those who called themselves Abraham’s children saw the nations as enemies to be despised and avoided (Luke 10:25-37). Those who taught the Torah sought to justify themselves with the Scriptures (v. 29). But Jesus taught that even the despised Samaritans are ‘neighbors’ whom God’s people are to show mercy (v. 36-37).

Peter was slow to catch on to Jesus’ program, but eventually he got it. When he saw that the Spirit had led him to Cornelius, he said,

“I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” (Acts 10.34-35) 

And after he witnessed the Holy Spirit being given to Cornelius’ household, just as He had been given to Jesus’ Jewish disciples, he said,

“Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” (v. 47)

Peter’s declaration that these Gentiles should not be prevented from receiving water baptism is highly significant. Water baptism is initiation into the one Church of Jesus Christ. Peter was so thoroughly convinced that Cornelius and his family were true disciples of Jesus, that he was willing to welcome them into the church and join them around the Lord’s Table in fellowship.

The Truth of the Gospel

Old habits are hard to break, especially if they those habits have been formed within one’s religion-culture-ethnic identity. Some men “came from James” to Antioch—which is to say some Jewish Christians came from Jerusalem. Quickly, Peter forgot the lesson God taught him in the vision of the sheet full of “unclean” animals, and in the home of Cornelius. Just that quickly, Peter became ashamed of the Gospel for which he had previously praised God. All the sudden, it was no longer glorious of God to have open up the Gospel to all nations under heaven in Jesus—it was shameful. Peter didn’t want to be judged by his Jewish brethren. Peter wanted to please them, win their approval (Gal. 1.10).

Paul has risked his life for the Gospel on many occasions. Once, when the Jews heard a rumor he had brought Titus into the Temple courts, they were going to kill him! (Acts 21) Paul would not tolerate the Gospel’s perversion to uphold cultural taboos. For Paul, the cross means God has opened up the Kingdom to all people. For Paul, keeping Torah was a cowardly act of capitulation and fear of persecution (6.12). For Paul, keeping Torah meant being alienated from Christ, traveling beyond the realm of grace (5.4). Paul was pissed! (5.12)

Peter wasn’t just being “cliquey”, he wasn’t just being snobby; Peter was ashamed of the Gospel! Paul says Peter was not acting “in line with the truth of the Gospel.” (2.14) Instead, Peter had been deceived, thrown into confusion, and believed “a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all”. (1.6-7)

Some groups of evangelical Christians in the US today would like you and me to believe that issues of race and ethnic identity are peripheral to “the Gospel.” For them, “the Gospel” is the forgiveness of their individual sins. For them, “the Gospel” is just between you and God—a “personal relationship with God.” Paul disagrees.

For Paul, those who advocated for the Judaizing of the Gentile believers rejected the Gospel of Jesus Christ—that the Messiah of Israel is the Lord of All Nations!! For Paul, those who relied upon their ethnic identity as Jews who keep Torah, were not trusting in their New Identity as followers of the Way: the One New Humanity (Eph. 2.15).

Paul rebuked Peter saying,

“You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs? “We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.” – Galatians 2.14-16

Regarding Paul’s rebuke of Peter, N. T. Wright comments:

“The force his statement is clear: “Yes, you are Jewish; but as a Christian Jew you ought not to be separating on ethnic lines.” Reading Paul strictly in his own context—as John Piper rightly insists we must always ultimately do—we are forced to conclude, at least in a preliminary way, that ‘to be justified’ here does not mean ‘to be granted free forgiveness of your sins,’ to come into right relation with God’ or some other near-synonym of ‘to be reckoned “in the right” before God,’ but rather, and very specifically, ‘to be reckoned by God to be a true member of his family, and hence with the right to share table fellowship.’ […] for Paul, ‘justification,’ whatever else it included, always had in mind God’s declaration of membership, and that this always referred specifically to the coming together of Jews and Gentiles in faithful membership of the Christian family.

What, then are the ‘works of the law,’ by which one cannot be ‘justified’ in this sense? Again, the context is pretty clear. They are the ‘living like a Jew’ of Galatians 2:14, the separation from the ‘Gentile sinners’ of Galatians 2:15. They are not, in other words, the moral ‘good works’ which the Reformation tradition loves to hate. They are the things that divide Jew from Gentile: specially, in the context of this passage (and we have no right to read Galatians 2:16 other than in the context of Galatians 2:11-15) the ‘works of the law’ which specify, however different Jewish groups might have put it at the time, that ‘Jews do not eat with Gentiles.’ What one might gain by such ‘works of the law’ is not a treasury of moral merit, but the assured status of belonging to God’s people, separated from the rest of humankind.”
Justification, p. 116-117

Power and the Gospel: What does Race have to do with Power?

Table fellowship between Jewish and Gentile Christians is the backdrop behind Galatians, and many (if not all) of Paul’s letters. But even the racial segregation and injustice that Torah-keeping secured in the church wasn’t the ultimate issue—Power was. Ethnic identity secured for the Jewish Christians their privileged position of power in the fledgling Christian community. As long as one had to become a Jew (be circumcised and keep the Torah) to be a full member of the Church, then Jewish Christians held all the power. How could Jewish Christians, who have the proud, holy tradition of being Abraham’s children, God’s “called-out ones,” give equal standing in the church to those “Gentile sinners” who often persecuted and oppressed them? This is the Gospel Paul was willing to die to protect:

“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.”

– Philippians 2.5-11

Jesus had all the power in the universe: equality with God. Yet, it was precisely his divinity that compelled him to take on flesh, dwell among humanity like light exposing darkness, and lay down his life for his enemies. Jesus divested himself of power because he was God, not in spite of that fact!

Dr. King famously called Sunday mornings the most segregated time of the American week. While fighting for the civil rights of African Americans, he prophetically called the US church to account. He challenged us to consider the implications of the Gospel on race and power, economic oppression and war. He was a minister of the Gospel, and it is important for us not to let his legacy get hijacked or co-opted.

Power Dynamics in the Church: Then and Now

In the sixth chapter of Many Colors, Soong-Chan Rah helps us see the application of first-century Gospel power dynamics better, so that we can more easily discern how they are at work in the US church today. To establish the historical context of his exposition on Acts 15, he writes:

“The dramatic increase of Gentile believers into the Christian church surprised many of the Jewish believers, creating an unexpected and maybe even unwelcome diversity in the early church. Having formerly operated in a fairly rigid (Jewish customs and traditions) and strict single-ethnic cultural context, the early church was now becoming racially and ethnically pluralistic. Racial heterogeneity was becoming the norm.” (p 115)

Rah points out that Peter’s prejudice wasn’t uncommon. Jewish Christians in the first century had many reasons to distrust and discriminate against Gentiles. Is the US in the 21st century any different?

“A number of similarities exist between the context and ethos of the early church and the current context of American evangelicalism. First, the impact and history of racism and racist perspectives are evident in both contexts. The dramatic changes that form the backdrop for Acts 15 were complicated by the history of animosity between Jews and Gentiles. As an occupied power, Jews were antagonistic toward their Gentile conquerors.

The history of Jewish separatism had also led to a sense of racial segregation and hostility toward Gentiles. A common prayer of the Jewish male thanked God ‘for not making me a Gentile, a woman, or a slave.’ This perspective had historical roots that informed how the Jewish Christians would receive Gentile believers.

In the American church context, there also exists a history of animosity in race relations. There is no denying the long and well-documented history of racism in America[…]” (p. 116-117)

Racism existed in the first century, though they didn’t use the same categories we use today. Jews separated the world into two groups: themselves and everyone else. After all, they are God’s chosen people. But God’s chosen people had a long history of exile and oppression. They carried deep-seated resentment toward their Pagan oppressors. Keeping Torah wasn’t just the way first-century Jewish Christians maintained their ethnic identity, it was also the way they maintained power in the church. Theirs was the faith in the One True God, and theirs would be faith in His Messiah: Jesus.

To maintain this power dynamic in the church, the “agitators” Paul spoke of in Galatians (1.7, 5.12) were requiring Gentiles to become Jews to be accepted into the Christian church family. Rah writes,

“A way to define racism from a biblical-theological framework is the establishment of human standards that replace the standards of God. Racism, therefore, could be seen as the product of prejudice and power. [The agitators] sought to maintain their power by asserting their racial preferences above and beyond the standards set by God. [The agitators] believed that they had the right to demand a physical likeness (via circumcision) above the spiritual likeness demanded by God. [The agitators] were asking the Gentiles to ”become like us in order to belong to the church.” (p. 118)*

In Acts 15, the leaders of the church formally confront the issue of Gentiles entering the church. Rah’s comments on this monumental event are helpful for my purposes:

“…the early church leadership makes the correct choices that lead to the unleashing of the gospel to move beyond the confines of Jewish culture. They focus on the essentials of faith that served to unite the community. […]

Peter asserted that we are all saved by grace and that there is nothing distinctive about us that merits God’s love. Therefore, there is a unity and a commonality in our salvation experience. […]

The historical doctrinal clarification that ensued—salvation by [God’s grace] through [faith]—gave Jews and Gentiles unparalleled equality as members of His body and shifted the sharing of the power from issues of race and culture to those of interdependence and giftedness. […]

When a majority culture is dominant, it is that culture that determines how power is used and distributed. The danger in a multicultural church context  is that we would repeat the mistakes the early church was making prior to the Jerusalem Council. The dominant group in power was not yet willing to yield its cultural values for the sake of those who were marginalized or alienated from that power.” (p. 119-120)

Tumbling Today’s Cultural Taboos

The contemporary US church has a lot to learn from the Middle-Eastern church of the first-century. For starters, it could recognize that the church wasn’t Western, wasn’t white, and wasn’t “American.” Perhaps letting the context of the New Testament challenge our American exceptionalism and Western pride would serve us well. But more than that, letting the context of the New Testament speak for itself would allow us to see more precisely how the Holy Spirit moved in that community when racial and socioeconomic diversity descended upon it.

Today in the US, many churches fein a type of multi ethnicity or multiculturalism. But lurking just below the surface is a dominant culture fighting to preserve its privileged and powerful position. The only cure for such worldliness is for the church to look to Jesus the self-emptier, Jesus the power-divester. He did not see his privilege and power as something to be grasped, but instead took on the nature of a servant and laid down his life for others—even others who despised him.

There are groups in the US with power and privileged. The Gospel of Jesus calls on those groups to take on the nature of servants, laying down their power, even their lives. There are also groups in the US who are marginalized, alienated from power. The Gospel calls these groups into the church to be known and to know others. The Gospel comforts the powerless, even while it discomforts the powerful.

In your community, identify the weak, the vulnerable, those who are cast out. Who are they? Are they known to you? How has your church either excluded them due to cultural differences, or embraced them across boundaries? What could you do to divest yourselves of power, invite them into interdependent service along-side yourselves?

Praise be to the God of Abraham who threw open the way of salvation to all people by choosing for himself a people through whom he would demonstrate his covenant faithfulness. This God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is the God of both Jews and Gentiles, African Americans, caucasians, Asian Americans, Latino Americans, and people from every tribe and tongue. And one day we will all sit at His banqueting table together in glory. Let us strive to reflect that reality now.

* “Judaizers” was changed to “agitators.” As N. T. Wright points out, “[Paul] was, in short, under attack from people whom scholars have come to call by a variety of names, but perhaps most straightforwardly (and following what Paul himself says in Galatians 1:7), ‘agitators.’ They are not, we note, ‘Judaizers,’ despite often being called that; that word, properly, refers to Gentiles who are trying to become Jews—which is what the erstwhile pagan Galatians, having come to faith in Jesus the Messiah, were not being urged to do. The agitators, in other words, were trying to get the Galatians to ‘Judaize.'” (Justification, p. 113)