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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.

Conclusion

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.