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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 address 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.

Conclusion

CWG_Diagram1

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.

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

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

— Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, p.51

Advancing the Conversation Once Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Does Greg Boyd Think He Is?

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

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

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

Navigating the Physical Book

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

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

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

Laying a Foundation

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

A. The Cruciform Magic Eye

Magic Eye

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

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

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

B. Wrestling with Scripture

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

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

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

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

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

Part 1: The Centrality of the Crucified Christ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 2: The Problem of Divine Violence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 3: The Cruciform Hermeneutic

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

The ‘Origen’ of the Reinterpretation Solution

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

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

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

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

Cruciform Forerunners

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

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

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

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

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

God-breathed

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

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

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

Here’s how Boyd puts it:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeing Scripture in 3D

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Question of Method

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nerd Level: Overdrive

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

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

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

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

As Brevard Childs puts it,

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

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

Christ, the Supervening Act

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

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

Developing a Mature Response to Violence

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

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

Volume I Summary

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

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

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The Stage that Divides Us: A Sermon on Luke 18.9-14

The Gospel reading for this Sunday is a parable of Jesus—perhaps a familiar one for many of us, perhaps not. On the surface, this parable is fairly easy to understand. But, today, you may see some themes from this text that aren’t so self-evident. You might see how you and I can live lives alienated from God’s love. And this state of alienation from God’s love leads to alienation within ourselves and from others.

Before I knew this text was the Gospel reading for this week, I had already been thinking about this state of alienation because of how it feels in America right now. Powerful forces of division are at work in our world. So, I believe this text is very timely and has a lot of important things to say to us today.

parable-of-the-pharisee-and-the-publican-basilica-di-santapollinare-nuovo-ravenna-italy-6th-centuryIn this text, Jesus tells a parable about two men praying at the Temple. The two main characters are very specifically chosen to be polar opposites with inherent conflict in their identities. One is a member of a group called the Pharisees. The other is one of many in Jesus’s day who have become tax-collectors for Rome. The two characters also represent these two groups.

The Pharisees were devout Jewish leaders in Jesus’s day. They had a particular understanding of how the Reign of God was going finally going to arrive in the midst of the present occupation of Israel by Rome—a foreign, Pagan, military empire. Their belief was that the only righteous response to God’s people being under the control of unclean Gentile overlords, was resistance through purity. If Jews in Israel would just maintain the purity of their Jewish identity by keeping the Mosaic Law meticulously, and especially remaining pure by not associating with ‘sinners’ like Gentiles or tax-collectors, then God would return to Zion in power through his Messiah and liberate Israel once again (like a new Exodus from Egypt).

But there were other Jewish approaches to the dilemma of Roman occupation besides resistance through purity. Other devout Jewish people felt equally strongly that the only way the Reign of God was going to arrive was if they met this invading, violent force called Rome with equal and opposite force. Only difference between Rome’s violence and the violence of these “Zealots” (as they were called), was that the violence of the Zealots was religiously-justified because “God is on their side”! (Ever heard anyone talk like that? I have!) Jesus Barabbas, the man who was released instead of Jesus of Nazareth on that first Good Friday, was this type of Jewish revolutionary—someone the Gospel authors say participated in a violent rebellion for which he was imprisoned awaiting execution when his life was exchanged for Jesus of Nazareth’s.

Then there were Jewish people whose approach to the Roman occupation was to compromise with them—even to get rich from their violent reign over Israel. That’s what a tax-collector was doing. I’m currently reading a book with New City’s men’s group in which the author compares first-century tax-collectors to modern-day IRS agents. That is an terrible misunderstand that makes me want to demand whatever seminary he went to give him his money back! First-century tax-collectors weren’t pencil-pushing bean-counters like IRS agents—they were ruthless extortionists who profited from the oppression of their own people! If you think that the Pharisees disliked tax-collectors the way we dislike paying our taxes, you don’t understand just how much of a betrayal it was for a Jewish person to become rich by taking even more money than a person owed Rome, under the threat of violence against their own fellow Jewish people. Tax-collectors weren’t like IRS agents at all. Tax-collectors were like gangsters who you had to pay protection money to, and you hated them because they were supposed to be your brothers! In fact, tax-collectors were so hated that the Zealots would often assassinate them.

Jesus chose these two types of Jewish men for his parable because their identities as members of their respective groups were in direct opposition to each other. They had polar opposite ideas about the Reign of God, their ruling Gentile overlords, and what righteousness looks like in response.

(This is a rhetorical question, so please don’t shout out any names of groups) Who do you think Jesus would choose for his parable if he were telling it to Americans today?  Without calling out any group names, think to yourself about who Jesus would have starring in his parable today?

There are dozens of fault lines in our society and world today, between groups who have as much hostility against one another as the Pharisees did with tax-collectors. It’s nearly impossible to tune in to any form of news or media without the headlines centering around the conflict between two of these groups.

Jesus’s choice of these two group representatives is very deliberate. Luke writes, “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” (v.9 NRSV) The Pharisees would fall into Jesus’s intended audience. They regarded tax-collectors as unclean “sinners,” formally excluded from the synagogue—the center of Jewish religious and social life. Pharisees regarded their way as the only righteous way.

So, what does Jesus do with this parable? He flips the script, of course! That’s what Jesus does!

It’s the despised tax-collector who throws himself upon the mercy of God who is counted righteous before God, not the self-righteous Pharisee!

This parable isn’t a challenge to those who you and I “regard with contempt;” it’s a challenge to us. You and I are in danger of considering ourselves part of the in-group, and those people we despise as part of the out-group. You and I have made up our minds who the “bad guys” are. You and I have already counted ourselves as part of the “good guys” group. And no one can tell us otherwise!

But Jesus’s parable challenges you and I directly, on how we view ourselves and our judgment of others.

Our view of ourselves and judgment of others is warped by something that may not be obvious in this parable. But a slight reframe might help us to see how this challenge applies to us, even now.

The setting of the parable appears obviously religious (the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem). But the setting beneath this setting is a Stage.

A place of worship like the Temple was a place where the focus is centered around God. But the Pharisee’s prayer betrays that he imagines himself as the main attraction, the star of the show. He’s putting on a performance.

Did you know that when Jesus called the Pharisees “hypocrites” in the Gospels, that term didn’t yet mean what it has come to mean for us today? “Hypocrite” was a term for an actor. It literally means “before the critics,” like someone on a stage performing for an audience. It describes someone who is putting on an act, or wearing a mask.

When Jesus calls out the Pharisees for being performers, he’s calling us all out! We’ve all grown up in a world where we’ve come to understand that people are watching us and judging us. So, in return, we watch them and judge them. We’re all critics and we’re all performers! We’re all hypocrites!

My friend Morgan Guyton is a campus minister in New Orleans. He recently wrote a book called How Jesus Saves the World From Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity. In a chapter called “Worship Not Performance,” he reframes the familiar Genesis story of humanity’s fall into sin as not about disobedience and punishment, but about the loss of authentic delight in God alone and the fall into self-conscious performance for God and others. He writes,

“Adam and Eve don’t gain the wisdom that the serpent promised as a result of eating the fruit [of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil]; the only ‘knowledge’ that they gain is the fear and shame of their nakedness. They receive the curse of self-consciousness, the death of innocent wonder, which turns a life of worship into a life of performance.” (1)

These two ways of living are in conflict with each other. We can’t live in authentic delight in God alone and also live in shame and fear, performing for God and others. What happens when we live in this performance mode, is that we become alienated from God, alienated from ourselves, and alienated from others. God calls out to us, “Where did you go?” And our only honest answer is, “I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.” To which God asks, “Who told you that you were naked?” or, to put the question another way, “Who are these critics you’re performing for?

The fear and shame that comes from self-consciousness shows up in a lot of different forms. It can show up in self-righteousness like in the Pharisee in Jesus’s parable. For some people, it shows up in cynicism or self-destructive behavior designed to say to our critics, “You can tell me what to do!” Some people’s performance is in their morality. Others’ is their correct beliefs. Others in their correct political opinions (I’m sure no one here knows anyone who thinks they have the correct political opinions in this highly contentious election season). Others justify their existence through their aptitude, their productivity, their wealth, their status, or their celebrity. This life of performance under the critics is a curse!

Essena-ONeillNot too long ago, I heard of a young woman in Australia who got headlines for quitting Instagram, which to most of us is nothing newsworthy at all. But, what made it interesting to many people is that when she announced her decision to leave social media, she had over 600,000 followers. She had so many followers, that she was getting paid to post pictures of herself with products or in certain clothes. Here’s what she’s quoted as saying in one article I read, “I’m the girl who had it all and I want to tell you that having it all on social media means nothing to your real life … Everything I did was for likes and for followers.” “I was surrounded by all this wealth and all this fame and all this power and yet they were all miserable, and I had never been more miserable.” (2)

She was alienated from her own true self. She was wearing a mask, performing for her Instagram critics and dying inside. You and I don’t have to be Instagram models to understand what that feels like. We have our own ways we perform for the critics.

Let me ask you this: What does it profit us if our performance for God or others gains us everything we think we want, but the fear and shame of putting on an act cost us our very souls?

This performance life that we can live due to shame and fear not only alienates us from God, and alienates us from ourselves, it also alienates us from one another.

Part of the Pharisee’s performance is to heap contempt on the tax-collector as a way of reassuring himself that at least he’s better than someone else.

Did you know that “Satan” is not a proper name, but is instead a description of a role in a law court? Ha-Satan means “the Accuser”. It speaks of the person in an ancient law court who brings charges against another. When we heap scorn upon another person or group of people in a self-righteous attempt to justify ourselves, we are taking on the role of the Accuser. We have the attitude, or “spirit,” of the Accuser.

In the Genesis story of humanity’s fall into sin, Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they become afraid, ashamed, and hide themselves. Then God asks them if they’ve eaten of the fruit and their immediate response is to start accusing others. It’s Eve’s fault; it’s the serpent’s fault; it’s your fault, God!

The Performance Game we play when we live in the fear and shame of self-consciousness, “before the critics,” leads us to the Blame Game that divides us from one another. That’s why Jesus has the Pharisee self-righteously say “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” (v.11)

forbidden_fruitThe curse of self-consciousness that we live under not only alienates us from God because we feel afraid and ashamed so we hide from God—and it not only alienates us from ourselves because that fear and shame leads us to perform for God and others, wearing masks, and seeking to justify ourselves—it also alienates us from one another because we use the knowledge of good and evil to judge and accuse one another. Self-consciousness and the compulsion to perform leads to accusation and division.

(Again, this is a rhetorical question, so please don’t shout out any names) What are some of the divisions we can see in our society, and our world today, that come from us judging and accusing one another?  I’m sure we can all think of several.

Recently, I began reading a new book by a pastor named Jonathan Martin called How to Survive a Shipwreck. In it, he talks about his own experience of “shipwreck”, when he had to step down from leading the church he planted and pastored for several years because of a moral failing. In one section of the book, he talks about how for so long he thought of himself as above such a failing, like it could never happen to him. He judged others and thought himself pretty righteous. But he discovered through his own shipwreck that we’re all in need of God’s mercy—like the tax collector in Jesus’s parable. Here’s what Martin writes,

“One way or the other, through illness, divorce, calamity, or death, we will be stripped away from the things that made us feel other than/apart from our fellow humans. And life itself will plunge us into the sea of our own shared humanity.

Ideally, the primary function of religion will be to loose us from our illusions of individuality and self-reliance and deliver us from the toxic fruit of ego development. But instead of equipping us to avoid the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we make entire religions out of worshipping around the tree instead. Rather than breaking down the illusory boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ insiders and outsiders, sacred and profane, religion often underwrites these boundaries, reinforces them, gives us a sense of being good guys over/against the bad guys. Instead of subverting the lie of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ religion is often a tool to make us feel special, set apart. No wonder Jesus tells the Pharisees of his time, practitioners of these kinds of judgments, that they make converts ‘twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.’ ‘Us and them’ religion is poison to the soul, and it often takes a lifetime of humiliation to detoxify us from it.” (3)

One of the ways this parable hits me right in the gut is in how I think about those with different political opinions from mine—especially my fellow Christian sisters and brothers. The temptation to judge and accuse them has been strong this election year. I know I’m probably the only one. I read an article the other day that didn’t necessarily present the arguments for why someone would support alternative policies or another candidate, but it presented how our nation has become so divided culturally between those who dwell in small towns, suburbs, and rural areas, and those who dwell in cities. And it gave me some much needed empathy for my sisters and brothers in Christ who have a different outlook on things because of where they’re from. I recognized that my outlook is also colored by where I’m from, and we all need God’s mercy.

This passage also challenges me to think about the ways I perform for the critics. It caused me to really recon with the reality that I have some critics I’m performing for from my past. Part of my drive in life is to show them I matter—to justify my existence.

How does this parable of Jesus challenge you? Take a moment to process these two questions between yourself and God. In what ways are you playing the Performance Game? And in what ways are you playing the Blame Game?

Humanity has a serious problem. We’re born into a self-conscious world. We’ve all eaten the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and so we’re afraid, ashamed, we hide, and we accuse one another. As a result we’ve become alienated from God, from ourselves, and from one another.

The Good News in this parable is the solution Jesus gives to this experience of alienation. By God’s grace, we can exercise courageous vulnerability, by throwing ourselves upon God’s mercy, and humbly accepting God’s unconditional, transforming love. No more hiding! No more performing! No more masks! No more accusation!

When we do this, we are freed from self-consciousness to live in wonder and worship of God like a child freely dancing—without any concern for how they appear.  Morgan Guyton writes,

“When we’re performing for the critics, we are living the opposite of belovedness. Belovedness means living under the gaze of a God who watches us with such warmth that we stop worrying about what to do with our hands when we dance. That warmth, if we allow ourselves to embrace it, can fill our hearts with the true, genuine worship that we lost when we were children.” (4)

And Jonathan Martin writes,

“You were created in the image of God. Before you knew anyone or did anything, everything was in you necessary to live at home in divine love. However buried that image of God is within you, that part of you that knows what it is to be perfectly loved, held, and known—it is still very much there.” (5)

That’s how Jesus ends his parable: with the tax-collector, the “sinner,” formally excluded from Jewish religious and social life, “going home” right with God.

Today, we can all “go home” right with God. The Good News is that God is making all things new, recreating the world through Jesus and the Spirit. Jesus has made a way for you and I to be reconciled to God, reconciled to ourselves, and reconciled to one another. That experience of being rescued from the domination of self-consciousness and invited to participate in God’s Reign on earth is what we call salvation and what we celebrate in this meal we share together called the Lord’s Supper, or “Communion,” or the “Eucharist” (which means thanksgiving).

May this meal be our coming home today, freed from the watching critics to live under God’s loving gaze of grace. If you are willing and able, please pray with me.

Most Merciful God,
We confess that we have sinned against you and sinned against one another,
in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole hearts; we have not loved our neighbors or our brothers and sisters as ourselves.
We humbly repent.
Just as your Son Jesus did, have mercy on us and forgive us;
That we may delight in your will and walk in your ways,
To the glory of your Name.
Amen.

__________________

  1. Morgan Guyton, How Jesus Saves the World From Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity (WJK, 2016), p.10.
  2. Rheana Murray, “Instagram star quits social media, reveals her ‘dream life’ was all a sham,” Today (Nov. 4, 2015) [ http://www.today.com/news/instagram-star-quits-social-media-reveals-her-dream-life-was-t53721 ] (accessed Oct. 19, 2016).
  3. Jonathan Martin, How to Survive a Shipwreck: Help is On the Way and Love is Already Here (Zondervan, 2016), p.48-49.
  4. Guyton, p.15.
  5. Martin, p.70.
Two_Triumphs

Palm Sunday: Two “Triumphs”

Palm Sunday is the occasion on the Christian calendar when we commemorate Jesus’s “triumphal entry” in Jerusalem. The concept of a triumph requires some explanation because it’s foreign to modern Americans.

A triumph was a ceremonial and celebratory procession through the streets of a city. When the Romans wanted to celebrate their latest conquest, they celebrated with a triumph. In fact, in 70AD the Roman general Titus destroyed the very city into which Jesus entered that first Palm Sunday. Titus’s triumph, with the spoils from the Jerusalem Temple, is depicted on a monument which remains to this day in Rome.

Roman_Triumph_Jesus_TriumphThat first Palm Sunday, Jesus wasn’t the only person leading a procession into Jerusalem. There was a second. From the opposite side of the city, Pontius Pilate was entering Jerusalem from his home in Caesarea. His procession was in the Roman style—complete with a terrifying display of Rome’s military might. Pilate was perched atop a majestic stallion with all the trappings of Roman wealth and prestige. His procession was a proclamation of his and Rome’s superiority. The message was directed to the pilgrims who had gathered in the city from near and far for the Passover festivities. “Don’t let things get out of control. Or these soldiers you see here, they will cut you down!” (1)

But Jesus’s “triumph” was of an altogether different kind. His victory would not be won by military might. His status would not secured by wealth or prestige. And he isn’t interested in asserting his superiority. By direct contrast, Jesus enters Jerusalem in humility, on a donkey.

Mark’s Gospel makes it clear Jesus deliberately staged his “triumphal entry” to fulfill the prophesy of Zechariah:

“Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (9.9)

Jesus sent his disciples to bring him a donkey colt for him to ride. Jesus staged his procession as a prophetic lampoon of Roman imperial pomp and circumstance. He meant it to expose the pretensions that exalt themselves.

York.DonkeysAndKings.89408When my children were a little smaller than they are now, I used to read them stories from this book called Donkeys and Kings by Tripp York. He tells eight Bible stories from the perspectives of the animals in the stories. But the star of the book is the story of Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey. In this story, the donkey Jesus rode into the city, George, finds himself stabled with the royal horses of the Caesar’s court. And they are not happy at all at the ruckus his rider has caused. In fact, they’re outraged at his presumptuousness to be in a procession at all. Here’s what the arrogant royal stallion, named Constantine, says to George, the donkey Jesus rode into Jerusalem:

“…your kind does not get to make history. History is made by the strong, the powerful—those in charge. It si made by kings, Caesars, warriors, government officials, nobility, and stallions. It is not made by the weak, the lowly, those filled with resentment for their small and insignificant place in life. It is not made by creatures like you or the one you gave a ride into the city.” (2)

Today we celebrate Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem because it reveals to us an altogether different way of being-in-the-world from the arrogance and violence of empires.

In Luke’s account, when Jesus sees the city of Jerusalem he foresees its destruction in 70 AD and he weeps over the city. He said,

“Would that you, Jerusalem, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” (Lk. 19.42 ESV)

May we not make the same mistake. May we see the way of Jesus and his way of peace!

Responsive Reading:

One: Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Today we celebrate the triumphal entry into Jerusalem of our King, Jesus!

All: Hosanna! Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!

One: Humble, riding on a donkey, King Jesus entered the city as the crowds prepared the way for his victorious arrival.

All: Rejoice! Rejoice! The triumphant King has come!

One: On the journey to liberation from sin, we celebrate Christ’s victory, we sorrowfully contemplate his sacrifice, and we revel in his resurrection.

All: We remember the long road to freedom that our ancestors traveled, filled with triumphs, death, and new life.

One: Ride on, King Jesus! Ride on, conquering King!

All: Jesus came “to bring Good News to the poor; to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind; and to set the oppressed free.” (Lk. 4.18)

One: With excitement and joy we welcome you into our lives. With loud shouts of hosanna we joy you on your march toward liberation, justice, and love for all people.

All: Rejoice! Rejoice! The triumphant King has come! (3)

Prayer:

We praise you, O God,
For your redemption of the world through Jesus Christ.
Today he entered the holy city of Jerusalem in triumph
and was proclaimed Messiah and King,
by those who spread garments and branches along his way.
Let these branches be signs of his victory,
and grant that we who carry them
may follow him in the way of the Cross,
that, dying and rising with him, we may enter into your Kingdom;
Through Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns
with you and the Holy Spirit, now and forever.
Amen. (4)

______________________

  1. Marcus Borg, “Holy Week: Two Different Meanings” [http://www.marcusjborg.com/2011/05/07/holy-week-two-different-meanings]
  2. Tripp York, Donkeys and Kings: And Other “Tails” of the Bible, p. 43 [http://astore.amazon.com/theolograffi-20/detail/1606089404]
  3. Adapted from “Triumphant Entry (Palm Sunday)” Litany in African American Heritage Hymnal,
    p.66.
  4. Adapted from the Book of Common Worship, “Palm Sunday”.
Reza_Aslan_Zealot_Banner1

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: [http://rezaaslan.com/about/, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reza_Aslan#Background, http://www.drew.edu/crcc/programsinitiatives/wallerstein-distinguished-visiting-scholars/dr-reza-aslan]

2. http://www.amazon.com/Reza-Aslan/e/B001JONKIK

3. http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/mon-april-20-2009/reza-aslan, http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/mon-april-5-2010/reza-aslan

4. Aslan’s book on Jesus is titled: Zealot, the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth [http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/wed-july-17-2013/reza-aslan]

5. Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth by Bart Ehrman (HarperOne, 2012), p.71-73 [http://amzn.com/0062204602]

6. https://twitter.com/ABlackFriend

7. “Abandon Studying the Historical Jesus? No, We Need History” by N. T. Wright
[http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/april/16.27.html?start=1]

Prototype_Banner1

God’s Future Has Arrived in Jesus: A Review of Prototype by Jonathan Martin

prototypeAuthor: Jonathan Martin
Format: Paperback
Publisher: Tyndale Momentum (2013)
Language: English
Pages: 256
ISBN: 9781414373638

Amazon

Official Website

 

About the Author

I think I first encountered the work of pastor Jonathan Martin when I read a powerful blog post he wrote reconciling his views on the “politics of Jesus” (i.e. (Neo) Anabaptism) with his love for Martin Luther King Jr.’s ethics of social justice. When I later found out he was Pentecostal, I was even more  intrigued by him. Very rarely, if ever, have I encountered a person who combines Pentecostal spirituality with sophisticated social-political ethics. After that, I began listening to his church podcast: Renovatus Church in Charlotte, NC. [1] Since then I’ve been a vocal advocate. Which is why I have been excited to read and review Prototype.

Sidenote: Steven Furtick, pastor of Elevation Church and author of Sun Stand Still, writes the forward for Prototype and at one point appropriates the metaphor of this blog, calling Martin a “theological graffiti artist”. I have to say, Furtick dodged a bullet with that one. If he hadn’t been applying that description to Martin, you’d be reading a very different mention of Furtick right now, and it would not have been pretty! You’re safe for now Furtick, but watch your step!

About the Book

Prototype is one-third personal memoir, one-third church planting testimonial, and one-third systematic theology. Skillfully woven together with highly evocative writing are stories about ecstatic experiences, complex theological concepts expressed in layman’s terms, conversion testimonies, creative biblical interpretation, and disarming humor. What holds all these disparate elements together is the personality of the author—a self-proclaimed member of a community of “liars, dreamers, and misfits”—and the person of Jesus Christ, who is “the prototype of a new way to be human.”

The book starts out with both Jesus and readers in mind, exploring “Identity”, “Beloved”, and “Obscurity”. What does the life of Jesus have to do with the life of the Christian? What if the Gospel stories weren’t just for Sunday School class, but were also the very substance of Christian discipleship, spiritual formation, and leadership development? And, also, if Jesus is God, what can Christians learn about the character of God from Jesus? The radically Christ-centered approach of Prototype is nothing new for traditions like Martin’s Pentecostalism or the (Neo) Anabaptist tradition with which he also resonates. But traditions which have sidelined Jesus for a more Paul-centric Christianity may find Prototype quite confrontational. Martin doesn’t mince words about Jesus’s call to discipleship, including his call to nonviolence.

Of late, it’s been fashionable to criticize ministers and authors who challenge people to “radical” forms of discipleship. I find this critique comes almost exclusively from the Paul-centric New Calvinist camp and from traditions comfortable with Christian culture wars. In contrast to those authors seeking to reclaim a bygone golden era, when Christianity in the U.S. was allegedly pure, Martin’s theology seems to be tailor-made for a generation that craves the experiential nature of Pentecostal spirituality, along with the inherent rootedness and heritage liturgical traditions bring, but also possessing an ethic of social engagement that is not co-opted by U.S. politics. It’s no surprise, then, to learn that Martin has been a student of Stanley Hauerwas. In Martin’s faith one can see both passionate, intellectual curiosity as well as humble, honest obedience.

The book continues to build on the pattern of Jesus’s life and ministry in the middle chapters (“Calling”, “Wounds”, and “Resurrection”) with an emphasis on discovering the Christian’s engagement with the world. What implications do the sort of crowd Jesus attracted have for how we are to live? What implications do the wounds and vulnerability of Jesus have for how we are to serve?

Once readers are safely along for the ride, Martin curates a tour of nearly all the central components of a thoroughly fleshed-out ecclesiology. Martin devotes an entire chapter to an aspect of traditional Christian worship that might be the last thing you’d expect to read in a book written by a Pentecostal pastor: “Sacraments.” Martin’s approach is genius—using themes of “touch” and “bodies” and quirky science fiction analogies to explain heady, nuanced theology. Readers won’t know they’ve become sacramental until it’s too late! Then, Martin wraps up the book with two excellent chapters (“Community” and “Witness”) which exhort readers to embody the Kingdom values of Jesus among the church and among those in our surrounding communities.

Jonathan Martin’s charming, folksy, Southern writing style, like his speaking style, lulls his audience into a state of comfort, like a veteran physician with excellent bedside manner, just before he injects the penetrating needle of sharp theological insights and arresting spiritual reflections. Prototype is about Martin’s journey with Christ, with his Pentecostal heritage, with the church community he founded, and with his own questions about faith, purpose, and meaning. Prototype is also a map by which others can embark upon their own journeys. Martin beckons readers to trust Christ with their lives, act in ways that require insane amounts of faith, wrestle with tough questions and the messiness of life, all while resting in the goodness of God’s love and grace. Somehow, in all this, he is able to strike just the right balance between prophetic challenge and pastoral encouragement. He refuses to sugar-coat the raw realities of hurt, pain, and disappointment he and others have felt in the Church, while simultaneously rejecting any impulse to turn his back on the family that has made him who he is today. Prototype is both a way forward for the Church, as well as a return home.

Personal Notes

Reading Prototype at this stage in my life is nothing short of providential. Given that I am in the early stages of church planting, and share many if not all of Martin’s theological convictions, it felt as if every chapter had been written with me in mind. In particular, reading “Obscurity” felt as if I had wandered into Renovatus Church, and pastor Martin had called me to the front and prophesied these words to me directly:

“You may think you’re in the wilderness because you’ve been cursed or abandoned by God. But if you’re in the wilderness, I’d like to suggest it’s because you are desperately loved.” (64)

I also deeply appreciated Martin’s endorsement of a more “sacramental” view of baptism, Eucharist, feet-washing, and anointing with oil. Since I have only come to hold the sacramental view in the last three to four years, it was affirming and encouraging to read another minister with a Pentecostal background taking that position.

In the same way, I have also come to hold an “open table” position with regard to the Lord’s Supper, and was greatly encouraged by Martin’s words. There has been a great deal of misunderstanding and fear in the Church around the meal Jesus gave us as a gift.

“We come to the table not because we are holy, but because we are in need of His holiness. We come to the table not because we are strong, but because we are weak and in need of His strength.” (165)

In countless ways, God’s Spirit ministered to me through reading this book, and I have no doubt that it will be used in a similar way in the lives of many others.

Praise and Recommendation

As a “recovering Pentecostal” [2], I was particularly appreciative of Martin’s approach to his own beloved tradition throughout Prototype. He does not place it on a pedestal, nor would he ever dream of renouncing it. Instead, he holds on to its honesty and simplicity, while also embracing elements of more theologically rigorous and historical traditions. Martin’s Pentecostalism is a Pentecostalism with which I think many readers will find affinity. Likewise, Martin also relies heavily on a theology of “realized” or “inaugurated” eschatology. Fans of N. T. Wright or John Howard Yoder will also find in Prototype much common ground with perhaps even more accessible language.

For these reasons, and many more, I would recommend Prototype unreservedly to any Christian or non-Christian seeking to better understand this Man who was God (called Jesus) and the New Creation he ushered in—the future of God that is crashing into the present even now.

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  1. Since the writing of this post, Jonathan Martin is no longer the Lead Pastor of Renovatus Church. He is currently a Teaching Pastor at Sanctuary Church in Tulsa, OK.
  2. Giving credit where credit is due: I learned this quirky label from a friend and mentor in New Orleans, Rev. Earl Williams. He had been a long-time Pentecostal before he joined the African Methodist Episcopal tradition.

 

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The Lamb at the Center of Worship: St. John’s Revelation and Greg Boyd’s Cruciform-centric Hermeneutic

Intro: Christians Who Don’t Worship Christ?

Until recently, I took it for granted that all Christians understood and agreed on at least one simple fact: That the Bible teaches Messiah Jesus of Nazareth (his life and teachings) is the definitive, perfect, and final revelation of God. After all, the writer of Hebrews makes this much clear:

“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.”
– Heb. 1.1-3 (NIV, emphasis added)

Or consider Jesus’s answer to Phillip’s request to see the “Father” (God) to whom Jesus keeps referring,

“Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”

Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?
– John 14.8-9 (NIV, emphasis added)

Or, if Jesus’s words don’t impress you (as has especially become the trend among Calvinists), and you need Paul’s didactic teaching style to convince you, consider this gem:

“See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ. For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form…
– Col. 2.8-9 (NIV, emphasis added)

What a fool I’ve been: I presumed there was at least one common area of agreement among those who call themselves “Christians”—that we worship Christ!  But, from recent discussions online and offline, it appears I was wrong. Instead, what I’ve learned is that some look for a god behind and beyond Jesus. For them, other revelation must be added to Jesus in order for them to receive God’s “full” self-revelation. Why they insist on calling themselves “Christians” then, I couldn’t tell you. Perhaps a more appropriate label might be “godians.”

greg-boyd_croppedIn particular, the “Christians” with whom I’ve been discussing are angry about Greg Boyd’s proposal of a “cruciform-centric” hermeneutic 1.  Boyd is unabashedly influenced by (Neo) Anabaptist theology, which has historically advocated for a Christ-centered (“christocentric”) reading of Scripture. This is nothing new. Even (New) Calvinists claim to be Christ-centered these days. 2  What Boyd adds to this interpretive methodology is the biblical idea that discipleship is the process of emulating one’s Master. (Shocking, I know!) Since Jesus laid down his life, and we are Jesus’s disciples, we too are called to lay down our lives—to demonstrate radical, self-sacrificial love (Eph. 5.1-2; Phil. 2.1-11; I Jn. 3.16). This process is now being called “cruciformity”—being formed by the cross, living out cross-shaped love. 3

The objection from some is that this approach is an external grid being imposed on the Scripture, and is therefore eisegesis (importing meaning to the Text), rather than exegesis (drawing meaning from the Text). Objectors also claim that such an approach undermines Scripture’s inspiration and authority. By applying the lens of Jesus’s cross to passages where God is depicted as violent (for example), these objectors also claim Boyd is attempting to ignore portions of Scripture or cut them out of the Bible entirely. 4

In what follows, I will demonstrate that the Bible itself, namely the book of Revelation, teaches Jesus-disciples to apply the cruciform-centric hermeneutic that Boyd describes. In so doing, I will prove that the cruciform-centric hermeneutic is not some external grid being imposed upon Scripture, but is instead Scripture’s own teaching for Christians. Therefore, the cruciform-centric hermeneutic is the appropriate interpretive methodology for Christians (i.e. those who worship Christ).

The Parallel of Worship in Heaven and Worship in the Church

Throne-Room-Heaven-RevelationThe Apocalypse (“Revelation”) of St. John is a widely misunderstood book. Many Western Christians, influenced by popular forms of Dispensationalism 5  the likes of which can be found in the Left Behind books and movies, think of it as a future prediction code to be deciphered. Many search the book looking for clues about what will happen in the “end times.” While John certainly does speak of Christ’s return and sees a vision of the final telos of history, the primary flaw this approach suffers is that it overlooks the immediate and pastoral context. Revelation was written for us, but it was not written to us. Instead, it was written to seven churches by their pastor, the apostle John.

With this fact in mind, we can begin to understand John’s authorial intent. By reminding ourselves of the historical context, we can begin to piece together the meaning the book had for its original hearers. Then we can attempt to draw application from that meaning for our context today.

The setting is late first-century, Roman-occupied “Asia Minor,” where Christian congregations have been formed, and where severe persecution has afflicted the followers of the Way. Nevertheless, these courageous believers (many of whom are Jewish) gather together weekly to worship on the “Lord’s Day,” which is Sunday—the day Jesus rose from the dead. Why Sunday and not Saturday? The answer is both simple and profound: the Resurrection changed everything! The Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, is alive and reigns forever! He has defeated Satan, the powers, and death itself! The early Christians worshipped on Sunday because the early Christians worshipped Jesus!

Add to this what we know about the structure of early Christian worship:

  • First, early Christians were baptized with water as a sign that they have died with Christ to their old live and have been raised with Christ to new life. Christ is at the heart of this ritual, which serves as initiation into the Church, the family of believers.
  • Second, early Christians studied the Scriptures (the Hebrew Bible) and received teaching on their meaning. In light of Christ’s coming, the meaning of the Hebrew Bible has been complete transformed. Every apostolic author in the New Testament quotes the Hebrew Bible to teach that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah. The Advent of Christ into the world has completely changed the way the early Christians approach the Hebrew Scriptures. In them, they now find Christ. 6
  • Third, early Christians celebrated a meal together called a “Love Feast” or what some call an “Agape Meal.” At this meal, believers in Christ shared in table fellowship regardless of socio-economic status in the world’s eyes, regardless of ethnicity, regardless of age, and regardless of gender. During this meal, the Christians would remember the death their Lord and Savior suffered for them. In the participation of the Eucharistic meal, the early Christians worshipped Christ—weekly.

Eugene Peterson writes,

“The throne, the sea, and the altar are the glorious originals of the pulpit, font, and table in the house churches where St. John’s congregations gathered week by week in their Lord’s Day worship.” 7

Who is Worthy to Open the Scroll?

hebrew-scroll-torahAt the center of the heavenly worship gathering sits a throne—the throne of God. By the way some Christians speak of God, the throne should be empty. Seated on the throne should be an amorphous cloud of undefinable yet all-encompassing god-ness. But that is not what John sees. Standing at the center of the throne, the seat of power and sovereignty and rule, the center of all worship, all power, is the crucified Lamb: Jesus of Nazareth (Rev. 5.6). This should shock and arrest any Christian who does not think Jesus is the definitive revelation of God. This imagery is clear: Jesus is God! There is no god behind, beyond Jesus the Messiah! There is no god behind, beyond the Crucified One!

What happens next boggles and perplexes many modern readers.

I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it. And I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”

Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered…
– Rev. 5.1-6 (NIV)

For many modern readers, the “scroll” John speaks of here is mysterious. Theories abound and are filled with symbolism, secrets, futuristic woes and blessings. But because we have set out to understand what the Text meant to its original hearers first, before we attempt to apply its meaning to our context, we do not suffer from such delusions. Instead, we remember that the worship of the early Christians prominently featured the scrolls of Scripture. In fact, the people of God have worshipped God with the reading of God’s Spirit-inspired Texts for hundreds of years. In Jewish worship, the Torah was read aloud in synagogues every Sabbath day, and also the scrolls of the prophets. In Christian worship, the same scrolls were opened, but with new meaning and a new Subject: King Jesus, the Lord of Lords, YHWH Incarnate.

[Jesus] went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
– Luke 4.16-21 (NIV)

The Scriptures that the Jews read every Sabbath day were sealed, shrouded in mystery, bound up waiting until the Word, the One by Whom all things were spoken into existence, would stand before humanity and declare that the time has come for them to be fulfilled! The hearts of the Jewish believers were veiled, and a veil remained each time the Hebrew Scriptures were read. That is, until Jesus came! Jesus lifts the veil, revealing the Truth, uncovering mysteries. (II Cor. 3.7-18)

Jesus is the One who reveals the Truth of the Scriptures. Jesus is the One who uncovers the mystery long sealed in the Sacred Text.

[Jesus] said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
– Luke 24.25-27 (NIV)

Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:

“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”

The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.
– Acts 8.29-35 (NIV)

Only Jesus is worthy to open the scroll, because only Jesus has suffered and laid down his life for humanity. Only Jesus is worthy to open the scroll, because only Jesus is the embodiment of YHWH’s Wisdom.

Again Peterson illuminates,

“Scroll” to a first-century Christian would mean scripture. The scrolls they were most familiar with were the great scrolls of scripture in the synagogues. Scrolls were respected and valued. God’s people believe that God speaks, that he tells us who he is and what he does. He is not a deus absconditus but a deus revelatus. His words are spoken to his people so that they will know his actions for them, his will in them. And these words were written in scrolls. It is to be expected in the act of worship that a scroll will appear. But the scroll is sealed. […]

In the midst of the great act of worship, St. John had wept because there was no one to unseal the scroll and proclaim God’s word personally to him (Rev. 5:4). Then Jesus Christ, in the form of the Lamb, came forward to unseal the scroll, that is, to preach to him. Immediately his weeping ceased: God reveals his word as Christ preaches to us. Is there meaning in the evil chaos of history? We hope there is a clue tucked away in the rubble. The unsealing of the scroll—the revelation of Jesus Christ whereby God’s will is known among us—is a proclamation of this good news in the midst of history. There is a correspondence between what is going on in the midst of worship and what is going on in the midst of history, and Jesus Christ, unsealing the scroll, provides it. We do not have to wait for the future revelation to find the meaning. We do not have to unravel a puzzle to figure out the meaning. It is presented to us. And Christ is the one who presents it.” 8

The Cross-Shaped Hermeneutic of Obedience

cruciform-lightJesus calls his disciples to take up their crosses and follow him (Mt. 10.38, 16.24; Mk. 8.34; Lk. 9.23, 14.27). To follow Jesus means to live like he lived (I Jn. 2.6). To live as Jesus lived, we too must lay down our lives for others (Eph. 5.1-2; Phil. 2.1-11; I Jn. 3.16). For Jesus-disciples, the cross is more than a historical event—it becomes a Way of Life (Gal. 6.14). This is the “cruciformity” to which Boyd and Gorman refer.

The Jesus-disciple lives a life formed by their Master’s example, emulating Jesus’s cross-shaped love. Not only is our interpretation of Scripture informed by this fact, but it informs our interpretation of all life! Every person we encounter, every obstacle we face, every achievement is another opportunity to love like Jesus—to die to ourselves and the world, growing in the life of the age to come. The more we live it out, the more the Scriptures become clear. The Anabaptists call this the “hermeneutic of obedience.” Jesus didn’t say the truth will set us free, then we will hold to his teaching. No, he said we must hold to his teaching—then we will know the truth and be set free (Jn. 8.31-32). Obedience precedes the liberation of enlightenment. “Doing” the Scriptures reveals their truth. And “doing” the Scriptures means obeying Jesus. He is our Teacher, our Master. He is the Lord—the Crucified One.

Conclusion: Christians Worship the Lamb Who Was Slain

The life of Jesus’s disciples is a life of worship. We demonstrate our loyalty, our allegiance to Jesus by following his example and holding to his teaching. In dying with Christ, we live. Being in Christ means living crucified lives—lives formed by the cross—lives of demonstrative, unconditional, self-sacrificial love.

In worship, now as in the first-century, we read the Holy Scriptures. Only now, because of our discipleship, we read them anew. They have been opened to us by the Messiah, the only Worthy One. Only the Lamb is worthy to open the scrolls because only the Lamb has been slain for us. And only in the Lamb’s sacrifice is God fully revealed. Now the veil is lifted, mysteries are uncovered, and the seal is broken.

At the center of Christian worship is the Lamb who was slain. Whether we are celebrating baptism: our old lives being buried with Christ, and being raised with Christ to a new life; or whether we are sharing in the Eucharistic meal, celebrating the Final Passover Lamb, slain for us; or whether we are reading and teaching from the Holy Scriptures, the scrolls now open by the Wisdom of God; Jesus the Messiah is the starting place and telos of worship—the Alpha and the Omega.

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  1. “Hermeneutic” refers to interpretation, especially of the Bible. Boyd’s proposal is that Christians interpret the Bible with a Christo-centric (Jesus-centered) lens. But more than that—that Christians remember that the Jesus through whom God is perfectly revealed is the Jesus who died on the cross. And we, his disciples, are to follow his example. That is what “cruciform” means: to be formed by the cross. Therefore, Boyd’s suggestion is that our discipleship informs our biblical interpretation. You can read first-hand about Boyd’s proposal for a “cruciform-centric” hermeneutic in his upcoming book, Crucifixion of the Warrior God (IVP 2014?), and on the ReKnew Ministries blog here:
    Christ-Centered or Cross-Centered?
    Answering an Objection to a Cross-Centered Approach to Scripture [Q&A]
    Cruciform Aikido Pt 1: Jesus and the Violent God
  2. Matt Chandler, Creature of the Word: The Jesus-Centered Church (The Village Church, 2012); “In Defense of a Christ-Centered Hermeneutic” by Mike Leake http://sbcvoices.com/in-defense-of-a-christ-centered-hermeneutic-or-a-reply-to-dr-eric-hankins/;  “Jesus Centered Reformed Theology” http://www.acts29network.org/sermon/jesus-centered-reformed-theology–san-diego-2006/.
  3. Michael J. Gorman, Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross (Eerdmans, 2001); Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology (Eerdmans, 2009).
  4. Ultra-conservative Evangelicals (or more accurately: Fundamentalists) routinely confuse the rejection of their interpretations of passages in the Bible with rejection of the Bible itself. They make the mistake of considering their interpretation to be authoritative, rather than the God whom the Bible reveals. What is gained by such tight control on interpretive methodology is political power. By insisting that their interpretative methodology is the only valid methodology, they maintain the status quo and preserve their gatekeeper positions. This is at the heart of the objections to Boyd’s proposed hermeneutic.
  5. Dispensationalism
  6. John 5.39; Luke 24.25-27; Gal. 3.8; I Pet. 2.6-8; Heb. 1.5-13; Rev. 19.15.
  7. Eugene Peterson, Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John & the Praying Imagination (Harper Collins 1988), p.63.
  8. Ibid., 64, 73-74.