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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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2016 Reading Recap & Recommendations

Recently, I saw that Missio Alliance has published an “Essential Reading List of 2016,” and was proud to see my friends Jessica Kelley, Drew Hart, and Lisa Sharon Harper’s books make the list. Represent!

So, Missio’s list got me thinking about the books I read this year. Here’s a brief reflection with recommendations.

In preparation for a sermon series, I started this year reading works on the New Testament book of Revelation. I re-read three of my favorites: 1. Reversed Thunder by Eugene Peterson; 2. Reading Revelation Responsibly by Michael Gorman; and 3. Revelation For Everyone by N. T. Wright. In my opinion, these are still (hands down) the best three resources on Revelation. But, I also read a few new ones. David DeSilva’s book Unholy Allegiances was excellent. It’s an accessible and brief introduction with insights backed by archeological research and empire criticism. I also read Brian Blount’s Can I Get a Witness? which is in a league of its own. It was eye-opening in many ways. Darrell Johnson’s Discipleship on the Edge was a very helpful text for preaching and full of interesting insights.

In addition to sermon prep reading, I also read several other books I think are worth recommending. My top eight are:

Day_Revolution_Began1. The Day the Revolution Began by N. T. Wright

When the church looks back on this period in history, we will undoubtably speak of Wright’s scholarship the way we do those theologians who define an era like Augustine or Aquinas. His work is that important. He’s probably best known for deeply impacting historical Jesus studies and Pauline studies, two of the most contentious fields in modern Christian theology. But, in recent years, Wright’s work has coalesced into two discernible modes. He has his field-defining, 600+ page tomes like Jesus and the Victory of God. In these, he does extensive exegesis, engages with the work of best and brightest minds in the world, and details ground-breaking approaches to well-worn subjects. Then, his second mode are popular-level, ~200 page works for lay-persons. In this mode, he’s also made waves like with this books Surprised by Hope and Justification.

The Day the Revolution Began is a book on Jesus’s Cross in the latter (popular-level) mode. It’s around 400 pages, but it is written in his layperson-accessible style. He doesn’t name-drop dozens of scholars or parse Greek words. But he manages, in a relatively brief book, to provide readers with a high-level survey of the history and landscape of teaching on the atonement. Wright challenges sacred cows and yet remains intensely traditional. What sets apart Wright’s work from so many others is that he brings into focus the New Testament’s deep indebtedness to the Hebrew Bible and how fully immersed Jesus’s story is in the story of Israel. With Wright’s signature punchiness, he takes aim at distortions of “penal substitutionary atonement” that forsake the biblical narrative for an unbiblical one. In the end, Wright recovers all the best aspects of “PSA,” while both discarding its perversions, and providing the structure for a far better frame. That frame is Exodus and Exile; two of the most important aspects of the biblical narrative which arrive at their climax in the Cross.

This book is a must-read for theology nerds.

Roadmap_Reconciliation2. Roadmap to Reconciliation by Brenda Salter-McNeil

In Roadmap to Reconciliation, Brenda Salter-McNeil distills decades of wisdom gleaned from painstaking and miracle-producing work among Christian organizations wrestling with cross-cultural and interracial ministry into a highly-accessible, highly-practical, and brief book. On a subject as fraught with landmines as racial reconciliation, Dr. Salter-McNeil manages to both provoke and build bridges. She simultaneously confronts and comforts. She does this by masterfully weaving together powerful stories from her extensive body of work with profound biblical insights. While brief, this book is packed with potential to transform ministries who are seeking to be transformed.

This book is a must-read for any pastor or Christian leader courageous enough to engage in the Gospel work of racial reconciliation.

Water_to_Wine3. Water to Wine by Brian Zahnd

For his “sabbatical,” Brian Zahnd (and his wife Peri) recently walked the 500-mile Camino de Santiago pilgrimage traveled by millions of Christians down through the centuries. But that six-week journey pales in comparison to the journey he has traversed in the last 15 years. He’s been transformed from a Charismatic (read: tongue-talkin’), prosperity-preaching, war-praying, bible-thumping, Americanized, “Evangelical,” Christian into a contemplative, liturgical, (probably still tongue-talkin’), nonviolent, sacramental, Jesus-follower. In Water to Wine, he details some of that journey and its one with which I deeply identify. I’m so grateful for how Zahnd articulates the Christian faith; it inspires and energizes me. (Read my full review)

This book is a must-read for any “Evangelical” who senses there is more to Christianity.

Lord_Willing4. Lord Willing? by Jessica Kelley

I’ve been waiting for and dreaming of a book like this one for years! Lord Willing? is a theodicy from the perspective of a thoughtful, intelligent woman who has personally experienced agonizing pain and loss. Far too many of the theodicies on tap today are written by men and are written to reinforce a picture of God that looks nothing like Jesus. Jessica Kelley allows us to see into the darkest moments of her life, as she profoundly struggled with God’s goodness and power in the midst of her son’s (Henry) battle with cancer. Matched only by her laser-focused, Jesus-centered theological insights are her engrossing accounts of how she experienced each excruciating moment. What sets this book apart from all others is that it doesn’t offer a “solution” to the problem of evil in the form of a doctrine—it offers a Jesus-centered framework that allows a mother watching her son slowing dying not to loser her faith. Kelley offers readers a way to see that the Jesus-looking God is at war against all evil—including cancer—and suffers alongside each of us, sustaining us in his unique love. She offers readers an alternative to the “blueprint” view of God, which makes God the cause of cancer and renders God’s character suspect. Kelley’s view is extremely well-researched and supported by Scripture. But make no mistake, Kelley’s story is also heartbreaking, so make sure you have tissues handy when you read it.

This book is must-read for everyone who wrestles with God’s goodness or power in the midst of pain and loss.

You_Are_What_You_Love5. You Are What You Love by James K. A. Smith

James K. A. Smith is my favorite “Reformed” thinker. I loved his book Desiring the Kingdom. And that’s why I also loved You Are What You Love. It felt to me like the lay-person’s version of Desiring the Kingdom, which I think is a brilliant move. While Desiring the Kingdom was aimed at transforming our conception of Christian education using an Augustinian anthropology and corresponding pedagogy, You Are What You Love widens the scope of his thesis to all Christian formation. Smith’s contention is that human beings aren’t primarily “thinking things,” shaped by our thoughts, but are desiring persons, formed by our deepest loves. In classic Augustinian fashion, Smith points to our “disordered loves” as the root cause of our distorted humanity. Therefore, the solution is properly ordered loves. This, Smith writes, is accomplished through the practices of Christian worship. This simple idea is power-packed. With it, Smith can diagnose all the ways our loves are being malformed by “secular liturgies,” the practices in which we thoughtlessly engage every day. Smith urges us to take back the power of habit to harness our formation and submit it to God’s will and way. Through the practices of Christian worship, we are being transformed by God’s Spirit and grace more and more into the image of Christ.

This book is a must-read for all Jesus-followers who want to be properly formed.

How_Jesus_Saves_World_From_Us6. How Jesus Saves the World From Us by Morgan Guyton

Morgan Guyton has been challenging toxic Christianity on his blog, “Mercy, Not Sacrifice” for quite a while now. So, while overdue, How Jesus Saves the World From Us was worth the wait. Each chapter highlights one way Morgan has conceptualized his journey out of toxic Christianity and into a deep relationship with Christ. (Read my full review)

This book is a must-read for anyone who has felt hurt by Christians or churches but still desires a relationship with Christ.

How_Survive_Shipwreck7. How to Survive a Shipwreck by Jonathan Martin

Jonathan Martin’s first book, Prototype, is a tough act to follow. But with his signature, vulnerable and poetic style, Martin offers a sequel that did not disappoint. Even though Prototype was deeply personal, somehow his second book manages to be even more personal. As Martin draws you into his story of personal loss and failure you can’t help but grow more and more introspective and contemplative. He’s a master at this. Before you know it, you are half-reading and half-praying. Martin’s pastoral ministry extends to every reader of this book and its a ministry of empowering grace.

This book is a must-read for everyone who has felt like a failure and needs to hear God’s voice speaking life over them.

Embrace8. Embrace by Leroy Barber

This was my first time reading a work by Leroy Barber and it was a great introduction. While I’ve followed some of his ministry through my involvement with the CCDA, this was the first time I’d read any of his extended story, and it’s amazing! I was very encouraged by this book, not only as a minister but also as a Jesus-follower. I also loved the emphasis on shalom. As some of you may know, my wife is writing a book that also focuses on shalom that is due out in 2017. This book opened my eyes to even more of God’s power among us.

This is a must-read for everyone trying to follow God’s call on their lives, even when it’s deeply challenging.

Here are some other good lists: Biologos, Kurt Willems’ Paul Books

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A Deeper Look at The Get Down: An Interview with Pastor Efrain “Brother E” Alicea

The Get Down is a Netflix series set in NYC during the late 70s/early 80s. It touches on many interrelated aspects of life in NYC during that time—from Disco to the rise of Hip Hop culture to political corruption. It also features a portrait of religious opposition to secular music in the form of Latino Pentecostalism.

Pastor Efrain “Brother E” Alicea grew up in NYC during that era, was immersed in Hip Hop culture, and his story also intersects with Latino Pentecostalism. So, in this interview, Brother E tells some of his story, reflects on the show, and shares about the ministry he’s doing with Elements Church in the Bronx.

Check out the interview:

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Prophetic Detox: A Review of Morgan Guyton’s book How Jesus Saves the World From Us

Morgan Guyton is a husband, father, writer, Methodist campus minister serving the students of Tulane and Loyola in New Orleans, and he also might be the inventor of the “rave sermon” [1]. I’ve been reading his blog, Mercy Not Sacrifice, for many years and a few years ago we took a run at starting an online collective of writers called “The Despised Ones”. Over all the years I’ve known Morgan, he has challenged and encouraged my thinking with both pastoral and prophetic wisdom. And he continues to do so with his first book, How Jesus Saves the World From Us.

In this book, Morgan takes on 12 of the most toxic aspects of Christianity in the U.S., which include, but aren’t limited to: performance, biblicism, separatism, judgment, and hierarchical power. While Morgan clearly approaches these subjects from firmly within the “progressive” wing of Christianity in the U.S., I was pleasantly surprised at just what an equal opportunity offender he was. There’s no doubt in my mind some of Morgan’s criticisms will not be well-received by his own progressive comrades.

For example, I remember when we were co-leading “The Despised Ones,” it was understood that anyone and everyone was welcome. That’s progressive Christianity 101, after all! Well, that didn’t last long. Even progressives have their own “unclean” communities: “abusers” and “unsafe” persons, are just a couple examples. So, quickly the discussion in our group shifted from how inclusive we were of anyone and everyone, to how there was no hope of redemption for “oppressors.” And few recognized the irony. That’s why I thought it was wonderful to read this passage in Morgan’s book:

“Jesus’ meal with Zacchaeus committed the cardinal sin of today’s progressive activist culture: centering the oppressor. Did Jesus betray everyone who had been oppressed by Zacchaeus by eating dinner with him? What would Twitter say? […]

The goal of Jesus’ solidarity with all sinners and victims of their sin is to dismantle our divisions so that all humanity can be reconciled together.” (p.116-117)

This will definitely offend Morgan’s progressive friends who will no doubt accuse him of revictimizing them. But Morgan demonstrates that he’s not interested in toeing any theological camp’s “party line.” He’s perfectly willing to call attention to the hypocrisy of both the Right and the Left! For this courage, I applaud him.

But that certainly doesn’t mean Morgan is unwilling to boldly confront the ubiquitous abuses of the conservative, Fundamentalist Right in the U.S.. He most assuredly does that. However, unlike other progressive Christian authors who have practically made this style of writing into its own genre, I think Morgan critiques this favored target with more pastoral sensitivity and personal reflection than usual. Morgan is nothing if not first self-critical. He locates himself directly within the demographic most often responsible for abuses of power, racial insensitivity, denigration of women, etc. Part of Morgan’s genius is using his own highly reflective journey as a guide for others who share his social location. He doesn’t stand outside and hurl stones at white, cis-gendered, straight males—he stands within that space and calls attention to his own failings and how he’s seen God’s grace transform him. This might actually be the only Christ-like way to challenge people who are like you in so many ways, but nevertheless hold a significantly divergent worldview. Two of my favorite chapters were “Worship Not Performance” and “Poetry Not Math.”

Redeeming Justification

In “Worship Not Performance,” Morgan reframes the essential human problem from guilt to self-consciousness. I think this is brilliant. Today, in the U.S., when I hear sermons or read writing that calls attention to God’s power to forgive the guilty, I hear chirping crickets. I’m not sure I ever felt “guilty” for my sins, and that certainly wasn’t what turned my heart toward God. Instead, I was chiefly aware of my alienation from God, from others, and even from myself. I felt like I was wearing a mask all the time, trying to live up to a mysterious and often shifting set of expectations. And I always felt like there was a gap between who I knew I was and who I was for other people. Self-consciousness is a better description of that experience than “guilt.”

White Westerners like “guilt” as a descriptor of sin because they like to conceptualize God as a judge who wants law and order above all. When you’re on top of the world in terms of political power and wealth, it’s to your benefit to conceptualize God as a “law and order” God. It keeps the riff-raff in check. But, if, as Morgan puts it, we have been “transformed from curious delightful worshippers into anxious, self-obsessed performers,” (p.8) then everyone on any spectrum of political power or wealth is implicated. In fact, the most “anxious” and “self-obsessed” people might be those who “break commandments” the least. Those who are most “anxious” and “self-obsessed” might even be those who are very religious and very wealthy. Such a reframe is not advantageous to the rich and powerful. It necessarily levels the sin playing field. And that’s precisely why I think it’s such a brilliant and biblical reconceptualization. Here’s a little taste to whet your appetite:

“We are not saved from God’s disapproval. We are saved from the self-isolation of believing the serpent’s lie and hiding in the bushes from God. Faith isn’t the performance that passes God’s test to earn us a ticket to heaven; it’s the abolition of performance that liberates us from the hell of self-justification and restores us to a life of authentic worship.” (p.17)

Another reason I love this chapter so much, is that it rescues the doctrine of “justification by grace through faith” from those who peddle it as a replacement for sanctification. There is a wealthy and politically powerful contingent of American Christians who love, love, love them some “justification by grace through faith” because it promises to free them from the “legalism” of “works.” What then happens is, “the Gospel” is equated with a message that we “don’t have to do anything to earn our salvation,” and everyone who already didn’t want to “do anything” erupts in joy. But Morgan’s reframe on this cherished Protestant doctrine actually ups the ante. There is nothing more challenging than to daily resist the pressure to self-justify and to perform for the expectations of others, or even ourselves. This take on justification by grace through faith actually requires me to daily relinquish my own nagging need for status, recognition, and value to God as a “work” that is far more strenuous than following some list of “dos and don’ts”. This reframe of justification makes sanctification essential rather than dismissing it as an optional addition to the Christian life. And that’s a message Christians in the U.S. desperately need to hear.

Deepening Hermeneutics

In “Poetry Not Math,” Morgan takes aim at toxic hermeneutics in a beautifully-brief yet powerfully-poignant chapter. So much of my own journey of faith has included grappling with biblical interpretation. I was incredibly impressed by how succinctly Morgan captured concepts it has taken me over a decade to work through thoughtfully. (Where was this book when I was 17?!)

By describing our relationship to biblical interpretation as more akin to one with poetry than one with math, Morgan takes the legs out from underneath those who would accuse him of undervaluing the Bible. Poetry is not “less valuable” than math. In fact, viewed one way, poetry may be more valuable than math, since math has very defined limits, while poetry is potentially limitless. Also, by comparing our interpretation of Scripture to interpretation of poetry, Morgan sneakily teaches a post-colonial and post-modern hermeneutic. Who we are has as much to do with our interpretations of the Bible as the text itself. Again, this is a message the church in the U.S. desperately needs to hear.

For far too long, Fundamentalists in particular, but also many, if not most, conservative evangelicals, have put forth a conception of Scripture that is little more than a facade behind which they hide their own bids for wealth and political power. The certainty with which they’ve spoken about what is an “abomination” to God and the certainty with which they’ve spoken about the divine purpose of geo-political events could only be supported by a “mathematical” conception of Scripture. To admit that hermeneutics is more of an art than a science would be to admit that they could be wrong, and that just wouldn’t be good for fundraising nor fear-mongering. And that’s why this chapter is so necessary. Here’s another sample:

“Poetry has a unique truth about it. Arguments that you might lose in logic can be won through poetry. It does justice to realities that cannot be captured by scientific explanation. It gets under your skin in a way that strictly rational communication cannot. Most importantly, good poetry is never finished being interpreted. No one can say the final word on a good poem, because its meaning defies any conclusive explanation.” (p.70)

As a pastor in a highly diverse congregation, I am routinely faced with questions about biblical interpretation from every possible starting point. Morgan’s take on biblical interpretation is one that will aid me immensely as I lead both Fundamentalists and progressives toward a more faithful immersion in the biblical narrative.

Conclusion

How Jesus Saves the World from Us is a gift to the church. In particular, it is a gift to those who, like Morgan, are open to God’s leading of them on a journey of exploration, adventure, and delight. This book is not for those who are so confident in their own views that they do not want to have them challenged. Reviews from those folks have already been predictably defensive. Rather, this book is for those who are humble or want to be humble. This book is for those who want to peer into the life of a Christian writer in the U.S. as he processes with depth and wisdom several of the most challenging subjects of the Christian life. As for me, I’ll be revisiting and recommending this book often. And I’m tremendously grateful to Morgan for writing it.

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1. Jonathan Martin, who wrote the forward to How Jesus Saves the World from Us was the preacher behind whose sermon Morgan performed his modified “progressive trance” music.

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

When Blueprints Fail

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

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

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

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

How would you have answered her?

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

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

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

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

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

A Timely Book from a Well-qualified Thinker

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

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

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

Seeking a Better Solution to the Problem of Evil

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

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

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

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

The Science of Randomness and Free Will

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Problematizing Divine Permission

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

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

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

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

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

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

How will Oord solve the problem?

The Landscape of Providence

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oord helpfully summarizes the pros and cons of this model:

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

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

A Friendly, Open Debate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God’s Kenotic Essence

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the Bible Says God Can’t Do

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Distance from Process

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

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

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

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

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

Those Pesky Miracles

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

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

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

Conclusion: Deepening the Discussion

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

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

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PDF version available at Academia.edu