In arguing that God as the summum bonum just is the transcendentals (Truth, Beauty, Goodness, Beatitude [viz., experienced aesthetic value]), we are admittedly engaging in a form of natural theology (dismissed by many as idolatrous). We won’t enter into a defense of such a move here but will recommend Sarah Coakley. Not all ‘natural theology’ makes the ‘onto-theological’ mistake. We’ve also relied upon biblical passages that describe God in terms of a transcendent and glorious beatitude that is supremely transformative of creation’s suffering. We’ve discussed these passages here repeatedly. So biblically (as well as philosophically) speaking we feel like we have good warrant for understanding God to be unsurpassable beatitude.
However, there are other biblical texts that clearly describe God in strongly passibilist terms as possessing the full range of human emotions all of which are determinable by us. God’s anger burns, his heart breaks, he weeps, he laughs at the wicked, his grief leads him to regret having created, and more we needn’t mention. Point is—we have in these texts descriptions of a fully passibilist God whose “felt quality of existence” is contingent upon the fluctuating well-being of the world.
Shouldn’t such passages end the debate? There it is right there in the text: “God grieved” so greatly he regretted having created; God’s “anger burned” red hot against Israel, etc. After all, the Bible ‘says’ it. That settles it, right? Well, not exactly. In fact, this isn’t a straightforward rule that even passibilists use. For example, take Boyd’s cruciform hermeneutic as an attempt to deal with the tension between the divine violence texts and God’s non-violent love revealed in the Cross. Greg has argued for a cruciform standard, i.e., reading the Bible from the Cross outward, from the methodological center of the non-violent love revealed in Christ’s self-sacrificial love outward toward all other descriptions of God (Old and New Testaments), judging whatever descriptions of God fail to conform to [Greg’s reading of] the Cross as you move outward.
If we’re following him correctly, Greg argues that for whatever ‘actions’ (in this case acts of violence) are attributed to God in the text fail to conform to the non-violent love revealed on the Cross, we are to conclude that God did not in fact do or command them. We should rather understand such passages as God accommodating himself to a violent covenant partner (OT Israel) and identifying with their fallen violent ways in Cross-like love. It is only later in the Cross (not in biblical texts per se) that God reveals the nature of this accommodation. God is allowing himself to be identified and used by Israel for their own selfish violent ends. The abiding truth of such passages is one and the same, namely, that God accommodates and identifies himself with fallen, despairing people, sometimes tolerating their flawed understandings of him and even the projection (within the biblical texts) of their violence upon him. It is only through the light which Christ later sheds on this history that we perceive God revealed unambiguously as non-violent love and his accommodating Israel’s violence as a manifestation of this love’s covenant faithfulness. Greg hasn’t published the fuller arguments for this, so we’ll not get into a debate of his main thesis. Looking forward to it!
The point we wish to make here is that this view ought to be applied not only to the problem of God’s ‘doing violently’ but also to God’s ‘feeling violently’. Take a passage like Exodus 32, relied upon heavily by open theists to ground the biblical case for God’s responsive manner of relating in an open future. Greg’s hermeneutic reads the proposed ‘doing of violence’ in cruciform manner. However Greg understands the text to function truthfully, it is for him a Christological given that God neither wills nor does harm or violence. We suggest extending this to the emotions attributed to God in such passages as well. One cannot take straightforwardly what a text like Exodus 32 says God ‘feels’ and interpret the violence God ‘intends to do’ in cruciform manner while saying nothing about the what God is described as ‘feeling’ on this occasion. If God does not ‘do’ violently because he is non-violent love, it can hardly be supposed that he ‘feels’ violently. Rage, laughing at the wicked, holding them in derision are all ‘emotions’ that one should think stand judged to be as un-Crosslike (going with Greg for the moment) as the violent ‘actions’ which these emotions motivate. You can’t qualify the ‘doing’ without qualifying the ‘feeling’ in such texts.
At the very least this means that given Greg’s cruciform hermeneutic there’s no straightforward way to read passibilist texts since some ‘passions’ fail to conform to the self-sacrificial love of the Cross as equally as do some ‘actions’ attributed to God. Besides, in Christ we learn that the moral distinction between ‘feeling’ and ‘acting’ is false. So there’s no question that whatever reasons Greg gives for reading violent passages in cruciform manner, they are also applicable to our reading of the relative divine emotions, which means some emotions depict God no more directly or truthfully than do passages that describe God as commanding genocide.
This is no small adjustment. In Ps 37.13 God “laughs at the wicked” and in Ps 2.4 he “holds them in derision.” In Ps 5.5 God “hates all evildoers,” and in Ps 11.5 “[God’s] soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence.” Never mind the fact that with Christ we come to see that ‘hating’ is a form of ‘doing violence’. So the moral sensibilities of the Psalmists (or Israel as a whole) aren’t exactly cruciform. Consider also Ps 7.11 where God “feels indignation every day” or Hosea 9.15 where God shall “no longer love” a generation of Israelites because of their wickedness. Not exactly emotional judgments or attitudes Greg could recommend as reflective of the loving, self-sacrificial attitude Christ has for the wicked. Our point is just that Greg’s hermeneutic has to embrace the ‘feeling’ as well as the ‘doing’ of violence and this itself tells us that such texts do not reveal God in any straightforward way.
Our difference with Greg is regarding what constitutes the ‘standard’ which is the Christological center. Where Greg argues that this standard is exclusively ‘the Cross’, we recommend the standard be ‘the whole of Christ’s incarnate and resurrected life interpreted apostolically’. It cannot be the ‘Cross’ alone, for this ends up bringing the apostolic witness into conflict with itself. For example, we would take Luke in straightforward terms when he describes the crucifixion as relaying ‘the standard’ revealing God’s intentions and nature but judge Luke (following Greg) to have fundamentally misunderstood God’s intentions and nature when he attributes Ananias and Sapphira’s deaths to the Spirit. Or take Paul’s declaration to know nothing but “Christ crucified” (1Co 2). We would take this to describe in a straightforward manner an all-embracing standard for our understanding of God, but then not take Paul’s statement that “God lives in unapproachable light” as describing deity in any essential way (since, so the logic goes, Jesus didn’t live in unapproachble light but was fully divine; hence, divinity isn’t essentially unapproachable light [whatever that means]). Nor would we think with Paul (Rm 8) that God is essentially a glory/beauty which shall relativize all human suffering into incomparable insignificance since (so the logic goes) Jesus’ experience of rejection and God-forsakeness on the Cross was not an incomparably glorious experience. In our view, it’s the entirety of the apostolic witness (“…built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets,” Eph 2) and not merely what is said and done on the Cross which determines a Christological understanding of God. Paul’s “God lives in unapproachable light,” or any of the other ‘transcendent’ passages we’ve discussed (or Christ’s transfiguration, a hugely suggestive event that ought to tell us Christ’s divinity cannot be reduce to the shattering of triune relations on the Cross), is as authoritative and informative for a NT-Christcentered understanding of God as is Christ’s cry of dereliction.
One possibility we might consider in this regard is that the OT biblical authors sometimes simply got it wrong. Early on open theists argued that anthropomorphic language is “reality depicting.” There are specific correlates on the divine side of descriptions of God as “feeling indignation all day” or “burning with anger” or “laughing at the wicked” or “hating doers of violence.” Even if this is a good hermeneutical rule, it doesn’t follow that the biblical author was always right. Greg’s own hermeneutic already discounts these as revealing God as actually intending or doing violence or harm to people. But the reasoning can extend to the feeling of violence as well, and some passibilist attributions are certainly inherently violent. What do we have in such cases? We have fallen, violent people projecting themselves onto God within the biblical text. They were simply wrong to have believed God was like this. Israel’s Scripture is a mixed bag because Israel was a mixed bag. The text gets it sometimes right and sometimes wrong because the text is Israel. We earlier described what we think this means for the Bible’s inspiration.
But this doesn’t entirely solve the (im)passibilism debate, for there are many other passibilist passages that attribute non-violent emotions to God (compassion, joy, delight, sorrow, brokenheartedness, grief). What of these? Our feeling is that it all gets read from the point of view of the full, apostolic witness and eschatological hope, not from Jesus’ cry of dereliction alone. We’ve commented on key passages we think make it extremely difficult to understand God in a fully passibilist sense.
So how do we read a passage like Gen 6? It seems to us that taking its truth at face value and concluding that God did in fact grieve to the point of regretting having created and having willed the violent destruction of the entire human race (a plan altered by Noah; note the adversative in “but Noah found favor”) is simply not an option in the fuller light of the Incarnation and the apostolic witness. What we can say is this—the OT biblical authors at least were for the most part strong passibilists. But they were also, apparently, violent and widely racist/tribalists, and these attitudes shaped their religious traditions and their texts as well. Given this, there’s no warrant to assume the biblical authors comprehended divine emotional well-being any more accurately than they understood God’s non-violent character.
Thus the history of Israel — her identity as a nation, her calling, her religious traditions and her Scriptures — is the context that will inform the development of the Word’s identity and mission. This context must be sufficiently truthful for that purpose. And the place this history is primarily embodied is, of course, Israel’s Scriptures. The worldview housed in that tradition will become the context in which Christ develops his own sense of identity and mission in the world, communicates that identity and mission to his disciples, and is finally empowered to fulfill that mission on the Cross. Hence that context needs to be sufficiently truthful for this purpose.
Might some errors belonging to the authors find their way into the text? Yes. No human author possesses an inerrant set of beliefs. No one person’s transformation and world-construction is complete or error-free. But overtime, enough of the truth needing to be said gets said in enough ways that a worldview adequate for the Incarnate One and the Church as his Body emerges. This means we view inspiration as relative in the first sense to preparing a context adequate for incarnation and not primarily about providing us a philosophical or scientific textbook adequate to answer whatever questions we put to it.
And this as well:
We are thus arguing for the canonization of Israel (as opposed to her texts per se) as the sacred space within which God creates the conditions sufficient for incarnation. Are the OT ‘texts’ inspired? In the sense that these writings are the written record of that created covenantal space God has sanctified for pursuing his incarnational purposes, yes. And it’s a mixed history; a history of misconstrual, of despairing nationalism, of religious hubris, but also of honest praise and humble dependence upon God. It’s a history that sufficiently succeeded at preserving the socio-religious conditions necessary for incarnational vocation. Israel is that space in the world where God does not give up on carving out a worldview sufficient for incarnation. They got it right enough for what ultimately mattered.
However, Paul claims “all Scripture” is God-breathed (2Tm 3.16). Isn’t that equivalent to claiming all Scripture is equally truthful and thus inerrant? Not necessarily. For example, humankind is also “breathed into” by God and becomes a living soul and yet retains this “God-breathed” status even as fallen and prone to error. He inevitably remains the consecrated space in which God works to secure his incarnational purposes. Similarly, all Scripture is God-breathed in the sense that God is choosing all of THIS history — good and bad, true and false—as the sanctified space in which God works to prepare an adequate social-religious context for Incarnation and redemption.
That said, consider Greg’s description of his ‘cruciform standard’:
But why should anyone insist that Scripture conform to any of these standards of accuracy? If we accept the view that all theological concepts should be centered on the cross, then it means that our understanding of “biblical infallibility,” as well as “biblical inspiration,” should be centered on the cross. And as I said above, if God most perfectly revealed his perfection by identifying with our imperfections on the cross, then we should have no problem affirming that the Bible is a “God-breathed,” “infallible,” and even a “perfect” book while at the same time accepting that it contains human imperfections. And it’s not simply that Scripture is inspired despite having human imperfections, as many argue. If we accept the cruciform approach to inspiration, we should rather affirm that God “breathes” through Scripture’s human imperfections as readily as God “breathes” through any and every other aspect of Scripture.
Finally, if we accept the cruciform approach to inspiration, then the cross becomes the standard against which Scripture’s “infallibility” must be assessed. In this light, to confess that Scripture is “infallible” means, most fundamentally, that it will not fail to bear witness to the crucified Christ if properly interpreted through the power of the Spirit, and with our eyes focused sharply on Christ.
We don’t see why a very similar thing could not be said regarding the strongly passibilist descriptions of God found in Scripture. The point is that there is no direct route from biblical descriptions of God to the truth about God. It doesn’t follow that since God is described as furious with rage or heartbroken with grief that these descriptions ought to be taken in a straightforward (theatrical?) manner. The authors may simply be interpreting God’s judgment (via plague, pestilence or foreign nations) as involving emotions that would undoubtedly accompany them as human beings were they executing such judgment. And if Israel’s view of God as a violent tribal deity is as thoroughgoing as Greg argues, then perhaps we shouldn’t trust Israel’s view of God much at all. But methodologically speaking at least, once we grant that a biblical author may speak from within a flawed view of God (known to be flawed based on later truths arrived at Christologically), then what’s been the standard open theist approach to reading passibilist texts becomes problematic.
It’s not easy to derive a single biblical view of God from Scriptures which tell the story of diverse, sometimes competing, views that develop over time. Greg’s right, we think, to agree with the general conviction that we read the Bible ‘Christocentrically’ (from the conviction that Christ is the end toward which the OT was moving to the idea that Christ can and does judge aspects of the old economy obsolete or originally mistaken). As for the details of Greg’s cruciform hermeneutic, we’ll await publication. Our point here is that when we read passibilist attribution in the light of what we feel are central NT convictions, we’re not departing from a Christcentered reading. We simply don’t share Greg’s understanding of what constitutes the standard by which other texts are to be read. Christ-centered reading, yes. But the Christ at the center is the Christ of the entire NT reflection and not exclusively the passion narratives.