Texts in travail: Review of Crucifixion of the Warrior God—Part 1

postmodern-christIf you’re familiar with our journey here at An Open Orthodoxy, you know Greg Boyd has had a huge influence on our thinking. So naturally we’re interested in his newly published Crucifixion of the Warrior God (CWG).

Until I got to know him, I doubted whether it was really possible to bring the ‘head’ and the ‘heart’ together as one, to have a heart that was fully inspired and a mind that was satisfied. In Greg I saw someone whose journey did not sacrifice one for the other, and I love him for that. As our journey (Dwayne and I) came to include appreciation for and belief in aspects of the vision and experience of the Church of the first few centuries (Orthodoxy), we and Greg have had opportunities to disagree. But disagreements aside, we love the fire and passion of his heart and his mind and can’t imagine being who and where we are without Greg’s having played such a positive and inspiring role.

That said, let’s tie Greg to a stake and light him up!

Ja-hust kidding!

As I said in a previous post, many of us attended regular doctor visits with Greg on his blog and received updates the whole time this work was coming to term, and now after ten years, it has finally arrived. So once again, sincerest congratulations to Greg on what was and is a labor of love.

Our summary will be on the thin side. Some reviews are so complete you don’t need to read the book. Others give you just enough to make you want to read it. I hope to do the latter. But I also prefer to give the bulk of my time to engaging several key points in response. In spite of being roughly 1,000 pages to read (not including index, bibliography, appendices) in two volumes, the heart and soul of CWG is surprisingly simple. This fall the popular version comes out, and I dare say it won’t have to sacrifice on the essentials. What’s the simple heart and soul of CWG? As I see it:

(1) God is other-oriented, self-sacrificial love for whom willing or doing violence is impossible.
(2) The Bible attributes violence to God.
(3) Christ’s death on the cross provides us a way to read these violent passages that affirms their status as inspired Scripture without obligating us to understand God as having acted violently as these texts describe.

At this simplest of levels, there’s broad agreement. Most of us want to resolve the tension between God as he reveals himself finally and supremely in Christ, on the one hand, and as he is depicted by the violent portrayals of God in the Bible, on the other, and we want to resolve the tension between the two while affirming the inspired-canonical status of both. Greg says more than just this, however, including:

(4) While on their ‘surface’ texts depict God as willing and acting violently, in their ‘depths’ they point to God accommodating the false understandings of God in Christlike (cruciform) love.
(5) To the extent a text portrays God in ways compatible with the other-oriented, self-sacrificial non-violent love of God supremely manifested in the Cross, its ‘surface’ is convertible with its ‘depth’ and all is well.
(6) However, to the extent a text portrays God in ways not compatible with the other-oriented, self-sacrificial non-violent love of God supremely manifested in the Cross, that text’s ‘surface’ represents God accommodating the author’s false understanding, and this loving accommodation constitutes the ‘depth’ of the text which anticipates the depths to which God accommodates our fallenness on the Cross. In this sense the violent texts are literary crucifixes.

While steps (1)-(3) of Greg’s proposal are essentially uncontroversial, each of steps (4)-(6) involves numerous complex and disputed theological and interpretive moves which are where people are having trouble. There is overall agreement that God is non-violent love who doesn’t go around pursuing genocide or derive pleasure from dashing the babies of his so-called enemies against the rocks. There is disagreement over how best to understand the relationship between these violent descriptions of God (on the one hand) and the non-violent, loving cruciform revelation of God in Christ (on the other) in such a way that the relationship between the two falls within the embrace of a single understanding of inspiration.

In the remainder of this Part 1 in a series-review of CWG, I’ll outline the flow of Greg’s argument in Vol 1. After that we’ll summarize Vol. 2. Then I’ll take several posts to engage what are to me the most interesting and problematic aspects of this work.

Greg’s conundrum
Greg opens up with inviting readers to ponder “my conundrum.” On the one hand, God is the God of non-violent, other-oriented, self-sacrificial agape-love who dies for his enemies on the Cross. On the other hand the Bible is full of descriptions of God willing and doing violent, unloving things. The two biblical portraits of God aren’t compatible. One could just expunge the violent portrait from the Bible, a theologically liberal move Greg does not want to make. Why not make this move? Because, Greg answers, Jesus held to the inspiration and authority of the entire Old Testament, and disagreeing with Jesus on this point isn’t an option. Hence we have to make sense of God’s inspiring the violent texts, a view on which we can both judge these violent portraits as in fact false (because God is not violent) but nevertheless inspired. Greg says resolving this tension is the reason he wrote the book. What he ends up arguing (as I understand him) is that these violent portraits possess no authority or inspiration independent of their function as pointers to, or anticipations of, the cruciform love of God suffering for us on the Cross.

Volume 1 (Parts 1 through 3)
Greg constructs his way toward this conclusion through a series of arguments.

Part 1 (Chs 1-6). Here Greg lays the foundation to what in Part 3 will be his Cruciform Hermeneutic. He opens with a simple assurance (Ch 1) that it’s OK to honestly question God. One isn’t unspiritual or disobedient by seeing the problem that creates the conundrum and by committing to explore the Bible with an open mind until the problem is resolved.

Chs 2 and 3 lay the foundation for the solution to the conundrum. Christ is not merely one revelation among others, nor merely the greatest among all others. Christ is the revelation that culminates all others, through which all others are to be interpreted. Christ is the defining center of what God is like and what God is up to. But “Christ-centered” is not enough. That is, it is not enough to say that the event of Christ’s birth, life, death and resurrection in its entirety is the authoritative, defining center. There is a more fundamental center to even this center, and that is “Christ crucified.” Only the Cross, as the farthest extreme to which infinite love goes to save us, can possibly represent the quintessential revelation of God as non-violent, self-sacrificial love.


Part 2 (Chs 7-9). In Part 2 Greg spells out the challenge that the Bible’s violent portraits of God pose and common attempts to respond to this challenge. Just this week I ran across some facile dismissals of the problem by Christians who felt divine violence in the Old Testament isn’t that big a deal, and I completely understood the passion behind Greg’s motivation to write. Some Christians don’t want to see the scope and depth of the problem. For these numskulls I recommend reading Ch 7 slowly then asking some informed, sensitive unbelievers (if they know any) what they think of the violence attributed to God in the Bible.

Chs 8 and 9 present popular attempts to resolve the tension and solve the conundrum. In Ch 8 Greg summarizes what he describes as the “Dismissal Solution,” which as I understand it essentially rejects the violent passages as non-revelatory. One might have assumed from the way Greg expressed the conundrum that ‘dismissing’ the violent passages was particularly what he’s after. But while Greg wants to dismiss the truth of divine violence read straight off the surface of such passages, he does not want to dismiss the truth or revelatory nature of these passages read cruciformly. So I take it that by the Dismissal Solution, Greg means removing these passages from the equation altogether by denying them any revelatory function. Ch 9, then, presents what Greg describes as the “Synthesis Solution” which rather than denying the revelatory function of the violent texts, affirms their descriptions of divine violence as is, that is, the surface description of the text is the whole of the text’s truth. Both of these solutions are rejected on account of denying one of the two key components that constitute the conundrum – i.e., the Dismissal Solution denies the revelatory function of the violent passages (which Greg feels obliged to affirm since Jesus affirmed them) while the Synthesis Solution denies that God’s willing and doing violence is incompatible with the loving nature of God as revealed in Christ.

Part 3 (Chs 10-12). These chapters are, in my view, the most important in Vol. 1. I feel like I got everything I needed from Vol. 1 here in Part 3. This is where Greg develops and defends his Cruciform Hermeneutic, a way of reading the Bible that resolves the tension defined in his conundrum. I would describe this (as I already have) by saying Greg proposes we read the Bible not linearly (from the beginning of a timeline that steadily unfolds, truth by truth, the fuller picture) but from the inside out (from the truth of non-violent love revealed in the Cross at the center and moving outwards to all other texts, assessing (whether confirming or judging as we go) every text’s inspired role in light of the Cross.

Ch 10 outlines historical precedents for a way of reading the Bible cruciformly that avoids both the dismissal and the synthesis options. Origen comes to mind. And here Greg summarizes Origen’s (and what become by and large the early church’s standard way of dealing with the violent texts) allegorical method. Origin did not reject the violent portions as “not Scripture,” but he also did not believe they could be synthesized or harmonized with the revelation of God in Christ as nonviolent love. The patristic model represented by Origen is a “Reinterpretation Solution,” i.e., allegory.

Origen’s intuition, Greg argues, was correct. These troubling passages are the word of God – hence dismissing them is out the question. But they cannot represent on their violent surface the plain truth of God as willing and doing violence – hence they cannot be synthesized or collapsed into a form of love. They are incompatible with the loving, self-sacrificial character of God revealed in the Cross. Some form of (re)interpretation is required to make sense of their character as inspired Scripture while recognizing the violent portraits they offer are in their explicit context incompatible with the divine love. Greg’s difference with the patristic practice is that where the Fathers adopted allegory as the interpretive strategy for resolving the conflict between biblically violent and biblically non-violent description of God, Greg thinks the allegorical method is not a viable model for the post-Enlightenment world. The early Church, then, was correct insofar as it saw the need for a Christ-centered reinterpretation of the violent texts. In this the Fathers were the closest precedent, Greg argues, for the model he will propose.

In Chs 11-12, with the preparatory work behind him, Greg finally gets down to developing his Cruciform Hermeneutic. Ch 11 lays out its three distinctive aspects which Ch 12 further develops.

(1) It involves a dialectical view of revelation that takes seriously the relational-dialectical nature of God’s breathing/inspiring the authors of the Bible. Where the inerrantist feels God’s inspiration of authors/texts produces an error free text, a dialectical model of inspiration views the text as the result of a certain give-and-take between God and the human authors. It’s already generally agreed that God leaves the author’s personality and writing style in tact. Greg expands this accommodation to include the whole scope of an author’s worldview, even those aspects that are simply false. Inspiration, like all divine action in the world, is a cooperative engagement in which some of what God wants said gets said and some of the false, skewed, inaccurate beliefs of authors makes its way into the text as well.

(2) It involves seeing into the depths of texts. Since God accommodates an author’s errant views which make their way into the text, one faces a text containing both human errors and the truth God wishes us to embrace and live. It is this dialectical nature of inspiration the creates the distinction between a text’s “surface” (the author’s own perspective) and its “depth” (the truth of God’s non-violent, loving nature revealed in the Cross). The Cruciform Hermeneutic describes the relationship between a text’s “surface” and its “depth” as the extent to which it approximates the truth of God’s love revealed in Christ. But this Christological function of texts by seen only by faith.

(3) It involves direct and indirect revelations. Reading texts with one eye on their surface claims and the other eye on their cruciform depths means acknowledging direct and indirect forms of revelations. If the surface of a text conforms entirely to the cruciform nature of divine love, then its surface and depth are essentially one and revelation is ‘direct’. But if a text’s surface reflects an author’s false views of God (because incompatible with the cruciform nature of God’s love), then revelation is ‘indirect’ because it comes only via a Christological assessment.

The Cruciform Hermeneutic thus is a way to read Scripture by relating the surface claims and descriptions of texts to the non-violent, self-sacrificial nature of God’s nature revealed in the Cross. To the extent texts portray God as non-violent, they faithfully reveal God directly upon their surface. To the extent they portray God as violent, they faithfully reveal God indirectly in their depths. But both surface and depth together constitute the a single “God-breathed” Scripture.

We’ll summarize Vol. 2 next and follow that with responses to specific issues, so stick around!

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