Texts in travail: reviewing Crucifixion of the Warrior God—Part 3

Easter 2011 - Easter SundayWith this third review post on Greg’s most recent work I’d like to offer some responses. In this post I’ll stick to vol. 1 of CWG and in the next post to vol. 2. In a work of over 1,000 pages (not including indices), one is bound to find plenty both to agree with and disagree with. I’ll mention both pro’s and con’s. Reviews of CWG are surfacing and they share some commonalities. These have been helpful. There does seem to be a growing consensus among objections regarding what’s best and most problematic about CWG. I’ve also enjoyed online discussions in which Greg has participated. That’s been nice. He’s had a chance to process responses and to clarify key portions of the book for readers. I’ve always appreciated the way Greg has made himself available. The past couple of weeks have been a dizzying round of conversations.

“Texts in travail”
Let me begin by explaining the words “texts in travail” in the title of this review series. The phrase is Rene Girard’s and it describes the Bible. We prefer that every part of the Bible be a perfect, inerrant conclusion to some aspect of the human struggle and journey. Girard’s phrase suggests that the Bible itself is that journey. The texts of Scripture are Israel in process, in travail, trying to figure the world out. At times Israel lunges forward with the profoundest of insights, while at other times she conscripts God into the service of her own religious violence and apostate nationalism. Sometimes she gets it right. Other times she gets it horribly wrong. The texts we call the Old Testament are not just neutral, third part records of observations of events. They are one of the events. They participate in and constitute Israel’s up and down journey of faith. They lay bare the heart and soul of the human journey in its best and worst. They are “texts in travail.” Only Christ himself – the Word made flesh – is Emmanuel, God among us. I thought the phrase seemed an appropriate umbrella under which to review Greg’s book since coming to terms with the nature of the Bible as Scripture is one of the burdens of the work under review.

PRAISE AND POINTS OF AGREEMENT
I’ll start with some well-deserved praise and points of agreement:

● God is love
There are few people who express the essential, unchanging, unconditional nature of God’s love better than Greg. God’s loving passion and unyielding mercy for creation are Greg’s singular passion. If you think all Christians agree on this, think again. The opening chapters of vol. 1 outline the immutable nature of God’s love in broad terms, and I felt right at home theologically speaking.

● Love is non-violent
Not only is God love, but in his perceptions, intentions, goals, actions, etc., God is non-violent. Greg’s oft repeated phrase – that God is non-violent, other-oriented, love – quite rightly takes its place as the centerpiece of this work. Frankly I can’t bring myself to describe as Christian any theology that denies this.

● Quintessential revelation of love
I welcome the idea that Christ’s loving self-surrender for others constitutes the quintessential revelation of God’s character and love in a fallen world.

● Cross as hermeneutical center
I cheer on Greg’s call to make the revelation in Christ of God as non-violent love the hermeneutical center from which we read the rest of Scripture. Again, I don’t know any other ‘Christian’ way to read the Bible. Christ is the beginning, center, and end of the story.

● Dialectical inspiration
I like Greg’s description of divine inspiration as “dialectical.” This means God did not conscript the faculties of the authors of Scripture in a manner that produced texts equivalent in outcome to “dictation.” Not only is the personality and intelligence of individual authors the context in which God speaks, but so are the broader cultural conditions and worldviews of authors in the extent to which they succeed and/or fail to approximate ‘final’ truth. Inspiration is a conversation the Spirit of God has with less than perfect hearts and mind. Scripture is the conversation. This means we do not have a pristine record of inerrant perspectives lying on the surface of texts which readers can pick up with little effort the way one picks up shells walking along the beach. I think “dialectical” is a good word that takes us in the right direction.

● General failure of previous attempts
I agree with the general failure of most ‘Dismissal’ and ‘Synthesis’ solutions to the problem of divine violence in the Bible. Recall, the Dismissal Solution essentially rejects the revelatory nature of texts that portray God as willing or doing violence. These texts are not “Scripture” and can be essentially removed from the Bible. To the extent one’s “dismissal” of these texts resembles Marcion’s attitude and approach, I think Greg is spot on. But to respond here without enlarging upon it later, let me say that Greg’s own view includes a real dismissal (of sorts) of the violent portrayals of God. That is, the surface meaning of the violent passages is dismissed as their inspired meaning. Their inspired truth, for Greg, does not terminate in the truth-value of their surface portrayals per se. Where the dismissive models Greg has in mind end there, Greg own dismissal of these passages pushes forward. He wants to secure an inspired function for these texts that justifies calling them “scripture” but the function cannot be equivalent to the truth-value of their claims. Instead, it is precisely in their being false within the covenant God makes with Israel as it is finally resolved and fulfilled in Christ, that they behave in an inspired way. I don’t mind this as far as it goes, though it seems a round about way to put it. In my view it’s easier to say that we know in light of Christ that Israel got it wrong and that we’re not going to excise those passages from the Bible because they provide an abiding example for our instruction than to argue a particular inspiration of those texts qua texts.

● Origen a genius
I think I’ve already mentioned how much I enjoyed the chapter on Origen. The distinction Greg develops between the “surface” and “depth” of texts is, I think, a helpful one. Given the dialectical nature of inspiration, one should expect to find ancient perspectives present in the text that represent aspects and beliefs not perfectly reflective of God’s intentions and nature. “Surface” and “depth” is as good as any contrasting pair of terms for identifying this dialectical give-and-take as it is found in the text.

CRITICISMS AND POINTS OF DISAGREEMENT
Let me turn to some hopefully constructive criticisms and points of disagreement. I don’t have the space here to fully defend these. If there are questions about certain points, I’ll be happy to elaborate.

● Writing and Composition
I might be one of a very small group of readers who feel this, but I didn’t feel like CWG was Greg’s best writing. I’ve read pretty much everything Greg’s published (not including journal articles), and I’ve never struggled with reading Greg like I did here. I don’t want to be overly critical, but I expected a steady pace that allowed me to take in the shoreline and contemplate the sights. It felt more like a white-water adventure – repetitious, somewhat roaming, and, I thought, at times not balanced (between points that seemed to me to require more attention that Greg gave them, on the one hand, and other points that seemed to receive inordinate attention and space). This may be my personal tastes taking over. I did not get the feeling that this was a work whose text was ten years in the making. It felt more rushed than I would have expected.

● Oops, no definition of violence
A second criticism has to be the absence of any attempt to define ‘violence’. This is a particular weakness of the book and it struck me as rather odd that Greg would write at such length about the “non-violent” love of God without offering a definition or brief theology of violence. I’ve tried to express my own sense of what violence is. It’s not at all an easy reality to define, but doing so brings the issues into clear relief. But no definition at all, I think, makes understanding and assessing Greg’s work difficult.

● Appeal to Trinity and Process
Third, there is Greg’s appeal to his doctoral work Trinity and Process in support of arguments in CWG. I mentioned this earlier but it belongs here as well. It does seem disingenuous to appeal to Trinity and Process for support of claims Greg makes in CWG when the arguments in Trinity and Process being appealed to are positions Greg himself disagrees with.

● The Cross as the center of the center
Fourth, I thought Greg was unsuccessful in showing that the Cross constitutes an exclusive interpretive center within a center, the latter center being a Christ-centered hermeneutic whose scope is the whole event of Christ’s birth, life, teaching, death and resurrection. The entirety is too broad. Greg wants just the Cross as the center. There’s certainly something of a truth here. The Cross is – to use a violent word-picture (sorry) – the key “front” in the war between good and evil, a uniquely decisive and unrepeatable confrontation of a cosmic scale. There’s no doubting that.

Greg suggests that the Cross exclusively, understood independently of all passages outside the passion narratives, is a better hermeneutical center than the entirety of Christ’s life (teachings, death, resurrection). One reason to take this position, Greg argues, is that the broadly Christ-centered approach inevitably succumbs to disagreements over interpretation. A broader center means more to disagree over and less likelihood of achieving agreement on what the center means and thus how it’s to function as a hermeneutical key. But the narrower cruciform center, Greg argues, provides a more clearly defined and broadly agreed upon basis for theological reflection and hermeneutical practice.

The-Serpent-Under-the-Right-foot-of-Mary

In response, it doesn’t at all seem to me that the Cross is an event whose meaning is easily or broadly agreed upon and which can occupy the center more easily than could a broader Christ-centered approach. It’s not like we all agree on what the Cross means. On the contrary, anyone who has spent the past two weeks in the online conversations (with Greg!) discussing the meaning of this more simple center (viz., the Cross) knows there’s nothing simple about what is actually going on behind the scenes as Christ suffers and dies.

In addition, if we all agree to make the Cross the exclusive hermeneutical center, it wouldn’t follow that we’d all be working from the same center. We would in fact all be working from different centers to the extent we disagree over the Cross as deeply as we disagree over any other event or aspect of Christ’s life. Recall, Greg doesn’t want just any Cross at the center, a Cross broadly agreed upon but whose defining terms (atonement, the Cry of Dereliction, divine abandonment, substitution, wrath/judgment, forgiveness, reconciliation, etc.) are open to being defined in a diversity of ways. On the contrary, the Cross that constitutes the hermeneutical center for Greg is a very specific Cross. It’s not a Calvinist Cross, an Orthodox Cross, or a Fundamentalist Cross.

This brings me to perhaps the most interesting, fascinating and frustrating aspect of Greg’s proposal. The Cross is supposed to function as the hermeneutical center for reading all of Scripture. But we meet the Cross in Scripture. Also, the Cross is not a self-interpreting act whose meaning is as obvious as a billboard on the Interstate. So how does one arrive at a specific, understanding of the meaning of the Cross that defines the center if that meaning is itself supposed to be the hermeneutical key to Scripture? Greg comments that it would never occur to him, standing and staring at the Cross in faith, to see anything else but the Father abandoning his Son. But isn’t this just the point? I see something different than Greg. In all honesty, it never occurred to me to suppose that the Father actually abandoned Christ, or that such a thing is even possible. But lastly, if the abandonment view of the Cross is as much a paradox as Greg admits it is, how is it the natural, default reading of the passion narratives? It’s not the case that faith self-evidently reveals the meaning of the Cross in the terms Greg views it.

In any event, one can totally agree with Greg’s thesis broadly expressed – the Cross is the hermeneutical center from which we read Scripture. I’m with him thus far. But which Cross? What’s going on there at the Cross? Answering this takes us into vol. 2 to be discussed in our next post. For now I’ll just say that for Greg, 2Cor 5.21 (“God made Jesus to become sin”), Gal 3.13 (Jesus became our “curse”), and the Cry in Matthew and Mark (“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”) figure in decisively. These will have to wait until my next post for comment where I hope to show that Greg’s reading of these are at best on equal par with readings that give us a different Cross at the center. My point here is just that how one interprets the Cross on the basis of Scripture, when only a particular understanding of the Cross can be a hermeneutical guide to reading Scripture, is a fundamental hermeneutical question that, it seems to me, Greg doesn’t sufficiently grapple with.

One last thought on the difficulty of Greg’s call to make the Cross the exclusive center within a center. He acknowledges the inseparability of the Cross from the importance of the Incarnation and the Resurrection. Take Christ’s resurrection. The resurrection does not only retroactively vindicate Christ crucified. It also fundamentally looks forward. Christ risen, not the Cross, is the eschaton, and the fullness of the gloried/resurrected life embodies the resurrection in a way which does not circle back around to merely supplement the Cross, though it must apprehend some center. So there has to be a teleological center which is hermeneutically central but which is not the Cross. I felt like Greg came close to saying the Cross just is the telos (end/purpose) of creation. Maybe that’s his view, but that’s something that would need to be argued explicitly. I, on the other hand, would want to argue that union with God (theosis) is the telos of creation and that this union is perfected and mediated fundamentally through the entirety of Christ’s incarnate life, teachings, death/resurrection. The Cross is certainly the definitive victory of the Incarnation over the systemic evil and violence of the world which God wills to unite to himself, but that’s just the point – it’s the uniting of the creation within God’s triune life which is achieved through the Cross, not the reverse.

● Cross as quintessential revelation of God
Fifth, I’m having difficulty accepting Greg’s argument that the Cross is the unqualified, unsurpassable revelation of God. True, Paul makes it clear in Romans (5.8) that God demonstrated his love for us in this, that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us, and Jesus himself makes it clear that there is no greater love one can demonstrate than in dying for another. But these are not unqualified demonstrations of love. They assume a fallen world deeply skewed and systemically perverse. In such a fallen context it seems obvious that love would do “whatever it takes” to secure the highest good of the beloved. But it doesn’t follow that the highest good of the beloved must be secured within a fallen, sinful context. My guess is Greg would agree, but I’m not sure.

My point is that Greg so passionately argues love’s willingness to do whatever it takes to secure the beloved’s highest good, it becomes tacitly impossible for him to imagine God loving creation without sin and evil contributing their part by constituting the necessary lowest point for the supreme revelation of God to arrive, as if the infinite intensity of God’s beatitude metaphysically entails an experience of what Greg describes as its very antithesis. I wonder if Greg’s emphasis on the definitive character of love as sacrificial/suffering undermines the absolute, definitive fullness of God as love sans creation and thus calls into question the belief in creation out of nothing.

● Difficulties with his view of inspiration
Sixth, Greg wants a robust view of the whole of the canon of Scripture as inspired. Fair enough. But once he admits a dialectical view of inspiration (and I’m not disagreeing with that view), you end up with a vacuous notion of inspiration as it concerns the composing of texts. The dialectical view of inspiration Greg proposes accepts that errors (of belief, of theological perspective, of intention, etc.) find their way into the text. God gets some of the truth he wants revealed and said – yes. But the dialectical nature of inspiration means some errors define the text as well.

But this much is always true of all that God attempts to convince human beings relative to truth, beliefs, perspectives, etc. In other words, Greg’s view of inspiration, admitting as it does only some level of success for God shaping the beliefs that end up constituting Scripture, reduces to what we suppose is true everywhere and always. God always seeks dialectically to enlighten minds as profoundly as possible. And the result is always a measure of success mixed with greater or lesser degrees of falsehood on the human side of the equation. So once one admits that in Scripture falsehoods as desperate and skewed as Greg rehearses regarding the violent nature of God are found, it’s hard to argue that divine inspiration of the Bible remains incomparably and qualitatively superior to all other outcomes where God is busy seeking to enlighten human minds dialectically with greater or lesser success. The Bible is just another instance of this sort of inspiration.

I don’t have room here to rehearse our own attempts at understanding the unique nature of Scripture. While we agree a great deal with Greg, we construe inspiration differently. Check out our six part series What is the Bible?

Lastly, regarding his view of inspiration, Greg relies upon his commitment to a particular view he thinks Christ held regarding the Old Testament Scriptures. I do not wish to suggest Jesus was in fact wrong in his opinion about the infallible nature of the Scriptures, but one can’t assume he was correct either once one admits Jesus wasn’t an infallible, omniscient knower. Greg seems to take it for granted that Christ’s view of Scripture ought to define his own simply because it’s the opinion of the Son of God. But Greg holds that Christ held false beliefs (generally) and about biblical characters (in particular), Adam and Eve being the historical couple who started the human race, for example. But Greg doesn’t feel it necessary to agree with Christ on these other issues. Why is Christ’s view of Scripture any different? Greg doesn’t say.

Given the central role Christ’s view of the Hebrew Scriptures plays in constituting Greg’s “conundrum” to begin with, and given Greg’s admission that Christ was not omniscient but held false beliefs (including false beliefs about biblical events and characters), and given that Greg doesn’t mind disagreeing with Jesus sometimes, I would expect these to have played some role in defining (or maybe alleviating) Greg’s conundrum. In other words, though I share a version of the “conundrum” that motivates Greg to write this work, it doesn’t derive from the fact that Jesus held the violent texts of the Bible to be as much a part of the inspired Hebrew canon as any other portion of that canon.

I’ll close here with a reference to Craig Allert’s A High View of Scripture? (2007). Interesting read. He points out, among other things, that what constitutes “scripture” would have been in Jesus’ day an open question. Understandings were fluid. The Hebrew canon was not closed and thus could not have provided an objective standard to which Jesus’ opinion could refer. The question of whether and if so how Jesus’ opinion of the nature of the Hebrew Scriptures (if we can even know exactly which books Jesus took to be “scripture”) ought to obligate Christian opinion on the same issues is more interesting and thorny a problem than Greg recognizes in the opening comments of vol. 1 that describe his “conundrum.” I’m not suggesting we know nothing of the documents Jesus considered to be Scripture. I’m only suggesting that it’s difficult to derive a normative definition of inspiration from the fact that Jesus held certain books to be holy Scripture. Perhaps a more in depth consideration of Jesus’ view of the Scriptures would dissolve Greg’s conundrum. Perhaps it would aggravate it. I’m not sure. Greg didn’t stop to consider the complexities.

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15 comments on “Texts in travail: reviewing Crucifixion of the Warrior God—Part 3

  1. rwwilson147 says:

    You say: “once one admits that in Scripture falsehoods as desperate and skewed as Greg rehearses regarding the violent nature of God are found, it’s hard to argue that divine inspiration of the Bible remains incomparably and qualitatively superior to all other outcomes where God is busy seeking to enlighten human minds dialectically with greater or lesser success.”
    Yup, dig deep on this one issue and the whole of Boyd’s hermeneutic may collapse in on itself.

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  2. Tom says:

    To expand on the “inspiration” question (from our What is the Bible? series, post 1: https://anopenorthodoxy.wordpress.com/2014/06/11/what-is-the-bible-part-1/):

    (2) SCRIPTURE AS INSPIRED. We imagine the human authors of Scripture inspired by God in much the same sense that God inspires anybody — through the prevenient grace of his presence working in cooperation with what is present on the human side of the equation. Hence, inspiration achieves greater or lesser approximations to the truth as it works with and through the beliefs and limitations of authors.

    What makes the Bible unique as God’s word, then, is not the manner or mode of inspiration (which we think should be understood as typical of divine inspiration universally), but the subject matter with which God is concerned. It is the ‘what’ and not the ‘how’ which makes the Bible unique, i.e., the content and its purpose which in the case of Scripture make what is otherwise the standard mode of God inspiring human thought to be something unique and unrepeatable. Biblical inspiration, we might say, is unrepeatable because this history, this context, this pursuit of this purpose (incarnation) are all unrepeatable and not because God inspires humans ‘here’ in some unique and unrepeatable way.

    Where it concerns “texts,” inspiration is not God conscripting merely the faculties of human subjects and supervening upon their exercise to compose statements which might have been foreign to their human authors prior to the composition of the text. Rather, inspiration has as its object primarily the enlightenment of the human author, perhaps over the course of years through many experiences, and only secondarily the complexities involved in seeing that texts are composed a certain way.

    For example, a text like Galatians simply is Paul — in all the complex relations and beliefs that defined him at that point in time, including God’s presence at work in him, perhaps over decades, sufficiently shaping his worldview. Once that is done, simply put a pen in Paul’s hand and leave him to say what he believes. Hence, the letter is no more or less than who Paul the believer had become at that point. God is no more present in the letter than he is in the man who writes. So inspiration doesn’t, it seems to us, write texts per se, as much as it shapes persons who are freed to speak and write what God has done in them.

    Might some errors belonging to these persons 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 is formed adequate for the Incarnate One and the Church as his Body. 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 with inerrant answers to whatever questions we might put to it.

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    • Tom says:

      To clarify a bit more for those following Greg’s CWG:

      Our view of inspiration is just as “dialectical” as Greg’s. But where Greg seems to want to locate the inspiration ‘in a text’ (whose “surface” falsely portrays God but whose “depths” are inspired by virtue of being an instance of God’s covenant faithfulness to a partner who falsely relates to him), I locate inspiration in that covenant relationship itself. The inspiration Greg associates with ‘texts’ is more accurately associated with the ‘covenant relationship’ which is the CON-text that produces texts. But I might be misreading Greg.

      Greg’s view of inspiration seems to require him to find ‘in the text’ a “surface” and a “depth” (which becomes difficult to work out in terms of theories of text, composition, authorial intent, etc.). My view simply says God’s unique covenantal commitment to Israel (and the context of Israel’s texts) is laden with all the teleology and theology we associate with the ‘text’, and this divine commitment to carve out in Israel a space to pursue the world’s redemption encompasses the whole scope of Israel’s cultural, political, religious existence. There’s no ‘additional’ need for God to concern himself with composing ‘texts’. Human beings are incurable ‘story-tellers’. It’s part of the image of God in us – to ‘meaning-make’ by composing narratives that make identity and purpose meaningful and accessible to our social groups. That’s GONNA happen. All God needs to do is pursue covenant relationship at the center of this community. The texts will write themselves, and we’ll see in those texts the ups and downs of that covenant’s history.

      So I posit the same functions that Greg’s “surface” and “depth” perform. I just don’t find them “in the texts” per se. The texts reflect Israel’s getting it both right and wrong, and we can identify these right and wrong because of Christ. But where Greg wants to establish the “inspired” nature of the text’s getting God wrong so as to avoid “dismissing” their status as “inspired Scripture,” I just dismiss them (i.e., dismiss the explicit claims they make) in light of Christ because the locus of inspiration isn’t for me the “writing of texts” per se but the pursuit and defining of covenant. In the end what Greg sees as the text’s “depth” isn’t anything intrinsic to the text per se, as far as I can see. It’s a theological abstraction he (rightly) brings to the text from Christ, and this is legit because Christ is the incarnation of Israel’s God. Jesus IS Israel’s covenant (fulfilled). That’s why the history OF that covenant can be read in light of him. But we don’t need construct elaborate theories of how God gets “texts” written. Just recognize the undying covenant love God has for Israel, posit its purpose as the Incarnation of God for the redemption of the world, and don’t fret yourself with texts. People being uniquely pursued by God like Israel are GOING to tell their story. Over time, enough of what needs to be said will get said and we’ll be able to make the distinction once the Covenant is incarnate personally – i.e., in the fullness of time when Christ comes. To put it bluntly – it’s not to TEXTS per say that we ought to confine our theories of inspiration, but to ISRAEL, God’s covenant partner.

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      • rwwilson147 says:

        I am intrigued by Boyd’s and your ingenuity in trying to craft ways to narrow or refine our understanding of the character of God by affirming the centrality of the revelation of God in and through Christ. The problem, ISTM, is that it is not simply or actually a Christ centered, nor a cross of Christ centered, but a non-violent cross of Christ centered hermeneutic. Tom (above) and Rob (below) have highlighted the difficulty of using a particular way of defining how the cross of Christ is the interpretive center to substantiate that this particular view is the main or even only meaning of the cross. Perhaps any faith construct, intellectually constructed at least, is inevitably a self-affirming circular construction. Pointing to apostolic or Christogenic reinterpretations of the OT as though their acts of inspired transit from surface to deeper meanings of scripture, however, can never justify our doing even more intellectual acrobatics to find our preferred meaning because we can not claim the same level of divine sanctioned inspiration as they did. At least I’m not willing to go there–but to get to where Greg Boyd has gone with his theology he should (if he were being completely honest) claim that he has the same interpretive freedom. However one may feel rooted in the Christ of scripture, if one is going beyond the surface textual layers (note the plural) to reach ones that the original authors of the NT didn’t express (ie., such as the idea that God CAN’T DO VIOLENCE!) one would have to have the mantle of inspirational authority which few of us, at least, would be willing to claim, that equivalent to the authors of the NT.

        Tom when you say “the texts reflect Israel’s getting it both right and wrong, and we can identify these right and wrong because of Christ,” you are assuming just such an interpretive authority as I describe above. Neither you nor Boyd are actually using “Christ” to identify what is right and wrong regarding how the OT portrayed God because Jesus DIDN’T GO THERE! You both are using your own personally created interpretive grids to see only what you have decided you want to see there. This is not a critique of your motives (I’m highly sympathetic and supportive of what seems to be your intent), and I’m not saying either of you are self-centered navel gazers or anything like that (though we all are to some extent). I have just not been convinced that this approach to the issues of non-violence for followers of Christ is going to be helpful in the long run–ultimately I think it is self-defeating because it is self-contradictory theologically. If one says that scriptures of the OT and the NT contain things that are both right and wrong about God’s nature and His means of achieving them we are all individually awash in a sea of interpretive chaos, grasping at clots of sea foam as if they were life-preservers.

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  3. Rob says:

    Some great insights here, Tom. Especially this:

    “So how does one arrive at a specific, understanding of the meaning of the Cross that defines the center if that meaning is itself supposed to be the hermeneutical key to Scripture?”

    And yes, the past couple of weeks have been a roller coaster ride!

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  4. rwwilson147 says:

    Isn’t saying “don’t fret yourself with texts” a bit like saying perhaps if something Jesus said (in a text through the apostles and authors of the NT) doesn’t fit with our interpretive dialectic it isn’t a problem because we can just shift to our deeper meaning-understanding of the text so as to keep it from undermining our creative understanding of the text’s of Jesus’ teaching?

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    • Tom says:

      Great questions, Richard. I’m pretty sure I understand your concerns and points.

      Perhaps the best place to start is by agreeing with you that none of our personal theologies and claims can have canonical status. I think the canon is closed and I agree nothing further we write or compose can share the Bible’s status or authority.

      That said, we all have to ‘interpret’ what we read. We have no uninterpreted Bible. So yes – I have to come to some understanding of who Christ is, what the Cross is about, etc., if Christ is to function as the hermeneutical center of the Scripture. But this is hardly controversial. It’s what we all do and it’s the only thing any of us can do – read, interpret, come to some conclusions, make-meaning out of what we read.

      As for the hermeneutical center being Christ, I don’t understand the objection. Greg’s hardly the first to suggest the Christ is overall theme, end, center of God’s acts in history and thus of the Bible as well. That much is a thoroughly apostolic, patristic, and Orthodox conviction. Christ is the end/telos of the Law, etc. I might be misunderstanding your point – but that God is love, that his nature is perfect, loving beatitude in which “there is no darkness” (of sin, violence, evil, etc.) is perhaps the oldest agreed upon Christian thought about God since (and including) the apostles. It seems to be a fairly solid, orthodox view. I wouldn’t feel comfortable abandoning it, but what would I abandon it for? What other organizing theme (end, purpose, goal) for the Bible would you suggest other than Christ?

      But I do agree, we all have to define who Christ, the organizing theme of Scripture, even is. And here I actually don’t think I’m inventing my own view. That’s what I’d like not to do. I have a very plain Christology – it’s conciliar and ecumenical (Chalcedonian). My beef with Greg is not THAT he lands on a particular Christ and a particular Cross to place at the center. It’s the Christ and Cross he’s landed on that I have problems with.

      It seems fairly uncontroversial, I think, that God cannot do violence. Of course, one has to define violence (another of my beefs with Greg – he never defines it). I define violence as willing, intending or pursuing for another any end other than that person’s highest good in God. Violence is willing something other than God himself for another. For me it follows pretty simply that God can do no violence. For God to do violence would be for God to will some final end other than himself for another, and since God always wills himself as the high good and final end of all things, God does no violence.

      I’m especially sensitive to you thinking that because I feel Israel (in her texts) sometimes gets it right and sometimes gets it wrong, and that Christ enlightens us on the difference, I must be assuming apostolic authority. I’m not sure why you think this though, Rich. All the Fathers read the OT Christo-centrically generally, and for the most part in cruciform manner too (in the sense that it was in light of redemption through the suffering of Christ that they read and interpreted. When I saw we “use Christ to identify what may be right or wrong regarding some OT portrait of God,” I don’t mean we find an example of Christ strolling through the OT doing this. I mean integrate these portraits of God into the truth of Christ. Again, I might be misunderstanding you, but it DOES seem that Christ at times distinguishes between right and wrong views of God in the OT. So Jesus did “go there.” He goes there in the Sermon on the Mount, he goes there regarding Mosaic law re: divorce, etc.

      I don’t want to misunderstand, Richard, so when you say I’m “using my own personally created interpretive grid to see only what I’ve decided I want to see,” can you give me an example? As far as I can tell, the “grid” I’m using is Christ as the revelation of God’s love and mercy. Do I need to quote John 3:16 to defend this? That’s pretty much the center from which I’m working. I don’t know what else to do when I read passages in the Bible that portray God in contrary terms. What do you do with those passages?

      Lastly – sorry for the length! – to clarify my point about seeing inspiration as larger than just a ‘textual’ event. By “don’t’ fret yourself with texts” I don’t mean “don’t concern yourself with texts.” Texts are all we’ve got to access Israel’s history, etc. We have to be about texts. My point is not to over-invest our energies in developing theories of ‘divine inspiration’ that are all about what God is doing in the mind of an author to get that author to say the words he wants that author to say (which is where Greg seems still to be). If God waits until pen is poised above the papyrus to go to work on the author, it’s too late. But I’m not arguing for this change in perspective to avoid problems in the text or even to avoid hearing what the text says. My view doesn’t fix any problems in the text as far as I can tell. It’s just a better explanation of why we have the sort of texts we have.

      If I’ve misunderstood parts of what you said, my apologies, Richard. I hope this help some.

      Tom

      Liked by 1 person

  5. rwwilson147 says:

    RWW: Thanks Tom for your lengthy consideration of my comments, and many clarifications.

    Tom: That said, we all have to ‘interpret’ what we read. We have no uninterpreted Bible. So yes – I have to come to some understanding of who Christ is, what the Cross is about, etc., if Christ is to function as the hermeneutical center of the Scripture. But this is hardly controversial. It’s what we all do and it’s the only thing any of us can do – read, interpret, come to some conclusions, make-meaning out of what we read.

    RWW: Yup, we all have to interpret the Bible and there is no uninterpreted scriptural understanding of the Bible. Got that. However, when one decides in the process of interpretation that wholesale portions of the texts one is interpreting are in error and mistaken about what they say (ie., how they portray the very God they claim to be in covenant relationship with) then that is bound to raise serious doubt about the veracity of any of the texts of scripture. Why would someone think texts such as the NT which depend on the OT narrative portrayals of God to be any more reliable than those of the OT? This hermeneutical strategy is self-defeating. Period.

    Tom: As for the hermeneutical center being Christ, I don’t understand the objection. Greg’s hardly the first to suggest the Christ is overall theme, end, center of God’s acts in history and thus of the Bible as well. That much is a thoroughly apostolic, patristic, and Orthodox conviction. Christ is the end/telos of the Law, etc. I might be misunderstanding your point – but that God is love, that his nature is perfect, loving beatitude in which “there is no darkness” (of sin, violence, evil, etc.).

    RWW: Yes, I think you misunderstood some of my concerns. I don’t object to making Christ the hermeneutical center of NT theology–that would be ridiculous since there would be no NT without Christ. I am objecting to making the “God has to be completely non-violent because Jesus was” the hermeneutical center because that is not what we find in the NT evidence of the teaching of Jesus or the canonical authors.

    The idea that there can be no violence done by God is an overreach because the scriptures don’t anywhere say that all violence is sinful or evil. Really. God kills Ananias and Sapphira. Jesus says “Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” and you don’t think he is referring to God his Father? Really?

    Tom: It seems fairly uncontroversial, I think, that God cannot do violence.

    RWW: I apologize for this, but it seems unavoidable. You say that “it seems fairly uncontroversial,,,, that God cannot do violence.” Nonsense. This is the very controversy regarding which Greg Boyd, you, and others are flying in the face of (I couldn’t seem to get that dangling participle out of my sentence). You all are controverting the veracity of the the OT (and I think NT!) authors.

    RWW: You refer to the understanding that ‘”Jesus did “go there.” He goes there in the Sermon on the Mount, he goes there regarding Mosaic law re: divorce, etc.’ But this is not nearly as obvious as you suppose. My point is that Jesus had authority to reframe Covenant obligations in a way that we don’t. This is part of my point about our not having that same authority, even though some of us seem to assume that we do because Jesus did something similar. Really? You are not simply using Jesus and his teaching as the interpretive grid to understand the scriptures. Jesus never says anything close to what you and Boyd are saying about God not being able or willing to do violence.

    Neither you nor I nor Greg Boyd nor anyone who believes as we do that Jesus called his followers to take up their own crosses and serve others without doing violence to anyone thinks that doing violence to others is OK. But saying that and saying that God therefore can’t do violence is a category mistake. We are not God! Is God not doing violence by crashing whole galaxies into one another? Come on, get real. Is it not possible that in order to achieve a greater good that God used the Allied Powers in virtually genocidal violence to overwhelm the sinful evils of the altogether genocidal Axis Powers? That would be an OT kind of interpretation of recent human history. But that kind of an interpretation wouldn’t in any way affect the understanding that Jesus and the NT call his disciples to be non-violent (of course many Christians mistakenly participated in those campaigns, but that is not the point).

    Sorry if I over-interpreted your comment about not fretting about the texts. I don’t doubt that Greg spends a lot of time/space explaining how God works through scriptural authors; he has to do something like that to explain away the contextual simplicity through obscure complexification. I am not a particularly complex thinker–my tendency in to boil thoughts down to a sometimes over-simplified clarity that others probably find annoying. There are both-ands as well as either-ors in life, and especially so in the life of faith. These particular debates about the nature of God as non-violent are of both kinds; so it gets complicated. God can command his New Covenant partners (US!) to be non-violent yet have commanded his Old Covenant partners to do violence (do you really think the whole of the Old Covenant Law was in error about what God commanded?) That’s a both-and. Yet, if you or others insist that the scriptures are in error regarding their portrayal of God then the whole of scripture is in error. That is pretty well an either-or. Either you affirm that scripture is a trustworthy guide for faith and practice or you think it is error and needs some new (-ly created and self-defeating?) strategy of interpretation to create a new faithfulness. Hence my charge that you guys are creating idiosyncratic personal hermeneutics to satisfy your own preconceptions and reasonings rather than simply accepting NT obligations as the basis for New Covenant non-violence.

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    • Tom says:

      Thanks Richard. I hit you with a long reply and you got me back! ;o)

      Richard: When one decides that wholesale portions of the texts one is interpreting are in error and mistaken about what they say…then that is bound to raise serious doubt about the veracity of any of the texts of scripture.

      Tom: I think your concern has a great deal of merit. We obviously don’t want to adopt a view of the Scripture that makes it impossible for us to know whether ANY portion of it is true.

      But I disagree entirely that if ANY portion of it represents human falsehoods, then we cannot know whether ANY portion of it is true. That doesn’t follow at all.

      Richard: Why would someone think texts such as the NT which depend on the OT narrative portrayals of God to be any more reliable than those of the OT?

      Tom: Because the NT portion being believed in radically saves and transforms one’s life. Check out Point 3 of our series here: https://anopenorthodoxy.wordpress.com/2014/06/12/what-is-the-bible-part-2/

      The only truth we need concern ourselves with is truth as an adequate source of personal transformation into Christlikeness. That’s it. And truth whose relevancy and adequacy naturally result in transformed living when believed is self-verifying truth. So if something is awry in one portion of Scripture, it can’t falsify the self-verifying, transformational truth which we require to grow in Christlikeness.

      Richard: I am objecting to making the “God has to be completely non-violent because Jesus was” the hermeneutical center because that is not what we find in the NT evidence of the teaching of Jesus or the canonical author. The idea that there can be no violence done by God is an overreach because the scriptures don’t anywhere say that all violence is sinful or evil. Really. God kills Ananias and Sapphira…

      Tom: I see. We might not be disagreeing. I agree that God took Ananias and Sapphira’s life. Now, give you say here, you take this action as “violence.” That is, God does violence to Ananias and Sapphira by taking them out of the equation. We differ here, because I don’t view this as God’s doing violence. Sorry to keep sharing links, but it’s too much to cut-n-paste. Here (https://anopenorthodoxy.wordpress.com/2015/04/18/toward-a-theology-of-violence/) I explore a theology of violence. For me, violence a specific mode of sinful falleness. I categorically deny that God dose violence. But I’m not the first to think so. I think I have the ancient Fathers on my side here – well, for the most part.

      Richard: Saying that God therefore can’t do violence is a category mistake. We are not God! Is God not doing violence by crashing whole galaxies into one another? Come on, get real. Is it not possible that in order to achieve a greater good that God used the Allied Powers in virtually genocidal violence to overwhelm the sinful evils of the altogether genocidal Axis Powers?

      Tom: I’m not sure what our not being God has to do with deciding the question of whether or not God does “violence.” But yes – I think stars explode and galaxies collide. But I don’t view his as “violence.” Do I think God was on the side of the Allied Powers against the Axis? No – I don’t assume that. I don’t God’s “not doing violence” means God has to make us comfortable all the time or guarantee us a pain-free existence. But I don’t equate violence with causing pain either. As for who wins WWII – I don’t think God picks sides and cheers for one against the other. I think it was Jesus who said, “He who lives by the sword dies by the sword.”

      Richard: That would be an OT kind of interpretation of recent human history. But that kind of an interpretation wouldn’t in any way affect the understanding that Jesus and the NT call his disciples to be non-violent (of course many Christians mistakenly participated in those campaigns, but that is not the point).

      Tom: Why isn’t it the point?

      Richard: God can command his New Covenant partners (US!) to be non-violent yet have commanded his Old Covenant partners to do violence (do you really think the whole of the Old Covenant Law was in error about what God commanded?)

      Tom: I don’t think God every commanded war and genocide. Sorry!

      Richard: If you or others insist that the scriptures are in error regarding their portrayal of God then the whole of scripture is in error. That is pretty well an either-or.

      Tom: But Richard, it’s not an either/or. It doesn’t follow that if fallen, human perspectives on God EVER found their way into Scripture at all, then the profound truth of God that saves NEVER found its way into Scripture. Incarnation? Cross? Resurrection? Remember those things? MUST we be in doubt regarding the identity of Jesus given his life, death, and resurrection if it’s the case that Israel did not perfectly perceive the truth of God’s truly loving nature?

      Thanks!
      Tom

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  6. rwwilson147 says:

    I am working on a longer response 8>), but want to review it before posting.

    Tom: Why isn’t it the point? [that Jesus can command his covenant partners to be non-violent without saying that God can’t do violence]? Oh, roughly speaking because obedience is more important than our error prone theologizing? Jesus didn’t command us to be, or suggest that we can be or do, only what God does or will do. God is portrayed as doing judgment (and not us!), and as delegating the authority to judge to the Son of Man those of us who aren’t god. Jesus’ teaching doesn’t in any way suggest that the consequences of God’s or the Son of Man’s judgments are going to be only and exclusively non-violent; far from it. I’d quote a bunch of Jesus’ and the NT’s teaching here but you’d have to then relegate it to the dust bin of human error. Given the sarcasm in what I’ve just said, you can see why I want to review the longer response version before I post.

    No, it isn’t necessary that “we be in doubt regarding the identity of Jesus given his life, death, and resurrection if it’s the case that Israel did not perfectly perceive the truth of God’s truly loving nature?” But this whole discussion is not about the identity of Christ, but the nature of God. Rejecting wholesale any reference to God commanding or doing violence in the OT is not the same as what you suggest, that “any human perspectives on God” got into scripture. If one reads the OT it is obviously shot full of characterizations of God engaged in acts or commands to do violence–that is ostensibly the problem we are trying to resolve which you are saying are in error. This isn’t just a quibble about a nuance here or there. You seem to be dissemulating, however it may be unintentionally, because you think God “CAN’T BE LIKE THAT.” You say that because Jesus in obedience to his Father was non-violent and commanded his disciples to be also that God can’t do any violence. This simply doesn’t follow from the premises of scripture but only from the premises of this recently emerged theology that insists that “God is non-violent because we think so” and “all truthful scripture has to conform to our thinking” or be in error. If I’m mistaken please, please, show me where Jesus or any of the NT authors says something remotely like this.

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    • Tom says:

      Richard: No, it isn’t necessary that “we be in doubt regarding the identity of Jesus given his life, death, and resurrection if it’s the case that Israel did not perfectly perceive the truth of God’s truly loving nature?” But this whole discussion is not about the identity of Christ, but the nature of God.

      Tom: I think this is the whole point of contention – whether and if so how we distinguish between the ‘identity of Christ’ and ‘the nature of God’ when it comes to character and (moral) goodness. In my view there is no distinction. They are one and the same. When Jesus says, “If you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father,” I take him to be essentially saying “Get your view of God from me. I am what God is like. I reveal his character and intentions.”

      It seems you want our goodness to be simply a response to God’s commands, not an imitation of, or participation in, his goodness. I’m definitely in the latter camp. I think we become ‘good’ (holy, righteous, benevolent, etc.) by becoming “like” God, not in that we do what he commands while he is doing other than he commands (morally speaking). We do owe him obedience. I’m not saying “Let’s no obey God.” Rather, I’m suggesting that in obeying him we are in fact becoming like him; our characters are conforming to his. When we love others we are more like God than when we do violence to others. But this is meaningless if in fact we hold that God does violence to others.

      And again, please keep in my how I’m understanding “violence.” I do not understand God’s taking Ananias’ life as an instance of “violence.”

      Richard: This simply doesn’t follow from the premises of scripture but only from the premises of this recently emerged theology that insists that “God is non-violent because we think so” and “all truthful scripture has to conform to our thinking” or be in error.

      Tom: It’s not a recently emerged theology. It’s ancient. The early Fathers (those who gave us our Canon, those who finalized and expressed our cardinal doctrines of the Incarnation, the Trinity, etc.) believed “God is love” was a predicate of God, describing God’s nature, revealed in Christ (so they didn’t divorce the “identity of Christ” from the “nature of God,” and they read the Bible from that center outward, including how they understood the OT’s portrayal of divine genocide. When I say Israel’s false understandings of God sometimes shape the text of Scripture, I don’t mean to say those texts have no revelatory value. The have a function within the text as it represents the history of God’s covenant with Israel. Paul said all that was written was written for our warning and benefit, and it’s useful for reproof, teaching, etc., SO THAT we may – may what? – may increasingly conform to Christlikeness. So while certain violent texts aren’t “right” in the sense that they truthfully describe the genocidal character of God, it is “right” that they function in Scripture as the real, truthful story of God’s dealings with Israel. I’m not advocating that we cut them out of the Bible and splice together what’s left.

      Tom

      Liked by 1 person

      • rwwilson147 says:

        RWW: It seems to me that there can be no justice without God ultimately forcing His will on sinful, especially evildoing humans. If God forces judgement on evildoers it is in essence violent–the NT scriptures regarding the final judgment just can’t be waved away as inconsistent with Christ because he was the one who spoke them directly or indirectly. The nature of Christ may appropriately be seen as expressing the nature of God–but his nature must include his teaching regarding final judgment and justice. These teachings include portrayals of God as doing retributive justice that is inherently violent given any reasonable conception of what scripture presents in imagery and substance. It just doesn’t seem consistently and coherently honest to conclude otherwise. Exactly how can you see God’s killing Ananias as not being a violent act? You say ‘again, please keep in my [sic] how I’m understanding “violence.” I do not understand God’s taking Ananias’ life as an instance of “violence.”’ So, fine, if God’s killing of Ananias and Sapphira is not violence then why would human killing of those reasonably judged as being guilty of other gross violations of God’s expectations for righteousness and holiness be considered violent? This line of reasoning lacks consistency. Saying killing someone isn’t violent seems a bit oblique, opaque, if not obscurant, or worse. If God is denied the right to judge evil because it is not according to his nature then even your avowed commitment to the teaching of the early church fathers is apparently in question since the Athanasian Creed includes the teaching (presumably following scripture and the teaching of Jesus) that “they that have done evil, [will be sent] into everlasting fire.” If you don’t believe this I hear, you can’t be saved.

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      • Tom says:

        Richard, thank again for a helpful response. I’ll just share a couple of quick things for now and hopefully return later when I have a bit more time

        First, I completely agree that God is just in his judgments and that if we abandon this much we step into theological quicksand. So yes – God does bring us into an experience of judgment, and he is right to do so. I don’t deny God the right to judge evil. And yes, certainly in terms of final-eschatological judgment, this involves his bringing us into a state of judgment against our wills. I don’t imagine folks will offer themselves freely to embrace the consequences of their choices. BUT (and we will just have to differ on this) this isn’t “violence.” It is no “violence” to do justly, even when the justice in question involves pain and suffering. You’re equating pain and suffering per se with violence. I don’t do that. So while I agree that God does judge and that his judgement is just and that this judgment is brought upon us against our wills and that this judgment involves pain and suffering – I don’t say any of this involves “violence.”

        Second, I have great respect for all ancient creedal statements. I don’t think there’s anything in any creedal statement of the Seven Ecumenical Councils I disagree with. But as you may know, the Apostles and Athanasian creeds (Athanasius did not author the latter) are not embraced by all orthodox Christian traditions (the Eastern Orthodox for example). So no – it’s not true that if you don’t believe the Athanasian Creed you can’t be saved. Lots of Orthodox Christians do not embrace all of the Athanasian creed.

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      • rwwilson147 says:

        So Tom,
        If God doing justice in the eschatological judgement involves bringing evildoers against their wills to suffer pain as a consequence is it really intellectually consistent to then argue as Boyd seems to do that God can’t do that because Jesus didn’t in his life on earth? You can say “this isn’t ‘violence'” but isn’t that precisely the kind of judgment God has a right to do at any time? I think we might disagree about this but if you think long and hard about it you might find the same kind of inconsistency I find in these theological “feints.” I just put forth the argument regarding the Athanasian creed because you mentioned your commitment to the orhtodoxy of the early church fathers. Now I find that you might not be as completely committed to them as you seemed to be–my mistake (apparently), though you say you are. I’m a bit confused by your “Second” point. Either you are or you aren’t committed to them; whether others are doesn’t concern me here. You both say there is nothing in them that you don’t believe but also say (contra the Athanasian Creed) that it isn’t true you can’t be saved if you don’t believe all of what it says. You don’t see that as inconsistent?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Tom says:

        Richard: If God doing justice in the eschatological judgment involves bringing evildoers against their wills to suffer pain as a consequence is it really intellectually consistent to then argue as Boyd seems to do that God can’t do that because Jesus didn’t in his life on earth?

        Tom: If you notice, I’ve been criticizing Boyd’s work pretty harshly. Boyd think all divine judgment has to be accomplished by God through ‘withdrawing’ himself and his protection over persons and so exposing them to the violence of fallen, evil powers. Boyd thinks that because HE believes that for God to ‘directly’ (i.e., not through any mediating agencies) bring someone into a state of pain or suffering – even if that’s the just consequence of their sin – that would itself be an evil violence.

        Just so you know, I disagree with this. I don’t disagree that God can or sometimes does withdrawal his protection so that we are exposed to dangers and fallen agencies that cause us pain and torment. I just disagree that ALL God’s judgment MUST be of the ‘withdrawing’ kind.

        Richard: I just put forth the argument regarding the Athanasian creed because you mentioned your commitment to the orhtodoxy of the early church fathers.

        Tom: The Athanasian creed is a western, sixth century statement never mentioned in any record of the ecumenical councils. Eastern Orthodoxy does not recognize its authority. So not recognizing its authority is not “unorthodox,” not if “the Orthodox” don’t recognize it. Not everything “ancient” that “some” Christians accept as definitive of the Faith is Orthodox. So yes, I stand within the broad Orthodox scope of the Faith as it’s defined in the seven ecumenical councils. The Athanasian Creed isn’t a universally recognized expression of that Tradition. It wasn’t produced by ecumenical consensus – which is a must if it’s to carry ecumenical weight. See?

        Tom

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