Texts in travail: reviewing Crucifixion of the Warrior God—Part 5

crossvisionSomeone recently shared with me a review of Greg’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God written by Emory U grad student Collin Cornell and published by the Christian Century. The sheer size of CWG (1,400 pages) places high demands upon any reviewer. Ted Grimsrud over at Peace Theology is 15 posts into his review and he’s just over half way through it. Cornell, however, reviews Cross Vision, a condensed version of CWG published a couple months ago. He comes at things from an interesting perspective that I haven’t run into in any of the reviews I’ve read thus far, and I thought I’d like to engage that perspective a bit. I’m not, however, taking this up to further review CWG.

Cornell expresses admiration for Greg’s vision and pastoral concern as well as his Chris-centered focus, and he does a good job of summarizing Greg’s main points, but it is his responses to Greg that interest me. As I read him, Cornell’s main points are these:

First, on the whole, Greg’s view doesn’t comport with Cornell’s experience of reading the OT. Greg often shares the story of a woman who found it impossible to love and worship the violent God depicted in the OT and whose faith was saved after learning from Greg of a way to avoid attributing such violence to God. Without wanting to ignore the problem passages, Cornell nevertheless feels that Greg represents a very one-sided vision of God as he’s depicted in the OT. Cornell explains:

To this charge of theological error on a nearly testamental scale, my first objections is simply this: I have found the God of the Old Testament stunning—beautiful and worthy of worshipand not just in the handful of passages that Boyd approves. I got into studying the Old Testament by reading a mentor’s paper on the golden calf story. In that debacle of human idolatry at the very moment of covenant making, in God’s rage and Moses’s intercession, in God’s final, precipitous new commitment to stay loyal to God’s people—I met a God I recognized: the one who absorbed the anguish of ultimate rejection and then, three days later, moved toward impossible new loyalty yet stronger than death. More than that, I felt I understood more deeply the tempestuous drama of divine long-suffering and human recidivism at the core of the Christian confession. The same held true for other texts of this older testament: far from being false and sub-Christian, I perceived in them a vast, continental theological consonance with the God made known in Jesus Christ.

Fair enough. There are many religious believers whose view of God is not disturbed by the violence attributed to God in the OT. But in fairness to Greg, part of his vision in CWG is precisely to provoke or awaken a sense of disturbance about these passages. How successful Greg is at this depends in part upon how readers respond to God contemplate as doing and commanding such violence. If no discontinuity is generated on an affective level, then so be it. But for those who can’t integrate such violence with the truth of God revealed in Christ, the question of how God is present within Israel’s Scriptures is acute. Cornell continues:

This is not to shrug off the troubling theology or ethics of the Old Testament. But it is to contend that the Old Testament holds more (and much more) than just such troubles. This is more than Boyd seems to grant…he treats these books and the Old Testament at large as an almost unrelenting train of horrors….

I didn’t get the sense that Greg painted a picture of the OT as cancerous through and through with a merely violent view of God. Greg recognizes within the OT a portrait of God as good, merciful and loving, and he’s eager to grant that this comports entirely with the character of God revealed in Christ. But since Greg’s task is to awaken people to to the discontinuity between this portrait and violent portraits, it’s only natural that his emphasis falls on the latter and how such passages cannot, in any simple or straightforward way, be harmonized with the gracious portrait of God found in the OT. That’s part of Greg’s project, to establish the incompatibility between God’s being the kind of God revealed in Christ, on the one hand, and also the subject of the violence and genocide attributed to him by OT texts. So for Greg it’s not whether the OT contains both motifs or themes (it does); it’s whether being found in the text alone tells us that both types of passage reveal God in the same way.

Secondly, Greg’s view has unacceptable consequences for our understanding of Judaism. Cornell comments:

Besides the fact that this view of the Old Testament does not comport with my own reading experience—nor that of many Christians in many generations—it may also yield unsettling results for a Christian theology of Judaism. Boyd considers all of God’s instruction given to Israel on Sinai and gathered up in the Pentateuch as a sprawling instance of divine condescension: “the law-oriented portrait of God, which constitutes a foundational aspect of the OT, is a divine accommodation”—and so a product of human projection that God did not in fact do or reveal. Boyd radicalizes, as it were, Paul’s claim that the law was “ordained by angels” (Gal. 3:19) and ascribes it in effect to those “a little lower than angels.” So, too, does Boyd humanize “all depictions of Yahweh as uniquely belonging to Israel.” For him such depictions are theological falsities, which God with Christlike humility deigned to tolerate.

…Boyd is alert to the problem; the final appendix of his two-volume work defends his approach against the accusation of supersessionism. But Boyd seems to understand the term narrowly: he condemns the idea that Jews are under God’s wrath and he renounces replacement theology. What he does not comment on is the extent to which Judaism knows God—or does not. Could it be that in Boyd’s view, Judaism knows God only slightly, since it treasures a testament so saturated with theological untruth?

From my own reading and review, I didn’t sense that Greg denied OT believers truly knew God, or that God is not truly revealed in the OT. However, the extent to which – and, indeed, how – Israel’s Scriptures reveal God is something determined Christologically. In one sense, there really is an inherent incompleteness to the OT. The OT cannot stand alone. Christ is where Israel’s calling and history tend. The OT is meant for Christ, and until it is read in/through Christ, its meaning remains unfulfilled, uncovered. For Paul there is no usefulness to the OT texts outside of Christ (cf. 2Cor 3.7-18 where Paul contrasts the OT with Christ). This usefulness for teaching, rebuking and correcting is, thus, Christologically shaped. The OT can contributed to the formation of Christlike character and to empower the doing of good works when read Christologically. That’s its purpose. So in response to Cornell, yes, God is “slightly known” prior the advent of Christ and the bestowal of the Spirit in the sense that any anticipation fails to embody the fuller reality of what is to come.

Lachish-battering

Thirdly, Greg’s view undermines our ability to trust God’s promises. Cornell expresses a further concern:

Boyd means for his book to cleanse the theologically polluted imagination of Christian readers and to catalyze a breakthrough of trust in God. But trusting in God means trusting in God’s faithfulness to abide by God’s promises. And Boyd has placed a large question mark—if not a strikethrough—over God’s promises to Israel. Boyd’s regimen of Sachkritik systematically doubts the veracity of the Old Testament vis-à-vis the character of God. This makes it nearly impossible to utter an “Amen” to all God’s past promises that are “Yes” in Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 1:20). For Boyd, Christ does not so much fulfill God’s promises and match God’s character, known already from Israel’s scriptures, as reveal a previously unknown (or half-unknown) God.

Boyd’s proposal also casts a shadow over God’s faithfulness to New Testament promises. The fires of theological criticism, once kindled, will hardly stay contained to one testament. Boyd realizes this. He writes: “Since we are dependent on the NT for our knowledge of God’s definitive revelation in the crucified Christ . . . one [might] question how we can be assured that God did not have to accommodate aspects of the NT authors’ fallen and culturally conditioned worldview.” In fact Boyd admits in principle that God could have made such accommodations: perhaps the New Testament, too, falls into theological error, which God endures with Christlike silence. But Boyd does not in actuality think that this occurred, and he apologizes vigorously for New Testament texts that appear to promote chauvinism or violence.

I wonder if Greg does think this has happened in the NT. Would his reading of the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5) and the blinding of Elymas (Acts 13) count as an example? Cornell continues:

I say, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander: theological criticism cannot be set loose on one testament and muzzled for the other. Rather we must acknowledge that in whatever ways the Old Testament is caught up in human fallenness and cultural specificity, the New Testament is also.

Cornell is quite right. The NT authors are just as fallible and culture-bound as the OT writers, and so are not exempt from the limitations and constrains of a ‘dialectical inspiration’. And though I don’t pretend to speak for Greg, I think Greg would agree. So Greg will have to explain how he integrates that fallibility into his view of NT texts. For myself, I’d suggest that where the OT witnesses to divine acts of deliverance and judgment, the NT witnesses to a fundamentally different kind of divine act (Incarnation). Christ is God-incarnate, personally present. Nothing roughly parallel to this is being testified to by any OT text. The revealing act in the NT, then, is not a text per se, but the personal presence of God as Christ. This in turn shapes something of the ‘dialectic’ at work in NT vs OT texts (see my Inspiration the presence of final causality). As Heb 1.1 suggests, God spoke in many different ways in the past, but now he has spoken [finally, definitively] to us in his Son. While NT authors remain fallible and not exempt from individual errors, the apostolic deposit reflects an entirely different sort of relationship between those who testify, on the one hand, and the divine act being witnessed to, on the other. God incarnated, in part, because the divine voice in the OT was dependent upon human fallibilities in a way not so dependent in Christ. In Christ, God ‘speaks for himself’, we might say, and that closes the interpretive gap at play in the ‘dialectic’ that defines divine inspiration.

Moreover, I don’t think Greg is guilty, as Cornell suggests, of “placing a question mark over God’s promises to Israel.” What I read Greg as saying is that Christ defines what God’s genuine promises in the OT even are. Christology redefines the question. No longer do we simply ask ‘What the the OT text explicitly promise?’ Rather, on what basis do we determine the nature and scope of God’s promises in the OT texts? Greg is arguing that Christ is how we define Israel’s traditions as divine promise. Christ reveals how well the OT approximates that promise and where it gets that promise right. Cornell and Greg may just disagree on this, but I’m not sure it means Greg doesn’t think we can trust God’s promises. It just means Greg limits God’s promises to Christ. “Christ is the end/telos of the law for all who believe” (Rm 10.4), and “no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘yes’ in Christ.” (2Cor 1.20) That said, even those OT texts that ‘get God wrong’ function as promisory notes that anticipate a revelation of God (Incarnate) who ‘gets God right’.

In the end, though, I’m unsure what Cornell does with the violence attributed to God in the OT. He explains:

“I can’t love the God who ever demanded massacre,” the woman in Boyd’s story said. But if God’s faithfulness authorizes the treatment of these other, particular texts as promissory, then the same may hold for violent passages; even texts about divine aggression could then signify something enduringly true about God and life before God. Such an approach would not bypass the difficult plain sense, but would look expectantly through it and beyond it.

I’m not sure what it means to say “God’s faithfulness authorizes the treatment of these [violent] texts as promissory.” How would Cornell retrieve that “something enduringly true about God and life” without appeal to Christ? How would the final truth “not bypass the difficult plain sense” when that plain sense is a divine command to commit genocide? How does one “look through and beyond” God’s actually commanding genocide? Cornell suggests, I take it, that the answer lies in spiritualizing the violent texts and reading them as a motivation to spiritual warfare:

Here, too, the history of interpretation furnishes precedents. As the Israelites traveled out of Egypt and toward Canaan, the Amalekites accosted them, and YHWH swore to make war against Amalek forever (Exod. 17). Jewish tradition saw in this seemingly very local occurrence the outline of a far larger and more persistent conflict. Amalek became an archetype for evil, such that the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, could advise, “We must wipe Amalek out of our hearts whenever he attacks.” And when I myself pray the psalm that asks God to “strike my enemies on the jaw” (Ps. 3:7), I do not think of concrete individuals—but of “our ancient foe, who seeks to work us woe” (as Luther’s hymn puts it).

But this leaves the problem unaddressed. The problem, as I understand Greg, is not how we can take God’s having actually done and commanded gross violence to be an “archetype” for the believer’s non-violent struggle against evil. The problem is God’s having actually done and commanded such violence. Does Cornell think God actually commanded Israel to commit genocide? I’m not sure. If yes, then spiritualizing the texts after the fact doesn’t address the fundamental problem Greg is concerned to awaken folks to.

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