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.

Texts in travail: reviewing Crucifixion of the Warrior God—Part 2

Aikido-Image-Source-Siamstarmma

In our last post I briefly summarized Vol. 1 of CWG. Here we’ll browse Vol. 2 and in forthcoming posts I’ll share some of my own responses. I was tempted to just repost Rob Grayson’s summary of CWG. It’s a great snapshot of the content. But I need to make sure I’m expressing Greg’s points accurately, so here’s how I see Vol. 2.

Volume 2 (Parts 4 through 6): “What’s going on behind the scenes?”
If the heart of Vol. 1 was the Cruciform Hermeneutic, the heart of Vol. 2 is the Cruciform Thesis. They are similar but distinct. Each is a side of the same coin. The Cruciform Hermeneutic tells us ‘that’ we should expect a dialectical mode of divine inspiration to give us a text whose surface claims and descriptions often reflect the fallen, mistaken, and violent beliefs of authors but in whose depths something else is going on. Inspiration doesn’t insulate the text from such beliefs. The Cruciform Thesis, on the other hand, tells us ‘how’ this hermeneutic actually works. It shows us “what’s going on behind the scenes” (an oft repeated phrase in Vol. 2), how to see beneath the surface of texts to perceive the cruciform depths to which surface claims and descriptions point.

This harkens back to Ch 10 of Vol. 1 where Greg picks up on Origen’s talk of texts having a “depth” to them which faith perceives. The Cruciform Thesis describes what one finds in those depths that accounts for the often ugly, violent, surface descriptions of biblical texts. A text’s “depths” reveal “what’s going on behind the scenes,” and is what Vol. 2 sets out to describe. In short, what’s going on behind the scenes (or beneath the surface) is the non-violent love of God accommodating his self-revelation to Israel’s fallen worldviews, sometimes withdrawing in judgment, always involved in cosmic conflict, and always making room for the freedom of created agents to use their gifts and powers to cooperate with or oppose God’s purposes.

What I’ve just described are the four principles of Greg’s Cruciform Thesis:

  • The Principle of Cruciform Accommodation
  • The Principle of Redemptive Withdrawal
  • The Principle of Cosmic Conflict
  • The Principle of Semiautonomous Power

Developing and defending these are the purpose of Vol. 2. I’ll describe each very briefly and then engage more specifically in forthcoming responses.

Part 4 (Chs 13-14): Cruciform Accommodation
Divine accommodation is a familiar, longstanding concept in Christian theology. Greg gives it a unique cruciform shape, so that the ‘when’, ‘where’, ‘why’, and ‘how’ of God’s accommodating presence in the world always involves God’s stooping to take on the appearance of evil. Greg grounds this briefly (1 page) in the cruciform nature of the Trinity. Greg contrasts this with classical theism. Whereas the classical Christian tradition (viz., God as absolutely simple, immutable, impassible, pure act) constructs its view of God beginning from Greek metaphysical categories and assumptions, the Cruciform Thesis begins with Christ crucified. God is most profoundly defined in the event of the Cross, the supreme act of cruciform accommodation. Greg appropriates Luther’s idea of “divine masks” to describe how God takes on the appearance of the ugliness of our evil in order to maintain covenant relationship with us and secure our final redemption through gracious, forgiving love. There is also a brief (5 page) engagement of Rene Girard’s thought on “scapegoating” that interprets Jesus as the “arch-scapegoat.”

Part 5 (Chs 15-20): Redemptive Withdrawal
In Part 5 Greg develops what some feel is the most controversial aspect of this work, the principle of Redemptive Withdrawal. This principle states that God’s judgment upon sin is nothing other than God “withdrawing” in order to allow the consequences of our choices to play themselves out and to bring evil to its own self-destruction. Greg calls this “divine Aikido.” Aikido, a modern Japanese martial art, is a form of self-defense that seeks to avoid injuring others. Divine Aikido would describe God wisely sidestepping the violent tendencies of evil that he otherwise holds at bay. When God withdraws, evil is allowed to wreak the havoc it intends, but this turns out to be God’s judgment on sin and his defeat of it.

1366694472-chute+70cms+white+crucif.jpg-originalThe supreme act of divine withdrawal is God’s withdrawal from Jesus on the Cross, abandoning Christ in judgment upon our sin which Jesus bore. This abandonment was no mere charade. On the Cross, godforsakenness came to define the triune relations ad intra, reducing God’s experience of himself to the pain and despair of Jesus’ cry “My God, why have you forsaken me?” This quintessential withdraw is both an act of judgment and love, and it becomes, for Greg, the measure of a cruciform understanding of divine transcendence and that divine act which saves and atones for the world. There is a great deal in these six chapters which will have to wait until I engage Greg more specifically in forthcoming responses.

Part 6 (Chs 21-24): Cosmic Conflict
Greg’s Trinitarian warfare theodicy (expounded fully in Satan and the Problem of Evil) is one of the most well-known features of his writing. If you’re familiar with these works you’ll be familiar with what Greg’s points are here in CWG. The created, material order in its entirety, from the simplest quantum event to the broadest cosmic realities (including the laws of physics, entropy, thermodynamics, etc.) is a scene of warfare between God (with obedient angelic beings carrying out his will) and Satan (and his demonic cohorts). We human beings literally have our being in and as this state of war.

The abiding reality of evil’s reign in the material order is grounded in a pre-creational covenant of creation God established with Satan as a prince of matter. When Satan fell, all creation was implicated in his fall and caught up in all-out warfare. What we know as the laws of physics and other principles that maintain the intelligible regularities of the cosmos are all to greater or lesser degrees perversions of pre-fall laws governing matter as God intended but whose original goodness we can hardly imagine given their present perverted state. This means that there is no such thing as purely ‘natural evil’ (what we traditionally call mud-slides, earth-quakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, etc.) for in truth such events are caused by fallen, angelic beings who were covenanted by God the administration of the material order but who came to abuse their gifts and callings to oppose rather than promote God’s purposes for the material universe. Such an understanding of ‘natural evil’ obviously figures into Greg’s account of what’s going on “behind the scenes.”

Part 7 (Ch 25): Semiautonomous Power
The last principle that defines the Cruciform Thesis is that of Semiautonomous Power. This principle states that the various spiritual gifts and powers which God grants us to partner with him in accomplishing his will remain relatively operative even when we fail to line up with God’s intentions and purposes. We can and do employ these powers in unloving and violent ways. This capacity to misuse our God-given gifts is called upon to explain many instance of evil brought about in God’s name by God’s servants in both the Old Testament and the New.

What Greg has done is lay out the various types of violence either directly or tacitly attributed to God and suggest four governing principles that explain in cruciform fashion ‘what is going on behind the scenes’. Recall the flow of the argument as follows:

  • God is non-violent, other-oriented, self-sacrificial love as revealed in the Cross.
  • The same God-breathed Bible that gives us this gospel story also describes God as willing and doing violence, contrary to the cruciform character of God revealed in Christ.
  • Various attempts to resolve the tension between these two portrayals of God include (a) dismissing the violent passages as uninspired and thus non-revelatory, (b) synthesizing the violent and non-violent portrayals of God into a single, consistent, interpretation that attempts to defend divine violence as compatible with the goodness of God, and (c) the patristic allegorical method of reinterpreting the violent passages. All three, Greg argues, fail finally to resolve the tension in a satisfying way.
  • Greg’s proposal offers two fundamental theses: the Cruciform Hermeneutic, by which we take the Cross as the authoritative and defining center from which all Scripture is to be read, and the Cruciform Thesis which shows us ‘what really is going on behind the scenes’ when we apply this hermeneutic to the violent portrayals of God throughout the Bible. What is going on may be one or more of (a) God’s accommodating his self-revelation to the errant worldviews of his covenant partner Israel, (b) God’s withdrawing himself in judgment upon sin, (c) God combating spiritual warfare on a cosmic level, and (d) human agents misusing their God-given spiritual powers to do violently.

Responses forthcoming.

Zosia did you know?

cfdcb44dd87bd90b4e1db36fc5226663Reading through Greg’s CWG got me into Greg’s stuff again, and I ran across this quote from a podcast (May, 2013) of his. Consider:

“I seriously believe that if you caught one momentary glimpse of how much God loves you and the delight he has over you, every burden you carry, every grief you bear, would instantaneously be dissipated and be vanquished forever. And you would be filled with a lightness and a joy and a peace that passes all understanding. Just a glimpse. Lord, give us a glimpse of what is true.”

Greg recognizes the effect upon us (in our grief and suffering) of the vision of the depth and undying nature of God’s love and delight. A mere glimpse of it would “instantly vanquish” our pain forever.

We couldn’t agree more. But I’d like to ask Greg to expound on this a bit. Truth is, I’d love to see him write a book on just this. I say this because having finished CWG recently, it doesn’t seem to me that he consistently believes what he says in his podcast. For example, when is it true of our suffering and pain that were we to perceive a glimpse of God’s truest delight, our pain would be vanquished forever? It has to be true of God and of us as we suffer. And for whom is it true? These questions lead to conclusions very different from those Greg reaches in CWG.

We completely agree with Greg’s podcast comment, of course. It’s essentially what Paul describes in Rom 8, that experience of God’s glory-beauty that is so immeasurable and defining of our experience that suffering and pain become comparatively meaningless. I previously commented:

In Romans 8.18 Paul writes that “no present sufferings are worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us,” the glory that will thoroughly define us when our embodied selves are properly glorified by the beatific vision, the vision of God’s glory. What surprises are in this passage. How is it that our experience of God’s glory will render all conceivable suffering incomparably beside the point, not even worthy of being compared to the experience of God? Is God really that beautiful? Is the beatific vision really that defining?

If no present suffering can possibly compare to the joy that shall be ours by virtue of this vision, what does this say about the God who always perceives his own beauty, about the very joy and delight God presently gets from seeing himself? And if the glory which God now is shall transcend all our sufferings when we participate in it, what must be the case about God’s present transcendence of all suffering in light of the fact that he eternally is this glory?

wurmbrand-mugshotWhat about Zosia? Is it true for her?

What about Romanian Pastor Richard Wurmbrand (1909-2001) who was tortured for Christ in prison for years? Is it true for him? He actually believed what Greg says in his podcast. Wurmbrand confessed: “We were with Christ; we didn’t know that we were in prison.” He described his experience of Christ while being tortured as so profound that it seemed to him the walls of the prison were made of diamonds.

So my question for Greg would be:

Is there any human suffering too great to be vanquished by the realization of God’s undying love for us?

If yes, then what Greg is saying in this podcast would seem to be sentimental rubbish. If no, then does Greg not see the consequences of this for the relationship between our pain and the beatitude of God’s triune love and delight, and how we understand “what’s going on behind the scenes” on the Cross?

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.

Snapshot
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.

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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!

Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Pre-review

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It’s out. Ten years of research and too many manic all-nighters to count. Greg Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God (CWG) is out and folks are diving in. I finished it this past weekend. I suspect the reviews will begin lighting up blogs. But if producing thoughtful responses was like making coffee, I’d be a ‘percolator’ as opposed to an ‘espresso machine’. I need to let things simmer and then let a response grow up around what strike me as the key points. Derek Flood is going to blog his way through as he reads. Should be fun. There are a couple of summaries out there already. Lord knows Greg himself has blogged and talked about it plenty over the past ten years. So the final arrival of CWG is a bit like the birth of a baby we’ve all gotten to watch gestate in vitro through videos and sonograms. Still, it’s only a labor of love that got it finished and delivered. So congrats again to Greg.

I know Greg would want CWG to receive careful, thoughtful and passionate reviews. He would want to see this come up against the best arguments against it. So I hope all you doctors of theology out there bring your best game. I’m a hack, but I plan on reviewing CWG as best I can. But like I said, it’ll take me some time to percolate. In the meantime, however, there are a few initial things I’d like to share, not as a review (I’m not there yet), but as a pre-review – just to express where I was when I closed vol. 2.

First, to those intimidated by the length (2 vols, 1,400+ pages). If you take off 350 pages of appendices, index, and bibliography, you’re only talking a bit more than 1,000 pages. And with tons of footnotes (thanks to Paul Eddy I’m sure) taking on average 1/3 of each page, you’re really talking just over 700 pages to read. Not bad. Obviously, I’m not saying the footnotes are pointless. Anything but. I’m just saying you can get through a first reading more quickly than you think. Don’t be intimidated by two heavy volumes and 1,400 pages.

Second, if you are already on board with the belief that “God is love” is a predicate of God, that it describes God’s essential, triune being, and that divine love is truly non-violent, then you may not need Parts 1 and 2 of vol. 1. These parts are good and have a lot of great stuff in them, but they’re designed to get people “on board” with the idea that “God is love” means God is non-violent love. If folks have any doubt about the extent and depth of violence in the OT (what CWG is all about), they need to read Ch 7 (a kind of crime scene investigation of God’s bloody behavior in the OT) and ponder that slowly so they appreciate the problem. Chs 8 and 9 outline two standard responses to this violence. Folks who aren’t already familiar with these standard approaches will want to see how their explanations of biblical violence resemble existing models.

Third, I didn’t agree carte blanche with Parts 1 and 2, partly because so much of where Greg ends up is in Parts 1 and 2. This was one of the things that frustrated me about this work. But I was already on board with the conviction that God is love and God doesn’t do violence to creation. So all I needed from vol. 1 I got in Part 3 (Chs 10-12, just 140 pages) which is the nuts and bolts of the Cruciform Hermeneutic. Similarly for vol. 2, I felt like Part 5 (what he does Christologically/Trinity-wise to ground his Principle of Redemptive Withdrawal) was the key. If he’s right on this, the rest is dominoes. If he’s wrong – well, then only others who disagree will know it, because after ten years of his working on this, I can’t imagine there’s any dissuading Greg at this point. Part VI’s Cosmic Conflict is a hard sell – not because nobody grants the reality of spiritual warfare, but because Greg insists on formulating it in terms that make Satan into a functional demiurge ‘in whom we live and move and have our being’.

DisputationFourth, I said to myself repeatedly while reading through this, “There’s nothing new here.” That’s not a criticism by the way. Greg admits several times in the book that there’s nothing really new going on. There’s just a new application or appropriation of what’s been said by others to the question of divine violence. As Chs 8 and 9 also show, attempts to address that violence aren’t new either. Christians have been trying to put some distance between God and OT violence for a long time. So there isn’t anything new in the basic beliefs that create the conundrum for Greg, i.e., that God is non-violent love (on the one hand) and (on the other hand) the texts that attribute so much violence to God are this non-violent God’s inspired words. The truth of these two convictions creates his conundrum. But how Greg resolves that tension is definitely new. He doesn’t want to dump the OT and line up with liberals and Marcionites. But he doesn’t want simply to allegorize them either. He wants to take these violent passages as ‘pointing’ (non-allegorically) to the non-violent God of love on the Cross. What to do? That’s what CWG is about. My favorite part of vol. 1 was Ch 10’s section on Origen. Very interesting.

As Greg got into the most objectionable aspects of his theology (his kenoticism, the idea that the Father abandoning the Son ad intra/essentially so that the divine nature comes to be defined by godforsakenness, his quasi-penal substitutionary view of the cross), I also thought to myself that none of this is new. Then it dawned on me that what might be the unique virtue of this book is not any particular belief in it (this or that belief any number of people can agree or disagree with), but its place in the history of Evangelical theological thought as being where all these various streams of belief within Evangelical thought finally converge to form their most definitive picture of God. There have always been kenoticists in Evangelicalism. There have always been Evangelicals who affirm the non-violent love of God. There have always been Evangelicals who knew God wasn’t really doing all that violence the Bible ascribes to God. But it might be the unique accomplishment of Greg to have brought all these divergent thoughts together within the embrace of Kenotic Christology (for what it’s worth theologically – which is nothing, but never mind that for now) to its fullest, most consistent Evangelical expression.

Fifth, it’s true of my conversations with Greg that I always come away better and truly challenged to assess what I believe and why I believe it. So as deeply as I disagree with him on some of his fundamental convictions, I do come away learning something new and pushed to think through my own convictions afresh.

Sixth, in general the most frustrating thing about Greg’s arguments is his tendency to not discriminate between beliefs or aspects of a position that are essential to that position and those that aren’t when arguing why a position should be rejected. Examples will have to wait for a fuller review.

Seventh, one particular weakness of the book that I think leaves it basically incomplete is the complete absence of any definition of violence. That struck me as very odd. One might suppose it’s safe to take that definition for granted. Don’t we all instinctively know what ‘violence’ is? Not really, no. When you’re publishing a major hermeneutical/theological work on the nature of God and violence, it would help to define ‘violence’ (theologically speaking). I wonder if this absence opens up Greg’s thesis to unhelpful ambiguities.

Eighth, five pages to Rene Girard. Really? The man who has done more than anyone in the last 100 years to expose the violent tendencies at work in Christian thinking and argue a truly non-violent vision of God and atonement, gets five pages out of 1,400? I was extremely surprised. When I get around to a full review, I’ll explain why I think Girard finally proves not to be an ally to Greg in this project. Nor surprisingly, it has to do with Christology.

Ninth, another particular thing that concerned me (and this won’t concern anyone who isn’t already familiar with Greg’s published PhD dissertation Trinity and Process) was his repeated favorable referencing (in the footnotes to both vols) of Trinity and Process (TP). At different points Greg refers to TP’s claims that God doesn’t need the world, that God creates freely, or that God is essentially triune without the world (all true) when reassuring readers, for example, that his belief that the Father truly abandons/forsakes the Son (ad intra) doesn’t mean he’s unorthodox on the question God’s being essentially, unchangingly, triune. God only ceases to “experience” himself as triune, loving oneness, but he doesn’t cease to “be” unchangeably triune. (An impossible view of uncreated, necessary being, but where else is Greg going to go on this?)

TP is a wonderful philosophical work on God’s essential (triune) relatedness. But it’s not TP’s overall claims (e.g., ‘God is necessarily-essentially triune’) that can help Greg presently. Nobody wanting to remain remotely within the scope of orthodox Christianity is going to say God takes a break from being essentially triune. So yes, Greg says the right thing: “God is essentially triune and that can’t change.” The issue is that it’s TP’s arguments for why and how God is essentially triune that make problematic Greg’s calling TP to the witness stand on behalf of CWG. Why? Because when you appeal to a work in support of arguments you’re making, you reference that work’s arguments, and the arguments Greg makes in TP for what it is about God that makes him essentially triune are arguments Greg no longer believes. Some of us have read TP and we’ve talked about it here, and the idea that ‘godforsakenness’ should define God’s essential experience of himself contradicts the core understanding of the unity of God’s uncreated being as Greg argues it in TP. So when I see Greg referencing TP to support arguments he was making which contradict TP, I’m concerned.

These are a few of the initial thoughts I had as I closed vol. 2. Other opinions are still forming that a second reading will help me clarify, but there’s no doubt in my mind that Greg is as passionate and motivated a thinker as any you’ll ever know, and that the finality of God’s revelation of himself in Christ is the defining center of that passion and motivation. And there’s no faulting him there. How he fills that out with what he thinks God’s being love implies is a different matter.

Congrats Greg! You’re wrong, but congrats!

The wrong paradox

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Permit me one final quote from Mark Heim’s Saved from Sacrifice. I heartily recommend this book to you. Coupled with other Girard resources I’ve been looking at, this Lent/Easter season is turning into a kind of second conversion to Christianity for me. I quite serious, but more on that later. I’d like to close out looking at Mark Heim’s book with a quote from chapter ten in which he summarizes the various arguments he’s been making. In this passage he brings a non-sacrificial (Girardian) reading of the Cross into conversation with the standard sacrificial reading among Christians.

At a later time when I get around to reviewing Greg Boyd’s new work Crucifixion of the Warrior God (2 vols), Girard will figure significantly into my assessment. In the end, in spite of Greg’s desire to establish a non-violent (non-sacrifical|non penal-substitionary) reading of the Cross, all goes well until he insists that the Father himself must abandon his Son who has become sin and that Jesus must suffer the punishment we deserve (Godforsakenness). This is essentially a sacrificial reading of the Cross. As Heim describes Anselm’s view, the parallels to Greg are clear. One need only adjust a few terms (Heim’s “blow” which the Father “strikes” Jesus with to Greg’s “withdrawal”) to accommodate Heim’s critique of Anselm to Boyd’s theory of the Father’s visiting upon the Son the Godforsakenness we deserve. The logic between the two is the same.

Often opponents of the penal substitutionary view of the atonement summarize what they dislike about this view in terms of its making God “bloodthirsty,” picturing the Father wanting his “pound of flesh” or needing “more blood,” of Jesus “saving us from the Father,” or the Father’s feeling for Jesus the hatred he has for sin. But as Heim’s passage here shows, these extreme claims can be rejected while leaving one essentially within the grip of their sacrificial-scapegoating logic. Heim writes:

22879What I have tried to say in this book is that there is a concrete rescue in the cross. There is the rescue and vindication of a victim of scapegoating sacrifice, and more broadly, there is a rescue of all of us from the thoughtless bondage to that violent way of maintaining peace and unity. This is a saving transaction, in which God is willing to be subjected to our persecution in order to deprive it of future victims and end its power. That is the simple rescue, on which the other meanings of the cross are built.

Critics of atonement theology see in the account of Jesus’ death no literal redemptive example. And in a sense they are exactly right, for the Gospels themselves make this point. They dramatically emphasize that the crucifixion is wrong. The Gospel presentations stress that it is an evil act, and make no effort to soften that fact. As critics see it, the theology of the cross seems to suppose that the heavenly value of Jesus’ death increases in direct proportions to tis failure to do any earthly good. The cross does not present us with a parable of behavior that is admirable in some general sense. Rather than the concrete demonstration of a rescue, the passion narratives give us Jesus’ predictions of his death, an assurance that it will be offered for us. Critics do not find here any meaningful explanation of why that death would help. It is an “empty” death, and seems to invite or require the postulation of some hidden divine transaction to give it the meaning it lacks on the face of things

The Wrong Paradox
The classic penal substitutionary theology of atonement (we will take Anselm as its representative) constructs the terms of just such a hidden transaction. It posits a cosmic bargain that takes place on a plane quite distinct from the historical reality of the crucifixion. This mistaken move has decisive consequences. But before we explore those results in detail, we need to register the many authentic elements of the passion that Anselm incorporates in his vision. These are factors that account for the many positive effects that the teaching has had, despite its deep flaws. If the result is faulty, it is because the elements are misaligned, not because he starts with the wrong material.

In developing his theology Anselm fixes on a few details as crucial cues. Nearly all of them figure significantly also in the reading of the cross that I have been advocating. His doctrine of atonement builds around many of the key antimythical elements of the Gospels. He assumes, as scripture does, the injustice of the crucifixion, the falseness of the accusations, the innocence of the victim, and the uniqueness of the divine act that takes place in this event, separate from the intentions (explicit and implicit) of its human actors. On all these points Anselm is in line with the fundamental critique of historical sacrifice present in the Gospels. He stresses that it is not humans’ offering of someone else’s blood that is saving. That ancient human path is identified and condemned in the passion accounts. It is not the crowd’s thirst for Jesus’ blood, for a third party’s death, that saves us. It is God’s willingness to suffer in our place that is the unique and only transformative meaning for “sacrifice.” Anselm rejects any repetitive practice that exchanges some people’s suffering for others’ benefit…

Anselm clearly breaks with the foundational mythic scenario that assumes victims must be regularly offered to assure peace and harmony. He condemns that idea, because in his view this task can belong to only one person, the incarnate Word. All of Anselm’s arguments that are aimed to point up the human need for just such an extraordinary savior serve to make this point well. On the only point that matters, atonement for sin, human sacrifices are of no avail. They cannot redeem us. Our offering of others is sinful and in vain. Even our offering of ourselves, any self-immolation, would be equally futile. Like the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews, Anselm firmly grasps this point. Without Christ, no amount of self-sacrifice, no amount of innocent suffering offering in any way could save us. With Christ, not even the smallest increment from any others is needed.

imagesIn the wake of Christ, no innocent suffering can be propounded as required by God. Suffering may come. It may even be occasioned by obedience and faithfulness to God. But it has no role to play in “satisfying” God. That was done once for all. Insisting on the necessity of divine initiative and divine action for reconciliation, Anselm rejects the assumption that human action alone may be sufficient. One good reason to deny this assumption is that whenever it is granted it tends to lend support to the common human procedure for effective atonement – sacrifice and scapegoating. In these fundamental ways Anselm recognizes and affirms the antisacrificial trajectory of the passion narratives. It is the presence of all these elements in his theology that accounts for its many liberating as well as destructive effects. So, for instance, even a very sacrificial reading of the cross that treats Jesus as a divine scapegoat, often still powerfully deflects our tendency to cast our own guilt onto a human scapegoat, allowing it to be discharged instead by Christ. Those who have opposed sacred violence from within the Anselmian perspective have done so on the basis of these resources.

But the Anselmian view of the cross is defined by two major additional steps. The first is the decision to privilege legal images to represent the basic dynamic of “death for us.” Anselm senses the magnitude of God’s action in the cross. It is something unexpected, gracious, and of universal vicarious effect. It has the immense dimensions that earlier Christian writers often describe in the terms of a unique and final sacrifice. Anselm sought to define the scope of grace through a legal quantification of our moral debt and Christ’s merit.

The second step is to conflate this legal framework with a vision of divine justice that dictates God’s purposes in suffering death. If Christ steps in to intercept a blow meant for us, where does that blow itself come from? It is occasioned by our sin (so far, a view fully in accord with the general traditions). Anselm’s departure is to insist with new systematic rigor that it is actually coming from God. What we need to be rescued from is the deserved wrath and punishment of God. God wishes to be merciful and so God becomes the one to be punished on behalf of us all. God strikes the same blow that God protects us from.

In response to the criticisms of atonement in his day, which complained that only a weak or incompetent God would be compelled to go to the unseemly lengths of incarnation, and especially death by crucifixion, to redeem a wayward creation, Anselm explained the necessity of incarnation by focusing on the magnitude of the human offense, something only the infinite merit of God’s undeserved suffering could overbalance. The paradoxes of Anselm’s satisfaction theory attempt to reflect the paradox in the Gospels. The scriptural presentation of the crucifixion as both a bad thing and a good thing is translated to mean that the bad (undeserved) suffering of an innocent victim is finally a good thing, which it provides the merit to allow God to remit the punishment rightly due humanity. The debt to God can be paid only with what is not already owed. Jesus’ death can cover the bill because God’s justice cannot demand it, because it is so purely undeserved. The cross is necessary because it is not required. It works only because it is wrong. The wrongness is part of the solution.

This vision draws its power from points of genuine contact with the Gospel narratives of the cross. But it has gone badly astray, at a point where even a small difference can do great harm. The wrongful suffering Jesus is subjected to, the evil the passion is meant to end, becomes the essential good to be celebrated in it. The key error is to refer both the meaning and need of Jesus’ death to its character as an offering to God. What Anselm rejects at the level of human community, he re-creates at the level of community between God and humanity, a community whose reconciliation depends on the offering of an innocent victim. Most important, Anselm presents God as the one who requires this sacrifice and also as the one to whom it is offered.

Scapegoating is a human practice, and Anselm is clear that such a practice cannot solve our estrangement from God. But in his view God has taken over a human scapegoating sacrifice (the execution of Jesus) and turned it into a unique scapegoating sacrifice of unimaginable magnitude. God is doing what human sacrifice does, but on a much larger scale, and one time only. God has not stepped into the process to oppose it, but to perfect it. Sacrifice to end sacrifice is an accurate and biblical way to describe Jesus’ death, but it is an ambiguous and delicately poised idea. Anselm has taken it to mean that God does the same thing that human scapegoaters do, taking it to an ultimate extreme. Instead of God throwing a wrench into the gears of human sacrifice, Anselm’s God has endorsed that machinery, borrowing it to perform the biggest and most effective sacrifice of all. Jesus has become our all-purpose scapegoat, whose suffering generates an infinite reservoir of merit that, like his shed blood, can be dispensed through the sacraments.

These are fatal steps. Once these points become fixed, they dramatically deform the theology of the cross. To return to our simple image about Jesus stepping in between us and an evil bearing down on us, we can say that Anselm unequivocally states that what is bearing down on us is God and God’s wrath. This radically bifurcates the God of justice and the God of forgiveness, and it appears to require a plan of salvation that sets Christ and God against each other. In contrast, I have argued that the actual transaction at the cross is one in which God is handed over to our redemptive violence in order to liberate us from it, not the transaction between God’s left hand and right hand that Anselm pictures…

images (1)Anselm’s mistake is to make primary what is derivative. God did not become human only to die. And Christ did not die as he did to cancel an infinity of deserved punishment for humanity with the infinitely undeserved suffering of innocent divinity. The legal apparatus around the crucifixion is not there because God has a satisfaction case to prosecute and a punishment to enforce on humanity, but because the machinery of false accusation and political and religious legitimacy are part of the way sacred violence works. The death of Jesus follows the script of human persecution because that is the ongoing evil into whose path Jesus steps, to rescue us from sacrifice, to open the way to new community.

Anselm’s doctrine preserves paradox, but the wrong one. He has made the cross a celebration of the sacrifice it meant to overcome. We have seen in earlier chapters how two things are stereotypically overlaid in the passion narrative: a bare description of scapegoating sacrifice along with the rationale of its practitioners, and then a counterscript of criticism, rejection, and reversal of that practice. The second is the distinctive meaning of the cross. At a crucial point Anselm has crossed these wires and taken over part of the sacrificial rationale that was being rejected. In his vision there is a crisis of conflict that threatens to tear creation permanently apart. It is the conflict between humanity and God. Sin has put them at irreconcilable odds. The only way peace can be restored is for God and humanity to unite together in sacrificing an innocent victim. God, Judas, Herod, Pilate, Caiaphas, Peter – all join in one unanimous crowd. This is straightforward sacrificial logic, borrowed from the script followed in the Gospels by those who kill Jesus. And Anselm has enlisted God on its side. But it is a logic the passion narratives subvert and the resurrection denies.

The obvious change Anselm must make when this sacrificial scenario migrates into his thought from the realm of mythical sacrifice is an inescapably Christian one. Given his commitment to scripture, the true nature of the sacrificial logic cannot remain invisible. It must be directly faced. In classical sacrifice the guilt of the scapegoat and the validity of the charges against him or her are assumed. The crowd celebrates the killing because they do not recognize any victim. Innocent suffering works to bring peace because it is invisible as such. For Anselm, since the Gospels have made the victim unavoidably visible, it is the acknowledged innocent suffering of the victim that becomes the hinge of the whole process. The effectiveness of Jesus’ death in reconciling us with God depends on our knowing full well that it is unjustified persecution. The Gospels pulled back the veil of unanimous accusation to show the hidden truth of sacrifice, the undeserved suffering of the innocent victim. What was revealed was what was wrong, and what must be changed. But Anselm insists that what we see behind the veil is right. God has become the proprietor of redemptive violence, and by that very act made it a good thing. This injustice becomes the whole purpose of the incarnation, and not one of the prime evils Christ came to defeat. Thus, at the last minute, things are turned backward. Rather than a strategic act of resistance to overthrow sacred violence, the cross becomes a divine endorsement of it. This is the missed connection, so close to the truth and yet so fatally far, that has tangled our thinking about substitutionary atonement.

Hopelessly two-storied

C9BF6uFW0AAG1PnGreg Boyd had a Q&A at Woodland Hills this past Sunday evening (with Dennis Edwards and Bruxy Cavey) about his new (2 vol) work The Crucifixion of the Warrior God (CWG). I couldn’t make it, but Dwayne did. We’ll get around to specifics in a future review, but I wanted to share some thoughts on the Q&A since the opening portion of it is available on Youtube. Quite interesting. Greg has Bruxy and Dennis provide their own summary of what they think CWG is about, then Greg responds. Questions follow. I want to be clear up front that in spite of deep disagreements, Greg says many things that we agree with and the work he put into CWG reflects a deep passion to address the violent portrayals of God deeply entrenched in western Christianity. So I hope CWG gets reviewed widely.

Canadian pastor/author Bruxy Cavey begins with his own summary (or criticism?) of CWG. He appears to read (or criticize?) Greg in Girardian terms: God hands himself over to the false, violent views of others to expose that entire scapegoating economy as false and impotent and in doing so frees us from its violent assumptions. Thus the Cross is a demonstration of love in that God submits himself to our fallen structures to disarm them and free us. Bruxy gives several examples from Acts (beginning in ch 2) that make the point explicit. “You killed him,” Peter says to his fellow Jews, “but God (note the adversative) raised him from the dead.” (Cf. minute 8:30 to 9:00). “Where,” Bruxy asks, “does God enter the crucifixion narrative? At the resurrection.” “You” crucified him. “God” raised him. I like that. All the agony/torture, Bruxy says (minutes 10:00 to 10:30) is “our” doing. That’s how Bruxy reads things. I love what Bruxy says and sense he’s moving from and toward a position we can get with.

Were this what CWG is about, that would be very good news indeed. But it’s not what CWG is about. It’s contrary to Greg’s entire project. How so? Because Greg makes it clear that there is an agony that Christ suffers on the Cross – the only agony that does the real saving work – which is not due to anything people do to Jesus. On the contrary, it’s the one thing that only the Father can do, and that is to abandon/forsake his Son. For Greg, the Father is intimately involved in the crucifixion narrative (not just the resurrection) in a highly specific and saving way, namely, forsaking his Son, and it’s the suffering of this abandonment, Greg believes, that saves us, not suffering crucifixion per se. Lots of people were crucified.

In addition, there’s something Greg says re: God’s glory being “the distance God is willing to go” to “become his antithesis on our behalf.” He talks about God’s “going the distance” a lot. This strikes me as very two-storied. God’s over there. We’re down here. God’s got to get up and cross the distance that separates us and that means vacating his present location and occupying ours.

This seems hopelessly two-storied.

Maybe that’s where we differ. I think an essential aspect of a proper understanding of the Incarnation and the Cross is it being the case that “there is no distance,” and any perception of distance or separation is an illusion. It is what God is in himself, fully and actually triune, antecedent to the world (i.e., not defined by the world but defining the world’s very ground and being) but always already fully present in it, that dispels the illusions of separation that empower scapegoating and which fullness becomes the “beauty that glorifies” (Rom 8.18). God doesn’t have to “leave what he is” and “turn into something he’s not” (his “antithesis”) to travel the distance between God and a fallen creation. In the end, salvation doesn’t rest in God’s conforming to our fallen reality anyhow (God’s being defined essentially by alienation, separation, abandonment). It rests in our conforming to his reality. Incarnation is the ‘how’ of bringing creation into himself, yes, but there’s no “departure across a distance” for God in this (which is why Chalcedon is so important, but never mind that for now).

I get the feeling that Greg simply reduces how God saves to God’s being defined by the content of our fallen structures (which is precisely what Girard suggested isn’t the case). What Dwayne and I (and Orthodoxy as we understand it – could be wrong) take to be “illusions” (of distance, separation, abandonment, etc.), Greg sees as having independent reality. “Sin” is taken to be substantial and the triune relations must be defined by it (hence, the Father has to reject/forsake his own Logos who “becomes sin”) to secure our salvation. All this – i.e., Greg’s view – as opposed to God’s stepping into the circumstances (the victimization and abandonment of scapegoating) which we interpret as distance/separation from God in order to reveal that these interpretations are false and to demonstrate from within those same circumstances that God doesn’t abandon us, that there isn’t any ‘distance’ between us and God, and that nobody (not even God) needs to be ‘punished’ with God’s abandonment to secure our salvation. Penal substitution (even qualified the way Greg affirms it) is just Scapegoating 101 because it assumes God must ‘punish’ to save. So in the end, the ‘violence’ Greg wants to expose as unlike God and unnecessary to creation becomes necessary to God and creation in the worst kind of way.

(Part 2 of the Q&A)

To my friend, Greg Boyd

greg-cruxCongrats to Greg on the publication of a decade (at least) of research and hard work. I don’t know anybody whose passion level approaches Greg’s when he sinks his teeth into a project. He stuck with this, saw it through, and so congrats are in order! His new work is a massive effort of love that deserve serious reflection and review.

I love this man. He made himself accessible to me, opened his home and heart, and inspired my own intellectual appetite. The fact that I disagree so strongly with the Christology that underpins his new work is due in part to him. But I don’t want to get ahead of myself. When I’ve finished CWG (Crucifixion of the Warrior God), I hope to blog through a review of it. There will doubtless be much to agree with, and plenty of insight to celebrate. But since nobody inside Greg’s circle who knows his work well is likely to disagree with him on anything like Orthodox grounds, we hope to share our own perspective on it in due time.

In the meantime, Greg – ponder thisThere is another way the Cross can heal the world without simply making God the truth of its pain.

 

Crucifixion of the Warrior God

GregMore books to order, more money to spend. I’ve got this pre-ordered. I read a pre-published working copy, but knowing Greg, things continued to get worked out and worked in right up to the final moment. One thing I will say about Greg – even when I disagree, I come away thinking long and hard about things. We’ll see where this goes.

The disposition to be divine

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Pardon a second post from the comments section of Classical Theism where Malcolm and I are batting ideas back and forth. I’m pretty sure no one else is in there, so I wanted to post more publicly a reference to Greg Boyd’s appropriation of the concept of dispositions or dispositional ontology and how it might provide an analogy for understanding how God’s triune identity remains unchanged through relations with the temporal world. Chase down Greg’s Redux if you’re more interested.

Malcolm: If God has a certain state of existence ad intra and also a certain state of existence ad extra, then it seems that in transitioning from the one to the other God changes in his essential properties, in which case he doesn’t maintain identity. For instance, if God ad intra is independent but then becomes dependent, it seems to me either (a) his independence ad intra is not an essential property, or (b) God ceases being God afterwards.

Tom: If you get Greg’s Redux (pp. 16-21), check out what he says about the category of dispositions, including two kinds of disposition: (1) definitional dispositions that are exercised invariantly and whose exercise constitutes the definitional or necessary properties of a thing (Note: I don’t think God is a “thing”), and (2) constitutive dispositions (‘constitutive’ is what Greg calls them but that’s probably not a good word to use), i.e., powers which a thing essentially possesses but which it may or may not exercise and remain the essential thing it is.

God’s infinite specious present is God’s essential and necessary disposition to be the triune God of infinite beauty and beatitude. This dispositional essence cannot (I don’t think) be the product or outcome of “temporal becoming” (as I try to describe in that post on the specious present). But when we move to ad extra self-expressive divine acts, these are not (as your comment seems to suppose, I’m not sure) a “transition from the one” (i.e., from the necessary-essential disposition to be triune fullness) “to the other” (i.e., to a freely exercised disposition for creative self-expression). God doesn’t shut down the exercise of his definitional disposition to be the God he is so he can rewire or re-constitute that disposition to become someone or something else. The latter disposition (for freely creative self-expression) is possessed necessarily. It’s only exercised contingently.

God’s ‘identity’ then is the abiding, unchanging, disposition to be the loving triune God of infinite beauty and beatitude (his ‘specious present’ I would say). This ‘identity’ gets “expressed” (not “constituted”) through the ad extra work of creation, but only (and this is important to our passibilism question) through the world’s ‘being’ (i.e., the extent to which created natures conform to their logoi), not through its ‘failure to be’ (i.e., its sinful misrelation and suffering).

From my view, changing states of mind in God with respect to the changing actualities of the world, even if they are intrinsic in the sense that all knowing is intrinsic to the knower, don’t constitute an intolerable divine “becoming” or reconstitute God’s identity ad intra. Why not? Because all the forms of the good which are the being of created things are already present in the divine Logos (and so definitive of the divine identity). Their ‘becoming actual’ as non-divine entities ad extra is merely expressive of this One’s disposition for free, creative self-expression. But though created things merely reflect as images the Logos in whom their possibilities are grounded (they’re not ‘new’ in that sense, obviously), their actual temporal becoming does constitute something new ‘to know’ even for God (since their contingent, temporal ‘actuality’ as such cannot be eternally pre-contained in the Logos). As Bulgakov said (Bride of the Lamb – thank you God for this passage):

If God created man in freedom, in His own image, as a son of God and a friend of God, a god according to grace, then the reality of this creation includes his freedom as creative self-determination not only in relation to the world but also in relation to God…

[A]ll the possibilities of creaturely being, having their roots in the Creator’s knowledge, are open to [his] knowledge, since they belong to the world created by Him and are included in this world’s composition, not only in the form of “integral wisdom” but also in the form of a distributed multiplicity. In this sense, creation – in both the spiritual and the human world – cannot bring anything ontologically new into this world; it cannot surprise or enrich the Creator Himself. But the very choice and creative actualization of these possibilities, that is, the domain of modal freedom, remain entrusted to creation and to this extent are its creative contribution. Although creation cannot be absolutely unexpected and new for God in the ontological sense, nevertheless in empirical (“contingent”) being, it represents a new manifestation for God Himself, who is waiting to see whether man will open or not open the doors of his heart. God Himself will know this only when it happens…

Veiling His face, God remains ignorant of the actions of human freedom. Otherwise, these actions would not have their own reality, but would only be a function of a certain divine mechanism of things.