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

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

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

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

Ja-hust kidding!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Chs 8 and 9 each present a popular attempt 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 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!

My main squeeze


I can’t lie, the Holy Spirit is my Main Squeeze,
I run after Her, like I’m late when the train leaves,
Breath colder than an Arctic breeze, I got a brain freeze
Spirit has no gender, when I say “Her” just don’t complain, please. (Please…)

Comfort, unbelievable. Passion, inconceivable,
She gives Herself and I’m the office of Accounts Receivable.
She is ever perceivable, when looking though the Mind’s Eye
Seeing Divine Hiddeness for what it is, like the Divine’s shy…

But I give myself to Her and She throw it right back to me
Her Love got me addicted, like its sugar or its crack to me
Tweakin – and I’m seeking, forever peaking
Freakin, I never weaken, forever leaking…

…Living Waters of the Living One from the One
All Glory to the Father, Spirit and unto the Son,
Intimacy unparalleled, Perichoretic Carousel,
The Spirit is the Weight of Glory, I just hope to bear Her well.

(Dwayne Polk)

It’s not about sacrifice


Certainly the Passion is presented to us in the Gospels as an act that brings salvation to humanity. But it is in no way presented as a sacrifice.

If you have followed my argument up to this point, you will already realize that from our particular perspective the sacrificial interpretation of the Passion must be criticized and exposed as a most enormous and paradoxical misunderstanding – and at the same time as something necessary – and as the most revealing indication of mankind’s radical incapacity to understand its own violence, even when that violence is conveyed in the most explicit fashion.

Of all the reappraisals we must make in the course of these interviews, none is more important. It is no mere consequence of the anthropological perspective we have adopted. Our perspective is rooted in the Gospels themselves, in their own subversion of sacrifice, which restores the original text, disengaging the hypothesis of the scapegoat and enabling it to be transmitted to the human sciences.

I am not speaking of my own personal experience here. I am referring to something very much larger, to the framework of all the intellectual experiences that we are capable of having. Thanks to the sacrificial reading it has been possible for what we call Christendom to exist for fifteen or twenty centuries; that is to say, a culture has existed that is based, like all cultures (at least up to a certain point) on the mythological forms engendered by the founding mechanism.

Paradoxically, in the sacrificial reading the Christian text that explicitly reveals the founding mechanism to reestablish cultural forms which remain sacrificial and to engender a society that, by virtue of this misunderstanding, takes its place in the sequence of all other cultures, still clinging to the sacrificial vision that the Gospels reject.


Once again, we must judge the interpretation that is being developed by the results it will offer. By rejecting the sacrificial definition of the Passion, we arrive at a simpler, more direct, and more coherent reading, enabling us to integrate all the Gospel themes into a seamless totality…

If we can rid ourselves of the vestiges of the sacrificial mentality that soil and darken the recesses of our minds, we shall see that we now have all the elements [at] hand for understanding that the death of Jesus takes place for reasons that have nothing to do with sacrifice.


Men killed Jesus because they were not capable of becoming reconciled without killing. But by this stage, even the death of the just no longer had the power to reconcile them. Hence they are exposed to a limitless violence that they themselves have brought about and that has nothing to do with the anger or vengeance of any god.

When Jesus says: “Your will be done and not mind,” it is really a question of dying. But it is not a question of showing obedience to an incomprehensible demand for sacrifice. Jesus has to die because continuing the live would mean a compromise with violence. I will be told that “it comes to the same thing.” But it does not at all come to the same thing. In the usual writings on the subject, the death of Jesus derives, in the final analysis, from God and not from men – which is why the enemies of Christianity can use the argument that it belongs within the same schema as all the other primitive religions.

Rene Girard in The Rene Girard Reader (ed. James G. Williams, 1996)

Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Pre-review


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!

I, not I, but Christ


“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.”
(Galatians 2.20)

There’s a difference between seeing the Cross from where you are and seeing where you are from the Cross.

What would you say the difference is? What’s the difference amount to? What difference does it make?

Getting out of yourself


I finally got around to reading Adrienne von Speyr, a promise I made to myself a few years ago. I’m so thankful I did. Von Speyr was a Swiss medical doctor, Christian mystic, author of several dozen works, and a well-known support to and confidant of Hans Urs Von Balthassar. She shares such wonderful and convicting insights that connect to where I am in my own faith journey. I’ll be sharing some of them from time to time. To being, here is a portion from Man Before God.

…[M]an’s nothingness represents a state of deficiency. Man lacks something. His sin has moved him away from the place where he should and could stand. He can, of course, fool himself into thinking that through sin he merely has strayed onto a bypath from which he still sees the right way. But deep down he knows better. He no longer sees the right way. He has become entangled in a thicket that his eye can no longer pierce in any way. Reflection alone cannot help him find the way out. He does not know how best to use his remaining strength. He needs grace for this, and therefore he must first of all submit. He must make himself so light that grace outweighs everything else in him. He must forget himself—this is the only true conclusion that follows from the recognition of his nothingness—in order to allow grace to stream into the empty space that he is.

As far as he is concerned, then, he is incapable of imitating the Christian hero. He cannot set off on his own to follow him. And nevertheless the image remains, the example with its radiant, inviting appeal. On the one side, he stands with his failure, his doubts, and with the need to make plans for his life that he knows he cannot sustain. On the other side stands the round deed of the apostolic man that shines upon him, challenges him, and fascinates him. Yet he realizes that he cannot leap over the intervening gulf by imitating from this side the deeds of a person who is on the other side. Rather he must get out of himself. The first comprehensive deed concerns the “I” itself. He must go out of himself; he must step outside of his own self. And this is a sort of annihilation, a forgetting and losing of himself, and a call for a new solitude. It is a bursting of his own center in order to free up space for God, who enters into this center and from there makes something new out of him. Who above all takes him into his service. This possession must become the unifying point in him, but he will not be able to occupy, fix, or experience this point himself. He is catapulted out of the limits of this nothingness, but he cannot trace this described trajectory, because he has surrendered and lost himself.


In similar fashion, the one who prays can suddenly become uncertain before God, because finitude has been pulled away. But this is a healing uncertainty that brings knowledge. All that has contributed to his “I”—everything spatial, temporal, and psychological—has vanished and will not have any replacement. No other obstacles, no other spaces or times or character traits are put in its place. A genuine void has to be formed so that God’s fullness can pour into it. And yet this fullness is totally other than the void; it is not the counterpart of the contrary of the void, since God is not the contrary of the world, nor is fulfillment the contrary of the expectation. It is something “other”; it is the otherness of God, that overwhelming reality beyond all the creature hopes for and has the power to conceive. It is that absolutely unmistakable quality that upon arriving does not first have to prove that it is divine. This is the first characteristic of the divine life. When the Son of God becomes man, this is not a No coming out of a Yes, nor is No said to God so that Yes can be said to man. The Son does not disavow his divine nature by taking on his human nature. It is impossible to place either a plus or a minus sign before one or the other form of God—man, not-man. We can say only that in his humanity the fullness and his “otherness” become near and are revealed to believers. The Son is the Word of the Father and expresses this otherness of God in all that he is and does.

The wrong paradox


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 in 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 occasions 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, the 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 infinite 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.