My God, My God, how have we misinterpreted you?

Easter-message-picMy final thoughts on the so-called Cry of Dereliction, after which I promise to abandon this subject (pun intended). We should finally consider the relevant texts themselves. In CWG (pp 770-774) Greg expounds his understanding of Christ’s cry “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46 and Mk 15.34) as the “paradigmatic judgment of sin.” Greg takes the words of the Cry to be the “most profoundly revelatory” words found in Scripture, for here God “experiences his antithesis” by “becoming the sin of the world” (2Cor 5.21) as well as “our godforsaken curse” (Gal 3.13), though Greg does not consider this to be the Father acting violently toward Jesus.

Evaluating Greg’s objections to the Ps 22 connection
Greg notes the Cry has always troubled theologians who were “invested in preserving the classical understanding of God’s impassibility and immutability,” aspects of which (viz., actus purus or ‘pure act’) he summarizes and dismisses; “How could God the Son truly experience abandonment from the Father if the Trinity is ‘above’ suffering and ‘above’ experiencing any kind of change?”

I’m not sure how “troubled” by the Cry theologians are who seek to defend a classical understanding of God’s impassibility. Greg doesn’t give any examples. Given the classical view of transcendence, I suspect there’s far less likelihood the Cry would trouble a classical theist than a kenoticist – truth be told. However, I don’t mind agreeing with objections to aspects of classical theism (as I understand actus purus). We’ve made them repeatedly ourselves here. But Greg’s account makes it appear as though any rejection of actus purus classically understood is a default adoption of his understanding of the Cry as the Father’s abandonment of the Son. But it’s worth pointing out that one could agree with Greg on all his substantive objections to classical theism and yet reject Greg’s thesis of divine abandonment as equally objectionable as whatever aspects of classical theism one has a problem with. There’s no default win for Greg’s view of the Cry if classical theism is proved to be wrong. But I got the distinct feeling in CWG that Greg construes his view of the Cry as following logically from certain weaknesses of classical theism, which of course it doesn’t.

Classical theism aside, however, there are serious theological problems with divine abandonment on the Cross as Greg imagines it. I’ve rehearsed these already. Even a thorough-going kenoticist could have as great a problem with Greg’s thesis as she does with Chalcedon. But what about the exegetical particulars of the Cry itself? Let’s take a look at aspects of it that Greg brings up in CWG.

First, consider the Greek transliteration of Jesus’ Cry in both Mt and Mk:

Matthew 27:46: Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?
Mark 15:34: Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?

The transliterations in both Mt and Lk are followed by a similar “…that is to say, ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’”

Second, Greg offers two reasons for thinking Jesus is not alluding to Ps 22 but is in fact offering his own, original composition expressing his personal dereliction. First, he notes that if Jesus was alluding to Ps 22, he would surely have quoted it in Hebrew. But he speaks in Aramaic (which we have in the form of transliterated Greek). That Jesus speaks Aramaic suggests he does not have Ps 22 in mind. Secondly, Greg quotes R. T. France’s objection that “if we read into these words an exegesis of the whole psalm…we turn upside down the effect which Mark has created by this powerful and enigmatic cry of agony.”

Let’s look at this shall we?

(1) There’s no argument in France’s quote. Yes, if we take Jesus to be alluding to Ps 22 (“as an expression of confidence”), we understand Jesus’ pain as not indicative of a particular agony, namely, the agony of divine abandonment. But (a) this is the point of debate, so how is it an argument in favor of Greg’s view that if Jesus is alluding to Ps 22 his agony must be understood differently than Greg thinks? In addition, (b) no one who denies Jesus is abandoned by God thinks Jesus is not experiencing the agony of being crucified and left to die.

(2) More significant is the apparent fact that Jesus cries out in Aramaic. Jesus is a Jew whose Scriptures are written in Hebrew. It seems strange that in his dying moment Jesus should quote his Scriptures not in their original Hebrew but in his mother tongue, Aramaic. Greg reasons that this must mean Jesus is not alluding to the Hebrew Psalm 22 but authoring his own personal cry of abandonment.

It’s completely understandable that a dying person should cry out to God in his heart-language, which was Aramaic for Jesus, in spite of the fact that the text he alludes to is a Hebrew text. I don’t find this especially odd at all. There were Aramaic targums of Ps 22 that were popular in Jesus’ day, and he would not have been ignorant of these. Nor would it be at all strange for him to quote the Aramaic form rather than the Hebrew.

christ-on-the-mount-of-olives-1819But there are few other interesting facts about the Greek transliterations of the Cry found in Mt and Mk which Greg doesn’t discuss which I’d like to consider.

(a) Ancient Hebrew and Aramaic were different but very closely related languages. For example, lama (some MSS have limi, “to what” or “for what”) is both Hebrew and Aramaic for “why.” There’s no deciding what language Jesus cried in based on this word. And both Hebrew and Aramaic indicate the perfect tense of the 2nd person singular with the attached pronoun “me” (as in “You ______ ed me” ) by suffixing the verb root with “—ani.” The verb conjugations are identical in Hebrew and Aramaic.

(b) “My God” doesn’t settle the matter either, since it is transliterated differently in Matthew and Mark. Most ancient Greek MSS traditions try to normalize these differences between the two. Only the Byzantine text consistently preserves the distinction. (Of course the Nestle-Aland preserved the differences as well.) What differences? Well, Matthew transliterates Jesus’ Cry with Eli (Ἠλί) for “My God” which, interestingly, mirrors the Hebrew of Ps 22. Mark has Eloi (Ἐλωΐ) which is Aramaic and not biblical Hebrew.

(c) Though there is some question over its precise origination and meaning, the verb shabaq is not biblical Hebrew but originally Aramaic. Were Jesus quoting the Hebrew text, he would have used azavthani (“forsaken” or “abandon”) which we find in the Hebrew of Ps 22.

(d) The verb shabaq, however, is not only Aramaic, it’s also Mishnaic Hebrew (a descendant of biblical Hebrew that developed under the influence of Aramaic following the Babylonian captivity). It’s entirely possible that Jesus is citing Ps 22 in Mishnaic Hebrew. And there are those who argued that presenting a biblical text in Mishnaic Hebrew was a well-known Rabbinic technique introducing a midrash (interpretation or teaching) on the text in question.

(e) What does seem unlikely is that Matthew would have changed the Aramaic Eloi to the Hebrew Eli and not change sabachthani to azavthani if he was interested in making the quote conform to the Hebrew text. But if Mishnaic Hebrew is in view, then things fit. In addition, there is the question of Aramaic targums that do use shabaq in their translations of Ps 22.

What’s the point of all this?
The linguistic data isn’t easy to assemble into a coherent picture. But it’s not altogether certain that Jesus was speaking Aramaic on the Cross. My point is that if he was, there is nothing about this that would suggest he was not alluding to Ps 22. Matthew’s account makes the Mishnaic Hebrew connection stronger because Eli is clearly Hebrew, and Mark’s passion narrative (cf. Rikk Watts on Mark’s use of Ps 22) has obvious allusions to Ps 22 besides the Cry. I take it to be virtually certain that Jesus is alluding to Ps 22.

However, Greg offers yet a further reflection. Let us assume, he suggests, that Jesus is alluding to Ps 22. This would not, he contends, “undermine the genuineness of Jesus’ experience of abandonment on the cross,” for it was only “after the psalmist had expressed his authentic sense of abandonment that he regained his composure, as it were, and expressed confidence that God would eventually rescue him.” So even if one understands Jesus as referencing Ps 22, it needn’t lead us to deny that Jesus “was genuinely experiencing godforsakeness” and “was even experiencing confusion as to why it was happening.”

But this seems confused. Does Greg want a genuine abandonment of the Son by the Father, a true withdrawal of the Father that occasions a genuine experience of godforsakeness, or not? It seems his cruciform thesis itself requires that Jesus’ feel this particular agony and that it not be the result of misperceiving. But Greg’s proposed reading of the Ps 22 (on the assumption that Jesus is alluding to it) concedes that God in fact never abandoned its author. The author only temporarily loses his composure and misinterprets his suffering; but this undermines Greg’s case for more than an apparent abandonment. So I don’t see how Greg can concede that Jesus has Ps 22 in mind and still secure the particular view of divine abandonment that defines his view of the Cross.

What in Jesus’ experience parallels Ps 22?
What about those who argue Jesus is alluding to Ps 22 in its entirety but who also argue Jesus never despairs of the Father’s love, presence, and filial affection? Surely there must be something in Jesus’ experience that parallels or fulfills the psalmist’s cry which, admittedly, seems to reflect some doubt or lapse in his belief or confidence in God’s faithfulness.

This is an excellent question. My own sense is that there is nothing in Jesus’ experience that parallels any suspicions the psalmist might have in God’s faithfulness, nor must we suppose there to be in order to make sense of Jesus alluding to the psalm. To begin with, assuming the psalmist genuinely interprets his suffering as God’s having abandoned him, it does seem strange that he would go to this same God in prayer. Biblical prayer presupposes at least some confidence in the faithfulness of God, some belief that God hears one’s prayer and is open to responding. Is his opening cry a poetic-rhetorical device to heighten suspense and drama? When we cry “God where are you?” does it follow that we’ve concluded God has forsaken or abandoned us? If so, why are we addressing our prayers to him at all? No prayer to God can be motivated by a belief that God has absolutely forsaken and abandoned us.

7511534I don’t want to belabor the point. I’ve already drawn out this series on divine abandonment too long. My point here is that whatever the precise belief of the psalmist may have been, there is no one-for-one parallel between every belief and attitude held by the psalmist from the beginning of his experience to his vindication, on the one hand, and existential carbon copies of each of those beliefs and attitudes that must obtain in Jesus. There’s no warrant for insisting on this kind of ‘fulfillment’ simply because Jesus alludes to Ps 22. It’s enough that Jesus responds to the taunting crowds who provoke him with their “Where’s God now?” and “Come on down if God’s on your side!” by offering them a well-known account of an innocent, scapegoated victim who was not in fact abandoned by God but who was vindicated: “You think God has abandoned me here? You think I’m cursed by God as I hang here on this tree? Go read Ps 22 and think again.”

What about the Garden?
It occurred to me that Jesus’ sufferings en route to the Cross have an important role to play in deciding what Jesus took to be the meaning of his pain and suffering, and the intensity of his suffering in the Garden (Mk 14:32-34; Mt 26.36-46; Lk 22.43-44) came to mind. How are we to understand this suffering relative to claims that it is divine abandonment experienced as godforsakeness which gives Jesus’ suffering its redemptive value? In the Garden Jesus suffers beyond description, sweating blood. He confesses that he is at the point of death. He offers his humanity in all its finitude and natural weakness to God, truly wishing for there to be another way.

There is, however, no divine abandonment here. In fact, Jesus converses with his Father and is comforted by angels. At the center of his storm of pain there is the eye of the Father’s filial affection mediated to him by the Spirit. He is not alone (as he had made clear to his disciples – Jn 16.31-33). He knows the Father’s love and presence and still he sweats blood and feels like dying. So it doesn’t seem that divine abandonment either constitutes Jesus’ understanding of his own suffering or that it is necessary to give his suffering their unique healing, redemptive value – unless we wish to argue that Jesus’ suffering in the Garden, his flogging, or the pain he bears en route to Golgatha all have no healing, transformative value in our lives simply because they were accompanied by his belief that the Father was personally and affectionately with him through it all.

My fundamental point is that this suffering is healing and transformative in our lives precisely because the Father’s personal presence and affection are present, defining Jesus’ own self-perception and understanding of his pain at a level nothing could deconstruct or wrest from his heart. There, friends, is our saving act. The reason nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ (Rom 8) is because nothing can separate God from himself in Christ.

Happy contemplating!

Texts in travail: reviewing Crucifixion of the Warrior God—Part 4

c4ad7e508ccb60f8b33c65e87387262d-w600In this fourth and final of our review series I outline my response to vol. 2 of CWG. First some Pro’s.

PRAISE AND POINTS OF AGREEMENT
● Asks the right question
There are several things to admire in vol. 2. The first I’d point out is the refrain that forms Greg’s basic line of approach: “What’s going on behind the scenes?” This highlights the hermeneutical process well, and it gets at the struggle people have reading the violent portrayals of God in the Bible. And of course, for Greg it also is the key question to ask of the Cross itself. What really is going on here? If Christ (whether broadly understood as incarnation, life, death and resurrection or exclusively as merely that moment of Christ’s cry of dereliction) is the centered from which we are to read the Bible, then something like the cruciform thesis is needed to express the fundamental/quintessential narrative within which one is to read the Bible. And this is what vol. 2 sets out to do – bring a cruciform hermeneutic to bear upon specific texts through asking “What’s going on behind the scenes?” I generally admire the clarity that Greg is able to bring to complex issues, and this line of approach is a case in point.

● Driven by pastoral concern
A second point I admire (true of the entire work, not just vol. 2) is the pastoral heart that drives this work. I’ve brought troubled individuals of my own acquaintance to Greg for coffee and meals and he’s always found time to help people process the intellectual side of their faith struggles. Greg has a huge heart for hurting, struggling people and it shapes CWG from start to finish. If I didn’t think this was true of Greg, and if I didn’t believe the existential despair and struggles that people face could be better addressed through a more Orthodox Christology, I wouldn’t bother reviewing this work at all.

● Not afraid to dive in
A third thing I admire about vol. 2 is Greg’s willingness to dive into the deep end of the pool. As relentless as he was in vol. 1 to catalogue divine violence through the Bible, he’s as thorough in bringing those same passages under the review of his cruciform hermeneutic. He wants to demonstrate that this hermeneutic can do the heavy lifting he claims it can do. So he’s not afraid to roll up his sleeves and dive into the mess. This gives Greg’s work a fresh, honest appeal that people like. You can study gardening in a book sitting in your living room, or you can ‘do’ it by actually doing the work of gardening – digging and planting. To his credit, Greg doesn’t shy away from the latter.

CRITICISM AND POINTS OF DISAGREEMENT
● Shelley’s opening analogy
Greg opens vol. 2 with an imaginary story about seeing his wife Shelley on the opposite side of a street launching into a panhandler. She screams at the panhandler, slaps him around, kicks his wheelchair over and storms off with something of the panhandler’s. Greg observes her behavior and, knowing what a loving, non-violent individual Shelley is, reasons that there must be something else going on here that he doesn’t perceive, something that explains how her behavior is in fact loving and non-violent. But if you recall, this perfectly illustrates the truth of the Synthesis Solution which Greg rejects in vol. 1. In Greg’s view, God only appears to do violence. But Shelley isn’t appearing to slap the panhandler. She’s actually slapping him, kicking him over, etc. That this would be viewed as something other than loving and good for her to do is due to our limited perspective. But this is the Synthesis Solution straight up. So the analogy Greg opens vol. 2 with undermines everything.

● Misses Rene Girard
A good deal of online interaction (blogs and online forums) has chided Greg for adopting a non-Girardian, penal-substitionary model of the Cross/atonement (PSA). Greg found his way into these conversations and was, as he describes it, dumbfounded at how so many could read him as promoting PSA. He went on to clarify his position in a recent ReKnew post. You’ll have to read him and judge for yourself. I think the deeper issues remain unaddressed, and the persistent absence of any attempt to define what he believes constitutes ‘violence’ in the first place makes reviewing this work a stab in the dark.

● The Father abandons the Son
Much of our objections to Greg’s view of abandonment is based on the reigning evangelical Kenoticism, true. The idea that the triune experience that defines the divine relations in their full actuality can be severed such that Father, Son and Spirit all become estranged from one another (ad intra) is not historical, orthodox Christianity by any stretch of the imagination. But I don’t have to argue on Chalcedonian grounds that it’s impossible. Assuming Kenoticism were true, one still has solid theological, exegetical/biblical grounds for rejecting the notion that the Father abandoned Christ in the sense Greg argues our salvation requires. Thus – it really is a question about which Cross is at the center, defining a cruciform thesis.

To simplify – Greg distinguishes between God’s triune “existence” (Greg’s choice of word, by which he means, I think, God’s unchanging, necessary “essence”) and God’s triune “experience” (the content of God’s lived, experienced actuality). God’s “existence” is just his essential, immutable, triune relations – the unbreakable (ontological) unity of the Father, Son and Spirit. The most important thing about this essential, unbreakable unity? It grounds the unchanging nature of God’s character as love. When St. John says, “God is love,” this is the ultimate divine reality behind that. But – and this is key to Greg – the triune persons do not have an equally unchanging “experience” of this essential oneness. So though the three are (ontologically) united as one, their experience of their own oneness (that is, God’s experience of himself as triune), a oneness that constitutes God’s nature as love, is subject to cessation and diminishment.

How so cessation? For example, when the Incarnate Son is gestating in Mary’s womb. What of the triune “experience” constitutive of God? Well, the Son is offline, so to speak. In Greg’s words, he’s taking a nap. Greg’s example: He still loves his wife Shelley when he’s sleeping. So – by parity of reasoning – Father, Son and Spirit can also be the one triune God whether or not they are awake to each other. There is a cessation, a hiatus, of the lived-experienced reality of triune existence.

How so diminishment? As well, for example, when Christ cries “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” For Greg this moment represents God “becoming his antithesis,” the mutual “estrangement” that pervades and envelops God’s “experience” of himself utterly and completely. Underneath (so to speak) this estrangement that defines God’s triune “experience” of himself, there lies the immutable divine essence which is God as love.

It does give one a headache – essence, existence, experience, actuality, existential fullness, dispositions, and so forth.

One desperate problem with this – as Greg himself reviewed against Hartshorne and Whitehead – is that the loving “character” of God is itself not identified with any experience God has of himself. God’s character – which Greg argued (long ago) prescribes the consistently loving nature of God’s actions – is itself the character of God’s triune experience. Greg argued at length against Hartshorne and Whitehead on this very point, insisting that the predictably loving nature of God’s character had to be understood as grounded in the lived, relational fullness of God’s triune “experience” (as mutual knowing and loving). Greg’s present idea that God’s nature as “love” is not itself convertible with the nature of God’s triune “experience” of himself is another departure of his earlier (well-argued) work for which he offers no line of reasoning. Nothing about God’s experience of himself as essentially triune constitutes the loving character of God’s actions. Everybody seems cool with this. Nobody (sauf moi et quelques fidèles) is crying BS on this.

joysetbeforeFinally, as Greg has recently made clear, this mutual estrangement of the three divine persons, this “becoming sin,” this “stooping to become God’s antithesis,” is what does the work of salvation. To be sure – Greg makes it clear this is no penal-substituionary divine rage needing its pound of flesh so that it can forgive. Nor is there in fact anything in God that requires God inflict upon himself his own triune estrangement. The necessity of it proceeds, argues Greg, entirely from “the nature of our bondage” and not anything in God. It is we (viz., the peculiar requirements of our bondage to sin) who require that the “death consequences of our sin” which are “intrinsic” to our own choices have to be suffered by God as his own internal estrangement from himself.

It all falls apart in the end. If the consequences of godforsakeneness (estrangement from God) are intrinsic to our sinful choices, then by definition they aren’t something that can be borne by another. They’re intrinsic to our choices. And in point of fact, we do experience the consequences of our choices. Our lives are without peace, without the transforming enjoyment of the knowledge of God’s love, without the joy that embracing his forgiveness brings, etc. – the absence of all these are the natural consequences of our falleness, and so long as we persist outside the truth of them we suffer the consequences. God doesn’t bear them. We already are bearing them.

Nor is it at all clear how God’s triune experience being reduced to the estrangement that is the consequence of our sin actually does the work of saving us from that estrangement. Greg doesn’t explain. What happens objectively when God’s experience of himself is reduced to our despair and estrangement? Is something paid for? Is there a transfer? An imputation? If the necessity for God’s triune self-estrangement derives from the nature of our bondage to sin and not from anything about God, then we should expect some explanation of how that estrangement grounds our release from sin and freedom to grow in love.

Consider too – Greg admits God’s actually forgiving us precedes the work of atonement. God doesn’t need to suffer to forgive. That’s good news. Divine self-estrangement isn’t about forgiveness. So why should the estrangement from God that I suffer because of my sin, which is already forgiven by God, have to estrange God from himself to make my acceptance of that forgiveness possible? Greg doesn’t say. But as it forms the core truth of God’s cruciformity, I expected some explanation.

Greg, some time ago here:

“If the Trinity experienced no disturbance whatsoever when Jesus cried out ‘My God, My God’, — if they just went on in the unbroken bliss of their moment-by-moment experienced unity — then pray tell: a) what did the Trinity sacrifice in saving us — for it looks like it costs them nothing? and b) how was Jesus’ cry of abandonment not a charade?”

But if God forgives without sacrificing – which Greg has already granted – what’s the point? What kind of knotty, confused metaphysics supposes that God can forgive us without sacrificing his own internal triune happiness, but cannot be present in our lives in transforming ways without having our sin wrest his happiness and beatitude from his heart and reduce him to our despair and godforsakeness? I think of Jesus walking on the waters of the Galilee as an analogy. If Jesus walks to a sinking Peter on the surface of the waters that are drowning Peter but not threatening Jesus, is Peter supposed to feel it’s all a charade? Jesus isn’t sacrificing anything to save Peter. Is Peter supposed to complain that Jesus is ‘up there’ while he’s ‘down here’? Is Peter’s rescue not loving or objective?

The cry of abandonment as a declaration per Psalm 22 that Christ is not abandoned by God as the taunting theologians cried, is only a charade to somebody who needs God to be reduced to his own suffering before he’ll let himself rest in the forgiveness that’s his. It reduces to pagan scapegoating whether it’s framed in terms of suffering the consequences of our sin or in Moltmannian terms of solidarity with our godforsakeness.

I think I’ll wind down here. I had responses in hand to Greg’s particular view of Satan’s relationship to the material order (his principle of cosmic warfare) and some thoughts on his principal of semi-autonomous power (i.e., that Peter murdered Ananias and Sapphira through his violent abuse of God-given spiritual gifts), both of which are problematic. But – I’m personally spent on these issues. I hope readers will understand.

Exposing the problems inherent in supposing God can fail to experience himself in terms of mutually reciprocal knowing and loving has been a recurrent passion of ours here. But for those who can’t do faith standing in front of a Cross that does not shatter God’s experience of himself and reduce him to their despair and estrangement, God bless you. I can’t see it as anything but pagan mythology. Greg’s not a Cross I can stand in front of and see salvation in. But the feeling is probably mutual. I can only stand in front of a Cross in which death and violence are from beginning to end shattered by the infinite joy and delight of God’s triune life.

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. The 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 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!

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!