Greg Boyd begins his magnum opus by explaining the conundrum of Old Testament violence that drove him to write it. ‘I am […] caught between the Scylla of Jesus’ affirmation of the OT as divinely inspired and the Charybdis of his nonviolent revelation of God’ (p.xxix). He is motivated by a sense that all the attempts that have been offered to account for the violence of the OT were unsatisfactory.

In response to this conundrum, then, he writes this book, consisting of 1445 closely-argued, and occasionally rather discursive pages. In it he offers a novel way of reading the Old Testament, which he calls the ‘Cruciform Hermeneutic’. He describes it in his introduction like this:

When we interpret these [violent] portraits of God with the resolved conviction that the true character of God is fully revealed in the crucified Christ, we are able to see beyond the surface appearance of these portraits (viz. beyond what mere exegesis can unveil) and discern the cruciform character of God in their “depth”… The driving conviction of the Cruciform Hermeneutic is that since Calvary gives us a perspective of God’s character that is superior to what people in the OT had, we can also enjoy a superior perspective of what was actually going on when OT authors depicted God engaging in and commanding violence (p.xxxiv).

Essentially the Cruciform Hermeneutic is defined by the choice to use the Cross as the supreme lens for examining the rest of scripture. So far, so uncontroversial. However, this decision, as Boyd develops it, has three distinct elements.

Elements of the cruciform hermeneutic

First, just as at the cross God is both acting and acted upon, so the way that God ‘breathed’ scripture should be regarded less as a unilateral act of inspiration, but as a dialectical activity (pp.480ff.); a position that would not surprise those who are familiar with his allegiance to Openness Theology.  This rather controversial-sounding suggestion is then boiled down to the rather more bland assertion that God does not over-ride the human authors but that their personhood remains intact in the ‘inspiring’ process. However, what this means, for Boyd, is that the revelation of God’s character in the Bible can be so ‘human’ as to be utterly false.

If God “breathed” his definitive self-revelation on the cross by stooping to take on an appearance that mirrored the sin of the world on the cross, we ought to expect, and even look for, God to “breathe” the written witness to this revelation by sometimes stooping to take on literary appearances that mirror the sin of his people at the time. (p.488)

The second element of the Cruciform Hermeneutic is that the nature of the revelation is not in the text itself, but in the condescension with which God permits himself, in the OT, to be represented in ways that are so very other than his own character. Just as Jesus was crucified as a despised criminal, as one sinner among many, so God is represented in the OT as violent and abusive, and it is a measure of his condescension that he permits this misrepresentation.

The third element of the Cruciform Hermeneutic is that scripture contains both direct and indirect revelations of God. Thus,

To the degree that any portrait of God reflects a character that is antithetical to the cruciform character of God revealed on the cross, I submit that we must consider it an indirect revelation that bears witness to God’s historic faithfulness in continually stooping to allow the fallen and culturally conditioned state of his people to act on him, as much as was necessary. And to this degree, the portrait can be understood as participating in the sin-bearing ugliness of the cross (p.502).

This then leads to the strikingly counter-intuitive assertion that,

The more a scriptural accommodation conceals  God’s true nature on its surface, the more profoundly it reveals  God’s true nature in its depths… we might say that the less a canonical portrait directly  reveals God’s true nature, the more it indirectly  reveals God’s true nature when interpreted with the depth perception of a cross-informed faith (p.651).

That is a brief summary of the first volume of Boyd’s work. In the second, he sets out in much more detail how this hermeneutic then plays out in practice. Even more briefly, these are: (1) Cruciform Accommodation: God assumes a ‘mask’ that takes the form of ‘a literary appearance that reflects the ugliness of his people’s sin and curse’ (p.634); (2) The Principle of Redemptive Withdrawal: divine judgment is simply a withdrawing of the protective presence of God, and a handing-over of people to the ‘boomerang’ effects of their own sin;  (3) The Principle of Cosmic Conflict: God permits licence to the cosmic forces of evil and chaos and thus ‘allow[s] one form of evil to punish another, always as a stepping-stone to the ultimate self-implosion of evil brought about by Christ’s crucifixion (p.1146); (4) The Principle of Semi-Autonomous Power: When God grants supernatural power to an individual they retain some control over how they administer it, and thus divine power can be harnessed to evil purposes.

Points of appreciation

I will begin my analysis by stating that I very largely share Boyd’s starting point. I also have surveyed the offered theodicies for the violent narratives of the conquest and found none of them wholly satisfactory. I also would affirm that our highest revelation of God’s character is found in Jesus Christ crucified. And I also read the texts of the conquest with the conviction that, if I could but see it, ‘something else is going on’ (p.631 and passim).

There are elements of this book which I think are extremely helpful. The idea of the ‘boomerang effect’ of sin, whereby the consequences are permitted to rebound onto the offender is quite useful. Boyd likens this to the martial art of Aikido, where the opponent’s aggressive energy is channelled back onto him. This is close to (but perhaps not identical with) the biblical law of talion (an eye for an eye) which underpins a great deal of the language of both Old and New Testaments. See for example, the Psalmist’s plea, ‘Repay them according to their deeds, and for their works of evil. Repay them for what their hands have done; bring back on them what they deserve’ (Ps 28:4); the appeal against Babylon in Revelation 18, ‘For her sins are piled up to heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities. Give back to her as she has done to others’. It is even to be found in the words of Jesus: ‘Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. (Luke 6:38) and ‘forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors’ (Matthew 6:11).

However, Boyd’s exploration of the removal of divine protection is not unproblematic. For example he uncritically assumes that the divine presence always brings blessing; however, in Exodus (for example) it is shown to be both utterly desirable and at the same time utterly terrifying. Nonetheless, the idea of the removal of divine protection is a helpful one which may help us to account for some of the puzzling episodes in biblical history.

A second element which I appreciated about the book was his clear and helpful summary of the theme of cosmic conflict which weaves its way through both Testaments. I agree with him that this is a very significant and often under-estimated theme that forms part of the worldview of the ancient writers and should shape our interpretation of these texts.

However, while there are elements of the book that I appreciate very much, I am unable to concur with the essential thesis of the Cruciform Hermeneutic for a number of reasons.

Five points of disagreement

First, I cannot find that Boyd ever defines ‘violence’, and this is hugely problematic. Depending on the idea of violence that one is working with, violence can embrace structural inequality, coercive action, and inaction which leads to harm. By several of these definitions even Boyd’s description of God might be said to be violent. And, indeed, do we really want a deity who is utterly meek? We certainly want parents who will stand up for us and defend us with words and—in an extreme situation—actions. We want parents who will thrust us violently out of danger. Flawed as these parallels are, I cannot find it in me to wish for a God who will never exercise power on my behalf.

For these reasons, Boyd’s repeated assertion that God is totally non-violent does not appear to me to be borne out by (even) the New Testament. There are many examples of Jesus speaking of judgment, and violent images of judgment in Revelation. I am not persuaded that these can all be attributed to the divine Aikido and the cosmic conflict. Further, it does not seem to me that the removal of protection, or the permitting of evil can really exonerate God (if exoneration is required) from the charge of coercion. I’m not even convinced that Openness Theology (to which I do not subscribe) can wholly remove the issue. If God is the master strategist, the chess Grand Master who uses his superior wisdom to out-smart us despite ourselves (see pp. 267 – 274), can this truly be described as a non-coercive act? Job certainly didn’t think so: ‘If I summoned him [to court] and he answered me, I do not believe that he would listen to my voice. For he crushes me with a tempest… If it is a contest of strength, he is the strong one!’ (Job 9:16-19).

Second, even if we were to concur that the ‘New Testament God’ is utterly non-violent, there is a huge difference between claiming that such a revelation needs to condition our reading of the Old Testament, and claiming that the New Testament utterly trumps the Old Testament revelation.  If we follow Boyd’s argument to its ultimate conclusion, we can trust nothing that the Old Testament says unless and until it is validated by the New Testament. In other words there is no authentic, reliable revelation of God prior to the coming of Jesus Christ. This seems to me to be immensely problematic. For one thing, it is very derogatory of Judaism, which I would wish to affirm as having an authentic, though incomplete, revelation of the true God. Boyd refers repeatedly to Jesus repudiating parts of the Old Testament, for example the law of talion (p.71). I think this is based on a failure to appreciate the development of morality which both talion and Jesus’ words represent. It is easy to look forward to the unattained concept of perfectly loving our enemy, and then look backwards at talion and so view it as a regressive move. In other words we see Jesus and talion pulling us in opposite directions. More appropriate, I think, is to view talion as a significant limitation to the custom of personal vengeance, and then see Jesus’ instructions to love our enemies as a further move in the same direction. (Boyd does address a version of this suggestion on p.71, but I do not find his objections convincing.)

Third, there is an important difference between saying that the revelation of God is incomplete in the Old Testament—as it surely is even in the New—and claiming that the more evil God appears to be in the OT, the more it is in fact testifying to his goodness. There is something so utterly perverse about this that it would surely amount to a lie on a cosmic scale. Of course Boyd gets around this by his use of Openness Theology: God cannot control (and therefore be held responsible for) what is written in scripture, or what is done in his name. He is not sovereign, just a much better chess player than we are. But in the case of the Old Testament, he appears to have lost rather badly.

Fourth, it seems to me that Boyd has made the problem bigger than he needs to, and this is a pity. It is always a danger that a scholar who has a good idea tries to apply it to everything, and I fear that this is a trap that Boyd has fallen into. Biblical violence is a very broad category, and the diverse texts of violence cannot all be addressed with the same tool. I argue in my own forthcoming book that if we consider them carefully, quite a large number of incidents can be fairly easily explained, and the ‘problem’ thus reduced to a core of hard texts. (For example, the description of violent action without divine endorsement should not be regarded as problematic in the same way that the divine command to violence is.) Boyd does not appear to appreciate this. So, for example, he lists four ‘violent’ actions of God from Hosea, Jeremiah, Leviticus and Deuteronomy (p.651), with no apparent appreciation that they do not constitute the same type of speech act and therefore might require different tools to address them. In a similar vein, he uncritically assumes that the technical word erem means ‘kill’. In actual fact the semantic field of this word is broad and complex. It is not helpful to collapse it down to its most problematic translational option. Indeed, at times, he seems perversely determined to think the worst of the difficult passages. For example he argues that in Numbers 25 the over-zealous Phinehas ran the couple through while they were in the act of pleading for mercy (p.311). They were in fact in the man’s tent and their bodies were adjoined! It seems much more likely that they were engaged in another, less contritional act!

Finally, I feel that one of Boyd’s core premises, that God is a sin-bearing God because Jesus was misrepresented on the Cross, is rather missing the point. Jesus certainly is represented as a sinner to the onlookers, but this is not the central feature of the sin-bearing at the Cross, at least in my own theological understanding. The point is not that Jesus takes on the appearance of sin, but that he bears the consequence for sin. I cannot see how this might translate back into a hermeneutic of cruciformity but to omit it surely suggests that the theory is not as watertight as it might be.

In conclusion

In summary, I am glad that I have read this book, though it represents a large investment of time. There is much that I appreciate about it, and I am always delighted to find a fellow-scholar who—like me—is committed to the goodness of God and the inspiration of Scripture, and who shares my determination not to let go of God or the text until we have wrested a blessing. May God continue to shed light upon his word for all who truly seek him there.

Helen Paynter
CSBV, 2019

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