Listen to this story:
The post 9/11 environment, in which terrorists are seen as having acted on a religious understanding, has created a platform where articulate voices have coalesced into a “New Atheism.” This group critiques all religion, particularly Christianity, and especially Christianity’s reliance on the Bible. Sam Harris, one of the “Four Horsemen of New Atheism,” offers this perspective:
“We read the Golden Rule and judge it to be a brilliant distillation of many of our ethical impulses. And then we come across another of God’s teachings on morality: if a man discovers on his wedding night that his bride is not a virgin, he must stone her to death on her father’s doorstep (Deuteronomy 22:13-21).”
Mark Twain, 150 years ago, offered a commonsensical observation about the troubling passages in the Bible: “It ain't the parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”
What is to be done with certain parts of the Bible?
As a pastor and theologian, Greg Boyd meets this moment in history with a project to create continuity between the descriptions of God in the Old and New Testaments, acknowledging that numerous examples of God-endorsed violence in the Old Testament are barriers to reaching a growing number of people. Boyd took ten years to write the two-volume treatise, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross, that describes his proposition of a cruciform hermeneutic (viewing all scripture through the lens of the agape love shown at the cross) as the optimal way to interpret difficult passages in the Bible and forge a more unified view about the character of God. Boyd sees this project as having particular relevance now when believers are weaponizing sacred texts in dramatic ways to justify violence. Some use the Quran to rationalize violence (radical Islam). Some use the Bible to excuse violence (Nazis, abortion bombing, lynching).
Central to Boyd’s quest to know God’s character is the conviction that something else must be happening to explain how a God of love does what is described in some scriptural passages. How does one deal with 1 Samuel 15 or Joshua 8 or the last part of the book of Judges? These are passages in which God urges the Hebrew people to engage in destruction and purging, and adds specific instruction to save the virgins or destroy the children. Boyd describes the logic he used in developing a cruciform hermeneutic:
The famous American philosopher Charles Pierce referred to the type of reasoning I would be forced to engage in as “abductive logic.” In contrast to deductive logic, which moves from assumed premises to necessary conclusions, as well as to inductive logic, which draws generalized probable conclusions from specific observations, abductive logic postulates a hypothetical scenario that, if true, would render otherwise puzzling data intelligible (631).
As an example of this logic, Boyd invites the reader into a thought experiment considering a hypothetical incident of how Boyd might respond if he were to see a snapshot of his wife behaving in an uncharacteristic way with a stranger. Boyd says he would be willing to consider a variety of rationales to explain his wife’s behavior. Since he knows his wife, he would search for a reason that made sense in light of what he knew about her character. In like fashion, if Jesus clearly reveals God, then Boyd postulates that it would be wise to consider a variety of possible explanations to explain what is happening in the Old Testament portraits of God that are incongruent with God as revealed in Jesus Christ. He labels the violent actions of God in the Old Testament as cruciform accommodations. Boyd believes that a believer must first understand the nature of the Son of God before she can understand the nature of God. Thus, Boyd advocates viewing scripture through the lens of the life of Jesus.
Having written numerous essays and books easily understood by lay readers, Boyd undertakes something different with his task in Crucifixion of the Warrior God. Six hundred twenty eight pages in length, the first volume describes Boyd’s synthesis with the subtitle, “The Cruciform Hermeneutic.” The second volume uses 800 pages to expand the application of the hermeneutic under the subtitle of “The Cruciform Thesis.” For those preferring an abbreviated approach, Boyd has also published a shorter, less comprehensive book entitled Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence with 280 pages.
The two-volume Crucifixion of the Warrior God is divided into six major parts:
1) The Centrality of the Crucified Christ
2) The Problem of Divine Violence
3) The Cruciform Hermeneutic
4) The Principle of Cruciform Accommodation
5) The Principle of Redemptive Withdrawal
6) The Principle of Cosmic Conflict
Also featured, are appendices to discuss such issues as “hardening people’s hearts” and “Jesus and violence” and “the escalation of violence in the promised land” and more.
Building on the idea that the cross has beautiful and ugly aspects while revealing God, Boyd extends the notion to propose the idea that a God-breathed scripture also has two sides, since it is a treasure in earthen vessels. Scripture reveals God’s love while simultaneously showing, what can be construed as, an ugly portrait of God. Just as God was willing to stoop to humanity and “be sin,” He also was willing to put truth in words that are suboptimal and likely to be misconstrued, because that is the way of earthly life—things do not always clearly appear and the truth can seem murky depending on the viewing angle.
One example to advance this idea comes from 1 Chronicles 10, a segment that describes King Saul’s death. First, the passage states Saul took his own life, but a few verses later the passage concludes with the assertion that God slew Saul. Which one is the most accurate description of what happened? Boyd demonstrates that a cruciform hermeneutic allows the reader to make sense of this (and other difficult passages). He proposes that rather than validating what some see as a two-faced (Janus-faced) deity, the different accounts of God in both testaments show how different cultures perceived Him. Old Testament scripture shows God’s interaction with the fallen, ancient Near East culture. Boyd reports that in the ancient era the way to worship a god was to ascribe violence to that god. In that culture, no one would have actually been an eyewitness to a god performing violence, but the way to worship those gods was to recount, triumphantly, every act as evidence of the gods’ power and violence. Thus, Boyd argues that the violent depictions of God in Old Testament scripture are examples of stooping to meet the culture, though it makes God look bad in 21st century culture.
Boyd adopts the premise that Jesus clearly demonstrated his superior authority over the Old Testament with numerous teachings and explanations (John 8:28, John 12:49-50, Matthew 5:33-36, Luke 8:43). Citing contemporary theologians, such as Walter Brueggeman, Jurgen Moltmann, and N.T. Wright, who use a hermeneutic that pushes against the firmly entrenched Augustinian approach of a God of power and retributive justice, Boyd continues the trajectory.
Boyd builds on the Anabaptist hermeneutic that sees a grand sweep of scripture that culminates with Jesus as the direct revelation of God who inaugurates a sort of upside down kingdom that subverts worldly hierarchy.
Boyd’s work supports the idea that God’s wrath means that God will let sin take its course and does not involve an administration of violence as punishment. Using an understanding of Revelation in great alignment with Sigve Tonstad, Boyd applies Tonstad’s premise that assumes God has a non-coercive character, and this assumption is key for a hermeneutic to help interpret all of scripture.
As a student of A. Graham Maxwell, I see Boyd’s work as buttressing many of Maxwell’s assumptions. Whereas Maxwell paired study of original biblical languages with a generous peppering of Ellen White’s writings, Boyd comes to similar conclusions based on, what seems to me, to be an intellectually rigorous deep plunge into the biblical text and a broad consideration of numerous theologians. In my study to understand Greg Boyd’s latest book(s), I found this podcast useful in which Boyd is in conversation with Paul Copan, author of Is God a Moral Monster?
Boyd and Copan are two contemporary scholars trying to make sense of the difficult passages of the Old Testament with regards to the nature of God. Copan, like Maxwell, sees God’s urging Hebrew people to destroy their enemies as a rare act in an extraordinary circumstance. Maxwell called these passages examples of God’s “emergency measures.” However, Boyd uses a hermeneutic that seems to say something else was happening here. These are not portraits of God using uncharacteristic violence, but are recorded in “earthen vessel” type framework of the ancient culture. This may troublesome, but I like it.
Many are satisfied to refuse to grapple with God’s involvement in Old Testament atrocities saying such things are a mystery of God and, as such, beyond the grasp of humanity. I disagree. As an advocate for peace and a student of human nature, I see how easy it is for a person to be duped to participate in violence for a so called “good cause.” A person trusts that she perceives the reality of a certain situation and is able to discern who is right and who is wrong, but, later, when one sees a broader perspective, one realizes the earlier error. If one believes that in the direst of times, God changes His stance to participate in violence, then there is space for one, at the direst of times, to do the same. This is a vital point. I cannot hide behind God killing people as an excuse for me to take up emergency measures against my enemies.
Since this is a difficult topic and worth the time, I prefer Boyd’s two-volume set, Crucifixion of the Warrior God. I savor the footnotes that, in my view, show Boyd to be well read and willing to consider many contemporary and ancient voices that have tried to make sense of the entirety of scripture.
Particularly since Boyd esteems Sigve Tonstad’s work, I believe Boyd’s cruciform hermeneutic deserves consideration by people in the Seventh-day Adventist denomination. In the copious footnotes of Boyd’s two-volume set, one will see the names of other Seventh-day Adventist scholars and teachers as well.
All believers and seekers would benefit from some engagement with Boyd’s work on the issue of how to interpret biblical passages that describe God’s violence. I suspect that some will find that Boyd’s hermeneutic is too flexible, but in my view, frequently such critics are unwilling to recognize their own implicit subjectivity in deciding which verse in the Bible is the one that trumps the others.
Carmen Lau is a board member of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum. She lives and writes in Birmingham, Alabama.
Image courtesy of Fortress Press.
We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.