It was in University, when I discovered I needed glasses. It was difficult to read the information on the projection screens in the classrooms. Reading would give me headaches and night driving even led to some near collisions. After a trip to the local optometrist I was fitted with my lenses and what a difference it made.
Blindness and sight are recurring themes in the New Testament where we read various accounts of Jesus restoring sight to those suffering from blindness (both physical and spiritual). My favourite of such narratives is the story in Mark 8:22-26 where, after encountering a blind man begging to be healed, Jesus obliges in a somewhat unorthodox way, by taking the blind man out of town and then proceeding to spit on his eyes, touching them and then asking the man if he saw anything. After declaring limited sight being restored, Jesus repeats the spit and shine process after which the man begins to see clearly.
What fascinates me about this story, beyond being a miraculous story of the restoration of sight, is that the healing of the blind man in stages parallels the disciples’ imperfect perception of Jesus’ kingdom and ongoing need to come to Jesus for renewed and improved vision. It is no coincidence that the next two stories that follow this two-staged healing of the blind man illustrate the disciples’ imperfect apprehension of who Jesus is and how his kingdom operates. After rightly identifying Jesus as the Christ (Mark 8:29) a few short verses later, Jesus rebukes Peter for his gross misunderstanding of Jesus’ mission. (Mark 8:33)
Greg Boyd is someone who understands and has lived the journey towards wholeness in Jesus. The Crucifixion of the Warrior God is the fruit of his decade long journey towards reconciling violence in Scripture with the non-violent self-giving love of Jesus. His journey toward this book is an important part of the final product. The Crucifixion of the Warrior God (COTWG), a mammoth two-volume 1400 page work which leaves no stone unturned as it takes on the unenviable task of interpreting the Old Testament’s violent portraits of God in light of the cross of Christ.
In this post, I will interact with Volume 1 of COTWG, in which Boyd lays out the problem, while presenting the evidence and building a case for a Cruciform Hermeneutic, a method of reading and interpreting all Scripture through the lens of Christ crucified.
Boyd lays out the problem by posing a series of pointed questions:
- How are we to reconcile the God revealed in Christ, who chose to die for his enemies rather than to crush them, with the many OT portraits of Yahweh violently smiting his enemies?
- How are we to reconcile the God revealed in Christ, who made swearing off violence a precondition for being considered a “child of your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:45), with the portraits of Yahweh commanding his followers to slaughter every man, woman, child, and animal in certain regions of Canaan (e.g., Deut 7:2, 20-16-20)?
It’s easy to see how attempting to answer these questions and more turned into a decade long process for Boyd, and yet he further ups the ante by attempting not only to reconcile the violent portraits of God in the Old Testament (OT) in light of the cross, but to understand how the ugly portraits of God listed above point to and bear witness to Christ crucified (as per John 5:39-47, Luke 24:25-32, 44-47).
Historically, this conundrum has led to two different solutions;
- the dismissal solution: reject the notion that the violent depictions of God are inspired
- synthesis solution: an attempted straightforward reading of both the violent portraits of God in the OT set alongside the revelations of God in the life and teachings of Jesus.
Boyd share the story of his journey, his initial goal in addressing this topic was to “put the best possible ‘spin’ on the OT’s violent portraits of God, demonstrating that God was justified in each instance in which he commanded and/or engaged in violence,” however fifty pages into the initial work he abandoned it after a growing sense of inadequacy of his initial arguments. Boyd had a growing commitment to present a solution to the problem of OT violence which is consistent with the witness that Jesus is not one revelation of God alongside others, but the full and definitive self-revelation of God which supersedes all previous revelations, and is the focal point of all previous revelations of God.
It was after abandoning his attempt at putting the best possible ‘spin’ on the OT’s violent portraits of God, after much pondering and prayer, that Boyd found his first glimmer of hope in the writings of the early church scholar and preacher Origen. Origen advised his disciples, when bumping up against portions of Scripture that seemed unworthy of God, to humbly hold such unresolved inconsistencies before God, “all the while remaining confident that all Scripture, including material that appears ‘unworthy of God,’ is divinely inspired. In time Origen taught, the Spirit will enable us to see beyond the surface appearance of things, where the conundrum resides, and find a resolution in a deeper, more profound, revelatory truth.”
His struggle for a solution to the problem which takes seriously both the inspiration of Scripture (unlike those in the dismissal camp) and the belief that all Scripture bears witness to Jesus who is the definitive portrait of God (unlike those in the synthesis camp), Boyd compares his experiences to gaining newfound sight to that of a person staring intently at a two-dimensional Magic Eye picture which can, if viewed properly, lead to a three-dimensional image seemingly rise out of the picture. Boyd describes his personal Magic Eye experience, “Prayerfully contemplating Scripture’s violent portraits of God with the conviction that they are divinely inspired and thus must somehow point to the self-sacrificial God revealed on Calvary, I suddenly began to catch glimpses of the crucified God in them.”
The result of further prayer and research led to COTWG, which truly is a gift to myself and many others who have continued to wrestle with OT portraits of God that are violent and frankly despicable. Personally, I applaud Boyd for his integrity in abandoning his first efforts at justifying the violent commands and alleged behaviours God, in favour of pursuing a solution which seeks to avoid painting a picture of God less beautiful than the God revealed in Christ crucified. While at the same time, holding to a high view of Scripture as being fully God breathed. I also appreciate Boyd wisely spending the ink in Volume 1 to construct for readers a fully formed way of interpreting Scripture which is committed to keeping Christ at the center. It may have been tempting for Boyd to jump quicker to his revelatory Cruciform Thesis (fleshed out in Volume 2 which I will engage in a future post), however he rightly spends the entire of Volume 1 developing and defending the proposed Cruciform Hermeneutic, which in Boyd’s words, “is a way of interpreting Scripture’s violent portraits of God that not only resolves the moral challenges they pose but that also discloses how these portraits bear witness to God’s non-violent, self-sacrificial, enemy-loving character that was definitively revealed on Calvary.”
Just as staring at a Magic Eye picture can be an exercise in discovering something hidden and beautiful, which can be missed at first glance, so too can the Cruciform Hermeneutic, when applied to the violent portions of Scripture lead to seeing something below the ugly surface which reveals the cruciform character of God. “The crucified Christ, in short, gives us the ‘Magic Eye’ to discern him in the depths of even the most horrifically violent portraits of God.”
The Hermeneutic develops
Volume 1 of COTWG is composed of three parts.
Part 1: Revelation of Christ Crucified
Boyd explores how biblical faith encourages honest questioning of the interpretations of Scripture which lead to attributing violence and darkness to God. And by extension have and continue to lead to the justification of violence in the name of God, using both New Testament passages and early Church Fathers. These chapters are followed by zooming in to the cross of Christ at both the supreme revelation of God and the thematic center of the Gospel.
Part 2: The Problem of Divine Violence in Scripture
It is rare to hear sermons preached on the Bible’s texts of terror, and yet the OT is littered with violence, much of which is seemingly commanded by or engaged in directly by Yahweh. Boyd does not shy away from wrestling with the dark side of the Bible, but recounts the most gut wrenchingly violent passages in Scripture. (eg: Deut 32:41-42, 1 Sam 15:1-3) Unlike the conservative evangelical tradition in which I was raised, Boyd makes no attempt to minimize, rationalize or justify the violence of the OT, but rather rightly presents the hideousness of these passages with no attempt to sanitize them.
Following this sobering look at these texts of terror, Boyd’s devotes two chapters to critiquing the two commonly held solutions to the problem of divine violence in the Old Testament — dismissal and synthesis. Each lead to either a lower view of Scripture than Jesus held to (dismissal) or a Janus-faced God that is less beautiful than God reveals in Christ crucified (synthesis).
Part 3: The Cruciform Hermeneutic
Using the cross as the thematic center of Scripture to illustrate how Scripture at large is God breathed, Boyd tactfully and persuasively fleshes out how the cross serves to reveal how God both takes the initiative to act towards people while revealing how God allows people to act upon him, thus conditioning the cross to simultaneously appear ugly on the surface and yet beautiful below the surface.
For Boyd, the key to properly understanding the violent depictions of God permeating the surface of texts of terror throughout Scripture is to acquire a Cross Vision, putting on the Cruciform lenses to see there is more than meets the eye at the cross, which on the surface appears horrific. So too, viewed through the lens of the cross, other texts which appear violently horrific on the surface, bear witness to the crucified Christ below the surface.
I found reading Volume 1 of COTWG, analogous to my life changing visit to the optometrist in University when I first discovered my need for new lenses. Just as the trip to the optometrist led to the acquisition of new lenses, which literally gave me a whole new outlook on life and adding clarity to my vision, so too has this important work given me fresh spiritual vision and insight into understanding the violent passages in Scripture when viewed through the lens of the cross.
If Volume 1 of COTWG is analogous to a trip to the optometrist for new lenses, then Volume 2 (The Cruciform Thesis) is akin to analyzing the details of the prescription for the lenses. In my third post, I will discuss Boyd’s Cruciform Thesis, offering what I believe to be both the strengths and shortcomings of his prescribed thesis for improving our Cross Vision.