Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Disarming the warrior-God

In vol. 1, chap. 7 of Greg Boyd's The Crucifixion of the Warrior God, the author catalogues what he takes to be biblical representations of divine violence. That's foundational to his thesis. 

1. In his reading of the OT, he explicitly takes the side of militant atheists and outspoken enemies of the faith like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris. He cites them in a footnote, in positive agreement. Boyd is a fifth column within Christianity. An ally with those who seek to destroy biblical theism.  

2. His examples aren't all of a piece. On the one hand, I agree with him that some of his examples depict divine violence: holy war commands, the Flood, Sodom & Gomorrah, plague of the firstborn, David's census, God sending "evil/lying spirits". I agree with him on what those passages represent.

3. That said, the specific problem is generated by Boyd's idiosyncratic, "cruciform" pacifism. Divine violence is a problem for his theology. It runs counter to his theological paradigm. He devotes 1500 pages to solving an artificial problem that he created. 

If you don't think retributive justice is wrong, then these passages aren't at odds with divine benevolence. A good God is a just God. A just God is a punitive God. 

I'm not saying that observation dissolves all the difficulties. But Boyd's objection to the OT (and parts of the NT) is predicated on his preconceived notion that God must be nonviolent. At that level, the contradiction is not internal to Scripture, but superimposed by his eccentric theology. He filters Scripture through his "cruciform" prism. In that respect, the problem isn't located in the text; rather, that's projected onto the text by his theological paradigm.

4. Over and above that are general difficulties not distinctive to his peculiar theology. I've dealt with this before. Because humans are social creatures, collective judgment inevitably harms the innocent as well as the guilty, the righteous as well as the wicked. Collective judgment doesn't imply collective guilt. 

There is, however, a sorting out process in the afterlife. God's rough justice in this life is more discriminating in the afterlife. There's a reversal of fortunes. Eschatological compensations. 

5. In addition, as I've noted on more than one occasion, everyone dies sooner or later. Whether people die by divine command or divine providence makes no moral difference that I can see. Either both are consistent with divine benevolence or inconsistent with divine benevolence.  

6. Moreover, as I've said on other occasions, biblical judgments and atrocities don't create a special problem. They don't really add anything to the theodical issue. That's because atrocities and natural disasters occur outside the text of Scripture. Even if Scripture didn't record any of this material, the theodical issue would remain because the same difficulties are paralleled in divine providence. Conversely, if we have theodical resources adequate to exonerate divine providence in the face of atrocities and natural disasters outside Bible history, then these are adequate to exonerate divine benevolence in the face of analogous examples within Bible history. 

Sure, the OT is full of grisly stuff. But that's true of human history in general. There's nothing in the OT to uniquely shock our moral sensibilities. Nothing that doesn't have analogue in human history generally. Eliminating the horrors of OT history does nothing to eliminate the horrors of secular history. The problem of evil is basically the same inside and outside of Scripture. 

A Christian is somebody who already knows that morally hideous things happen in the world, but continues to believe in God in spite of that. Evil is a given, not a newfound discovery. And it's not as if atheism represents an improvement. 

7.  On the other hand, Boyd includes other examples that reflect a malicious reading of Scripture. It's as though he goes out of his way to make it harder than it really is so that his alternative wins by default. He gerrymanders an intolerable view of divine action in the OT as leverage to his preferred alternative. 

i) He says Exod 22:29-30 & Ezk 20:25-26 teach divinely mandated child sacrifice. 

a) Regarding Exod 22:29-30, he willfully construes the command out of context. But as the law code already stated, provision is made to redeem firstborn sons (13:13-15).

Likewise, "devoting" someone to God doesn't entail human sacrifice (e.g. Num 8:16; 1 Sam 1:11). 

b) Regarding Ezk 20:25-26, I agree with one commentator's observation that:

this whole chapter [is] creating a rhetorical parody of Israel's history in order to highlight its worst side. In a context of such sustained sarcasm and irony, we cannot suddenly take a verse like this as a face-value doctrinal or historical affirmation. It is impossible to imagine, in the light of his overwhelming emphasis on the goodness and importance of God's law and on the horrific evil of child sacrifice, that Ezekiel could have seriously meant that Yahweh himself gave bad laws and commanded human sacrifice. Christopher Wright, The Message of Ezekiel (IVP 2001), 160.

ii) He says some passages (Lev 26:29; Jer 19:9; Lam 2:20; Ezk 5:9-10; cf. Deut 28:53-57) "instigate" parents to cannibalize their kids. But four of the five passages are predictive or descriptive.  

Only Jer 19:9 attributes that to direct divine action, but in context that's shorthand for the fact that by withdrawing his protection, God made Israel vulnerable to military depravation by her enemies. 

iii) He says God "caused" soldiers to rip babies from womb, according to Hos 13:16 (cf. Isa 13:16). But that passage is predictive and descriptive. Moreover, Amos 1:13 says that outrage provokes divine judgment. 

iv) He cites historical atrocities and massacres (Gen 34; Judges 19-21), yet there's no presumption that narrators condone whatever they record. In his zeal to tarnish Scripture, Boyd commits elementary hermeneutical blunders.    

v) He takes offense at the admittedly parabolic depiction in (Ezk 16:39-41), but that's written for shock value. 

vi) He trots out Ps 137:9, but even liberal commentators like Goldingay regard that as figurative. 

vii) He considers some OT depictions of God to be capricious. He makes no effort to interpret them charitably. 


  1. Are there books out there that explain the issues of interpretation the way you did? (I asked that question using the gmail account, but haven't heard anything back yet!) :)

    1. Hi Corey,

      Sorry I hadn't checked the account until moments ago. I think your email arrived yesterday. I've just forwarded your email to Steve.

    2. I don't think there's any book which says all that needs to be said on that issue, which is why I've done so many posts on the issue.

  2. If this is the same author who wrote about about spiritual warfare, I wonder if he's pacifistic towards demonic attack. Should Christians be passive against demons oppression? Should God pacifistic toward demons? Is it wrong for God to judge and punish wicked spirits?

  3. I recently listened to Boyd on the Unbelieveable Podcast and while I'm sympathetic to the tensions he's attempting to wrestle with, his solution is just tortuous, IMO. As Coppan continually noted, the NT & Jesus are not embarrassed/concerned by the violence in the OT. It's a given, and is even given generalized support.

    For full disclosure, I only listened to Boyd's interview, so I am not familiar with this full argument, but the notion of cruciformity is itself saturated with Divine violence. Jesus did not come to do his will, but his Father's will (John 6:38) and Jesus was himself reticent about what he was about to go through, but it was the Father's will for Jesus to suffer on the cross (Mat 26:39).

    Violence is a tragic part of human existence. It's continuity with God's sovereignty is a true mystery and I don't besmirch anyone sincerely working through it. Boyd's proposal, however, is deeply unsatisfactory.

  4. Hays says troubling texts shouldn't be taken at "face-value," but seen as figurative, while asserting narrators do not condone the massacres they record. Yet he agrees Boyd is right about what the many "war commands" represent, and these kind of unlimited massacres that begin with infants and often include all but perhaps the women soldiers find attractive are the troubling essence of what many see as in tension with the approach to evil and enemies that Jesus urged us to pursue. Arguing that none of this is more shocking to moral sensibilities than other historical events, seems to miss the burden of those who imagine a Christ-like deity would command a higher standard than the worst that we find employed by those in a wider grisly world. Bob Wilson

    1. I never said troubling texts shouldn't be taken at face-value. The only example of that was a single text from Ezekiel, and the commentator gave a good reason for that–which you ignore.

      Moreover, a Christ-like deity rules the world, so he doesn't have a different standard for Bible history than history in general.

      And I don't grant that the holy war commands are equivalent to the worst we find employed by non-Jews.

  5. Thanks, Steve, for a number of incisive and insightful comments. I appreciate your engagement with Boyd as well.

    Paul Copan