I approached Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence quite hopefully, for a number of reasons. Greg Boyd’s Letters to a Skeptic was really important to me when I was younger. I found his soft theodicy really compelling, and I admired his honest look at difficult passages while offering hopeful readings. I ultimately rejected Boyd’s theory of Open Theism in God of the Possible, but I was attracted to the concept–again, because I felt like he was unwilling to turn away from difficult aspects of Scripture. On a personal level, I admire how Boyd has been able to be a voice of nonviolence and social ethics while holding together pastoral responsibilities, cultural engagement, and academic research.
Finally, I am curious about the implications of what Boyd calls “the cruciform character of God” (43, 59) and his use of God’s self-sacrifice in the cross as the primary lens for reading Scripture, forming Christian thought, growing in spiritual life, and extending our witness of Christ into the world. It is what I am doing in my work on C.S. Lewis and the Spiritual Life, and I admire others who call for this point of view in their areas (like Stanley Hauerwas, who says the cross is the model of our response to violence, or Michael Gorman and Richard Bauckham, who see the cross in the stories that St. Paul tells about spirituality, or Jürgen Moltmann in how he envisions the transformation of society as it begins in Christian life, or L. Ann Jervis in how she imagines the Christian response to suffering). I want to see the consequences of what we call “crucicentric” (cross-centred) approaches to life. Boyd’s Cross Vision is about how we read the Scriptures, particularly the Hebrew Bible.
To say that I am disappointed is an understatement. This is a deeply troubling book. Boyd is honest about his commitment to what he calls a “conservative hermeneutic,” a way of reading Scripture that believes it to be God-breathed and inspired, and therefore true regardless of its genre or whether a particular story refers to something that happened in history. This is a good approach, overall, and Boyd is able to trace the growth of how God is revealed to God’s people as it connects with their capacity to see the truth, beauty, and goodness of God in their cultural moment. Ultimately, this leads to God’s self-revelation the cross.
I agree that God reveals God’s self perfectly upon the cross, and there are others who talk sensibly about the growth of understanding in God’s people (like Henry Webb). But it is not twisting Boyd to say that God lies about who God is to a people that can’t bear the full reality of God. It isn’t just that we don’t see God fully in the Exodus or the giving of the law or a particular prophetic or worship moment. Do we ever? But that God pulls on a cloak of evil in order to, ultimately, show good. The Bible is intentionally misleading when picturing God as a violent God, not just limited or foggy or that something else is going on textually (though he uses each of these solutions at times).
Primarily, Boyd is focussed on violence, and I’ll return to his evaluation of that in a moment. But the distance between the New Testament portrayal of God and the Old Testament portrayal is drawn out to absurd differences in this book. Frankly, the picture is deeply troubling as it portrays the Hebrew people, and Boyd seems ignorant of how deeply anti-Jewish (and sometimes antisemitic) biblical interpretation has been in academia. I did a masters degree on Christian antisemitism, and it was hard for me to read this book at points because Boyd doesn’t seem to be able to answer the question of what deep and meaningful truth, goodness, and beauty Israel is given from God that is particular to Israel. If God is a self-sacrificial God–which I believe is true–then Israelite and early Jewish religion as given to them in Scripture bears that out faithfully for them–not just a feint or stop-gap religion. Though this book is meant to defend a “violent portrait of God in the Old Testament,” I am now left with a deceptive God who fakes a religion for a while until some of God’s people capture the vision of the cross. It could be a chapter in the book could have addressed this, but that chapter isn’t there.
On the question of violence and God, Boyd is no doubt correct to speak to it. The two stars on this review (instead of one) is because of his desire for honesty, and for his affable way of translating what are two complex volumes of exegesis into a popular-level book. And I have said I admire his evangelical social ethic.
But he pushes this too far sometimes and leaves other questions open. For example, at one point Boyd rejects any violence by God, including violence against animals. This is an intriguing point, as God set up an entire system of animal sacrifice, used a meat-based meal in Jesus’ last supper, and used animals cut in half to confirm the covenant with Abraham. In his admirable animal rights stance, Boyd presses too far in saying that “we later learn that God doesn’t actually approve of animal sacrifices” (73). That’s certainly a too severe representation of prophetic criticism of empty sacrifice, and Christian and Jewish theologians in history have talked about how worship and community formation ultimately moves past animal sacrifice.
Beyond this, Boyd argues that God perpetuates no violence at all. But I think this isn’t a good enough statement as:
1) at times God has given the job of violence to others (Boyd is correct that much of this is the natural, organic violence that emerges from the community, but not all);
2) God has gifted people, entities, and empires with powers to perpetrate violence of a special kind (like fireballs from heaven, earthquakes, superhuman strength, genocide, etc.); and
3) God has designed this world as one soaked in violence.
I suppose a Christian, Jewish, or Muslim will respond and say (in their own words) that the world we have is broken because of choices we make. I think that’s true, though God leaves us a historical record in the earth of untold violence before the first humans awoke to see the choice of sin before them.
But the “Fall of humanity” is not a surprise to God. Contrary to Boyd’s argument in God of the Possible, God does not live in time, rolling with the punches, so that the temptation of Adam and Eve could go either way. God spins no theoretical wheels; there is no “what if?” in God’s character. In loving and being love, God makes; and in making, God lovingly introduces violence to the world. In the moment of your reading this line, there have been a billion deaths on this planet, from the microscopic to the catastrophic.
To say that these deaths and the actions in the Hebrew Bible are not caused by God is to say because God is one or two degrees removed is, in my mind, like saying the general who commanded the gassing of people in Auschwitz was innocent because he never killed a single Jew, Polish person, disabled child, or homosexual. This pass-the-buck spirituality in secular life is our generation’s most consequential sin.
I wonder, can we ever say that “violence” is something other than a spectrum? It is violent to restrain a knife-wielding terrorist rather than submit to his violence. Childbirth is violence, and even loving sex that produces those children is a kind of violence at times, even minute. Agriculture, engineering, policing, medicine–all these vocations involve a kind of violence to them. The most loving zoologist brings death, lovingly, in its season.
It is true that we each have moral responsibility within our sphere. It is also true, I believe, that human sin has caused great unnecessary human suffering that grieves all who are good. Moreover, I believe that in God’s self-sacrifice on the cross–a moment of significant violence–God is taking violence upon God’s self not just in that moment but in all history. Thus, we are to live differently because of it, so that being Christlike is a radical life choice. But Boyd’s theodicy is not convincing.
I am very disappointed, and I am perhaps overly sensitive about popular antisemitism, so there is heat in this review that may be unwarranted. Greg Boyd is a Christian brother whom I admire and who has taught me much. Boyd is trying to do a good thing, but I think the problem of violence in the Bible remains. I don’t find his “cross vision” convincing as he applies it here, though it is largely the approach I adapt. I just don’t think a cross-centred Bible reading makes the problem of violence go away totally.
But I do think it gives us new meaning. I think we are meant to live in these troubling Scriptures as we are meant to live in the troubling world, where death is all around and mortality a constant, heart-breaking, and transformational truth.
And there is our cultural moment, too. We believe as a society that death is an evil itself, and yet we bring death with our lifestyles, or politics, our fight for individual rights, our desire for comfort, and our certainty that we need the next coffee, car, semi-detached house, avocado, running shoes, or whatever. Was it Rafael Rodriguez who laughed at our culture that says “look at your violent God” and then obsesses over Game of Thrones? There’s that.
And, of course, I may be wrong. Ultimately, I think we need to turn to Boyd’s two-volume Crucifixion of the Warrior God. Matt Lynch of Westminster Theological Centre has done a careful, four-part review of Boyd’s academic version of this approach. I would encourage you to follow up as part of the problem with the book is the breezy way it moves through questions that are centuries in the making.