Review of Greg Boyd's "Cross vision: How the crucifixion of Jesus makes sense of Old Testament violence"

Gregory S. Boyd, 2017, Cross vision: How the crucifixion of Jesus makes sense of Old Testament violence (Minneapolis: Fortress).

Shortly before this book was published, Greg Boyd published a massive two-volume scholarly work, The crucifixion of the warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s violent portraits of God in light of the Cross(which, I confess, I have not read). It took Boyd ten years to research and write. Its subtitle sums up its theme: How do we interpret the Old Testament (OT) tales of God’s violence in the light of the totally loving, never coercive God revealed in Jesus? The present book is a much shorter presentation of Boyd’s answer to this question, aimed at a wider Christian audience.

Boyd’s question presupposes that we should reinterpret the Old Testament by viewing it through the lens of the New, and his compelling examples are the New Testament writers themselves, not to mention the risen Jesus, who re-expounded the OT scriptures to his listeners on the road to Emmaus.

Boyd’s answer to the question is that just as on the cross God allowed mankind to put upon him the horrors of the world, so he allowed the OT writers to project onto him their ugly and culturally conditioned images of deity, because he no more coerced their writing than he ever coerces us against our wills. Sometimes, however, the Holy Spirit shines through the clouded perceptions of an OT writer, giving us some of the most glorious passages in the OT (e.g. Isaiah 11). Boyd points to precursors of his perspective, some of them before Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire in circumstances that rendered coercion respectable.

Boyd argues that there is biblical evidence that God accommodated to Ancient Near Eastern cultural assumptions in areas such as marriage, kingship, temple sacrifice and the Mosaic law, and that Jesus acknowledged on a number of occasions that he was also battling such assumptions. God’s accommodation is reflected in OT references to the concept of ‘the waters’ or the sea as evil in themselves and as harbouring evil monstrosities (Lethiathan, Rahab, Behemoth), against which God fought in order to achieve creation. They are anti-creation forces that reassert themselves, for example, in the story of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea and the subsequent drowning of the Egyptian army. At other points in the OT Yahweh is made to behave like an Ancient Near Eastern national god. All of this, Boyd says, tells us more about the OT writers and their culture that it does about their God. Nonetheless, in the midst of it we discern God battling the forces of evil, which, despite their mythic clothing in the OT, are real.

Thus far—somewhere around chapter 8 or 9 of the book’s sixteen chapters—I was pretty much with Boyd, but then he tackles the question of what reality lies behind the OT writers’ distorted perceptions. His claim is, first, that the violence in these stories is not God’s violence but the violence of evil powers, and, second, that the powers are able to exercise their violence because God has removed his protective hand. God’s wrath, then, consists of God allowing the powers to have their way. It is the second part of this claim that troubles me. Boyd illustrates it with the cross itself. True, it was not God who put Jesus on the cross but evil-minded human beings. But then Boyd says that God withheld his protection so that evil in all its forms could do to Jesus all that it wanted. Jesus’ resulting forsakenness is expressed in his cry of desolation in Matthew 27:46. For reasons given in an earlier post,[1]  I find this inference difficult to accept: I believe the triune God experienced what Jesus experienced. But if Jesus’ experience is not explained by the Father removing his protecting hand, then the apparent OT instances of divine violence are also not the result of God allowing evil to do its stuff. But perhaps I am splitting hairs here. Clearly God allowed the cross, so by Boyd’s argument he also allowed the OT instances of (only apparently divine) violence.

Boyd goes on to make the argument that people often experience the consequences of their own sin, and this is true. But things are complicated by the fact that people often suffer the consequences of others’ sin, of which they themselves are innocent.

From chapter 11 onward the topic returns to the withdrawal of God’s protection as the source of OT violence. But this raises a different challenge. To say (repeatedly) that violent events which appear to be perpetrated by God are actually perpetrated by evil powers because God has lifted his hand of protection is actually still to make God the ultimate agent. It seems to me that Boyd is in difficulty here because of his 'Conservative Hermeneutical Principle’, which commits him to a belief that all scripture, including the OT, is God-breathed at quite a detailed level. So for any piece of narrative that involves God and violence he must demonstrate that the violence is not God’s. This leads to a repeated and detailed search for the agency of violence, which can never be God’s, and the most frequent solution is that God lifted his hand of protection. I admit that my brevity here leads to something of a caricature, but I found the repeated assertion disturbing. I am no expert in hermeneutics, but I can’t help thinking that there is a more nuanced answer to the question, How do we read the OT through the lens of the cross (as indeed we must)? I would prefer to stand back a little further and try to understand better what Jesus meant on the Emmaus road when he 'explained ... what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself', so that 'our hearts are burning within us' (Luke 24:27, 32), and to be a bit less concerned with each small piece of narrative. We are called to apply the lens of the cross, not a magnifying glass.

The two final chapters address rather different matters. The first looks at OT characters who misuse divine power. Boyd seems at first to assume that divine power can be misused by human beings, and cites Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 14:32–33 & 40 in support of this, but Paul is talking not about misuse of spiritual gifts (specifically prophecy). He is talking about orderliness in their otherwise proper use. But then, if I understand him correctly, Boyd moves on to suggest that the attempted abuse of divine power results in an exercise of demonic power.

The last chapter is about God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son. Boyd argues that here there is no misunderstanding on the writer’s part: God gave the terrible command deliberately and for a purpose.

A possible criticism of Boyd’s approach is that he is proposing a canon within a canon. We take certain passages of the OT at face value (because we can), and reinterpret others. Ironically, this criticism would parallel one that Boyd (2001) levels at Calvinists who reinterpret as anthropomorphisms certain OT passages where God appears to change his mind. They do so because these passages are seen as conflicting with the doctrine of God’s sovereignty.

Despite my misgivings, I am glad I read this book. My notes on it are here. I go along with some of it, and it is the only popular presentation I have come across that seeks to deal with OT images of God. I found it stimulating, as Boyd once again has the courage to talk about matters that may otherwise be swept under the proverbial carpet, and these matters matter!


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