I recently posted a three-part review of Greg Boyd’s colossal new book The Crucifixion of the Warrior God (hereafter CWG). (Links here to part 1, part 2 and part 3.) My twin aims in writing this review were (i) to provide a concise and accurate overview of the structure and content of CWG and (ii) to briefly set out the top three things I liked about CWG and my top three concerns with it.
I’ve been thrilled with the amount of comment and conversation my review has generated; if nothing else, Greg is to be heartily applauded for throwing open the debate on a number of crucial theological issues.
This past week, Greg began a series of posts at his ReKnew website titled Reviewing the Reviews. Imagine my surprise when the first review of CWG he chose to respond to was mine! Given that the ideas put forward in CWG will doubtless be discussed by the great and the good of the theological world, I’m over the moon that Greg chose to seriously engage with a review written by an amateur and a relative nobody like little old me. What’s more, he had some really nice things to say about my review, describing it as “excellent”, “detailed and probing” and “an accurate, clear and insightful overview”.
Greg also took time to respond to three concerns I raised about CWG. While I wouldn’t want to needlessly spin this out into an endless back-and-forth discussion, I thought it might be helpful if I briefly responded to each of Greg’s responses to my concerns.
The first concern I expressed had to do with Greg’s model of biblical inspiration, which I found hard to pin down. Greg expressed surprise at this, noting that he had spent around twenty pages in Volume I of CWG “carving out a cross-centered model of inspiration”.
With hindsight, I don’t think my concern was well formulated. I think Greg does make the effort to explain his model of inspiration; my real difficulty is more that his model seems, to my mind, to be unnecessarily complicated (not to say altogether unnecessary, but that’s a different debate). It seems that, in order for Greg’s proposed hermeneutic to be effective, you have to not only accept that all scripture is inspired – you then have to accept that it’s inspired in a particular way that isn’t straightforward to articulate. Since I lean towards a very simple understanding of inspiration, this is problematic for me.
The second and most significant concern I raised was the notion of God’s withdrawal, first from Christ on the cross, and second from sinful people and nations in order to allow judgment to come upon them.
In CWG, Greg marshals some fairly dense philosophical and metaphysical arguments in support of this principle of divine withdrawal. The problem is that, to me at least, these arguments were ultimately not compelling; as a result, I was left with the feeling that Greg had strongly asserted his case without actually presenting a rock-solid and persuasive argument for it.
In his response, Greg acknowledges the importance of this point and seeks to restate his argument for the notion of divine withdrawal. He begins:
“As paradoxical as it sounds, I argue that the point at which the Father and Son experience separation from each other is actually the supreme revelation of their perfect unity. For the unity of the Trinity is other-oriented love, and the only reason the Father and Son are experiencing this separation is because of their perfect other-oriented love for humanity.”
And I am essentially left with the same problem. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that my knowledge of philosophical and metaphysical theology is sketchy at best – and if that’s true of me, I’m sure it will be true of other readers of CWG too. All the more reason for Greg to present a clear, logical and compelling case for divine withdrawal. It seems to me that what he gives us instead is some impressive-sounding rhetoric that attempts to smuggle past us the notion that the Father and Son experienced separation at Calvary and yet were somehow not separated in their essence.
Without wishing to flog a dead horse, this point has massive theological ramifications. If the Father genuinely withdrew from the Son, this not only means that the Trinity was effectively divided at Calvary – it also means that there is, at the very heart of the atonement, a handing over of the Son by the Father for the purpose of allowing violent judgement to come upon the Son in our place. Whatever flowery language you might try to deploy to disguise it, this is a penal atonement model. And a penal atonement theology is not compatible with Greg’s claims that God is absolutely nonviolent.
The third and final concern I expressed with CWG was Greg’s reliance on what he calls the “Principle of Cosmic Conflict”: the idea that demons and other supernatural forces of evil are behind many of the phenomena and events that happen in the physical world. My concern was that, in my opinion, Greg places too much theological weight on this principle. In short, if you happen to be someone who rejects the existence of actual demonic entities, you will not be able to accept the Principle of Cosmic Conflict, and you will thus be left with a gaping hole in the cruciform hermeneutic Greg uses to interpret violent biblical depictions of God.
In his response to my review, Greg acknowledges the validity of my argument:
“Rob is right about the “gaping hole” that denying the reality of angels and demons would create in my hermeneutic. For in this hermeneutic, whenever humans are not the agents that bring about whatever violence is involved in a divine judgment, this violence must be attributed to principalities and powers.”
He goes on to argue that scripture contains abundant evidence of the existence of “cosmic agents” other than God, and of the significant role they play in bringing about some of the violence attributed to God in scripture. He agrees with me that his Principle of Redemptive Withdrawal is not tenable within the wide spectrum of views that people have on angels and demons. One of the arguments he offers in defence of the existence of angels and demons is that “doing so allows us to affirm the full inspiration of Scripture without accepting that God actually engaged in the violence that OT authors sometimes ascribe to him”.
Greg appears here to be arguing that we should believe in the reality of angels and demons because to do so allows us to affirm the inspiration of scripture while interpreting it in a way that gets God off the hook for divine violence. This seems to me to be a somewhat self-serving and circular argument. If you’re saying we should believe in angels and demons because the Bible says they exist and the Bible is divinely inspired, you can’t then offer as a supporting argument that we should believe in them because to do so allows us to affirm biblical inspiration!
Once again, I’m very grateful to Greg for having taken the time to respond to my review. My objections notwithstanding, CWG is and will remain a significant contribution to the ongoing discussion about the fundamental nature of God and the question of how we square this with biblical depictions of divine violence.