In Cross Vision, the condensed version of The Crucifixion of a Warrior God, Greg Boyd begins by highlighting troubling Old Testament texts—passages that show God commanding violence and even genocide, and narratives where God engages in violence. Boyd doesn’t deny the divine inspiration of these Scriptures, but he calls them the elephant in the room because they are morally revolting. Those who confess Jesus as Lord should realize that something else must be going on in these accounts, and therefore, they should not be taken at face value.
In chapter two, Boyd lays the foundation for his thesis: God is like Christ, exactly like Christ. In the words of Michael Ramsey, “God is Christlike, and in him is no unChristlikeness at all.” Since “the Son is . . . the exact representation of his [God’s] being” (Hebrews 1:3), Christ is the looking-glass through which we must see God. Paul writes, “in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9), which means that Christ is the full reality of God. Everything else and, in particular, everything that came before him was a mere shadow. Now that the reality has arrived we shouldn’t understand God by what we see in the shadows. As Jesus said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).
Chapter three focuses on how Christ’s death reveals God. The hour of Christ’s death was the time when God was glorified or revealed (John 12:27–28). Boyd proceeds by emphasizing the centrality of the cross in Paul’s thinking: “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). And the point is that God is not merely like Christ; God is like Christ crucified. God is cruciform love. And that idea exacerbates the problem with which Boyd began: “How do macabre portraits of God, such as the portrait of Yahweh commanding Israelites to mercilessly engage in genocide, reflect and point to the nonviolent, self-sacrificial, enemy-embracing love of God that is supremely revealed on the cross?” Boyd believes the reality of Christ crucified should lead us to stop justifying the violent depictions of God in the Old Testament. What do we do when we are troubled by depictions of divine violence? Fully trust the revelation of God in Christ.
Chapter four shows that the idea of going beyond the surface meaning is a key aspect of the Christian faith, especially in relation to Jesus’ death. Something more was going on in the crucifixion of the first-century Jew named Jesus of Nazareth. On the surface, it looked like another criminal being executed by the Roman authorities. But with the eyes of faith, we know that the death of Jesus was God stooping down to take on the sin of his people. Likewise, Boyd views the Old Testament divine warrior texts as “literary crucifixes that bear witness to the historical crucifixion when interpreted through the looking-glass cross.” As “literary crucifixes” these passages display the extent to which God descended to allow his people to view him through their “fallen and culturally conditioned state.” They were making God look bad and even crucifying him in their writings.
Chapter five opens with two quotes from Martin Luther: “The cross alone is our theology” and “I see nothing in Scripture except Christ crucified.” In this chapter, Boyd’s goal is to show that although his proposal is new to most in the church, it has precedents in church history.
1) Luther clearly emphasized the crucified Christ in his interpretation of Scripture.
2) The New Testament authors didn’t settle for the surface meaning in their application of Old Testament texts. By noting this point Boyd is not suggesting that we should overlook the original meaning. He adheres to what he calls the Conservative Hermeneutical Principle, which he defines as sticking as close as possible to the original meaning of the passage. How does this principle work with the Old Testament texts ascribing violence to God and his emphasis on Christ crucified? While the cross requires him to reject the divine violence, this principle compels him to affirm every other aspect of the narratives.
3) The idea that God breathed out his Scriptures through the unique personalities and cognitive limitations of the human authors is firmly rooted in Christian thought. And that leads to the concept that many of the depictions of God are divine accommodations—they do not show what God is really like, only how he appears to be. How do we know God’s true nature? From the cross.
4) The concept or progressive revelation, which is nothing new in Christian theology, asserts that God revealed more of himself over time. Boyd acknowledges that his understanding of this concept differs from many Evangelicals who do not believe God accommodated error in the process.
Chapter six buttresses Boyd’s argument by providing evidence that God acted like a heavenly missionary reaching out to his people who were practicing immoral things and in the process had to accommodate to nonideal circumstances. How so?
1) God accommodated his ideal for marriage with the people’s practice of polygamy, concubinage, and divorce.
2) Although God did not approve, he accommodated Israel’s desire for a human king. He then continued working with the institution of kingship.
3) God accommodated to the common practice of animal sacrifice. Everyone in the Ancient Near East practiced animal sacrifice long before the Hebrews arrived on the scene. And the Hebrews embraced the same practice. But later biblical authors describe God as despising animal sacrifices (e.g., Isaiah 1:11, 13; Hosea 6:6; Hebrews 10:8). What does this mean for the topic at hand? If God was accommodating with animal sacrifice, what do you think he was doing with warfare against humans?
4) Finally, Boyd shows that God was accommodating to his people with the entire Mosaic law. The law was a temporary guardian intended to lead us to Christ (Galatians 3:23–24), and it has now become obsolete (Hebrews 8:13).
Chapter seven introduces the psychological concept of projection—we see in others what we expect to see. Therefore, “the way God appears to people says at least as much about them as it does about God” (see 2 Samuel 22:26–27). The revelation of God then is adjusted to the spiritual level of the audience (John 16:12; Mark 4:33–34). Similarly, there are different levels of spiritual teaching (1 Corinthians 3:1–2; Hebrews 5:11–14). This idea helps to explain why God was depicted as a violent deity by Old Testament authors—that’s the way they saw him and in response that’s the way they acted. Moreover, if the Israelites had completely trusted in Yahweh they wouldn’t have had to lift their swords. How would the Israelites have moved into the land of Canaan? Perhaps through hornets driving out the Canaanites (Exodus 23:28–30) or through the land becoming unfruitful (Leviticus 18:24–25). Boyd concludes that those removal methods look a lot “more Christlike than the massacre-them-all strategy!” What about the command Moses heard from Yahweh to destroy the people? Boyd believes Moses rightly heard God say that he wanted his people to dwell in the land, but Moses wrongly assumed God wanted them to slaughter the people.
Chapter eight identifies parallels between the Old Testament portraits of God and other Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) cultures. The Canaanites, for example, depicted their god Baal as rebuking the waters and causing them to flee, as ascribed to Yahweh in the Psalms. This chapter continues by showing how the conflict-with-chaos motif in the Ancient Near East is evident in the Hebrew Bible. The biblical authors, therefore, were influenced by their surrounding culture. Every nation in the ANE believed their chief god helped them win battles and Israel was no different.
Chapter nine is focused on the meaning of Christ’s death or the atonement. Boyd asserts that God the Father did not actively kill Jesus, rather God withdrew from Jesus allowing other agents to do what they wanted to do. The cross reveals that “God judges sin by turning people over to the consequences of their sin” and it shows “how God defeats evil,” which Boyd calls an “Aikido-style of judgment.” By connecting certain dots, Boyd says that God set up an event that got “the kingdom of darkness to orchestrate . . . its own demise.” Divine judgment is divine withdrawal allowing evil to punish evil.
Chapter ten differentiates between judicial and organic punishment. With organic punishment, the consequences are built into the act itself, such as the harmful effects of taking drugs. Boyd says, “The Bible generally construes God’s punishment of sin as organic in nature.” God does not actively punish because God’s judgments are described in terms of “divine abandonment.” He then marshals an impressive number of Scriptures in the Old Testament to support his point followed by New Testament examples, such as Romans 1 where God “gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts” (vv. 21–23).
Boyd says chapter eleven provides the strongest evidence for his cross-centered approach to biblical interpretation. He finds biblical clues that support the idea that God was not actually the one doing the work of destruction. For example, in the killing of the firstborn Egyptian males it was “the destroyer” who served as the executioner (Exodus 12:23). Likewise, the judgment that Jeremiah initially ascribed to God (Jeremiah 13:14), was actually carried out by Nebuchadnezzar (Jeremiah 21:7). And while Yahweh threatened to crush Judah (Lamentations 1:15), he actually only withdrew (2:3) and abandoned his sanctuary (2:7). In the process of withdrawing, “what the true God actually did was humbly allow himself to appear guilty of things he in fact merely allowed.” The disasters that came on Israel were not the result of God attacking his people; they were the consequence of God forsaking his people (Deuteronomy 31:16–18). Boyd then cites several more Scriptures to support his argument.
Chapter twelve demonstrates that when the violence ascribed to God in Scripture cannot be attributed to human agents, it must be attributed to cosmic agents. Boyd points to many Scriptures to show that the New Testament authors viewed the world as filled with demonic agents. He then focuses on Paul’s statements ascribing violence to cosmic forces, such as the destroying angel (1 Corinthians 10:10), referring to the story in Numbers 16.
Chapter thirteen zooms in on the flood story in Genesis. After explaining how all of creation is linked together in Scripture, Boyd concludes “the people of Noah’s day experienced God’s wrath in the same Aikido-like way Jesus did on Calvary.” God withdrew and the forces of chaos were released.
In chapter fourteen, Boyd provides evidence for a cross-centered interpretation of the account of the Egyptian army drowning in the Red Sea. His primary evidence is that subsequent biblical authors interpreted this story as a conflict-with-chaos passage (e.g., Psalm 74:13–14; Isaiah 51:9–10; Habakkuk 3:15). Boyd concludes, “It was the sea monster, not God, who devoured Pharaoh’s army!”
Chapter fifteen engages with other Old Testament texts, such as Elijah calling down fire on a group of men, Elisha calling down a curse on forty-two boys who were subsequently mauled by bears, and the Samson’s acts of violence. Boyd’s interpretative conclusion in this chapter is predictable.
Chapter sixteen examines the story of God commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. In this chapter Boyd departs from his usual interpretative strategy by arguing that God didn’t merely stoop to allow Abraham or others to believe he gave the violent command to Abraham, but that he actually gave it. God had to help Abraham experience a paradigm shift. And he did so by playing the role of a pagan deity, who commonly required child sacrifice, but then he clearly showed Abraham that he was different. Rather than demanding child sacrifice, God provides the sacrifice. It was a lesson Abraham would never forget.
Regarding Boyd’s proposal, he has rightly placed his finger on a sensitive area in Christian thought. Christians have been employing various interpretive strategies with morally revolting parts of Scripture since the beginning. In the third and fourth century, for example, Ambrose and Augustine allegorized disturbing texts. In fact, that type of interpretation helped Augustine move closer to the Christian faith. Moreover, the idea that we know God from Christ is so clearly expressed in many New Testament Scriptures that it should be uncontroversial. I also believe Boyd is right to highlight the death of Christ as the supreme act of divine love. However, at points it seemed like the emphasis on the cross was excluding other parts of Christ’s life. When Jesus said, “The one who looks at me is seeing the one who sent me” (John 12:45), he wasn’t on the cross. His entire life reveals the Father: birth, teachings, healings, eating with sinners, confrontation with religious authorities, death, and resurrection. Again, I think his death is the supreme act of love, but if “God is love” and Christ reveals the God who is love then we have to see divine love from the beginning to the end, from his birth to his resurrection. It’s like seeing a mountain range with one mountain that towers over the others. It’s right to highlight the one prominent mountain, but not to the neglect of the entire range. Why is this important? Because if we only see God in Christ on the cross, we will conclude that God’s love is only expressed in that one way. That and only that is divine love. But love takes different forms depending on the situation. When Jesus was rebuking the Pharisees that was also an expression of divine love. And the resurrection was divine love because it was the loving God vindicating his beloved Son. I don’t think there is a recipe to get the right proportion, but I believe all the ingredients from Christ’s life must be added to the mix.
I think the idea of divine abandonment and the organic nature of judgment is thoroughly biblical. However, when it comes to God’s presence it’s important to distinguish between various aspects. For example, God’s sustaining presence is with all living creatures and in that sense, God is always with us, no matter what. That’s why Paul was able to tell his idol-worshiping audience, “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). But of course, there is another sense in which God is not with the person carrying out murder in the same way God is with the person serving the poor. I’m not sure what to call that, maybe God’s supportive presence. Furthermore, in Christ God did not ultimately leave sinners, but reached out to us, and lived with us. We can call that God’s incarnational presence. The point is that it may be too simplistic to talk about divine abandonment without referring to other dimensions of divine presence.
I also appreciated Boyd’s insights on the idea that other agents rather than God were carrying out the violence. There really is some interesting biblical data to support that point. But, as others have noted, if God backs away and allows destructive forces to work, isn’t God still part of the process?
Perhaps these concerns are addressed in The Crucifixion of the Warrior God, which I haven’t read. I think Boyd did an excellent job of condensing his 1400-page work into this book. It’s always difficult to decide what to leave out, and he had to leave out a lot with this book. I found his interaction with Scripture and secondary sources to be thought-provoking and I enjoyed how he began each chapter with an interesting life illustration. I have two degrees in biblical studies and I almost felt like reading this book gave me a third degree.
In conclusion, Boyd’s proposal is based on the idea that God is completely nonviolent. How do we know? Because Jesus taught and practiced nonviolence and Jesus is the full revelation of God. (If you can crack that foundation, the entire proposal would fall to the ground.) Consequently, Scriptures that depict divine violence must be reinterpreted. And Boyd’s way of interpreting these disturbing texts is to see them as “literary crucifixes” requiring readers to go beyond the surface meaning. In particular, they show us that God allowed himself to be viewed as a pagan deity or a warrior God, but when the full revelation of God arrived in Christ that perception was shattered.