The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross

Written by Gregory A. Boyd Reviewed By Trevor Laurence

In an age when religious violence abounds and when postmodern Western sensibilities regard with deep suspicion any suggestion that God might exercise violent, coercive, retributive judgment in his pursuit of justice, one of the pressing pastoral, scholarly, and indeed apologetic questions for the church is this: What are the people of the crucified Lord—the community who follows in faith the God who died for his enemies—to do with those biblical texts, particularly in the Old Testament, that depict God slaughtering, smiting, and exacting vengeance in gratuitous detail?

This is the animating question behind Gregory A. Boyd’s The Crucifixion of the Warrior God. For Boyd, the Old Testament’s violent portraits of God introduce a fundamental tension, leaving the interpreter “caught between the Scylla of Jesus’ affirmation of the OT as divinely inspired and the Charybdis of his nonviolent revelation of God” (p. xxix). Over two volumes, Boyd argues that the solution is to interpret Old Testament ascriptions of violence to God as “literary crucifixes” (p. 548). That is, just as in the cross God stooped in non-coercive and nonviolent love to take on the appearance of a guilty criminal as he bore the sin of his people, so those Old Testament texts that depict God in violent terms—and thus do not align with Boyd’s understanding of the nonviolent revelation of God in the cross—are in fact instances where God stoops to bear the sin of his people by allowing them to portray him in a sinful, culturally conditioned, and violent manner. In this way, Boyd contends, even the Old Testament’s violent divine portraits bear witness to the nonviolent character of God exhibited on the cross.

Volume one, The Cruciform Hermeneutic, develops and defends Boyd’s method for cross-centered biblical interpretation. Boyd begins by arguing that Jesus is the supreme, definitive revelation of God’s character and the goal of the entire Bible (ch. 2). Jesus is therefore the “‘hermeneutical key’ to all of Scripture” through whom every Old Testament text must be interpreted (p. 42). After surveying early church exemplars of a Christocentric hermeneutic (ch. 3), Boyd further maintains that the cross is the “‘interpretive key’ that unlocks the ultimate meaning and unity of every aspect of the person and work of Jesus Christ” (p. 142). The cross is the key to Jesus, who is the key to the Bible. Boyd thus advocates not merely a Christocentric hermeneutic, but a crucicentric hermeneutic, wherein the cross is understood as the revelation of God’s agape-centered, other-oriented, self-sacrificial, enemy-embracing, nonviolent love and every interpretation of Scripture is subsequently evaluated on the basis of its conformity to cruciformity, so defined (chaps. 4–6).

With chapters 7–9, Boyd turns his attention to Old Testament accounts of divinely sanctioned violence—the “texts of terror” (p. 279). Boyd surveys in chapter 7 a variety of these most troubling episodes in an attempt to “appreciate the enormous gulf that exists between the violent warrior deity depicted within the ‘dark side’ of the OT and the crucified God who is at the center of the NT” (pp. 332–3), going so far as to argue that the combined force of the hērem command, Jephthah’s vow, and texts such as Exod 22:29–30 and Ezek 20:25–26 demand the conclusion that the Old Testament presents God as approving of child sacrifice (pp. 305–10). Boyd critically evaluates and deems unsatisfactory two methods for addressing the challenges of divine violence in the Old Testament—the dismissal solution (ch. 8), which in Marcionite fashion explicitly rejects these portrayals, and the synthesis solution (ch. 9), which seeks to receive these portrayals as faithful testimonies to God’s work and character that may be harmonized with the New Testament’s revelation of Christ.

Boyd proposes a third alternative—the reinterpretation solution—positing that, because every text must be understood in light of the nonviolent love of the cross, Old Testament portraits of divine violence which appear to contradict this nonviolent revelation should not be read at face value, but must instead be interpreted as instances where God humbly takes on the appearance of sin, just as Boyd maintains Jesus did at the cross (ch. 11). The “terror texts” are not accurate representations of God, but are rather expressions of God’s willingness to non-coercively permit fallen and culturally conditioned sinners to act upon him as they acted upon Christ. Scriptural ascriptions of violence to God “become literary crucifixes that anticipate, and indeed participate in, the historical crucifixion. For with the eyes of our cross-informed faith, we can discern in these literary crucifixes the same humble, stooping, self-sacrificial, sin-bearing God that we find in the historical crucifixion” (pp. 510–1). Boyd sees historical precedent for his reinterpretation strategy in the allegorical method of Origen (ch. 10) and presents his hermeneutic as an expression of the Theological Interpretation of Scripture movement (ch. 12) before closing volume one with four appendices addressing various objections to his proposal. For those concerned that Boyd’s cruciform approach to Scripture—dependent as it is on a nonviolent conception of God—cannot be reconciled with the New Testament witness, Boyd’s interaction with the teachings of Jesus, Paul, and Revelation in Appendices II–IV will be of particular interest.

Volume two, The Cruciform Thesis, applies Boyd’s cruciform hermeneutic to the Old Testament text, presenting four principles for discerning “‘what else is going on’ in narratives that depict Yahweh in violent terms” (p. 634). “The Principle of Cruciform Accommodation” (chs. 13–14) states that, just as Jesus lowered himself to the point of appearing guilty and reflecting the ugliness of sin on the cross, God at times accommodated his self-revelation to Israel’s sinful, culturally conditioned capacities and expectations. Boyd’s version of accommodation does not involve truthful communication in contextualized and understandable terms, but rather false communication that conceals God’s true nonviolent character while simultaneously pointing to God’s willingness to bear human sin. On Boyd’s reading, “God’s very decision to further his purposes through a particular nation that would be established in a particular land, that would be governed by violently enforced laws and defended with violence, was itself a huge accommodation on God’s part” (p. 727), as God donned the mask of a typical ANE tribal deity. This conception of accommodation permits Boyd to read the Old Testament as the faulty, culturally bound human record of encounters with and perspectives of God while simultaneously affirming God’s non-coercive involvement in permitting his character to be tarnished by his people. The Old Testament is thoroughly human without being purely human. “The Principle of Cruciform Accommodation” thus allows Boyd to functionally approach Scripture with many of the interpretive methods of classic Protestant liberalism while nevertheless significantly diverging from that tradition in unequivocally affirming God’s participation in the breathing of the text.

“The Principle of Redemptive Withdrawal” (chs. 15–20) posits that God’s judgment always and only consists of the passive withdrawal of his protective presence as God seeks to redeem his creation by permitting sin to self-destruct. Boyd contends that Scripture supports this conception of divine wrath, arguing that all biblical ascriptions of active agency in violent judgment to God are cruciform accommodations, while all accounts of divine withdrawal and evil’s self-destructive consequences are direct and accurate revelations of God (p. 849).

Building on the previous two principles, “The Principle of Cosmic Conflict” (chaps. 21–24) maintains that, when God withdraws his protecting presence, he permits hostile cosmic forces to act as the active agents of violence. Boyd interprets Old Testament references to ANE deities not as polemical subversions of paganism, but as reflections of an ANE cosmology wherein gods and spiritual beings furiously act upon creation whenever uninhibited by God’s restraining power. Boyd argues that “every narrative in which God is depicted as using ‘natural’ catastrophes as tools of judgment can and should be reframed in this cruciform fashion” as God’s passive unleashing of fallen powers bent on the undoing of creation. He applies this reframing to the Noahic flood, the judgment of Korah’s rebellion, the drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea, and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (pp. 1121–92). All attributions of violence to God in these accounts are read as the culturally conditioned misrepresentations by the authors, and the opening of the earth, deluge of waters, and raining of fire are credited to evil cosmic forces in a manner that does not directly implicate God in the violence.

Finally, “The Principle of Semiautonomous Power” (ch. 25) proposes that when God grants power to people or objects, God allows for the possibility that the power will be misused. This principle permits Boyd to assess as sinful abuses of power the acts of Elisha in 2 Kings 2:23–24 (pp. 1218–24) and Elijah in 2 Kings 1:10–12 (pp. 1224–7), in addition to maintaining that the violence associated with the ark of the covenant is a result of demonic influence in the misuse of the ark’s power (pp. 1231–47). Boyd concludes the work with six appendices addressing sundry issues, including his defense against the charge of supersessionism (Appendix X).

With The Crucifixion of the Warrior God, Boyd offers a massive piece of scholarship that undoubtedly will both inspire lay-level popularizations and generate further academic work on divine nonviolence and the Bible. Boyd’s writing is clear and engaging; his footnotes are extensive; and his desire to read the Scriptures through the lens of the cross is one that can be affirmed even by those who vehemently disagree with his conclusions. The shortcomings of Boyd’s long book are, however, significant.

Disciplined interaction with the voluminous exegetical and theological questions raised by Boyd’s two volumes would require a scholarly tome in its own right, so I will instead focus on the two issues that together compose the fundamental tension Boyd seeks to resolve and that form the foundation from which his entire thesis emerges: the inspiration of the Old Testament and the nonviolent revelation of God in Christ.

Boyd affirms that he believes in the inspiration of the Old Testament, chiefly because that is the way Jesus regarded the Scriptures (p. xxvii). Yet, Boyd’s definition of the “God-breathed” character of Scripture disavows the truthfulness of Scripture’s claims about the acts and character of God. Does this align with Jesus’ view of the Old Testament? Jesus explicitly asserts that God’s word is truth (John 17:17), that Scripture cannot be broken (John 10:35), that even the smallest part of the Law cannot be voided (Luke 16:17), and that in him the Law and the Prophets are not abolished but fulfilled (Matt 5:17–18). Jesus uniformly conceives of the Old Testament not as a concealing mask but as a revealing testimony—not as false words that mischaracterize God, but as God’s words that reflect the truthfulness of the God who cannot lie (Titus 1:2; Heb 6:18).

This confidence in the veracity of Old Testament depictions of God’s character and work undergirds Jesus’s and the New Testament authors’ use of the Old Testament text. Christ’s Scripture-saturated teaching, the Evangelists’ thickly allusive presentations of Jesus and his significance, the apostles’ redemptive-historical preaching in the book of Acts, the epistles’ regular incorporation of Old Testament images, echoes, and citations—all of these are predicated upon the assumption that the Old Testament accurately portrays God’s purposes and activity in history (cf. G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, eds., Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007]). Boyd maintains that passages such as the antitheses of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:21–48) and Jesus’s rebuke of James and John’s desire to call down fire like Elijah (Luke 9:51–55) demonstrate Jesus’s willingness to repudiate and renounce the Old Testament (pp. 67–84). However, such a reading is as unwarranted as it is extreme, for there is nothing in Jesus’s teachings here or elsewhere that gives the impression that he understood the Old Testament as flawed in its theology or ethics, even as he corrected contemporary interpretations and signaled redemptive-historical shifts in the character of his kingdom (cf. John Wenham, Christ and the Bible, 3rd ed. [Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2009]). Though Boyd claims that his approach to the Old Testament is “at least analogous” to the approach of the New Testament authors (p. 509), even this modest assessment is too charitable. Boyd laments that no one has interpreted the Old Testament in the manner he proposes (pp. 137–38), but perhaps the reason why Boyd’s reading of the Old Testament has not emerged in the church is simply because neither Jesus nor the New Testament authors read the Old Testament that way.

The permissibility of Boyd’s reinterpretation of the Old Testament’s violent portraits of God depends upon the theological conviction that Scripture may err in its overt claims about God. But the criteria Boyd uses to evaluate whether Scripture errs in particular claims depends upon a specific conception of Jesus as the revelation of God’s nonviolent love. Is the Jesus of the New Testament the Jesus Boyd describes?

Jesus’s own words suggest that the answer is no. Boyd addresses the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt 18:21–35) as representative of Jesus’s violent parabolic teaching and argues that recognition of the generic tendencies of parables—that they have one specific point, utilize familiar categories, and employ shocking elements—is sufficient to avoid the conclusion that Jesus’s parables teach God will exact violent eschatological judgment. Of course, immediately following the unforgiving servant’s deliverance to jailors/torturers, Jesus says, “So [οὕτως] also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matt 10:35 ESV). Boyd’s survey of widely acknowledged parabolic conventions does little to alter Jesus’s direct connection between the servant’s punishment and God’s eschatological judgment. Nor does it address Jesus’s reference to violent judgment in his explanations of parables (e.g., Matt 13:40–43, 49–50). Jesus’ explicit, non-parabolic teachings that liken the parousia of the Son of Man to the days of Noah (Matt 24:36–39) and Lot (Luke 17:28–37) are given no treatment.

The rest of the New Testament follows Jesus in affirming God’s active judgment. In an appendix devoted to the book of Revelation, Boyd argues that references throughout the book to Old Testament divine violence are entirely subversive and thus present a nonviolent Jesus. Boyd gives considerable attention to Revelation 19 (pp. 622–27), but his interpretation of the passage is dependent upon his summary and reconstruction of its inner logic. If one approaches the text of Revelation 19 in its canonical context and form, it quickly becomes apparent that Boyd’s nonviolent reading is incapable of accounting for the structure and literary coherence of the passage.

Paul in 2 Thessalonians 1:6–9 describes the Lord Jesus as inflicting vengeance upon the wicked at his second coming, but Boyd suggests that this and other texts that speak of God violently punishing and bringing destruction upon enemies (e.g., 1 Thess 2:14–16; Phil 1:28) are merely instances where Paul seeks to satisfy a sinful desire for revenge (p. 589). Boyd goes on to claim that “there is nothing in [Paul’s] writings … that qualifies the altogether nonviolent portrait of God revealed in the crucified Christ” (p. 591). When one considers the full number of texts in which Paul affirms God’s active vengeance against sin, stretching across the Pauline corpus, such a claim rings hollow. Paul met the risen Lord and affirmed his vengeance; Luke gathered eyewitness testimony and attributed judgment to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:1–11); Jude, the Lord’s brother, taught that Jesus destroyed unbelieving Israelites after the exodus (Jude 5); Peter was taught for forty days by the resurrected, not-yet-ascended Lord and declared that God’s active judgments in the Old Testament confirm his ability to judge in the future (2 Pet 2:4–10). Boyd’s confident claims to the contrary result in a nonviolent portrait of Jesus that fails to do justice to the full Christ of the New Testament.

Boyd warns against hermeneutic approaches that “cannot avoid the problem of reducing texts down to a proverbial ‘wax nose’ that one can use to fit whatever face they want” (pp. 522–23). But this is precisely what The Crucifixion of the Warrior God provides. Every text that seems to confirm Boyd’s thesis is “the Spirit breaking through the hardness of God’s people” (p. 494), while every text—in both testaments—that incontrovertibly contradicts Boyd’s understanding of Jesus is explained as a sinful misrepresentation of God’s character. With such a neatly unfalsifiable system, how could the text of Scripture ever conceivably break through as a corrective?

More remains to be said about Boyd’s work—his inattention to important redemptive-historical considerations, his epistemological prioritization of the historical-critical method, his presentation of the atonement, his open theistic doctrine of God, his conclusion that Jesus would not have regarded Moses, Joshua, or David as children of the Father (p. 82)—but we may conclude by acknowledging that The Crucifixion of the Warrior God is both a gift to and an opportunity for the church. It is a gift insofar as it exposes the hermeneutical lengths to which one must resort in order to defend the nonviolent God thesis. And it is an opportunity for scholars and theologians who affirm the truthfulness of the Bible to rigorously engage the most troubling Old Testament texts in a manner that accounts for their redemptive-historical location in the canonical narrative of God’s work and that compellingly demonstrates not only the coherence of the inspired Scriptures, but also the soul-satisfying beauty of the God about whom they testify.

Trevor Laurence

Trevor Laurence
University of Exeter
Exeter, England, UK

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