As I read Boyd’s long book Crucifixion of the Warrior God, I am reminded of a common debate and inconsistency in Christian circles. Some Christians will argue for a literal interpretation of every passage of scripture. They argue for this when it comes to social issues like gay marriage and anyone who questions them is told to be on a slippery slope and compromising with culture. What strikes me is when Jesus’ clear teachings on nonviolence are brought up, from his words in the sermon on the mount to not striking back, on through his dying on the cross and calling his followers to take up theirs, these same Christians explain it away. Jesus, they insist, did not actually mean what he said.
In one area, to question a straightforward reading of scripture is a slippery slope.
In another, we need to question a straightforward reading of scripture.
Perhaps we are all guilty of this. We all bring presuppositions and assumptions to our reading and tend to read in a way that confirms this. So conservatives see the Bible supporting conservative political and social views while liberals see the Bible supporting their views.
How do we determine what the Bible is about?
Boyd argues that for Christians in the first centuries, the key to interpreting scripture is not the author’s original meaning but how this scripture points to Christ. He writes: “It becomes clear that finding Christ in Scripture was a far more pressing concern for them than discerning an OT author’s originally intended meaning” (97).
So when we come to the violent portraits of God in the Old Testament, the question becomes how do these relate to Jesus Christ?
One view would argue that Jesus just give us one understanding of God, alongside of these other portrayals. Jesus says to love your enemies while God in the Old Testament commands Israel to destroy their enemies and we are left with two equal, and differing, understandings of what God desires us to do towards our enemies. Thus, sometimes God calls for the destruction of enemies while other times God says to love them. This is how we end up with the argument that God is love and wrath that need to be balanced.
Boyd argues though, if this is the case, then to interpret the Old Testament violent portrayals of God at face value leads to an interpretation that would not be any different if Jesus had never come:
“What does it mean to declare that ‘in the whole Scripture there is nothing but Christ,’ as Luther did, when one nevertheless interprets portraits of God commanding genocide or slaughtering families by smashing parents and children together (Jer 13:14) exactly the same was as they would if they did not believe ‘there is nothing but Christ…in the whole of Scripture?’ If ever a distinctly Christocentric hermeneutic should make a difference in how Scripture is interpreted, I would think it would be in how we interpret sub-Christ-like portraits of God such as these” (138)
If our Christian interpretations of these violent scriptures would be no different if Jesus had never existed.
That should give us pause.
Another view would argue that Jesus gives us the clearest understanding of who God is. Jesus is fully human and fully God, thus we can say Jesus is the human face of God. Whatever anything else says about God, even scripture, is secondary to Jesus. Jesus is not one image of God alongside of others. This means we interpret the rest of scripture through the lens of Jesus.
Why have Christians hesitated to allow our experience of Jesus to change how we view these scriptures. Boyd has one reason that, disturbingly, may have much truth to it:
“Reading Scripture shapes out spiritual condition while our spiritual condition influences our interpretation of Scripture. What was distinctive about the Anabaptists’ use of this insight, however – and what set them at odds with their Protestant and Catholic contemporaries – was that they attached it to their distinctive emphasis on the importance of obeying the teachings and example of Jesus. Some Anabaptists thus insinuated that the reason the magisterial church leaders like Luther and Calvin failed to see the centrality of nonviolence in Jesus’ teaching and example was not because the teaching was ambiguous but because their allegiance to, and privileged position within, the state made obeying this teaching too costly. It was an allegation that did not endear them to their opponents” (128-129).
The idea that we bring our assumption to scripture is not new. It has been an obstacle to understanding and living out scripture for centuries.