I am currently working through Greg Boyd’s massive and challenging new book, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Volumes 1 & 2, his two-volume explanation and defense of a hermeneutical approach that Christians can take to resolve the disparities between the wrathful, violent, even genocidal God of the Hebrew Bible and God revealed through the non-violent teachings and actions of Jesus, especially the cross. I had hoped to have some material ready to share with you by now, but I’m still working through how to best capture and summarize 1400 pages of fairly intricate reasoning.
This subject has, of course, become an issue of intense interest in the 21st century. Since 9/11/2001, horrific violence in the name of religion has been in the spotlight, and Jews and Christians as well as Muslims have had to face their own legacy of killing on behalf of God.
For we Christians, our problem starts with the Bible’s portrayal of God in the Old Testament. When we compare that with the revelation of God through Jesus, Boyd finds himself dealing with serious questions.
I have come to believe that Jesus revealed an agape-centered, other-oriented, self-sacrificial God who opposes violence and who commands his people to refrain from violence (e.g., Matt 5:39-45, Luke 6:27-36). I also believe in the divine inspiration of the Old Testament, primarily because I have good reason to believe Jesus treated it as such. …Yet I and everyone else who shares these two convictions face a condundrum.
How are we to reconcile the God revealed in Christ, who chose to die for his enemies rather than crush them, with the many OT portraits of Yahweh violently smiting his enemies? How are we to reconcile the God revealed in Christ, who made swearing off violence a precondition for being considered a “child of your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:45) with the portraits of Yahweh commanding his followers to slaughter every man, woman, child, and animal in certain regions of Canaan (e.g., Deut 7:2, 20:16-20)? How are we to reconcile the God revealed in Christ, who with his dying breath prayed for the forgiveness of his tormentors (Luke 23:34) and who taught his disciples to forgive “seven times seventy” (Matt 18:21-22), with the OT’s portraits of God threatening a curse on anyone who extended mercy toward enemies (Jer 48:10; cf. Debt 7:2, 16; 13:8; 19:13)? And how can we possibly reconcile the God revealed in Christ, who expressed profound love for children, promising blessings on all who treated them well and pronouncing warnings for all who might harm them (Luke 18:15-17; Matt 10:42, 18:6-14), with the OT portrait of God bringing judgment on his people by having parents cannibalize their own children (Lev 26:28-29; Jer 19, 7,9; Lam 2:20; Ezek 5:9-10)?
As I process Boyd’s book, I thought we might review what a few others have said on this subject. We start today with the Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne, whose book, Testing Scripture: A Scientist Explores the Bible, takes what he calls a “developmental” view of the Bible’s presentation of God and his dealings with his people and their world. We blogged through this book a few years ago, and this is an edited re-post of one of our articles.
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“Development,” chapter two of John Polkinghorne’s small book on the Bible, is, for some, one of the more controversial sections in Testing Scripture. Whether you end up agreeing with him or not, you will admire his courage in dealing with some of the toughest questions honest Bible readers face.
We all know the story of how “Joshua fit the battle of Jericho,” and we delight in what it teaches us about how God gives victory to his people. However, if we have any human sensitivity, we shudder in horror when we read Joshua 6:21: “Then they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys.” This and other texts that attribute massacres and genocide to the express command of God himself are difficult for modern readers to swallow. Even more challenging is reconciling this portrayal of God with what Scripture tells us of Jesus, who said, “Love your enemies.”
How do you deal with these seemingly incompatible views of God’s nature and ways?
Here is how John Polkinghorne handles the conundrum. He writes:
I believe that response to this dilemma demands the recognition that the record of revelation contained in Scripture is one of a developing understanding of the divine will and nature, continuously growing over time but never complete, and quite primitive in its earliest stages. Only slowly and falteringly could progress be made in Israel towards gaining a fuller comprehension of the reality of God.
This solution will probably not be acceptable to evangelicals and others who hold more conservative views about the nature of the Bible. There may be development of doctrine in Scripture, they would say, but even the earliest and most so-called “primitive” depictions of God were inspired by him and are accurate portrayals of his character and actions. If the Bible records that God commanded the destruction of their enemies, it is not just telling us that this is how the Hebrews, with a less developed view of God, interpreted their mission. Rather, that is what God actually commanded his people, and the divinely inspired account accurately records his perspective, not theirs. If the Bible says that God told them to do something, that’s what happened. With such an interpretive approach, the next step is inevitably to become an apologist for God, to defend the record of “inerrant” scripture as accurate reporting, and to come up with explanations that vindicate God of wrongdoing.
However, John Polkinghorne sees this development as part of the human side of Scripture. “We can recognize within it an unfolding process of insight and understanding as God’s nature was progressively revealed,” he says. Thus, the earlier depictions reflect an incomplete and inaccurate knowledge of God and their own time-bound interpretations of the events they were experiencing. “A primitive society could conceive no better insight than the use of force against unbelievers as the expression of its faithful following of Yahweh, the God of Israel.”
Polkinghorne gives a few other examples of development in the Hebrew Bible:
- In earlier parts of the Bible, Israel held henotheistic beliefs — they owed Yahweh exclusive allegiance but the gods of the other peoples around them were also real and a threat that must be faced. However, by the time of Second Isaiah, “henotheism has uncompromisingly become monotheism. There is no divine reality at all other than Yahweh” (Isa 42:8, 43:10).
- Likewise, the concept of individual responsibility only arose later in Israel’s history, whereas in early narratives we read about people like Achan, whose entire family suffered for his personal sin.
John Polkinghorne suggests that this “multilayered” understanding of Scripture may help us come to grips with some of the depictions or so-called “contradictions” in Scripture. “Often passages in the canonical text, presented as if they were a unity, have in fact been formed by intermingling material drawn from a variety of sources, composed at different times and, therefore, reflecting different stages of development.”
As those who worked with the sacred texts read and edited them into their final form, they let stand conundrums, conflicts, and inconsistencies that perplex readers to this day.
Thus it is clear that before the Hebrew Bible reached its final canonical form there was a long developmental process, involving reworking of much that had been inherited from the past in the light of the understanding and experience of the present. Yet the editors who assembled the final text apparently did not find it necessary to smooth out the differences present in the sources that they used. Instead, the deposit of many generations was often allowed to stand together in the formation of Scripture. The long process of development was not obliterated in order to produce the appearance of a single consistent text. The explorations of the past were not to be totally obscured from view.