Greg Boyd and the shadow of the cross

This summer I started listening to the podcast of Greg Boyd, a Minnesota pastor who ruffles a lot of feathers in the reformed tradition from which he comes. Boyd has spent most of the last two months in the second chapter of Colossians. He just started a new sermon series called “the shadow of the cross” based on Colossians 2:17-18: “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” In a sermon a couple of weeks ago, Boyd uses this basic paradigm of contrasting the shadow with the reality of Christ to tackle one of the most difficult problems in Christian theology: reconciling the nationalist warrior God of the Old Testament with the revelation of God through Christ in the New Testament. Boyd offers a way of reading the Old Testament through the lens of the cross in which God’s depiction as a warrior god is a shadow of the reality that is to come in Christ.

The dissonance between the Old Testament God and the New Testament Christ has been a challenge for Christians since the beginning. The God who tells the Israelites under Joshua to slaughter every man, woman, and child in every Canaanite city they conquer seems categorically different from the Jesus who tells his followers to love their enemies and bless those who curse them. One of the very first heresies of the church was a response to this problem. Marcion of Sinope, who lived in the mid-100’s, claimed that the God described in the Old Testament wasn’t really God, but rather an imposter from whom Jesus came to rescue humanity. Marcion made his own Bible, excluding all of the Old Testament and all of the verses in the New Testament which quoted or referred favorably to the Old Testament. It was Marcionism that forced the early church to formally establish the Biblical canon, deciding which writings would be in the Bible and which would be out. The church rejected Marcion’s teaching, affirming the validity of the Old Testament as part of the Bible and the unity of the Old Testament God and the New Testament God.

Since that time, the shenanigans of the Old Testament God have continued to be a source of distress and embarrassment for Christians. The fourth century theologian Augustine was only able to convert to Christianity after hearing the preaching of Ambrose, the bishop of Rome, who said that the scandalous Old Testament passages could be interpreted allegorically instead of literally, drawing upon Paul’s important statement in 2 Corinthians 3:6 that “the letter kills, but the spirit gives life.” When Augustine laid out his principles for Biblical interpretation in De Doctrina Christiana, he said that any passage in the Bible that does not contribute to love of God or love of neighbor should not be read literally but allegorically instead (an approach to Biblical interpretation which would be utterly preposterous to today’s Biblical literalists).

With the allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament came the idea that the Old Testament should be read as encoded testimony about the coming of Jesus Christ. While it might seem crazy to us today, Christians in past centuries would find symbolism in every detail of the text that related somehow to Christ. If an Israelite king had four pigeons in his palace, then these four pigeons might stand for Christ’s four roles as king, prophet, priest, and servant. The point of reading the Old Testament was to find the symbolism, not to find literal examples for how to live in the genocide that God commanded his people to carry out.

I don’t have time to go through all the history of attempts to reconcile the Old Testament God with the New Testament Jesus. But it is interesting how many celebrity evangelical pastors today make the Old Testament God the norm through which Jesus is interpreted instead of the other way around. Mark Driscoll has talked about his preference for the “prize fighter Jesus” of Revelation who looks more like the Old Testament warrior God than the woos who got jacked up on the cross. John Piper delights in describing natural disasters as God’s expression of wrath against humanity much as they were described in the Old Testament. There is a way in which today’s pop-evangelicals engage in their own form of neo-Marcionism. Instead of attempting to reconcile and interweave the Jesus who prayed forgiveness for the people who murdered him and the warrior God of the Old Testament who told his people to take no prisoners, the warrior God and Jesus are stacked on top of each other as a good cop/bad cop duo, particularly in the pop-evangelical account of Jesus’ cross. The Father becomes the crucifier of the Son, who dies in order to save us from His Father. When Jesus’ cross is not a depiction of God’s self-sacrifice, but God’s punishment of His Son, then we are no longer talking about a single Trinitarian deity but two different gods divided along the same fault-line that Marcion saw, the only difference being that the qualities Marcion abhorred about the Old Testament God are celebrated today as features of a “tough,” politically incorrect theology.

In any case, Greg Boyd’s preaching is a polemical response to today’s pop-evangelicals who celebrate the violence of the Old Testament God in a way that detracts from the scandalous, mysterious beauty of the power in Jesus’ weakness on the cross. Boyd urges us, as others have, to interpret God’s actions in the Old Testament through the lens of the cross. He understands this to mean that Jesus’ experience on the cross is analogous to God’s experience in the Old Testament. Furthermore, the depiction of God in the Old Testament is a shadow of the reality of Christ revealed most perfectly through His self-emptying sacrifice on the cross. When Boyd looks at the cross, he sees Christ taking on the world’s sin as His own and allowing Himself to be portrayed as a lowly criminal. So Boyd extrapolates from this that the Old Testament God takes on His people’s sin as His own by allowing them to put His blessing on their sinful actions and letting them represent Him as a ruthless nationalist warrior god (even though He really wasn’t).

I’m not sure I completely buy into Boyd’s analogy. For one thing, in the New Testament, Jesus is more than just the passive, gentle recipient of the world’s sin. He also argues with religious authorities, whips money changers, and rebukes demons. He’s not just meek and mild; He’s complicated. So what Jesus does on the cross may be the culmination of God’s revelation through Him, but I’m not sure it’s fair to call it the totality of that revelation. However, I do think that it’s fair to say that the Bible is the story of how God’s people got to know Him through a progressive arc of revelation, imperfectly before Jesus and perfectly in Jesus. It may scandalize the Biblical literalists for me to say this, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to notice that the actions and words that are attributed to God in the Bible improve in their accuracy as the people of Israel mature in their relationship to God. The third section of the book of Isaiah is the closest the Old Testament comes to understanding God through its depiction of the suffering servant that Jesus would later become. In contrast, Genesis 11:6 can be understood as a less precise revelation of God’s character, since it depicts God acting out of a panicked insecurity in response to the Tower of Babel (“If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them”). Usually, when “literalists” read the Tower of Babel passage, they don’t read it literally, but rather superimpose a sinfulness onto the people in the text that deserves God’s punishment, when all that the text says in its literal sense is that God confused the peoples’ languages because He was scared of their power.

Regardless, what we do know is that “no one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known” (John 1:18). Jesus is God’s perfect revelation. As he says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” The Old Testament is legitimately a part of our authoritative canon because it prepares the way for Jesus, but the Old Testament God does not get to trump Jesus just because we relish a tougher sounding theology. Somehow the one who died on the cross is not different in essence from the one who led the Israelites into battle. While I’m not completely sure about Greg Boyd’s solution to this problem, I do think his use of the metaphorical duality of Colossians 2:18 is helpful. Whatever the Old Testament reveals about God is only a shadow of the reality that was to come in Christ.


21 thoughts on “Greg Boyd and the shadow of the cross

  1. Actually, Morgan, one point of correction. The gospels are not clear that Jesus used the whip on the money changers themselves. The gospel of John is the only one that mentions a whip and the language reads more on the lines of using the whip on the animals when John writes “drove them out”. So, I’d be a bit cautious in tossing in that use of violence and attributing it to Jesus. Now, he DID use some harsh words at times and he certainly kicked over tables and yelled at folks about their use of the temple. But that is still a different character than a God who calls for genocide.

    I’m tracking along with Greg on the OT being a “shadow” of the NT… and that what we have in the OT are people writing down their perceptions and interpretations of God and how God interacts. Much like we are imperfect in our own theologizing about even Jesus and his ministry (just read all the different thoughts on atonement theory), it seems that it follows that OT writers may have similar difficulties in wrapping their head around God from within their ANE contexts.

    I’m looking forward to reading Greg’s upcoming book “Crucifixion of the Warrior God” which explains his hermeneutic in more detail. But I appreciate the thoughts you have here.

  2. I’ve often thought that many of the radical neo-pacifists in the church lean towards a kind of supercessionism. I’ve yet to hear a good explanation as to how God goes from being a warrior to a peacenik in a matter of a few centuries.

    I’ve found most of Boyd’s stuff irksome, but I suppose to each their own. I think Jews would and should have an issue with YHWH being a mere shadow; you don’t get Jesus without a kind of distillation of the Old Testament story.

    There should be some middle ground to occupy between Boyd and the hippies and Driscoll and the knuckle-draggers.

    • No Mr. Guyton….we are not all heretics. We were all once sinners.We are now called saints. Boyd’s theology is all wrong. He changes the nature of God which may throw him in the areana of heretics. I haven’t spent any time considering that. The basis of his thinking is all wrong as if the God of the OT is someone seperate from the Father. If Boyd were to teach the Father and Son are not in complete harmony agreement and oneness he would qualify as a heretic. The God of the Old Testament and the Jesus of the new are one God. They are not in competition with one another.

      • By the way, you just proved my point by saying something heretical: “We were all once sinners.We are now called saints.” 1 John 1:8: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”

    • It is a stretch to get all of that mileage out of one verse which is really contrasting the prescriptions of the law with relationship to Christ. But simply making the Old Testament God Father and the New Testament Jesus Son is not reconciling the two at all, but creating a good cop / bad cop duality.

      • Boyd is trying to make his point by changing the nature of God.
        I assume you know what open theist teach.
        Omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient are compromised.
        God’s nature as found in the Jesus and OT God Boyd portrays are not the God as revealed in scripture.
        Where Jesus was perfect and needed no sacrifice because Jesus was Holy and Righteous:

        “For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.” 2 Corinthians 5
        You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you.Acts 3:14

        We are not.
        The distortions and words chosen by these new thinkers are very suttle and it is easy to misunderstand what they are really saying.

        Who says there is a good cop/bad cop duality?
        You assume our reading and understanding superior to God’s revelation of himself to man.
        That is where you are wrong.
        That is where Boyd is wrong.

        • It’s 21st century American evangelical Christianity that has changed the nature of God in order to fit into its mass-produced, middle-class friendly packaging. The Bible does need to be rescued from the misinterpretations that have developed. Does Boyd do a perfect job of that? No. I disagree with a fair amount of what he says. But the problem he is responding to is a legitimate problem.

          “You assume our reading and understanding superior to God’s revelation of himself to man.” I could say the same thing back to you with just as much legitimacy. What makes your reading and understanding equivalent to God’s revelation of himself to man while mine is not? You refuse to acknowledge that you have a fallible reading and understanding. None of us have unmediated access to God’s revelation. We both have imperfect interpretations of God’s perfect revelation.

          We’re just going to go around in circles on this one. Bless you brother.

    • I suppose one can find some gold nuggets in Greg Boyd’s preaching if you look long enough.
      Rather than go into a lot of detail, let me refer you to my book which is an attempt to find another approach. I am afraid that I am pretty hard on open theists, though.
      “CrossCurrents: Making Sense of the Christian Life”

  3. Hey, I just downloaded those podcasts last week but I haven’t listened to them yet. This is a subject I have been heavily interested in for a long time. I’m currently reading a book called “The Bible Made Impossible” by Christian Smith which is similar in subject matter but not so specific in regards to the theology of the cross (at least not yet). Thanks for the post; I look forward to hearing Greg Boyd’s take for myself sometime soon. Peace.

  4. Remember the Trinity.
    The Triune God.
    Remember “In the beginning”
    Remember th plurality, unified, in complete agreement of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy spirit in ALL things.
    Remembering those things and the oneness of God throws Boryd’s foundation out the window.
    The Jews have been studying the OT for centuries. It is how they come to understand God.
    The OT includes the original representation of God to man and it was God’s choice to do so, thru the prophets, in the manner he did.
    Jesus reminds us of that truth.

    I would not be following Marcion’s teaching.

    Luke 3:2-6 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert.
    3 He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins
    4 As is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: “A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.
    5 Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth.
    6 And all mankind will see God’s salvation.’”

    • To be fair, what Marcion taught and what Greg Boyd teaches are not the same thing. While we may not agree with Greg Boyd’s attempt to resolve the dilemma, I don’t think we can/should put him in the same camp with Marcion. While I haven’t listened to the sermon yet, I do think that is it good that Boyd recognizes that the dilemma exists, a fact many Christians are content to pretend doesn’t exist. The recognition of the dilemma Morgan describes in his blog is not something to be feared, nor is it a heresy; it’s just being honest. We should try to think out ways to approach this dilemma in a theologically sound way. But at the end of the day when the dilemma is still staring you in the face, if you’re a Christian, you have to follow Christ. The One we follow is a person and not a particular view of Scripture. That’s at the center of Christianity. We follow the words and actions of Christ. If his words and actions seem different than the words and actions of God in the Old Testament (due to our lack of understanding or for any reason whatsoever), we must choose to cling to Christ’s words and actions rather than what we see in the Old Testament. We just have to. We’re Christians; we follow Christ. I fear that the great heresy of our day will be to replace our allegiance to Christ with an allegiance to a particular view of Scripture that borders on idolatry–a view many Christians before us did not even hold.

    • Yeah I don’t really see how what you’re saying “throws Boyd’s foundation out the window.” Jesus is the key that illuminates the Old Testament for us as Christians. Jesus illuminates the God whom the Israelites did not know as well in the time of Joshua, not vice-versa. Neo-Marcionism is what tries to create a bad cop / good cop duality between the Son and the Father. There is no duality as you said even though they are three persons. So I’m not sure what you’re finding to argue against in what I wrote. Or how John the Baptist’s story relates to the topic at hand.

        • So you dismiss what someone has to say based upon a label that you use for them? I don’t play the label game. We’re all heretics to some degree and God can speak truth through us in spite of our ignorance. I don’t agree with everything Boyd says. Why don’t you engage the challenge that he raises directly with a counter-argument instead of just using a label?

        • Actually, Open Theism was not fully rejected… in fact, there are some early church documents that support it. I don’t have them at my fingertips but if you engage in conversation with some Open Theists, I’m sure they can point you towards them.

          I lean towards it a bit myself, more in thinking (perhaps inaccurately) using an analogy from quantum physics. Each decision point in our lives has multiple possibilities with the potential for many different outcomes. So, for anything we do, there are any number of possibilities lined up as potential futures. For us, living linearly, we only see the line in the past where we have been and we can’t see all the potential futures for every decision we make. However, God, being transcendent of time (having created space and time themselves), can see not only our present situation, but the entirety of our past, present, and all of our potential futures in one shot. He is sovereign in that he sees it all and can interact at any point at any “time”, non-linearly. And he can act on any one of our “potential” futures because, for him, they aren’t potential, they are “real” futures. It’s a rough concept to wrap our heads around, being linear people. But think of God as being a person holding a ball of string in his hand and being able to see all the twists and turns and tangles and being able to comprehend the whole.

          This is how Open Theism views things… not that God doesn’t know the future, but God knows ALL the potential futures and can act and work to guide and influence us but, ultimately, our free will determines the specific futures our lives take. Watch the movie “Adjustment Bureau” for a narrative way of describing such a thing in contrast with a deterministic God.

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