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.