Greg Boyd on evil, spiritual warfare, and divine sovereignty

I’ve started reading Greg Boyd’s God At War, which I checked out of the local seminary library at the recommendation of a friend. In it, Boyd suggests that there are two basic ways of understanding the presence of evil in the world: the warfare worldview in which good and evil are locked in a cosmic conflict and classical philosophical theism which is derived from Greek metaphysics in which the attributes given to God require Him to be in direct control of everything so that all good and evil are a part of God’s will. Boyd suggests that Christianity had a warfare worldview prior to Augustine and classical philosophical theism after Augustine corrupted Christianity with Greek metaphysics. I’m only sixty pages into the book and I’m not sure what I think, so I thought I would think aloud for a little bit.

Boyd’s first chapter provides the example of Zosia, a Jewish girl in the Warsaw ghetto who had her eyeballs ripped out by Nazi soldiers. He juxtaposes this story of radical, senseless evil with Augustine’s account in City of God for how God providentially uses evil:

God would never have created any… whose wickedness He foreknew, unless He had equally known to what uses in behalf of the good He would turn him, thus embellishing the course of the ages, as it were an exquisite poem set off with antitheses. For what are called antitheses are among the most elegant of the ornaments of speech… As, then, these oppositions of contraries lend beauty to the language, so the beauty of the course of this world is achieved by the opposition of contraries. [City of God 5.10, quoted on Boyd, 45]

It is a bit tone-deaf to call a little girl’s ripped-out eyeballs “antitheses in an exquisite poem.” I’ve read elsewhere in Augustine where he uses the analogy of the painting with dark spaces and light spaces; if it were all one color, it wouldn’t be beautiful, which is why God includes evil and tragedy as part of His plan for the poetry of creation. Now a fair question would be whether what Augustine is saying here could be reappropriated by someone taking Boyd’s position to support an argument for why God has chosen not to be a meticulous puppet-master.

An important distinction that needs to be made is the difference between what God actively causes and what God allows. Do Augustine and the inheritors of his tradition, particularly among the reformed branch of Christianity, really argue that God actively causes evil for providential purposes or would they ultimately say that God just allows it while retaining His ultimate sovereignty? How much distance is there really between Boyd’s stance and the Augustinian tradition?

What Augustine was reacting to, by the way, was a philosophy/religion called Manichaeism which had a very rigid view of what Boyd calls the warfare worldview, basically saying that the world was locked into a struggle between good and evil forces that had always been fighting each other with neither one being stronger than the other and neither one ever being guaranteed the victory. In the Manichean worldview, God and Satan would have equal strength and an equal likelihood of winning. Boyd objects to this extreme. He says that God is omnipotent and sovereign, but that He deliberately allows a lot of freedom within creation:

The cosmos is, by divine choice, more of a democracy than it is a monarchy. The warfare worldview thus presupposes the reality of relatively autonomous free creatures, human and angelic, who can and do act genuinely on their own, and who can and do sometimes go against God’s will. It thus presupposes the reality of radical contingency and of genuine risk. It further presupposes that this risk has sometimes gone bad, even on a cosmic scale, and that this has turned the earth into a veritable war zone. [58]

So I suppose Boyd’s modification to Augustine’s metaphor would be to say that instead of creation being an intricately planned painting in which God has plotted out carefully exactly where evil will cause beauty in its harmonious balance with good, God has pulled a Jackson Pollock and handed out a billion paintbrushes to His creatures to make a chaotic, messy painting, letting the dark and light colors fall where they may.

The thing about it though is I’m not sure it makes a difference to Zosia’s mother whether God actively willed that her daughter’s eyeballs were ripped out or they got ripped out because God chose to renounce meticulous control over His creation. Isn’t the same problem of theodicy applicable either way? Either God is a sadist who burns the village to save the village or God is the bureaucrat who says, “I’m sorry I couldn’t jump in and save the day, I agreed to tie my own hands.”

One of the places where Manichaeism seems to infiltrate Boyd’s otherwise carefully staked commitment to God’s full sovereignty is the question of whether the cosmic war between good and evil is a “genuine” war or not: “For a war that meticulously follows a blueprint that has been drawn up by one of the parties involved in the war (God) is hardly a real war” (67). If God doesn’t control the outcome and it is in fact a “real war,” doesn’t that mean definitively that God is one of two competing deities neither of whom is a certain victor?

I don’t mean to quibble so much. One thing I will say is that the Augustinian shift in Christianity is reflected in the shift in understanding of Jesus’ atonement from the patristic to medieval era in the West. When Satan and the forces of evil were taken seriously as real combatants and not just illusive “non-beings,” then Jesus’ purpose in coming to Earth was “to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). His blood on the cross “bought” the captives of Satan in a sort of trick ransom payment that resulted in Satan’s defeat.

In a world of meticulous divine sovereignty, the cross pays a penalty rather than a ransom. Satan’s role in the equation of atonement is replaced by Jesus’ infinitely offended Father (which is a bit disturbing to think about). The problem is not that Satan has sinners enslaved; it is the fact that they’ve pissed off their Creator.

I find myself in the middle on all of these questions. I think there is a lot of legitimacy to seeing evil in Augustinian terms as the privation of good, or choosing a lesser good over a greater good. Many people do evil things without being wholly irrational and malicious. It’s dangerous to assume that our opponents are wholly irrational and malicious. I’ve argued before that Christianity is supposed to teach us the humility to avoid a Manichean demonization of our enemies.

Additionally, I am wary of putting too much stock into hidden realms of angels and demons because this can be abused so easily. Schizophrenics have legitimate brain chemical issues that can be addressed with the right medication; they don’t just need a good exorcism. I’ve had the first-hand experience of overconfident spiritual “discernment” last fall when I went through my personal Asuza Street awakening and started calling out “anti-Christs” that I supposedly “saw” which were really my own predilections hypercharged with a sense of “spiritual” certainty. I really hope that God (and/or any angels that exist as such) are not dependent upon my naming things in the “right way” when I pray before He/they act on whatever petitions I throw before them. That’s an abdication of divine sovereignty that I would have a big problem with.

At the same time, I also disagree with an interpretation of our world in which all morality is strictly divided between  autonomous individual moral agents. When our behavior patterns synergize into street mobs, stock markets, or other sociological forces, we are creating demonic beings that take on a life of their own and turn back around to dictate our actions. Jean Baudrillard writes a lot about how the “real world” is actually the world inside the screen (TV, internet, etc) that we may have created at some point, but which now creates us.

I do think that we need Jesus to rescue us from Satan, rather than just the abstract violation of God’s honor. There are real chains that God didn’t put on us and that we didn’t entirely put on ourselves which need to be broken. There is something or somebody greater than my own distorted appetites and inclinations that ensnares me in sin and opposes God’s work in my life.

I’ve experienced this recently with an unusual degree of paralysis and anxiety I’ve felt facing my interim role with the youth ministry at our church this summer (and possibly fall). Perhaps it just feels better to view this as a spiritual battle in which I can cry to God to deliver me from a real enemy who is seeking to deceive me, rather than just seeing it as a personal existential struggle in which I self-talk my way into taming my passions and following my reason. In any case, part of me will always be the son of a scientist, but I’m still going to pray like a Pentecostal.


21 thoughts on “Greg Boyd on evil, spiritual warfare, and divine sovereignty

  1. Raised in a charismatic system and in adulthood finding myself in a more anti-charismatic system I have struggled to identify a balance. It is good to know where the systems of thought began. Thanks for these thoughtful words.

  2. Hard conversation to enter. I have read Boyd and the Basingers and I agree with free will theism. But I am also excited by what Rob Bell (don’t hit me) has to say in Love Wins.That God is a God of Reconciliation.

  3. Morgan,
    I’m excited you’re reading and interacting with “God at War” and will continue to look for your reflections. This book lays a great foundation, presenting the spiritual warfare motif in the Old and New Testaments. Boyd’s full theodicy is fleshed-out in “Satan and the Problem of Evil,” so I’d love to hear your feedback on that volume as well.

    In regards to your question about whether theodicy would make a difference to Zosia’s mother, I can’t speak directly for her, but I am a mother who recently watched her child suffer and die and I can tell you that the Warfare Worldview made a tremendous difference in my understanding of God and my relationship to him.

    Without getting into the specifics of the theodicy, I wanted to share that this understanding of God’s role in suffering aligns my heart and mind concerning God’s character, resulting in a new-found passion for God that was starkly absent when I thought life unfolded according to a mysterious divine blueprint.

    The Warfare Worldview asserts that God is responsible for a creation where evil is a possibility (a risk inherent in creating for the purpose of love), but that God does not specifically allow (or cause) every evil act/instance of suffering to glorify himself. My experience has been that this makes a tremendous impact, if for no other reason, than that I am assured of the purity, safety, and loving nature of God’s arms.

    Again, I’m so excited that you’re exploring/blogging about theodicy and eagerly await more of your thoughts. Blessings!

    • Thanks very much for sharing your perspective. The way you put it makes sense to me. I think it’s easy to get hung up in logical technicalities in the abstract.

  4. I tend to agree with Greg Boyd and the Christus Victor view of the atonement. In terms of the sovereignty of God and the free will of His creatures, I understand that to work via the mechanism of chaos theory, which shows that a large number of apparently random inputs can contribute to a predictable, foreseeable outcome. Chaos theory is also known as complexity theory or systems theory, and is well worth a careful study.

    • I don’t understand chaos theory. But I am attracted by the Christus Victor account of the atonement.

  5. Hi Morgan,
    You know how I think, maybe better than I do, but I would like to see how you would address it in this context. To me the question is not whether God engages (either pre-ordains or allows) evil, but it is whether God engages randomness. It is (just a little bit) like the statistician putting a random generator into a computer program to create an appropriate model for the data to be analyzed. God’s speech from the whirlwind in the Book of Job is all about randomness – from descriptions of the weather to animals being born and dying in the wilderness to battles and hunts and finally to Leviathan the symbol of chaos. Leviathan is the fearsome, awful presentation of evil to humans, but to God a pet and plaything.

    Randomness is a concept that can be objectively described – that is, everybody should be able to come to agreement on what it is. Evil, on the other hand, may be judged differently by various observers. Of course, the most important judge of evil and good is God, but what if God intentionally leaves part or even most of that judgment to his children? That may be possible only if God brings randomness into the world. Our mistake may be to let evil and good slide into pseudo-objective categories and to try some kind of mathematical reasoning on them.

    Does this make any sense at all?

    • I’m puzzled by the need for a concept of randomness. On the level of individual creatures, it seems like we’re all acting according to our self-preservation though human beings have the capacity to act more altruistically and thoughtfully. Doesn’t that basically just happen at all levels of nature? Atoms and even subatomic particles always seeking the path of least resistance and the state expending the least energy. Why is there a need for a concept of randomness on a macroscopic level as opposed to simply the complexity of zillions of particles acting and reacting in mostly predictable ways though the synergistic combination of their predictable actions makes for unpredictable outcomes? So help me understand the concept of randomness. By the way, one of my theologians referenced Charles Peirce! I’m going to write about that very soon. I’ll give you a heads up. Apparently there has been a recent revival of interest in Peirce and there’s actually a society that’s formed around the study of him. Perhaps you already knew this.

  6. Morgan,
    Great post. I would say, after havng just written a dissertation on Augusitne, but also very interested in Boyd and Anabaptism, that Augustine is too often the strawman for arguments like these. Certainly Boyd has a point, but Augustine had a robust demonology (as anyone in the classical era, and anyone not in the West currently), and he had a strong warfare understanding. But as you rightly suggest, he was opposing a strong Manichean warfare imagery.

    • Yeah I definitely noticed the straw-man effect. My own sense of demonology and its tie to idolatry comes from De Doctrina Christiana.

  7. I’m very happy to learn you are engaging with Boyd and with _God at War_(GaW) in particular. I do have a few comments regarding your assessment so far:

    First of all, Boyd happens to be both an Open theist and proposes Christians affirm the biblical “warfare worldview.” But you should note that these two positions are independent of one another. One does not necessarily need to ascribe to the Open view to hold the warfare worldview, and vice versa. I know plenty of Pentecostals who are both classical Arminians and wholeheartedly support the warfare worldview. Likewise, Bill Hasker is a prominent Open theist philosopher (one of the five authors of landmark book _The Openness of God_ in ’95) and he rejects all talk of “demons” and “angels”. So, it’s important not to conflate the two positions. They are dependent upon one another.

    Second, I’d argue that Open theism alone does not account for evil adequately enough. The warfare worldview supports the Open view with a much needed component, and I find the warfare worldview to be an indispensable element of a biblical theology. Not all evil is moral evil, some evil is systemic and corporate, and some evil seems to exceed even these categories. I’m not sure any theodicy offers a comprehensive explanation for evil, but I’m convinced the combination of the Open view and the warfare worldview offers the best, biblical proposal.

    Third, neither the Open view nor Boyd’s warfare worldview need to fall victim to the Manichean problem, because neither require God to be “equal” in strength to Satan or forces of darkness. They only require that such realities pose a genuine threat to God’s good creation. In other words, they are not merely extensions of God’s own decretive will as they are in theological determinism (e.g. New-Puritanism, TULIP Calvinism, and the like). In Olson’s _Against Calvinism_, he superbly demonstrates that the logic of such versions of determinism necessitate that “permissive” language and language of “allowance” are meaningless. Such views hold that every molecule in the universe is meticulously controlled in totality by God—no exceptions. Such views offer precisely no relief in the area of theodicy, and exponentially compound the problem of evil.

    Looking forward to reading more of your thoughts on this subject.

  8. Morgan, I’d say a large percentage of what goes on in my life is intercession on behalf of others against real enemies that want to derail us from fulfilling our life’s work, although, lately I have been much more reticent about doing it on my own behalf. I don’t think we can blame all problems on spiritual enemies, but I do think spiritual enemies are the only enemies we actually have. Our enemies are *never* human. That’s how I deal with Psalm enemies, too. I think God doesn’t talk about smashing human babies, but the children of the spiritual enemy, ideas and powers and forces at work.

    But the very first and most important thought that springs to mind is the way Jesus appears in the gospel of Mark… It’s clear from that gospel that he came to wage war and to reclaim his territory from an enemy. He defeated everyone until he came to defeat that largest and most difficult foe, death.

    And you already know I agree with you about over-confidence in putting trust in spiritual antennae…

  9. Either God is a sadist who burns the village to save the village or God is the bureaucrat who says, “I’m sorry I couldn’t jump in and save the day, I agreed to tie my own hands.”
    I just can’t help but to feel that open theism and the “warfare view” are an attempt to wash God’s hands of responsibility for horrific suffering in our world. Words, theories, theology do not solve the problem. I do not feel any better “knowing” that God doesn’t decree murder, rape, and genocide; he merely allows it. This I can accept if and only if God has a plan to undo/heal/eradicate pain and suffering in its totality. Hence my belief in universalism, the only escathology (in my opinion) that takes suffering seriously and does something about it.

    We must not wait for God to fix things, though.
    We must make a difference now.

    • I agree with you regarding the attempts to “get God out of trouble” with a theory. I can see where you’re coming from with your perspective on universalism. I’m not a universalist though because I think that if oppressors have free will and they can choose to remain perpetually unrepentant for their sins, they do not get to continue stepping on the oppressed for all of eternity. Sarah Moon did a post last week on the question of whether she has to share a table with her abuser. I think that God’s solidarity with those who have put themselves under His mercy ultimately decides who spends eternity with Him and who doesn’t. At the very least, I don’t think that we can bring our untruth into His space and continue to spin the lies with which we justify the ways we have hurt others. If someone’s existence is built entirely upon those lies, then they’re not going to exist in heaven.

      • this of course assumes people are static. which they aren’t. people change. why would death change that? and if it does is that really fair?

        but as to the post. Good words. I really don’t like what C.S. Lewis would call the Dualism of Boyd’s open theism…. and i do take the tack of total sovereignty in allowance, not cause. My wife kinda put it one way the other day that really works for me. God has stood outside of time, and seen all that’s happened, is happening, and will happen, all at once, in the Eternal Now, and has said “yes” to it, not for any arbitrary reason, but because of the good that came of it, every single instant of “evil” was overcome by good in some way, even if that good came years or centuries down the road,and made that instant worth happening. And God saw it, so God allowed it.

        • I don’t disagree that it seems arbitrary for death to put a final stamp on how people are, but I also think that somebody who has hardened won’t be unhardened necessarily even over the course of an infinite period of time. What I’m interested in learning from Boyd is whether the eternal/temporal duality is essential to the Creator/creation duality. Or is there another viable way to understand God’s existence as a creator distinct from His creation and not as the largest being among many beings?

      • I think God can and will heal/reform all sinners.
        No abusers will be in in heaven.
        No victims will be in heaven either. Once there they will be healed victors over their previous suffering and abuse experienced/inflicted.

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