Archive for the ‘Hermeneutics’ Category

Advent: When No One Believes

Posted: December 21, 2017 in Hermeneutics

DSC_1057 (2)About 5 years ago, I had the privilege of traveling to the Holy Land. I’ll never forget traveling from Nazareth down through the Jordan valley to Bethlehem. The contrasting images and landscapes were striking. Our guide explained that the route we took was most likely the same route Joseph and Mary took two millennia before. At the time I was caught up with the sights and the enormous amount of information we were given regarding the geo-political realities of this holy land and broken people. As we came out of the desert into the mountains, approaching Bethlehem that the massive separating walls came into view.

As we approached the infamous checkpoint, our guide shared stories of the oppressive realities for the indigenous people of Bethlehem, Palestine. A mere 5 miles from Jerusalem and yet Bethlehemites must receive permission from the Israeli government to cross the checkpoint to travel that short distance. Families are often separated and many times unable to see each other for extended periods because the Israeli government rejects their travel requests. This does not even take into consideration the indignities they experience at the checkpoints.

o-banksy-west-bank-facebookAs I witnessed this for the first time, I experienced feelings of anger for the treatment these people suffered. It was just a couple of weeks from Christmas and I couldn’t help but reflect upon the similarities of the story of Joseph and Mary’s journey down through the Jordan valley and up through the mountains to Bethlehem. Their journey was a required trip. It was a form of an occupying force seeking to control the movements of the indigenous people. While Jesus may have been born in Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph were residents of Nazareth in the Galilee region. To say it was an inconvenience to make the trip is an understatement. If they were to make that trip today, they more than likely wouldn’t be allowed to enter Bethlehem (without divine intervention).

After five years (and two more trips) of reflection I have come to the understanding that the wall, whether physical or otherwise, that separate the people and control their movement are exactly the sorts of things that Jesus came to tear down. What is especially disturbing to me is that when I have shared some of these stories and reflections with fellow Christians in the US, people often respond with disbelief and erroneous questions of “prophesy.” I have even, on occasion, been told by well-meaning people that there are no indigenous people in Palestine.

racist_plasma-1These experiences speak to issues of identity for a people who have to fight to tell their stories to a world that often does not believe them. Yet these experiences are not isolated to Palestine/Israel. In North America, systemic racism continues to divide and oppress people going unchallenged as multitudes of privileged people reject its existence. I attended a college (in the mid 1990’s) in the south where students of color were told not to go out alone at night. These harsh realities exist whether some want to believe them or not.

old20salaam20logoWe are in the heart of the Advent season, rapidly approaching the Christmas celebration. The great irony is that the story we tell and retell during Advent is the story and life of all who find themselves in this dark struggle to live free. Much has changed over the millennia, but some basic realities remain the same. The world is still a dark place where hatred and sin seem to reign. I read the prophets and hear the hope-filled messages of light and salvation promised to a world bent on self-destruction. I see in the gospels, God fulfilling his promise freeing creation from the power of sin. Some two thousand years later and we are waiting once again for Jesus’ coming. Like those before us, we prepare our hearts and lives to meet our Lord. We hopefully wait for Jesus to establish God’s rule completely. This will mean that all walls will be torn down. The rulers will be made low and the immigrant lifted up. Those who are hungry will be filled and the rich will be sent away empty. Children will play in parks filled with trees without threat of violence. Young people will celebrate life with dancing. The old will sing songs of joy. Languages will no longer have a word for war or violence. This is the Advent hope. The power of sin being shattered means that all violence and oppression will cease. What I have come to see is that sin is all that sets out to destroy the creative processes of God. Advent is the waiting for and the dawning of a universal shalom in which the promise for life without death is realized.


513jbdwgepl-_ac_us218_In part one of my reflection I highlighted the core of Boyd’s argument being grounded in his notion of divine revelation being supremely accomplished in the life and particularly the death of Jesus of Nazareth. However, while this might serve as one side of the triangle of his argument, the other two sides are equally as significant. In addition to articulating the crucified Christ as the ultimate revelation of God to human beings, Boyd argues that the key to reading the scriptural passages which portray Yahweh as not only condoning violence but carrying it out, is to read it in light of divine accommodation and redemptive withdrawal.

I remember sitting in a missiology class when I was in seminary (more years ago than I’d like to admit). The professor, who had served on the mission field for many years previous to teaching, told stories of how missionaries addressed particularly difficult situations with indigenous tribal peoples and how they often had to accommodate specific lifestyles (such as polygamy) to effectively introduce the gospel to the community without destroying families and creating a tragic social reality. When Boyd argues for divine accommodation he is clearly arguing that God accommodates the Israelites by allowing his reputation to be sullied by violent characterizations. God essentially bears the sins of this people with whom God has chosen to be in covenant relationship. It is God’s determination to remain faithful to the covenant in spite of Israel’s violence. Boyd makes his argument by demonstrating the how scripture contains dual narratives: one of which characterizes God according to ancient near east depictions of divine beings and the other contrastingly depicting Yahweh in opposition to violence. It is in the non-violent narrative that Boyd finds glimmers of the God who is revealed on the cross. To get there Boyd addresses numerous theological issues that arise if the reader holds to a classical theological understanding of God. Contrary to this view Boyd argues for an understanding of God developed from scripture. To do this he offers critiques of Augustinian and Thomistic theology. It is at this point in his argument that the open theism which has been formative to his own theology begins to come through. Regardless of where one stands in regards to open theism, the argument is well made and sufficiently supported.

rubens_onschuldigen_grtThe third branch of his argument is fundamentally a nuanced re-articulation of divine judgment in the nonviolent response of divine withdrawal. Building off theological/biblical scholars such as N.T. Wright, etc., Boyd argues that God withdraws his protective presence in response to sin. Boyd characterizes this creatively as “divine Aikido.” This is the notion of allowing the power of sin to move destructively upon itself. What this means is that by means of withdrawing God allows for the consequences of such actions to happen upon the subject or state. Boyd points out the many times where scripture refers to God’s judgment being accomplished through a foreign state conquering Israel because of their failure to maintain the covenant relationship. It is in God’s non-action that Israel suffers the consequences of their failure to trust in God’s protective presence.

This is obviously a brief and inadequate explanation of his extensive and multi-nuanced argument. Admittedly, I am quite naturally drawn to Boyd’s arguments. In spite of his seemingly comprehensive argument and an uncanny anticipation for counter arguments, but what surprised me was his engagement with extra-canonical material to develop and support his thesis. I found his use of these texts refreshing. Too often the Anabaptist tradition ignores these texts. While they are not unanimously counted as canon, these texts played key roles in the formative development of apostolic theology beginning with the apostle Paul.

If I were to guess, while Boyd’s argument is clearly targeted toward the North American Evangelical movement (specifically the more conservative sectors of this movement), those who most appreciate his argument are the ones who have been waiting to be convinced or have been waiting for something like this to be written. The point to this is that Boyd has not been alone in his endless defense of the nonviolent/non-coercive image of God. Many sharing his theological tradition have been making similar arguments for centuries. It just happens that Greg Boyd formulated a cohesive and near comprehensive argument in an intelligible way. While I’m certain that there are gaps, as I am convinced that Origen has much more to contribute toward this, I am equally convinced that Boyd’s work has been long awaited (even though no one knew who would be crazy enough to take on such a monumental task).

About two-thirds (469) through the first volume Boyd quotes Hays regarding the gospel call for us to a “conversion of the imagination.” In my mind this was a huge topic that needed to be further explored. Having recently read through Kreider’s work, The Patient Ferment, I couldn’t help but think that if a person is being formed through the practice of loving service as an entrance into theological formation the formative effects would result with the conversion of the disciple’s imagination. What I find to be the single greatest weakness of this thesis is the absence of how practice contributes to the formation of the disciple, particularly the hermeneutical perspective (people like Alasdair McIntyre have much to say on this). 1588_3121_belmontfootwashingw-461x388Particularly in light of such work as Kreider’s, the church must take seriously the affective power practice plays in the conversion process. Modern Western theology often assumes conversion is a one-time event consisting of a changed mind. In fact Reformed theologians such as Stanley Grenz separate soteriology into different works of the Spirit, conversion being but one among several. More recent works, particularly with the influence of Pietism, have emphasized the process of salvation often times merging the categories of conversion & sanctification together. This is referred to as spiritual formation. In his little work, Shaped by the Word, M. Robert Mulholland argues that spiritual formation is “the process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others” (25). You might ask, “How is this relevant to the conversation?” I am convinced that the “cruciform hermeneutic” Boyd argues for has less to do with intellectual reasoning than it does to do with formative processes. If, as James K.A. Smith has argued (Desiring the Kingdom, and Imagining the Kingdom), that we are what we love and that our hearts are shaped by practices (not just liturgies as Smith argues), then how we perceive and interpret our surrounding reality (let alone scripture) is fundamentally affected by our practices. In other words if we spend considerable time feeding the hungry and tending the sick, our hearts (desires, aka Love) will begin being shaped and directed toward those people with whom Jesus identifies. I suppose that I could argue that the cruciform hermeneutic is something that must be lived into before our minds ever really get it. It is here that I think Boyd’s argument could have been strengthened. Who knows maybe this two-volume work will develop into such a conversation.

As a qualifier, let me say that I have only read two of Boyd’s works. One I used as a reader text in a theology class (Across the Spectrum) I taught at Ashland Theological Seminary and the513jbdwgepl-_ac_us218_ other was for personal interest (Myth of a Christian Nation). While I have heard him lecture (at Messiah College), I have never personally met him. With this being said, over the next several weeks I will be reviewing and interacting with his newest two volume work, Crucifixion of the Warrior God. This work is primarily billed as an argument for a particular way of reading those Old Testament passages which attribute violence (sometimes horrifically) to God. Having nearly completed this work, I think it is far more than merely a hermeneutic. Don’t get me wrong, in it Boyd forms a strong (if not convincing) argument for a particular way of reading those passages. However, it should be more accurately labeled a theological work in that it presents a “cruciform theology.”


Recently I was perusing facebook when I noticed that a colleague’s page had blown up with passionate conversation (I say euphemistically) surrounding this work. What I find remarkable is the heightened emotional responses this text has instigated. Frankly, I found it not all that controversial. In fact I found it to express many of the same convictions other theologians have already pointed to. Before I get into the meat of my reflection, let me say that what Boyd offers in this book is a theological argument posed in a way that only a pastor/theologian could make. His argument is clear, well documented, and containing pertinent arguments regarding questions pastors find themselves facing in the real world. In this sense it was a refreshing read.

Anyone who knows me or has read anything on my blog knows that I am solidly grounded within the Anabaptist/Pietist tradition. So I will not pretend to present an unbiased review. I will try to be fair and critical of this work not simply for the sake of745a927ccea3b3eb8b1221d65f9a913c being critical but because I am convinced that this subject is of essential value for the Christian faith. I have had many a conversation about my belief in the nonviolent God. On too many occasions I have had to face the anecdotal question of what I would do if someone broke into my house and threatened my family (if they knew me they would also know that Laura, my wife, and I actually lived through that hell). Any Anabaptist person who has engaged in conversation regarding her/his convictions regarding nonviolence and peace have had to wrestle with the question about what the Old Testament says about God and violence. Boyd sets out to not merely present a hermeneutical strategy for reading, but a theological basis to form such a strategy.

At the heart of the first volume is his fundamental argument, upon which everything else rests, that Jesus the Christ and him crucified is the quintessential revelation of God. While on the surface every Christian theologian would concur. Where the paths divide is how this simple statement is understood and what it implies. For Boyd this means that nowhere recorded in scripture or time is God more fully revealed than in the event of Jesus crucified. The implications are especially significant when following the early fathers’ practice of reading backward. What this means is that every interpretation of divine revelation antecedent of the incarnation and crucifixion event must be interpreted in light of the divine revelation which occurred at the cross. What opponents to this argument will say is that it places a hierarchy within the canon and in a sense creating a canon within a canon. And along their line of argumentation they are completely correct. In that sense there is some sense of canonical hierarchy. However, Boyd does not conform to that line of argumentation. Essentially he holds firm to the conviction of all scripture being “God breathed” and that it all points to God revealed on the cross. It is the task of the interpreter to discover how those texts point to God revealed on the cross.

What is essential to understand here is that for Boyd, the writers of scripture, while inspired by the Spirit of God, they reflect the same sinfulness and brokenness that all humanity shares. It is curious how over time we have so mythologized scripture that we have sought to sanitize it from reflecting the sinfulness of the authors as characterized in scripture. This perspective of the writers, which is skewed by sinfulness, serves as the veil through which the divine revelation of the nonviolent God is spoken.

I found Boyd’s argument lucid and persuasive particularly as he built his argument with the support of early church fathers from within the first four centuries of Christianity. However, I also wish he would have more fully engaged Origen’s argument for allegorical readings. It felt like Boyd too easily brushed aside Origen’s argument because they don’t align with the modern sensibilities of readers. While I have only scraped the surface of this work, his argument regarding revelation will certainly instigate conversations surrounding this topic with renewed vigor.

It has been a well-known fact that narratives have been used by empires to control the collective consciousness of the populations they seek to dominate. This has been an ongoing practice that dates back to the earliest of empires and is currently practiced by the conglomerative empire of western civilization and mosd81a56ad40996a0d500f6a706700daf2t directly expressed by its embodiment of the United States. And yet empire cannot be limited to national institutions but has expanded through modernity to include numerous other institutions (or metanarratives) which seek to universalize and centralize their power. As such it is necessary to include the more general institutions of democracy, communism, socialism, capitalism, the marketplace, and even religions. Each of these asserts itself through the telling of stories. These stories often seek to gloss over the injustices incurred for the purpose of further universalizing their claims. Therefore, whether it is dictating its seminal narratives to the exclusion of Native Americans and the stealing of their land, the manipulative retelling of events to justify or lessen the recourse for the stealing of labor through institutionalized chattel slavery, or the violence and war incurred in the name of some god, each of these narratives perpetuate the unjustly oppressive treatment of peoples.

Regarding the church’s collusion in this, it is not only disturbing but alarmingly so how any entity can affect such disruptive changes among the Christian community (within which I identify) that causes its members to empathize with and gravitate towards centers of power regardless of how despotic their actions may be. Instead of toward aligning with the powerless and marginalized as scripture clearly directs the followers of Jesus, many in the church have turned to the empires of this world. This, however, is nothing new.

raphaelLooking back at the third century one easily sees the historical developments that led to the Constantinian paradigm shift in the church. What is often not noticed is how the nuanced interpretations of such events effect the larger perception which eventually changes the trajectory of the community. For instance, many interpret the visions of Constantine as his conversion and therefore the justification for the resulting violence and political manipulation that took place in the following years. This has been a conclusion in spite of Constantine delaying his baptism until just before his death.

Now admittedly there are current assumptions that are read into these events that affect one’s interpretation, such as “baptism does not equal conversion or salvation.” This is a typical belief held by most Protestants. Ironically this has allowed them the ability to side with Catholicism’s affirmation of Constantine as the first Christian emperor. This occurs by tying the conversion of Constantine to his initial visions. On the other hand, the typical Anabaptist belief is that Constantine didn’t convert but only seized the opportunity to take power and use a fledgling religion to change the religious landscape of the church by syncretizing it with the empire (admittedly these are oversimplifications of these perspectives).

This illustration demonstrates how depending upon which tradition you embrace determines how you will interpret this pivotal event in history. And it is in the interpretive telling and retelling of these events that attempts to control the dominant narrative. In the end whoever rules the region, their telling of and interpretations of the events will be prevail. The one who holds the most power is able to tell the story louder and more often thus silencing the hetero-narratives. What is interesting in this is that each of the tellings express some form of the truth. Each, however, over generalize, edit, and emphasize, thus misshaping the actual events into mythological narratives that push their perspectives forward.

I’ve been wondering most recently as to the hermeneutical effects of a narrative telling that acknowledges the subversive nature of Constantine’s attempts to manipulate the Christian church while also allowing for his conversion late in life when he was baptized? For the Anabaptist tradition and those who follow along these lines theologically it would require them to rethink the extent of Constantine’s role in this paradigm shift and allow for the wisdom of the church leaders in discerning whether he was ready for baptism or not. A question likely asked would be, for example, “Has Constantine converted sufficiently to the ways of Christ enough to be baptized into the faith?” From almost 2 millennia away it is easy to pass judgment upon the church elders’ decision to accept him into baptism, but the details regarding his catechism and conversion are not adequately available to us. Therefore we are left to either accept the wisdom or make speculative judgments.

This matters significantly regarding hermeneutical questions in this context. Hermeneutics has everything to do with the questions we ask regarding a narrative as well as the judgments with which we conclude. Judgments are inevitable and there is always some degree of speculation when such great distances of time are involved. Even when studying the biblical text, interpreters make speculative judgments regarding the narrative. The question is whether the contemporary reader will adequately learn the context of the narrative allowing said reader to limit the judgments in scope. Additionally, there is the question of trust in the interpretive process also. When does the reader apply a healthy level of skepticism and when is it appropriate to trust the narrative of the community? These questions require judgments to be made.

IMG_0369If we shift this conversation back to the more contemporary context of the church in the United States, what we discover is that those in power are maneuvering to control the narratives. There are obvious attempts to silence the hetero-narratives by means of providing numerous spurious claims with no supporting evidence. Moreover, some in the church have confused the US political ideological conversation as an adequate framework to express the faith based convictions of Christianity. Moreover, in the zealous attempt to legislate those convictions they have compromised their faith by partnering with the empire becoming complicit in injustice. The basis of this movement, I believe, is the confusion of the empire (or empires of this world) with the kingdom of God. There necessarily can be no alliance between the two. Jesus taught in his sermon that a person cannot serve two masters. Unfortunately, in the process of making these alliances, some in the church have positioned themselves as enemies of their brothers and sisters in the faith.

The point of all this is that in the midst of the competitive tellings of these narratives, it appears that some Christians have chosen sides. The proverbial elephant in the room is that large swaths of the Christian church in North America (and perhaps Europe) have become apostate abandoning the “gospel” teachings of their founder, prophet and their God. The compromises made have put the church on a path that leads away from the cross and into the arms of those responsible for crucifixion. Instead of plodding the via Delarosa bearing their crosses on this way, many in the Christian community have chosen the gilded streets and ornate halls of power. Regardless of how the story is spun and the narrative manipulated, the “Truth” remains the same. And his teachings provide ample information to make plain how the events are unfolding. May God have mercy on the church, but not at the expense of justice for the least and most vulnerable in this world.