An abridged version of J. Daryl Charles’ review of Gregory A. Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God that appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of the print edition can be read here.


Gregory A. Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross is a massive, almost 1,500-page double volume that represents the author’s attempt to resolve the tensions between a Jesus who is thought to reveal “an agape-centered, other-oriented, enemy-embracing God who opposes all violence” and the many Old Testament (OT) “portraits of Yahweh violently smiting his enemies” (xxviii-xxix). These tensions, which are very real and confront any serious reader of the OT, are magnified for pastor and theologian Boyd, who professes to stand within the Anabaptist tradition (15-17, 205, 260, and 544, n. 80) and who attempts their resolution with a pre-commitment to ideological pacifism (xxvii-xxxiv). This pre-commitment is stated from the outset and guides the entire project, governing the author’s use of a “cruciform hermeneutic” and the author’s treatment of all OT texts and narratives.

This task, of course, is complicated by numerous factors, not least of which is Jesus’ and the New Testament (NT) writers’ authoritative citing of OT figures, events, and categories. But it is further complicated (1) by the NT’s unqualified recognition and acknowledgement of the OT scripture’s inspiration and authority (e.g., 1 Cor. 10:1-12; 2 Tim. 3:16; Heb. 11:1-40; James 2:8-13; 2 Pet. 1:19-21); (2) by Jesus’ acknowledgement of the continuity of moral law as revealed in the OT (Matt. 5:17-20), which Boyd misinterprets (75-78); and (3) by the NT writers’ constant and authoritative use of the OT in myriads of ways, some of which are at times baffling to the modern reader. These realities create for Boyd a “conundrum” insofar as his own view, to be developed below, is lacking support from the historical Christian tradition (hereafter, HCT).

Boyd’s project, then, requires a hermeneutic that begins with the presuppositions of ideological pacifism and works its way backward. It works its way backward (1) through the NT, in which John the Baptist, Jesus, the evangelists, and the apostles are made to espouse pacifism; (2) through church history and the early church in particular; and then finally (3) through the texts of the OT itself, whether found in the Pentateuch, the historical narratives, the Psalms, or the prophets. In light of the clear commands of God given to the leaders of Israel of old, this will not be an easy interpretive task. Along the way, Boyd finds one church father, the pacifist Origen, to assist him in reinterpreting the Old Testament and thereby helping to furnish a “new perspective” (xxxii-xxxiv) on a difficult question.

This “new perspective” wrestles with canonical material in the OT that seems “unworthy of God” (xxxii) and finds a “solution” (xl) to the theological tensions that emanate from OT “texts of terror.” It does so in the following manner: “the Spirit,” Boyd informs the reader, “will enable us to see beyond the surface appearance of things, where the conundrum resides, and find a resolution in a deeper, more profound, revelatory truth” (xxxiii). “Prayerfully contemplating Scripture’s violent portraits of God,” as Boyd retells it, he “suddenly began to catch glimpses of the crucified God in them” (ibid.). What he calls the “Magic Eye” approach to understanding the OT (xxxv-xxxvii) becomes for Boyd the key in interpreting those ethically knotty accounts in the OT of God supposedly destroying human beings. In a nutshell, what is this “Magic Eye” approach? “God, who is indiscriminate in his love and non-violent, had to accommodate his self-revelation to the spiritual state and cultural conditioning of his people in the ages leading up to Christ” (xxxv). This starting point for Boyd becomes the essence of his “crucicentric” reading of scripture. In the end, he realizes, “Origen’s advice” (i.e., a mystical interpretation) “proved right” (xxxiii). With this inspiration in place, Boyd begins to apply his “cruciform hermeneutic.”

Briefly summarized, Crucifixion of the Warrior God[i] (hereafter CWG) attempts to argue that the OT accounts of God’s “violence”—i.e., “texts of terror” (279)—are not true portraits of the character of God. Rather, they are misconstrued and culturally conditioned—i.e., fallen—accounts that “mask” God’s true character and self-revelation. These accounts, therefore, are to be understood as “literary artifices” (548) and not to be taken at face value. Let the reader beware: Boyd’s argument consists of seven parts, 25 chapters, 10 appendices, one postscript, 100 pages of indices, and 40 pages of suggested reading, all of which consumes 1,445 pages of print. Wading through this project is not for the faint in heart.

Outline of Boyd’s Formal Argument

Part One: All of scripture bears witness to the crucified, self-sacrificing, and “non-violent” Christ. The cross is the revelation—the supreme revelation—by which all other forms of divine revelation, from Genesis to Revelation, are to be interpreted and to which all others point. To say that all of scripture bears witness to Christ is to say that it bears witness to Christ crucified. All of scripture, therefore, must be interpreted and understood in the light of this Christocentric and crucicentric perspective.

Part Two: A challenge to authentic faith is posed by accounts of violence in the OT that are ascribed to God. These “texts of terror” thoroughly contradict the revelation of God in Christ and hence cannot be synthesized with the revelation of God in Christ. At the same time, all of these portraits point to the cross of Christ in ways that are not immediately apparent, given the fact that the divine nature is non-violent in nature.

Part Three: The application of a “cruciform hermeneutic” to the problem of OT texts that ascribe “violence” to God leads us to a solution of reinterpretation or “going deeper,” with inspiration coming from the church father Origen, whose mystical hermeneutic—as distinct from his allegorical hermeneutic—assists us in understanding the deeper meaning of problematic texts. The OT’s violent divine portraits become “mini-literary crucifixions” that function as forerunners of Christ’s crucifixion.

Part Four: A key element in reading problematic OT texts is God’s “cruciform accommodation” to fallen humanity. OT authors often mirror their own sinful, culturally conditioned views of God by attributing to God activities that were actually performed by demonic powers. Consequently, the violence that OT writers do ascribe to the hand of God is not in fact the hand of God; its source, rather, is demonic. Nevertheless, in this “accommodation” process God even condescends to don the “mask” of violent ancient Near Eastern deities with their propensity for violence and destruction.

Part Five: Divine “redemptive withdrawal” accounts for divine judgment in these OT portraits. God never acts violently; that is, while he allows it, God cannot cause destruction, since the divine nature is non-violent in its totality. Rather, he simply withdraws his protective presence. Divine judgment is only to be understood in terms of God’s “withdrawal.” We may not affirm OT writers’ attribution of violence to God, given the fact of God’s non-violent nature and the effects of sin and cultural conditioning on the OT writers themselves; rather, “something else is going on.”

Part Six: Cosmic conflict—which is to say, demonic activity—accounts for both the violence done to Jesus on the cross and the violence done in the OT, whether that “violence” is represented by the flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, the plagues in Egypt, or the Canaanite conquest. When God withdraws, he allows demonic forces to act as agents of destruction. At bottom, all ascriptions of violence to God are to be understood as culturally conditioned misrepresentations by OT authors.

Part Seven: God, because of his non-violent nature, does not coerce; he can only “influence.” Therefore, his authority resides in “semi-autonomous” moral agents. Biblical characters did not always use divine authority in ways that reflect the character of God. Thus, we see that God permits the misuse of power and authority, even among those who claim divine authority.

Response to Boyd’s Formal Argument

Part One Response: To confess that Christ is the culmination of OT revelation is true and needs our unbroken confession. Boyd’s position, however, entails far more. His position is not only that Christ as the culmination of OT revelation but that Christ abrogates and corrects it—a position that is false and incompatible with the Christian tradition.

Part Two Response: Attempting to explain OT accounts of divine violence merely in terms of Christ’s cross, as Boyd does, is to engage in circular reasoning. These accounts do not necessarily point to the cross; they do, however, point to OT theism and unique aspects of God’s self-revelation. These accounts, mystifying as they are, do not “misrepresent” or distort God’s character; rather, in ways Boyd and we do not often properly discern, they mirror God’s moral perfection. It is, rather, the OT sacrificial system which again and again points to the cross of Christ—a correlation that is left unaddressed in CWG.

Part Three Response: Boyd’s “mystical meaning” attempt at reinterpretation, with inspiration from Origen, constitutes a repudiation of the OT’s inspiration and authority and hence an invitation to heresy. In its application, Boyd’s “cruciform hermeneutic” is less a hermeneutic than it is a scissors-and-paste attempt to bleach from the OT what is seemingly (i.e., humanly) untenable.

Part Four Response: While Christian theology readily acknowledges the fact of divine accommodation, Boyd’s understanding and advancement of this “accommodation” is outside of biblical warrant; in fact, it is counter-scriptural and incompatible with the HCT in that it denies the inspiration and authority of the OT. Neither Jesus nor the NT writers view the OT text as a “concealing mask”; it reveals rather than conceals. That God allows himself to be “misrepresented” via “literary crucifices” seems a worse “spin” (Boyd’s term) than attempts by classical theism to make sense of the OT’s “texts of terror.” Boyd’s hypothesis is supremely speculative, amounting in the end to theological fantasy. If we cannot trust the OT writers, given their supposed “fallen and culturally conditioned” accounts of God, how can we then trust the NT writers, whose world was every bit as “fallen and culturally conditioned” as the ancient Near East? In the end, we end up picking and choosing what we hold to be “inspired” and “authoritative.”

Part Five Response: The language of the OT’s authors contradicts Boyd. God does destroy; he does annihilate; he does kill; and usually the reader is told why, even when this “explanation” is offensive to modern (and ulta-modern) sensibilities. (Consider, in this regard, 2 Pet. 2:5 and Jude 5-7, since these texts mirror both biblical and extra-biblical tradition as they report God’s violent destruction.) The “something else is going on [instead of actual divine violence]” approach espoused by Boyd is, in fact, repudiated by OT texts and the OT writers themselves. We may indeed agree with Boyd that God “withdraws” his presence when he judges sin; that such is part of divine activity is not in question. However, this is only one aspect of his judging. On occasion throughout history, God acts “violently” and he destroys. Hence, Moses, Joshua, and David are correct in their representation of God: he is (at times) a warrior; he conquers his enemies; he is Lord over the nations. For these reasons and more, the redeemed bow down before him. In fact, this is one of the purposes of the “hall of fame” text in Hebrews 11: namely, to praise—rather than condemn or ignore, as Boyd does—David, Moses, Joshua, as well as Rahab, a heroine in the conquest narratives and thus exalted in Heb. 11:30-31. And this is fully aside from Gideon and Samson, whose exploits are remarkable both for their “violence” and their faith (Heb. 11:32). Boyd’s position, then, has the effect of denying the truthfulness and inspiration of OT Scripture.

Part Six Response: Classical theism and the HCT, which Boyd rejects (392-413, 648-83) fully acknowledge the reality of spiritual warfare. Over against Boyd’s “open” theism, they presuppose divine sovereignty and providence, divine inscrutability, and common grace, working through earthly powers, cultures, and social institutions in ways that are not fathomed by the human mind. Otherwise, government, law and order, “criminal justice,” and “civil society” as we know it (per Romans 13:1-10, 1 Tim. 2:1-4, and 1 Pet. 2:13-17, for example), and indeed salvation-history would be impossible—whether before Christ or after. Without divinely preserving grace that expresses divine providence, omniscience, and omnipotence, human life and culture would disintegrate.

Part Seven Response: While Christian theology affirms, with Boyd, the relative autonomy of humans as moral agents, Boyd’s “open” theistic assumptions about the divine nature negate divine providence, divine inscrutability, and divine indivisibility. Even the psalmist praises God for his using evil for his own purposes. While God does not remove free will, he nevertheless foreordains that evil work for his greater glory—a “mixture,” if you will, of the human and the divine that remains a mystery.[ii] Boyd’s insistence that God “influences” and does not “coerce” wholly lacks biblical support and issues from Boyd’s pre-commitment to ideological pacifism, which he imposes on the Trinity.

Interaction with and Critique of Boyd’s General Argument

In what follows I simply wish to address particular related elements in Boyd’s wider argument that, from the standpoint of historical Christian faith, stand either at the periphery or beyond the bounds of biblical theology and thus render his argument inherently flawed.

The initial reaction of this reader in encountering Boyd’s use of the term “cruciformity” was to expect the author to state his debt to the two theologians, the Lutheran Eric Gritsch in the 1970s and the Roman Catholic Michael Gorman in the early 2000s, who seem to have coined the term in their treatments of NT theology. In fact, in 2001 Gorman wrote, “Until very recently, I believed that I had actually coined this term. I have discovered, however, that my [Lutheran] colleague Eric W. Gritsch had used the term…more than twenty years ago.”[iii] Strangely, expression of that debt is never forthcoming in CWG. Gorman’s name appears in passing in several footnotes, though without recognition of his role in normalizing “cruciformity” in theological discourse.[iv] Gritsch’s name does not even appear in 1,445 pages of print.

When Boyd writes that “no cross-centered interpretation of Scripture’s violent portraits of God has been proposed over the last 1500 years” (534, n. 56), regardless of the truth of falsity of that statement, Boyd appears to be unable to reflect on why that might be the case. Is it possible that he misreads scripture? Is it possible that he misperceives God and divine action? Is it possible that he fails to come to grips with the divine character, or at least difficult aspects of the divine character? In any event, the reader is left to conclude that Boyd seems more interested in advancing a “new perspective” than he is in being faithful to the HCT.

A veritable host of related problems arise as a result of Boyd’s pre-commitment to ideological pacifism, which he imposes on the godhead and which becomes the instrument by which every biblical text—in both the OT and NT—is forced into conformity to the non-violent “cruciform thesis.” In this regard, one might naturally begin with pacifists’ routine reliance on—and misreading of—the so-called “Sermon on the Mount.” Typically, three fundamental errors associate themselves with this misreading—errors that form the basis of Boyd’s pacifism. One is the failure to take into account Jesus’ prefatory comments regarding the abiding nature of moral law, as recording in Matt. 5:17-20 and reaffirmed in 7:12: “Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” The meaning of the associated statements which flow from our Lord’s “do not suppose that I am come…” declaration (5:17) is plain and needs no spiritual “re-interpretation,” even when they need clarification. Six test-cases (“antitheses”) are subsequently presented. In each of the six, Jesus is countering not Mosaic law but rather contemporary (and probably rabbinic[v]) distortions of the law in terms of their practical application. None of the six prescriptions—prescriptions touching murder, adultery, divorce, vows and honest communication, retribution, and enemy-love—are being set aside, since they are anchored in moral law and hence enduring in nature; rather, they are clarified—deepened, if you will. Which is why Jesus uses the rabbinic language of hyperbole in vv. 18-20 to emphasize the utter seriousness and catastrophic repercussions of setting them aside.[vi]

Two of these six are routinely misinterpreted by pacifists, for whom the “Sermon” represents the text par excellence for advocating pacifist “non-violence.” One concerns the lex talionis (5:38 ff). Historically, the law of the talion served to mirror justice and mitigate personal attempts at retribution. By Jesus’ day, the law was not infrequently applied in distorted and fundamentally unjust ways. While some would interpret these statements as a repudiation of Mosaic law, this is emphatically not the case. As a measurement of justice, the lex talionis is embedded both in OT law and throughout the ancient world as a legal principle. It exists both to levy proportionality in society’s response to specific crimes and to limit the upper reaches of that response. Both aspects—proportionality and limitation—inhere in the abiding character of justice—a cardinal virtue that is universal and therefore uniform, extending from Israel’s Torah through Plato and Aristotle, through the teaching of the NT up to the present, where it informs the foundations of Western legal theory and practice. Contra Boyd (75-7, 578), Jesus is not hereby setting aside the lex; justice demands no more (though no less) than what is proportionate to a given behavior, offense, or crime. Hence, Jesus is not denying, abrogating, or repudiating the law of retribution in public affairs. He is simply making the distinction that St. Paul makes in Romans 12, namely, forbidding the application of the lex talionis to private matters, i.e., preventing individuals from taking justice into their own hands. Jesus’ intent is therefore to curtail the spirit of revenge. Retribution is the responsibility of the judges, not private citizens (Deut. 19: 15-21; cf. Rom. 13: 12:17-21 and 13:1-10).[vii] Interpretive clarification of Jesus’ command comes from the framing of the matter which follows. “Not resisting evil” and “turning the other cheek”[viii] are contextualized among several instances of personal injury. Consider the nature of the other three: the loss of an article of clothing, being conscripted to walk a mile (in all likelihood, applying to soldiers forcing civilians to carry their gear), and loaning to the person who wishes to borrow. Each of these situations of daily life is personal; all mirror issues of discipleship, not statecraft or public policy.

During the period of the Cold War, Protestant ethicist Paul Ramsey was one of the few to argue for the applicability of the just war tradition even in the context of a nuclear age. A prime feature of Ramsey’s writings was to apply Augustinian thinking to contemporary ethical dilemmas. Like Augustine, Ramsey argued that Christian charity may be called upon to manifest what he called a “preferential ethics of protection.” Part of our difficulty, as Ramsey pointed out, was that we have frequently distorted the meaning of Jesus’ teaching. Ramsey cites as an example the “much-cited but often misunderstood” admonition to “turn the other cheek” (Matt. 5:39) and argues as follows. Jesus’ directive is this: “If someone strikes you…” The matter is clearly personal—between you and someone else. Our Lord does not say and neither does he advocate “if someone strikes your neighbor on the right cheek, turn to him your neighbor’s other cheek (so that it might be struck as well).” While people are free to forego self-defense, Ramsey rightly reminded his readers that they are not free to ignore the plight of the innocent third party. Coercive force, proportionate to the offense, is a just response in the face of violent aggression.[ix] While non-violence may be motivated by compassion, in the end, it will mean cruelty toward society. Charity may or may not express itself in resisting evil, based on the distinction between public life and private revenge. To interpret Matt. 5:38-43 as an absolute prohibition of coercive force, as Boyd does, is to do violence both to the teaching of scripture and the “Sermon on the Mount.”

The second case of misreading has to do with Jesus’ injunction to “love the enemy” (5:43-ff). Boyd interprets enemy-love in the “Sermon” as a repudiation of Old Covenant violence (89), but this interpretation is far removed from the context in which Jesus is using it. Jesus, rather, is referring to common perceptions of one’s “neighbor,” i.e., of “the other” such as the Gentile or the tax collector (who is specifically noted in 5:46)—a context that bears resemblance, once again, to Romans 12. “Enemy-love” need not be equated with “non-violence” in the sense that pacifists and Boyd (210-13) understand it, even when coercive force can be applied unjustly. Love can indeed express itself firmly, even forcefully, inasmuch as love—if it is truly agape—will never fail to uphold justice and truth. And where it does fail to uphold them, then it is either sloppy sentimentalism or a false caricature of authentic charity. Love may on occasion call human beings to defend the defenseless, even using coercive force to do so, as ancient wisdom requires of the God-fearing:

            Rescue those who are being led away to death;
                        And hold back those who are stumbling toward slaughter.
            If you say, “See, this is none of my business,”
                        Does not he who weighs the heart consider it?
                        Does not he who watches over your soul know it?
                        And will he not repay all according to their deeds?[x]

The sheer fact that force can be misused is no argument against its proper use and its just application in human affairs. Augustine was surely correct: the loving thing to do to a criminal is to prevent or apprehend him (how that will occur depends on the nature of the crime). This response is loving toward society, which is watching and needs protection from criminal behavior; it is loving toward the offender himself, who needs restraint from doing what is evil; and it is loving toward future offenders, who may be watching as well. This wedding of love and justice in his thinking is what Augustine referred to as “benevolent harshness.”[xi] Love and justice must not be divorced, as pacifists who are concerned to exalt love—Boyd included (143-54,205-12, 223-25)—are inclined to do. In the Christian moral tradition, just as in the very nature of God, love and justice are wed; they are unified and cannot be separated.[xii] When and where theologians and ethicists divorce these two “cardinal” virtues, the consequences are catastrophic, as sound social and public policy well illustrates.[xiii]

Relatedly, pacifists tend to be dismissive of NT accounts of the Baptist, Jesus, and the apostles as they encounter soldiers and military might. And Boyd is no exception. But are these NT snapshots indeed, as Boyd contends, “arguments from silence” (580)? Voices from within the Christian tradition—from Augustine to Luther and Calvin to Grotius and beyond—have noted the significance of John the Baptist’s admonition to soldiers who came to him in a context of repentance. His response (Lk. 3:14) is telling; the soldiers were to do two things, neither of which we would expect if soldiering was, in fact, ethically off-limits for the person of faith: they were to be content with their wages and not oppress others. Surely, the Baptist was missing an important opportunity to call violent oppressors to repentance. Yet, no such thing occurs. This is hardly an “argument from silence”; rather, the evidence seems to shout.[xiv]

Or consider a rather remarkable encounter of our Lord—early in his messianic ministry—recorded by the Jewish evangelist (Matt. 8:5-13), who surely would have had a strong personal dislike for those representing the Roman legions. Matthew records the faith of a centurion in such a way that our Lord is forced to respond: “Surely, not even in Israel have I found such faith” (8:10). Again, hardly an “argument from silence.” Or consider an apostolic encounter with another centurion, recorded in Acts 10. As it turns out, in his providence God uses not a priest or Levite, not another apostle, not someone from the Jewish people, but a military officer as the instrument through which Peter’s eyes are opened to the divine purpose. And if this is not offensive enough to any pacifist believer of the first century, Cornelius becomes the first Gentile convert to be baptized. Surely, Peter missed a golden opportunity to call this soldier, in obedience, out of military service, given the supposed “non-violent” nature of God. Once again, hardly an “argument from silence.”

Or consider “the apostle to the Gentiles,” who not only teaches that the ius gladii, “the sword,” has a place in the hands of the political authority based on the providence and ordination of God (Rom. 13:1-4), but who himself on occasion draws on imperial might if and where needed (Acts 23 and 25). And writing to the Corinthian Christians, who inter alia are challenging his rights and credentials, the chief apostle poses a rhetorical question: “Who serves as a soldier at his own expense” (1 Cor. 9:7)? Significantly, Paul’s response is drawn from the OT: “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain” (9:9). What’s more, in stressing the need for endurance amidst hardship, the chief apostle admonishes his beloved disciple Timothy, “Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs—he wants [rather] to please commanding officer” (2 Tim. 2:3-4, NIV). One truly wonders, based on Boyd’s all-encompassing pacifist project, how the chief apostle of the chief Pacifist, the crucified Christ, could marshal such inappropriate examples in his teaching. It makes no sense whatsoever to utilize the soldier as a model—in any form and in any context—without massive qualification. Alas, “something else is going on”—that is, something other than what Boyd has imagined. It is neither morally nor theologically reasonable to argue that these diverse NT examples together constitute an “argument from silence,” if in truth the NT writers and the Christian message are thought to be pacifistic to the core. Rather, we may argue that this evidence is quite compelling and indeed speaks rather loudly.

Boyd’s project, which renders not merely the OT “texts of terror” but all of scripture as “non-violent,” fails to adequately represent Christ in scripture’s culmination, the NT Apocalypse. There he is depicted both as crucified Lamb and conquering Lord, that is, the Lion of Judah and Lord of Hosts who judges, not by “withdrawal,” but by violent conquest. Moreover, he does this partly in response to the cries of those who have been martyred (Rev. 6) and who await divine retribution, as symbolized by the sword. This retribution, alas, is so dreadful that even the kings of the earth cry out for mercy against such wrath (6:15-17). It is retribution by the Lord Almighty, whose name is King of kings and Lord of lords, and it is described in terms that are clearly not “non-violent” (19:11-21).

Then there is the considerable problem of our reading of church history, or, to put it bluntly, the pacifist’s non-reading of that history. For the great majority of religious pacifists, only periodic outbreaks of recognizing God’s “non-violent” nature have confronted the Christian church in her two millennia of existence. Supposedly, the early church until the fourth century was wholly pacifist. Then, some 12 centuries later, with the emergence of the “radical reformers” and Anabaptists of the sixteenth century, did this awareness fortunately resurface once more. And now, it is thought, those who are Anabaptist-minded like Boyd are seeking to carry on the neglected tradition. But this caricature—one that is even imbibed by a good number of non-pacifists—is false. The stereotype of the early church as wholly pacifist has been shown in recent decades by serious historical scholarship to be, in fact, mistaken and needing adjustment. A more accurate picture of the early centuries is that we find a mixture of convictions. This is as we might expect. What is remarkable is that, based on the literature, the question of war and peace is not a topic of concern in the early church. We find neither major controversy, nor councils, nor excommunications over the issue, which itself is quite instructive and should tell us something.[xv] Up until the decade of the 170s, we find no explicit reference in patristic literature to Christians serving in the military. This silence need not be interpreted as opposition to military service based on principle. Historians point to social factors that adequately account for this shift in the second century, at which point we find increasingly hard evidence of Christian military participation.[xvi] This evidence presents us with a picture of not a single “Christian” position or ethical doctrine but, rather, of plurality. It is a portrait not of universal rejection of soldiering or war but a mixture of acceptance and rejection in varied sectors of the Christian community.[xvii] Historian John Helgeland summarizes early patristic evidence as a whole:

Although the Church Fathers did not encourage violence, they were not unanimous in their views on the necessity of war; both Tertullian and Origen prayed for the emperor’s success in waging war in defense of the empire. The sermon on the mount seems to have determined the Fathers’ ethics concerning murder on a person-to-person basis, but not their thoughts about war. There is practically no evidence from the Fathers which would support the argument that the early church denied [military] enlistment on the ground that killing and war were opposed to the Christian ethic.[xviii]

Nevertheless, the assumption behind the pacifist’s rendition of church history is that those who genuinely embrace pacifist “non-violence” are the true bearers of Christian faith; and those who do not are compromised, coopted, and collaborating with evil and political power.[xix] Yet this minority position does not represent—nor has it ever represented—mainstream thinking in the church, whether among Catholics or Protestants. Part of the reason, as we have argued above, is that the sovereign God, in his providence and through common grace, has ordained that (1) power exist, and (2) power be used for moral purposes. That ordination is part of the fabric of creation and does not change with the coming of the New Covenant. Moreover, the confession of that reality has been at the heart of normative Christian theology from the beginning. And to argue that power and force cannot be used for just and moral purposes is, quite simply, to abdicate human beings’ stewardship over all of creation and hence deny the image of God within. Then we shall need to be honest and concede that justice is not achievable in any measure in any context among any human beings on this side of the eschaton. Period.

A related observation needs to be made, insofar as it concerns responsible use of power and Christians’ cultural participation. The attitude that drips from most ideological pacifists—i.e., the attitude, “let the Gentiles take care of the messy business of justice”—is simply unchristian and wholly unacceptable. In the end, pacifists seem willing to enjoy (and take for granted) the benefits of “civil society” as we know it, but they are unwilling to acknowledge that genuine faith leavens society and motivates the believer toward (rather than away from) participation in the very social institutions which preserve that society.

One of the abiding frustrations for the reader of CWG is the fact that, in his application of the “cruciform hermeneutic” to OT “texts of terror,” Boyd never offers any sort of guide or guidelines to allow the reader to discern and distinguish between OT texts that are authentic and those which “misrepresent” the character of God. This is a major oversight, especially if the church historically has erred in its interpretation of these divine portraits. On the other hand, this is perhaps as we might expect since Boyd’s reading does not represent the church’s normative reading of the OT; rather, it deviates. Such guidelines, if they exist, would be necessary not only for the sake of coming to grips with the “texts of terror” but also other parts of the canon which are normative. For example, the pacifist—and Boyd’s application of the “cruciform” exegesis—disavow God’s self-revelation to Noah after the flood. As recorded in Genesis 9, the commandment regarding the shedding of blood is both clear and binding; it stands parallel to the Sixth Commandment as recorded in the Decalogue: “You shall not murder.”[xx]

The distinction between guilt and innocence, of course, permeates moral law as revealed in the OT and forms the very backbone not only of “criminal justice” but of law, order, and civil society. As philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe was inclined to note, the danger of pacifism is its inability (or unwillingness) to distinguish between killing that is rooted in reasons of guilt or innocence.[xxi] In this regard, Boyd and fellow pacifists, rather than resorting to indiscriminate use of the terms “violence” and “non-violence,” would profit from an ability to distinguish between “force” and “violence.” In his important work We Hold These Truths, Catholic theologian John Courtney Murray describes the difference between the two entities in the following manner: “Force is the measure of power necessary and sufficient to uphold…law and politics. What exceeds this measure is violence, which destroyed the order of both law and politics.”[xxii] As an instrument, then, force is morally neutral in itself. Surely, it would seem that pacifism makes the world unsafe for everyone.

A final criticism of CWG is narrowly theological, although theology is the source of all manner of ethical error. It concerns the doctrine that is lodged at the heart of divine revelation (and not only the Christian Gospel). I refer to the doctrine of the atonement. Our desperate attempts to bleach not only the OT “texts of terror” but in fact all of scripture have pernicious effects, not least of all in our understanding of the nature of divine sacrifice, which Boyd is so concerned to protect and defend. Boyd’s position inexorably leads to a bloodless atonement, and it ignores virtually the entire history of Israel as the people of God for whom the self-revealing God continually made atonement—from the Passover lamb in Egypt to the paschal lamb of Christ. This method of divine provision, alas, was not “non-violent.” Nor was it bloodless. As the Levitical code graphically demonstrates and as God’s ultimate sacrifice confirms, atonement required “violence” on God’s part, for “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin” (Heb. 9:22, italics added). While this particular notion of atonement is a huge stumbling block for many, especially for religious pacifists who prefer a bloodless and “non-violent” sacrifice, there is simply no getting around the biblical witness. Here Boyd’s failed determination to “re-interpret” the OT is perhaps most notable—and most serious.

Concluding Remarks and Reflections

We must summarize our findings. We have observed in CWG the author’s pre-commitment to ideological pacifism, his repudiation of the inspiration and authority of sacred scripture, the resultant pick-and-choose hermeneutic, his open theism which denies divine providence and divine indivisibility, his failure to discern the ebb and flow of divine action in salvation-history, his general non-reading of church history and dismissal of the historical Christian tradition, his theological divorce between charity and justice and concomitant dismissal of moral law and the foundations of ethics, his wholesale misconstrual of atonement, and his functional Marcionism. Individually and collectively, these fatal flaws present insuperable barriers for the faithful Christian believer, pastor, or future theologian. Boyd writes that in looking back over the previous 10 years, he “reluctantly concluded that all attempts to defend Scripture’s violent divine portraits were futile” (1341). Our verdict, delivered reluctantly after having considered his argument, is that here is one more such attempt—an impressively exhaustive yet futile attempt nonetheless.

In another era, this 1,445-page project would have been called heresy. Today, however, such is not the case, for in a post-traditional, “post-consensus” age—an age in which lay persons, pastors, even theologians and ethicists are loath to acknowledge traditio (literally, that which has been handed down)—what is at its core heterodox easily passes muster in the Christian community—and, in fact, is often celebrated. In some ways, then, Marcion’s position is to be preferred over Boyd’s, for at least Marcion was more forthcoming about his rejection of certain OT texts.

Boyd wishes to caution the reader that “this present work cannot be justly charged with lacking precedent in the ancient church tradition” (269) insofar as he is professing to stand within a “short-lived Anabaptist hermeneutical tradition.” Whether his pacifistic views existed in church history is per se not at issue, irrespective of this reviewer’s negative appraisal. What is argued in the present critique is simply that (1) Boyd’s pacifism does not represent historical Christian belief and (2) Boyd’s revisionist reading of the OT finds no place in the historical Christian tradition (and the exhaustive, near-1,500-page attempt to locate it therein fails). Boyd finds it “remarkable” that others do not share his position (137-38), but could it be that neither Jesus nor the apostles read the OT as Boyd? Wisdom and humility might cause Boyd to do some soul-searching; after all, his is a “cruciform reinterpretation.”

Wholly absent from the argument set forth in CWG is the question—indeed, the very possibility—that divine aggression might in fact communicate moral and theological truth about God that is enduring. The reader is left to conclude that what matters in religious faith today is that we moderns and ultra-moderns not be offended by the God of the OT. We are best simply to ignore St. Paul’s explicit warning, recorded in his first letter to the Christians in Corinth:

Now these things occurred as examples, to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did… We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. We should not test the Lord, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel… These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come.[xxiii]

Contrary to the argument of CWG, however, we must insist that the God of the OT, referred to by Moses as “Lord Sabaoth” (Exod. 15:3), can be exalted and praised by Christians precisely for who he is:

            I will sing to the Lord
                        For he is highly exalted.
            The horse and its rider
                        He has hurled into the sea.
            The Lord is my strength and my son;
                        He has become my salvation.
            He is my God and I will praise him;
                        My father’s God, and I will exalt him.
            The Lord is a warrior;
                        The Lord is his name.
            Pharaoh’s chariots and his army
                        He has hurled into the sea.[xxiv]

This two-volume project is a useful reminder of the role of presuppositions and starting points, not to mention the sheer lengths the ideological pacifist must employ in order to justify the “non-violent” position. For just as a set of train tracks guarantees where the cargo must go, so the “warrior God” must be crucified—in Boyd’s theology and in his re-interpretation of the biblical tradition. Jesus simply may not be permitted to be the Lion of Judah, whose claws are now effectively shorn and whose character is rendered meek and mild so as not to offend our contemporary sensibilities. Throughout the history of salvation, the truth is that this is precisely the reason why the saints worship at the altar of God: the crucified Lamb is the warrior God. And for this very reason, all of history bows down, even when that history is yet to be consummated.

In reading CWG, I was reminded of George Orwell’s trenchant criticisms of Mahatma Gandhi while a journalist in India, even when it is true that Orwell admired Gandhi for his saintly status. Orwell observed that it was quite easy in a British protectorate such as India to be a pacifist. He wrote, “It is difficult to see how Gandhi’s methods could be applied in a country where opponents of the regime disappear in the middle of the night and are never heard from again.”[xxv] It needs to be remembered that Orwell was writing against the backdrop of communist tyranny in the 1940s. With millions disappearing into labor camps, the “non-violent” vision seemed not to be working very well in the Soviet Union. One of the elements of Gandhi’s philosophy that Orwell rejected was his view of abstention; Orwell was convinced that this outlook did not promote human welfare or healthy relationships but rather mirrored the baseline assumption that the temporal world, as we know it, is something from which to be escaped. This, of course, lies at the heart of the Anabaptist tradition. Such a view of ultimate reality, Orwell concluded, was inhumane. Yet Gandhi’s abstinence and asceticism were the least of Orwell’s concerns. The much weightier issue was Gandhi’s view that German Jews ought to commit collective suicide, thereby “arousing the world” to Hitler’s violence. It is difficult to disagree with Orwell. Gandhi’s advice to European Jews, in the end, was neither Christian, nor charitable, nor just.

Orwell is by no means the only commentator to shudder at Gandhi’s moral detachment. In Just and Unjust Wars, political philosopher Michael Walzer similarly condemns Gandhi’s position, noting its utter powerlessness and inefficacy against tyranny as we have witnessed it during the century past.[xxvi] If we leave aside the roughly 100-200 million people who during the twentieth century who were offered up to communist ideology,[xxvii] let us briefly focus on the Jewish Holocaust. Where is the efficacy of Gandhi’s—and presumably Boyd’s—non-violent pacifism as it aids European Jews and ethnic minorities? What might we conclude from Gandhi’s rather perverse advice to the Jews of Germany, namely, that they should commit suicide rather than fight back against Nazi tyranny? Is this the moral path? As Walzer poignantly remarks, in Gandhi’s case, non-violence “collapses into violence directed at oneself rather than at one’s murderers.”[xxviii] In the end, the non-violent vision is a vision of utopian death. “Utopian” because on this side of the eschaton, as Augustine well intuited, the effects of human fallenness require that we justly order human society—what Augustine called the tranquillitas ordinis. And “death” for precisely the reasons that Orwell was forced to condemn Gandhi.

It is for this reason—and more—that the principal argument found in CWG stands outside the bounds of the historic Christian tradition. The “Lamb of God”? Most certainly. And just as assuredly, the “Lion of Judah.” Consider, therefore, the kindness and the severity of God.[xxix]


[i] Earlier in 2017 Fortress Press published Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence, a more popular and far shorter version (252 pages) of Boyd’s argument. Given the similar manner in which the two volumes are structured, it goes without saying that the shorter version is far more accessible.

[ii] Consider, for example, Jesus’ declaration concerning Judas: “The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him had he not been born” (Matt. 26:24, NIV). God foreordains that evil work toward his glory, yet humans beings are free moral agents and wholly accountable.

[iii] Michael J. Gorman, Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross (Grand Rapids and Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 2001), 4, n. 10.

[iv] More recently, Gorman has published Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology (Grand Rapids and Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 2009). This work is not cited by Boyd either in his bibliography or in the text of CWG itself.

[v] Significantly, each of the six test-cases (“antitheses”) is introduced with the rabbinic kelal or formulaic key, “You have heard it said but I tell you,” suggesting that certain popular misunderstandings need to be exposed and rectified.

[vi] See J. Daryl Charles, “Do Not Suppose That I Have Come…”: The Ethic of the Sermon on the Mount Reconsidered,” Southwestern Journal of Theology 46, no. 3 (Summer 2004): 47-70.

[vii] The specific ways in which retribution and revenge differ can scarcely be over-stated. Whereas revenge strikes out at real or perceived injury, retribution speaks to an objective wrong. Whereas revenge is wild, “insatiable,” and not subject to limitations, retribution has both upper and lower limits, acknowledging the moral repugnance of assigning both draconian punishment to petty crimes as well as light punishment to heinous crimes. Vengeance, by its nature, has a thirst for injury and delights in bringing further evil upon the offending party. The avenger will not only kill but rape, torture, plunder, and burn what is left, deriving satisfaction from direct or indirect suffering inflicted upon the offender. Retribution, by contrast, has as its goal a greater good; it takes no pleasure in punishment but rather seeks to deter, reflecting its desire to have a pedagogical effect on surrounding, watching society. Finally, whereas revenge, given its retaliatory mode, will target both the offending party and others who are perceived to be akin, retribution is both targeted and impersonal or impartial, not subject to personal bias. For this reason, “Lady Justice” is blindfolded.

[viii] In his fascinating essay “Why I am Not a Pacifist,” C.S. Lewis considers Jesus’ injunction regarding “turning the other cheek,” which he believes cannot be intended to rule out protecting others. “Does anyone suppose,” he asks, “that our Lord’s hearers understood him to mean that if a homicidal maniac, attempting to murder a third party, tried to knock me out of the way, I must stand aside and let him get his victim?” Lewis prefers to accept the plain reading of this text. Jesus’ audience consisted of “private people in a disarmed nation,” and “war was not what they would have been thinking of” by any stretch of the imagination.” See C.S. Lewis, “Why I am Not a Pacifist,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (rev. ed.; New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 86.

[ix] This line of reasoning can be found in Ramsey’s Basic Christian Ethics (New York: Scribner’s, 1950), War and the Christian Conscience: How Shall Modern War Be Conducted Justly? (Durham: Duke University Press, 1961), and The Just War: Force and Political Responsibility (New York: Scribner’s 1968).

[x] Prov. 24:11-12, my translation.

[xi] We find Augustine’s use of this expression in Epistle 138 (“To Marcellinus”).

[xii] For this reason, Aquinas subsumes his discussion in the Summa of war under the heading of caritas, charity (Summa Theologica II-II Q. 40). Luther, as well, is quite instructive. To illustrate the unity of charity and justice, Luther uses the example of a doctor who must amputate someone’s gangrenous limb. Viewed externally, this action would appear merciless and cruel. Viewed medically, however, the doctor wishes to cut off what is defective only for the purpose of saving the body and working for the greater good. In the same way, argues Luther, even the soldier fulfills his office by applying coercive force against the wicked, even when that force may be lethal. This, he notes, serves the “greater good” of communities and families. If the sword were not used to preserve peace, he cautions, everything in the surrounding world would be spoiled. This example and explanation are found in Luther’s 1526 treatise Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved, the text of which appears in Robert C. Schultz and Helmut T. Lehmann, eds., Luther’s Works, vol. 46 (repr.; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967), 93-137.

[xiii] Elsewhere I have examined the tragic effects of this split in Christian thinking about the relationship between love and justice. See J. Daryl Charles, Natural Law and Religious Freedom (Oxon, UK, and New York: Routledge, 2018), 177-228 (= Chapter Six: “Natural-Law Underpinnings of Religious Freedom – a Closer Look: Justice and Neighbor-Love in Symbiosis”).

[xiv] Perhaps because of the “radical reformers” of the early 16th century, chief of which were the Anabaptists, Calvin anticipates objections to the nature and purpose of political authority. He reasons along the following lines: if we object that the New Testament contains nothing permitting Christian participation in rulership, soldiering, or war, then John the Baptist presents for us a supreme obstacle. For if all Christian participation in such endeavors – particularly in soldiering – is illegitimate, then the soldiers who sought out the Baptist (Lk. 3:14) would have been directed of necessity to throw away their arms and leave their profession. But, to the contrary, they were admonished along ethical lines: i.e., act justly and be content with your wages. Military life, alas, was not at all prohibited – by the Baptist, by Jesus or by the New Testament. See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 4.20.10. Luther, of course, stands in fundamental agreement with Calvin, as evidenced in his Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved.

[xv] James Turner Johnson rightly observes: “The social transformation that brought Christianity into a relation of acceptance and support of the state was…not simply a result of changes within the Church itself it was also a result of changes in the larger society. Nor was it the expression of a growing moral laxity, as has often been asserted” (The Quest for Peace: Three Moral Traditions in Western Cultural History [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987], 40-41). For helpful examinations of Christian attitudes toward war and peace in the early church, see John Helgeland, “Christians and the Roman Army, AD 173-337,” Church History 43, no. 2 (1974): 149-63, 200; idem, “Christians and the Roman Army from Marcus Aurelius to Constantine,” in Hildegard Temporini and Wolfgang Haase, eds., Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt II.23.2 (Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 1979), 724-834; Louis J. Swift, “War and the Christian Conscience I: The Early Years,” in Hildegard Temporini and Wolfgang Haase, eds., Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt II.23.2 (Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 1979), 835-68; Louis J. Swift, The Early Fathers on War and Military Service (MFC 19; Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1983); John Helgeland, Robert J. Daly, and J. Patout Burns, Christians and the Military: The Early Experience (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1985); Johnson, The Quest for Peace (noted above), 3-66; Frances Young, “The Early Church: Military Service, War and Peace,” Theology 92 (1989): 491-503; David G. Hunter, “A Decade of Research on Early Christians and Military Service,” Religious Studies Review 18, no. 2 (1992): 87-94; Paul Christopher, The Ethics of War and Peace (rev. ed.; Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1999), esp. chapters one and two; and J. Daryl Charles, “Pacifists, Patriots, or Both? Second Thoughts on Pre-Constantinian Early-Christian Attitudes toward Soldiering and War,” Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 13, no. 2 (Spring 2010): 17-55.

[xvi] This evidence is confirmed by historians as diverse as Stephen Gero, “Miles Gloriosus: The Christian and Military Service according to Tertullian,” Church History 39, no. 3 (September 1970): 285-98, and James Turner Johnson, The Quest for Peace (see n. 16), 4-66.

[xvii] Johnson, The Quest for Peace, 17. Summarizing Christian perspectives service in the early centuries, Johnson writes: “The alternative picture [to pacifism] is one that highlights the initial eschatological separation of the earliest stages of the Christian movement, in which not violence as such but close involvement in the affairs of the world was to be shunned, followed by a gradual adjustment to such involvement in the wake of the realization that the new age was not immediately at hand – an adjustment that took place in different ways and at different rates among Christians in various parts of the empire, and one that did not compromise earlier moral purity but instead sought ways to direct it into life within the world at large” (61).

[xviii] Helgeland, “Christians and the Roman Army from Marcus Aurelius to Constantine,” 764.

[xix] Anabaptist theologian John Howard Yoder coined a term for this supposed compromise, coopting and collaboration: he called it “Constantinianism.” While his principle arguments are most popularly developed in The Politics of Jesus (2nd ed; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), they can also be found in The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1971); What Would You Do? (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1983); Nevertheless: The Varieties and Shortcomings of Religious Pacifism (2nd ed.; Scottdale: Herald Press, 1992); and When War Is Unjust Being Honest in Just-War Thinking (2nd ed.; Maryknoll: Orbis, 1996).

[xx] Exo. 20:13; Deut. 5:17; cf. Matt. 5:21-22; Rom. 13:9; and Ja. 2:11. The commandment not to kill implies a discrimination between guilt or innocence, as the Hebrew verb ratsach suggests.

[xxi] E.M.B. Anscombe, “War and Murder,” in Richard A. Wasserstrom, ed., War and Morality (Belmont: Wadsworth, 1970), 42-53.

[xxii] John Courtney Murray, We Hold These Truths (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1960).

[xxiii] I Cor. 10:6, 8-11.

[xxiv] Exo. 15:1-4a.

[xxv] Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, eds., The Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell (4 vols.; New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968), 4:469.

[xxvi] Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars (4th ed.; New York: Basic Books, 2006), 332-33.

[xxvii] The exact numbers, of course, vary and, by any measurement, boggle the mind. French historian Stephane Courtois, in his introduction to The Black Book of Communism, places the number of human deaths at ca. 100 million. Military historian Robert Conquest, in Reflections on a Ravaged Century, estimates the total to be in the 170 million range. Surely, all of these human lives matter, a fact for which pacifists and separatists lack any legitimate answer.

[xxviii] Ibid., 332.

[xxix] Rom. 11:22.