Reading David Bentley Hart (and His New Book of Essays)

Hart- Hidden and the ManifestTo my mind, there are few intellectual delights sweeter than reading the well-tuned prose of David Bentley Hart. I’m aware that this statement may occasion a few chortles and raised eyebrows—I think of the pastor friend who said Hart’s Beauty of the Infinite was the most difficult thing he’s ever tried to read and consequently gave it away— but over time, Hart’s writings have become to me like the sipping of a fine port after so many cans of Dr. Pepper or Mahler’s Resurrection symphony after so many Beyoncé songs, if you prefer. Hart’s new book of previously published essays is more digestible than Beauty of the Infinite, —more hours d’oeuvre style than full dress, if only because if you’re not enjoying the taste of one essay you can grab another—but it’s certainly contains the caloric content and the substance of a rich and full meal.

Hart’s book is a theological and philosophical treasure and is a rich testament to his unerring learnedness, eloquence and profound intellectual range, as John Milbank attests on the back blurb. Perhaps I may serve you better, dear reader —oh you, likely tortured soul, this far deep into philosophy and theology!— if instead of trying to tidily summarize these essays, (you really must just spend time with them), I am able to position you to better understand Hart when you do decide to finally try and read him.

There is no doubt that it is much easier to digest a three minute Beyoncé song than a 45 minute Mahler symphony and so you must know that reading Hart takes work and time. He is an acquired taste and if you’re anything like me, you will have several different stages in your journey with David Bentley Hart, resembling, somewhat strangely, the Kübler-Ross model of the five stages of grief.

  1. The first was the bewilderment stage– In this stage I was determined to understand what the man was saying even if it meant coming at the cost of spending more time looking up the words he was using than actually reading him. My first encounter was reading Atheist Delusions as a college undergrad and at many times I really had very little idea of what, exactly, Hart was saying but I knew that it looked very impressive and that I very well would like to swordfight with atheists this way some day and look as smart and accomplished doing it. But what exactly did it mean to be rather petulant or have a note of asperity? Dictionary… This stage often continues into the present.
  2. The Cheerleading or the Righteous Anger phase– This phase found me running up to the New Atheist bullies, or anyone that would disagree with him, behind his coattails—Hart, the brave older brother— casting stones and then running away. “Take that you bad guys that don’t believe in Jesus! I’ve got a very smart and clever brother that will take you to task.” In this phase, I enjoyed the ammunition that Hart gave me and felt that if he could be so disparaging to any and all that disagreed that it was not only appropriate to belittle opponents so and take great pleasure in laughing at their intellectual inferiority. As a young apologist wannabe sentences like “Dennet’s book is utterly inconsequential—in fact, it is something of an embarrassment…“ and “Dawkins [the] tireless tractarian [with an] embarrassing incapacity for philosophical reasoning” were like bullets in the chamber of my rhetorical gun. This stage lasted for about three years or until around the second year of graduate school when I realized that this roughshod apologetic approach might be winning some battles but losing the war.
  3. The Turn (Kehre)– In this stage I found myself distancing myself from Hart and his spewing prose and wondered why Hart seemed so angry all the time. Why all the vitriol? Doesn’t Paul say that if he speaks without love he is but a clanging cymbal? Was it really necessary to disparage those who thought differently than he did so hostilely? Doesn’t he like anybody? I found myself being frustrated with his disparagement of anyone and everyone that didn’t agree with him.
  4. Engagement– This stage began in earnest again with the release of Hart’s book The Experience of God in 2014. I was at the tail end of an M.A. in philosophy and I found that Hart’s book nicely captured many of the philosophical arguments I had been studying, tidying them up in their relationship to my faith and why, exactly, these ideas mattered—something that is easily lost in the midst of studies. I relied heavily on his exposition of the anologia entis why the prennial philosophical question of “Why is there something rather than nothing” was misunderstood, ignored, and unanswerable by modern atheists— in my case, Feuerbach.
  5. Acceptance– In the end (which I consider to just have arrived at with the reading of these essays), I got over Hart’s cantankerousness because he is just too helpful and brilliant to write off as simply a demagogue. It seems that even Hart’s heart has begun to softent: he writes in the preface to this new volume that “I have also decided not to attempt to soften some of the more immoderate or provocative remarks in these essays, despite my resolve to strike a more emollient tone whenever I can…” Whether this change of tone is strictly for personal advancement or arises from the injunctions of the gospel that Hart proclaims, I could not say, but I was assuaged (not that I really needed a reason to be) and am curious how Hart’s invective will change in his future work.david-bentley-hart

Maybe your relationship hasn’t been nearly as tumultuous as mine has. Who knows? Maybe you have not the slightest idea what I am talking about and yet have read this far! Regardless, this collection of essays is a treasure and it will be a volume continually close to hand, both for its example of the power of rhetoric and for its rich expositions of the most basic and fundamental tenants of Christianity read in the light of the best of the tradition. Who can resist sentences like: It imbues the works of Augustine’s senescence with an inexpungible tincture of tragic moral idiocy, one that he bequeathed to broad streams of Catholic and Protestant tradition” (139) and “Ultimately, Heidegger succeeds only at returning to an oblivion of being as profound as his own… (24)?

Did I mention that Hart makes for a rather polarizing figure?

If there is one interweaving thread throughout Hart’s work (and these essays) it is the continual reference to the “conceptual revolution” of Christianity’s understanding of Being. That is, because of its doctrine of creation, Christianity forced a reconceptualization of the entire history of metaphysics. As Hart says,

Herein lies the great ‘discovery’ of the Christian metaphysical tradition: the true nature of transcendence, transcendence understood not as mere dialectical supremacy, and not as ontic absence, but as the truly transcendent and therefore utterly immediate act of God, in his own infinity, giving being to beings (109).

In other words, God is not some type of super creature among creatures (or man writ large as Feuerbach would have it) but existence itself. “Without him nothing was made that was made.” Hart uses this Thomistic doctrine between ens and esse to ground his critique of Heidegger in the first essay “The Offering of Names” and to summarize the uniqueness of Christian thought in “The Destiny of Christian Metaphysics” and it also features prominently in the title essay “The Hidden and the Manifest.” There are two important treatments of the much-maligned doctrine of God’s impassibility as well as two essays on Gregory of Nyssa an extended treatment of Milton and discussions about infinity.

If you’re just beginning with Hart or a fairly recent comer to metaphysics then I would suggest you start with Experience of God and then pick up this book of essays. (If you’re really just a pugilistic looking to excoriate your opponents, The Atheist Delusions is the book for you, though chapter 15 in that book I consider maybe the high point of any book I’ve read in the last five years. And it’s probably thanks to Hart that I even know what a pugilist is….) You’ll be glad you did.

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Book Review: Hearing the Call

Church of the Servant
Nicholas Wolterstorff’s home church in Grand Rapids

Hearing the Call: Liturgy, Justice, Church, and World
Nicholas Wolterstorff
Eerdmans, 2011. 440 pp.

Liturgy and Justice seem like odd bedfellows. When we typically think of “Liturgy,” we think of Sunday morning worship and the organization of the church service. On the other hand, when we typically think of “Justice,” we tend to think, more often than not, of something that occurs “outside,” in some fashion, the bounds of the Sunday morning worship. If we participate in the work of Justice — however one may define that term — then we participate “outside” of the realms of “worship,” “music,” “architecture,” or any of the other matters that come into consideration under the broad heading of Liturgy.

And this ought not be so, contends Nicholas Wolterstorff. In a collection of essays that includes biographical shorts, letters to young academics, essays on social work, poverty, and architecture, and reflections on matters of theology and practice, Wolterstorff reminds the reader, time and time again, that the call of the Old Testament Hearing the Callis unified in its commitments to the “orphans, widows, and foreigners,” and how the prophets remind the people of God, time and time again, that their worship is null and void apart from this ethical-moral precommitment.

For a book that is inadequately named (“Hearing the Call” is the most unhelpfully vague title I could imagine for such a work), I am surprised at how often I find myself reflecting on Wolterstorff’s admonitions. There’s a joie de vivre throughout — probably a “good infection” that Wolterstorff received from Allan Boesak — that is irresistible; there’s a sense of that eternal Kingdom that Wolterstorff always points to as being palpable and livable hear and now. And yet Wolterstorff does not hold back his hammer: he takes apart Max Weber’s obnoxious thesis of Calvinist anxiety (it is about time someday did this with academic virtuosity!), brings to task American evangelical predilections with capitalism, undoes the secularist’s love of wealth, and demolishes the nondenominational / charismatic structure of a worship service. But even in his direct rebukes, all of Wolterstorff’s words are spoken with intricate care and with loving attention. What is most profound about such a compassionate call-to-action is the vast temporal space between the earliest essay (1969) and the latest (2010): If this were biography, the confession of Wolterstorff’s lifework would be one of compassionate, loving, yet firm, theological and prophetic engagement.

With such a variety of essays and ideas to highlight, it is impossible for me to do Wolterstorff’s work here its due credit. Here are some (sparse, diverse) thoughts that I came away with:

An Attention to Liturgy, Architecture, and Music: Spread throughout the various sections of the book, Wolterstorff spends incredible attention on the individual pieces of corporate worship, dealing with, in turn, the topics of liturgical structure, architecture of the church building, and selection of church music appropriate for this or that mood or season. The thoughts included here are the little pieces upon which Wolterstorff’s later (and more specific) monograph on worship and liturgy, The God We Worship (2015), was built, but they are more than enough to serve as suitable entrance into his thoughts on the matter. The overarching theme is one deemed practically unimportant by most of American evangelicalism: the choices we make in organizing our liturgy, building our churches, and planning our music are important; they reveal our implicit theologies.

Nicholas Wolterstorff
Nicholas Wolterstorff is a Christian philosopher, Reformed epistemologist, and professor emeritus at Yale

In particular, Wolterstorff spends significant attention to the importance of doors and open spaces in church buildings (as one can see in his home church, Church of the Servant, depicted above), highlights the values of expressing Christian egalitarianism through architecture, and, more than anything else, the centrality of churches as spaces filled with light, an idea he draws from Calvin’s Genevan churches.

— The Admiration of John Calvin: Speaking of Calvin, I found Wolterstorff’s consistent return, time and again, to the Institutes of the Christian Religion to be refreshing, an incredible feat in and of itself. While most readers of Calvin (including both Calvinists and Arminians) find him staunch and pietistic, Wolterstorff brings out the Calvin who is deeply concerned with matters of justice, matters of right worship, and matters of Christian communal living.

If there is something to be lamented in American Calvinist / Reformed thought in the present-day, it is the absorption of Calvin’s thought into specific sectarian (and politically-charged) camps to serve particular (often politically-intentioned) purposes. Wolterstorff, alongside other Reformed interlocutors (I would include Peter Leithart, for instance), does an incredible job of bringing out the wholeness of Calvin’s theology to address topics that are rarely addressed in typical Calvinist circles.

— Poverty as a Moral Ill: One last set of thoughts from Hearing the Call that stood out to me were the ways in which Wolterstorff addressed the topic of poverty. Wielding a solid group of ancient witnesses (mainly 4th-Century Church Fathers) alongside Thomas Aquinas, Wolterstorff makes a thorough case near the end of the book for describing poverty as a moral ill, and, with that, takes an axe to the politico-theological camp of ascribing moral goodness to American capitalism. He articulates his arguments firmly and with conviction, with solid biblical and theological grounds, making the American reader double-guess his or her own received values of money as a moral good.

What shocked me in reading Wolterstorff’s addresses on this topic was how little I considered my own economic / financial decisions to be ones of moral importance. But Wolterstorff leaves no room for moral neutrality (as he ought) and holds the Church to the biblical standard of caring for the poor as one of her fundamental duties. Wolterstorff provides an antidote for the poison that is American capitalism, without relying on its typical antithesis, Marxism, at all. Instead, he calls the Church to a higher calling and a higher duty.

 

Wolterstorff’s collection can feel at times slightly repetitive, as it perhaps should be for an anthology of fifty years’ worth of essays, yet it is a delightful “salve for the eyes,” so to speak, helping the American Christian re-frame their theological commitments toward Justice in biblical terms as opposed to our received cultural ones. Some essays leave one with bigger questions than solved answers, but Wolterstorff doesn’t ever leave an essay without some sense of eschatological hope. The works are convicting and compelling, but never damning or heavy-handed; instead, one senses a stronger call to follow the Lord’s ways and purposes, and to, as the prophet Micah says, “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly before your God.”

 

Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament

Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament: Theology in the Service of Biblical Exegesis by Gary A. Anderson. Baker Academic (April 2017, 220 pp).

The relationship between theology and biblical studies is fraught with misunderstanding. While maybe not always murderous in intent, their relationship often feels like what it must have been like to stand between Cain and Abel—strained and tenuous, at best. There are certainly numerous exceptions, but generally speaking, it often seems that theologians have no personal stake in the claims they are making while biblical scholars are so entrenched in their traditional reading that they miss incorporating fruitful theological insights into their exegesis. Anderson-Doctrine and the OTSo there’s something humbling—perhaps even startling, sadly, because it’s so rare—in a serious theologian rolling up his sleeves and doing meaningful exegetical work informed by theology and the tradition, which so obviously affects not only the scholar’s career, but their personal faith as well. Gary Anderson, professor of Catholic Theology at Notre Dame, is such a scholar and Christian.

With tongue firmly planted in cheek, Anderson claims on the first page of his newly released book of essays, Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament, that he makes the “rather audacious claim” that theological doctrines actually aid the process of biblical exegesis and, when properly used, play a key role in uncovering the meaning of a text. As Robert Louis Wilken blurbs on the back, this claim, and his understanding of the historical-critical method, theology, and the history of biblical interpretation, makes Anderson a “rare creature among biblical scholars.” That sounds like quite the mouthful but, to extend the metaphor, he is a rare bird able to be identified and understood by all those who have the patience and discipline to explore, and not just by fellow expert ornithologists. Anderson writes clearly and intelligibly while also reminding the reader that serious reading of the Bible theologically is a “demanding enterprise” and reminds the nontheological reader of the benefits of “having some theological sophistication.”

In fact, the most startling and welcome aspect of this book for me was how this collection of essays read much more like extended devotionals and meditations than a scholarly précis. Throughout the book I found myself continually rediscovering the Old Testament—particularly through the eyes of the Church Fathers— and wanting to go back to the texts. There are exegetical gems which have the potential to reorient ones reading of Torah, for example: “The construction of the tabernacle is the climax of creation” (64) and “the moment of lighting the sacrificial pyre is the very apogee of the Torah” (ibid).

Gary-Anderson
Gary A. Anderson has written books on sin and Christian charity and writes for First Things and other magazines.

There are moments that may make the more conservative scholar uncomfortable like Anderson’s contention that “Paul’s turn to the figure of Adam as the prime example of a biblical sinner is not in accord with the basic thrust of the Old Testament itself” (73) and others times when all sides might feel a bit put out like in the third chapter on creation: “Though Gen. 1 does not teach creatio ex nihilo in the way early Christian theologians might have thought of it, it does not rule it out as decisively as many modern readers have assumed” (48). There is also plenty that the Protestant scholar will find exception to such as Anderson’s study of Mariology and his chapter on the biblical warrant for purgatory but he might also make the Catholic theologian uncomfortable with his usage of Barth in places. Above all, I would say that this book brought me further into the heart of God, which for reader, and I would daresay, author alike, there could be no greater hope.

There are three other subthemes at the heart of the essays—apart from the main thesis that doctrine and biblical studies belong together—that Anderson identifies for the reader:

  1. There is no single method of reading Scripture advocated or that holds sway in the book. This is illustrated in his favorable use of Barth in the proper biblical grounding of original sin (which, provocatively, neither thinker believes is found in Genesis 3, proper) alongside chapters arguing the biblical warrant of Mariology and purgatory.
  2. The need for biblical scholarship to make a concerted effort to properly understand what theological doctrines actually wish to affirm. One of the biggest hindrances between the exegetical grounding of Christian doctrine, Anderson writes, is the ignorance of biblical scholars actual grasp of theological doctrines.
  3. The importance of the Old Testament, with particular influence on Jewish interpretation, as a source for Christian doctrine.

Though these themes are on display throughout the essays, it is easy to lose them in the midst of the specific material of the individual chapters. I found myself wanting more internal consistency and coherence among the essays. To that end, Anderson’s book would have been richer if he would have taken the time to write a new section on methodology or discussed in more depth the proper relationship between theology and scriptural exegesis and how they are to inform one another. We see the fruit of Anderson’s methodology but it would have been more satisfying to see behind the ways in which that fruit was picked. Nevertheless, Anderson has given readers a treat in his careful theological exposition of the scriptures.

*Thanks to Baker Academic for the review copy.

An Evangelical’s Take on The Benedict Option

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Most books that are published come and go with only a narrow impact. Some, however, remain in the cultural dialogue much longer and become a platform for constructive conversation. Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option is in the latter category, and has received much attention in recent months.

Dreher’s book, subtitled “A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation,” emerges from years of blogging and speaking around the thesis that the cultural milieu of the United States is so shaped by secularism, modernism and consumerism that meaningful discipleship necessitates radically countercultural living. The book’s title comes from the sixth-century St. Benedict, whose famous monastic Rule is interpreted by Dreher as a guide for Christians today.

The book begins with an assessment of “post-Christian America” and a brief intellectual history in which Dreher outlines some of the philosophical and cultural movements that have shifted Western culture over the last seven centuries. Dreher admits that his history only skims the surface. Even so, he chronicles well how these developments in Western thought have challenged the Christian worldview and made historic truths less believable for each generation. This chapter is one of the significant contributions of The Benedict Option. For many in this generation, our neophilia blinds us to the reality that our ideas are shaped by the values and epistemology we inherit. Dreher helpfully connects the dots by looking to these events:

In the fourteenth century, the loss of belief in the integral connection between God and Creation—or in philosophic terms, transcendent reality and material reality

The collapse of religious unity and religious authority in the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century

The eighteenth-century Enlightenment, which displaced the Christian religion with the cult of Reason, privatized religious life, and inaugurated the age of democracy

The Industrial Revolution (ca. 1760-1840) and the growth of capitalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries

The Sexual Revolution (1960-present)

Much more discussion can and should be had about the intellectual frameworks shaping American culture. This chapter was my favorite in the book and the one I’ve referenced most in conversation.

Fra_Angelico_031
Benedict of Nursia

The heart of the book is a chapter on Benedict’s Rule. Dreher explains how practices in the Rule of St. Benedict can help modern Christians recover, maintain, and pass on a robust Christian faith. The practices highlighted in the book are Order, Prayer, Work, Asceticism, Stability, Community, Hospitality, and Balance. As an Eastern Orthodox Christian, Dreher implores Christians of all stripes to structure their lives around these ancient practices. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD), America’s nefarious “Christianity-lite,” is a primary target of Dreher’s critique. The embrace of MTD stems from a lack of Christian discipleship, thus making the practices of St. Benedict all the more important.

The rest of the book applies Benedict’s Rule to different areas of life including politics, education, sex, and technology. The practical suggestions are helpful, if a little one-size-fits-all. The real meat, however, comes in the stories of people living the Benedict Option. Dreher offers glimpses of communities from Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox Christian traditions living some form of the Benedict Option.

In another book I’m reading (The Tech-Wise Family), author Andy Crouch offers suggestions on the use of technology with the caveat, “You don’t have to become Amish, but you probably have to become closer to Amish than you think.” I imagine Rod Dreher saying something similar, “You don’t have to become monastic, but you probably have to become closer to monastic than you think.” Dreher’s Benedict Option has been criticized by some as too extreme, but he argues that serious threats to the Christian faith demand radical countercultural living.

Headshot_courtesy_of_Rod_Dreher_284_405_55
Rod Dreher, senior editor and blogger at The American Conservative and author of The Benedict Option

But are the threats that serious? Or are Rod Dreher and his conservative cadre just stoking fear? Many have been quick to denounce The Benedict Option as a fundamentalist head-for-the-hills reaction to a changing country and a loss of political power. In a Washington Post piece that evidences little knowledge of the book’s contents, Dreher and his interlocutors are accused of promoting a “new alarmism.”

I’m optimistic about the amount of conversation The Benedict Option has generated, yet the number of critics commenting on a misreading (or perhaps commenting without reading?) continues to grow. Andy Crouch’s delineation of Dreher’s thesis from the most common misreading is helpful. Archbishop Charles Chaput has written a book like The Benedict Option from a Catholic perspective and argues, “Naming the problems in a culture truthfully, and pointing a way forward for those awake enough to notice, is neither bleak nor negative. It’s called Christian realism, and it’s a virus that’s going around.”

The evangelical fear that Christians will retreat from culture is understandable. Our tradition is deeply rooted bringing the gospel to bear on the issues of the day. And yet, how can a church subsumed by modernity offer meaningful critique of culture? Prophetic critique requires that a better reality be inaugurated and lived among the people of God.

The Benedict Option calls Christians to deepen our discipleship so that we can be the church for the world. Christian mission that disciples nonbelievers into MTD is thoroughly non-Christian. Only by taking hold of the radical self-denying, God-exalting, neighbor-embracing call of Christianity will we continue to “turn the world upside down” (examples of this can be seen in many flourishing churches across the Global South that preach historically orthodox Christianity). The Benedict Option’s proposal of a life oriented around early Christian practices is a welcome correction for today’s evangelicals.

It would be easy for readers to critique Dreher’s Benedict Option prescriptions without engaging the book’s central issue. The most fruitful discussions of this work will be those that take seriously the challenges of modernity and begin to offer contextualized responses. If The Benedict Option awakens Western Christians to the core issues at hand for the future of a robust Christian faith, the book will have served the Church well.

Book Review: The Crucifixion of the Warrior God, Volume Two

The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah
John Martin, The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (1852)

The Crucifixion of the Warrior God
Gregory A. Boyd
Fortress Press, 2017. 1492 pp.

Rhetorically, Volume Two of Greg Boyd’s The Crucifixion of the Warrior God is far more eloquent than Volume One. What, in the previous volume, was touch-and-go and overburdened by footnotes and block quotes becomes in this volume a far more thoughtful and well-articulated argument. The improved rhetoric helps Boyd flesh out a more convincing description of his Cruciform Hermeneutic, even though his uncritical presuppositions, discussed at the end of my previous post, continue unchecked.

Volume Two’s structure is also far more soundly organized. I did not find myself asking, as I did in Volume One, why whole sections of text existed for the sake of Boyd’s thesis. Most of Volume Two feels appropriate and necessary for the claims he proposes. I am still convinced that the work as a whole could have been comprised of one volume, with most of Volume One being pared away as unnecessary elaboration, but the amount of paring needed in Volume Two is very small.

With these less significant rhetorical considerations out of the way, my aim in this second review will be to see how far Boyd’s version of the Cruciform Hermeneutic works, what its limits are, and how his applications of that hermeneutic succeed or fail. Volume Two is organized around four principles that Boyd sees aCrucifixionCover_FINALvol1s central to his understanding of that hermeneutic — Cruciform Accommodation, Redemptive Withdrawal, Cosmic Conflict, Semiautonomous Power — most of which (exempting the last one) are robust enough ideas in their own right to substantiate their own individual book reviews. It is here that we see Boyd’s academic / scholarly verve show up in a powerful way, as he stakes claims on what the Cruciform Hermeneutic ought and ought not look like. He is passionate and articulate, and he brings up some questions that seem to me as particularly intriguing.

In the previous review, I mentioned that Boyd’s idea of a Cruciform Hermeneutic could be a helpful tool for reading the Old Testament, and that its chief problem is not its methodological / theoretical conception (i.e. look at the Cross, use it to read the OT), but in the precise manner that Boyd imbues it with presupposed definitions of terms like Love, Violence, and War. In Volume Two, he charts out a hermeneutical method that is admirable, but still lacks the honesty of confessing its epistemological pre-commitments.

Rather than chart out my review based on his structure, I am going to pick at few individual moments in his arguments for these principles and observe some of what seemed to me his strongest claims as well as some of what seemed the most problematic. At the end, I’ll offer some concluding thoughts on the unified work altogether.

Strengths — A Robust Description of Cosmic Warfare

One of my favorite sections in CWG was the Principle of Cosmic Conflict section. Here Boyd’s previous work on spiritual warfare (God at WarSatan and the Problem of Evil) manifests in a brilliant manner, demonstrating both an avid reading of the OT full of its supernatural density as well as a scholarly identification of ancient near East gods “hidden,” as it were, in the text. Boyd goes beyond the typical scholastic OT reading that discusses the presence of “Rahab” or “Leviathan” as cosmic metaphors and actually asserts, as me and my Pentecostal brethren would assert, that these are not simply metaphorical entities for the sake of a pre-modern people’s worldview, but that, instead, they are actually spiritual entities who operate both in the spiritual realms and in the natural realm.

In fact, I would say that Boyd’s greatest success in CWG as a whole is the manner in which he presents a thorough academic case for the presence of ongoing spiritual conflict between God and the forces of evil, something that many other theologians either write off as entirely soteriological (as those in the Reformed camp tend to do) or as entirely societal (as those in the Liberation camp tend to do).

In light of this cosmic conflict, Boyd re-engages two OT accounts in ways that I find very convincing. The first is his reading of Job, in which he brings to attention the wide variety of satanic references throughout the book in order to drive home the understanding of Job as the subject of cosmic warfare. The second is his reading of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea, where Boyd presses on the ANE worldview where both Pharaoh and the Sea itself are cosmic powers that, in the end, devour one another.

All this being said, the Principle of Cosmic Conflict does meander into its own waters of convolution, as most of CWG does. A significant problem could be raised that Boyd’s understanding of cosmic conflict allows for a semi-Manichean view of reality, giving the devil and his forces far too much agency. One result of this semi-Manicheanism could be, for instance, a reading of events like 9/11 as attacks of the devil allowed by Yahweh’s “redemptive withdrawal,” which, honestly, is no different than Pat Robertson’s infamous declaration of such events as divine judgment. Boyd addresses this problem directly but unconvincingly, waving the concern off without much critical engagement as he does with most of the biggest (and most interesting) problems raised against his theses.

Problems — A Surprisingly Critical View of Moses and the Torah

Maybe I’m a “traditionalist,” and maybe I’m overprotective. But one of the most shocking sets of claims throughout CWG is the way that Boyd continually treats Moses (as a person) and the Torah (as a collection) with supreme amounts of suspicion and, at times, derision. When addressing “problems in the OT,” I typically expect that the Book of Judges will be presented, that the morality of various decisions throughout the Histories will be presented, and that, broadly, our discussion will center on the “Canaanite genocide” (a term I’m wary of, because definitional presuppositions), the holy wars, and other clearly man-based judgments. I never expect a discussion on Moses and the Torah.

The reason for this is because the confession of both the OT and the NT is consistently one of praise and respect with regards to Moses and the Torah. Psalm 119 is the most famous of these, of course, but the verses from Psalm 19 ought to be observed as a testament to this:

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Gregory A. Boyd is a speaker in the Neo-Anabaptist movement and is an advocate of open theism and Christian pacifism

“The Law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the Testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple; the Precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the Commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes” (Psalm 19:7-8). Jesus, famously, is formally coronated Messiah (at least, in the eyes of His disciples) on the Mount of Transfiguration with Moses and Elijah present. Paul, Peter, and John all base their theologies in the context of Moses’ writings.

So, it is utterly surprising to me how critical Boyd is of Moses and of the Torah. I do not wish to come across “starry eyed” regarding the first five books of the Bible — there are certainly moments and scenes that we might find bizarre at the least and obscene at the most in those texts. It is true that we certainly have a lot of room for growth in our exegetical understandings of the Torah. But Boyd says, at one juncture, that Moses and Aaron’s “fallen and culturally conditioned hearts caused them to view their heavenly Father in ‘twisted’ ways,” thinking of how they view God as the sort of God who brings plagues and goes to war. This strikes me as strange.

Of course, Moses and Aaron are not perfect. The Scriptures themselves make this clear when, for instance, Aaron makes the Golden Calf, or when, for instance, Moses strikes the rock he is commanded to speak to. But Boyd is perpetually suspicious of Moses, and he often attributes various clauses of Levitical law to him (in his “fallen and culturally conditioned” weakness) rather than to Yahweh whenever doing so suits Boyd’s narrative. I find it, simply put, too rhetorically convenient to believe that whenever Yahweh orders someone to be stoned or put to death that this is a consequence of Moses’ interpretative weaknesses, as opposed to Yahweh’s revelatory wisdom. And it is hard, in my opinion, to claim to be advancing a hermeneutic with the belief that all Scripture is “God-breathed,” and come to the conclusion that the Torah, culturally-distant as it is, is anything other than “the perfect Law” that both OT and NT describe it as (cf. Psalm 19, 199; James 1:22-25).

In Summation

There are many other things that could be discussed with regards to CWG, but I feel that I have written far too much as it is. A few conclusory words could be said as to why I find CWG so unconvincing, and, with that, maybe some suggestions for future theologians for how to write a better work engaging the problem of OT violence.

  1. One of CWG‘s greatest weaknesses is that Boyd writes very clearly in the service of his pre-committed ideological and theological beliefs, rather than using inductive exegetical work to support those beliefs. He comes into the conversation with the firm notion that Augustine and Aquinas are wrong about God’s eternity (and other matters), that Love ought to be defined using a modified version of the modern notion of Nonviolence, and that the presence of violence in the OT ought to be considered a major epistemic problem. A conversation on each of these topics would make for an interesting book, and, in fact, those books are necessary before one could even begin to trace out the sort of hermeneutic that Boyd attempts in CWG. Rather than sitting down and hashing out his differences with Augustine and Aquinas the typical manner (i.e. through thorough academic discourse), Boyd presupposes their fallaciousness and dismisses them with a quick word in edgewise. He uses this rhetorical form throughout CWG: just as the conversation gets interesting, he concludes his argument with simple logic, rather than complex, nuanced discourse. The whole work could be rewritten, in a far more convincing way, by starting with its major deterrents, grounding its claims and definitions in solid exegetical work first, and then bringing external discourses (re: open theism, etc.) into play as the thesis gains strength.
  2. The idea of a single “hermeneutic key” to unlock the problems of the OT is also misguided. This book could have been an intriguing discourse on simply the Canaanite genocide (and it would have held more weight that way, I believe). But by attempting to over-incorporate the whole of the OT, Boyd makes the common mistake of using one hermeneutic tool for a variety of diverse and unrelated texts. Universal theological attempts like this one are almost always doomed to failure because they are more easily tempted by ideological presuppositions. A more particular account would make for a much more interesting read.
  3. Boyd’s greatest ideas in the book occur when he writes his own ideas, rather than relying so heavily upon his academic sources. CWG makes for a great bibliography of OT violence; but it would have made a more effective argument if much of that bibliography was left in the footnotes and in the back of the book, rather than taking up vital space needed for substantive rhetoric.
  4. Finally, setting up the problem as a real problem, rather than making the stark — and rhetorically simplistic — statement “this is obviously problematic,” is crucial in making an argument worthwhile. Not once in CWG did I ever feel that Boyd was presenting an answer to a problem that I felt was significantly worthwhile. It is a problem that the New Atheists find troubling, but that is fine by me; I don’t find the New Atheists worth being troubled about.

There are many fruitful discussions that could be had around the problems of violence and the OT, but CWG does little more than retread ground that has already been discussed and propose an extremely narrow (sectarian) view of OT exegesis as the ultimate, worldwide solution to an already-“dead horse” conversation. At its best, CWG provides suitable bibliographic materials to aid the student of theology in wrestling through a specific problem, or it suggests a view of supernatural powers that is worth considering, at the least. But at its worst, CWG is cloaked open theistic propaganda, struggling to suggest its theological framework as orthodoxy without actually putting in the rhetorical work necessary to accomplish so audacious a task.

I would like to thank Fortress Press for sending me a review copy of this work. As with all these reviews, I was not required to write a good review, and all the opinions expressed within are my own.

To Be or Not to Be? It Is the Question

To be or not to be? We ask ourselves this question everyday, whether we realize it or not, through probably not in the existential context in which Hamlet gave us this most famous of lines. But we do decide in every action whether or not what we do will give us being or deprive us of what it means to be fully human. So, what does it mean to live a full and complete human life? I’m so glad you asked! Let me tell you what my friend James Schall has to say on the matter. Let me begin with a story. Schall-Life of the Mind

In graduate school, I asked the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) if I could be their campus representative, which I realize now, is somewhat akin to asking the fire department if I could bring my watering can to help fight their fires. They probably rolled their eyes but they obliged and so I became the pioneering member of ISI at the University of Dallas. ISI is a conservative educational organization whose purpose is to teach “the core ideas behind the free market, the American Founding, and Western civilization, ideas that are rarely taught in [the] classroom” and so being the ISI rep at a school like the University of Dallas— which exists to teach the great books and keep Western civilization alive— did not make me their most valuable asset. A majority of the students were already bought in to ISI’s core ideas and so I now realize why I could never get anyone to contact me with questions I had. (Book reviews can be so cathartic!) ISI has a lot of rich people who give them a good deal of money and so I became the recipient of boxes of free ISI books. One of the thinkers they introduced me to was Father James Schall, S.J., through his book The Life of the Mind. I remain forever indebted.

C.S. Lewis famously said that one has not read a great book until they have read it more than once (though you have to read it once to read it again). I would place Schall’s oeuvre in that category, and Life of the Mind is no exception. It is a book that could be profitably read over and over in order to discover anew or for the thousandth time what truly matters and what one should spend their precious time pursuing. Schall’s book is like a fortune cookie from Ancient Athens in that you can turn to almost any page, select any sentence, and meditate on its profundity throughout the day. Let me concretely apply this bold statement by opening the book at random to three places and recording what I find, which I can do, because I am my own editor.

  1. “We do sense, however, that we need speculative reasons to explain of justify our practical decisions and actions, especially if we suspect that what we do is wrong by some transcendent standard—that is, if we presume we do have such a thing as a conscience” (124, The Whole Risk for a Human Being).
  2. “Modern economics has shown ways for the drudgery of labor to be performed with dignity and profit by free citizens. If one thinks, for instance, of modern sewage and waste management systems, we see how the work formerly forced on slaves can be carried out in another, more human, way” (29, Artes Liberales—The Liberal Arts).
  3. “Not only am I, I, but that which is not myself is just as real as I am” (107, The Metaphysics of Walking).
rev-james-schall14_0
Father Schall, walking metaphysically, metaphorically, with a magnificently misaligned name tag.

Look at the chapter that last citation is taking from: The Metaphysics of Walking! What does that even mean!? I know that you are intrigued. Other chapter titles include such gems as: On the Things That Depend on Philosophy; On the Consolations of Illiteracy, Revisited; Books and the Intellectual Life; On the Joys and Travails of Thinking.

If you are looking for a good graduation present for either high school or college seniors, look no further my friends. One of the most shocking moments of Schall’s book to our modern sensibilities is when he reminds us that some pleasures are worth pursuing and others are not. In other words, some things are better than others! Any author willing to sacrifice his career at a prestigious East coast university (Schall teaches at Georgetown) with such a brazenly old-fashioned statement deserve a standing ovation.

I had the privilege of meeting Schall in grad school—I hope that I gave him a standing ovation, alas, I cannot remember—and I consider it one of the highlights of that period of my life. Wearing an eye patch and continually dabbing the excess saliva from the corners of his mouth as he spoke, Schall’s body was deteriorated but his face beamed like a child, mind sprightly, eyes radiating with the joie de vivre that comes from a life of disciplined intellectual delights and the continual back and forth of students and teacher. The Life of the Mind is a book that every person should have on their bookshelf, and hopefully, more often than not, in their hands. There are few books that come to my mind so full of life and wisdom and few thinkers that have done so much with the joys and challenges of the intellectual and spiritual life as Father James Schall. It will be a sad day, indeed, when his astute mind and childlike countenance go to find their final rest.

Book Review: Crucifixion of the Warrior God, Volume One

The Death of Agag
Gustave Doré, La mort d’Agag (1866)

The Crucifixion of the Warrior God
Gregory A. Boyd
Fortress Press, 2017. 1492 pp.

Before I can properly review and engage with the ideas presented by Greg Boyd’s newest work, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God, I suppose I must first “out” myself as someone who is about as theologically opposite to Greg Boyd as is possible. His advocacy of open theism, his views on Augustine and Aquinas, and his soteriology are thoroughly distant from my own views. I think it’s important to put that out first, so that I might write this review with integrity.  And while I certainly find certain claims (especially open theism) that Boyd holds as truth to be problematic because of where my theology lands in comparison to his, it is my goal in this review to engage just with the central claims that Boyd presents for this work. As we shall see, I find The Crucifixion of the Warrior God to be an ambitious work of heremeneutics that despite its brilliant methodological approach has major flaws when applying that approach to the problem it proposes to solve.

The Crucifixion of the Warrior God (CWG) is a two-volume monograph that attempts to address OT violence in light of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. For Boyd, OT violence isn’t simply an ethic problem but an epistemic one, contradictiCrucifixionCover_FINALvol1ng, in his view, the very foundations of the Christian faith. In order to provide a basis for re-engaging the OT this way, Boyd proposes a Cruciform Hermeneutic, using it to re-read the OT through the lens of Christ upon the Cross. Through this, Boyd maintains, we will come to see that the narratives of God behaving violently in the OT are simply depictions masking God’s true revelation of Himself. In Volume One, Boyd presents the problem at hand, writes at length on the importance of the centrality of the Cross and then develops the Cruciform Hermeneutic. In Volume Two, he clarifies how that hermeneutic functions and then applies that hermeneutic to various OT texts and proposes new readings for them.

In order to review a work so large as CWG, I will write my review in multiple parts. This first part aims to address the whole of Volume One. The second part will address Volume Two and maybe give some overview and final thoughts. However, since as of this part of the review I have not yet finished Volume Two ,it could happen that I write a third review article or a follow-up to consider other possible solutions to the problems that Boyd reveals. My goal in this first review will be threefold: to give a sense of the quality of Boyd’s writing, point to some of the strengths of his claims and arguments, and lastly engage with some of the problems that arise from Boyd’s claims.

Quality — Meandering, Repetitive, and Quote-Reliant

Before jumping into the matters of Boyd’s claims themselves, I do have a few things to say with regards to the quality of his writing. In stark contradiction to Rob Grayson’s review (the only other review I could find during the writing of this one), I think that one of the great weaknesses of the book is its rhetorical composition. There is a goodness, as Grayson observes, in how Boyd takes great lengths to ensure that his readership understands every twist and turn of the argument, making his work accessible. But in order to accomplish this clarity, Boyd’s work manifests as long, meandering parades of paragraph-after-paragraph of mostly regurgitated information, quotes, and repetitions. Sometimes the structure of Boyd’s argument felt like reading a Choose Your Own Adventure book, with him repeating, numerous times, statements like “As I said in Vol. 1, Chp. 4,” “This will be made clear in Ch. 8,” etc. The book feels like it could have been written in a different order, and, thus, made considerably less cumbersome.

Usually poor rhetorical quality is not anything more than simply poor writing, an excusable error. However, Boyd’s work in Volume One suffers from a far more serious problem. There are times, especially in the first six chapters, in which Boyd lets his interlocutors do the majority of the rhetorical heavy-lifting. Not only is this a nuisance to the reader (at the very least, Boyd broke every rhetorical rule I was taught in graduate school), it also creates the sense that Boyd is attempting to advocate his positions through the voices of other writers. If this is intentional, then Boyd is being disingenuous in a very serious and disconcerting way. However, my sense is that he is not intentionally misrepresenting his interlocutors. Instead, one begins to feel that Boyd is not totally comfortable coming out and making his explicit claims. In the first half of Volume One, there is a hidden fear in the text as he sets his ideas behind the claims of other, more established, theologians. In fact, it isn’t really until Chapter 9 that Boyd’s own voice begins to appear in earnest in the narrative of claims he makes (and, as I will mention in the next post, Volume Two is thankfully freed from this particular impediment).

The fortunate thing, rhetorically speaking, is that his writing cleans up significantly in the last few chapters of Volume One, letting his most engaging and most interesting claims shine. All of the earlier cluttered rhetoric, piling on quotes repeating roughly the same material, gives me the sense that CWG unnecessarily complicates itself, cancelling out Boyd’s own direct ambition to make his work more accessible. The first six chapters could have easily been cut out and written more concisely as a simple introduction to his assumption that Christ on the Cross is the central biblical revelation. It is when Boyd gets into his more interesting claims — how the crucicentral revelation affects other parts of Scripture, etc. — that he begins to write in a more compelling way and ceases to retreat behind the words of other theologians. As it stands, I had the growing sense that this whole book could have been accomplished in one volume of ~400-500 pages. The writing is raw and unfinished, more like a doctoral dissertation in style than like a monograph.

Strengths — The Cruciform Hermeneutic is a Marvelous Exegetical Tool

What accounts for Boyd’s hesitance to put his cards on the table? I wonder if he’s hesitant because he wants his thesis to be received well. Maybe he’s aware that some of the claims he makes later in the book are radical. And maybe, to be sure, the fact that he must frame his rhetoric in this defensive manner is symptomatic of how the broader evangelical community treats new ideas (i.e. poorly).

Yet the first part of Boyd’s thesis is not actually so radical as all his defensive stances makes it seem. (Maybe that’s another reason I don’t think he needs the first six chapters?)

Greg Boyd
Gregory A. Boyd is Senior Pastor of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, MN and President of Reknew.org

At its core, the Cruciform Hermeneutic is a pretty normal understanding of how one ought to read the Scriptures, although we don’t often think so clearly about it as Boyd does. In summation, he claims that we ought to read the Scriptures as God-breathed manifestations of revelation pertaining first and foremost to Jesus Christ who was crucified and raised from the dead. Except for a few outliers, most major streams of theology view the Scriptures with this precise central theme in mind, and, thus, it is no surprise that Boyd is able to leverage such a diversity of theologians for the sake of this claim.

In fact, I think the chief of Boyd’s successes in Volume One is the manner in which he convinces the reader in Part Three (the last three chapters) that all good Christian hermeneutics treat certain parts of the text as literal (i.e. Jesus really did die on a Cross) and certain parts as figurative (i.e. Jesus does not actually expect us to pluck out our eyes). In one of his strongest moments in Volume One, Boyd wagers that most of us are already doing something like what he calls the “Reinterpretation Solution” with the OT, we just don’t know it.

If we follow the logic of that claim then we can begin to see how Boyd aims to use it for the purposes of establishing his Cruciform Hermeneutic. He provides us with a useful tool and metric for reading the Scriptures, helpful guidelines with which to judge what ought to be read literally and what ought to be read figuratively, all focusing on the exaltation of Christ on the Cross. All this is incredibly insightful, helpful, and orthodox.

So, what is it about his thesis that is radical enough for him to spend the majority of the first half of Volume One defending himself from all possible angles and all possible critics? Surely, if the Cruciform Hermeneutic is simply a matter of reading the OT (and the rest of Scripture as well) with the revelation of Jesus on the Cross as our guiding interpretative framework, then what Boyd suggests ought not be so problematic!

Problems — Uncritical Manifestations of Boyd’s Presuppositions

Of course, Boyd’s goal is not just to establish a Cruciform Hermeneutic, but to use that hermeneutic to solve what he sees as one of Christianity’s greatest age-old problems: Why does God behave so violently in the OT? Boyd’s specific engagements with the OT occurs in the bulk of Volume Two, which I will engage in my next post.

For Volume One, it is simply enough to question the question itself. In Chapter 7, Boyd addresses OT violence head-on, describing every violent event he can find. He even adds a hypothetical story from the perspective of the Canaanites as the Israelite army comes in to kill. The straightforwardness of presenting biblical texts with forthright honesty is, of course, valuable. But what Boyd never presents us with at any juncture is either A) a framework for determining which texts are and are not problematic, in light of the Cross; or B) a definition for how Boyd proposes to understand “violence” (and, thus, as he describes Jesus, “nonviolence”). The lack of these terms is a serious blow to Boyd’s entire argument.

The problem here is simply that for all his hard work in defending against a wide variety of criticisms, Boyd has not taken the time to critically assess his own a priori assumptions. In the Introduction, he takes for granted that Jesus’ revelation of God is “agape-centered, other-oriented, self-sacrificial” without putting flesh on what those terms really mean. These terms are fascinating, intriguing, and radical claims on their own, but Boyd assumes that his readership is already on-board with the content of those words. Likewise, he doesn’t seem able to abide the arguments that, as an example, Augustine has proposed with regards to God being both “agape-centered” and the “God of war” that the OT describes him as. There could be an interesting discussion engaging with Augustine here, but when Boyd brings it up, he dismisses Augustine out-of-hand with far too much ease. This is yet another example of the weakness of Boyd’s rhetoric: he spends very little time refuting the more substantial arguments against his case, and a lot more time defending and shoring up the more self-evident points for his case.

This is one of the things that I personally found aggravating throughout CWG. Boyd holds long-form arguments in order to support certain claims that he could just hand to us as simple propositions (i.e. Christ’s Cross as a centralizing biblical revelation), but then neglects to engage with the propositions that he does hand to us that are not actually that simple to surpass (i.e. Boyd’s presupposed definitions of love). Rather than linger on the Augustinian question of whether or not Love could or could not engage in Violence of any kind, or even rather than admit that the discussion therein is more complicated that it appears, Boyd makes an interpretative leap and then assumes what is implied by his Cruciform Hermeneutic. If one of the strongest points of Volume One is how useful the Cruciform Hermeneutic is as an exegetical tool, then easily the weakest matter is how Boyd attempts to apply that Cruciform Hermeneutic, premising his reading of the OT upon his own presuppositions of how that hermeneutic views Love, Violence, and the like.

In so doing, I am afraid that Boyd begins his engagements with the OT from a thoroughly modern standpoint, in which “Violence” and “Nonviolence” are terms decided upon by Western secular society, not Christ, even though Boyd would surely assert that he prefers the latter. As a result, from very early on in the text I am continually concerned that what we are receiving is not an actual re-reading of the OT through the proposed Cruciform Hermeneutic, but, instead, a re-reading through the modernist presuppositions of Greg Boyd. It is Boyd’s definitions of “Violence” and “Nonviolence” that articulate his concerns in Chapter 7, and it is his definitions, not necessarily Christ’s, that constitute the hermeneutic he intends to deploy in Volume Two.  As I shall discuss in the next part of my review, Boyd’s failure to address these presuppositions results in a touch-and-go exegesis of the OT, with some readings revealing brilliant insights and others leading to nonsensical conclusions.

I would like to thank Fortress Press for sending me a review copy of this work. As with all these reviews, I was not required to write a good review, and all the opinions expressed within are my own.