The Atonement

Does a “Cruciform Hermeneutic” Help Us Make Sense of Scripture?

I’ve had several discussions online with some who dismiss the wrath of God as having any part in either the atonement, or indeed, as part of who God is. Someone has recommended Greg Boyd’s Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence as a good presentation of an alternative way to view the topic. As I make my way through this book, I am recording thoughts and reactions.

Boyd begins with the hermeneutic of Origen, noting that the method he followed looked for the spiritual sense in the Scriptures. While Origen was a devoted student of the Bible, he also arrived at some unorthodox doctrines through his method, things like a “bank of souls” from which a withdrawal was made whenever a person is born, or that Satan would ultimately be redeemed. It is tempting to look at expositors of a prior era with suspicion, and to say that the science of biblical interpretation has advanced. Indeed, it has advanced, and I don’t want to suggest that Origen was some bumpkin who simply didn’t know what he was doing, nor that he was a hopeless mystic. His accomplishments in biblical research are considerable, and even given his several theological problems, we should not just wave him off. However, Origen didn’t live to see the problems that allegorizing can lead to. When one is not tethered to the meaning of words as some guard against interpretive excesses—then excesses emerge. (I would point to Augustine’s interpretation of the Good Samaritan as an example of allegory gone wrong.)  G. L. Prestige comments on Origen’s method:

“Throughout the Bible, says Origen, priceless truths are hidden, the value of which can never be exhausted by the most diligent research. The deeper the study given to it, the greater will be the riches brought to light. And to serve as indications to the existence of this buried treasure, difficulties and impossibilities are sometimes deliberately inserted in the Scriptures, from which no literal sense whatever can be extracted, in order that the more enlightened reader may devote himself to the task of exploration and so may find ‘a meaning worthy of God’. Accordingly, since the Saviour bade us ‘search the Scriptures’, we must carefully investigate how far the literal meaning of a passage is true or possible, and use every effort, by comparison with relevant passages elsewhere throughout the entire Bible, to discover the real sense of what is in the literal sense impossible; so we shall arrive at a true understanding of the whole of revelation, by making a synthesis between the genuine history and the spiritual fruits of allegory.”[1]

The similarities in Boyd’s method to Origen are indeed apparent. There is an appeal to understand “something else going on behind the scenes.”[2] Boyd thus positions himself as an heir to this allegorical tradition stretching back to Origen, but it comes also with a sort of hermeneutical gnosticism. For Origen, it is only the more enlightened reader that can find the true meaning. I do not say that Boyd believes only a few can discern the true meaning, but that he sometimes puts the true meaning at odds with the text itself. It could not mean what the words say, because it would conflict with the cruciform hermeneutic he has established.

Christ as key to the Old Testament

In explaining how he arrived at the view he expounds in Cross Vision, Boyd notes that Christ is the key for our reading of Scripture. He first turns to the preamble of Hebrews to show that Jesus is the exact representation of God, and that in the progress of revelation, in these last days, God has spoken to us in his Son. No one would argue Hebrews is not presenting Jesus as culmination of God’s message to mankind. After him, there is nothing more to say. John 1:1 is also presented as evidence that “Jesus is the total content of the Father’s revelation to us.”[3] Finally, he references Luke 24, which in a couple of spots, contains clear pointers to the Old Testament testimony to Jesus. But in all these passages, Boyd presents his case that the Old Testament is only about Jesus, rather than it contains types and shadows of Christ. “Hence, the only proper way to ‘study the Scripture diligently’ is to study it in a way that discloses how all of it is about Jesus and thus in a way that leads us to the life of Scripture.”[4] It is not at all clear that the text of Luke 24 can sustain this view. Luke 24: 27 reads, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” Verse 44, as well: “Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’”

In both of these passages, Jesus indicates the Scriptures contain truths about him, his suffering and death, “the things concerning himself” and “everything written about me.” Is it that everything written, every Scripture, is about him? Or, is it rather that there are things written about him in many places, many books? The latter seems more the sense of what Jesus is explaining.  The point is not to diminish the prophetic witness of the Old Testament to the sufferings and death of Jesus, for that witness is surely true. But it is rather to suggest that it is methodological error to say that the Old Testament is only and always an exclusive witness to Jesus, therefore whatever conflicts with what we read in the New Testament must represent something other than what the text says.

In most cases, Boyd attributes this to the culturally-conditioned understanding of the authors, who were bound to an Ancient Near-East understanding of the world. They couldn’t get beyond their cultural blinders to see what was actually going on. He says this while also affirming the Scriptures as “God-breathed” and inspired. The only way to reconcile the mistaken views of the Old Testament authors with the divine nature of Scripture is by retreating to the kind of allegorical mysticism Origen championed. Boyd seems (thus far) to have not considered that he, too, has cultural conditioning that is coloring his view of the text. Why are his understandings to be preferred?

The other problem with this reading is that it entirely sets aside any meaning of the text to the first readers. Boyd has not explained how Jewish readers of the Hebrew Bible might make sense of their Scriptures, of the promises God gave to that nation. Indeed, Boyd has noted how much of the Old Testament is not applicable today because it belonged to a now-obsolete covenant. I agree that the Mosaic law is not applicable to Christians because it was not given to us. But that is not the same as dismissing Old Testament events that were part of Israel’s deliverance as unworthy of God, or to say that the promises of deliverance through judgment are clouded and untrustworthy pictures of God.

The Cruciform Hermeneutic

For Boyd, Scripture can only make sense when viewed through the cruciform or “cross-shaped” way of looking at it. That the cross is the culmination of God’s purposes and plans is certainly set forth in Scripture. The centrality of the cross in the gospel is hard to over-estimate. And in this Boyd rightly includes the resurrection. However, the cruciform hermeneutic is a particular way of interpreting the cross, one that magnifies the self-giving love the Lord Jesus demonstrated in going to Calvary. “On Calvary, the all-holy God fully identified with our sin…And it’s the unsurpassable extremity to which God was willing to go on our behalf that reveals the unsurpassable perfection of the love that God is, and the love God has for us.”[5] The love shown on Calvary becomes the interpretive key for how we read Scripture, and particularly how to make sense of Old Testament passages that conflict with this. Yet Boyd himself acknowledges the elusive nature of this. “I agree with those scholars who argue that the original intended meaning of a passage should only be departed from when there are good reasons to do so. While there’s no clear consensus among scholars about what these ‘good reasons’ are, I submit that if anything should justify departing from the original intended meaning of a passage, it should be when portraits of God conflict with the supreme revelation of God on the cross.”[6] One can see how easily it is to arrive at the position that the interpreter’s own perspective is what constitutes the revelation of God on the cross.

Love is indeed on display at Calvary, and while Boyd notes Jesus taking our curse, our sin, he doesn’t speak of wrath or that the source of the curse was God’s own judgment on law-breakers. In other words, the cruciform shape Boyd draws of the cross is one-sided. It shows God’s love, but it does not show his wrath. It does not account for the necessity of the cross as the propitiation for our sin. God’s wrath was poured out on Jesus because our sins are worthy of God’s wrath and condemnation. (Later, Boyd will offer that the violence Jesus suffered on the cross did not involve God.)

To speak of the cross as the expression of God’s love—but not the satisfaction of his wrath—is to portray it other than Scripture does. It is only about halfway through the book (p. 132) that Boyd finally states “the cross was itself a divine judgment!” But what Boyd means by this is not what most people think of (of which more in the next post.) Significantly, Boyd does not reference either Romans 3:25 nor 1 John 2:2, two verses that speak of propitiation. I have written elsewhere how the idea of propitiation necessarily involves the satisfaction of God’s wrath.  The fact that Boyd does not incorporate the wrath of God into his cruciform hermeneutic is perhaps the most serious shortcoming of his paradigm. Indeed, I believe it is a fatal flaw because it fails at just the very point he builds the entire structure of his argument: We can only understand the Old Testament when it is seen through the cross. But by presenting a truncated view of the cross, he undermines the position. By describing what happened at the cross in a way that is very different from the way the New Testament describes, he provides no real basis for a reliable hermeneutic. I could agree with the cruciform hermeneutic, if it accounted for everything going on, but my contention is the portrait Boyd draws does not in fact reflect the cross and all that transpired. To use his words, there is something else going on in addition to God’s love displayed. His wrath against sin is satisfied. To diminish this is to mar the cross.

[1] G.L. Prestige, Fathers and Heretics, (London, SPCK,1940), 58.

[2] Gregory A. Boyd, Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2017), 53

[3] Boyd, 21.

[4] Boyd, 22.

[5] Boyd, 36-37.

[6] Boyd, 67.

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