This week’s episode of Unbelievable features a debate between Paul Copan and Greg Boyd regarding Boyd’s new book The Crucifixion of the Warrior God. I will not be rehearsing the various arguments here, so I definitely advise you take the time to listen to this excellent exchange (the first of two rounds). Instead, I will offer my own succinct response. (Well, maybe not that succinct. It’s over 1500 words… but worth every one of ’em.)
Before getting into my response let me note first that both Copan and Boyd have critically engaged with my 2009 paper on the topic, so I’m not a stranger to these debates. Second, while I’ve read both of Copan’s books on the topic, I have yet to read Boyd’s so my critical engagement with his ideas is limited to the presentation in this episode of “Unbelievable”.
Finally, I know Copan and I can attest to him being one of the nicest guys working in Christian philosophy today. Rumor has it that the same is true of Boyd, so it is no surprise that their exchange was both rigorous and pleasantly irenic. Indeed, the latter point is worth underscoring. You see, I know scholars who share views similar to Boyd’s but who argue their point by way of scorched earth rhetoric. As one of my friends has observed, it is ironic indeed that someone should exert such rhetorical violence in defense of a non-violent reading of Scripture! So the peaceableness of both Copan and Boyd was welcome indeed.
Now down to business.
What is at stake in this debate?
Boyd noted in passing that for many people the violence of Scripture presents a stumbling block for their faith. The point can hardly be over-emphasized. Can you imagine what it does to a Christian’s faith when they realize that the Bible portrays God as commanding and commending prima facie moral atrocities? At that point, many face a terrible choice: either reject the faith they’ve known or deny the deliverances of their most basic moral knowledge.
It’s important to understand what I’m talking about when I refer to denial of one’s most basic moral knowledge. So let’s begin by highlighting what I don’t mean. When he was a young married man with a pregnant wife, William Carey became convinced God was calling him to travel to India to spread the Gospel. And so, Carey faithfully boarded a ship for the distant subcontinent. To many, that action would be a fundamental abdication of his role as a husband and future parent: it might even be considered immoral. Nonetheless, the Christian will concede that the radical call of the kingdom may lead to such radical acts of self-devotion. In some cases, prima facie immoral acts can be justified in light of kingdom priorities. This I do not deny.
What is at stake in biblical violence is something quite different. In this case, the actions in question are ones that appear properly subject to an absolute and unqualified moral condemnation. I’m thinking, for example, of slaughtering infants in battle or punitive legislative actions like pelting children to death with rocks or amputating limbs. If we read of actions like these occurring today in a place like the Middle East or North Africa, we would condemn them without qualification as absolute moral atrocities. And yet, the Christian is asked to believe that these very same actions were morally praiseworthy three thousand years ago.
That’s what I mean by the denial of one’s most basic moral knowledge. And so, that’s the dilemma that the Christian has often faced: either reject the Bible or reject one’s moral knowledge. For the devout Christian, that’s a terrible choice indeed!
My Response: Interpretive Pluralism
My personal approach to the resolution of the problem shares more with Boyd than with Copan. Nonetheless, my method for dealing with the cognitive dissonance is rather different than Boyd’s. Rather than endorse one view as the proper view for all Christians, my focus is instead on arguing that the church has always allowed for a range of interpretive options in seeking to interpret biblical violence. I refer to this emphasis as interpretive pluralism.
To be clear, I’m not arguing a relativism according to which contradictory positions are true. Rather, I’m arguing the more modest thesis that the Christian tradition has allowed many different views on this matter just as it has allowed different views on matters such as election (e.g. Calvinism vs. Arminianism).
And so, I’m content to concede that nominalist divine command theories which allow for such radical actions as divinely commanded genocide via herem holy war are consistent with the Christian tradition as surely as are peace traditions that utterly renounce such divinely sanctioned violence.
Moreover, I emphasize that this interpretive plurality — and in particular, non-violent interpretations — is not a relatively new (i.e. post-Enlightenment) phenomenon. Rather, interpretive plurality regarding these texts has been a hallmark of the Christian tradition since the beginning. And so, for example, one can find in the fourth century Gregory of Nyssa proposing a non-literal reading of the killing of the firstborn in Egypt because of his moral aversion to a literal reading.
The lesson, so I argue, is that Christian communities should recognize a plurality of interpretation including both Copan’s and Boyd’s as being consistent with orthodoxy, doctrinal fidelity, and popular piety. There is room for everyone at the table. And nobody should be asked to go against the most basic dictates of conscience in the name of piety.
Now for my objections.
Boyd and the Beastie Boys Objection
To begin with, while Boyd’s cruciform reading of the Bible is sophisticated and subtle, I submit that it also faces the Beastie Boys objection.
Let me explain.
If you grew up in the 1980s you no doubt remember Beastie Boys’ 1986 hit “Fight for your Right (to Party),” a childish, bawdy teen call to rebellious partying. What you may not know is that the song was written and performed tongue-in-cheek: the Beastie Boys were aiming for a subversive parody of childish rock rebellion songs. (Think, for example, of Twisted Sister’s “We’re not Gonna Take it.”)
The problem is that the Beastie Boys’ audience of young, puerile teen boys didn’t hear sophisticated subversive satire. Instead, what they heard was a decidedly straightfaced bawdy call to rebellion. This went on for a few years until the Beastie Boys grew so deflated at the complete misreading of their ironic subversion of cheezy rock party songs that they stopped performing “Fight for your Right” altogether.
Greg Boyd may be correct in his sophisticated cruciform reading of biblical violence. Nonetheless, his reading can hardly be considered mainstream in the history of the church. While there has been interpretive plurality in the history of the church, it is fair to say that the vast majority of average Christians have not interpreted the texts in question with the non-violent, cruciform sophistication that one finds in Boyd. Rather, much as the Beastie Boys fans heard a straight-ahead party anthem, so Christian readers have tended to read relatively straight-ahead endorsements of divine violence.
(As a case in point, Boyd himself assumed the correctness of such violent readings up until a decade ago when he initially set out to write a book on the topic.)
In short, if Boyd is right, then the Bible is full of non-violent texts which have been widely read incorrectly for two millennia by Christians as violent texts. When their audience missed the point, the Beastie Boys stopped performing their song after a few years. So why would God persist literally for millennia in maintaining a text that produced such serious, enduring misunderstanding among his devotees about such pivotal ethical and theological issues?
Copan and the Swallowing Camels Objection
Now for a quick objection to our second interlocutor in the debate, Paul Copan. In his response to Boyd, Copan largely focuses on enumerating a series of biblical texts that present a problem for Boyd’s thesis.
Copan certainly raises some legitimate objections to Boyd’s interpretation. But at times his critique also has the whiff of straining gnats whilst swallowing camels. For example, Copan twice asks how Jesus could have said it would be better for a person who causes a “little one to stumble” to have a millstone tied around their neck and thrown into the sea (e.g. Luke 17:2). Apparently, Copan believes this vivid metaphor is too violent for Boyd’s Jesus. Perhaps that is a problem, but is it a bigger problem than Copan’s belief that the same God who invited little children to sit on his knee also commanded the genocidal slaughter of Amalekite infants (cf. 1 Samuel 15:3)?
And yes, I referred to the slaughter in question as genocide and I do so advisedly. While Copan and Flannagan attempt to argue it isn’t genocide in their book Did God Really Command Genocide?, I counter that their analysis fails. In other words, according to international law, the actions described in biblical passages like Deuteronomy 20, Joshua 6, and 1 Samuel 15 would be considered both genocide and ethnic cleansing (see the short version of my argument here). Thus, Copan’s reading of the Bible requires one to conclude that sometimes acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing are morally permissible and even morally required by the people of God.
Swallowing camels indeed.