Thesis: Presuppositions VI – Introducing Greg Boyd

I’ve been reversing my usual order of things, writing a chapter before I blog it. I don’t know how wise that was, but it happened. So rather than getting several presuppositions and background notes about Greg Boyd’s theology individually, I thought I’d just post the chapter as it currently is. Obviously this will be tweaked significantly before I’m finished, but I hope it’s informative to you now.

Chapter 2: Gregory Boyd’s Influences and Assumptions

Gregory Boyd develops his demonology almost incidentally, as a part of his answer to another question: namely, theodicy. Because his writings focus on the problem of evil in this sense, an overview of that theological problem, as well as the other elements of Boyd’s solution, is in order.

The Problem of Evil: The Balance of Perfection
As mentioned above, theodicy is one of the main ways theologians have accounted for the existence of evil, grappling with the question of where evil originated and why a good and all-powerful God allows it. Answering these questions is the explicit purpose of God At War and Satan and the Problem of Evil.

The problem of evil, classically stated, is: if God is omnipotent and omnibenevolent, why does he allow for evil to exist? A variation of the question is: if God is an omniscient and omnibenevolent creator, why did he create a world he knew would turn out to include evil? In either case, God’s perfections are in conflict with an imperfect world. Either God is able to destroy evil (or create a world without evil), and does not want to, implying he is not truly good; or God truly desires a world without evil, but is unable to achieve it, implying he is not omnipotent or omniscient. The problem, then, is to continue to affirm God’s perfections while still accounting for evil. Given the difficulty of doing so, it’s not surprising that “the intellectual problem of evil constitutes the single most difficult challenge to classical-philosophical Christian theism.”1

One way of answering this problem is to appeal to a sense of greater good or purpose in the evil and suffering we experience. We find ways to say that an awful occurrence is a part of God’s plan, even if we cannot discern what good purpose it could possibly have. Though this supposed plan is shrouded in mystery, we find comfort in the notion that God causes all things to happen for a reason. This form of theodicy is particularly linked to Calvinism for obvious reasons: Calvinism holds that God controls and predestines all things, and therefore everything that happens comes from God (either directly or indirectly), and is a part of his greater plan for our good.2 This is precisely the theology that Boyd sets out to defeat, with four main objections.

First, he argues that this view does not take evil itself seriously. This theodicy poses an intellectual problem, but “evil cannot be adequately conceptualized in the abstract.”3 He goes on, “radical evil can be known only when incarnated and experienced concretely.”4 To give us a sense of the concrete nature of radical evil, Boyd tells a true story of Nazi soldiers laughing while they cut out the eyes of a little Jewish girl named Zosia. In the face of such horror the intellectual problem of evil seems crass and trivializing.

Second, he argues that this view makes God out to be a monster who, for the sake of his own glory and a greater good we cannot seem to understand, allowed Zosia’s eyes to be cut out. This view sees all evil as coming from God’s hand, even if indirectly — something that is inconsistent with God’s claim to be loving and beneficent, not to mention his character as revealed in Jesus Christ.

Third, he argues that this view is inconsistent with the worldview of the Bible. God At War is a highly exegetical work, with the aim of showing that the writers of scripture either portrayed God as being at war with hostile cosmic forces, or assumed this worldview and wrote in light of it. For example,
the problem of evil in the New Testament is not the classical-philosophical theistic problem of finding a particular transcendent divine purpose behind every particular evil: Jesus and his disciples assume that there is none…the “problem of evil” is simply the problem of overcoming evil by the power of God.5
But the main problem with this theodicy is that it assumes a particular understanding of God. Specifically, “the core problem seems to lie in the classical-philosophical equation of power with control, and thus omnipotence with omnicontrol.”6 If God controls everything, then he is ultimately responsible for evil. But if omnipotence does not entail meticulous control over all creation — that is, if God created other beings with agency and free will — then we may be responsible for our own evil, or the victims of the evil of other agents. This is not an endorsement of classical Arminian theodicy, which Boyd also argues against, claiming that it does not go far enough:

it has on the whole restricted its understanding of freedom to human freedom…it has not made a robust appeal to angelic freedom in its theodicy reflections, and thus has attempted to wring an explanation of evil almost entirely out of the exercise of human freedom.7

Human sin, to Boyd, cannot account for the sheer volume and radical nature of evil in the world, nor does it align with the warfare worldview of scripture.

Worldview: World of Warfare
Like Wink begins The Powers That Be with a discussion of worldview, so Boyd’s introduction to God At War is an introduction to a worldview for which he argues throughout the rest of the book, one that he calls a “warfare worldview.” He begins by referring to the “Prince of Persia” passage of Daniel 10, with its implication that there are battles occurring in the spirit world behind the seemingly normal events of the physical world, and then surveys several so-called primitive cultures today that hold similar views, comparing those views to those of the ancients of Babylon, Egypt, Sumeria, Greece, and Canaan.8

Boyd spends the rest of God At War arguing that this warfare worldview was the dominant worldview of scripture, and even that we should hold this worldview today. The discussion of worldview in the introduction serves to establish that this worldview is not isolated and primitive, but is pervasive even today, suggesting that it is intuitive rather than superstitious. The fact that this worldview is not dominant today is an anomaly in history:

From a crosscultural [sic] perspective, the insight that the cosmos is teeming with spiritual beings whose behaviour can and does benefit or harm us is simply common sense. It is we modern Westerners who are the oddballs for thinking that the only free agents who influence other people and things are humans.9

Relevant to our purposes is not just that both Wink and Boyd begin with a discussion of worldview, but more importantly that, though they describe them in very different terms and seem to disagree, their worldviews are actually compatible.

Boyd wholeheartedly embraces the warfare worldview at least partially because he believes it to be the inspired worldview of scripture; Wink argues that though scripture may be inspired, its worldview is incidental and culturally conditioned and thus ought not to be emulated, instead proposing his panentheistic view. Wink discusses the ways in which the spiritual and physical overlap; Boyd either assumes or ignores this element, and instead focuses on the character of this interaction (i.e. hostile). On the surface, then, it appears that if they do not outright disagree, they’re talking past each other.

But these views are not incompatible. Wink certainly agrees with Boyd that there is significant conflict or hostility toward human beings from fallen spiritual beings; this is central to his theology. Boyd at least implies general agreement with Wink’s view of an inner/spiritual and outer/physical notion of reality when he says “the biblical assumption is that the spiritual realm is not all that different from the physical realm. Indeed, the one is simply a continuation of the other.”10 And further, “For the ancient Israelites, there was no bifurcation between what occurs ‘in heaven’ and…‘on earth,’ and neither should there be with us.”11 Whether or not their worldviews are directly compatible, they overlap to an extensive degree, agreeing on the necessities: our world is as spiritual as it is physical, and there are spiritual forces and/or beings who are hostile toward us.

Open Theism
Central to Boyd’s approach to the problem of evil and his demonology is his theology of God’s omniscience as it relates to the free will of humans and spiritual beings. While Calvin held that “the future will be a certain way because God foreknows it that way” (i.e. that God determines the future) and Arminius held that “God foreknows the future a certain way because the future simply will be that way” (i.e. that God simply knows what will happen), Boyd holds to a third option: “that God determines (and thus foreknows as settled) some, but not all, of the future.”12 This is generally referred to as the “open view” of God, a view that affirms free will without elevating it above God’s will. Against the charge of similarity to process theology, which suggests that God is “at the mercy of chance or free will,” Boyd clarifies: “Open theists rather maintain that God can and does predetermine and foreknow whatever he wants to about the future…God is so confident in his sovereignty, we hold, that he does not need to micromanage everything.”13 This view is important because it potentially exonerates God of all evil in the world, holds human beings responsible for their own sin, and most important for our purposes, allows for the fallenness and agency of spiritual forces, as well as human ability to reject and combat those forces.

As mentioned above, if God meticulously controls all things, then God is ultimately responsible for everything that happens, including evil. If God even foreknew, for example, that Hitler would certainly perpetrate the murder of six million Jews, and then God created him anyway, God would still be ultimately responsible for those six million murders. This view does not seem compatible with the way God is characterized in scripture, particularly in his incarnation as Jesus Christ.

If God is not responsible for human choices, who is? Open theism holds that “God does not orchestrate that good people carry out evil deeds. He simply specifies parameters around the way people act out the good or evil character they have already chosen for themselves.”14 This suggests that even if God does predetermine that a certain event will occur (e.g. the crucifixion of Christ), the people involved in this predetermined event are not individually predetermined to be there; they’ve placed themselves in such a position through their own choices, and therefore are entirely responsible for their actions in spite of God predetermining a particular outcome for those events. In this way judgment for sin makes sense, as we are responsible for our own sins, even if God uses them for his own purposes.

Just as we are responsible for our own choices, so too are the angels and spiritual forces of the heavenly realms. Just as we are free to disobey God, so too are angels free to fall from heaven and make war against God’s people. If the fall of Satan were predetermined, then God would still be responsible for all sin evil in the world (as Satan tempted the first humans to sin). If God perfectly foreknew that Satan would choose to rebel, and created him anyway, then God would still be responsible for all of the evil that Satan perpetrates. But this is not necessary:

“The open view, I submit, allows us to say consistently in unequivocal terms that the ultimate source for all evil is found in the will of free agents rather than in God. It thereby renders intelligible God’s radical opposition to all forms of evil. Thus it motivates us to rise up aggressively against all evil with the mighty kingdom power of God’s Spirit that he has placed in us.”15

Which brings us to the final point, that an open view of God allows human beings to not only have the ability to disobey God, but also the ability to obey God and ally with him against the forces of evil. If God determined all things, then human involvement in cosmic warfare would be akin to God playing with toy soldiers; or to state it more practically, “if we believe that possibilities are not real, we will be more inclined to accept things that we could, and should, revolt against.”16 On the other hand, if God’s plan to overcome his enemies depended entirely on the choices of individual humans, we could not properly trust scripture’s claims that Christ has defeated Satan, and that evil will ultimately be entirely overcome. By this view we have the privilege of contributing to that victory, while God retains the glory for the victory itself. In short, the open view of God renders spiritual warfare, and the scriptures that support it, coherent.

__________________________________________

1 Gregory A. Boyd, God At War (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 1997), 43. Boyd uses the term “classical-philosophical” to refer to theology dependent on Greek philosophical notions of God’s perfections, i.e. that God is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent. He makes particular reference to Augustine as a point of departure from a biblical worldview toward Greek thought.

2 Perhaps the most popular Calvinist voice today is that of John Piper.

3 Boyd, God At War, 32.

4 Boyd, God At War, 34.

5 Boyd, God At War, 236.

6 Boyd, God At War, 44.

7 Boyd, God At War, 50-51.

8 He refers to the modern Shuar Indians of Ecuador, the Wemale of Indonesia, the Kamwe of Nigeria, the Yanomamö of South America, the Maidu tribe of California, the Bhils of central India, the religion Santeria, “the Hottentots of South Africa, the Nahuatl of Mexico, the Apaches, Chiricahua, and Papagoes of the American Southwest, and the Vedic poets of early Hinduism, to name but a few.” God At War, 17.

9 Boyd, God At War, 11.

10 Boyd, God At War, 200.

11 Boyd, God At War, 89.

12 Gregory A. Boyd, God of the Possible (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), 23.

13 Boyd, God of the Possible, 31.

14 Boyd, God of the Possible, 38.

15 Boyd, God of the Possible, 102-103.

16 Boyd, God of the Possible, 93. He goes on to say that “because it holds that the future is not entirely settled and that God’s plans can change, the open view is able to render the purpose and urgency of prayer intelligible in a way that neither classical Arminianism nor classical Calvinism can. The open view is able to declare, without qualification or inconsistency, that some of the future genuinely depends on prayer.” Boyd, God of the Possible, 95. The “some” here is important to Boyd’s view, but the importance of this passage is that it shows the centrality of the open view to Boyd’s ethic of spiritual conflict: human beings are intimately involved, through prayer.

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4 thoughts on “Thesis: Presuppositions VI – Introducing Greg Boyd

  1. What seems to me to be going on, is the failure to admit tension within Scripture and our understanding of God. The tension of sovereignty and freedom, the tension of God’s knowledge (even foreordination) and our participation. Boyd seems to want to simplify the system to arrive at something where God is actually LESS involved in all matters of life and death and simply another participant. While I find myself more and more disagreeing with philosophical theism (following something far more akin to the Christocentric appreciation of knowing God found in Barth, Bonhoeffer and Torrance), I cannot (at this point) really agree fully with the Open Theistic notions which seem to simply offer one more philosophical case for God and man using different proof-texts that Arminians and Calvinists as their respective crux interpretum. I’ve actually become more content (even as someone who self-identifies as “Reformed” and thus Calvinist leaning) to leave ambiguity alone and allow for tensions that do not seem to neatly resolve without going too far any given direction. At least that is my take…and it may just be my cop-out. But I’m certainly enjoying reading your thesis. 🙂

    • FWIW, in my readings for my upcoming PhD seminar I encountered the following quote: “Pentecostal theology, in both its systematic and more popular forms, requires a degree of uncertainty.” (Andrew Davies, ‘What Does It Mean to Read the Bible as a Pentecostal?’ JPT 18.2 [2009]: p. 220)

      You know…in defense of my ambiguity. 🙂

      • Ha! Nice.

        I think one of the high points of this approach is that it acknowledges that there is uncertainty in the world (which seems self-evident), and yet affirms certainty where it counts most (e.g. the victory of Christ, salvation, etc.). There’s plenty of uncertainty along the road, but the destination remains.

    • Heh, glad you’re enjoying it!

      I don’t think that Boyd just WANTS there to be less tension, I think that he makes a case for there being less tension. In God of the Possible he goes through many of the Calvinist and Arminian proof-texts and shows that they’re not mutually exclusive, and don’t need to be prioritized one over another. Rather than choosing one or another, or feeling the tension of attempting to affirm what appear to be opposites, he simply reads carefully and goes with what makes sense.

      His argument hinges, I think, on the point that sovereignty does not necessitate control – indeed, that such a level of control is a sign of weakness rather than a sign of true sovereignty, power, or wisdom. That’s not to say that there’s no mystery involved, or tension, but only that these things need not be the result of a philosophical conundrum based on certain assumptions. He certainly does make assumptions: that Scripture is authoritative and infallible, and that God doesn’t NEED to do anything. Once we get out of the business of telling God what he must or cannot do, I find that there’s a lot of clarity.

      That’s not to say that it’s a perfect argument. Boyd admits himself that God of the Possible simplifies the issues involved (it’s written to make the issue accessible to the broadest audience possible). But the thing that makes it convincing to me is that its implications ease many of the tensions that I’ve struggled with all of my Christian life: why prayer is actually important and meaningful, why there’s evil in the world, that our actions really matter but are not works of salvation, etc. All of these issues are made much more complicated by assuming that either God controls everything or almost nothing. I find this theology to be both informative and useful, which is why I’m intrigued enough to follow up on it.

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