Revelation as the Exposure and Defeat of a Violent Concept of God

Scripture records a progressive revelation of God culminating in Christ which ends up pitting an obscure earlier understanding, with its own tradition and cultic development, against the fulness and truth of Christ. My argument (here) was that Christ bore this difference in his death. My argument below is that this development of two competing concepts of God, coming to a final conflict in Christ, is what constitutes revelation and that to miss this point is to miss the word of the cross and the nature of inspiration.

The two biblical uses of “God breathed” illustrate the point that God’s life or breath animates human-kind (Gen. 2:7) and stands behind biblical inspiration (2 Tim. 3:16) in a similar way. In both instances the human impinges upon, is allowed to act upon, the divine gift.  The human bearer of the divine breath or image is capable of obscuring that image in a way that the rest of creation cannot. That is, the rest of God’s creation bears his fingerprint but it is only humans, those who directly bear his image, that are empowered to erase it. They might erase the image within themselves as individuals, corporately as part of societies, or as part of their religion. This is brought home most starkly by the cross in the one who was “the exact representation of his nature” (Heb. 1:3) who was tortured to death in an attempted annihilation. I presume that there is no divine breath that is not marked by this deadly human impetus to erasure. If the person of Christ, God incarnate, is acted upon by evil men, how can there be any word that does not bear the mark of this encounter. If the God breathed revelation in Christ bears the human attempt at erasure (murder, violence, deicide) in his flesh, is Scripture miraculously protected where the Word was not?

There are occasions, such as when his hometown synagogue tried to assassinate him, that Jesus “passed through their midst” (Lk. 4:30) unharmed. He had the ability to escape, but we cannot see how he did it and the mode of his passing is such that it leaves no trace. He might have carried out his entire ministry, passing through their midst and “going on His way” so that he slips through their hands and minds. But the implication is that his ministry and teaching would have passed, as he did on this occasion, undetected through their midst. Apparently, a word that is untouched by human hands will also not touch upon the human mind. The revelation occurs when they get their hands on him. The height of revelation occurs when humanity acts upon him and shapes the Word to the contours of the cross. Far from the cross silencing or erasing revelation, the Gospel message is this “word of the cross.” But the cross is revelation because the message pertains to what they would do to him. Their murderous intent is the condition that is exposed as what always acts upon revelation but it is only in Christ that the Word exposes and defeats these conditions.

We might call the cross an accommodation of the message to those who have received it, and incarnation certainly indicates God willingly submitted himself to the human condition, but the cross ends the shadowy form of revelation which preceded it, as Hebrews describes it. Perhaps as Novation put it (c. 200-258), God has allowed himself to be fitted to a “mediocre” state of belief so that in Israel he was understood “not as God was but as the people were able to understand.” It is not, Novatian concluded, a problem with God but with human limitations: “God, therefore, is not mediocre, but the people’s understanding is mediocre; God is not limited, but the intellectual capacity of the people’s mind is limited.”[1] Perhaps we could agree with Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 329-390), that God allowed aspects of fallen understanding to get mixed in with his self-revelation, as they could not have otherwise received it. Like a wise physician he blended flavorful juice with the nasty-tasting medicine so they could stomach it. As they were able to endure more, he gradually peeled away their fallen beliefs so as to reveal more and more truth about himself. As Gregory notes, God first “cut off the idol” though he “left the sacrifices,” and then we learn in the latter prophets that he doesn’t approve of animal sacrifices. He allowed for sacrifices and even stooped to a level of spiritual immaturity which pictures him as enjoying the great smell (Gen. 8: 21; Exod. 29: 18, 25; Lev. 1: 9, 13; 2: 9; 4: 31) but which he clearly reveals he never enjoyed or wanted (Psalm 50:8; Hosea 6:6; Psalm 51:16; Psalm 40:6–8; Isaiah 1:11–31; Jeremiah 7:21–23; Hebrews 10:4–10).[2] In Christ, while there is still a form of subordination to the human condition, there is a revelation of the whole truth without the former admixture or impurity.

With Christ, the accommodation has given way to conflict between God and Israel’s conception of God. While God in Christ is addressing the human understanding, he is also challenging it as it has never before been challenged. Now God is commanding all men everywhere to repent, as he is finished with overlooking the times of ignorance. The cross marks the contradiction and difference with this former time as it is now being challenged. It is a challenge to every aspect of human understanding. It pits the human power of death against the divine power of life and it pits a human conception of God against God incarnate. Jesus will die because of the threat he poses to the Jewish Temple, the Jewish Nation, the Jewish religion, and the Jewish conception of God. And of course, the Jews are simply the best of humankind, so that Roman, Babylonian, American, or the universal is represented in what is Jewish.

The cross, then, reveals divine communication in an odd sort of dialogue, a reciprocal give-and-take, in which human agency is given free reign and Christ is willing to bear this sin. The sin, in this instance, is a form of thought, a state of mind, a belief system, or simply the symbolic order in which meaning is attached to violence and death. The violent symbolic order and religion (the Jewish religion which is the prototype of human religion) conceives of God in its own image, so that the worship of this God requires sacrifice and it results in killing God in the flesh.

This misrecognition of God is one that Israel’s Scriptures describes as slowly evolving. God has accommodated their desire for a king, their desire for polygamy and divorce, their desire for sacrifice, and even their desire to take the promised land violently. Indicators are that he planned for a slow movement in which he would remove the population by angel power (Ex. 33:2), by his own divine means (Ex. 34:11; Lev. 18:24), or by a gradual expansion of borders (Ex. 34:24). The land itself would spew out its inhabitants due to their own moral wickedness (Lev. 18:25) but also due to a hornet infestation (Ex. 23:28). But for God’s nonviolent means to be realized, patience would be required: “I will not drive them out before you in a single year, that the land may not become desolate and the beasts of the field become too numerous for you. I will drive them out before you little by little, until you become fruitful and take possession of the land” (Ex. 23:29-30). The picture is of a gradual migration, in which one people moves off the land while another occupies it.  

Throughout Israel’s Scriptures there is a tension between God’s original ideal and the actual execution of the plan. It is not always clear that God has accommodated as much as he has been made to accommodate.  For example, there is a clear record of his warning against having a king and the curses that will be bound to follow. Nonetheless, he accommodated their desire for a warrior king and then succumbed to their notion of a warrior God. All of these accommodations are codified into the law, so that what was “allowed” becomes what was legal. But contained in Israel’s Scriptures is also the evidence of God’s true desire.  Yahweh concludes, you were mistaken: “you thought I was just like you” (Ps 50: 21). The end result is that they do not know or recognize God: “An ox knows its owner, And a donkey its master’s manger, But Israel does not know, My people do not understand” (Is. 1:3).

Would it be too much to suggest Israel made a mistake fostered by their religion and recorded and challenged by their Scriptures?  Though, modern conservatives believe the Bible is a progressive revelation and even a revelation which passed through human vessels, it imagines this involves no errors or misconceptions (that it was inerrant). To save the Bible from error the trade-off is an illogical flattening out into something worse than Novatian’s mediocrity. Without the possibility for the sort of critique, which the Bible allows itself, no distinction can be made within the various prophetic traditions and portrayals of God. The result is to ignore the counter-prophets who maintain God never desired key elements codified in the Law, which cumulatively serve to misrepresent him. In order to accommodate the notion of an inerrant Bible, rather than the Bible accommodating human failing, the trade-off is to fit belief in a violent God to the person and work of Christ. Thus, doctrines like penal substitution or divine satisfaction not only hold that Christ satisfies God’s need for violence (to restore his honor or to assuage his anger), but historically mark the reshaping of atonement to fit Constantinian nationalism and the just war tradition, in which God is turned into something like a tribal deity.

 As Jeremiah describes the false prophets and priests, “They have healed the brokenness of My people superficially, Saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ But there is no peace” (Jer. 6:14). This false peace is promoted by the prophets who imagine God’s blessing is achieved through wars for national interest and they inaugurate and sanctify a nationalism which goes on into the Maccabees and to the various parties which challenged Jesus. The Sadducees would collaborate, the Zealots would rebel, the priests and Pharisees would appease, but they agree upon the need for the violent sacrifice of Jesus that the nation might survive. Jesus refusal to wage war for national independence and his revolutionary non-violent peace, in turn succumbs in large measure, in Constantinianism to the lie which put him on the cross.

Between the Edict of Milan (C. E. 313) which established toleration for Christianity within the Roman Empire and Augustine’s master work, The City of God (circa 410), which argues that Christianity is responsible for Rome’s success, the church became identified with the Holy Roman Empire. No longer is Jesus teaching conjoined, as it had been for three centuries, with the obedient nonviolent, anti-sacrificial, line of the true prophets but it is made to serve national interests through cultic means (Jesus as one more sacrifice) which, according to the true prophets, had corrupted Israel’s religion. As John Howard Yoder puts it, “The church does not preach ethics, judgment, repentance, separation from the world; it dispenses sacraments and holds society together.”[3] It is no longer a matter of discerning the will of God in a corrupt society, as now all of society is Christian (i.e., all are baptized) and the most that one need be concerned with is personal sin and attaining the lesser evil. Augustine imagined the Roman church was the millennial kingdom and that the conquest of the world had been achieved and all that was left was a clean-up campaign. As a result, the Roman state as God’s agent in the war on evil is set (by the beginning of the new millennium in 1096, the first crusade), not to preserve peace (the purpose of kings, I Tim. 2), but to wage war for faith and Empire against the heathens.[4]

Just as Jesus enemies would have annihilated him on the cross, the symbol of the cross in the Crusades, in The Thirty Years’ War and in the multiple “Christian” state wars, comes to represent the demonic force which killed him rather than his defeat of this power of death. Rather than the cross depicting God’s willingness to bear violence, it is now justification for the state to pronounce God-like judgments on its enemies. The state can now enact its own hell in exterminating all it deems to be evil. As a result, we continually hover on the brink of world annihilation as a theologically inspired nationalism, a reenactment of Jewish nationalism, mistakes the Father of Christ for the father of the nation state.

Is there the possibility that this violent image of God is mistaken and we know that it is mistaken due to the Word of the cross? Isn’t the message of the cross precisely the Word encountering and overcoming this death dealing human condition?

[1] Novatian, De Trinitate, 6, cited in Gregory Boyd, Cross Vision (Kindle Location 1563). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Gregory of Nazianzus, “Fifth Oration: On the Holy Spirit,” in Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, vol. 7, trans. P. Schaff and H. Wace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, n.d.), 326. Cited from Boyd, (Kindle Locations 1564-1565).

[3] John Howard Yoder, The Royal Priesthood: Essays Ecclesiological and Ecumenical (Kindle Locations 3312-3317). Herald Pr. Kindle Edition.

[4] Yoder, (Kindle Locations 3322-3326)

Revelation as Cognitive Dissonance

The God of the Old Testament who commands that the Jews slaughter every living creature (e.g., Dt. 20:16), who tells soldiers they can take Midianite virgin women captive (if they find them sexually attractive) but to slaughter everyone else (Num. 31:1-17), who specifies that Amalekite children, infants, and women are to be slaughtered (I Sam. 15:3), who commands the stoning of disobedient children prone to too much drinking and eating (Dt. 21:18-21), who portrays himself, using the instrument of Babylonian warriors against Israel, as indiscriminately slaying both the righteous and wicked Israelites (Ezek. 21:3-4), who promises he will dash Israelite fathers and sons together (again using Babylon) so as to slay them without pity or mercy (Jer. 13:14), who depicts himself as crushing virgin Judah like grapes in a winepress (Lam. 1:15), who depicts both the fetus and the pregnant women of Samaria being “ripped up” and newly born infants being “dashed in pieces” at his behest (Hosea 13:16), and who causes parents to eat their children and children to eat their parents (Lev. 26:28-29; Ez. 5:10), bears a striking difference to the one who defeats death rather than deal in death, who is a gentle shepherd providing rest for the weary (Matt. 11:29), who is so gentle so as to not break a bruised reed (Matt. 12:20), who commands an end to any form of violent resistance or any type of violent thoughts but instead, insists upon loving the enemy (Matt. 5), who as Lord of the universe (“knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands”) models absolute humility by washing the disciples’ feet (Jn. 13), who depicts his Father as filled with such love and compassion that he runs to meet the prodigal son (Luke 15:20), who even as king is gentle, riding on a donkey (Matt. 21:5), who does not inflict violence or death but weeps at the tomb of his friend and raises him from the dead (Jn. 11), who heals the lame, the blind, the paralytic, the lepers (e.g., Lk. 4), who commands Peter to put away his sword, and who bears the lash and torment of violent men and ultimately dies a torturous death on the cross. What one does with this sharp contrast is not only determinative of their view of God, of the Bible, of the meaning of Christianity, but ultimately it is an insight into how they view themselves and the world. What one does with the violence of the Old Testament indicates what would be done with violence in general, whether it is to justify it or ignore it. What one does with the former picture of God in light of the revelation of the latter, is the very question which the revelation of Christ raises.

The attempt to reconcile the two perspectives has resulted in a dual notion of God, in which the Father is angry and violent and the Son absorbs this violence. No matter the extremes to which one might go to explain the violence (it is a hyperbolic description, it was a temporary necessity, etc.), the tendency to justify the violence presumes violence is necessary even for God. On the other hand, one might dismiss the Hebrew scriptures (with Marcion), or reject belief in God or belief in biblical revelation, but perhaps the very point of inspiration and revelation is a long hard look at the contrast, and though we might be tempted to turn our heads or to skip over the unworthy and ugly portrayal of God in light of Christ, could it be that dwelling on the contrast is part of recognizing Christ as the final and full revelation of God?

 Jesus identifies himself on the basis of this contrast. He declares John the Baptist the greatest spokesman for God up to that point (Matt. 11:11; Luke 7:28) but then says, “the testimony which I have is greater than the testimony of John” (John 5:36). There is an unfolding progress in revelation culminating in John, but then the revelation of Christ completes this progress. As the writer of Hebrews describes, what came before Christ was a shadow but now the full reality has come (10:1). To blend the two things as if they bore equal weight will reduce the reality to its shadow or it will relinquish the fulness of the Gospel by harmonizing it with what is incomplete.

The thesis of Hebrews is to spell out this difference: “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son” (1:1-2).  J. B. Phillips translates the “many portions” (polymerōs) as “glimpses of the truth.” This previous message would not hold up in a court of law as “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” as it is a portion or glimpse of the truth. The implication of the difference, which Hebrews draws out but which is summarized in this opening verse, is that the previous messengers brought a message lacking in glory, lacking in what it represented (God, life, salvation), lacking in substance (it left the Israelites dying in the wilderness), lacking in coherence, lacking in power, lacking in its challenge to sin, or lacking in reality.

To suggest that the previous message is partly wrong or mistaken does not get at the profundity of the difference. It is not simply that God gave a message that was distorted by the messengers, but the world in which this communication occurred was distorted and distorting. It is as if the entire field of gravity, that which holds all things together, has been disrupted. What is needed is cosmic correction. So, this messenger is he “whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power” (vv. 2-3). The world distorted by sin and violence cannot be undistorted with new information, as what is needed is new creation. The problem of the message of the fathers and prophets concerned the message, the messengers and their world, and what is needed is of cosmic proportions. To speak of this previous word as mistaken then, misses both the depth of the problem and the solution.

It is not simply information about God but the nature of God, truth, and the world that suffer from distortion apart from Christ. Jesus says as much, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him” (Jn. 14:6-7). To imagine that you know God apart from Christ, on the basis of the Hebrew Scriptures is, according to Jesus, on the order of mistaking the evidence for the reality. “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life” (Jn. 5:39-40). What is at stake in this misidentification is to take mere testimony as the thing itself; it is to mistake the evidence pointing to God as God himself; it is to imagine a dead letter is the same as the living Word.

Partial truth or glimpses of the truth are better than no truth but only the Son is the truth itself. God cannot be discerned in shadows or partial truth, but as Jesus explains to Philip: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” (Jn. 14:9). Jesus as the way, the truth and the life, and as the one who resolves the problem of sin, overcomes the distortion of the Law of sin and death, but as Hebrews explains, the previous message is shaped by this field of distortion: “After saying above, ‘Sacrifices and offerings and whole burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin You have not desired, nor have You taken pleasure in them’ (which are offered according to the Law) then He said, ‘Behold, I have come to do Your will.’ He takes away the first in order to establish the second” (Heb. 10:8-9). The writer puts in the mouth of Jesus the long counter-prophetic tradition which explains that it was not God who wanted sacrifices and offerings and the notion that he enjoyed their smell or delighted in their slaughter is denied – he finds no pleasure in them. Though sacrifice is offered according to the Law, the Law is not identified with the will of God. In fact, Christ as the one who has come to do the will of God, exposes the false premise upon which the Law is built. The writer explains, “For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion sought for a second” (Heb. 8:7). There was something wrong with the first covenant. It dealt in shadows, it did not penetrate to the heart and mind but left these untouched and it falsely purported to establish a relationship with God (8:10), and for these reasons this covenant is declared “obsolete” and will “disappear” (v. 13).

This declaration of the faulty nature of the Law and its need for correction more or less characterizes the ministry of Jesus. His continual refrain, “You have heard it said . . . but I say unto you” makes it apparent that Jesus was not simply supplementing the Law but was pointing out its errors. Though a great deal of ink was spilt explaining clean and unclean foods, Jesus dismisses the very concept: “And He said to them, ‘Are you so lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?’ (Thus He declared all foods clean.)” (Mark 7:18-19).  The failure of the food laws is like the failure of the sacrificial system and of the law in general; they did not change either the heart or mind. 

Keeping the Sabbath holy, the fourth commandment, was a key consideration, as breaking Sabbath law was punishable by death. Even gathering necessities like firewood on the Sabbath resulted in death (Numbers 15:32-36). The presumption of the Law is that since God rested on the seventh day, this day should commemorate His rest (Exodus 16 & 20). Yet, here too Jesus questions the very premise of Sabbath Law: “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Whether it was healing on the Sabbath or picking grain on the Sabbath, Jesus presumed he was not constrained by Sabbath Law as “the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28).

Jesus contravened the Law of stoning for adultery (John 8), he declared invalid the Law of oath taking from Deut. 6 (teaching that we are not to make oaths at all (Matt. 5:34)) and declares that more than yes or no “comes from the evil one” (Matt. 5:37). He pronounces James’ and John’s suggestion that fire be called down from heaven on the Samaritans (which was to emulate Elijah, who had used fire to incinerate a hundred people in this same region (2 Kgs. 1:10-12)), as deriving from another (evil?) spirit (in some manuscripts). He directly contradicts and undoes the law of retaliation (the lex talionis). No more will it be an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth.  “But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also” (Matt. 5:38-39). Where the OT presumes wealth is a sign of blessing, Jesus pronounces a curse on the rich. Where the OT presents victory in battle as a divine blessing, Jesus presumes it is only the nonviolent peacemakers who are God’s children.

As Greg Boyd concludes, “To follow Jesus and be considered a ‘child of the Father,’ one has to be willing to violate this law. Indeed, Jesus taught that to be considered a ‘child of the Father,’ a person has to commit to doing the exact opposite of what this law commands!”[1] The implication Boyd draws out, in the light of Jesus command to refrain from violence and to love one’s enemies, is that Jesus contradicts and displaces the portrayal of God and ethics found in the Law. He concludes, “We have compelling reasons to interpret the entire Mosaic law, together with the law-oriented portrait of God it presupposes, to be an accommodation.”[2]

The price of this accommodation and the stark contrast it poses, culminates in the one who embodies the truth of the Law being crucified by the protectors and keepers of the Law. The High Priest, the chief Jews, the Sanhedrin, the Pharisees, in alignment with powers of Rome, saw Jesus as a threat to their Law, religion and Temple. Though he was the fulfillment of the Law, though he was the true Temple, though he was the glory of God, the price of accommodating sin in the Law was the distortion that made God incarnate unrecognizable. Though every Jew understood that love of God and neighbor, as in Jesus two great commands, is the summation of the Law, this love was also distorted beyond recognition. Jesus concludes that they cannot recognize the word of God because of their traditions (Mark 7) and though these traditions might be thought to refer to something other than OT Law, it is specifically the food Laws and the accompanying ritual washings he targets. As Paul describes it, the law and the old covenant can function to veil or obscure reality, creating a dullness of mind (2 Cor. 3:13-14). Christ lifts the veil or undoes the obscuring effect of the Law (v. 16).  The Law, in Jesus’ critique, concentrated on non sequiturs, yet accommodated every form of human violence (even against one’s own parents in this case). This violence was projected onto God, so that the Law’s center and purpose was obstructed and made impossible.  Of course, to imagine that Law is the problem is to miss the distorting effect of human sinfulness, the real problem.

The distortion of God posed in the OT, the distortion of love, the distortion of ethics, the distortion codified in the Law, stands in sharp, irreconcilable contrast with the truth of God in Christ, and this difference is what killed him. This difference, this curse of the Law, is sin itself. To cover over this difference, to live with the dullness of mind induced by the obscuring of the Law, to rid oneself of all cognitive dissonance, is to miss the cross. The cross is the final and full revelation of God, in contrast to the Law of sin and death, and it is on the cross that he bore this difference. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us” (2 Cor 5: 21). The difference between the Law that killed him (the curse of the Law) and the truth of the Law (unadulterated love, even of the enemy), the difference between sin and love, is the difference he bore. By doing so “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal 3: 13). Where the power and wisdom of this world puts people on crosses and equates this violence done to the enemy, this redemptive violence, with salvation, Christ bears this curse. It is the curse of capital punishment (Dt. 21:22-23), the curse of Law sanctioned homicide, the curse of Lawful execution, the curse of holy war, the curse of crosses, which he bore.

His death is an act of love, not because he bore the legal weight of sin, but because the violence done to him in the name of Law, God, and nation, was itself sin under the guise of Law. He is afflicted with the core of evil – religious violence carried out in the name of God – and in his divine identity he exposes the fact that God is not on the side of Herod, Pilate, the Jews, or the Law, but God, in Christ, is their victim. God is not the one who victimizes and oppresses, he is not the one who commits genocide, or the one who approves sex slaves and sexual assault, or the one who slaughters infants, God is the one who rescues the victims of murder, oppression, and assault by identifying with them.

God is love, and the love of God is enacted in doing what he did. “We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (I Jn. 3:16). This passage into self-sacrificial love entails passage out of death into life and out of a lie into the truth (3:14-19). I suppose there is an inevitable cognitive dissonance in recognizing how deeply engrained our world, with its laws and religion, is in this lie but this is the dissonance of revelation.  

[1] Gregory, Boyd, Cross Vision (Kindle Locations 633-637). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition. I am relying on Boyd’s summary of the biblical depiction.

[2] Ibid, Kindle Location 1763