Someone has said that in politics a gaffe should be defined as accidentally speaking the truth. Another possibility that is not limited to the truth — or to politics, for that matter — is the option of someone saying what he actually thinks before anybody is quite ready for it yet. That is what Greg Boyd recently did — while walking through the meadows of peace and justice, he managed to step into a cow pie of certain inevitable consequences. I mean, that is what has to happen, right? If the cows of peace and justice eat all that grass, you are eventually going to get some cow pies.
With the concern that this particular metaphor is gotten away from me, let me come back around to the point. Boyd recently said this:
“As shocking as it is, this episode clearly suggests that Jesus regarded Elijah’s enemy-destroying supernatural feat to be ungodly, if not demonic.”
Let us be frank. Greg Boyd is one of the cool kids. He is well-known pastor and writer, and his books sally forth from places like Baker and Zondervan. He is well placed in the evangelical firmament. He is adept at that unique talent that so many of his ilk — isn’t ilk a great word? — have, which is windsurfing the zeitgeist in such a way as to look like you don’t care about the wind at all. He is a hep cat of smooth jazz theology, lip-syncing the role of a wilderness prophet. This is admittedly an odd juxtaposition to pull off — lyrics about locusts and wild honey for dinner accompanied by finger snapping, gliding trombones, a high gloss floor, and a crisp snare drum — but it can be done. Think Mack the Knife.
But speaking of prophets, let us consider an actual one. John the Baptist came in the spirit and power of Elijah, and people thought he had a demon too (Matt. 11:18). Men in the grip of a priori religiosity like Boyd have never liked prophets. Prophets are angular, and don’t play well with others. They say things that are disruptive, like the ax being at the root of the tree (Matt. 3:10), which was kind of hurtful. Demonic even. I hate that guy, Ahab said. He never prophesies nice (1 Kings 22:8).
Now someone might try to clean up Boyd’s comment by saying that all this is really about maturation, and had Boyd spoken that way, he might have had a point. The process from Genesis to Revelation is a history of ethical, social, and cultural maturation, and examples are certainly not hard to come by. We should consider things like polygamy in this category. The New Testament speaks this same way, in multiple places, which is a good reason for accepting it. Revelation really is progressive, and the progression includes ethics.
But change from demonism to godliness is not maturation — it is conversion. And we should also keep in mind that God is not one of the characters who needs to mature.
Beneath all this lurks the real culprit, which is the hermeneutic being employed by Boyd, and the view of Scripture which this hermeneutic reveals. It is not enough to say “that’s in the Old Testament.” God’s enemies do awful things in the Old Testament, God’s friends do heroic things in the Old Testament, God’s friends do shabby things in the Old Testament, and then God Himself comes into the picture to command things to be done, a number of which things offend Greg Boyd’s white bread sensibilities.
And it is this last category which brings us to the showdown of the ages — the view of righteousness held by the Ancient of Days, compared to the view of righteousness held by upscale pastors in St. Paul, Minnesota.
God says this: “And when the Lord thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them” (Deut. 7:2).
Greg Boyd offers a contrary view: “One could go further, as does C. S. Cowles, and argue that Jesus’ teaching on enemy-loving non-violence ‘represents a total repudiation of Moses’ genocidal commands and stands in judgment on Joshua’s campaign of ethnic cleansing.'”
And all I can think of to say in response to this is “you go, girl.”
On the most charitable reading, Boyd was saying that Elijah’s fire-from-heaven work was possibly demonic. And he was certainly saying that it was ungodly. Bad, bad prophet!
But we are now stuck with the cherry pickers’ hermeneutic. We not only can recognize that Bible characters were capable of sinning, which virtually every Bible teacher in the history of the world has known, but we now have a hermeneutic that shows us that one of the central characters who had a lot of growing up to do was God Himself. I mean, Moses didn’t come up with the genocide idea himself; he was told to do it. By somebody. And when Elijah was busy consuming companies of soldiers by fifties with fire from heaven, somebody up in heaven — note this carefully — was helping him. Somebody had to supply the fire.
But once we have begun cherry picking, we find that we need a standard for evaluating cherries. How do we know, for example, that the jubilee laws were Good and the genocide laws were Bad? We need a standard. Fortunately, we have the standard right here — what all us white liberals thought already. We listen to NPR and know what’s what.
We cannot slip off the point by saying that the sovereign God of the Bible used Satan to accomplish His ends. This is true, but also well beside the point. God used Satan to cause David to take a census of Israel (1 Chron. 21; 2 Sam. 24:1). God used Satan to accomplish His holy purposes in the life of Job (Job 1:12, 21). God in His sovereignty controls evil, which is not the same thing as blurring the line between good and evil. God uses false prophets every bit as much as He uses true prophets (1 Kings 22:22-23), but this does not mean that the true prophets are false prophets. Most of us are good Calvinists; we don’t find such passages appalling because the Bible teaches that the sovereign God uses evil creatures to accomplish His holy ends. But this is quite different than saying a holy man is an unholy man. It is entirely different than saying a man in the grip of the Holy Spirit of God is actually trafficking with demons.
So when a good man does precisely what God has required him to do, however much this grates with Boyd’s cool vibe, the good man who obeys is right where he ought to be. To obey is better than to parse and slice.
Neither can we find Boyd a way out by saying that he was simply “raising questions.” No, he was making assertions. I take him as meaning “clearly suggests” when he says “clearly suggests.”
My response to this has been to warn Boyd about the blasphemy of attributing the work of God to the devil. That’s a scary business, right there. But we cannot object to this response of mine as an unwarranted reading of Boyd out of the faith. No, actually, Boyd is the one who is reading people out of the faith on this issue. “For Jesus, embodying enemy-loving non-violence was the precondition for being considered a child of God.”
And I actually agree with him about this one. Boyd is at least right about one thing — whether the Holy Spirit is really holy or not should be a watershed issue.