SJT 61(4): 494–502 (2008) Printed in the United Kingdom doi:10.
2008 Scottish Journal of Theology Ltd
Article Review Hans Boersma’s Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross
Hans Boersma, Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross: Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), pp. 288. $29.99. J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), pp. xiv + 246. $22.00. ‘It is now regarded as a commonplace in critical discussion of Anselm’s theology of the atonement that he was in unconscious bondage to the ethical ideas suggested by the social order of his age. But those who are quick to recognise the extent of his limitations in this respect are sometimes less willing to extend similar principles to the criticism of their own ideas’ (D. M. Mackinnon, ‘Atonement and Tragedy’, in his Borderlands of Theology (1968)). Substitutionary accounts of the atonement have been under attack for a long time now – at least since Abelard criticised Anselm for making God’s love dependent on the payment of a debt. In modern theology, it was Gustav Aul´ n’s Christus Victor that seemed to set Anselm deﬁnitively beyond the pale. e Yet the question raised by Anselm in his Cur Deus Homo refuses to go away. Why a God-man? Or more speciﬁcally, why a cross? In recent theological discussion these questions have become even more urgent. Feminist and other theologians have challenged traditional understandings of Christ’s reconciling work on the grounds that they unwittingly foster violence, or at least glorify suffering and sacriﬁce in a world that already sees too much of both. Two recent books by Protestant theologians both summarise the recent discussion and seek to break new ground. In The Nonviolent Atonement, Mennonite theologian Denny Weaver argues that any theology in which God ‘requires’ the death of Jesus is unacceptably violent. The alternative he proposes is a variant of Aul´ n’s Christus victor theory, but grounded more ﬁrmly e in the biblical narrative and with a strong political edge. Hans Boersma’s Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross is much more sympathetic to Christian tradition concerning the atonement than is Weaver’s book. In a conscious act of retrieval, he tries to synthesise Aul´ n’s three types of atonement imagery e under the banner of divine ‘hospitality’. The God of the cross is the God who is radically welcoming – but also the God who cannot help but exclude evil from the creation. This emphasis on what might be called the ‘dark side’
Hans Boersma’s Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross
of atonement stands in sharp contrast to Weaver’s rather more triumphal approach. Weaver is guided by one basic, unwavering conviction: substitutionary theories of atonement are morally repugnant and must be rejected. Such theories are nothing less than models of ‘divinely sanctioned violence’ (p. 195). Even (or especially!) if Jesus bears our punishment or pays our debt, then punishment of a retributive sort must be a good thing. Weaver tirelessly makes the point that whereas the older theories keep the status quo ﬁrmly in place, the real message of the Bible is liberative. The central portion of the book is devoted to a long summary of feminist, womanist and other theologians who develop forms of this argument: James Cone, Garth Kasimu Baker-Fletcher, Rita Nakashima Brock, Katie Cannon and others. While their arguments are many and varied, all share a suspicion of traditional theologies of atonement – and a positive goal of developing morally and politically ‘useful’ accounts of the work of Christ. Weaver’s own constructive position is set out in chapter 2. This is by far the best chapter in the book, mainly because Weaver here speaks in his own voice, does more afﬁrming than denying, and sticks close to the text of scripture. He reads a range of New Testament authors as witnesses to what he calls a ‘narrative Christus victor’ understanding of atonement. It is Christus victor because it tells of Jesus’ triumphs over the demonic powers that oppress humankind. It is narrative because it takes place in history. The Jesus of this account is the non-violent Jesus, challenging the world’s structures of evil, but refusing to employ the enemy’s tools in doing so. Some of Weaver’s exegetical moves are questionable. While his reading of the book of Revelation is often insightful, he is much too conﬁdent about correlating the book’s symbols with particular historical events and people (e.g. the seven seals with seven Roman emperors). He also has to squeeze the data to ﬁt his theory, as when he minimises the sacriﬁcial element in Hebrews because it sounds too ‘Anselmic’. For the most part, though, Weaver makes a strong case for the liberation motif that runs throughout the text of the New Testament. This is not hard to do; the motif is there. Weaver’s evocation of the apocalyptic element in Paul makes for especially compelling reading. That said, this is a deeply problematic book. Weaver’s problem with sacriﬁce goes beyond just a myopic reading of Hebrews. It inevitably shapes his whole Christology. The Jesus of this book is the Jesus of the synoptic gospels, especially Luke (p. 34), and with the accent placed on the ministry of teaching and healing rather than on the passion narratives. That is, this Jesus is a fairly standard liberal Protestant Messiah: a man who is ‘of God’ and who ‘embodies the reign of God’ (p. 43). Rather than viewing the kingdom in the light of Jesus, Weaver tends to view Jesus in the light of the kingdom.
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The result is a low Christology and a moralising understanding of salvation. Weaver seems to think that his emphasis on the resurrection (welcome in itself) rescues his account from being a version of the moral inﬂuence theory (p. 45). I am dubious about this. For Weaver Jesus’s death and resurrection together ‘reveal the basis of power in the universe, so that the invitation from God to participate in God’s rule – to accept Jesus as God’s anointed one – overcomes the forces of sin and reconciles sinners to God’ (p. 45). I am not quite sure what this means. It certainly seems to place the ball squarely in our court. While New Testament language concerning faith and the church could be construed as our ‘identifying’ with Jesus, as Weaver puts it, surely the passion narratives are about something rather more strange than that: God’s act of ‘identifying’ with us? Some of Weaver’s hesitations can be traced back to his free church roots. As an Anabaptist, he tends to dismiss the ancient creeds as typical products of the Constantinian church: elite, theoretical, morally irrelevant. In Nicaea and Chalcedon we ﬁnd ‘nothing . . . that expresses the ethical dimension of being Christ-related, nothing . . . that would shape the Church so that it can be a witness to the world’ (p. 93). This would have been news to Karl Barth, whose ethics of reconciliation – including a powerful treatment of the struggle for earthly justice – is grounded in his Chalcedonian account of Christ’s person. Happily, not all contemporary Mennonites share this aversion to the creeds.1 Yet if Weaver sees trinitarian theology as morally deﬁcient, he sees the Anselmic tradition as directly culpable. Late in the book he canvasses the views of contemporary defenders of Anselm, including Leanne van Dyk, Catherine Pickstock and William Placher, only to conclude that their revisions fail to address the fundamental problem of divine violence: A version of satisfaction atonement with punishment redeﬁned or with a renewed emphasis on God’s suffering with Jesus is still an image in which salvation depends on the necessary death of Jesus as a debt payment; it is still an image in which justice depends on the violence of punishment . . . Stressing the voluntary nature of Jesus’ act, rather than the Father’s requirement of it, does nothing for the problem such an image upholds for those who have born the brunt of direct abuse . . . This is still an image that makes submission to abusive authority a virtue. (p. 196)
In fairness, I should note that Weaver concedes that given a fourth-century worldview, ‘the answers of Nicea and Chalcedon are valid answer, and perhaps the best answers within the assumed categories’ (p. 96). He claims his protest concerns elevating the creeds to the status of a universally recognisable and uncontestable foundation that presumes to transcend all issues of time and historical context’ (ibid.). It is not clear who would be so crazy as to make such a claim.
Hans Boersma’s Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross
For Weaver, Jesus is simply a victim of human violence, his fate determined by contingent human actions that ought not to have been. While it is true that human agency contributes in a decisive way to Jesus’s death – i.e. we killed him – the New Testament also makes it quite clear that nothing in this story is accidental. Thus Jesus asks the bewildered disciples on the road to Emmaus, ‘Was it not necessary (dei) that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ (Luke 24:25). The same Greek verb is used in Jesus’s predictions of his passion: ‘And he began to teach them that the Son of man must (dei) suffer many things’ (Mark 8:31). The necessity Jesus speaks of here reﬂects neither an implacable fate nor God’s unwillingness to forgive apart from a blood ransom. Rather, it is a necessity grounded in who God is. God owes us nothing; in that sense the atonement did not ‘have to happen’. It is an act of God’s ‘wondrous love’. But it is this love – the Father’s love for the Son in the communion of the Spirit – that freely undergoes what medieval writers called the ‘wonderful exchange’, experiencing death and judgement so that we might have life. One can acknowledge this without committing oneself to any particular theory of exchange, substitution or satisfaction. That the cross is a sacriﬁce in some sense is simply written into the story of a Saviour whose blood was ‘poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’ (Matt 26:28). Weaver’s missing of this point is ironic, given his rightful insistence on grounding a theology of atonement in the actual text of the New Testament.2 The theme of Christ’s triumph over the powers is an essential part of the biblical witness. Recognising it helps us get our understanding of salvation out of the private sphere into a historical, political, even cosmic setting. This is an undoubted gain. By itself, though, a theology that focuses on the evil we experience as victims rather than the evil of which we are the perpetrators falls woefully short.3 We need not just to be liberated from sin but to be reconciled to God.4 Failure to acknowledge this results in a sanitised and rationalised understanding of atonement – akin to what Goethe somewhere calls ‘putting roses on the cross’. The resulting picture may be edifying, even morally uplifting; but it will not be true.
On the relation between atonement theories and narrative see Michael Root, ‘Dying He Lives: Biblical Image, Biblical Narrative and the Redemptive Jesus’, Semeia 30 (1985), pp. 155–169. This brief essay should be required reading for anyone hoping to do constructive work in the theology of the atonement. In contemporary preaching, no one makes this point more forcefully than the Rev. Fleming Rutledge. See e.g. her sermon collection The Undoing of Death: Sermons for Holy Week and Easter (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002). Root, ‘Dying He Lives’, p. 157.
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No one would ever accuse Hans Boersma of putting roses on the cross. As the subtitle of his book – Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition – indicates, Boersma proposes to move forward by looking back, integrating older models of the work of Christ into a theology of divine ‘hospitality’. Hospitality, indeed, is his Ur-metaphor for understanding atonement: Hospitality, like love, refers to the very character of God to which believers look forward through Christ’s work of redemption. . . The metaphor of hospitality is, therefore, more foundational than any of the three metaphors of traditional atonement theology. God’s hospitality is like the soil in which the process of reconciliation is able to take root and ﬂourish. (p. 112) While both scripture and the church fathers have a great deal to say about hospitality, I am less sure the term is suited to playing the kind of central role in the doctrine of reconciliation envisioned by Boersma. Why not grace, love or koinonia? For that matter, why not the Pauline term ‘reconciliation’ itself? That would at least have strong precedent in the dogmatic tradition. The choice of ‘hospitality’ seems less motivated by a strong theological rationale than by Boersma’s desire to enter into dialogue with Derrida and Levinas, both of whom insist on an ethics of radical hospitality – a moral ideal that, tragically, can never be realised. Canvassing the views of the postmoderns has become practically an obligatory exercise in contemporary theology. Boersma’s discussion of the avatars of diff´rence and ‘otherness’ in chapter 1 is engaging enough, though e I’m not sure how much it actually contributes to the argument. When he turns his attention to theology the results are more interesting. In chapter 2 he offers a wide-ranging critique of traditional Calvinism on the subject of predestination and limited atonement (the ‘L’ in ‘TULIP’). By treating election and rejection as a function of God’s secret will apart from Christ, Reformed orthodoxy made God seem arbitrary and wilful – ‘violent’ in Boersma’s language. In chapter 3 he draws on Old Testament sources for an alternative account of election, focusing on the idea of God’s ‘preferential hospitality’ towards the poor. The heart of the book (chapters 4–8) consists in a review of the three standard models of atonement. There is a good deal to praise here, including a ﬁne discussion of Renˇ Girard (correctly located in the exemplarist camp) and z a pointed critique of Denny Weaver, whose attempt to tie satisfaction theories to the Constantinian ‘fall’ of the church Boersma effectively demolishes. As Boersma points out, notions of sacriﬁce and exchange can be found in the Church fathers long before Constantine. Thus the early second-century
Hans Boersma’s Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross
Epistle to Diognetus, which states that Christ died ‘a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteousness, the incorruptible One for the corruptible, the immortal One for them that are mortal. For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than His righteousness?’5 The idea of the cross as sacriﬁce can even be found in Irenaeus, usually cited as the prototypical advocate of the Christus victor view. Indeed, the bishop of Lyons is in many ways the real hero of this book. Boersma shows how Irenaeus’s understanding of Christ as a recapitulation of the human story incorporates elements of exemplarism, sacriﬁce and victory over the powers. With Irenaeus’s help, Boersma pushes the penal dimension of the cross away from the juridical and individualist emphasis characteristic of Protestant orthodoxy, and in a direction Paul might have recognised: Christ’s death as a representative act in which all humanity dies and (eschatologically) is given new life. All this is stimulating and useful. I only wonder why Boersma found it necessary to retain Aul´ n’s rather creaky typology as the basis for his e discussion. If Aul´ n’s historical account fails – and Boersma deftly shows e why this is the case – isn’t it time to relegate his categories to the dustbin of theological history? In this one respect I found Weaver’s book superior: he at least tries to draw the New Testament evidence together in a consistent vision of what ‘atonement’ means. The narrative remains primary. By contrast, Boersma’s account suffers from a certain eclecticism. The reader is left wondering whether a theology of reconciliation doesn’t ﬁnally come down to a choice among duelling metaphors. So far I have focused on the ‘hospitality’ of Boersma’s title, his account of atonement. But this is not just a book about hospitality; it is a book about violence. Indeed, Boersma argues that the two go hand in hand. God is radical hospitality, and wills to show hospitality to the world in Jesus Christ. But in order to do this God cannot help but forge certain compromises with a fallen and violent world. The cross is a violent act – not just on the human side, but apparently on God’s side as well: God’s hospitality requires violence, just as his love necessitates wrath. This is not to say, of course, that God’s violence and wrath are his essential attributes. God is love, not wrath; he is a God of hospitality, not a God of violence . . . Hospitality bespeaks the very essence of God, while violence is merely one of the ways to safeguard or ensure the future of his hospitality when dealing with the humps and bumps of our lives. Divine violence,
Epistle of Diognetus, IX, Ante-Nicene Fathers, I, 28; cited in Boersma, p. 159.
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in other words, is a way in which God strives toward an eschatological situation of pure hospitality. (p. 49) In short, Boersma’s God is not afraid to get his hands dirty. It is hard to know what to make of all this. At one level Boersma is clearly carrying on a debate with Yoder, Hauerwas and Milbank, whose emphasis on the church invites Boersma’s charge that they are giving up on the world. (‘Calvin against the Anabaptists’, is how one friend of mine described Boersma’s book.) While Yoder and Hauerwas are paciﬁsts and Milbank is not, all three stress the role of the church in God’s oikonomia in ways that blur the difference between Catholic and Free Church insights. By contrast, Boersma advocates a Reformed vision in which violence may rightfully be employed to defend the innocent. He carries on this debate in chapters 9 and 10, dealing respectively with the church and matters of public justice. Boersma is prone to exaggerate the sectarianism of the thinkers he criticises. Nonetheless, these chapters force us to think. Readers looking for ammunition against Radical Orthodoxy will not go home disappointed. But as the passage quoted above suggests, there is more going on here than just a disagreement over paciﬁsm. The issue is God. Boersma could hardly be more emphatic that the divine ‘essence’ is peace rather than violence. Yet there is a left hand of God, that aspect of God that engages a violent world violently. This is a very unpopular argument to make in academe, and Boersma should be commended for putting it on the table. The world is a violent place. This is true not just of fallen human beings but of creation itself; we theologians should read Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek to exorcise any lingering sentimentality we might have about ‘nature’. The doctrine of providence says that God is intimately, passionately involved in this very world. In scripture, death is ultimately the enemy (1 Cor 15) but penultimately a power that serves the execution of God’s judgement (cf. Rom 5:12-14; Rev 6:3-4, 8). If we want to avoid Deism, it is hard to deny the fact of God’s involvement in violence. Just as no sparrow falls without God’s will, so we might say that no violence happens outside God’s providential purpose. The question to be raised is whether God, beyond the providential turning of violence to his own ends, is in some sense also its active sponsor. Boersma’s answer is Yes. He is nothing if not consistent about this: willing to afﬁrm that God employs violence, he also afﬁrms the use of violence by Jesus. He offers the example of Jesus’s cleansing of the temple, which resulted in a loss to the moneychangers, and of his prophetic words and actions, which ‘were offensive to many and encroached on people’s personal space and well-being’ (p. 92). Offensive language? Encroaching on personal space? Boersma’s deﬁnition of ‘violence’ is so broad as to encompass almost any
Hans Boersma’s Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross
form of discipline, anything that might reasonably be considered a limitation on my freedom or well-being – in short, anything that disrupts my ‘project’. Boersma uses the example of the government forcing a thirteen-year-old to attend school (p. 44). Given this standard, it is not hard to show how Jesus and God are perpetrators of violence. The question is whether the standard itself is not slightly absurd. Osama bin Laden and Martin Luther King, Jr., both have caused a measure of discomfort in their time; but bin Laden is an agent of violence whereas King was not. In his chapter on Calvinism, Boersma attacks the older orthodoxy because it appealed to God’s hidden will rather than to God’s revealed will in Jesus Christ. I wonder if something similar is not going on with Boersma. He reads the Old Testament and ﬁnds it ﬁlled with violence. Some of it seems sponsored by God: the slaughter of the Canaanites, Saul’s killing of the Amalekites – indeed, God disapproves of Saul for not carrying out this commandment to the letter! To maintain consistency, Boersma feels compelled to predicate violence of God across the board, including the action of the incarnate Son. Yet surely this is to grasp the hermeneutical stick at the wrong end. Jesus Christ is the one, deﬁnitive revelation of God. It is in the light of him that we are to read the often dark scriptures of Israel and the church, and the even darker book of nature – ‘nature red in tooth and claw’. While this classical procedure does not mean the elimination of all puzzles, it at least spares us from having to posit a sharp division between God’s hospitable ‘essence’ and the violent means he uses to usher in the kingdom of peace. Boersma’s goal of reading scripture as a unity is laudable; I just think he has gone about it in a wrong-headed way. If Boersma seems tempted contre cœur to read violence into God, he makes a similar mistake with respect to creation. Any kind of limit, boundary, alterity or resistance is tainted with the stain of violence. To state it somewhat differently, Boersma often treats the Law only from the perspective of its ‘ﬁrst use’: the policing of boundaries to safeguard community in a lawless world. This theme even appears in his discussion of the church, whose bounded character reﬂects the fact that ‘on this side of eternity hospitality is never extended without the violence of exclusion’ (p. 223). Once again, Boersma has a ﬁrm hold on half the truth. He is right to afﬁrm boundaries and limits as aspects of creation, and indeed as provisional aspects of the new creation: the church cannot serve the world except as it maintains a certain otherness with respect to the world; thus the necessary limitation of the Eucharist to the baptised. Boersma is quite eloquent on this point. Yet to call this otherness ‘violence’ seems an unnecessary concession to the Zeitgeist. It sounds an odd note of political correctness in an otherwise very un-PC book.
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Both these books approach the theology of reconciliation with apologetic ends in view. Weaver seeks to defend Christianity against the charge of perpetrating violence by rejecting substitutionary atonement and setting a more authentic biblical account in its place. Boersma wants to demonstrate that Christianity is hospitable, not just in a utopian sense but in the real, violent world of the early twenty-ﬁrst century – the world for which Christ died. Their common strength is their looking outward towards that world. Perhaps their common weakness is that the ‘violence’ thematic tends to occlude everything else. While the Bible certainly knows violence, violence as such is not a central biblical category. Of New Testament passages I can think only of those violent men who take the kingdom of heaven by force (Matt 11:12, cf. Luke 16:16). Surely a contrast is implied here; the biastai would enter the kingdom by force, but the true way in is by following him who is ‘gentle and lowly of heart’ (Matt 11:29). The doctrine of reconciliation is best pursued in a consistently christological key, rather than by taking our cues from the violence that too much haunts our lives. The theology of atonement can have a legitimately contextual edge. But before this it requires a careful immersion in the narrative of the one who ‘is our peace’, whose broken body reconciles Jew with Gentile and God with a violent world. Joseph Mangina
University of Toronto