On Warfare and Weakness: Part 4, To Go To War We Need a Weaker God

I have argued over the last two posts that progressive Christianity needs to recover a theology of revolt--a theology of spiritual warfare--as described in books like Greg Boyd's God at War.

However, in the last post we noted two issues about God at War that might make it problematic for progressive Christians.

First, progressives will need a way to think about spiritual warfare that doesn't require a belief in literal angels and demons. And please note that I used the word require. If a person has no problem with the vision of spiritual warfare presented by Boyd in God at War then no translational work is necessary. But given that a lot of progressive Christians are liberal theologically, my hunch is that many aren't going to be able to accept Boyd's account as it stands. Progressives will need another way to envision spiritual warfare. But as I've said, I think this "translation" is fairly straightforward as a lot of work has already been done in this area by thinkers like Walter Wink and William Stringfellow.

The second and more difficult question that comes from God at War has to do with the origins of evil. In day to day life a theology of revolt takes evil as a given and joins God in waging battle against these manifestations of evil. Evil, in this view, is wholly opposed and antagonistic to God. Evil plays no part, no part whatsoever, in God's providential plans. Evil is never willed by God.

Such a view tends toward dualism, where the forces of good and evil are viewed as locked in eternal combat. In practice, the warfare worldview is very dualistic. But there are some theological tensions we need to wrestle with as Christians don't espouse dualism. Christians believe God created the world and that it was good. Good pre-dates evil and evil is not co-eternal with God. More, given God's omnipotence evil is not a real rival or equal to God. And God will eventually defeat evil. But if all that is the case, where did evil come from? And why is an omnipotent God reduced to fighting much weaker spiritual forces?

The point here is that, while I think the warfare viewpoint works as a day to day theology of revolt, it stands upon a shaky theological foundation. So for this warfare theology of revolt to work we are going to need some decent answers to these foundational questions. To be sure, these foundational questions aren't really practical, the answers here aren't going to help you be a better person or Christian. But the questions and answers here do provide the theological framework that will support and inform the praxis of spiritual warfare. That is, in battling evil in the world I don't need, in the moment of crisis, a deep theological account of the origins of evil. All I need to know is that evil exists, right here, right now, right in front of me. And facing that evil I engage in spiritual combat (as we will come to describe it). That's all we really need to know, most of the time, to make a theology of revolt work. Evil is a given and so we fight it. We see oppression, we resist it. We see violence, we bring peace. We stand by a grave, we weep and rage. That is all that is required of us in this fight. So don't theologize, fight!

But later, in more reflective moments, we may ask questions about how evil got here in the first place. And why evil is so hard to eradicate. And why it seems that evil is often winning. Answers to such questions aren't really all that practical, but they do provide a theological foundation for practice.

For Boyd, the answer to these questions regarding the origins of evil is given by describing a pre-historical angelic fall, a fall that did not originate with God as these angelic beings--Satan the foremost among them--were exercising their free will. As Boyd argues in God at War this view, if taken as correct, seems to answer many of the questions posed by a warfare worldview.

You might find Boyd's answers to be persuasive. Or you might not. But for our purposes, it really doesn't matter. If we aren't going to be assuming the literal existence of angelic and demonic beings (although you can, that's cool), we aren't going to have recourse to the free will argument that Boyd makes for the origins of evil and spiritual warfare in the world.

And so, before we turn to the praxis of spiritual warfare (and the work of people like Wink and Stringfellow), we need to take a theological detour to address some of these foundational questions. But let me be clear. The vision of spiritual warfare, the theology of revolt, is where the excitement and popular appeal is to be found. This theological detour we are about to go on for a few posts isn't all that exciting. It's pretty nerdy and, thus, won't be appealing or necessary for many people. But insofar as it is necessary for certain individuals, we have to take this detour.

Besides, if you've read this far into the series you are most definitely a nerd. So let's keep going. Theological detour ahead.

Here is the big thing we need to wrestle with. The root theological issue at the heart of the warfare worldview is why the world is so out of control. To make the warfare worldview work evil has to be renegade, a wild, untamed, and free force in the world. How did this renegade force come to exist and why does God allow it to continue?

Again, Boyd answers these questions by an appeal to the free will of angelic beings. According to Boyd, free will allows evil to be renegade in the cosmos and in our world.

So that's Boyd's answer to the question, but I'd like to focus less on Boyd's answer and go back to the fundamental question he's trying to answer: Why is the world so out of control?

In short, the critical issue that needs to be resolved isn't the issue of free will. The critical issue that needs to be resolved is God's lack of control. The critical issue isn't about free will or the literal existence of angelic beings. The critical issue has to do with God's power and its limitations.

Specifically, a warfare theology is rooted in the premise that God isn't wholly in control of the world. A warfare theology presupposes that there are things that happen that God doesn't will, that there are things that happen that are wholly opposed to God's will, that there are things that happen that God would like to stop but doesn't stop or can't stop and that there are things that happen that are outside of God's providential control.

In short, for the warfare theology to work there needs to be limitations on God's power.

For Boyd, free will is what sets those limitations. Because of free will God's power is not absolute. Nor is God's knowledge of the future. And this is what drives some Calvinists crazy about Boyd's work with openness theology, that it sets limitations on God's ultimate sovereignty. That debate--between the Calvinists and openness theologians--need not concern us here. What does concern us is how Boyd's appeal to free will is, at a deeper level, an attempt to limit God's power in the world.

That limiting God's power/control/influence in the world is the underlying issue in God at War is made clear by Boyd throughout the book. For example,
[The warfare] thesis requires a willingness to think about the power of God, the reality of evil and the influence of Satan in some rather untraditional ways.
Christian orthodoxy, of course, has always taught that God is omnipotent, and for good reason. Scripture is unequivocal on this point. But the question that needs to be asked is this: Does the omnipotence necessarily entail that God is all-controlling, as the classical-philosophical tradition after Augustine has been inclined to assume? Does affirming that God is omnipotent commit one to the view that a good divine purpose lies behind all particular events...?
This central scriptural theme...presupposes that evil exits for God as well as humans, that God does not will it, and thus that some beings (those who are evil) have the ability to act against God's will. It requires the understanding that it is possible for some beings (angels and humans at least) genuinely to resist, and even to thwart, whatever blueprint God might wish their lives to follow. It requires accepting the view that God, for whatever reasons, designed the cosmos such that he does not necessarily always get his way, and may, in fact detest the way some things are turning out. It requires the view that God does not monopolize power, and hence that omnipotence cannot be equated with meticulous omnicontrol.
[I]n contrast to the later church, neither Jesus nor his disciples seemed to understand God's absolute power as absolute control.
In summary, for the warfare theology to work we need a God who is less powerful. I disagree with Boyd on how he makes that happen1 (i.e., by positing free will), but I agree with him at a more fundamental level:

If we are going to create a theology to support spiritual warfare we need to wholly extract God from the experience of evil in the world. And the only way to do that is to see God as less powerful in the world. And while we might debate why God lacks control, at the end of the day spiritual warfare only makes sense if we have a less powerful God than the one we've typically assumed.

It's as simple as this: To go to war we need a weaker God.

Part 5

1. Ultimately, I think Boyd's appeal to free will breaks down. Basically, for the free will argument to work you have to make an additional assumption: that God has chosen to unilaterally respect free will, that God has chosen to never, ever, no matter what, override the free will of an angelic or human agent. But that assumption raises a host of questions. First, we have biblical evidence that God "hardens hearts." And if that is so, why would God not, from time to time, harden angelic or human hearts to prevent horrible pain and suffering? Second, God can protect humans while respecting the free will of human or angelic beings. God could block these beings or simply banish them to another realm. For example, I can tackle, restrain or lock up anyone trying to do harm to others. And these protective efforts of mine don't violate the free will of the perpetrator. The point being, I don't think an appeal to free will gets the job done.

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10 thoughts on “On Warfare and Weakness: Part 4, To Go To War We Need a Weaker God”

  1. Richard, I'm loving this series and am doing my best to keep up intellectually.

    Perhaps you will get there in future posts, but I'm curious how you think how this warfare thesis (i.e. limit on God's power, the ability of beings to genuinely resist God, and the battle of evil, etc...) ultimately blends with Universalism and whether there is ultimate reconciliation? A corollary to this question is what is the timescale of the war against evil and when does it end? As humans with finite lifespans living in a creation of finite existence, we don't grasp eternity very well. Surely Boyd must have considered when evil first came about and, presumably, will ultimately lose.

    Thanks for bring this to us.

  2. I am grateful that you have taken this detour since how we think about who really has or will ultimately have the final say in whether good or evil prevails impacts how we live out our beliefs. In my own experience, I have fairly recently taken a step back from the prevailing evangelical viewpoint of there being real, "live" demonic forces that for all practical purposes are out to consume me and my loved ones and that whether that happens depends greatly on how hard I work or pray. Having lived a pretty stressed out Christian life for too many years, quite honestly, it was beginning to wear on me spiritually, emotionally, and physically. While I'm still open to the fact that there indeed may be actual demonic activity, I have become less stressed about it after being introduced to the concept of ultimate reconciliation/ Christian Universalism-- thankfully, I have learned that this is a very scriptural understanding, not just me looking for an out. My anxiety for the welfare of my "unsaved" loved ones has decreased from panicked despair to loving concern. I find that I still feel compelled to fight evil any and every way I can-- through fasting and prayer, seeking to lovingly persuade, and looking for opportunities to overcome evil with good, etc. However, the weight has been taken off my shoulders and transferred to my loving Father who will ultimately prevail. I do still struggle at times when I see evil, suffering, sickness, etc. prevailing, wondering why God is allowing the pain. But for now, I guess I am more able to rest in the fact that in His wisdom, it is necessary-- and is best--for things to be this way. My growing confidence that all will finally and fully be restored gives me great hope which results in me having greater zeal and strength to join in the battle. Again, thanks for this series. It is helping me to continue to sort through and shed light on my old and new understandings.

  3. After the next post (Part 5) about the weakness of God I wade in (with fear and trembling) with three posts--Parts 6,7, and 8--about Genesis and Revelation, origins and endings, with an eye on the origins and eventual fate of evil.

    At the end of the day, and this may be a disappointment to some, you'll see that I use the bible (yes, the bible) to bracket those questions. But any disappointment I hope will be mitigated by an appreciation for the novelty of the approach. That is, even if people disagree I hope they say, "Huh, that's interesting." And that's all I try to do with this blog. Collect and share interesting arrangements of ideas.

    So I don't get into eschatology directly, leaving room for people to fill in that picture how they see fit. Obviously, my preferred vision of how evil is eventually defeated is through the love of God. But if the love of God is described as weakness, as the love of the cross, which is how I describe it in the next post, then this vision of universal reconciliation has to connect with that view of God's power/weakness. I think that's possible, if even just as an eschatological hope.

  4. This has been an excellent series so far (right up there with Adam Miller's Speculative Grace).

    I think there are non-theist parallels, here; many social theorists have had hegemonic theories (about society, about capital, etc) that are much like the omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent God and have therefore required their own theodicies and what have you.

    The question of how to motivate action when meaning collapses does not get solved when one adopts a model of "warfare against the powers", but not insignificant sub-problems are.

    I'll be reading Caputo shortly, it's been beckoning from my bookshelf.

  5. I have a lot of sympathy for where you're coming from, Ragamuffin Me, but when I try to sustain a similar point of view, my wife is great at reminding me how white and comfortable my arguments sound. Can we really repeat the theology of the play-acting toddler in front of the brutalised, horribly-wounded Syrian infant as the faceless troops jeer with apparent relish at bereft mothers between rocket volleys that they dare not come out and rescue their children? Does the picture of an avuncular God tolerantly shaking his head, standing to one side in the knowledge that it's all for the greater good stand up in these circumstances? I've given up with answers these days and am learning to live between hope and despair, between faith and doubt.

  6. I agree that the metaphor when carried out minimizes the actual pain and suffering of real people throughout the world. To that end, it really breaks down. I get that. It minimizes the experience of suffering and the pain of victims of evil. It also tempts us to not be actively warring against the evils of our age, the very topic of this series.

    All this happens when the metaphor minimizes the evil and the sufferings. However, I would consider how another use of it might be helpful. If, instead of minimizing the sufferings, it expanded the concept of "ultimate good". Not such that the wounded Syrian infant is somehow a mere "causality" for the "greater good". Rather, that God could only allow free-will to harm one of his most vulnerable creations because he plans to carry out ultimate good for the individual, not just humanity as a whole. Might this child be the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven, because it was the least among us here in this life?

    It is at this point, we may ask ourselves "why don't we just continue in sin that grace may abound!?" We ask this because we have gotten close to a concept of divine determinism that than may make our current actions seemingly meaningless. God forbid.

    My close friend was a victim of horrendous abuse as a child, and is currently hospitalized on suicide watch. This just happened yesterday. Easing my friend's suffering seems beyond reach, although I try. So, perhaps, turning to this more deterministic approach is a slight comfort to me when there seems to be little that I can do. I just keep thinking, "Jesus, make all things right."

  7. "I've given up with answers these days and am learning to live between hope and despair, between faith and doubt." This statement that you said resonates with me. Perhaps that is where I am headed Sometimes I feel strong enough that I feel free to doubt. Other times I feel so weak I cling to whatever hope I can find. A healthy mind perhaps is found somewhere in the middle.

  8. I'm so sorry to hear about your friend's pain. Perhaps a tiny part of them will know the truth of your friendship and take a flicker of comfort from knowing you hold them in mind through this time.

    I hope more and more that you are right, just as I feel less and less able to voice that outrageous hope, that all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.


  9. Are you familiar with Mark Young (I believe current president at Denver Seminary, formerly at DTS) I took him for world missions and he has a cool theological approach using the ideas of the Messio dei and Imago dei (God's mission is to reveal himself to all people of all times and we are called to image him to that end, or something to that end). It seems through salvation we are initiated into this mission/quest/kingdom reality of revealing God to the world and part of that mission involves warfare. I'm just thinking through a couple different compelling versions of the faith and trying to marry them together. I come from more of a traditional background so I'm having fun wrestling through some of the Process Theology ideas, but I love this stuff and I am a nerd. Love the blog, am a fan.

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