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A review of Repenting of Religion. By Gregory Boyd. Part 1.

Oct 15, 2006

Baker, 2004.

This book rightly argues for the primacy of love and our need to more closely reflect Jesus. Yet in a number of respects I found this book to be somewhat disappointing and frustrating, when it need not have been so. Its main theme is important and needs to be heard (although it is not without its shortcomings), but the way in which the message is delivered at times may turn some people off.

In brief, the book urges us to get back to basics: to enjoy God’s outrageous love and be a conduit of it. Also, we need to stop being critical and judgmental, and show a needy world what God’s unconditional love is like. Instead of living by legalism, rules, and human effort, we need to rest in the acceptance and grace Christ offers us, then share this with others.

For the most part that is an important message and one which all of us need to be reminded of. But perhaps because Boyd seems to think that we are all so far from where we should be in this regard, he tends to resort to unnecessary polarisation and overstatement. His message thus at times comes across as unbalanced and skewed. The fullness of the biblical data seems to be lost and the whole counsel of God seems not to be presented.

Of course others may not receive this book in such a way. They may find it exactly what they need. And I hope this book helps many. Indeed, its central message is one that I must take to heart as well. But as shall be seen, there are some problems along the way that, for this reviewer at least, keep it from making the impact it might have.

Thus there are two main issues to discuss here. One is the theological content of the book, and the other is the style or presentation of the message. I will take each in turn. Because there is so much to interact with in this book, I present this review in two parts.

Theological Considerations

As to the theology of the book, it first needs to be pointed out where Boyd is coming from. That will help place this volume into its proper context. Boyd is a leading proponent of what is known as free-will theism, or openness theology. It is a relatively new theological position (although based on much older theological antecedents) which has attracted a lot of attention and much controversy.

Openness of God theology cannot here be explored, but suffice it to say it is for many believers problematic at best, and in the eyes of some, heretical at worst (It claims, for example, that God is not really sovereign, he does not know the future, etc.). But that is not the subject of this review.

Boyd’s emphasis on the love of God – which of course is a major biblical emphasis – is heavily influenced by this particular theology. (And bear in mind that this framework can take a good doctrine, like the love of God, and turn it in unbiblical directions. Thus, fellow free-will theist Clark Pinnock, who praises this book, now teaches annihilationism and inclusivism, the ideas that there is no hell and people can be saved even if they don’t believe in Jesus. Pinnock, like Boyd, heavily focuses on the wideness of God’s love and mercy. It remains to be seen if Boyd will also travel further down these theologically dangerous paths.)

As I already mentioned, there is much here that is of value. But even though much of Boyd’s case needs to be heard, it can be questioned in parts. For example, he seeks to make love the primary attribute of God. And of course a case can be made for that. God is love, and it is certainly central to what we know about God.

But elevating love above every other attribute can be problematic for several reasons. First, it may be more in accord with the entire biblical revelation to acknowledge that all of the attributes of God are primary – that is, all are to be seen as operating together. Each individual attribute of God is equal to the whole of his being. No single attribute can be singled out from another. They stand or fall together, and one cannot be elevated above another. Thus we can speak of the holy love of God, or of his merciful justice, and so on. Each one is part of the other.

Second, even if one could select one attribute as pre-eminent, love is not the only possible candidate. For example, many theologians would argue that holiness may be regarded as the overriding attribute. The holiness of God is proclaimed throughout Scripture as much as his love is.

Third, Boyd offers little direct exegetical support for this conclusion. He does discuss a number of passages that urge us to love. But does that adequately make his case? For example, he appeals to the commands to love made by Jesus as showing love’s centrality (58). While important, these passages have to do with our obligations to God. They do not speak about his attributes as such. Moreover, while there are numerous commands to love, there are also numerous commands to be holy, to be mature, to be perfect, to abstain from sin, and so on. They go together. Can they or should they be minimised or subordinated to love?

Still, one might argue (as Boyd does) that love is the glue which holds all this together, that love puts everything in focus. True, but it still seems that the various attributes come as a package deal. So too are they commands for Christian living. We are to do all things in love, but that does not exclude other considerations. Thus we are commanded to discipline in love. We are to warn in love. We are to exhort in love. We are to rebuke in love. These are composite, not isolated, actions.

To single out one attribute of God and effectively ignore or downplay the others would seem to present a truncated picture of God. Yes, God is love. But God is also holy. God is also just, and so on.

Given Boyd’s view on the love of God, it comes as no surprise that he has little to say about the wrath of God. And when he does raise the issue, Boyd in fact claims it has nothing to do with God. He quotes from Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft (someone I quite enjoy for the most part) to suggest that there is no actual wrath in God (59). What comes across as wrath, what appears as wrath, is only the absence of his love.

But to make this claim Boyd (and Kreeft) must nullify or ignore hundreds of Scriptural passages which clearly affirm a very real wrath of God. Let me just present a few verses:

“God judges the righteous, and God is angry with the wicked every day”. (Psalm 7:11)
“Again and again I sent my servants the prophets, who said, ‘Do not do this detestable thing that I hate!’” (Jer. 44:4)
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18)
“And one of the four beasts gave unto the seven angels seven golden vials full of the wrath of God, who lives for ever and ever. And I heard a great voice out of the temple saying to the seven angels, Go your ways, and pour out the vials of the wrath of God upon the earth.” (Rev. 15:7-16:1)

God is love, but that love is never separated from his holiness and his hatred of sin. Boyd seems to downplay these truths and we seem to be left with a caricature of God.

In fact Boyd is aware of these objections. He even mentions the fact that people will speak about the need for balance and so on (57). Yet he claims this call for balance is itself unbalanced (58). But is Boyd being selective here? One could equally write a book on another attribute of God, much as Boyd has written here, and come up with similar results. Consider holiness for example. This is surely a vital attribute of God. Not only is it true of who God is, but the followers of God are constantly urged to mirror God in this respect. We are called to be holy perhaps as often as we are commanded to love.

Of course mere number counts do not determine if one attribute or command is superior to another. Yet Scripture makes a number of assertions about God, and gives a number of commands to believers. They are presented as an integrated whole, and we should accept them as such.

To emphasise the love of God and our need to love God and others is a clear biblical theme. It is vitally important. But so too are many other attributes and commands. I see no need to act as if one has to be chosen to the exclusion of all others.

Conclusion to Part 1

I finish here by offering some qualifying remarks. I wish to state that I do not want to be overly critical of this book. It has much to offer. And I know that some people can go overboard as they seek to defend orthodoxy, as they perceive it.

For example, I am aware that some believers have become self-appointed heresy-hunters and guardians of the truth, criticising other believers far and wide, often in an unloving and ungracious manner. I do not want to be counted among their number.

However, there is a genuine place for teachers in the body to not only teach sound doctrine but to warn against error. We are to guard the flock and warn of wolves seeking to enter in and cause damage (Acts 20:28-31, for example).

But I am aware that some can spend so much time criticising others that they are not able to hear what God may be saying through other believers. And I do believe God is trying to speak through Boyd. Love is certainly paramount in the Christian faith. And much of Christianity is loveless and judgemental. But the way Boyd makes his case seems to undo the very good work he wants to accomplish.

A friend of mine who likes Boyd (and also appreciates my ministry) tried to defend Boyd by saying he has a prophet’s passion, and this is his way of getting his point across: by going to extremes and lunging from one side of the pendulum to another. Maybe so. I realise we are thick of hearing at times and God’s prophets sometimes had to go to extreme measures to get our attention.

But it seems to me that for every person who gets blessed by this book, there may be another who gets turned off by it. I for one want to hear what Boyd is saying here, but he has made it difficult for me to do so.

Part Two of this article can be found here: billmuehlenberg.com/2006/10/15/a-review-of-repenting-of-religion-by-gregory-boyd-part-2/

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8 Responses to A review of Repenting of Religion. By Gregory Boyd. Part 1.

  • All I can say is – you’re a generous man Bill!

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria

  • Thanks Ewan
    Yes, I really did bend over backwards to be as fair and generous to this book as possible, given all my misgivings about it. You should have seen my earlier drafts!
    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • I read this article on the review of Greg Boyd’s book and I have to say, while I am not well versed in theology, I have to disagree with you that love shouldn’t be elevated above all else. The other attributes of God are very important too, as you say, but, what about 1 Corinthians 13? Especially the part where it states this: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” How do you reconcile 1 Corinthians 13 with your review on the book? Thank you for your time.
    Dawn Marie

  • Thanks Dawn

    I guess I would offer two responses. First, every text must be understood in the light of its context. I Cor. 13 is part of a larger context, 1 Cor. 12-14, where Paul talks about spiritual gifts. These three chapters in turn are of course part of the whole epistle, in which Paul deals with divisions and problems at the Corinthian church.

    Thus Paul in 1 Cor. 13 appeals to love as a superior way, both in terms of addressing the contention issue of the gifts, as well as a way to tackle the disunity and conflict in the church as a whole. So that is the setting for the “love chapter”.

    Second, my point in the review is that we need to deal with God as he reveals himself in Scripture, and not just pick and choose those parts which we prefer. Paul said we must “proclaim the whole counsel of God”. The attributes of God are never pitted against one another, but must be taken together to describe God as he is. Thus God is a loving God, but he is also a holy God, a righteous God, a God who hates sin, and so on. We must take God in his entirety as he is presented to us in Scripture.

    When we emphasise just one attribute or aspect of God at the expense of the others, we misrepresent who God is, and we are guilty of chopping up the Bible to push an agenda – even if it is a good agenda. Yes love is a vital biblical theme, but it is never a mushy, sentimental notion of love. God’s love is a holy love which burns against sin and cannot stand to have wickedness or evil dwell in its presence.

    I hope that helps to explain my position a bit more. And don’t forget that I continue my review in part two, where I explain these matters further: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2006/10/15/a-review-of-repenting-of-religion-by-gregory-boyd-part-2/

    Let me know if you still have queries. Thanks for your question.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Hi Bill,
    I am just now reading the book and I am on page 95, so I still have to read the rest of the book to make any final determinations. But since I found your review today I thought I would make a comment now unless I forget.
    I appreciate your comments and I understand what you are saying. I went back and read some of the portions that you have commented on and I can see your point. But to be honest my thinking is similar to your last post – you need to take into account the entire book and its intent. Although I might disagree with some points of the book I can agree with the main thrust of the book which for me is to “turn from judgement to the Love of God”. But again I have not read the whole book and I am not much of a theologian. Even after having read 95 pages I am convicted of judgementalism and my need to increase my love walk so the book has already had an impact on me. I think that although we need to be as theologically accurate as possible we can always allow a teaching to impact us positively if we want it to. I also don’t know if we will always agree with every author – I certainly don’t. I don’t always agree with my Pastor’s teaching but I can take what I do agree with and let it change me. I also think it is good to have our thinking challenged at times so we do know what we believe.
    Not sure any of this makes sense but wanted to add my two cents worth. Thanks.
    Kim Swanson

  • Thanks Kim

    In part 2 of this review I try to show that love and a proper sense of judgment in fact go together, and are not opposed to each other. But yes keep reading the book and let God speak as he will. Blessings

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • I will have to read part 2 but I do agree that love a proper sense of judgement go together but is that different than having a spirit of judgementalism – such as I believe the Pharisees had?

    My kids and I have had some interesting debates about this so interested to hear your views. We discussed the parallel he uses between homosexuality and overeating. What are your thoughts?

    Kim Swanson

  • Thanks again Kim

    But I deal with exactly those issues in Part Two, so you better go have a read!

    https://billmuehlenberg.com/2006/10/15/a-review-of-repenting-of-religion-by-gregory-boyd-part-2/

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

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