A review of Repenting of Religion. By Gregory Boyd. Part 2.
I begin by reiterating what I said in part 1: much of the message of this book needs to be heard. But because it seems to latch on to certain biblical themes over against others, it can come across as theologically unbalanced at times. Boyd of course would argue that his argument properly reflects the biblical data. The reader must judge for himself.
The Relationship Between Love and Judgement
Boyd seems to make unnecessary or forced antitheses at times. Consider his major thesis, that love and judgement cannot co-exist. He argues that if you love, you will not judge, and if you judge, you cannot love. Thus he claims that we “love only insofar as we abstain from judgment” (9). He also says, “love and judgment are opposed to each other” (78). Or again, “We either live in love, or we live in judgment” (111). “Love and judgment represent two antithetical ways of living” (112).
But, is this really the case? I can think of at least three very important counter-examples here. God seems quite capable of loving and judging simultaneously. Parents are called to do the same. And Christians are enjoined in Scripture to do just that as well.
That love is antithetical to judgement is certainly not true of God. He is love, and he is judge, simultaneously. His love is not sentimental or wishy-washy but based on his holiness and righteousness. In love he judges his enemies, and with discerning judgement he loves us. Even Boyd concedes this point briefly at one stage (168).
Parents also do this all the time. Really loving parents will exercise judgement and discernment and discipline with their children. It is because they love their children that they exercise judgement, make rules and censure unacceptable behaviour. The two are not contradictory but complementary. That is the very point being made in Hebrews 12:1-13. At least Boyd does fleetingly acknowledge the need for tough love for various harmful addictions. (202).
And what about believers? Boyd makes it clear that they certainly should not judge. But why not? Why can we not judge with righteous judgement (John 7:24), and act in love at the same time?
If a father loves his children, his family, and his community, will he not judge that a proposed new brothel in his area would be harmful and dangerous? Similarly, it is because a mother loves her daughter that she will warn her against drug use. And is it not a loving thing to assess a heretical cult, to judge its dangerous doctrines, to prevent people from being sucked into a lost eternity?
Boyd seems to set up a false antithesis or artificial tension here. It is not a case of either/or, but both/and. He seems to engage in unnecessary polarisation where Scripture does not.
He does allow that “in exceptional conditions” there will be a place for “confrontation and questioning” (195). I am glad he does make this concession. But how does this square with the New Testament evidence? There we find numerous examples of Paul and others challenging people, confronting people, even rebuking people. Numerous passages enjoin us to make righteous judgement, to warn and rebuke, to chastise and to admonish.
But Boyd thinks this should be done sparingly at best. But Scripture seems to say it should be done when needed. It seems to be a part of the normal Christian life. Of course such discipline and admonition must be done in love, with humility, and with the recognition that we are all fallen. But it is a regular part of church life. Jesus himself insisted upon this, as in Matthew 18.
Added to this are the many dozens of warnings about false teachers and false teaching. The New Testament writers are quite strong about all this, as was Jesus. Many warnings are given about the need to guard one’s doctrine from the false prophets. Yet Boyd actually says we are not even to confront other religious groups who are leading people astray! (205) Were the apostles wrong on this? Was Paul unloving and out of God’s will when he confronted the Judaisers or withstood Peter to his face? Was Athanasius being judgemental and unloving when he took on Arius and his heresy?
Coupled with this are the many dozens of exhortations to stand up for good doctrine and sound theology. All of that supposes bad theology which needs to be countered. Yet Boyd seems to minimise this as well.
Boyd also indicates that there is no place for speaking prophetically to non-believers: “the church must always remember that it has no business confronting people outside the covenantal community” (205). None at all? Were William Wilberforce and Charles Finney, to name but a few, out of God’s will for working so hard to stamp out slavery, and expecting non-believers to do the right thing in this regard?
And what about today? Are believers to say and do absolutely nothing about the evils of abortion, pornography or racism because that is being judgemental and not loving? Are we just to allow any and all evil to run unchecked, because we do not want to be seen as judgemental?
And what about the Old Testament prophets? They made prophetic denunciations against foreign nations which featured the same themes and language as they used against Israel. Boyd does mention Ezekiel’s call to be a watchman, but says it only applies to Israel (206). Yet Ez. 25-32 are oracles against foreign nations.
In the closing chapters of his book Boyd does try to temper his remarks somewhat, and does admit that at times confrontation and the like are called for. But again, they are to be the exception he argues, not the rule.
What the Church Should Look Like
Consider also the picture of the church which Boyd envisages. Appealing to the gospel accounts where Jesus fellowshipped with sinners, Boyd wants that to be our model. It seems he basically wants people to get together and enjoy each other in a non-judgemental fashion. He even admits that such a church “would look very ‘unchurchy’ to say the least”. It would be known more for its “outrageous, puzzling love” than “its distinctive beliefs and ethical teachings” (222). No tough sermons it seems, no harsh words, no condemnation.
But just how is the church to be unlike any other social club if “distinctive beliefs” are so minimised? Christianity is about love, but it is also about doctrine, and beliefs, about creeds. If it were not, much of the New Testament would not have to have been written.
Boyd seems to make a false distinction here: you either embrace love, or you latch on to doctrine and theology. But surely holding on to both is the biblical position. Paul could tell Timothy, “Watch your life and doctrine closely” (1 Tim. 4:16). That gets the right balance. We love God and each other not in a vacuum, but based on the revelation God has given us.
Moreover, many of the marks of the church seem absent from such a scenario. What about teaching, correcting, instructing, church discipline and the like? Boyd does touch on these issues briefly, albeit grudgingly, at the end of his book. But these aspects of church life seem perhaps secondary for Boyd.
An Ethical Example
Consider one example that has been the focus of much of the Christian church: homosexuality. Basically Boyd, like many of the religious left, thinks we are far too concerned as a church about this, and we should just stop being so worried about it. He spends a few pages talking about the issue, and does so by comparing homosexuality with overeating. He says these sins are equally bad, and to be consistent we should spend a lot of time condemning gluttony. He even suggests that there is no real problem with homosexuality. Why not get excited about overeating instead? “Is it because homosexuality is more harmful to society? It is not clear what distinct social harm homosexuality causes” (87).
It seems Scripture has a different view of things. Yes, on the one hand, all sin is terrible and earns the judgement of God. But there seem to be sins which God singles out. For example, homosexuality is seen as so reprehensible by God that he calls it an abomination, and says that it deserves the death penalty. Neither is true of overeating.
And the homosexual lifestyle has all kinds of negative repercussions for society, not least of which is HIV/AIDS. To seek to argue that the militant homosexual lobby is nothing to be concerned about seems to be naïve and irresponsible. Is the breakdown of family of no concern? Is the corruption of our children of no concern? Is the undermining of marriage and society simply no big deal?
I mentioned at the outset that the way Boyd presents his case is perhaps also a cause of concern. The at times excessive and polarising presentation seems to run counter to the fullness of the biblical revelation. He seems to highlight certain issues and texts while ignoring others all which are germane to the discussion.
This might be excusable if Boyd were some unlearned country bumpkin. But he has had theological training and should know better. Yet he persists in his dialectical and at times dramatic approach.
Some might reply that Boyd is just being dramatic or using hyperbole to get his message across. Perhaps. But if he is exaggerating for effect, he should be aware that this opens his remarks to possible misinterpretation.
On occasion he will modify his remarks, offer a brief corrective, or throw in a qualifying comment. And his closing chapters seek to look at these issues in a bit more detail. But these qualifications seem few and far between, and one suspects that Boyd makes them grudgingly.
And then there is the problem that Boyd seems to do the very thing that he rails against throughout this book. On a number of occasions Boyd makes judgements about the rest of the Christian church. Consider these statements:
“Most Christians tend to walk more in judgment than they do in unconditional love” (98).
“If anything, the church today is largely known for its petty divisiveness along denominational, doctrinal, social and even racial lines” (46).
While such judgements might be true they are nonetheless just that: judgements, the very thing Boyd thinks we should not be making. Indeed, he accuses believers who are not following his scheme of things of “spiritual pathology” and “religious idolatry” (89). It seems that even Boyd cannot make his case without resorting to judgement. And that makes my case, I would argue. One can seek to build up the body, to be loving, while at the same time making judgements and pointing out shortcomings.
I found this book to be somewhat frustrating. Its message is important. Yet I can’t help feeling that for all that he says, he leaves much unsaid, and the end result is a somewhat skewed message. He could perhaps have written this book in a different fashion and still made much of his case.
I for one will try to apply some of the truths contained in the book to my life. I know I need to be a lot more loving and a lot less judgemental. But I have enough reservations to be hesitant about passing this on to others without at least some qualifying remarks.
Part One of this article can be found here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2006/10/15/a-review-of-repenting-of-religion-by-gregory-boyd-part-1/
One Reply to “A review of Repenting of Religion. By Gregory Boyd. Part 2.”
I believe that there is no more powerful force than that of God’s love demonstrated in action by His people and that it can make a way when things seem impossible. It is only His love which changes the heart of man.
The scriptures are full of examples of miraculous excessive love which often beggared the understanding of the people of the time (and ours), but none of these actions belied the other attributes of God. Indeed, in some cases the Apostle Paul and even Jesus were both seemingly harsh in their actions toward, and descriptions of others – God’s love is not wishy-washy or without power, and His love toward us can be at times hard to understand when we are going through times of testing and trial. But like a parent He has an end purpose in mind that we often cannot or do not see – our priorities are often different to His.
So while I strongly support the basis premise of this book, my point is that God’s love is never separate from His holiness, His justice and His truth, and I believe that if we minimise these things in the name of love then we are missing God’s way of doing things and trying to make a way based on our understanding. We have to do things His way according to the scripture even if it doesn’t seem right to us.
As such, my contention with books such as this book is stronger than Bill’s. I feel that in minimising the other attributes of God, we water down the message of the Scriptures and in doing so run periliously close to liberalism, and end up overlooking or negating the central work of the Cross, being redemption from sin, and causes more damage instead of leading people to a true personal experience with our loving but holy and righteous God.