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SJT 61(4): 494–502 (2008) Printed in the United Kingdom !

C 2008 Scottish Journal of Theology Ltd

doi:10.1017/S0036930608002032

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
Aulén’s Christus Victor that seemed to set Anselm definitively beyond the pale.
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 Aulén’s Christus victor theory, but grounded more firmly
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 Aulén’s three types of atonement imagery
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’

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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)

1
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.

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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.

2
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.
3
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).
4
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 différence and ‘otherness’ in chapter 1 is engaging enough, though
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 Renž Girard (correctly located in the exemplarist camp) and
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

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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 Aulén’s rather creaky typology as the basis for his
discussion. If Aulén’s historical account fails – and Boersma deftly shows
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,

5
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

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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

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