Saturday 17 March 2012

The reality of Unseen Warfare - Excerpted from God at War by Greg Boyd


Excerpted and edited for emphasis from the Introduction to God at War by Gregory A Boyd, 1997.

The fact that we live in a world of unseen spiritual warfare between Good and evil was undeniably obvious to traditionalist Christians, and indeed to almost everybody outside the bubble of the modern West - despite that modern people routinely fail to notice it when we read Scripture. 

I would urge readers to print-out and ponder the following:


...Modern Westerners... are culturally conditioned to dismiss talk about nonphysical conscious beings (angels) as superstition. Such concepts seem to be on the same level as science fiction.

Even for modern Christians, who on the authority of Scripture theoretically accept the existence of such invisible beings, this account, for other reasons, sounds incredible.

[Yet] from a crosscultural perspective, the insight that the cosmos is teeming with spiritual beings whose behavior can and does benefit or harm us is simply common sense. It is we modern Westerners who are the oddballs for thinking that the only free agents who influence other people and things are humans.


The worldview of the Shuar (Amerindians from Ecuador) is one in which everything on the physical plane is understood against the backdrop of a highly influential, intricate and remarkably detailed spiritual world in which forces are at war with each other and through which people wage war against each other; the Shuar do not clearly differentiate these two spheres.

While this worldview... sounds bizarre to many modern Westerners, it is hardly exceptional by historical and global standards. To the contrary, it was apparently self-evident to the vast majority of ancient people, and still is to primitive people today, that the world is not all physical, not even primarily physical, and certainly not all right.

It was, rather, a world that was populated with influential spiritual beings, some of whom were evil, and most of whom were at war with one another.

I call this basic understanding of the cosmos a warfare worldview.


Stated most broadly, this worldview is that perspective on reality which centers on the conviction that the good and evil, fortunate or unfortunate, aspects of life are to be interpreted largely as the result of good and evil, friendly or hostile, spirits warring against each other and against us.

... this warfare worldview is in one form or another the basic worldview of biblical authors, both in the Old Testament and even more so in the New.


This is not to suggest that the biblical authors (or any ancient people-group for that matter) deny that evil is also a reality of the human heart and of human society. To the contrary, biblical authors consistently demonstrate a passionate concern for confronting evil in all the individual and societal forms it takes. Therefore no biblical author suggests that warfare prayers or exorcisms are cure-alls for all that is wrong in the world.

I do suggest that biblical authors generally understood all evil in the context of spiritual war, however.


For biblical authors, to wage war against such things as injustice, oppression, greed and apathy toward the needy was to participate directly or indirectly in a cosmic war that had engulfed the earth...

The ultimate canvas against which the unfolding drama of world history is played out is, for biblical authors, a warfare worldview. In this regard these authors share a great deal with most other ancient peoples.

The prevalence of the warfare worldview is revealed not only in the similar practices of ancient and contemporary primitive peoples but also in the similar mythologies these various cultures possess. Their mythologies reveal the nearly universal conviction that the battlefield appearance of the world is the result of a real battle that once took place, or is still taking place, in "nonordinary" reality.

It is all too easy for modern western people, Christian and non-Christian alike, to dismiss mythologies and religious practices such as those we have been examining as amounting to nothing more than ignorant, primitive superstition. The warfare worldview that comes through in these mythologies and practices simply does not square with either our modern Western materialistic view of the world or many traditional Christian assumptions about God...


...The very prevalence of the warfare worldview among so many different people-groups, in such radically different times and unrelated locations, should itself be enough to inspire us to take this worldview seriously.

If we modern Westerners cannot "see" what nearly everyone else outside the little oasis of Western rationalism the last several centuries has seen, then perhaps there is something amiss with our way of seeing.


It is just possible that the intensely materialistic and rationalistic orientation of the Enlightenment has blinded us to certain otherwise obvious realities.

It is just possible that our chronocentrism - our tendency to assume that the worldview we hold at the present time is the ultimately true worldview--is preventing us from seeing significant features of reality.


But even if the nearly universal intuition of cosmic conflict is not enough to call our own naturalism into question, the fact that this warfare worldview constitutes a central component of Scripture's understanding of God and the cosmos should surely inspire us to do so.

At least for those of us for whom this collection of canonical books is no mere collection but rather constitutes the inspired Word of God, not seriously considering the warfare worldview can hardly be said to be an option, however much such a view may conflict with our own naturalistic cultural presuppositions. ... the thematic unity of Christ's ministry (as well as that of his disciples and the early post-apostolic church) becomes fully intelligible only against the backdrop of a warfare worldview...

The nearly universal myth of our world being largely shaped by warfare among various cosmic forces and spirits is here incarnated as the one true God-man warrior of God enters our real war zone and wages war against God's real foes.


In sum, then, the truth to which all these mythologies point, and indeed the truth to which the mythological warfare dimensions of the Old Testament itself point... is the truth that God's good creation has in fact been seized by hostile, evil, cosmic forces that are seeking to destroy God's beneficent plan for the cosmos.

God wages war against these forces, however, and through the person of Jesus Christ has now secured the overthrow of this evil cosmic army. The church as the body of Christ has been called to be a decisive means by which this final overthrow is to be carried ...

This is the truth to which the nearly universal intuition of spiritual warfare points.

Thus from the perspective of Scripture, all the so-called primitive stories of cosmic conflict, and all the supposedly primitive techniques for waging war against evil spirits, must be judged as being far more true to reality than the Western "enlightened" worldview, which presumptuously holds that the cosmos is strictly material, that noncorporeal beings do not exist, and that humans are the highest form of life in the cosmos.


A second reason why I believe that the warfare worldview needs to be taken seriously is that it provides a remarkably different, and a remarkably better, understanding of evil than does the classical-philosophical Christian (or any other) approach to this problem.


In a nutshell, the way in which classical-philosophical Christian theists have approached the problem of evil has generally been to frame evil as a problem of God's providence and thus of God's character.

Assuming (rightly) that God is perfectly loving and good, and assuming (wrongly, I hold) that divine omnipotence entails meticulous control, the problem of evil has been formulated within the classical-philosophical theistic tradition as the problem of locating a loving and good purpose behind evil events.

This, I later argue, represents an impossible task, and hence the problem of evil becomes simply unsolvable within this framework.


By contrast, the warfare worldview is predicated on the assumption that divine goodness does not completely control or in any sense will evil; rather, good and evil are at war with one another.

This assumption obviously entails that God is not now exercising exhaustive, meticulous control over the world.

In this worldview, God must work with, and battle against, other created beings. While none of these beings can ever match God's own power, each has some degree of genuine influence within the cosmos.


In other words, a warfare worldview is inherently pluralistic.

There is no single, all-determinative divine will that coercively steers all things, and hence there is here no supposition that evil agents and events have a secret divine motive behind them.

Hence too, one need not agonize over what ultimately good, transcendent divine purpose might be served by any particular evil event.


If the world is indeed caught up in the middle of a real war between good and evil forces, evil is to be expected - including evil that serves no higher end. For in any state of war, gratuitous evil is normative.

Only when it is assumed that the world is meticulously controlled by an all-loving God does each particular evil event need a higher, all-loving explanation. For only then is evil not expected, hence only then is it intellectually problematic at a concrete level.


In other words, only when we reject the view that the cosmos is something like a society of free beings, most of whom are invisible, and all of whom have some small degree of influence on the whole - in short, only when we reject the warfare worldview in favor of a monistic one in which one sovereign will governs all - are we saddled with an understanding of God and his relationship with the world in which evil becomes impenetrably mysterious on a concrete level.


Now, on the biblical assumption that God is the sole Creator of all that is, there is still the ultimately metaphysical question of why God would create a world in which cosmic war could break out.

In this sense the problem of theodicy remains, even within a warfare worldview. 

ut unlike the futile quest for the elusive good divine motive for any particular evil within the world, this metaphysical question is answerable.


Instead of futilely trying to locate a particular loving divine reason for a particular evil event, we are now attempting to conceptualize God's most general reason for creating a societal cosmos in which a multiplicity of creatures share power, and in which moral conflict (and thus suffering) can therefore occur.

But as was said, in contrast to the problem of evil within the classical-philosophical tradition, this question is not impossible to address.

...Once the intelligibility of the war itself is accepted, no other particular evils require explanation. Hence Scripture gives none. This shift away from the classical-philosophical monistic perspective is empowering in terms of confronting evil, and this represents the third reason why I believe that Christians today need to take Scripture's warfare worldview seriously.


Put succinctly, the classical-philosophical assumption that a mysterious, loving, sovereign, divine plan lies behind even evil events in our world encourages an approach to evil that defines it as an intellectual problem to be solved rather than a spiritual opponent to be overcome.

If all evil is believed to serve a higher divine purpose, then clearly one's sense of urgency in fighting it is compromised, while one's ability to render it intelligible is diminished.


This is precisely what has tended to happen within the Christian tradition since at least the time of Augustine.

I believe it largely explains the Western church's long-standing propensity to theologize so much about evil while being relatively impotent in waging war against it.

Whereas the New Testament exhibits a church that is not intellectually baffled by evil but is spiritually empowered in vanquishing it, the Western tradition has more frequently exhibited a church that is perpetually baffled by evil but significantly ineffective in and largely apathetic toward combating it.


Within a warfare worldview, however, particular evils are their own ultimate explanation: they flow from the wills of creatures, hence there need be no higher "good" divine reason for their occurring.

Thus evil must be understood as being what God is unequivocally against, and thus what God's people must also be unequivocally against.

Whereas the classical-philosophical theology of sovereignty encourages a theology of resignation, a theology rooted in a warfare worldview inspires, and requires, a theology of revolt: revolt against all that God revolts against.


This is the only understanding that squares with Jesus' ministry and the whole of the New Testament, on the one hand.

On the other hand, it is the only theology that is going to reappropriate for the contemporary church the power of the New Testament church to confront and overcome the evils in our present world.

It is, as such, a theology that the church today must take seriously, despite the significant difficulties such a theology may create with our culture's naturalistic assumptions and with some of the church's traditional theology.


Above from the Introduction to Gregory Boyd's God at War.



Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

"I believe it largely explains the Western church's long-standing propensity to theologize so much about evil while being relatively impotent in waging war against it."

The author seems to have grasped the importance of the spiritual warfare, but he is probably not Catholic. The Catholic Church do theologize about evil, as about anything else we must know in order to understand the Word of God. But to say that the Church is impotent to fight evil is far from reality. On the contrary, she is waging a ferocious war against it. It is precisely because of that she is so much hated and slandered by those worldlies who are sitting comfortably in the the darkness, successfully hiding their evil works to their own eyes, even if most of these evils are obvious to any serious Christian and most people with common sense.

Another possible meaning of the word "impotent" would be that despite the Church's efforts, the state of the world is worse than ever. Chesterton answered that by saying it merely proves that the world is still (and will always be) in need of the Church and religion.

Revelation is not about an earthly paradise, but about the heavenly Kingdom striving through the Church against all odds. The work will be over only at the end of times, and it is much more effective than it seems.

Kristor said...

Why would God create a society of free creatures? Metaphysically, such creatures are the only sort he could possibly have created. A creature whose will was not disparate from that of God would not ever originate any acts. He would be merely the instrument of God, as my hand is my instrument. The creature would not, then, be disparate from God.

To be disparate from God, creatures must differ with him. Their wills may agree with his, but may not be simply identical thereto. Likewise, they may be mighty in power and knowledge, but their power and knowledge must be less than perfect.

And that opens up all the ontological room necessary for evil to enter creation.

Despite the reality of the War God fights, I nevertheless believe that at some level his control of the overall situation is perfect. He does not will the evil that his creatures do, but he does perfectly cope with that evil, shaping history - even the evil bits - so that it works to his ultimate purpose; so that, e.g., he ultimately wins the war, utterly, a total, smashing victory.

Given who God is, no other outcome is metaphysically possible.

Bruce Charlton said...

In Descent of the Dove by Charles Williams (a wonderful book which I recommend without any serious reservations) we can see the modern tendency to emphasize the problems of recognizing the reality of Unseen Warfare:

"...this was within the Christian civilization of which all approved. There were greater questions; there was the matter of the protection of that civilization.

The cause of its rise had been the expansion of doctrine; the basis of its continuation was understood as doctrine; its preservation therefore meant the defence of doctrine.

During the Dark Ages that doctrine had tended, one way or another, to accumulate certain accretions, of which one was the devil and his angels.

The devil had not, in the early days of Christendom, been of quite so much importance as he had since

There is certainly no rational argument against him; there is
perhaps a psychological, for something very much like dualism is apt to follow the devil, and in fact dualism did re-appear in the Middle Ages.

He had a long tradition behind him; he had a dubious existence in the Jewish myths of Samael the Accursed,and the pagan deities of the Mediterranean or of the northernforests had helped to materialize him. He had crept into Greek philosophy...

Theories of the Atonement accenturated the devil's existence by giving him a right to man's soul, which necessitated the shedding of the Precious Blood as a legal ransom... is clear also that new temptations of the greatest energy were now assailing the orgainzation [of the Church]. There has never yet been found any method of driving out one devil - except by pure love - which does not allow the entrance of seven, as [Christ] had long ago pointed-out."

(An account of the evil aspects of the Inquisition follows.)

This strikes me as typically modern in its gross under-estimate of the reality and importance of Unseen Warfare throughout the whole Bible; and it its second order emphasis on the perils of an excessive an unChristian focus on the the devil and demons - yet without an appreciation og the *greater* (much greater) perils of ignoring or even denying these realities.

C.W also displays that intellectual snobbery which permeates such discussion, a fastidiuous rejection of the excesses and crudity of 'witch hunters' and a near obliviousness to the perils of this attitude.

In the context of the rip-roaring evils of the twentieth century, this seems singularly obtuse, yet devil denialism (!) is so strong that no amount of revelation and reason seems able to overcome it.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Kristor - yes it must be so. At that level of analysis our human comprehension is baffled. At that ultimate level we must humbly sumbit to divine incomprehensibility - but this baffled incomrehension is not necessary at the everyday realities of evil, which must be fought.

Indeed, your point is perfectly compatible with the absolute necessity to oppose evil - and so it is, in a sense, irrelevant to human concerns.

A Christian does not *need* to know or think about these ultimate matters to which you refer - but perhaps *does* need to think about Unseen Warfare.

Bruce Charlton said...

@SDR - the author is an evangelical Christian, who is pastor of a 'megachurch'.

In fact, from surveying his writings, I think he is mistaken about many matters (assuming that I understand him correctly).

For example, he is apparently a pacifist - which is refuted by precisely the same arguments he uses to justify belief in Unseen Warfare - the Bible and the universal practice of the early church.

He apparently argues a probablistic view of God's omniscience - which (if I understand it correctly) is just clever nonsense, and misleading nonsense.

And even the book under question - God at War - is weakened by its extensive use of 'Biblical Scholarship' which treats Scripture in an historical fashion that takes no account of its nature as divinely inspired.

So I am not endorsing Gregory Boyd as such - but I am endorsing his core arguments as described in this blog posting. These core arguments seem to be both obviously correct and obviously of central importance.

Wurmbrand said...

Dr. Charlton, when you say "And even the book under question - God at War - is weakened by its extensive use of 'Biblical Scholarship' which treats Scripture in an historical fashion that takes no account of its nature as divinely inspired" -- think that may be putting things too strongly. "No account of its natural as divinely inspired"? That was not what I took away from the book. However, even if Boyd's understanding of inspiration should be less robust than it ought to be, he marshals a great deal of compelling data.

Wurmbrand said...

Kristor, you would probably enjoy engaging with Boyd's argument about evil and free will in the sequel to God at War, which is called Satan and the Problem of Evil.

Dr. Charlton, I agree in opposing doctrinaire pacifism (cf. Lewis's essay "Why I Am Not a Pacifist"). The Christian pacifist may be asked: Given that I am commanded to love my neighbor, how can I claim to love him if I refuse to defend him should he be innocently at risk of death? (However, the militarism of the United States since the Second World War is another issue.)

I think that Charles Williams's impairment as regards understanding unseen warfare and the reality of the devil is only one symptom of the damage done to him by involvement in esotericism. I am cheered in that his last novel seems to me the most orthodox of the seven.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Dale - I stand by my comment about excessive 'Biblical scholarship' because this is a ploy which is a slippery slope, once you start on it there is no stoping until you get to modern secularism. Orthodox Traditional Christians simply have to do without it.

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

Thanks for your answer. I am relieved to know that you do not endorse all Mr. Boyd's ideas. Since you are an Anglo-Catholic we are certainly closer to each other than to the other Protestant churches.

An aside about my English mistakes: if it is not asking too much, would you please correct a couple of mistakes I spotted in my post. "The Catholic Church do [does] theologize..." and "sitting comfortably in the the [remove repetition] darkness". If you find others, you are welcome to correct them without telling me.

Wurmbrand said...

Dr. Charlton, would you then avoid reading C. S. Lewis's book on the Psalms, say, or his friend Austin Farrer's study of Revelation, A Rebirth of Images?

I'm not trying to coerce a concession, or at least a big one, but I would like to know. Is your thought that we should pretty much not read commentaries on Scripture written after the early Fathers, except for the writings of people such as Seraphim Rose?

I'm not trying to change your mind but to invite you to enlarge on what, for me, seemed a somewhat cryptic comment... thanks.

Bruce Charlton said...


I am indeed very skeptical of the CS Lewis Psalms book

Naturally, the use of Biblical scholarship is seldom fatal, often much good stuff remains. For example, I have had great benefit from the writings of evangelicals such as Stott or Packer, and from the sermons at my evangelical Church.

But the BS (ahem Biblical Scholarship) does detract from this - and will sooner or later introduce distortions.

The thing that put me off BS was the work of the ex Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright - reckoned to be among the best of current New Testament scholars (from an academic perspective).

I found a chilling, indeed terrifying, pride which ran through his work - shown by the way he will overturn traditional teachings and practices due to his 'discoveries'.

In a nutshell, BS is a major route by which the alien and evil concept of Progess (especially moral Progress) is smuggled into Chrtstianity - to its destruction.

Bruce Charlton said...

@SDR - sorry, I don't know how to correct mistakes, indeed I don't think it can be done execept by deleting the comment and reposting it with corrections - which would put it out of sequence, but which you can do yourself if you wish.

Wurmbrand said...

Thank you for those further thoughts, Dr. Charlton.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Boyd is wrong about a lot, especially his pacifism, which is just absurd - but as myDad used to say, "Even a stopped clock is right twice a day". Boyd is certainly right about the need to resolutely oppose evil. Why evil exists, I have no idea - that's above my pay grade. I know that God hates evil, and wants us to fight it, and that's enough for me.


PS - the blogger who calls himself "Vox Day" also takes this position, without any pacifist nonsense...