May 8, 2013

The Violence of God: a Final Response to Girard

Sacrifice of the Old Covenant by Peter Paul Rubens (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

Sacrifice of the Old Covenant by Peter Paul Rubens (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

by Caleb Nelson

Rene Girard pretends to be a mere literary critic who dabbles in anthropology. Actually, he is a full-blown theologian with a central dogma of non-violence. Despite the Biblical coloring Girard gives his doctrines, they are blacker than hell, for they proclaim a different gospel. In attacking violence, Rene Girard has attacked the very character of God.

The drowsiest reader of Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World will quickly see that for Girard, God is simply not allowed to be violent. No matter how clear and numerous the texts that proclaim otherwise, they must and will be massaged into a very different shape. Yet, contra Girard, violence stands at the very heart of the gospel. Christianity is unapologetically a religion of the blood. No exegetical gymnastics can vault over this fact.

Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World presents a far-reaching anthropological vision to match its theological agenda. Over against the Christian teaching that humans beings are born dead in trespasses and sins, Girard has simply resuscitated the Pelagian teaching that human beings are born able to do what is right. “[R]econciliation with God can take place unreservedly and with no sacrificial intermediary through the rules of the kingdom” (183). This is law, not gospel. Girard has stolen the supernatural salvation offered by Jesus and substituted a natural salvation for it. In so doing, he has arrayed himself against every branch of the historic Christian faith. With the prophet Jonah, all true churches affirm that “Salvation is from the LORD” (Jonah 2:9 NASB).

Salvation is often described in resurrection terms: “you have been raised with Christ” (Col 3:1 ESV). Whom does God raise? The dead. “For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son also gives life to whom He wishes” (John 5:21 NASB). How did these dead people come to be dead? By the presence and power of sin in this world. “The person who sins will die” (Eze 18:20 NASB). “The wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23 ESV). Dead men cannot raise themselves. Salvation cannot be achieved by purely human effort, and the fact that Girard says otherwise simply shows that he is firmly camped outside the pale of Christianity.

Girard does not confine himself to attacking the human side of the gospel equation. Most of his time, in fact, is given to attacking the divine side. God’s actions, Girard correctly teaches, flow from his character. He does what is fitting for him to do based on who he is. But the Marcionite God of Girard is simply not the God of the Old Testament, the Gospels, the Epistles—or the gospel of Jesus Christ. In Exodus 34:7, God asserts to Moses that He will “by no means clear the guilty.” Furthermore, God is a consuming fire (Deu 4:24; Heb 12:29), indicating that it is His nature to consume and destroy all sin. As Puritan theologian John Owen commented, “As it is the nature of fire to consume and devour all things that are put into it, without sparing any or making difference, so is the nature of God in reference unto sin; wherever it is, He punisheth and revengeth it according to its demerit.”[1]  In short, it is apparent that it is fitting for God to punish sin—so fitting that He has no choice about it. He must punish sin, for His character is such that, were He to fail to do so, He must cease to be God. Habakkuk 1:13 makes this clear when it says that God is “of purer eyes than to look upon evil.” Similarly, Psalm 5 warns those singing it that God does not take delight in sin, that evil cannot dwell with Him, and that He destroys liars and abhors bloody and deceitful men (vv. 4-6). Perhaps most frightening of all, fallen humanity cannot hope to be delivered from God’s overwhelming justice by their own service, no matter how dedicated. When Joshua leads the people of Israel in a covenant renewal ceremony, they, overcome by emotion, promise to serve Yahweh faithfully. “But Joshua said to the people, ‘You are not able to serve the LORD, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins’” (Jos 24:19 ESV). The point is clear: God’s nature is such that he must punish sin wherever he finds it. God does not first witness sin and then decide whether he will do something about it. God’s disposition toward sin is fixed and unchangeable. He punishes it not just because he has promised to do so, but because his character will not allow him to do otherwise. This is not a “voluntary” action on God’s part, such that he can, if he chooses, let the guilty off scot-free.

Here we begin to see the glories of redemption. Every sin deserves the wrath and curse of God, and as he is a righteous judge, he executed that wrath on his Son Jesus Christ. In the final analysis, Jesus Christ had to die a violent, bloody death because of the righteous character of the Triune God. To say otherwise is to fall into heresy, both philosophical and theological. The philosophical heresy denies that persons, including the Triune God, have built-in essential natures. The theological heresy begins by devaluing the work of Christ and ends by devaluing his person. Human beings are stubbornly logical, and if a theological system does not really have a necessary part for Jesus to perform, then its adherents will sense his superfluity. Insofar as his work is perceived to unnecessary, his person will be found pointless. Though “Jesus” persists in heresies and cults, he is nothing more than a symbol of what man can become.

To denigrate violence is to denigrate the righteous character of God. God was the first to slaughter animals and cover Adam and Eve with their skins. God was the first to smite Uzzah, Nadab, and Abihu. God did not spare his own Son, but delivered him up a sacrifice for us all. In that bloody sacrifice, God’s righteousness has been demonstrated once and for all. In other words, righteous violence truly does exist. God commits it. And so must his image bearers. The state exists for the very purpose of (often violently) executing God’s wrath on evildoers.

The God Girard offers is not Jehovah; the salvation he offers is unobtainable; and the exegesis he offers is deceitful. His vision of mankind is not wicked enough, and his vision of Christ is not exalted enough. A God who cannot condemn is a God who cannot save. Our God has done both—at the cross of Jesus Christ.

This is the final part of a three-part refutation of Rene Girard’s theology. Here is Part I and Part II. Caleb Nelson is a Presbyterian rancher from Northern Colorado and a graduate student at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Taylors, South Carolina.

[1] John Owen, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, with Preliminary Exercitations, volume 3 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1991), 404.

7 Responses to The Violence of God: a Final Response to Girard

  1. […] is the first part of a three-part refutation of Rene Girard’s theology. Here are Part II and Part III. Caleb Nelson is a Presbyterian rancher from Northern Colorado and a graduate student at Greenville […]

  2. […] is the second part of a three-part refutation of Rene Girard’s theology. Here is Part I and Part III. Caleb Nelson is a Presbyterian rancher from Northern Colorado and a graduate student at Greenville […]

  3. bwilson1983 says:

    Girard is not, in fact a theologian. and i have read his works extensively, and don’t know of a place where he calls himself a theologian. his Biblical insights are anthropological and critico-theoretical at most. you’ve made a category mistake.

  4. Alistair P D Bain says:

    Numerous errors of logic in Mr Nelson’s “refutation”. I know I ought to list them all and point out why they are fallacious arguments, but I don’t have the time.


    From the second of the series:

    “By definition, no man existed before the first man! So who did the man imitate? An animal? One does not become human by imitating animals. Girard cannot have it both ways. Either the first man was a man and the first, or he was not. Period.”

    He misapplies a linear logic to something that obeys its own rules of reflexivity – not linear priority and resulting exclusivity.
    In mimetic theory, A and Not-A are sound logic. But A and Not-B are not valid in mimetic logic. A:B (self:other) are ordered pairs that are undefined as separate concepts or entities.

    So first of all ,the nature of primitive animal totems in cave art does not militate against the idea as a supposedly absurd premise. The anthropomorphization of pets alone shows this is still with us. But more pointedly, and this is Girard’s more profound point about hominization – one does not perceive Self before the perception of Other – instead one cannot perceive Self without the perception of Other — they arise as one fundamental perception of the reality of person, in two faces. This mechanism Girard identified in his phenomenology, has a basis in neurology, in mirror neurons, which while not yet fully understood – provide a mechanism for the phenomena he describes in human desires and conflicts.

    Second, the sacrifice argument is assuming that the sacrifice is the path to salvation, and so it is, or has been. Sacrifice has always been effective, and there is no atonement expect by blood. But that is also the thing from which we need saving –the thing that saves us in the terms of the Prince of this world, damns us from participation in the world to come. The whole of Scripture is a steady step by step journey away from the worst aspects of sacrifice, into an incremental set of lessons diminishing its scope, its reach and its rule.

    Third, the authority of Scripture turns on what Scripture is for – in the Divine sense and how and by whom it is recorded and used. Self and Other are also present in the text and the reader – and between the text and the writers. While inspired they were also trapped in the mimetic bind. They read Divine sanction into their mimetically derived desires – while at the same time the Scripture steadily diminishes the hunger for blood that the reader can find sanction for. Abel is NOT avenged, rather it is Cain’s death- if he suffers the righteous death for his crime– that will be avenged sevenfold – signaling a consciousness of the mimetic trap of reciprocal violence. Abraham is ready to sacrifice Isaac but his hand is stayed by the Angel of the Lord and an animal is substituted. The Israelites could have wrought vengeance on their Egyptian oppressors, but the Law tells them that vengeance is the Lord’s, not theirs to indulge. The Decalogue and the Law are modelled to stop the mechanisms of mimetic desires before they start. The prohibitions of things like pork are too sensually close to the old ways of human sacrifice and ritual consumption (“long pork” human flesh has been called for sound reason, and we are biologically strangely close to pigs in ways science uses but still does not really understand ). The lex talionis in the law is a limit to the widening gyre of violent reciprocation. The tabernacle worship takes sacrifice and removes it from the daily lives of the people and as Abraham’s ram was substituted for the victim — so now the priest takes the place of the people as sacrificer. Micah declares finally that he Lord desired mercy and not sacrifice, though we did not listen well. Jesus arrives at the culmination of this process, and substitutes an entirely different process and concept of sacrifice altogether, wholly replacing the elements of the destroyed Temple with the new Temple that He is and has fashioned

    Fourth the point of judgment by Christ misses all of this development in the course of the scriptures and the history of that development is not a change in the message but describes the incremental reception of the message. What is he judging ? – the reception of the message developed in history with work on a hard hearted, stubborn and backsliding people. Chosen not for their merits, but for their stubbornness tobe an example and instrument. Judgment is on the reception of totality of the lesson – and the trend of the scriptural teaching is quite clear.

    The argument from Tertullian is simplistic and denies in essence that the Being of God and the working of His Providence lies in a Good far beyond our categories of good and evil. It pointedly ignores the signal aspect of the Fall – which was precisely taking upon ourselves the presumption to know good and evil and be as gods ourselves – and so we have suffered for it.

    The summation in accusing Girard of Pelagian heresy is simply laughable. If we could get out of the mimetic bind on our own – revelation would be unnecessary, and Girard is very clear that the revelation was no where made until God made it to his chosen people and in His Son. As to the consuming fire – the revelation of mimetic desires requires us to fundamentally confront who each of us thinks we are. Mimesis means that much of what I identify as “me” is simply a bad copy of what someone else wanted, and was never really my own at all.

    My sense of self in those terms – the terms of this world — must UTTERLY DIE in those terms if I am to be reborn in the terms of the Kingdom. God will not save our sins – they will be destroyed utterly, and as Paul says we will be saved as a man is saved from a fire, whose work is burned though he himself is saved.

    The Kingdom is truly here, but indeed, not yet.

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