Although it has twenty-nine separate chapters written by nineteen different authors, Servant God is much more a book than a collection of essays. The chapters are the integrated fruit of a series of seven conventions from 2006-2009, which studied the question of the character of God. Participants in these conversations and writers of the chapters were “theologians, pastors, builders, teachers, computer programmers, physicians and others,” all of whom had interest in exploring further the character of God (xiii). Gregory A. Boyd, who wrote two concluding chapters on living in the story of Jesus, is the most well-known author.
The chapters are organized in five sections that follow an outline of the Bible, beginning with the accounts in the first chapters of Genesis. Following sections deal with Old Testament history and the character of God; the life of Christ and his atoning death; and Revelation and the second coming of Jesus. A final section deals with living in Christ and exhibiting the character of God today.
The book has a consistent focus on the love and mercy of God. If human beings are separated from God, it is the result of their sin and consequent choice to separate themselves from a God whom they fear. Ever since the sin of Adam and Eve in the garden, which resulted in their fear of God, God has been working to overcome the separation of people from God. As the culmination of this effort, God came in Jesus. Jesus’ mission was to reveal the true character of God, that of love and mercy. When the true character of God is seen, the writers believe, sinners can see that they need not fear God and thus reconciliation can happen between God and humanity. Throughout the book, texts about God’s punishment or God’s wrath are consistently interpreted so that punishment or wrath is what people bring on themselves through sin. The flood of Noah, for example, occurred only after those who related to God had dwindled to one righteous family, and God acted to save that family. Since the others did not trust God enough to board the ark, they were “put to sleep” to preserve the one righteous family (285). Servant God portrays the idea of a merciful God seeking reconciliation with sinful humanity throughout the Bible, down to and including the book of Revelation. There will be a last judgment, in which people’s choice for or against God will be made final, but the final judgment will reflect the merciful character of God made visible in Jesus.
The book will pose something of a puzzle to many readers. It assumes a so-called literal, six-day creation, Adam and Eve as real people with the fall as a historical event, and the flood as a historical event. Satan is portrayed as a real, supernatural being, engaged in cosmic conflict with God, which reflects the Seventh Day Adventist orientation of a majority of the book’s authors. Fundamentalists might be pleased with these interpretations, but will likely object to the book because of its rejection of substitutionary atonement, its rejection of divine violence, its treatment of last judgment, and its nonviolent interpretation of the book of Revelation. There is a chapter on the inspiration of scripture, but it will not help fundamentalists. Inspiration is not posed as the first point of the outline, with the intent of forcing acceptance of the views to follow. In Servant God, inspiration of scripture does not appear in the outline until Chapter 8, where the title says it all: “Inspiration (The Bible Says It, But That Doesn’t Settle It)” (129). In other words, even though the Bible is inspired, it still has to be interpreted. And the hermeneutical key posed throughout Servant God is not a view of inspiration but rather the story of Jesus.
If fundamentalists do not like the conclusions of this book, readers at the other end of the Christian spectrum, where I place myself, will not accept the assumptions about creation, Adam and Eve, the flood, and Satan. I accept Walter Wink’s understanding of the Powers, with Satan as the name for the accumulation of all human evil. However, as is made clear in my books The Nonviolent Atonement and The Nonviolent God, I can applaud Servant God’s very solid critique of penal substitutionary atonement, its understanding of God’s judgment, and of the character of God as merciful, loving, and nonviolent. I accept the book’s view that salvation means to cease rebelling against God and that reconciliation to God means living within the kingdom of God, which includes practicing the social activism and nonviolent resistance to evil that is made visible in the life of Jesus.
I suggest that this book points to an important conclusion that is contained in but goes beyond the intention of the authors. The fact that readers of my theological persuasion can agree with the conclusions of the book in spite of our rejection of its underlying assumptions about the mythological sections of the Bible demonstrates that the truth of Jesus is not defined by one particular methodology. The truth of Jesus comes from the story of Jesus itself. One can proceed with a literalist approach to the early chapters of Genesis if one is willing to shape the conclusions on the basis of the narrative of Jesus. Likewise, people such as myself, who make very different assumptions about the first chapters of Genesis and the nature of biblical material, and who might offer other interpretations on particular issues such as God’s violence in the flood text, can reach similar conclusions to Servant God’s on the larger question of the mercy and nonviolence of God as long as the ultimate norm of truth is the New Testament’s narrative of Jesus. This narrative can shape the assumptions of historical scholarship even as it can shape the assumptions of a so-called literal approach to the Bible. Even though Servant God’s assertion of the nonviolence of God is extremely significant for our time, it may be that this demonstration of the importance of seeing the narrative of Jesus as the norm of Christian truth has equal importance.