“Creeds and Traditions” Aren’t Keeping Us From Seeing the Unseen Realm

One of the most fascinating works I read last year was Michael Heiser’s The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible. If you want a good overview of some of the argument, see Andrew Wilson’s post here. The long and the short of it is that, using much of the most recent work from Ancient Near Eastern studies, Heiser argues for taking all those weir

unseen realm.jpg

do texts involving angels, demons, Anakim, Nephilim, and especially the notion of the “Divine Council” seriously in the way we interpret the Biblical story-line. The Bible is a supernatural book, not just in its inspiration, but in its major content.

This means the book is weird. Mostly in a good way, though. He examines text after text that many of us would be tempted to skip over, or demythologize as mere hyperbole, or cultural accommodation and ask ourselves, “But does that really make sense of the text, or do I have to consider that something more is going on here?” Even when I didn’t go with him or found myself skeptical of his “supernatural” read, it was at least a challenge I needed to wrestle with.

All of this comes by way of set up for one complaint, which is to say that it suffers from a frustrating case of Biblical studies prejudice. For Heiser, the problem is that we’ve let the creeds and modern rationalism blind us to the supernatural character of Scripture and the assumptions of the Biblical authors themselves (13). And so, we need to realize that the history of Christianity isn’t the true context for reading Christian Scriptures, but rather proper biblical interpretation is largely a matter of going back behind the creeds, behind the tradition, to the “original context” of the texts largely given to us by qualified, ANE comparative scholars (after they’ve settled matters in an objective, historical, undisputed fashion).

Now, don’t get me wrong here. I’m all for historical studies. Again, I as I said, I largely appreciate the insights of Heiser’s book. I enjoy learning from NT scholars who specialize in 1st Century context, and ANE insights into the OT. But what amuses me about this sort of rhetoric from someone like Heiser is just how often the “new” discoveries made through ANE studies, or NT studies just end up playing catch-up with the tradition at some point.

For instance, when I first read N.T. Wright talk about translating “In Christ” as “In the Messiah” and thought, “This is amazing! What a way to solve issues of covenant, representative atonement, etc.”, what I didn’t realize was this was simply Calvin and the Reformed Tradition’s “federal headship” concept with some 2nd Temple beef added to it. Wright was correcting views, but for the most part they were those of modern, historical critics who insisted that the title “Christ” had been transformed into a name and emptied of titular significance by the time of Paul’s writing.

In the case of Heiser’s supernatural reconstruction, something similar appears to be at work. While the ANE studies he cites do end up yielding abundant fruit in understanding particular texts and (possibly) the pervasiveness of this material in the OT, this is not a major correction on the tradition. It is actually just catching-up to fairly classic, supernaturalistic teaching on angelic and demonic hierarchies.

It’s really hard to get more supernatural than the Church Fathers such a Athanasius or Tertullian who boasted of Christ’s coming as a major (visible) defeat of the demonic powers enslaving the Pagan world. Or again, Ps. Denys has an entire (very influential!) work on the Celestial hierarchies and their role in the divine economy. Thomas Aquinas is known as the “Angelic” Doctor (in part) due to his extensive treatment of the angelic and demonic realms, which play an important role in his concept of divine governance. Or again, Martin Luther literally thought he lived in a “world with devils filled”, and that he regularly must verbally challenge and curse at the Devil who was assailing him.

Or finally, one might consider John Calvin, who one might think screens out the angelic and demonic realms as superfluous due to his doctrine of providence, actually has a very expansive place for them in his view of the Biblical story-line. And it’s true, compared to Thomas and Ps. Denys, it is modest in its speculations. But skim B.B. Warfield’s article on “Calvin’s Doctrine of Creation,” and you’ll find pages and pages of analysis on the extensive role angels play in creation, history, and the story-line of the Gospel. He actually spends more time in the Institutes on the doctrine of angel and demons than that of humanity because he finds it so productive for us to consider for our spiritual lives.

I could keep going here, but my point is fairly simple: had Biblical scholars, pastors, and theologians in the modern period paid attention to the creeds and tradition of the Church, the modern rationalism that infects much of our piety and scholarship might not be as severe a problem to overcome.

Thankfully some of the best NT scholarship is beginning to recognize the “creeds and traditions” can turn out to be the most useful reading strategies we have for breaking through the unhelpful binaries of modern historical scholarship. But it’s precisely for that reason we should beware that anti-creedal rhetoric of this sort only helps keep scholars, pastors, and especially Evangelicals at large, distanced from the tradition. Indeed, it is an anti-supernaturalism (disparaging the illumination of the Holy Spirit throughout the history of interpretation) that threatens to keep it an “unseen realm” in its own right.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Comfort of a Moral Cretin

against calvinism

One of Roger Olson’s main problems with Calvinism is the difficulty it presents when wrestling with the problem of evil. Along with several other arguments on the matter, he invokes what we might call the “Objection from Cretinous Comfort” leveled by David Bentley Hart:

In The Doors of the Sea theologian Hart tells of a large Sri Lankan man of enormous physical strength whose five children were killed by the Asian tsunami of 2004. The man was featured in an article in the New York Times. He was unable to prevent his children from perishing and, as he recounted his futile attempts, he was “utterly overwhelmed by his own weeping.” Then Hart writes: “Only a moral cretin … would have attempted to soothe his anguish by assuring him that his children had died as a result of God’s eternal, inscrutable, and righteous counsels, and that in fact their deaths had mysteriously served God’s purposes in history.” Of course, most Calvinists would advise their followers not to say such things in such moments to such people. However, Hart reflects that “if we would think it shamefully foolish and cruel to say such things in the moment when another’s sorrow is most real and irresistibly painful, then we ought never to say them.” (Against Calvinism, 90)

Now, initially Hart’s rule seems like a plausible stricture on theological speech. In the long run, our theology is measured by the cross of Christ and so it ought to be able to withstand the fires of suffering, adversity, and trauma in a sin-stained world. Nevertheless, if Hart’s test of theological truth proves anything, it seems to prove too much.

Consider our grieving father. I imagine only a moral cretin would look at him and begin to console him by saying, “Yes, your grief is real, but we also ought to reflect on the glorious reality that at the heart of the universe is the God whose life is the Father eternally generating the Son, and along with the Son, spirating the Spirit.” I mean, it’s true. And in a deep sense, it is a beautiful truth that can eventually bring comfort about the course of history. But I think it would require a particularly gracious, supernatural work of illumination by the Holy Spirit to make it seem like anything more than an insensitive abstraction, utterly irrelevant to the man’s grief at the moment.

To put a finer point on it, it would be equally morally cretinous and shamefully cruel to say to that same father, “Well, sadly, that’s life in a world with the libertarian free will requisite for moral responsibility. And if God were to regularly and unpredictably intervene to prevent such utterly meaningless tragedies, well that wouldn’t work. See, for humans to make rational choices, they depend on the course of the world operating according to law-like regularities such as gravitational force, wind speeds, storm pressures, and so forth, which create the sorts of Tsunamis which just killed your children. But, you know, libertarian free will is worth it in the long run.” If you said that, I’d be surprised if the father didn’t slap you.

All the same, the cretinous nature of the comment in the moment doesn’t for a moment determine the truth of the matter one way or the other. Or rather, the reason it seems obviously cretinous to utter such a statement is not because of it is wrong, but because it is not the sort of speech that is appropriate to the moment. The matter is folly not falsehood.

Of course, Olson or Hart may object that nobody would state the position like that. Or at least, it need not be stated like that. To which the obvious reply is that neither does the advocate of a Calvinist or Augustinian account of providence need to state things as crudely, insensitively, or baldly as they have suggested they might.

Now, this little riposte doesn’t settle the broader issue. Still, I think it at least shows some of the problem with Hart’s sentimental “objection from cretinous comfort.” Just about any position stated baldly and unflinchingly can seem trite in the face of catastrophe. It is not a problem that only Calvinists must face, but one which ought give us all pause as we contemplate the weighty task of comforting the grieving amidst the tragedies of this life.

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. For a lengthy engagement on the issue of free will and permission, see Guillaume Bignon’s new volume.

I have a longish post on providence, evil, and the will of God here.

Finally, a post on the various doctrines we have at our disposal when trying to comfort the grieving.

Addendum: It may be objected (and has been) that I have mistaken Hart’s (and Olson’s) point. Hart has a strong, material point about the theology being always and everywhere repugnant. And I know that. My response is simply that the rhetorical and intuitive force of this passage is derived from our sense at how out of place it sounds in a moment of grief, and that this same sort of intuitive force can be used against other positions.

Additionally, I suppose I’ll simply reaffirm what I’ve said elsewhere: at some level, these intuitive appeals are often a matter of incommensurate, aesthetic judgments we already have. You either think it’s plausible God might have some reasons for doing things you couldn’t possibly fathom, or you don’t. Or rather, you may believe that he does, but you either see it covering the problem of evil, or you don’t.

That’s not to slide into relativism. I think Scripture, reason, tradition, and so forth have their role in theological argument. I switched from holding something like Hart and Olson’s position to holding the one I do now for reasons. Still, that subjective dimension is always there. And it is wise to acknowledge it in yourself (for humility’s sake) as well as your theological interlocutors (for patience’s sake).

Wrath-talk is Justice-Talk in Ezekiel (And in the Cross)

I have been reading Ezekiel in my devotions of late and I must say, the prophet has some of the most furious and instructive passages on the wrath and judgment of God in all of Scripture. While many texts extol the Lord’s coming salvation and eschatological restoration of Israel, few proclamations of judgment against Israel and her enemies are fiercer than Ezekiel’s (or the descriptions of her violent idolatry more grotesque, for that matter).

Consider a few snippets:

The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, this is what the Sovereign Lord says to the land of Israel:

“‘The end! The end has come
upon the four corners of the land!
The end is now upon you,
and I will unleash my anger against you.
I will judge you according to your conduct
and repay you for all your detestable practices.
I will not look on you with pity;
I will not spare you.
I will surely repay you for your conduct
and for the detestable practices among you. (7:1-4)

I will bring you from the nations and gather you from the countries where you have been scattered—with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and with outpoured wrath. 35 I will bring you into the wilderness of the nations and there, face to face, I will execute judgment upon you. 36 As I judged your ancestors in the wilderness of the land of Egypt, so I will judge you, declares the Sovereign Lord. (20:34-36)

30 “I looked for someone among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found no one. 31 So I will pour out my wrath on them and consume them with my fiery anger, bringing down on their own heads all they have done, declares the Sovereign Lord.” (22:30-31)

14 “‘I the Lord have spoken. The time has come for me to act. I will not hold back; I will not have pity, nor will I relent. You will be judged according to your conduct and your actions, declares the Sovereign Lord.’” (24:14)

17 I will carry out great vengeance on them and punish them in my wrath. Then they will know that I am the Lord, when I take vengeance on them.’” (25:17)

The first text from chapter 7 can stand for the whole. It’s worth examining a few elements of the judgment of God upon Israel.

First, God’s judgment is “according to your conduct” and is a repayment “for all your detestable practices.” These phrases are repeated in the passage to be underlined. This characteristic is also present in most of the other passages. In that sense, it is retributive, and in kind. This fits with the principle of retribution articulated throughout Torah. There is no hint of arbitrariness, sinful vindictiveness, or overkill. God will, at worst, only bring “down on their own heads all they have done.

Second, especially in the first passage, you can note that despite God declaring “I will have no pity” and “I will not spare you”, these are acts of judgment long in the works. Now, finally, after much waiting, much excuse-making, much leniency, “the time has come to act.” God has been patient. At one point, he was looking for someone to stand in the gap, to build a wall, but when no one was found, he said “enough is enough.” The rhetoric of fury should not deceive us here or mislead us into picturing God has prone to anger, or liable to fly off the hook.

Third, there is a very clear conceptual and linguistic collocation of the judgment and punishment of God with the wrath and anger of God. For God to punish and judge sin is for him to execute, expend, and pour out his wrath and anger. They are two sides of the same coin, speaking of the same reality in a different idiom. Or rather, they are dimensions of the same reality. God’s wrath is a way of speaking of the retributive dimension of God’s justice in an affective register, as a matter of his will, inclination, and action connected to his moral character.

This is why the old Dogmaticians would say things like:

God’s anger is an excellence of his own essence, by which it is so displeased with sin, as it is inclined to punish the sinner; or a settled and unchangeable resolution to punish sinners according to their sin. (Edward Leigh, A Treatise of Divinity, II.ix)

Or again:

What must we understand by anger in God?

Not any passion, perturbation, or trouble of the mind as it is in us, but this word Anger when it is attributed to God in the Scriptures signifieth three things.

[ 1] First, a most certain and just decree in God to punish and avenge such injuries as are offered to himself, and to his Church; and so it is understood, John 3. 36. Rom. 1. 18.

[ 2] Secondly, the threatening these punishments and revenges, as in Psal. 6. 1. Hos. 11. 9. Jonah 2. 9.

[ 3] Thirdly, the punishments themselves, which God doth execute upon ungodly men, and these are the effects of his anger, or of his decree to punish them; so it is taken in Rom. 2. 5. Mat. 3. 7. Eph. 5. 6. (James Ussher, A Body of Divinitie)

That last quote, in particular, shows a care in paying attention to the manifold nature of Scripture’s attribution of wrath to God. Sometimes it speaks to his inner disposition of justice, other times to his public threat of it, and at times to his public administration of it. And this is all consistent with what we see in these texts in Ezekiel. And indeed, one could go ahead and reproduce the same logic elsewhere in the prophets and the rest of Scripture.

Now, where am I going with all of this?

Well, one objection I see in disputes on penal substitution is that no verse explicitly states that Christ suffers the wrath of God poured out upon him. And this even from some who admit that there is a penal and legal dimension to the cross.

While I would argue that there are some texts which could be read as implying this (“let this cup pass”, Rom. 3:25, 1 John 2:2, etc.), I simply want to note that in Scriptural thought, to speak of the judgment, or punishment, or condemnation of God, is to speak of the wrath of God. If in Christ, “he condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom. 8:3), so that there is now “no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1), it’s roughly theologically equivalent to saying, “he poured out his wrath in the flesh,” so now there is “no wrath for those in Christ Jesus.” These concepts are irrefragably bound up together.

As always, there’s more to say. I’ll conclude by noting again that to speak of a doctrine as “Biblical” does not always mean “there’s a verse that directly spells out this exact idea.” Often it involves gathering together various Scriptural judgments into synthetic wholes which flow as “good and necessary consequence” from the text. Much of our Trinitarian and Christological doctrine works this way. Why imagine the atonement would be any different?

Soli Deo Gloria

A Protestant Note Or Two on “Silence” a Year Out

silenceI know I’m late to the game, but I finally watched Scorcese’s film adaptation of  Shūsaku Endō’s novel “Silence” this last weekend. My wife and I took it in two parts, since I don’t do well with martyrdom stories. (I don’t think I am a crier, but I confess, I weep easily at these accounts.) As everyone said, it was a well-done film; moving, beautifully shot, and offering much rich material for reflection.

I am not sure it’s helpful for me to rehash much of the commentary–certainly not as a film critic. For what it’s worth, I found Alissa Wilkinson’s review a helpful one for situating the work historically, both in relation to Endō’s novel and Scorcese’s oeuvre. She has a sensitive, critical eye. Also, Matt Anderson and Alastair Roberts had our friend Brett McCracken on an episode of Mere Fidelity to chat about it, and all three had thought-provoking input.

Beyond that, I just wanted to add a couple of quick Protestant thoughts that occurred to me while watching.

Apostasy, the Immanent Frame, and Resurrection

On what might be the central question of the film–the righteousness of Rodrigues’ apostasy in order to “save” the Japanese Christians, I found Jake Meador’s comments most helpful. As he points out, Biblical faith is the faith of the martyrs. I do think the Church is to offer grace for the weak, for the apostate–I am not a Donatist. And let’s be honest, in a similar position, I don’t know that I would have that strength.

But the faith Scripture holds out for us (that of Daniel, of Christ, of the Martyred Apostles, of Polycarp) encourages us to receive our crown for confession, not denying the Father (or the Son) before men (Matt. 10:33). Indeed, in the desert, Christ will not kneel to the Accuser for all the kingdoms of the world–imagine all the good he could do!–if that means denying God.

On a Protestant note, Calvin and many of the Reformers did not think much of the Nicodemites, those who concealed their Protestant convictions in Roman Catholic France and elsewhere, celebrating the Mass and so forth. They thought the choice was either running into exile, or public confession unto mission and the risk of martyrdom. Though, again, they believed God was merciful to those in difficult trials.

I’ll add here that Rodrigues’ assumption in trampling (and the argument of the Inquisitors to this effect) was that to save the Japanese Christians from temporal suffering was to save them from the suffering that truly mattered. Indeed, this is part of what marks the novel and the film as particularly modern, despite being set in the 17th century.  Stuck in the Immanent Frame” (Taylor), where this-worldly good is the only kind that feels truly real, the weight of God’s “silence” in the face of the death of his saints is particularly overwhelming. (One wonders how much the “New View of Heaven” Todd Billings speaks of, plays into this.)

All the same, that is not at all the presumption of Christ who told his disciples, “do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do” (Luke 12:4). He even states, paradoxically:

You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives. (Luke 21:16-19)

Of course, this only makes sense in light of the resurrection. The same goes for many of his other promises of repayment and restoration of everything sacrificed for Christ in the coming kingdom (Matt. 10:30). Kingdom ethics has always been a death-and-resurrection ethic. Which makes sense, given that the death and resurrection of Christ are at the the heart of the Christian faith.

For Rodrigues to trample, then, was to (understandably) fail his people, by robbing them of the comfort and encouragement of the gospel of resurrection they needed in such a trying time. And this was so especially as their Roman Catholic priest.

Which brings me to another point that nagged me throughout as a specifically Protestant viewer.

Priesthood of All Believers

As I watched I was overwhelmed by the heartbreaking need of the Japanese villagers. Oppressed politically, economically, and spiritually, the villagers needed the priests. Not only as pastors offering instruction, comfort, and counsel. According to their theology of priestly mediation, they needed them to be the Church. As Rodrigues says at one point, “If Garrpe [his fellow priest] and I die, then the Church in Japan dies.” Of course, everything Evangelical in me wanted to yell, “Where two or more are gathered in my name, I am present!” But he was right.

There is no priesthood of all believers there. Without ordained priests, these saints could not confess their sins to one another, nor declare to one another the definitive forgiveness of Christ in the gospel. And while there were measures for emergency baptisms, none could receive what they took to be the life-giving sustenance of the transubstantiated Body of Christ in the Eucharist because there was no priest to perform the Mass. Incidentally, this is the other dimension to Rodrigues’ failure: by apostatizing, according to his own theology he himself collaborates in killing the church in Japan.

Of course, one can only admire the Roman Catholic missionaries who did go, since the reality at the time-setting of the film was that Protestants were still mostly focused on the mission to Christendom and consolidating the gains of the Reformation.

And so I watched, in awe of the faith of these heroic villagers who were oppressed by a the State for their faith, dying with the name of “Deus” on their lips, singing hymns. And yet it was beyond tragic to see the way even the form of the faith given them had denied them and their families some of the comforts of the gospel which are their right as adopted children of God.

Soli Deo Gloria



Annihilation, Ubiquitous Weirdness, and Revealing the Alien


This past Sunday night, my wife and I went to see the film Annihiliation. We had not read the book, and I’m usually not one for horror films, even sci-fi ones, but the previews looked intriguing. It was a provocative, visually-overwhelming, and somewhat disturbing film. (Warning: it had some surprising moments of violence.)

I’ve continued to come back to the film in my mind over the last week or so, and I wanted to briefly write up some disconnected thoughts on the matter–ones that may only make sense if you’ve seen the movie. This isn’t film criticism, a review, or an attempt at interpretation. I’m not competent to those tasks. It is rather more a couple of rough, theological reflections on the alien and the Other provoked by my experience of watching the film.

The Ubiquitous Weirdness of the Bible

The first thing struck me and drew me to the film, even in the previews, was the visual weirdness of The Shimmer–the alien phenomena at the center of the plot: the translucent glow, the bizarre landscapes of humanoid flower constructions, the astonishing and ghastly hybridized animal life, and architecturally-improbable glass towers.

Part of the beauty and the freaky peculiarity of it was the way it took the familiar and made it alien. I mean, deer with branches covered in flowers for antlers is arresting and lovely. But then, when I stop and think about it, the fact that deer have antlers sticking out of their head at all is just odd. Witnessing the familiar transformed reminded me of how odd the familiar actually is.

Now, providentially enough, I just happened to be working my way through Vern Poythress’s new book Theophany. Reading through text after text in the OT I kept thinking, “Man, the Bible is a ubiquitously weird book.”

Bushes that burn yet are not consumed. Seas that split open like the ground in an earthquake. Rivers turn to blood. Men that glow in the dark. Golden boxes that are deadly to the touch. Mountains covered in smoke, lightning, and fire. Angels appearing in burning furnaces. Demons and giants. Speaking Tornadoes.

If you’ve grown up with this book you’re whole life–especially reading these stories in little blank print on plain white tissue paper–it is so easy to breeze by the awesome terror, the excessive grandeur of these narratives. There is something alien about the world of the Bible. And yet here is the truly exhilarating claim: that is our world.

Reading the Bible is supposed to have something of the same effect the film had on me: it is supposed to shock open your eyes to this alien world we inhabit.

Alien Revelation

Even more striking to me was the issue of the otherness of the “alien” reality. Think of Star Trek or Star Wars and you see most of the alien and sci-fi universes depicted on screen are either anthropomorphic figures or bestialized variants on forms we already know. Not only that, their motivations, their loves, their hates, and so forth, exist within the range of the humanly-graspable. Perhaps they are more powerful, or ugly, or beautiful, but they are recognizable, nevertheless.

This was not the case with Annihilation, (nor the Heptapods of Arrival, I would argue). Here we encounter the truly unnerving and inscrutable Other. Rudolf Otto’s mysterium tremendum et fascinans. Aliens here are numinous, filling you with a sense of creaturely-dread in the face of a power that you have no grid for understanding. And why should we? They are aliens.

Of course, my own thoughts turn heavenward at that point. Something of this inscrutability, alien Otherness, and dread is what we see in Scripture. Who can understand the mind of the Lord? Who can recount his ways? How do you get a handle on the understanding and motivations of a being whose intellect and power are sufficient to bring about the cosmos (billions of galaxies and stars large) into existence?

Which is why an encounter with the Lord in Scripture usually produces fear and trembling. Israel before Mt. Sinai. Isaiah undone before the majesty of God’s throne in the Temple. Ezekiel’s acid trip before chariot with the wheels within wheels. Job before the Whirlwind. Annihilation reminded me of some of the tremor one should probably feel in the bones when reading such texts.

But here the difference asserts itself. At Sinai, God gives the Law. In the Temple, the Holy One commissions Isaiah. The figure on the throne-chariot addresses Ezekiel, the Son of Man. The Whirlwind speaks.

In Scripture, the weird, the terrifying, the alien experiences of God are not just assertions of power, of alien force, of the need for terror, but fundamentally acts of communication and self-revelation, and therefore grace. God makes himself known in the fire to Moses in order to proclaim the day of salvation for Israel. Isaiah and Ezekiel are sent to warn against sin and preach hope. There are no answers in the Whirlwind, but there is assurance.

And of course, finally, there is the incarnation of the Son, the Word God speaks. The God beyond us comes near, the Ultimate Other becomes one of us. In him, flesh of our flesh, we see the heart of God made truly known.*

As always, there is more to explore, especially at the rich anthropological themes, but since this is just a quick couple of reflections, I’ll just leave things there for now.

Soli Deo Gloria

*Of course, it would be interesting to delve into what impact the extra-Calvinisticum has on this dynamic of revelation. The Son of God comes truly in the flesh, but he nevertheless exists beyond it. God reveals himself truly, but the finite cannot fully contain the infinite. There is always a beyondness to God.