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

unseen realmOne 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 seriously all those weirdo texts involving angels, demons, Anakim, Nephilim, and especially the notion of the “Divine Council,” 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.”, but 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

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

  1. These are very similar to the thoughts I had after reading Heiser’s book. What interested me is that, at basically the same time, I read James Jordan’s Through New Eyes, and while the books are very different on a number of points and have some explicit disagreements, they both presented, say, the Garden of Eden in a very similar way. But of course, Heiser arrived where he did by ANE scholarship, and, with only the slightest hint of exaggeration, Jordan literally just read the Bible. This is a great example of what makes me wary of the pretensions of historical scholarship, not that they’re usually wrong about their material so much as they’re often wrong about their predecessors.

  2. I wonder if you push back a little too much. I think it’s Irenaeus in his reading of Psalm 82 who wants to say that there aren’t other gods (this obviously could be taken in multiple ways, so I don’t want to press the point) and that the Psalm isn’t about what Heiser says.

    Or I just checked out Calvin’s commentary on Genesis and here is what he has to say about Genesis 6 and the “sons of God,” “That ancient figment, concerning the intercourse of angels with women, is abundantly refuted by its own absurdity; and it is surprising that learned men should formerly have been fascinated by ravings so gross and prodigious.” I find the “by it’s own absurdity” particularly interesting.

    I definitely am wholeheartedly on board with the creeds, tradition, reading in light of those, and how familiarity will help us overcome our own biases, but I don’t think it’s quite right to speak in terms of tradition (as if it is unified on a lot of points Heiser wants to make) or to think that if Heiser’s arguments are correct, then they don’t challenge widely held readings in Christian history.

  3. Derek, I appreciate this post and the emphasis on tradition in the Reformed world. Recently though I’ve become jaded by the lack of specificity in this area. “Creeds and traditions” sounds nice from cruising altitude, but when trying to put it in practice myself I find I need to decide WHICH “creeds and traditions”, or to swing hard the other way (i.e. Heiser’s camp).

    • Well, if they are the “Reformed world” I would imagine that the regular creeds will do (Apostles, Nicaea, Chalcedon), along with confessions such as those of Westminster or the Belgic or Heidelberg. Similarly you will have church fathers such as Augustine, Athanasius, and the Cappodocians. Later on you’ll have a variety of authors ranging from Anselm to Aquinas to Luther to Calvin and so forth. Nobody should be implying this would be easy. The argument is that it is better than other options

      • Yeah perhaps I’m looking for too tidy a solution. Because I feel like the Reformed will generally not view, say, Aquinas or Anselm as a very helpful guide with regards to the sacraments or Mary. A non-Lutheran (esp. Zwinglians) will not see Luther’s views on the real presence as part of the Holy Spirit’s illumination in history, nor will an Anglican appreciate Baptist polity as part of “tradition”. Examples could abound, but I think the point is obvious. So then I feel like I’m left with removing the Holy Spirit from acting in church history, because He cannot contradict himself, or tying the Holy Spirit to a certain church body and teaching office, i.e. Rome. I don’t intend to cause a debate, more just expressing some frustrations.

  4. I was reading both Unseen Realm and the BCP’s Te Deum this morning (I don’t have kids yet), and the Te Deum’s opening lines reminded me of the point you make here:

    “We praise thee, O God : we acknowledge thee to be the Lord.
    All the earth doth worship thee : the Father everlasting.
    To thee all Angels cry aloud : the Heavens, and all the Powers therein.
    To thee Cherubim and Seraphim : continually do cry,
    Holy, Holy, Holy : Lord God of Hosts;
    Heaven and earth are full of the Majesty : of thy glory.”

    Hardly a tradition of anti-supernaturalism! Nevertheless Heiser’s book has been very enlightening.

  5. Pingback: The God Who Hears Our Lament | Mere Orthodoxy

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