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 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