Sunday, 24 July 2016

The Unseen Realm, by Michael Heiser

I first encountered Michael Heiser's work fourteen years ago. He was an Evangelical biblical scholar with some interesting ideas, who also had an interest in UFOs and had done great work in demolishing the unscholarly ravings of Zechariah Sitchin. Having followed Heiser on his blog over the years and read his free online stuff, I was familiar with a lot of the views in this book and had encountered some of them from other sources.

Central to Michael Heiser's work is the concept of the divine council, a council of heavenly beings who accompany Yahweh and do His will. It is this divine council that is addressed in Genesis 1:26. Heiser argues that the common Christian view that the Trinity is referenced in Gen 1:26 cannot be supported by the Old Testament data. I agree with Heiser. To baldly insert the doctrine of the Trinity into the first chapter of the Bible destroys any concept of progressive revelation.

I remember an elderly man in an Evangelical church I attended telling me "there is a song we sing here that I don't agree with." He pointed out a chorus with the line 'Among the gods there is none like you.' He said "Well there are no other gods!" He was unfortunately unaware that the song was based on Psalm 86. Michael Heiser points out the frequent application of the term elohim or gods to spiritual beings in the Old Testament. Most interestingly he argues that Psalm 82 proclaims the judgement of Yahweh over the gods, not human judges as is commonly held by commentators, bit over spiritual beings that overrule human affairs. Furthermore, he argues that the Hebrews viewed the gods of the surrounding nations, not as fictional deities, but as real entities rivaling Yahweh. Later in the book, he links in soteriology and eschatology, arguing form of theosis. Heiser argues that the Bible promises that human beings are to be elevated to the ranks of the divine council as gods. To the average Christian this sounds like Mormonism, but I hold it to be the Biblical truth. The error of Mormonism is not in teaching that humans can become gods, they are actually correct about that. Their error is in reducing God to the level of an human being. The future destiny of glorified believers is more incredible than we can imagine. Protestants sometimes accuse Catholics of making the Blessed Virgin Mary into a goddess. Perhaps we do, in the sense that we view Mary as a forerunner of the glorious deification of redeemed humanity, who will be elevated to the ranks of the gods in the eschaton.

Some of the divine council rebelled against Yahweh, hence the rebellious gods of Psalm 82. Our author has much to say on the subject of demonology in this book. I like his handling of the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Both liberal and conservative Christians fall into the trap of literalism regarding the serpent. Liberal Christians see a talking snake and treat the story of Adam and Eve as a fable. Evangelicals on the other hand see a snake given the power of speech by Satan. Heiser rejects the position that a talking snake is in view. He points out that the Hebrew word nachash for serpent also refers to brightness or burning. He therefore connects it with both the heavenly Seraphim and Lucifer in Isaiah. He also connects the serpent with the cherub figure in Ezekiel 28. The serpent is not a true serpent but a rebellious heavenly being. He does not go into the question of whether the fall of Satan occurred prior to Genesis and the creation of humanity.

Heiser argues that the sons of God of Genesis are angels who intermarried with human beings. For all the difficulties that this view presents, I think it is the one best supported by the Biblical data. While some of the Ante-Nicene Fathers held this view, Catholic and Orthodox theologians have rejected it since then. I am not aware that it has ever been declared to be heresy by the Catholic Church. He also points out that it is very clear that there are giants of angel-human hybrid origin living in the land of Canaan, though he says it is unclear whether this is due to a repetition of the forbidden intermarriage or through Noah's flood being local and some of the original nephilim surviving. He suggests the presence of these hybrid beings helps to explain the genocidal commands of Yahweh to Israel, which deeply trouble many Christians today.

While keen to understand the Old Testament in its original ancient near east context, Heiser offers a very Christian and Christological interpretation of the Bible as an whole. He looks at the theophanies of the Old Testament and argues that they prefigure the incarnation. He also demonstrates how the New Testament fulfills the themes of the Old Testament, particularly in relation to the divine council. There is a lot of common ground with the ideas of Margaret Barker, but Heiser is rather more orthodox and less radical.

I think this book will is an excellent contribution and will help readers to understand the Old and New Testaments immensely. However, I do think it has some weaknesses. Firstly, it might be suggested that Heiser's methodology is at cross purposes. He connects accounts of the divine council with the ancient near east cultural context with Scripture, yet he also sees them as real spiritual being. One might suggest that the imagery associated with the divine council is God's revelation accomodated to the culture of the readers. This is not a view I favour, but I am not sure Heiser handles the tension between the cultural location of the revelation and its objective content.

Our author argues for a low view of divine sovereignty, rejecting the view that all things form part of divine predestination. He sees the agents of the cosmos, both earthly and heavenly as shaping the flow of history. He bases his view on his exegesis, yet he seems highly dismissive of the great theologians who have taken an high view of sovereignty, such as Aquinas and Calvin. There is a touch of arrogance in his unwillingness to take seriously the conclusions of systematic theology. In other areas, the book might have been enriched by a little engagement with historical theology. Heiser writes as though theological writers have been utterly ignorant until today. It is true that some of Heiser's ancient near east insights were lost on the church fathers and medieval theologians, but perhaps there are some areas of common ground. For intance, it might be interesting to ask how Pseudo-Dionysius' ideas on the angelic hierarchy fit with the divine council concept?

On his blog, Heiser has shown some sympathy with preterism, but in this book he offers no preterist readings of prophetic texts. His eschatological emphasis in this book is orientated towards the future eschaton. I would have liked to see him acknowledging some realized dimension to Christ's victory, as the emphasis in the epistles seems to be on Christ's triumph over the heavenly powers being something already accomplished.

The idea of spiritual beings having charge over particular territories has been particularly influential in the charismatic movement, with the concept of territorial spirits. Some Christians believe they need to engage with these powers directly, through prayer, fasting and sometimes symbolic marches (I remember taking part in the 'March for Jesus' when I was a kid!). It would have been interesting if Heiser had offered his thoughts on the validity of such activity. He does not offer much as to the practical implications of his ideas for spiritual warfare.

This is a book that is likely to challenge the thinking of many Christians and offers some real food for thought.

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