Friday, March 10, 2023

A Review of Michael S. Heiser's Biblical Interpretation - Is the Core of the Gospel Really about Angelic Powers?

Two notes are required at the beginning of this piece. First, I'm late to this discussion, as in most fads of popular theology. I admit that I don't follow current theological trends all that closely, preferring to ground my study in the primary sources of early Christianity. I'm a historical theologian and not primarily a systematic theologian, and my perspectives on biblical theology tend to give greater priority to the "big picture" themes of God's work through the ages rather than what a contemporary pastor or scholar might be writing about at the current moment. This means that I very often don't care much about whatever is being talked about in contemporary theology, which in certain cases I'll admit is a weakness (though such cases are rarer than you might think). For the most part, I think it leaves me less susceptible to getting enamored with new perspectives that, upon later examination, are found to have significant holes. I came to Heiser's work for two reasons: because someone in my church asked me about it, and because biblical demonology is a subject that I sincerely wish I understood better, but for which I have yet to find a fully satisfying treatment.

The second preliminary note is this: Michael Heiser has only recently passed away after a cancer diagnosis, which took his life at the still relatively young age of 60. This deprives the church of a voice and a perspective which, acting through his sincere commitment to Christ, prodded and challenged many of our unspoken assumptions on biblical theology, and that is truly something to be mourned. While I offer a critique of the overarching framework of his perspective here, it should be understood that I value his contributions in many respects, and my prayers are with his family, friends, and colleagues as they grieve.

On Heiser's Interpretations

Heiser has written many books in the past decade, all dealing with his overarching thesis that the story of the Bible is centered upon the rebellion of spiritual powers from God's "divine council," some of whom enacted a corrupt rule over human nations within history. God's plan is to counteract their destructive works and restore an Edenic reality with a replenished divine council made up of both humans and angels. While I've perused several of his works, most of what I have to say here is based on his central text, The Unseen Realm

The first point to underscore is that, contrary to the sense many readers might have on encountering Heiser's vivid description of the epiphanies that result from seeing his biblical evidence, most of what he suggests isn't new. Now, to be clear, he is part of a wave that is currently rediscovering some of these ideas and popularizing them to an audience that is likely unfamiliar with them, so I don't want to diminish the noteworthiness of his work in that regard. But the originality of his contribution lies not so much in his interpretation of certain passages as it does in the overarching metanarrative that he builds out of those interpretations--a metanarrative that, as I'll suggest, is questionable in several important respects. As for the interpretations of specific passages like Psalm 82, Deut. 32, and Gen. 6, it is clear from his description that they struck him rather like epiphanies, but this may reflect a lack of exposure to certain ancient sources more than anything else. Scholars of ancient Near Eastern (ANE), intertestamental, and early Christian literature have interacted for decades on aspects of the interpretations he raises, and the writings of the early church make it clear that many of the ideas he raises were not unknown even then. 

For example, the idea of God's rule in heaven being portrayed as a royal council chamber, in which God interacts with the ideas presented by angelic/spiritual beings, is rather commonplace in Old Testament studies, as it has long been clearly recognized in texts like Job 1 and 1 Kings 22. Similarly, the belief that certain demonic/spiritual powers hold dominion over earthly nations is well-grounded in OT texts like Dan. 10, as well as in Paul's NT references to powers and principalities. These and other associated interpretations were commonplace in early Christianity, but were not regarded as central lenses through which to understand the whole of the gospel. It is Heiser's overstatement of the importance of these themes in the context of the broader biblical story that I find problematic.

On Theological Writing

My first reaction on reading Heiser was not agreement or disagreement, but the feeling that he suffers from an affliction common to professional theologians, and I think it impairs the usefulness of his work. I want to put this as gently as possible, because it relates to me as much as to him. As a writer and theologian myself, I'm profoundly aware of the tendency to believe that the personal "Aha!" moment, which brings certain aspects of scripture into better focus, is itself the key that unlocks the whole biblical story. There's a temptation to overinflate one's own epiphanies, to make them the universal lens through which all biblical interpretation should proceed. In most cases, however--as in my own--those moments of epiphany are often just a providential illumination of our own peculiar blind spots, and thus something that we ought to take with a grain of salt. When certain landscapes of thought--which were always there, but which we were just too blind to see--suddenly stand out in the light of day and we can't tear our eyes from them, it can be easy to think, in the delight of that moment, that the newly-illuminated area is the whole truth, when in point of fact it's just a single part of the vista. In my work of tracing out early Christian beliefs about temple theology and royal priesthood, it was easy to start seeing temple theology under every rock. There's a fierce and beautiful desire to make everything fit, to create an orderly system in which all the pieces of biblical evidence suddenly snap into place. But this systematizing impulse often leads to pounding square pegs into round holes, adopting fringe positions on particular questions of interpretation just because it fits one's own system better. It takes discipline (and, I would argue, the perspective afforded by historical theology) to remind myself that this thread I've uncovered is not the whole tapestry; it is just one pattern woven into the grandness of the whole. This bedazzled blindness from one's own epiphanies is a fairly common affliction among professional theologians; once you notice it, you see it everywhere, even among many of the most widely-recognized names in theology. It's relatively rare to find theologians who have cultivated the kind of phronema (a theological mindset) so prized by the early church: pious intellectual humility in service of the truth, and willing to acknowledge that their own prized interpretive pattern is just a portion--and probably a small portion--of the much greater mosaic of God's truth. 

Heiser, unfortunately, appears to believe that the thread he's uncovered is actually the whole tapestry--"What we'll discover amounts to the real focus of the Bible--its theological center, if you will" (p. 38). Essentially, he's saying that this thread of interpretations, which he treats as a new (or rediscovered) interpretation, is the real meaning of the Bible, which implicitly casts all previous Christian teaching into question. I'm sure that, as a biblical theologian, he's just trying to say that we've found our way back to the correct interpretation of the text; but to a historical theologian, this sounds like a wild, flaming act of theological hubris. Heiser is a bit too cavalier in brushing off theological traditions and creeds--which he views as potentially restrictive of one's interpretive quest for truth--and thus implicitly disregards any notion that the Holy Spirit (as Jesus promised us) has in fact been guiding his people in truth throughout all these centuries. From my point of view, the fact that the early church knew many of the interpretive angles Heiser proposes, and yet framed their articulation of the gospel around different dominant themes than he does, offers the possibility that the traditional, orthodox story of the gospel has been right all along, and that the themes Heiser deals with are comparatively minor within the context of that grand metanarrative.

On Heiser's Overarching Biblical Metanarrative

It's important to note once again that some of Heiser's interpretations are not in dispute--the existence of intermediary spiritual powers of various kinds, for instance, some of whom rebelled against God and who exercise a usurped dominion over earthly nations. This understanding clearly lies beneath many texts in both the Old and New Testaments. Not only is this not in dispute, it actually does constitute a major focus of early Christian theology, which developed a good deal of its soteriology (its theology of salvation) in the framework of Christ's victory over hostile spiritual powers--an interpretation called Christus Victor, of which I've written at length elsewhere, and which clearly complements the substitutionary and atoning aspects of Christ's work on our behalf. Heiser does a good service to the church by bringing out some of those clear biblical doctrines to an audience for whom those ideas have been relatively muted in the preaching and teaching they've received.

However, Heiser takes that basic position on spiritual principalities and extends it into an overarching metanarrative that is rather more speculative. The main idea which he presents is that God has a ruling council of spiritual beings through whom he administers the governance of the universe. It is these subsidiary spiritual rulers whom he consults in Gen. 1 ("Let us make man in our own image")--thus making the case that these spiritual powers also bear "the image of God." It's to some of these council members that God actively delegates authority over the nations of the earth (Deut. 32:8 LXX). These spiritual principalities become corrupt, rebel against God, and seek the worship of the nations for themselves, thus being recognized as the gods of the ancient pagan pantheons. In this sense, Heiser argues, the pagan gods of the nations really were "gods"--spiritual beings of impressive power and sway. Heiser, attempting to emphasize the biblical language of "sons of God" which in rare circumstances is applied to such beings, regularly calls them "divine," which is perhaps not the most theologically responsible terminology, particularly given Heiser's clear recognition that they are all merely created beings. He also refers to the council as God's "original family," which is likewise unfortunate. The devil/serpent was one of this divine council, as was "the Satan" mentioned in Job (whom Heiser views as separate beings, somewhat in contrast to the New Testament). In this telling, the fall of humanity is just one small piece in a much larger cosmic drama, and God's great plan is really about re-asserting the universal authority of his reign, which ultimately comes through human redemption in Christ and the church's onward progress in dispossessing the wicked principalities of their dominion over the nations. Ultimately, faithful humans will fill the vacated spots in the restored divine council for eternity.

While at first glance it might seem like all the pieces fit together into a coherent whole, it's a bit trickier than that. Heiser relates putting together his biblical theology to the assembly of a mosaic. The tough thing about assembling a mosaic, though, is that it helps to know what the picture is supposed to be, or else there's every possibility that you'll put it together wrong. Mosaic pieces can be arranged in an almost infinite variety of ways. To his credit, he makes use of biblical puzzle pieces that are too often left out, and which fit reasonably well with his overall point. He does not, however, consider that there still might be other patterns in which those pieces would fit just as well, if not better, and that the richness of patristic interpretation might have had a good fit for them in the beginning. 

Heiser's case is weaker than it first appears, and for two primary reasons: first, because the linchpins of his argument are peripheral passages which admit of varying interpretations, and second, because he doesn't fully recognize the dynamic interplay between the biblical texts on the one hand, and ANE and intertestamental texts on the other. His case rests on highly particular interpretations of Psalm 82 and Deut. 32:8, both of which are plausible enough, but which also admit of other interpretations. Consider Psalm 82, which lies at the core of Heiser's epiphany. It uses the Hebrew word "elohim" to refer both to the God of Israel and to an assembly of other figures, which it terms "gods". On its own, this is not particularly shocking; both usages are attested elsewhere in the Old Testament and fit the semantic range of the term. The difficulty is that Heiser attempts to build his whole theology on a short poetic piece, which, because of the nature of poetry, does not really offer the supporting context to make it bear the weight of the interpretation he puts on it. Might it refer to a "divine council"? Sure. But even a cursory glance at the psalm also shows that it could just as easily be read as a rhetorical assault on the "gods" of other nations (whether they exist or not), or against the kings of other nations (often addressed as divinized in ancient texts), or even, potentially, some puffed-up administrators within Israel's own royal court. In fact, the psalm may actually offer a stronger case for interpreting it as referring to humans, not only because that appears to be the plain sense of Jesus's use in John 10 (though other interpretations are also possible), but because the psalm clearly says that the wicked "elohim" will die as mortals, which to my knowledge is not generally held as a doctrine applied to spiritual powers. Similarly with Deut. 32:8--in some text traditions, like the Septuagint and the Dead Sea Scrolls, it appears to reference the idea of God dividing up the nations after the Tower of Babel and assigning them to the governance of spiritual powers, "the sons of God." In other text traditions, including our most reliable Hebrew tradition, the Masoretic text, it actually doesn't say that at all; it says "the sons of Israel." I think there's a stronger case for Heiser's reading of Deut. 32 than of Ps. 82, but it's still worth pointing out that the core passages on which he frames his argument are both widely disputed. One would think that if this really were the core metanarrative of the Bible, it would be a bit more front-and-center. Although Heiser thinks that the whole arc of the OT fits his scheme and bears it out, it's worth pointing out that neither of the two major religious traditions based on these texts (neither Judaism nor Christianity) came away with that scheme as their defining narrative, and so if it was intended to be the center of the Bible story, then we would have to admit that God did a wildly poor job in his inspiration of scripture--a colossal failure of communication, as it were. 

How does Heiser get to his position from such a scant biblical foundation? Generally, he builds out the superstructure of his case with appeals to ANE and intertestamental literature, following other scholars who have done the same, and then fits other pieces of the OT text (like Gen. 6) into the overall structure. This is good scholarly practice, but Heiser makes some unwarranted assumptions along the way. First, though, it's worth making clear that Heiser's interpretations of Ps. 82 and Deut. 32 are not mere speculation; they are actually grounded in the way that ANE religions conceived of the divine governance of the universe. Passages in the OT which appear to show the supreme God ruling a "divine council" fit very closely with Ugaritic and Babylonian portrayals. To serious students of the Bible, it is clear that the biblical authors both knew about and interacted with pagan mythologies of that nature; that's not in dispute. What Heiser assumes, though, is that this is all reflective of a single ancient-religious worldview, which Israel shared in equal measure to Ugarit and Babylon. He contends that it was simply accepted that this was the way the supreme God worked in the universe, and thus the biblical texts portray it as such. I think it's a mistake to assume that the biblical writers framed these passages in this way on the supposition that they shared a common religious worldview with their ANE context. (For one, to speak of a single, unitary ancient-religious "worldview" in that way is borderline ridiculous, as it assumes a monoculture that has never been true of any complex set of societies.) A better explanation of the "divine council" passages would admit that there is a dynamic tension between the Bible's portrayal and that of other ANE cultures, an interplay that was decidedly not conciliatory. To put it plainly, it looks like the biblical authors were playing off of the religious-literary traditions of their time, actively critiquing and correcting them as they went. This is especially apparent when comparing Gen. 6 and the Noahic accounts against the mythologies of Babylon, as well as when comparing Jewish interpretations of Baal worship to the Ugaritic view of Baal in the divine council. (For a good summary of some of the ways that the OT corrected and critiqued these traditions, see Stephen De Young, The Religion of the Apostles). It's worth noting that in the major OT stories of God in a divine council--Job 1 and 1 Kings 22--the authority is always firmly in the hands of God alone, and only by request and permission (in the context of specific, isolated circumstances) is any authority for action ever given to subsidiary spiritual powers. 1 Kings 22, which has the prophet Micaiah relating to King Ahab a vision of a divine council meeting, might well be a caustic parody meant to poke fun at Ahab's Baal-adherence. In any case, neither story portrays a permanent delegation of governance to other spiritual beings. This is in direct contrast to the "divine council" portrayals in other ANE religions. 

But what about intertestamental literature? Isn't it the case that much of the metanarrative Heiser describes is present within Second Temple Jewish reflection? To a degree, that's true. He picks up on some threads of tradition that were present, mostly late in the intertestamental period, but which show up here and there in the Dead Sea Scrolls and prominently within the pseudepigraphal Enochic literature. The way Heiser deals with that tradition, however, is questionable. He accepts it as offering the definitive interpretation of several difficult OT passages, despite the fact that the intertestamental interpretations come many centuries after the passages themselves were written. Further, intertestamental Judaism was by no means agreed on these matters (or, really, on almost any matters). To pick one thread (and what might be a relatively obscure thread) from intertestamental Judaism and assume that it offers the correct interpretation of disputed texts from a thousand years before is rather like taking the comments from an internet chatroom about King Arthur's round table and asserting that perspective as historically true. The Enochic literature is wildly diverse, and 1 Enoch itself (the main text which addresses spiritual beings called "the Watchers") is quite probably a composite text with a complicated history. It was certainly not mainstream Judaism, mostly because there was no mainstream Judaism at Jesus's time. There were a variety of competing sects and interpretations (some scholars have gone so far as to say that we really ought to refer to it in the plural--Second Temple Judaisms), many of which, from what we can tell, did not make much use of the Enochic literature and its complicated angelology. If one had to pick a group most favorable to the Enochic literature in the first century AD, it would probably actually be the early Christian church. That's an important thing to make note of, because while early Christianity does make reference to interpretations from Enochic literature (as, for instance, in 1 Pet. 3 and 2 Pet. 2), it clearly does not make the rebellion of spiritual powers the primary story of the gospel. So the fact that the stream of intertestamental belief most inclined to Heiser's interpretation does not treat it with nearly the same weightiness that he does--that should give us pause.

But wait, you might say--doesn't the NT talk about Christ defeating the powers, and about dominions and principalities in the heavenly places, and all those sorts of things? Yes, it does. And this is where Heiser's work really is valuable. Western Christianity--and in particular evangelicalism--has too often tended to obscure that aspect of the gospel. But it's important to note that within the NT, it is just one aspect among many. It does not form the predominant emphasis of any NT writer when expounding the gospel. It is presented as true, but, one might say, as being of secondary importance in the Christian articulation of what God has done for us. We ought to know about it and be grateful for it, but it's far from the whole story. The evidence for this perspective comes from other early Christian writings. We have voluminous writings from the early church, including from some of the church leaders who personally knew and sat under the teaching of the apostles. If the gospel were a story of God's war against cosmic powers, we would expect it to loom large in the writings of those who received the apostolic teaching. But it doesn't. They reference it occasionally, in much the same quick and passing way that the NT does, but the main focus is on the way Jesus has saved humanity from sin and death, how that salvation is experienced in the life of the church, and how we live out our faith in practical, everyday ways. All that to say, Heiser's contention that his metanarrative really is the big story of the Bible doesn't quite pass the test of early Christian literature.

On Humanity and "the Image of God"

I also have something of a nitpicky quibble with one of the directions that Heiser takes his interpretation of Genesis 1. He asserts that God's counsel-taking over the creation of humanity ("Let us make man in our own image") is best understood as being a conversation between God and "the sons of God," the created angelic powers on his divine council. I don't find this convincing, and Heiser's brush-off of the traditional Christian interpretation, which sees this as Trinitarian language, is not particularly compelling. Heiser himself notes, in a footnote to that section, the fact that early Jewish traditions recognized the possibility of at least a "binitarian" reality in which the Godhead had multiple persons of equal divinity, so it is not entirely clear why he insists that the plural language of Genesis 1 has to relate to the divine council rather than to early Jewish trinitarianism. 

Heiser's position is problematic because he goes where both the Christian and Jewish traditions have been hesitant to go, by directly assigning "the image of God" to angels as well as humans. To be clear, the Bible does say that humans are made in the image of God, but it nowhere says that of angels. It also doesn't say that angels are not made in the image of God, but there are reasons to question the idea that they are. The "image of God" language is directly associated with humanity's office to rule the earth as God's representatives. Do we see the same office ascribed to angels? Not really, I would say, unless you buy Heiser's metanarrative built of half-hints from obscure and scattered passages. Mostly, we see obedient angels serving as functionaries of God's work, but not as governors of it, and disobedient spiritual powers as grasping at authority that is not legitimately theirs. 

The trouble with extending "the image of God" to angels in a metanarrative like Heiser's is that it renders the Bible much less anthropocentric than it has always been taken to be. In his telling, it's not really a story about humans, except as something of a backup plan in God's cosmic war against spiritual powers. In contrast, even the earliest forms of Christianity believed that humanity held a place in God's design that was radically special and in many ways higher than the place designed for the angels (see my book Who We Were Meant to Be for more on this early Christian view). The fact that humanity stands at the absolute center--and not some angelic divine council--can be seen in the Incarnation itself. Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, came to save humanity from the effects of its rebellion, but that salvation is not (so far as we can tell) extended to spiritual powers. Jesus did not come to save fallen angels, but he did come to save fallen humans. If angels were made in the image of God, just as humanity is, why wouldn't God's redemptive plan include them? The fact that it does not casts Heiser's interpretation into serious doubt.

Closing Thoughts

It may sound like I've been overly critical of Heiser's system of thought, but there's actually a great deal I appreciate about his work. It brings together some important themes and interpretations of the biblical text and presents them in a way that brings renewed attention to an area that has been ignored too long. For example, I agree with much of his application of Enoch allusions to 1 and 2 Peter, and with portions of his interpretation of Eden and the tabernacle. It's not the individual pieces of Heiser's mosaic that I dispute--they're important, and more people should know about them. It's just that I don't think he's managed to put the pieces together quite right, and in the process he's overplayed his hand, trying to cram pieces of the NT into his system that probably have nothing to do with his overarching narrative (like the transfiguration and Paul's desire to go to Spain). Despite his contention that this narrative is the biblical story--and, therefore, that it is the way in which Jesus and the apostles would have understood the messianic mission--it finds little resonance in the writings of the people who actually received and passed on the apostolic teaching. That makes me think that Heiser has taken what is a minor and complementary theme of the gospel and magnified it somewhat out of proportion. 

Is The Unseen Realm worth reading? Absolutely. You'll learn a lot, and there are a great many passages for which you'll gain new insight. Just don't get too swayed by Heiser's air of certainty, and keep in the back of your mind that there are quite a few good scholars who hold different positions on most of the interpretations he advances. The connections he makes between his individual points are not always as strong as his characteristic force of assertion might have you believe. So, yes, read it--but don't make it the only book you read. If you're struck by his interpretation of a particular passage as something you've never heard before, it's probably a good idea to consult a few good Bible commentaries just to see what the range of positions on that text actually is.

I should admit, too, that I'm not sure I could do any better. I don't have any grand, holistic system for making sense of the weird little hints of biblical demonology scattered through the scriptures. But I think that's okay--in fact, I think that may be what God intended. We ought to be careful not to go beyond what is written (1 Cor. 4:6), and there are certain aspects of the world of spiritual powers that the Bible treats with silence. I have a lot of unanswered questions which I wish the Bible answered (but it doesn't), questions which not even Heiser's system thinks to include. There are still gaps, and I'm beginning to think it's meant to be that way. Comparisons with ANE and intertestamental literature can be illuminating, but even the insights gleaned therein do not fill all the gaps in a satisfying way. I find myself content to treat the Bible's silences with patience and the humility of accepting my own ignorance. The New Testament cautions us not to boast in any presumed knowledge about spiritual powers (see Col. 2:18; Jude 8-10). When it comes to such things, it may be the case that our Father, in his wisdom, has kept his silence about things we don't yet need to know, much as a good parent often does with his children. We should seek to understand what the Bible teaches, but we should also recognize that not all the answers might even be available to us. And if that's the case here, then that's alright. I will not concern myself with things too wonderful for me (Ps. 131). I'm still curious and inquiring, and I would love to find a system that makes complete sense of all that the Bible has to say about spiritual powers. I just don't think this is that system.