This is the first post on Naked Bible by my friend Dr. Ronn Johnson. Ronn has extensive teaching experience in biblical studies (PhD, Dallas Seminary) and many years of pastoral experience. To get acquainted with him, listen to this episode of the Naked Bible Podcast. Ronn and others will hopefully be doing regular posting at the Naked Bible blog. I’m going to try and figure out how your comments to this post will get to him, as Ronn’s thoughts are his own. I love listening to him, and I think you will as well.
My thanks to Mike for letting me blog here on the Naked Bible. With Mike, one of my favorite topics is plural gods. It was early in 2003, when I was looking for a dissertation topic to finish my PhD at Dallas Seminary, that I took up an invitation from Mike to join him for supper with a friend in Madison. We began talking about Mike’s dissertation topic at the UW-Madison, and his friend made the off-hand remark that the gods of the divine council in Psalm 82 were to be identified with the principalities and powers of Paul. I was fascinated by the idea, and I drove back to Minneapolis that night wondering if that concept would work as a dissertation topic. Surely, I presumed, a fellow evangelical had thought of this, and had produced an academic monograph tying Paul’s powers to the gods of the first commandment. Alas, no one had. My topic was quickly approved, the dissertation was done within the year, and things have never been the same for me. I think I was one of the few lucky ones who actually got to enjoy writing his doctoral dissertation.
(I don’t want to get afield here, but as I wrote that last sentence I recall being brought to tears several times as I wrote the paper. I honestly felt as though I was discovering the Big Story of the Bible for the first time, putting all sorts of biblical pieces together that had long been scattered over my theological yard. I had been teaching in Bible colleges for over a dozen years by this time. Thus the motivation behind my title of this blog.)
A starting point: Like most evangelicals, I have long presumed the western Christian tradition basically had the larger Story right: God must judge sin, Jesus solved that judgment on the cross, and reception of this payment for sin provides entrance to heaven. This was my view from childhood, though I had never really considered any alternative. I do recall being generally uncomfortable when I considered the disconnect between the first three steps of the Romans Road (you’re a sinner, sinners go to hell, Jesus died for this sin-penalty) and the fourth (believe in Jesus and be saved). What did the last point have to do with the first three? Here is where I am again motivated by my title. I have found—speaking only for myself—that the existence of plural deities stands behind a gospel message that solves this disconnect. That’s a gutsy way to say it, but that’s how it has worked for me.
The remainder of this blog will follow through on a point-by-point explanation of how I think the Big Story of the Bible works, beginning with the argument of my dissertation about plural deities. Think of each numbered paragraph as a domino that fell (in my mind, whether immediately or over time) because of the weight of the previous paragraph. There’s plenty here to disagree with, I understand, and I welcome your reaction forthwith. Some issues may seem unrelated to previous ones, but for me everything I write below works as an oiled machine going in one direction. I was going to say well-oiled, but I know that’s not true. There’s plenty to work on. But here we go:
1) The main point of my dissertation argued that the first commandment was to be taken seriously because the beings called “gods” (Hebrew, elohim; Greek, theoi) are real, personal spirits who desire human worship. They are not necessarily “evil” or “good,” or at least should not be pigeon-holed into that sort of medieval model. That they are powerful is beyond question, and that Yahweh expects them to fulfill a role in human affairs even now is also assumed in Scripture. It is these beings that Paul refers to as “authorities” or “principalities” or “powers” or “rulers.” How they manifest themselves today is left largely undescribed for us, though the Bible is full of stories which offer fascinating possibilities and even probabilities.
2) Idolatry therefore causes God’s ultimate anger in the Bible, replacing the traditional idea that God is punishing mankind for Adam’s guilt. Idolatry is important because the objects of our worship are not invented; we are being seduced by spirits who want to harm us, principally by keeping us away from the worship of Yahweh and Jesus, and secondarily by influencing us toward immoral and hurtful behavior. All talk of sin and punishment in Scripture ultimately works its way through the backstory of idolatry. To be clear (since this is often misunderstood, I have noticed), all idolatry is sin, though not all sin is idolatry. To worship a created deity ahead of Yahweh or Jesus is the most severe transgression available to mankind, and guarantees eternal judgment for those who persist in such a lifestyle. The story of individual human salvation involves the conversion of an individual away from his penchant toward idolatry.
3) Since the word for angel in both testaments is the original word for messenger (mal’ak in Hebrew, angelos in Greek), it follows that there are no angels in the Bible since this is a (potentially) functional term for any spirit or god, including Jesus (Malachi 3:1; Gal. 4:14). In the end, the study of angelology turns into the study of gods and vice-versa. This is generally why looking up the word “angel” in Bible dictionaries is a waste of time. Tradition has assumed that angels can be identified and studied by looking for appearances of angels. Better to think of it this way: any appearance of an angel in the Bible (Nebuchadnezzar looking into the fiery furnace, for example, in Daniel 3:28) is the physical appearance of an elohim, or god (as Nebuchadnezzar admitted in 3:25: “the form of the fourth is lebar elohahin [Aramaic for like that of a god, or god-like]). A god had appeared in the furnace, performing as a messenger-god.
4) Following the same point, we need to re-state what we mean by the word “God” and even saying things like “Jesus is God” since the Hebrew and Greek words for “God/god” are shared by created ruling spirits such as Satan. It comes as a general surprise to most Christians that there is no capitalized word “God” in the Bible. Therefore the traditional doctrines of monotheism and Trinitarianism need to take into account at least the possible existence of created plural deities before saying things like “there is only one God.” Unfortunately, most explanations of a lone God or a three-in-one-God leverage Latin expressions and do not deal with Hebrew and Greek at all. This makes for painful reading in my experience. Latin should really have no bearing on the theology of the Bible.
5) During my dissertation process, it became clear to me why OT salvation was consistently described in terms of faith. As Abraham resisted the temptation to worship his family gods (e.g., Josh. 24:2), and instead committed this worship to Yahweh (he “called upon the name of Yahweh,” Gen. 12:8), he was justified or pronounced proper in the sight of God (Gen. 15:6). Salvation will be less about sin, especially behavioral sins, and more about which god a person chooses to worship. As evidence, the need to abide by the laws of Torah will never be confused with human salvation. Torah-obedience, in short, would become the expected privilege of those who were already found faithful to Yahweh, thus already “saved.”
6) The Hebrew term for faith (aman) is built on the same root word meaning loyalty or fidelity (amuna). Salvation is thus to be identified with moving one’s loyalty from one god to another, described as “believing” (aman) in Yahweh. The same connection is found for the NT words for faith (pistis) and loyalty (pistos). When the Philippian jailer was told to “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ” he was being asked to move his spiritual loyalties from his god to Jesus. From the way the story progresses, it appears he made his ultimate confession of which god he worshipped at his baptism. It was common in the ancient Near East to make one’s official “conversion” to another deity very public, since there was no such thing as private religion at that time.
7) Believing Jews in the book of Acts often encouraged gentiles to keep various ethnic aspects of Torah (circumcision, Sabbath, kosher food laws) alongside their belief in Christ. This is not surprising, owing to the treatment of gentiles by famous Israelites in the OT (Joshua, Sampson, David, etc.). Yet Paul warned against the idea that the “works of the law” needed to be mixed with faith for his gentile audiences. Gentiles were meant to join in the messiah-movement on the sole basis of loyalty—a truly astounding concept for the time.
8) The ideas of atonement and sacrifice were not confused with loyalty/salvation in the OT. To be very specific, atonement (kaphar) was a ritualistic means of cleansing for the righteous person (i.e., the Yahweh-loyalist) who wished to approach God in sacrifice or worship. Israelite religion never taught that Yahweh could be satisfied or “paid” through a substitute. This was a pagan practice, in fact, practiced by gentiles who thought that their deities could be influenced by death or blood or the offering of valued possessions. Moving into the NT, Christ’s death will match the OT meaning of atonement: Jesus provided ritualistic cleansing/sanctification for the believer (and especially the gentile who did not have means of atonement!) who still needs to approach the God of Israel in purity (Heb. 12:14; 1 Pet. 3:18).
9) Moving the concept of OT righteousness (won solely on the grounds of loyalty to Yahweh) into the NT, God now declares a person righteous, or proper, when he places his loyalty in Jesus. There does not need to be any transference of righteousness between God and the one being made righteous, as the Reformed position teaches.
10) While every generation believes that salvation is the ultimately the result of God’s grace, it seems that the narrative of the Book of Acts employs charis (“grace”) to commonly describe God’s favor in allowing the gentile to join the family of Abraham by loyalty alone. This use of “grace” or “favor” would then make sense of verses such as Acts 11:23 (“When they had seen the favor of God” [upon the gentiles through the coming of the Holy Spirit]).
11) Instead of the gospel starting with Luther’s famous problem—people cannot go to heaven when they die because of their sins which have not been paid for—the gospel therefore begins where the OT story of Israel ends in the latter prophets. Here, people are asking that God will show mercy where he has formerly shown judgment, ending in exile: “For a mere moment I have forsaken you, but with great mercies I will gather you; with a little wrath I hid my face from you for a moment, but with everlasting kindness I will have mercy on you,’ says the LORD, your redeemer” (Isaiah 54:7-8). What has upset God so greatly, of course, is the idolatry of the individual Israelite, something that David foresaw in his own lifetime (“Who may ascend into the hill of the LORD? Or who may stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not lifted up his soul to an idol, nor sworn deceitfully,” Ps. 24:3-4). The answer to the problem, then, which is the starting point for the NT gospel, is repentance from one’s idolatry and returning to the God of Israel through the person of Jesus. Both Jews and gentiles are under the same obligation to believe that Jesus Christ is Lord of Lords and will someday judge the world for its misdirected worship.
12) Speaking of Jesus, the gospels record the good news that Yahweh, through Jesus, has kept his promise of rescuing the world from the authority of the gods of the first commandment. The “gospel” is not about going to heaven, then, as much as it is about which god has the right to rule. Jesus won this right, or visibly secured it, through the temptation account with Satan (Luke 4:6; 10:17-19). This was the straightforward purpose of Jesus’ many exorcisms and healings and miracles—to show who was really in control of a world which visibly appeared to be ordered by demons and gods.
13) One of the main stories of the Bible seems to course through the Bible rather quietly: throughout eternity, God appears to be giving to mankind the glory/authority which he has presently given to rebellious spirits. This is due to these spirits’ abuse of authority in our current world, led by Satan, the “prince and power of the air” (Eph. 2:2). Jesus confirmed his authority when he ascended to the right hand of the Father, and will someday share his glory with Christians in the next life. This is the doctrine sometimes referred to as theosis, taken directly from such passages as 2 Peter 1:4.
13) Our present responsibility is to complete the Big Story that began with our forefather Abraham. I am called to simply do what he did (Romans 4:13-25): be loyal to Yahweh, especially in worshipping his loved Son Jesus, the final fulfillment of Abraham’s covenant. All those who do so, whether Jew or Gentile, will share in his coming eternal kingdom.