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.
ALMOST a great article… I kept waiting for something truly revelatory, but… then it just sort of fizzled out.
Ever since I stumbled onto your “Divine Council” material, it was like
someone flipped a light on in a dim room. Suddenly, much confusion about
Scripture started to make sense. At first, I was expecting my faith in
Jesus to be challenged or insulted (like a lot of wacky ideas by loud
ignorant folks on youtube), but I must confess that this new
understanding of who God and Yeshua (Jesus Christ) really are has been
most edifying. Thanks Dr. Heiser, and thanks to Ronn Johnson for an
excellent, logical layout of the Gospel and the “big picture”.
Thank you for this blog post. I hope for two things 1) You continue being a guest blogger here and 2) That comments could be approved a little quicker so a conversation can ensue 🙂
I think the title threw me off, and maybe still is. Are you asking whether it makes any practical difference to believe in multiple dieties such as, let’s say HInduism or are you asking if it makes a difference if you believe in divine council “deities?”
Is there anyone that would think polytheistic worship ISN’T being disloyal to God? But what happens if I simply accept the existence of numerous gods, would that make a difference? Let’s be more specific. What if I were to accept the existence of all the Hindu gods. On top of that, I would say I also believe in all the Norse gods. But now here is the kicker. I don’t worship a single one of them. I only worship Yhwh. What would you say to that? Is there any practical difference then?
PS. Dr, Heiser, to answer your question about how to get comments to Dr. Johnson, why not simply approve comments and ask him to periodically check in and answer himself. I find it a little frustrating when comments take time to be approved and get an answer. The momentum of the conversation gets lost rather quickly.
Sorry about not getting to your question sooner. No excuse but busy-ness on my end.
I agree (and I think the Bible goes this way right off the bat) that believing in other gods is not a problem. I would even understand Exodus 22:28 to mean, “do not revile the gods” (as the Septuagint does). So it is my duty as a human to respect other spiritual forces, even evil ones, but not worship them. As far as Hindu or Norse gods, I believe in their reality while not necessarily signing up to the concepts that humans have attributed to them. That is, they are real, but what we think about them (including their names, what they are like, how they operate, etc.) may not be real. I hope that makes sense. It absolves the gods from becoming what we think they are–and allows them to be what they really are in spite of what we do not know. I like to think C. S. Lewis, in The Screwtape Letters, got it right in thinking that the gods like it when we think they don’t exist; it allows them to operate in more frightful ways.
Hope that helps.
>I hope that makes sense.
Yes and no. I understand what you are saying, but I don’t think it’s philosophically sound. I actually commented on this same issue here with Mike.
The problem is you can’t say you believe in the reality of specific foreign gods but not what we attribute to them. That is a major contradiction. These Gods, (whether Hindu, Norse, ancient Egyptian or whatever) are defined by the attributes we give them. That is what makes them different from one another. That is what makes them, them. If you don’t believe in the attributes of Thor or his origins, than you can’t even say you believe in his reality, only minus the attributes. That reality only EXISTS because of what we said of Thor. If nobody made up some myth about Thor (or Vishnu), we wouldn’t be here talking about him. They only exist because we made them up, not because they actually exist in some form of reality.
Imagine right now I create a new cult with a set of gods. A god for wine. A god for sunshine. A god for war. A god for water. A define each one with a set of attributes. Also, I give each one a set of origins. This is all based on my (flawed) observations of the world around me. Now, does that mean these gods—which from a biblical perspective we can call elohim—exist? How about if we eliminate all the human attributes and origins I tacked upon them, does it mean their reality exists? I think the answer is a profound, no. Once I eliminate the attributes and origins, the discussion about these specific gods (which we are calling elohim) becomes mute. They only existed in the first place because I made them up. So we can’t even talk about any “reality.” Multiply this by a thousand for every country on this earth that has done such a thing when creating their pantheon.
There is a fundamental difference between saying you accept spiritual forces in general vs. accepting the spiritual forces of other religions. Those spiritual forces cannot be stripped of their attributes.
So going back to the Bible, what I think the Bible is saying is that the only spiritual forces that exist, are YHWH’s spiritual forces; the ones he is responsible for creating. Deut 32:8 is not saying Ra exists. It’s saying that Egypt has a spritual force that YHWH dictated should rule over it. There is a huge theologic/philosophic gap between saying that, and saying Ra exists, but not the human attributes humans have attached to him.
I hope I made sense. This is something critical that I see lacking in the discussions.
What about the four “angels” released from the euphrates(?) in the sixth trumpet in revelation? They don’t seem to be messengers, they seem to be warriors, killing 1/3rd of mankind.
Good point; by this point, in the Greek language, angelos may stand for these warriors in Revelation. So I agree that these angeloi are mighty figures who are nothing less than gods who are on a mission.
Interesting, what would you say the euphrates has to do with it? Is it connected to the abyss in some way? Are there actually angels buried beneath the river?
Then keeping God’s command is not for salvation, but for the ultimate reward in heaven. I guess this would be Paul’s take in 1st Corinthians 3:10-15 that says:
10According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon. 11For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; 13Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is. 14If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. 15If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.
I would like to know then what command is Jesus talking about since he says here in John14:21 that says,
“Whoever has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me. The one who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and reveal Myself to him.”
That has been a challenge thrown at me when I presented this in debates in social media. And even Jews throw this passage making the case for the importance to keep the Law from Isaiah 24:5 that says:
The earth lies defiled under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed the laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant.
I hope to read your comments and help in this area. Thank you for this wonderful post, since I believe address a lot of things I struggled as a teenager and can help to share with those I know.
Great point, a question that challenges us at many turns when reading the Bible. My quick answer is that obedience to Christ is being compared to obedience to the god that you would otherwise worship if it is not Christ. Remember that atheism is not an option in the Bible; if you are not obeying Jesus, then you are actively obeying another spirit/god (cp John 8:44). So I don’t read these obedience passages as how well you do in obeying Jesus, but in answering the “which god do you worship” question. When you worship a god, you do his will and follow his commands.
Would worrying about your career or financial state be considered idolatry? I’m not sure I know what’s the correct definition of an idol. I get the worship of other gods/religions part but what are some other examples of idolatry?
In one sense, unless we are worshipping other gods, we can’t commit biblical idolatry. But I think abstracting the idea as you illustrate can be in the picture if we approach such things the way idolaters approached their gods.
Are there any papers available to read on this topic? Is your thesis available somewhere? I have been thinking a lot about what idolatry looks like in our day. We typically do not blatantly worship idols, but people seem to follow ideologies that have not originated from the Most High God. Is this how idolatry typically manifests itself in our culture? And I am beginning to wonder how many people in evangelical churches have been seduced by competing ideologies and may not be completely loyal to the Most High God.
If by “thesis” you mean my dissertation on the relationship of OT gods to NT principalities and powers, send me a request for a pdf at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I thought this was an excellent post that gives the cliffnotes of what The Church needs to grasp (and soon) in just a few pages of material, and was written in a style that is hard to argue with–which is a feat in and of itself when trying to correct someone’s flawed theology in a just a few bullet points. I’ve saved this post as a word document that I can distribute to brothers and sisters in need. Lots of questions but none related to this post 🙂 Thank you sir! Your contributions to Naked Bible Nation are very much appreciated!
Couple of thoughts.
1) “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).”
I may be reading too much into this, it sounds more like the Christus Victor view of the atonement as opposed to penal substitution. Am I right on that interpretation?
2) ” personal spirits who desire human worship. They are not necessarily “evil” or “good”.
I thought a created being desiring to be worshipped would by definition be considered evil?
At any rate, a good read and inspired some thinking on my part and I appreciate the effort.
Very interesting. Thanks.
There is an extra “the” in the first sentence of paragraph 10.
Thank you for the contribution! Great reading! It sheds some light on something I’ve been thinking about over again as Mike’s podcast goes through Ezekiel, and that is Paul’s view of the relationship between idolatry and the “sin list” in Rom. 1. It seems like idolatry isn’t cast as another sin, or even the cardinal sin among the others, but rather, the items in the sin list seem to actually be the punishment for idolatry, which seems odd (particularly if the serious exegesis doesn’t start until v. 26, which is too common these days!). Anyway, I think your (and Mike’s) insight that this elohim stuff has a payoff in our understanding of the atonement may be able to be taken back and have, I don’t know, a ripple effect maybe? into our hamartiology.
Good point; hamartiology as a theology really takes a turn when understanding how idolatry works. Another post for another day!
I appreciated this article. As much as I trust the way Dr Heiser handles scripture, the confirmation of other schollars is helpful, and makes Dr Heiser look a little less loopy. 😉
Further to section 8 & 9, I can see how the temple cult practices fulfil this purification for presentation purpose (and foreshadow Christ), but I would like to hear more in regards to this atonment concept in general. Primarily because this is where the progression starts to raise my eybrows.
Is there no imputed righteousness?
Is there no satisfaction of outstanding debt?
Without blood there can be no forgivness of sins, does this blood only purify a loyalist so that God overlooks former sins?
I’m sure you can see where my concerns stem from here. Probably because you are challenging my pre-conceived notions.
I hope my further posts helped answer some/most of your questions. I do not believe in imputed righteousness as a theological construct; it seems to be an unnecessary solution to a problem that is itself invented. I know that’s strong language, but I’ve come to find the imputed righteousness/sin concept very unnecessary to understanding the concept of salvation as explained in the Bible. But that’s for another post.
I also do not believe in satisfaction for sin as Anselm explained it; that was in my second (maybe third) post.
This is fantastic. Thanks, Ronn! It’s true, reading texts like Ephesians 6.12 in light of the divine council and Deut. 32 worldview can really bring a tear to one’s eye (my own at least). Thank you for this article. I’m really looking forward to the next.
Is there any way I could get a copy of your dissertation? I’d enjoy giving it a read when my semester finishes.
Hi Spencer, send me a request at email@example.com and I can send you a pdf of my dissertation. Great bathtub reading.
Dear Dr. Johnson, thank you for the article. Though it may be peripheral to your topic, I wondered if you could comment on the “original sin” and how it relates to loyalty to any other deity. And to that point, whether it matters or not, was the sin the eating of the “tree of knowledge of good and evil” or just the eating of a forbidden tree?
My point of confusion is that perhaps I am wondering whether Adam was judged because he was disloyal or because he disobeyed. And if disloyal, was it to the nachash (another deity as per your article) or to himself that he began to worship? And if because of disobedience, is this considered a moral failure? The only reason why I put this as an “either-or” is because I think this is partly the point of your article, that it is idolatry NOT moral failure (sin). Thanks!
Great question. I do not know Adam’s spiritual state (he is never considered a hero by any biblical author, by the way), and it is possible that he was the first idolater who was condemned for his idolatry. We suspect (and I may need to apologize to Adam if I meet him in heaven for saying what I just said!) that he repented of his disobedience, but we are not told of his or his wife’s condition post Genesis 3.
I do not believe in “original guilt,” meaning that you and I are somehow considered morally culpable for Adam’s guilt. But neither do I believe that faith/loyalty are passive ideas that a human can fall into just by having a good day. I like to think of faith as my dog thinks of his loyalty to me; while it isn’t difficult to be loyal to a god (such as Yahweh), it does require everything you have. My dog doesn’t work hard to be loyal, in other words, but it requires everything out of him. So that’s how I see the human condition: ready and able to give allegiance to a spiritual being, such as Baal or Molech or Ra or Yahweh. It isn’t hard to be found loyal, but in being loyal you are all-in. There’s no middle ground. It’s interesting that the believer in the Bible (whether OT or NT) is constantly thought of in terms of either/or. There are no 68% loyalists in the Bible, as I like to say.
I think I catch the point of your last sentence; pardon me if I get it wrong. What did not happen, I believe, in Genesis 3, was simply the moral failure of a man and woman eating a fruit. I think the point of the story was idolatry, and how it will work in the rest of the Bible: people will actively listen to the temptations of spiritual beings (Satan or otherwise), and direct their ultimate loyalties in horrific directions.
Dr. Johnson, I thoroughly enjoyed your thoughts/comments. I was never taught the things you and Dr. Heiser are teaching. I learned a lot just by paying att’n to Scripture, but have a greater understanding after reading and studying from the two of you.
I would love to speak with you re: #8 and Jesus in the NT providing ritual cleansing. The reason is that I had what some call a Damascus Road experience when saved. I literally felt, experienced the cleansing of my (literal) heart by Jesus himself. It was genuine; it was real; I have never been the same since.
I would love to get your thoughts more fully on that cleansing (new birth).
Thanks for your question. The new birth is something I’ve often thought about, and agree that what you experienced was likely very real. Forgiveness is a powerful idea to the modern mind, let alone the ancient mind. So the idea of being forgiven by God is huge, and part and parcel with what it means to be a Christian.
Where I tend to disagree with my evangelical friends is the derivation (and thus the meaning) of the “new birth.” It comes from Ezekiel 36:26, and so I think when (for example) Jesus used the idea with Nicodemus in John 3 they had this OT passage in mind. Jesus’ point, I believe, was that in the resurrection (“the new birth”) the sins of God’s people would be forgiven, meaning that they would be living in loyalty, forever, with the Father (36:27-28).
The revivalist tradition made popular by Billy Graham has moved the meaning of “new birth” into a present idea of becoming a new person in some real way at the moment of conversion. WHile I do not doubt the power of coming to faith in Christ, I do not identify the precise meaning of John 3:3’s “you must be reborn” with this modern concept of conversion. I think Jesus was trying to get Nic to reread Jer 33 and Ezek 36 more carefully, in the end identifying himself (Jesus) with the one who would lead Israel to loyalty.
A lot going on here, so let me know if more explanation is needed.
For a discussion of where the terms principalities and powers come from see
JSNT 82 p61-88 Chris Forbes “Paul’s Principalities and Powers”
JSNT 85 p51-73 Chris Forbes “Pauline Demonology and/or Cosmology”
Thank you for the post–lots to think about! is your dissertation available online? Do you have any articles published on these views? Looking forward to hearing more from you!
Dr. Johnson, thx for the post. I thoroughly enjoyed it! I do have a question re: # 8 and Jesus providing ritual cleansing. I’m not sure I understand what you mean by that. Could you elaborate more fully on that?
Again, thx for the post. Much appreciated.
Thanks for the question, and I hope that my later two posts helped to clarify what I mean by ritual cleansing. For a quick reply here, think of how a Gentile (or non-observant Jew) would have felt in approaching the Jerusalem Temple. God’s presence was purposely kept at a distance from this person, and ritual cleansing was necessary before ever offering a sacrifice or even coming into physical contact with Temple objects. Here is where Christ’s death “atoned” someone; it offered them the chance to be considered ritually pure, or cleaned up, allowing them (as Hebrews 4:15 says) to boldly come to the throne [of God]. I keep this word picture distinct from salvation, of course, because salvation is always described as by faith/loyalty, not atonement.
Very good stuff. Love the point by point.
Mike, you mention about how he could follow the comments. You may already know by now but one option is if he has a Disqus account, I see there is a “Subscribe” link at the very bottom of this post that I think would email the subscriber anytime a new comment is posted. Oh, and I just checked, and if not logged into Disqus, it gives a text field for entering an email address when you click Subscribe.
I like this idea of guest authors also. Nice addition to the corpus. 🙂
It seems like my first attempt at adding comments did not get saved. Here is what I originally posted as a comment:
Are there any papers available to read on this topic? Is your thesis available somewhere? I have been thinking a lot about what idolatry looks like in our day. We typically do not blatantly worship idols, but people seem to follow ideologies that have not originated from the Most High God. Is this how idolatry typically manifests itself in our culture? And I am beginning to wonder how many people in evangelical churches have been seduced by competing ideologies
Thank you Dr. Johnson. You have explained the gospel very clearly. This makes the whole biblical story much easier. God bless you and Dr. Heiser for providing this site for Christians to learn more about God and the Bible.
I believe I fell off the wagon around point 8. I have several questions and I hope you can make some clarifications about your position.
If I’ve understood correctly, you seem to be saying that vicarious atonement is not taught in the Bible. Is this correct? If so, my first question would be, how do you interpret passages which say that Jesus gave himself up for us, came as a ransom for the sins of many, was unlike bulls and rams in that his blood can cleanse us from sin, or that God is both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” etc? The NT seems replete with insistence that Jesus was dying for sins and experienced the wrath of his Father for our sake. Am I missing something here?
Second, if all that matters is turning from whatever else in life we worship (other gods, our desires, money, materialism, “mammon” worshiping etc.) then why was it necessary for Jesus to come? Wouldn’t it have been quite a bit easier to empower mere mortals through the Spirit of God to simply propagate the message of the God of Israel until the world believed? What exactly was accomplished through the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection, if not our passageway back to direct fellowship with the Father and the Son?
Thanks for the many questions here, and a fair response would be quite long. My second and third parts to my post may have helped with your first paragraph; Jesus gave himself “for us” need not imply substitution as much as proxy–meaning that Jesus died “for my benefit” more than “instead of me,” allowing Paul to say in Gal that he “died with Christ.” There’s a lot to this discussion, of course; like I said, I hope my other two posts helped. Respond to those if needed.
Second, the reasons that Jesus would have come to earth are many. However–and this is big–in listening to the nativity story, people like Elizabeth and Zacharias and Simeon relish Jesus’ coming, but none of them imply that he now gives them, as individuals, the ability to finally get right with God. Luke 1:6 even says that Zacharias was righteous–so I have to start the Jesus narrative by NOT believing that he is somehow our passageway to direct fellowship with the Father. Zach already had this, somehow, or at least the idea of personal righteousness is never in question for him. In listening to the gospelists tell the story, and to hear Jesus’ own explanation, Jesus came to manifest the Father to the world; in so doing (and here is Paul’s quick explanation) Jesus “became a servant to the Jews for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made to the Fathers, and that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy [in bringing them into Abraham’s covenant as well]”.
So a quick reply to “why Jesus came,” while difficult and dangerous, would be “to fulfill all the OT promises of a messiah and to welcome the Gentile into the plan of God as begun through Abraham.” From there, explanation could fill out what this means.
Can we ask the “hard” question? What “if” Jesus is the agent of God and not God himself? And everything he did pointed to his God (YHVH), the Father, are we not in idolatry if we worship the agent as if he is God?
The agent was Yahweh incarnate, so it isn’t idolatry.
So you say “Yahweh incarnate”, does that mean you believe Yahweh was/is a man? We are commanded not to worship anyone but Yahweh. Please clarify.
Yahweh became man in Jesus Christ. When a first century Jew (or anyone thereafter) worshipped Jesus, he/she was worshipping Yahweh.
It isn’t idolatry because Jesus is God’s only-begotten Son. The Lamb of God is worthy of praise.
First century Jews and even Gentile Christians did not believe they were worshiping the Father when they worshiped Jesus. That confusion came later.
I like your hard question, and don’t have the same view as Mike on the identity of Jesus here. I don’t know how to describe Jesus, actually, when it comes to how he relates to Yahweh, though I don’t go as far as saying as Jesus incarnated Yahweh. I know Paul says (with no little shock value in Greek) that Jesus “imaged” Yahweh in Col. 1:15, but I don’t see that as the same thing as “incarnating” Yahweh. In general I am not satisfied with how evangelicals have generally described the oneness of God and Jesus; I find it unnecessary to identify them as “one,” for example, any more than a husband and wife are one (Eph 5:31) or Jesus and I are one (John 17:21-22). This is discussion for another post, of course.
I’m sure not everyone at DTS was thrilled with your thinking. You must take some flak in evangelical circles. As to your first point, “gods” means a lot of things in the Bible, including angels. Even Jesus quoted the verse, “ye are gods”. I’m not sure where you get the idea that gods cannot be categorized as either “evil” or “good”. Any god that does not worship God is against him and certainly if they desire human worship they are inciting idolatry. You are closer to the truth with your understanding of who Jesus is than mainstream Christianity. If you do write more about that I’d like to read it. I think you minimize the importance of the blood, however. You are right that it is not just about the sacrifice and God does make exceptions, but in principle, without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness. Jesus’ sacrifice was made so that we could be reconciled to God. He gave his life “as a ransom for many”. His blood sets believers free from sin, justifies and sanctifies them. They overcome by the blood of the Lamb. The blood was ordained by God to be powerful and salvific. The gods (principalities and powers, etc.) know this and try to distort the message, even encouraging the use of blood for diabolical purposes. If you ever get the chance, I’d like to know what you tell people when they ask you what they must do in order to be saved.
I have to presume this is directed to Ronn.
Correct. I don’t know how much you agree with Ronn’s thinking though it is clear that you disagree with him about who Jesus is. I subsequently began a discussion with Ronn through another venue on the issues I raised above and so far it seems that I agree more with him at least with regards to Christology than with the traditional view. It’s usually not a very comfortable conversation to have in Christian circles because that discussion got shut down over 1600 years ago on penalty of death. It’s a sad history which calls into question the legitimacy of the doctrine of the godhood from the start. On the other hand, I’m not sure I agree with his view of blood sacrifice, especially as it pertains to the significance of Jesus’ death. I know Ronn doesn’t come over to check responses on this site very often, so if you have a different view of the atonement than the traditional biblical one I briefly laid out, jump in if you want.
In high school you couldn’t just provide an answer to a math problem, even if that answer was correct. You had to show your work to prove the way you got to the answer was legitiment.I think that for centuries western Christianity had the correct answers, but they didn’t get there properly. Your’s and Dr. Heiser’s work provides the backdrop for how theology works. You come to the same old conclusions, but you get there in a way that makes more sense and does not ignore difficult passages from scripture.
I hope I can say thanks, presuming that “same old conclusions” is a good thing :). I often get accused of saying too many new things. My intention is to try to be biblical; I’ve learned, as has Mike, that evangelicalism can often get caught in the swirl of tradition, or get run over by the influence of historical inertia. I wish there was a kind of popular evangelicalism that enjoyed being enlarged by the questions we still can consider, and not feel threatened by them. This is why I like my Jewish friends; their religion has relished the minority and dissenting opinion, believing that someday someone smarter than them will come along and use all that has been supplied (even the wrong answers) to get it right. Evangelicalism has taken unto itself a guardian mentality that will only hurt us in the long run.
Really enjoyed this article Ron, and it’s my second time reading it. It really dove tails with conclusions I’ve drawn from my own studies on the divine council, principalities and powers.
I had a question regarding your first point; considering that Paul refers to the sons of God as “spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12), what made you draw the conclusion that they are not necessarily good or evil?
Sorry it’s taken me so long to get to your question. My point in its original context was that the sons of god in the OT were not described right out of gate as either-or when it came to their wickedness. Over time–and this was part of my dissertation at Dallas Sem on the subject of the OT gods–the spiritual forces which we pitted against Yahweh’s purposes received much of the attention of the biblical writer (kind of like the sort of people who get mentioned in tomorrow’s newspaper). There were gods who were aligned with Yahweh’s will, often acting as his messengers for example.
For Paul, he seemed to keep his vocabulary distinct when speaking of spiritual forces; he referred to “authorities” and “powers” when referencing the OT gods (notice he does not call them angels/angeloi), and (you reference the right text in Eph 6:12) when it comes to his subject matter for Ephesians, these gods are generally those who are wicked.
But back to it in the OT; when Yahweh said “Thou shalt have no other elohim before me,” he was referring to any created deities, whether they be good or evil or in between. That was my larger point. Elohim do not necessarily fall on either side of the good/bad divide in the OT. There may even be some who are wishy washy on their loyalty to Yahweh; we just don’t know how things work up there.
I recently learned for the first time, that Adam was “clothed” in a spiritual garment. This identified him as a Son of God. About the same time, I watched the movie “Gods of Egypt”. There were humans and then “the god”. This god had the ability to put on a similar persona, that identified him as part of the “council of gods”
This led to the point that all the Sons of God were created on day 6. Adam was part of that creation, but was singled out, and placed in the Garden. When Adam disobeyed, he lost that God persona. Eve, who was cloned from Adam lost her persona as well. They were no longer immortal Sons of God, because they died in that way. Humans all descended from them except the mixed bloodline when males from the Sons of God interacted with the daughters of the sons of Adam. After the Flood, the Sons of God could no longer reproduce. They became the Angels,.representing the Sons of God for the earth.
That leads us to the point that all humans are still “Sons of God”, who are mortal and can reproduce. However their persona in the spiritual realm would make up the host of angel messengers who have the capability of two way communication between humans and God. It is mostly in one direction. (the great crowd of witnesses). Humans technically are not evil. They just have the knowledge of evil and the freedom to carry out evil. Neither are humans good, but that is what they strive for in the concept of morality.
The catch is that God has a chosen people, Paul said that all Jews will be redeemed. They do not seem to have a choice, even if they are atheist and ungodly on the earth. The Gentile nations are the one’s who have a choice to choose God or not. This is from Paul’s account of the Olive tree and the wild branches that are grafted in.
There are different levels of Angels and created Beings, and Satan is an example. They are referenced as being as numerous as the stars in the heavens, The only reference of extra-terrestrials in the Bible. My last point though is angels and demons seem to hinge on what a human does while alive on earth. A Gentile who rejects God, has an angel who is bewildered and cannot understand the human choice, which leads to the angel becoming demonic and when the human dies has no where to go. A human who chooses God, upon death, is not necessarily re-united with their angel/persona, but they are both alive in Heaven. They will become one after the bodily resurrection.
This may be bordering on Gnosticism, but most if not all points seem to explain things a little better than the normal Roman Road explanation. Yes Jesus was the human persona of God himself on the earth. The reverse to the Adam choice that separated his earthly body from an immortal Son of God to a mortal human. Jesus was still the Lamb of God necessary to Redeem all mankind, but especially the Jews, and fulfill the Law. However for Gentiles it is still a choice. It always has been. God calls many, and they answer the call by Faith, and the Grace of God keeps them so long as they accept God and His ultimate holiness. I think that humans can be influenced, by this heavenly host of witnesses, but it is their own selfish choices that determine how they live their life. Salvation is not by works good or bad that judges the Gentiles. It is still a choice, and it seems that we can just as easily reject God, if we so choose.
This heavenly host while acting as “messengers” are also the one’s active in the struggle. Humans are constantly waging war with other humans who reject God, and this war is carried out by the angels. There are angels who have joined the fight just as the human has joined the fight on both sides of the struggle between God and Satan. This is not necessarily a physical war but a clash of ideology. In the past this was an actual fight to the death, when the Jews were actually willing to obey God. Now it is a wrestling match.