I’ve been asked by a couple of people to respond to Thomas Howe’s thoughts on The Unseen Realm. For those unfamiliar with Dr. Howe, he teaches apologetics at Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, a school deservedly well known for important work in that field.
In what follows, I’ll pull some portions of his “review” (I’m not sure if it was intended as an official book review) and respond. I’m not going to go point-by-point to it as I have published articles on the things he brings up, and readers can get the information as to why he’s incorrect in those sources.
Dr. Howe begins by taking issue with this statement of mine early in Unseen Realm (p. 12):
Was my loyalty to the text or to Christian tradition? Did I really have to choose between the two? I wasn’t sure, but I knew that what I was reading in Psalm 82, taken at face value, simply didn’t fit the theological patterns I had always been taught.
Dr. Howe writes:
Now, what does it mean when he says “face value”? Does “face value” mean what the text says apart from any interpretation? This cannot be the case for him since he says the “face value” did not “fit the theological patterns I had always been taught.” If he surmised that the face value did not fit, this can only be because he had understood the text in a certain way that caused this conflict in his mind. But, to take the text in a certain way is not “face value.” It is the meaning that he got from the text when he understood it, interpreted it, in a certain way. This already reveals a hermeneutic philosophy that predisposed him to arrive at a certain conclusion. Whether this initial interpretation was wrong or right is not at present the issue. What is at issue is that it reveals his latent hermeneutic philosophy.
Dr. Howe’s musing essentially sets up a straw man. He presumes what I meant and then proceeds from that point. I didn’t mean that the text has meaning apart from interpretation. I don’t know anyone who would think that way about any text. So Dr. Howe is incorrect that this method (one he assigned to me which I don’t hold, nor that I know is held by anyone) was my method. Consequently, his criticism lacks merit, as it was based on a flawed assumption that he himself assigned to me.
He goes on to ask (of Psalm 82, which the first pull quote was referencing):
How does he come to know how the biblical writers would have understood the spiritual realm? The only access, if he in fact is loyal to the text, is the text itself. But, there is no place in the text that specifically instructs the reader on how the biblical writers would have understood the spiritual realm. So, to what sources would he have gone to discover these facts?
This last question (what were my sources) is answered in the book – indeed, in the same and the ensuing chapter. My sources were the Hebrew text of the Old Testament. Psalm 89 is a clear commentary on the meaning of Psalm 82. The same council language found in Psalm 82 appears in Psalm 89 (as I noted in the book), and the latter psalm specifies that the council and its sons of God are “in the skies” (the spiritual realm; Psa 89:5-8, noting v. 6 in particular).
I reference other parallels to Psalm 82 within the Old Testament, where meetings between God and his heavenly host are in view, where the members of the assembled group are clearly spiritual beings (e.g., 1 Kings 22:19-23), so my sources are sufficiently (indeed explicitly) clear. I’m not sure how Dr. Howe missed them. Nevertheless, he presses on with an important assertion that introduces readers to an important question / issue:
He would have to have an always-already-present hermeneutic grid, that is a hermeneutic philosophy, in order to discover the hermeneutic grid in the text. To claim that he went to the text to discover how they would have understood the spiritual realm is therefore circular. I go to the text to discover how they would have understood the spiritual realm, I interpret the text in such a way that I grasp how they would have understood the spiritual realm, then I use these conclusions to show how they would have understood the spiritual realm.
I did indeed discover my hermeneutical philosophy in the text, and it is evident everywhere in Unseen Realm. It’s actually pretty simple. Here are my interpretive assumptions (my “philosophy”) that helped me discern my “hermeneutical grid”:
- I assume Scripture’s re-purposing of Scripture should guide what we think about the meaning of the text. Hence my approach to Psalm 82 via the path of Psalm 89, 1 Kings 22, etc.
- I assume that the Scripture writers were communicating to people intentionally – people that lived in their day and who shared their same worldview. This assumption is in place because I’m sensitive to imposing a foreign worldview on the writers.
This is anything but circular, as Dr. Howe charges. Thousands of readers reading Dr. Howe’s paragraph above would have quite a bit of trouble understanding how I don’t do what Dr. Howe describes himself doing. It should be apparent that I did what he recommends as his own method. I suspect that my conclusions are what trouble him, and that he can’t see himself coming to the same conclusions, and so he must “see” something wrong with my method.
Frankly, my method (and so, Dr. Howe’s) is simple and uncomplicated. If I was reading a book by Dr. Howe I would be quite influenced in my interpretation of it when I saw him commenting on something he’d written in the book in a subsequent portion of the book. It would seem quite evident that I need to let him interpret himself and then make that part of my “hermeneutic” for understanding his work. This is the first bullet point above clearly illustrated.
Dr. Howe proceeds with an astonishing statement next:
Heiser says that we need to understand the culture in which these statements are made, and I understand and agree with this fact, but one must also interpret what one reads about the culture. All we have are things and texts that remain, and all of these are subject to interpretation. If one’s interpretive methodology is flawed, then his interpretations of these other matters are as flawed. Additionally, there are no extra-biblical Hebrew documents to which we can appeal for clarification, at least not until you get to the writings of the Essenes.
This is an exceedingly odd complaint, and one that might be alarming for people doing apologetics in regard to the content of the Bible. Why? There are no extra-biblical Hebrew writings for the entire Bible until the Second Temple Period (the time of the Essenes). The earliest epigraphic Hebrew we have are letters, none of which provide any commentary at all on the Hebrew Bible. And so, if we’re looking for “extra-biblical Hebrew documents” to properly interpret the Hebrew Bible, we’re out of luck. That ought to frighten anyone doing apologetics on biblical passages about which there is conflict or which are used by opponents of Scripture. I guess we have no other literary sources to help us!
The complaint simply makes no sense at all.
As with any passage of the Hebrew Bible, Old Testament scholars look to cognate literature from the biblical world to assist understanding. It really helps us understand, for example, the conquest narratives by looking at Egyptian war itineraries. And since parts of Joshua’s conquest tracks on the Ugaritic Tale of Keret, it might be useful to look at that. And I’d suggest as well that looking at ancient Near Eastern covenants might help us with biblical covenants. And when it gets to really weird stuff (like the test for adultery in Numbers 5), it might be useful to look at ancient Near Eastern divination / ordeal texts to inform what the biblical writer is thinking—and not thinking. This is precisely why getting a PhD in Hebrew Bible demands learning a range of Semitic languages and dialects (a dozen in my case). But if we’re looking for “extra-biblical Hebrew documents” to explain such things (and hundreds of others), woe unto us. We have no help. And to take the oddity of the complaint one step further, Dr. Howe would have us defer to material (rabbinic thought) LATE than the Essene material to find the “sons of God are just men” idea!
The reality is we don’t need ancient Near Eastern cognate literature to understand Psalm 82. Biblical material is just fine. And so it’s good to follow the first bullet point (Dr. Howe’s — and my own — method).
That the “sons of God” are heavenly beings is transparent from passages like Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7-8. The “sons of God” of Psa 89:6 (Hebrew, v. 5, benê ʾēlîm) are “holy ones” in a “council” and “assembly” that is “in the skies” (PSa 89:5-8). No ambiguity there. When we take that information to Psalm 82, a few psalms earlier, the same council terminology occurs (Psa 82:1). In Psalm 82:6, we encounter sons of God (there called “sons of the Most High” – which must mean “sons of the God of the Bible” since there is only one “Most High” in orthodox biblical thought). They are called elohim in that verse (Psa 82:6)—as they were in Psa 82:1! When we look for other “heavenly council” passages we encounter 1 Kings 22:19-23, where the members are “spirits” (not men). One could add Daniel 4’s note about a “decree from the Watchers” (Dan 4:17)—which takes our thoughts to Daniel’s other divine council scene, Daniel 7:9-10 where there are multiple thrones and the “court” (council) is seated for judgement.
No “extra-biblical Hebrew documents” needed for this. But when we get to the Second Temple Literature, we find that dedicated Jewish thinkers and priests were reading Psalm 82 just like I’ve outlined above.
All of the above is in Unseen Realm. There is nothing new here. In addition, there are thousands of pages of peer-reviewed scholarship on these items. I reference many of those works in the book as well. Ignoring or sidestepping these data results in missing the important theological polemic of the biblical writers against the polytheistic outlook of ANE civilizations (not to mention Jesus’ clever use of Psa 82:6 in defense of his own deity claims; see below).
The preceding item points to the real disconnect between the method of Dr. Howe and myself. Though we employ the same strategy of the first bullet point, it is the second bullet point that separates us. Dr. Howe is simply unfamiliar with the contextual material that would help his thinking in bullet point one (i.e., it would help him notice things in the Hebrew text that would inform him of how to read the text). This is no comment on a flaw of intelligence or commitment to the enterprise of understanding the biblical text. Dr. Howe has had a long career that has helped a multitude of people think well. Rather, it reflects the fact that his field isn’t the interface of the Old Testament with ancient Near Eastern material. As a result, his comment about the Essenes and “extra-biblical Hebrew documents” would shock anyone in Old Testament studies. The thinking simply does not correspond to the reality of research in the Hebrew Bible.
The rest of Dr. Howe’s post reflects a common misreading on his part about elohim. I make it clear in Unseen Realm that its meaning (its semantic) depends on grammar. He’s therefore arguing my point for me when he brings that up. His foray into Exod 22:8 and John 10 tell me very clearly that he didn’t follow either my peer-reviewed articles in Unseen Realm footnotes to check on such things, or those articleswritten by other scholars on those points. For readers at this juncture, with respect to Exodus 22:8 you can read my Bible Translator article “Should Elohim with Plural Predication Be Translated ‘Gods’?” Bible Translator (vol 61, no 123): 123-136. On Jesus’ use of Psalm 82 in John 10:34, and how the supernatural elohim view reinforces Jesus’ claims to deity in the gospel of John, you can listen to Episode 109 on the Naked Bible Podcast or read my 2012 regional SBL conference paper on the subject. If readers do not have access to the Bible Translator article because they don’t have access to scholarly journal databases, they can sign up for my newsletter here and view the article behind a protected folder (the link is at the bottom of each newsletter; issues go out every 3-4 weeks). For general thought on elohim, readers are encouraged to peruse the archive of my published articles on that point and the Chapter 4 tab on the book’s companion website, More Unseen Realm (also repeatedly referenced in the footnotes).
I think these replies are sufficient to demonstrate that Dr. Howe has missed some crucial things in his review and that his rebuttals are very weak. I should point out for him and for readers that I delivered conference papers at both evangelical and non-evangelical scholarly societies on all these points and passages, and then successfully submitted those papers for publication under peer review. The point is that my work isn’t idiosyncratic, is embraced in evangelical Old Testament scholarship, and isn’t arbitrary in any way. I went through the conference and peer review process to have field experts catch any errors in method or data. I’m successfully on the other side of that now, and the work is reflected in Unseen Realm.
I’d like to end on a positive note. Though I think Dr. Howe’s criticisms are misplaced, let there be no mistake in the minds of readers that I value the fact that he took some time with the book, and that his own ministry of scholarship has served the cause of Christ well. Many in my audience will be served well by his work in apologetics and philosophical theology.