Stress-testing the
mind of Christ

Where a recovering ex-atheist rams the Bible into other worldviews to see what breaks (note: Scripture cannot be broken)


series
Constructive criticism of The Unseen Realm #3: perfection and freedom

In which I offer a friendly critique of some elements of Michael Heiser’s “Unseen Realm”—in this instance, his comments in chapter 8 on the nature of perfection, and genuine freedom.

Continued from part 2, on the identity of ha’satan in Job

Here’s another case of how Mike tends to trip up on more philosophical issues. But he is also not careful with the text itself here. Let me get that issue out the way first.

Mike makes a brief case from Job 4:17-19; 15:14-15 that “God’s heavenly council members are corruptible; they are not perfect” (loc 1035). I don’t have an issue with this in principle, but he draws his proof from Eliphaz’s soliloquies without even acknowledging that much of what Job’s friends say in general is straight-up garbage. That isn’t to say that Eliphaz is wrong on this point, but there is certainly no presumption that he is uttering inspired truth. Just because the author of Job recorded Eliphaz’s thoughts doesn’t mean they are true. Yet Mike fails to even acknowledge this, let alone give any reason to think Eliphaz is right on this point.

The broader issue, however, is how Mike cashes out perfection and freedom:

God knows that none of his imagers, divine or human, can be completely trusted. The reason is straightforward. Though imagers are like God, they aren’t God … Without genuine free will, imagers cannot truly represent God … Only God is perfect in the possession and exercise of his attributes … Beings that are lesser than God, whether human or divine, are not perfect. The potential for error and disobedience is by definition possible. (Loc 1047, 1071)

Unfortunately, though Mike says the reasoning here is straightforward, unraveling it proves to be anything but.

Mike seems to start with a conjunction of two ideas:

  1. Genuine moral agency involves the ability to choose from different “live” options. He says so in as many words: “For a decision to be real, it must be made against an alternative that could be chosen” (loc 1082).
  2. Sin is always a live option for created beings, by definition, because only God is perfect in exercising his attributes.

The first point is clear enough, and I’ll return to it shortly. But what is rather unclear is how the second point should be finessed. Why must sin always be a live option for creatures? Why can only God be perfect in exercising his attributes?

Can creatures be incorruptible/perfect?

Mike obviously wants to say, and rightly, that sin isn’t a live option for God. But at the same time, he seems to think it must be a live option for creatures.

Firstly, I’m fuzzy on why we should explain God’s inability to sin in terms of perfection or incorruptibility. Surely the reason sin is not a live option for God is that sin is to transgress God’s will, and God cannot transgress his own will, since that is a contradiction in terms?

But perhaps what Mike is getting at is more to do with acting virtuously. God will never act unvirtuously because he has a perfect character—but creatures, not having perfect characters, always have sin as a live option. Yet, while God’s perfection cannot be comprehensively conferred upon a creature—because it encompasses things like God’s otherness and his of-himselfness and his being the very origin or source of virtue—surely there is some sense in which creatures can be morally perfect. If we conceive of creaturely perfection as incorruptibility, we can certainly imagine a morally incorruptible creature; a creature we would say is morally perfect (or at least, not morally imperfect). To deny this seems to be like denying that creatures can be immortal. While it is true that only God has life in himself, there is nothing incoherent or problematic about God conferring upon creatures the inability to die. So why should it be incoherent or problematic for God to confer on creatures the inability to sin?

Mike seems to think that the reason creatures can’t have this kind of perfection is that they would not be genuinely free. In other words, a genuinely free creature could choose sin by definition. But even if we accept his view of freedom, it doesn’t follow that God cannot then create morally incorruptible creatures. For surely God could create creatures with naturally perfect characters, who could choose sin, but would never want to?

I just don’t get Mike’s reasoning here. He can’t be saying that genuine freedom strictly requires corruptibility, because God is genuinely free, yet not corruptible. So it seems like he must be suggesting that God cannot create a morally virtuous creature who would never want to sin. But why on earth should we imagine that God is limited in such an extraordinary way? Indeed, it’s hard to see how Mike’s own thesis doesn’t work against him. Surely a creature that accurately imaged God would image his character as well as his freedom? Does Mike think God cannot create a virtuous character out of nothing? His reasoning is opaque.

What about the eternal state?

Although Mike claims that, “The potential for error and disobedience is by definition possible” in free creatures, he acknowledges in a footnote that, “The kingdom of God and its residents (believers) will be restored and glorified after the final judgment” (ch 8, fn 2). In the last chapter of the book, he explains this further, quoting M David Litwa in We Are Being Transformed, who claims that believers:

…share in the reality of Christ’s divine body, which guarantees their participation in Christ’s attributes of incorruptibility and immortality (loc 6922).

The problem is, even if we accept Litwa’s view here—and I am only passingly familiar with it—and even if we say for argument’s sake that the only way to ensure the incorruptibility of creatures is by participation in the divine nature, this simply cuts the legs off Mike’s ideas about freedom. If we image God perfectly in the new kingdom, we are presumably at least as free then as we are now. Yet there is no danger of us sinning. Sinning is either not a live option for us, or we are so virtuous and/or invested in God’s nature that we don’t want to. But this simply contradicts Mike’s previous contention that sin is always a live option for created beings. So his entire thesis in this section seems self-contradictory and false.

Genuine freedom

This brings me to the question of genuine freedom itself. Mike seems to be saying that choosing between live options must be possible in order for our decisions to be genuinely free. Now, aside from the worry I’ve articulated of why one of those options has to be sin, there is another very serious problem here:

Simply put, this view of freedom is highly controversial. It is by no means self-evident, and it is not derivable from Scripture.

What Mike is espousing is called the principle of alternate possibility (PAP). It is a major feature of the libertarian view of freedom held by freewill theists: one of their “governing intuitions.” But while Mike takes PAP to be self-evident, even many libertarians either repudiate it entirely (some Molinists for example), or attenuate its importance with a view called restrictivism, which says that most of our decisions don’t involve alternate possibilities at all.

So however you slice it, even among freewill theists alternate possibilities are not (always) a requirement of genuine freedom. Yet Mike simply assumes they are as foundational to his case.

Now, I don’t have a problem with freewill theists like Mike taking freewill theism as foundational to elements of their theology. That’s just how things go. But when even other freewill theists will admit that PAP, the element Mike asserts is critical to “genuine” freedom, is in fact probably not critical to genuine freedom…and when there are entire streams of carefully-thunk philosophical theology which argue that the relationship required between God and the world entails that PAP must be false…and when the contradictory of PAP can, in fact, be directly exegeted from Scripture itself or proved from the nature of God as love…it reflects poorly on Mike—to say the least—when he assumes that PAP must be true.

To be fair, I realize that he has a lot of ground to cover and space is limited. So I don’t expect him to necessarily defend his view. He is welcome to say, “I take for granted that genuine freedom requires the ability to choose otherwise.” But when he doesn’t even acknowledge that alternative views exist, or that his assumption is fairly controversial with very strong reasons to doubt it, he looks bad. Either he is being dishonestly partisan in his presentation, or—much more likely—he is so ignorant of his topic that he doesn’t know he is being partisan.

Needless to say, if you don’t even have a basic awareness of the current state of play on a field, you shouldn’t try to give people commentary on the game. I don’t see that canvassing the issue of freedom is really relevant to Mike’s central thesis. It felt like a needless diversion—like he was jumping all over the place rather than heading in one direction. And unfortunately, because I have a basic familiarity with the topic he was trying to teach on, I felt genuinely embarrassed for how ignorant and inept his comments were.

Sadly, the worst is still yet to come…

Continued in part 4, on predestination and foreknowledge

6 comments

  1. Herschel Carlson

    I am thankful for these comments. I was shocked by some statements of the author–anti-credalism, misrepresentation of the hypostatic union, divinization of the body, and many others. The case seems to be made on the basis of passages capable of various interpretations (e.g. SoD in Jeremiah, which can easily be seen in contexts of Jeremiah and Job to be “counsel” rather than Council), ignores the variant understandings (often the prevailing ones!), and builds a case for an extravagant re-understanding of Scripture upon his authoritative statements primarily. Poetic language is presented as strictly literal without due respect to poetic conventions (even his key text, Psalm 82). Theologically, many comments border upon heresy, and linguistic/exegetical proofs often violate Barr’s/Carson’s caveats.
    I just do not see this treatment as replacing classical, orthodox, historical Angelology; nor do I see this extent of “remythologization” as required to do justice to Scripture and the cultural contexts of it’s human authors and early readers. On almost every page, at some point, I have written the word “excessive.” I am really struggling with the book. Practically, apologetically, do we really preach this to an educated world? Would that not add an offense to the Gospel that precludes the offense of the Cross?

  2. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hi Herschel, I’m actually writing this series because I agree with Mike’s overall thrust.

    For example, treating sod in Jeremiah as the counsel of God simply ignores both the immediate context and the larger socio-religious allusions that we know are going on. It’s just indisputably talking about the divine council. We know that it’s not metaphorical language for hearing and reading and being loyal to the Torah because Jeremiah 1:4, 9 clearly that the word of Yahweh is the person of Yahweh (exactly as John 1:1 says). To “stand” in the council can no more mean “standing in God’s counsel” than the word of Yahweh “standing” by Samuel’s bed in 1 Samuel 3 can refer to a scroll walking about.

    Your comment about Psalm 82 is also well wide of the mark. Reading Psalm 82 in light of Psalm 89, and the many other places in Scripture we see the divine council in action, simply makes a reading of elohim as referring to human rulers impossible. I confess I am very puzzled by people’s difficulty with this.

    Theologically, many comments border upon heresy

    That’s a pretty serious charge. I think you need to document that kind of statement. I obviously think Mike is very mistaken about a number of important issues, but I don’t think he is a heretic, and to be honest I’m getting quite fed up with seeing supposedly discerning, well-taught Christians screeching hysterically and throwing their hands in the air with shouts of “henotheism” and suchlike. That’s just bearing false witness.

    linguistic/exegetical proofs often violate Barr’s/Carson’s caveats.

    I agree that he over-reaches on exegesis. He is not careful enough with his conclusions, and he handles the evidence sloppily sometimes. There are definitely places where he draws a conclusion as if the evidence has entailed it, when quite obviously it has not, even though the conclusion is often reasonable. Indeed, I’ve documented some of that already. I’m not an apologist for Mike; I just want to see him treated fairly, and I think that his overall divine council thesis is both true and exceedingly helpful.

    nor do I see this extent of “remythologization” as required to do justice to Scripture and the cultural contexts of it’s human authors and early readers.

    Okay, but you have to realize that plenty of well-informed, careful theologians like myself disagree. Indeed, judging from my own experience, I would say that an important percentage of the next generation of Christians completely disagree with your assessment. Re-contextualizing these “problem passages” has opened up the Bible to them and greatly advanced their appreciation and understanding of it—as well as their confidence in it.

  3. Hope

    Hi! I was just recently told about Dr. Heiser’s book, and have found it very interesting thus far. As always, I take it with a grain of salt, and I enjoyed your friendly criticism. When are you going to put out the last part of this series? I’m looking forward to reading it.

  4. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hey Hope, thanks for your encouragement. You should know that I have a chronic condition called “Starting Things and Not Finishing Them.”

    God willing, I’ll be putting out the next installment in the next few weeks. But, we’ll see, won’t we…

  5. Larry

    As with ‘Hope’ above, I too am new to this book and some of it does not sit well with me. I was quite happy to find your well reasoned critique. I truly am looking forward to you going on to the next portion.

    Larry

  6. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hey guys, just letting you know that I’ve finally published the next part of this series:

    http://bnonn.com/constructive-criticism-of-the-unseen-realm-4/

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