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)


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Is the divine council henotheistic?

There’s a rock and a hard place here for anyone who wants to use that term.

Richard Pierce, the president of Alpha & Omega Ministries, believes so. He takes Michael Heiser to task for being a henotheist who also claims to be Reformed.

Now, I’ve never heard Michael claim to be Reformed, and I’d be surprised if he did. It’s hard to see how he could be, given his faulty understanding of human freedom.

That said, does believing in the divine council make you a henotheist? If you believe God created mighty spiritual beings, whom he consults with (as per 2 Chronicles 18:18-22), to whom he delegates authority over earthly affairs (as per Job 1:6-12; Psalm 82:1-2, ESV), and under whom he placed the rebellious nations after Babel (as per Deuteronomy 32:8-9, ESV)…does that make you a henotheist?

Well, the only reason to even ask the question seems to be as a rhetorical strategy akin to a leftist suggesting that Christians are homophobes. It’s a scurrilous use of language calculated to refute by association, rather than by argumentation.

And in the case of the divine council theory, if you will permit me to mix my metaphors, it is a case of building a strawman to poison the well.

I say this carefully, having tried to interact with Richard in the abovelinked thread, and having received only “rofling, byeeee” as a response before being blocked and having the comments I’m about to make deleted.

Not exactly an impressive advertisement for Alpha & Omega (that’s the ministry of James White).

The rock and the hard place

Basically, Richard has two options here:

Define henotheism properly

In that case, henotheism is the transitionary point between polytheism and monotheism, in the supposed evolution of religion invented around the turn of the nineteenth century by liberal text critics like Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling. It permits worship of other gods—at least within a given pantheon of ontologically similar deities—but reserves worship for a particular god who is considered supreme.

That being the case, obviously henotheism is a flagrant mischaracterization of the divine council view. Yahweh is not a member of a pantheon, and he is not ontologically similar to other deities. Rather, there is a council of mostly unnamed deities who are contingent beings created by Yahweh, and over whom he rules as the transcendent, uncreated “I AM”.

Define henotheism really broadly

On the other hand, you can say that henotheism is simply a general affirmation of other deities in some broad sense. But then it loses all its rhetorical force—for if henotheism merely requires a basic affirmation of the existence of other gods, then Christianity is henotheistic even if you reject the divine council view:

And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 2 Corinthians 4:3-4

Bickering over words is not theological debate

I was reading just a few days ago an article about how often debates are swallowed up in pointless arguments about what terms mean. You see it constantly with atheists wanting to define atheism as a lack of belief in God.

I don’t really care how you define atheism. I care whether the view that there is no God is true.

Similarly, I don’t really care how you define the divine council view. I care whether it is true.

Now, I don’t think the terms monotheism and henotheism are at all useful here. They are unhelpful for describing the nuances of theology we find in the Bible precisely because they are Western Enlightenment religious categories. The authors and original audiences of the Bible did not think about the spiritual realm in Western Enlightenment religious categories.

What we should be doing, instead of sticking labels to people’s backs and then squabbling about their meanings, is marking out the actual views in question. For instance, here are three basic distinctions to draw when it comes to understanding divine council theology:

  1. The English term god is only broadly equivalent to the Hebrew term elohim. Following Heiser, I would argue that elohim refers to residence and role, rather than to ontology. Thus, supposing the Bible teaches that other “gods” (elohim) exist, the claim is that spiritual beings with certain authority exist; nothing more. If you don’t like calling them gods, call them elohim. That’s the word the Bible actually uses. (But pronounce it correctly: eh-lo-HEEM.)
  2. Whatever you call them, these other “gods” are created beings. There is the strong possibility that the New Testament refers to at least some of them as archangels. God is the sole transcendent being.
  3. The divine council view explicitly denies that these beings are worthy of worship. Thus, at best, you could argue that the divine council view is monolatrous. However, there’s still the question of whether monolatry presupposes (or is generally understood to presuppose) that all gods are in the same general ontological category. If so, then obviously that label fails to apply either in view of (2) above. Whatever you believe about the divine council view, it is unimpeachably biblical in its affirmation of God’s utter transcendence and “ontological peerlessness”. So just say that instead of trying to find a label.

3 comments

  1. Blake Reas

    Bnonn,

    Excellent responses to some common misunderstandings. I do have to wonder if we should take psalm 82 literally. I broadly agree with you, but Psalm 82 seems to be a polemic. YHWH sentences the Elohim to die. Seems we have two options: 1) these beings are not Angels, they are some other sort of being that is different from us, but can die. 2) this is pure polemic. Imagine hearing that YHWH executes the other so-called deities while you are worshipping in the Jerusalem Temple as a devout Israelite, especially if you had the image of Dagon having his hands and head cut off!!!

  2. Blake Reas

    When I read psalm 82 my mind goes directly to 1 Samuel 5. I am not sure psalm 82 depicts a real event but is using a word picture to tell a truth about YHWH’s power over other supernatural beings.

    3 And when the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, behold, Dagon had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of the LORD. So they took Dagon and put him back in his place.
    4 But when they rose early on the next morning, behold, Dagon had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of the LORD, and the head of Dagon and both his hands were lying cut off on the threshold. Only the trunk of Dagon was left to him.
    5 This is why the priests of Dagon and all who enter the house of Dagon do not tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod to this day. – 1 Samuel 5:3-5

  3. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hey Blake, good question. I’ve responded here:

    http://bnonn.com/does-psalm-82-refer-to-real-deities/

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