Bnonn Tennant (the B is silent)

Where a recovering ex-atheist skewers things with a sharp two-edged sword

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Constructive criticism of The Unseen Realm #1: filters and mosaics

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5 minutes to read In which I offer a friendly critique of some elements of Michael Heiser’s The Unseen Realm—starting with his idea that viewing the Bible as a mosaic means throwing out our “filters”.

One of the books I’m currently working through is The Unseen Realm by Michael Heiser.

I think this is an especially important book for the church, primarily because it is the only one I know of that really lays out, for a popular audience, the supernatural worldview which the biblical authors and readers took for granted. Indeed, its subtitle is, Recovering the supernatural worldview of the Bible—and this is a project I think is extremely valuable. Very briefly, I would say that learning what this book teaches will bring the Bible alive for you, and help you a great deal in understanding not just its more obscure passages, but its entire trajectory. You get a much clearer idea of what’s going on “behind the scenes”—and this is as helpful as it is important.

I preface this series with these comments because I don’t want you to think that I’m just critical of the book in general. My disagreements are specific; not general.

That said, in this series I’m going to critique certain elements of the book, and I’m not going to sugarcoat that I think these are really pretty bad. But bear in mind that the only reason I’m doing this is because I think this book is a really valuable project in general, and I’d like to see it more widely circulated in the evangelical community. For that to happen, you want as few issues as possible for evangelicals to object to. So if I can contribute to correcting errors, perhaps evangelicals will take a second edition of the book even more seriously than the first.

In other words, I don’t mean this series as a polemic, but as a friendly critique. So I’ll be calling Mike by his first name, because it’s easy to sound nasty when you use someone’s surname.

Without further ado, let me get to the first issue that strikes me as important:

Filters and mosaics

Near the beginning of Unseen Realm, Mike relates the watershed moment he had reading Psalm 82 in Hebrew for the first time. He then talks about how most of his education had been conducted using “filters”:

The content I learned was filtered through certain presumptions and traditions that ordered the material for me, that put it into a system that made sense to my modern mind. Verses that didn’t quite work with my tradition were “problem passages” that were either filtered out or consigned to the periphery of unimportance. (Loc 170)

Psalm 82 broke his filter, and he goes on to describe an alternative method for reading the Bible, which he calls the “mosaic”:

The Bible is really a theological and literary mosaic. The pattern in a mosaic often isn’t clear up close. It may appear to be just a random assemblage of pieces. Only when you step back can you see the wondrous whole. (Loc 183)

Sections like this are awkward for people like me to read, because it’s obvious that Mike is out of his depth when his views are riding on the waters of philosophy rather than linguistics. That’s not something I fault him for, any more than I fault a philosphical theologian for being out of his depth on the morphology of Semitic languages. But I think Mike needs to be more cognizant of his weaknesses, so he can find a philosophically-astute editor to help him through these kinds of arguments (the same criticism will apply even more to later issues in this series).

Here’s the problem with the “filters and mosaics” dichotomy: A mosaic does not construct itself. Since the Bible it is not a literal mosaic, we have to put its pieces together ourselves. That means we need some kind of system—including various presumptions—to synthesize and systematize the parts into a coherent whole. And once this system is passed on—for example, through a book!—it becomes a kind of tradition. Yet presumptions and traditions are exactly the components of the “filters” that Mike rejects. In other words, while he thinks he has abandoned a filtered approach to the Bible in favor of seeing it as a mosaic, what he has actually done is simply throw out a faulty filter and replace it with a better one.

Indeed, it seems to me the whole point of Unseen Realm is that we cannot properly understand the Bible unless we understand the presumptions and traditions of its original audience—how they ordered the material into a system that made sense to their ancient minds.

In other words, Mike’s whole project could be summed up as: Replacing our modern filter with the one used by the biblical authors.

I agree with this project—but thinking it involves having no filter leads to bungles like the one I’ll discuss in the next post. Mike’s strange notion that he has cut himself loose of filters unfortunately makes him blind to the “presumptions and traditions that order the material for [him], that put it into a system that [makes] sense to [his] modern mind.”

Let me give one pertinent example to illustrate before I close. At the end of chapter 9, he writes:

Loyal members of God’s “congregation” (council), sent to minister to us (Heb 1:14), have embraced God’s Edenic vision—we are brothers and sisters (Heb 2:10-18). (Loc 1230)

If you read Hebrews 2:10-18, you will see that it is verses 11-12 in particular that Mike is picking up when he says we are brothers and sisters with the loyal members of the divine council (crudely put, the angels):

That is why Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying, “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.”

This in turn is citing Psalm 22:22. The problem is, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that the congregation in question here is the divine council. Indeed, the very passage he cites from Hebrews seems to drive a wedge between the angels and human beings, saying in vv 16-17, “For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect”. And if you follow the clues from Hebrews 2:11-12 to Hebrews 12:23, where it speaks of “the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven,” and then back to Exodus 4:22, you discover that the congregation is probably the assembly of Israel, and of the church.

This isn’t to say Mike is wrong about the sons of God being our brothers in some sense—but it illustrates that he does indeed have a powerful filter through which he interprets the text. A “divine council” filter. I think that’s a good filter to have, but not if it becomes unreflective. We shouldn’t take the mere mention of a congregation or assembly to be automatically referring to the divine council, unless that fits the context. In this case, the context seems to imply the opposite.

TLDR: I think Mike needs to revise his take on filters and mosaics, and make more allowance for both, so we can all move toward a thoughtful and reflective use of them both in their proper places.

 1 comment

Tom Ragsdale

“For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect”.

Bnonn, do you think that is an accurate translation of Hebrews 2:16? That word translated “helps” in the ESV is επιλαμβάνεται (epilambanetai) which means “to seize (for help, injury, attainment, or any other purpose; literally or figuratively):—catch, lay hold (up-)on, take (by, hold of, on).” It is talking about how Jesus chose to take on (seize, grab ahold of) the nature of human beings (the seed of Abraham), not the nature of angels. The Son of God may very well have shown Himself to people in Old Testament times in the form of an angel (see Numbers 22 and Genesis 16 and Gen 21:17 and Gen 22 and Gen 24:7,40, Gen 48:16, Ex 23:20-23, etc. etc.), but now He came in the form of a human being, since the goal now was for Him to suffer and die for His people, something He may not have been able to do while in a mighty angelic form. epilambanetai means to seize forcibly. If someone I loved was about to fall into a raging river I would seize them forcibly to help them and save their life. But if I were a police officer trying to break up a fight or stop a crime being committed, I would seize the offender, not necessarily to help them, but to have him arrested. Paul was seized in that manner in Acts 16:19, and so was Sosthenes in Acts 18:17. Jesus forcibly seized for Himself the nature of human beings in order to be like us so He could identify with us and die for everyone who believed in Him.