Sunday, December 19, 2021

The Heiser Bolt of Lightning

A couple of weeks ago I promised to devote an entire blog post to the bolt of lightning that hit my synapses when I read a single, throwaway paragraph in Michael S. Heiser’s The Unseen Realm. It was a delightful experience to find that the scriptures account for the cognitive dissonance I and other Bible students experience when we compare many prophecies in their original Old Testament contexts to their fulfillments as described by the writers of the New Testament.

A familiar example of such a “Whuzzat?” moment: Matthew’s use of the words “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

Out of Egypt

If you’ve never done it before, compare the original context in Hosea with the events Matthew says fulfilled this prophetic statement. You will readily recognize what I mean when I talk about cognitive dissonance. If the passage in Hosea was God’s way of saying he was going to have an angel warn Joseph take his family down to Egypt a few hundred years later to protect the Lord Jesus from Herod’s attempt to murder him, then it is a very, very obscure way to do it. Nobody reading Hosea would ever think of that. In Hosea it is abundantly evident the sinful nation of Israel is the “son” who was called out of Egypt.

There are lots and lots of these in the Old Testament prophetic scriptures, to the point where I have come to regard the use of most fulfilled prophecies in witnessing to the unsaved as a category error. I don’t think that’s what they were intended for, and I don’t think they work well as a witnessing aid no matter how many Christians use them that way. Even an unsaved person who takes the time to read and compare such prophecies and fulfillments for himself cannot help but recognize that two and two don’t make five, and call shenanigans on your claims that this and other such prophecies that “came true” are reasons they should believe Jesus is the Son of God and the Savior of the world.

And yet Hosea means what Matthew says it means. He affirms it under the direction of the Holy Spirit of God, and I absolutely believe him. Fortunately, there are no end of other reasons to believe in the sufficiency and finality of the word of God. We can easily dispense with trying to convince people about it on the basis of a subset of prophetic scriptures that were not fulfilled in ways the unsaved can readily comprehend.

Cognitive Dissonance

But anybody who studies prophecies in their original contexts has had my experience. What could possibly account for it? Why wasn’t God’s prophetic word in this instance and so many others explicit, literal and crystal clear? Sometimes it is. Lots of times, in fact.

The question troubled me for years, though it never shook my faith in the veracity of scripture. It was just one of those issues I simply had to leave with the Lord, recognizing that I was missing a piece of this particular puzzle, and that it would fall into place at the right time, like so many other things have done.

In setting this up, I need to establish a little background, because not everybody who reads the Heiser quote I am about to share with you has the same experience I have with it. But I believe he’s right because his view is consistent with the convictions I have arrived at from scripture about God and his relationship to delegated authorities.

God and Delegated Authority

So then, a few words about authority, which I am going to nick wholesale from an earlier post:

The God I read about in scripture is a God firmly committed to the principle of delegated authority. For delegation to be meaningful — rather than simply an empty gesture — necessitates that most of the time God allows things to carry on subject to the authorities he has established rather than getting personally involved.

And in fact this is what we observe. It is why genuine biblical miracles are, well, miraculous ... and exceedingly rare. Delegated authority is the principle on which God’s creation operates.

Even what we call natural laws are a form of delegation. They do not require trillions of individual acts of God’s will; rather, they are upheld by the merest powerful word of his Son.

Thus when I drop my pen I know that, all things being equal, it will fall down and not rise up. I know that, absent a willful act from some created being, the things in my environment that are presently organized will tend toward disorganization over time, and not the other way around. I know that snow will be cold and water will be wet. Good thing too!

My own self-awareness is a form of delegation. I am conscious of a “me” that can choose X and reject Y, and thus I exercise a measure of delegated authority over my own body and mind; in theory, the more the better.

Further, God has been granting to some of his created beings power over other creatures ever since he began creating. Heavenly authorities existed long before mankind was ever on the scene. Some will disagree, but I believe they operated (and continue to operate) without God leaning over their shoulders 100% of the time.

A Divine Finger on the Scales

That’s my understanding of what the Bible teaches about delegated authority in a nutshell. Michael Heiser thinks very much along the same lines as I do in this respect. John Piper does not. To Piper, creation exhibits the appearance of delegated authority, but not the reality. In Piper’s view, as in the view of many theological determinists, God is micromanaging every transaction in the universe from nine levels below the atomic to the thought processes of every (apparent) authority figure currently making decisions about your life and mine. People who think like Piper will not find Heiser’s view of the reasons for prophetic obscurity as helpful as I do. They believe their view of how things work is “higher” because in their minds it is more respectful of God’s well-established sovereignty.

Now, to be clear, I am not arguing that God never puts his finger on the scales or overrides his delegated authorities, I am simply arguing that those occasions are exceptional. The writers of scripture often make a note of God’s direct, personal involvement precisely because it is so rare for him to interfere with the ordinary operation of processes and people he deliberately put in place to make things run, and whom he will ultimately hold accountable for their actions. Of course, as the source of all life and energy in the universe, God is at some number of removes the original cause of every outcome, which is not the same as preferring those outcomes. But compared to the total number of things that happen in the universe, the number that are attributed in scripture to God’s direct involvement is vanishingly small, not because he could not be involved in every single transaction if he wished, but because his administration of the universe through delegated authority has made his personal involvement unnecessary at every moment.

The Higher Authorities

I will confess I have not done a lot of thinking until recently about the higher authorities in the universe, the “rulers and authorities in the heavenly places”. This is Michael Heiser’s spiritual bailiwick, and he has written more than one book on the subject. To be honest, he seems like a guy who has gone down a bit of a theological rabbit hole and may be in danger of seeing nothing but rabbits everywhere he looks. His chapter in another book on women’s headcovering and its connection to Genesis 6:1-4 is so patently ridiculous it is painful to read.

That said, Heiser’s basic thesis on heavenly delegated authorities is soundly supported by the scriptures and exceedingly helpful. I heartily recommend The Unseen Realm not because it is a perfect book, or because every scripture Heiser cites really supports his worldview, but because the concepts he discusses will open the average evangelical’s eyes to a way of looking at the heavenly realms and at humanity’s place in God’s hierarchy of delegated authority that makes sense of some of the more difficult passages in the word of God, and because so many of the passages he quotes unquestionably do support his thesis as to render his basic argument nearly impossible to refute.

The Bolt of Lightning

All right then. That’s it for delegated authority. Back to prophecy. So here’s my bolt of lightning. Heiser writes:

“By God’s design, the Scripture presents the messiah in terms of a mosaic profile that can only be discerned after the pieces are assembled. Paul tells us why in 1 Corinthians 2:6-8. If the plan of God for the messiah’s mission had been clear, the powers of darkness would never have killed Jesus — they would have known that his death and resurrection were the key to reclaiming the nations forever.”

As an explanation for the abstrusity of a certain subset of the prophetic scriptures, this absolutely works for me, but only because I have come to a place in my understanding of how God delegates authority that I am completely comfortable with the idea that he allows evil authorities to do their thing most of the time. Their day for giving an account is coming, and they will definitely get theirs. But for the most part, God does not strip the authority from his delegates immediately they abuse it.

An Uncomfortable Notion

As anticipated, people from certain theological schools find this notion highly uncomfortable. Here’s one. Atar at Biblical Anarchy writes:

“Obviously, this challenges the typical view of an omniscient, omnipotent God. Would such a being really have to sneak around behind the back of his adversary? Certainly not. He would be able to simply overpower Satan and his dark forces. For this reason, I find this view to be untenable.”

Not at all. Not at all.

Of course God could overpower Satan and his dark forces. One day he will. The Lord Jesus will kill the lawless one “with the breath of his mouth”. He will bring Satan’s plans to nothing “by the appearance of his coming”.

Of course God doesn’t need to “sneak around behind the back of his adversary”. But why would we imagine for a moment that God is strategically limited to the use of brute force to accomplish his ends? What if he has other goals in mind that we are ill equipped to comprehend? Why should we imagine he is obligated to reveal everything he is doing before he does it? And yet, in his grace, he voluntarily ties one hand behind his back and puts his plans right out there for Satan to see. Everything he is doing to accomplish his purposes, he is doing in plain sight. If his methods appear cryptic to us, it is only because we do not yet think the way he does. It is only by means of his Spirit that we have any insight at all into the divine mind.

The observable reality is that at the present time God does not choose to overpower those who oppose him, though he certainly could and inevitably will. At present, they are permitted to act out their little rebellion on a stage God created, in bodies and spirits he imbued with life, maintains by his grace, and could atomize at any moment with a thought.

So then, far from challenging the omniscience and omnipotence of God, such a view affirms both. Only an omniscient God knows what his enemies would do in advance and plans accordingly. Only an omnipotent God could afford to grant all his creatures — not just the compliant ones — genuine agency.

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