Heiser's Supernatural

Several days ago I received copies of Michael Heiser's new books The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible and Supernatural: What the Bible Teaches about the Unseen World — and Why It Matters from Lexham Press. Supernatural is the shorter, more popular-level work. Therefore, it is the first of the two that I read. This first paragraph is my brief reflection for those with short attention spans: The book addresses a very interesting subject, i.e., the "supernatural" or the "spiritual realm" as it is depicted in the Protestant Christian Bible. There were many points where my thinking was provoked regarding (1) Heiser's exegesis and (2) the theological implications of many of his observations. This being said, I am glad that I have a copy of The Unseen Realm because I'm the type of person who likes it when an author "shows his/her work" and Supernatural isn't that sort of book. It is shorter at 167 pages and there isn't a whole lot of font per page. So, I must refrain from having too firmly held a position on whether I find Heiser's arguments about this or that passage convincing until I read his fuller treatment.

Now let me say a bit more for those who want to hear more. To my earlier point regarding this topic. It is one that needs to be addressed. I know quite a few Christians who claim to believe "everything" in the Bible, but this usually means they haven't reflected on that claim or that they've chosen the more sanitized interpretation of problematic passages, even when the sanitized interpretation doesn't make as much sense of the text. From what I can tell from a book without footnotes, or further documentation, Heiser doesn't seem fazed by passages that may make strange claims when read critically. So, for example, he is not only unbothered by several passages that present God being part of a heavenly council, but seemingly energized by them. I know many Evangelicals (a.k.a., Heiser's audience) who would presume that some of the things Heiser says in this book jive better with LDS theology than they do Evangelical theology. And this goes to expose how many Evangelicals claim to be "biblical" without first reading the Bible to make sure they want to stand by that claim.

The chapters are short at about 6-12 pages on average. Of those chapters there were a few that made me anticipate reading Unseen in order to view a more developed exposition. Chapter 5, "Cosmic Geography" examines the ancient Israelite view that the other nations had "gods" but that Israel was the "possession" or "inheritance" of the Creator God. This theme sheds a lot of light on quite a few passages throughout the Hebrew Bible and it may help us understand formative Christianity as well (side note: my mind was taken to Tim Gombis' The Drama of Ephesians which examines how the "principalities and powers" factors into the author's [Paul?] worldview). I find that this book will provoke students of early Christianity to revisit some of the echoes and influences of the Hebrew Bible in the New Testament (more on this in a second). Another example is Chapter 9, "Holy War", which presents some intriguing interpretations of Genesis 6's Nephalim in conjunction with the "holy wars" of the Book of Joshua. I'm not quite sure what to make of what Heiser argues, but I'm listening, and I think Unseen will give me a chance to watch Heiser connect the dots.

Other chapters bothered me a bit, but this may be due to my expectations rather than the author's intent. Heiser's rhetoric seems to suggest that he's going to give a straight-forward reading of the Bible, but this has a caveat. You sort of have to share quite a few of his presuppositions for this to work. For example, in Chapter 4, "Divine Rebellions", he finds Satan in Genesis 3. Now, of course, so have other interpreters over the centuries (e.g., Revelation 12)...but I don't think that the early authors/composers of Torah had "Satan" in view here. Or, in Chaper 6, "The Word, the Name, and the Angel", Heiser argues that the "angel of the Lord" is to be interpreted as "God in human form. The angel was the second person of the Trinity—who would later be born of the Virgin Mary." (p. 63) Are these perfectly fine Christian theological readings? Sure, I guess, but that seems to me to kinda, sorta contradict what it is Heiser presents himself as doing in this book. I began under the impression that this was going to be sort of a "historical-critical-to-theological" reading, since Heiser's exegesis seems to value the historical-critical approach (or, as some Evangelicals call it: historical-grammatical). Maybe I misunderstood what was going on here or maybe after reading the introductory chapters to Unseen I came to expect something different from Supernatural. I don't know.

Heiser's overarching organizing principle in this book seems to be—from a positive angle—a "canonical" reading or the outworking of so-called "biblical theology", which is from a more pejorative angle called "biblicist". On the one hand, I do really, really appreciate how Heiser traces themes throughout the Protestant Christian Bible. As I've noted, already, there is material for the study of "OT in the NT" to be found in this book (beginning primarilywith chapter 10). So, for example, Chapters 11 and 12 will help readers rethink the Gospels; Chapter 13, the Book of Acts; etc. 

On the other hand, call me too liberal if you want, but when I read lines such as "Do you really believe what the Bible says?" (p. 11) I shrug and say, "Maybe not, but that doesn't make my theology bad." Christians have often read the Bible in a way that may be historically-critically incorrect, yet theological advantageous. Heiser may or may not agree with this, but I think it is true of his own practice in the book (e.g., finding Jesus in the OT, or the Trinity in Gen. 1). Later he suggests, "The Bible is a controversial book. People who don't see it as the Word of God often object to what it says." (p. 87) I may be wrong here, but I think many Christians often object to what it says—consciously or unconsciously—and whether it be Origen of Alexandria, Augustine of Hippo, or Martin Luther, there is a strong tradition of reimagining problematic texts, finding "meaning" that may not jive with a historicist reading of the text...yet is as Christian as any hermeneutic available to us. I know Heiser's audience, and I know this works with them and makes sense to them since they share a certain view of what it means to respect the Bible and interpret it correctly, but I must disagree with those groups and these presuppositions about the Bible.

So, who then would benefit from Supernatural? Evangelicals, primarily. More specifically, people who describe the Bible using language such as "inerrancy" and probably "infallibility", who see the Bible as basically in agreement with itself from Genesis to Revelation. It will challenge this sort of person to ask themselves, "Do I really believe what I say I believe about the Bible?" (Which is quite different from "Do I really believe the Bible?") Or, if you just want the "gist" of Heiser's arguments on this topic without all the footnotes, then this is your best bet. If you're not this person, then you probably are better off just reading Unseen, which is next on my agenda. I think it will be more my sort of book.

[Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book in exchange for a review and there is an ad for this book on the righthand side of the blog that was placed there in exchange for product credit for Logos. That said, I don't think that either perk prevented me from giving an honest assessment of the book.]