Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Book Write-Up: The Unseen Realm: Q&A Companion, by Douglas Van Dorn

Douglas Van Dorn.  The Unseen Realm: Q&A Companion.  Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016.  See here to purchase the book.

Douglas Van Dorn pastors the Reformed Baptist Church in Colorado.  The Unseen Realm: Q&A Companion is based on biblical scholar Michael Heiser’s The Unseen Realm.

Van Dorn states the purpose of his book on page vii, in the “Preface”:

“The target audience for Dr. Michael Heiser’s recent book The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible was primarily the academic reader—-pastors and professionals in other fields accustomed to digesting closely researched material.  While The Unseen Realm is nevertheless quite readable, this primer meets the need for a more accessible abridgement of The Unseen Realm‘s core content.”

Although this book is a concise rendition of Heiser’s arguments, Van Dorn sometimes expresses disagreement with Heiser and explains his reasons for disagreement.

Van Dorn’s book is organized in a question-and-answer format.  There is a question, the question is followed by a concise answer, and the answer is followed by supporting Scriptural references.  There are little letters within the answer (a, b, c), marking thoughts, and those letters are matched with Scriptural references that support those thoughts.  This book is like a catechism.  There are also footnotes that contain references to secondary literature as well as more extensive discussion.

The book covers a lot of the same subject-material as Heiser’s The Unseen Realm.  Such topics include the existence of a divine council with gods; the identity of the serpent who tempted Adam and Eve; the union of divine beings with daughters of men, producing Nephilim; the rule of gods over nations, and the activity of Christ in overturning that; and Jesus’ presence in the Old Testament as the visible, second YHWH.

The book has assets.  First, the book lays out many of the Scriptural references that are directly relevant to Heiser’s thesis.  There are passages that get quoted repeatedly, such as the relevant excerpts from Psalm 82, Isaiah 14, Ezekiel 28, etc.  This could get tiresome, yet it was probably unavoidable, since these are key passages in Heiser’s arguments.  Overall, the Scriptural layout was quite effective, in terms of supporting a point in the answer.  On pages 64-65, for example, Heiser states that nachash (the Hebrew word translated as “serpent” in Genesis 3) relates to divination or shining, and he refers to Scriptural references to support this, providing Hebrew transliteration in parentheses.

Second, Van Dorn sought to delineate clearly among the different spirit-beings.  Heiser did not do this as clearly in The Unseen Realm, in my opinion.  On page 97, Van Dorn presents a question that I had in reading Heiser’s book: “Does the Hebrew word translated ‘demon’ in the Old Testament describe the same evil spirits the New Testament describes as ‘demons’?”  Van Dorn answers that question in the negative.
Third, Van Dorn effectively explained how the spirit beings in Genesis 6 cohabited with the daughters of men, when Jesus seems to imply in Matthew 22:30 that angels cannot have sex.  Van Dorn’s answer is that the angels assumed human form, which happens in the Hebrew Bible.

Fourth, Van Dorn occasionally referred to an interesting scholarly insight.  On page 71, Van Dorn quotes Romans 5:12 to say that “death spread to all men with the result that all have sinned.”  This clause has been significant in Christian debates.  Some have interpreted the passage to mean that all humanity sinned in Adam, deserving the guilt of original sin.  Some maintain that it means that people earn their own death because of their own sins.  Van Dorn interprets the passage to mean, however, that death resulted in people’s sin.  Van Dorn cites an article about this translation: C.E.B. Cranfield, “On Some of the Problems in the Interpretation of Rom 5:12-21,” Scottish Journal of Theology 22 (1969) 323-341.

While this book has its advantages, people who read this book instead of Heiser’s work would be missing out.  Although Van Dorn briefly mentions Bashan, Van Dorn’s brief reference does not do justice to Heiser’s compelling discussion.  There is no discussion in Van Dorn’s book about how Bashan’s possible status as a place of supernatural evil relates to Matthew 16:18 or the cows of Bashan in Amos 4:1.  Van Dorn’s book is helpful because it clarifies many of Heiser’s main arguments, but Heiser is the book to read if you want to eat the buffet rather than samplers.

A critique that can be made about Van Dorn’s book is that it is not too clear about the current implications of Jesus’ defeat of supernatural evil.  On page 109, Van Dorn affirms that Jesus has defeated supernatural evil and rules over it, but what are the implications of that?  What specifically and concretely is different now, in comparison to the time before Jesus came?

Finally, there is a question that somewhat nags me, after reading Heiser and Van Dorn.  Hebrews 1:5 states (in the KJV): “For unto which of the angels said he at any time, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee? And again, I will be to him a Father, and he shall be to me a Son?”  The author of Hebrews is probably encouraging the audience to elevate Christ above the angels, and one of his arguments is that Jesus is God’s Son.  But if the angels, too, were sons of God, does that not undermine Hebrews 1:5’s argument that Jesus is superior to the angels because Jesus is God’s Son?

Heiser and Van Dorn both argue that the sonship of Jesus was different from the sonship of the sons of God in the divine council, and a key distinction is that Jesus was begotten by God.  Hebrews 1:5 does mention Jesus being begotten, but one can inquire if the begettal there is the same as the Father’s eternal begettal of God the Son within the Trinity, or Jesus being begotten in the sense of being unique.  Hebrews 1:5 may refer to Jesus being begotten at the incarnation, or at his baptism.  Even if the sonship of Jesus is different from the sonship of the divine sons, Hebrews 1:5 seems to be arguing that Jesus is God’s son, whereas the angels are not.

Perhaps one can differentiate between angels and the sons of God within the divine council, which would indicate that the angels are not sons of God, and thus Hebrews 1:5 is consistent with the Hebrew Bible.  As Heiser and Van Dorn know, however, the sons of God came to interpreted as angels, as the Greek term for angels became a more generalized term for spirit beings, rather than simply a term for a divine messenger.  The LXX of Deuteronomy 32:8 and Job 1:6 translates the sons of God as angels.  Jude 6 interprets the sons of God in Genesis 6 as angels.  Is Hebrews 1:5 an heir to a tradition that said that angels, not sons of God, did the deeds of Genesis 6, Deuteronomy 32:8, and Job 1:6?  Heiser and Van Dorn strike me as people who believe that the Bible is a univocal revelation from God (though Heiser seems to acknowledge different stages of revelation), so I wonder how they would reconcile Hebrews 1:5 with the Hebrew Bible’s claim that there are sons of God.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest!

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