Saturday, January 10, 2015

Wesleyans and Grudem (Angels)

Some of my previous posts in this series include:

Chapter 19 Angels
1. To begin with, there was not much in this chapter to which a Wesleyan would object as a Wesleyan. For example:
  • Wesleyans believe that angels are created beings, created sometime in between Genesis 1:1 and the Fall of Adam.
  • Wesleyans do not believe that angels marry (e.g., Mark 12:30)
  • Most, if not all Wesleyans would believe that there are lots of angels and that they are powerful. (To be frank, I don't hear Wesleyans talking about angels very often. Practically speaking, this is not a major area of conversation for most Wesleyans).
  • Angels show the greatness of God's love. They carry out some of God's plans. 
  • Wesleyans (again, without really discussing it much) would believe that angels are present in the world around us. But it would make us uneasy if someone put too much emphasis on them. We certainly do not believe in worshiping them. We would entertain the possibility that angels take human form and appear to people from time to time (although we might hesitate to express certainty about any individual instance).
2. There was one section a Wesleyan should find problematic in tone. Grudem writes, "If God had decided to save only five human beings out of the entire human race, that would have been much more than justice" (403).

In this section, Grudem is arguing that angels show the greatness of God's love for us by contrast. God did not try to save angels. He did not send Jesus to die for them. But God did send Jesus to die for us. This is where the quote above occurs.

Technically speaking, Wesleyans would agree with the quote above, but not with the tone. God did not have to save anyone. However, Wesleyans would say that God's disposition toward the creation is love. In that regard, we would have been completely baffled if he had not made a way of salvation. Sure, he didn't have to save one. But it is no surprise that he made it possible for everyone to be saved.

Therefore, as Wesleyans, we believe that God would have even saved Satan himself if that were at all possible within the parameters he has created for this universe. What are those parameters? Those are the parameters of free will. The difference between humans, who can be saved, and the fallen angels, who cannot at this point, must therefore be in the nature of our wills rather than in God's openness to it.

In particular, the human will must surely be more pliable, less resolved than that of the angelic will once such decisions have been made. We must suppose that Satan's free will, once fixed, will now never be unfixed. Perhaps our wills will turn out to be the same in our glorified bodies. In that sense, our wills will never turn against God once in the kingdom. Similarly, the wills of those who are against God presumably will never change thereafter.

3. There are a number of questionable moments in this chapter, not from a Wesleyan standpoint, but from that of a contextual Bible scholar. I have said repeatedly that Grudem is a premodern reader of the Bible. He reads the words flatly as the words of one book from Genesis to Revelation with the words in one part more or less having the same meaning as words in another part.

When we come to a subject like angels, where Jewish thought changed significantly over the course of the writing of the Bible, this approach ends up with a bizarre concatenation of pieces that do not really go together.

Here we get back to a fundamental fact. The books of the Bible were revealed in the categories of their audiences. To find the voice of Scripture as a whole, the whole council of God, you cannot simply mix and match verses from here and there and assume they all mean the same thing.

For example, Grudem more or less adds up the different names for heavenly beings, as if these are different things: seraphim, cherubim, etc. But we should be very careful about adding these pieces together. We don't know what they literally point to. All we have are the kaleidoscopic images of Israelites and Jews looking at them through the lenses of their day. Inspiration never came in a bubble. It always came in categories that made sense to those to whom God wanted to speak.

It is incredibly difficult to study the intertestamental period in any depth and not be struck by how much the language of the Bible in this category has been affected by the language of apocalyptic Judaism. Yet almost no one in Christianity today accepts that body of imagery as inspired. [1] In short, we must be very careful not to assume that all the angelic imagery of the Bible is straightforwardly literal. Genres we don't recognize are involved. Fantastic symbolism is involved.

4. Finally, there are a number of interpretations in this chapter that are at least questionable. For example, I do not believe that Colossians 2:18 was about the worship of angels but about a Jewish group that believed they were mystically worshiping with angels. It does not change any of Grudem's points, however.

Similarly, I think it is incorrect to portray the Sadducees as liberal. Many, including myself, do not see Acts 23:8 as a denial of belief in angels and spirits but as a denial of different forms of afterlife. Peter's angel in Acts 12:15 may refer to a form that Luke saw people taking between death and resurrection. Again, this is only one set of biblical imagery, one that expressed truth in Luke's categories. We should not take it as how it works literally, minus the symbolism and worldview.

The Bible seems ambiguous on guardian angels. You should not base a doctrine on one verse, and Matthew 18:10 seems about the only really substantive basis for the idea.

Lastly, there is the angel of the LORD in certain Old Testament passages. Notice again that this is a passing image in a certain part of the OT. In other words, it is not a whole Bible image. This immediately pushes us toward seeing it as an expression of truth in the categories of Moses and a certain layer of the OT. [2] It may or may not combine with other images elsewhere.

However, the angel of the LORD would seem to be a messenger from God who so represented God that a person who had received word from this angel could be said to have seen and talked to God himself. No doubt we--and later Jews--would have wanted to word such encounters more carefully, with greater distinctions between God himself and his messenger. But at this point in Israel's history, when polytheism was the default surrounding culture, it was not so crucial to emphasize these points.

5. In summary, there is very little doctrinally in this chapter with which Wesleyans would disagree. The only point is where Grudem is asking why angels cannot be redeemed. Here Wesleyans agree with him on their non-redemptive status, but we disagree on the reasons why they will not be redeemed. Finally, Grudem's use of Scripture is generally non-contextual, so his interpretations should be read with caution.

[1] The Ethiopian church would be an exception, since they consider 1 Enoch inspired.

[2] I am using this traditional language for simplicity. I'm not making an argument for authorship above.

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