Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Angelic kenosis

Bnonn has commented a post of mine:

i) I'd begin by noting that in the post he critiqued, I wasn't really exegeting Gen 6:1-4. I have discussed the exegetical questions in more detail elsewhere. For instance:

ii) I'd like to say a few things about Michael Heiser. Bnonn has probably read or seen more of his stuff than I have. Heiser occupies an intermediate niche. On the one hand are secular Bible scholars who approach Bible history from a naturalistic standpoint. On the other hand are theologically orthodox Bible scholars who affirm and defend Biblical supernaturalism. When, however, confronted with ufology or paranormality, they basically bury their heads in the sand. They don't engage the putative evidence. They just say God wouldn't allow it. 
To his credit, Heiser does perform yeoman service by sorting and sifting through the swamp of ufology. I'm glad he takes the supernatural seriously. But from what I've read of it, I think his theology is sometimes unorthodox. And I think he overworks the "divine council." 
His popularity is due, in part, to the fact that he's a scholar who studies issues that interest many people–issues that most other scholars (secular or theologically orthodox) neglect or disdain. His popularity is also due in part to the fact that lots of his stuff is available for free. These things have made him influential. 
When theologically orthodox scholars vacate the field, that leaves a void which is generally filled by New Age opportunists. Heiser is several notches above that. However, he suffers from a lack of better competition. 
iii) Bnonn says:
Understanding the sons of God to be divine beings is not a fringe view, nor a modern one. In fact, it was the exclusive view until about the second century AD. It is reflected in 1 Enoch 6, Jubilees 5, the Septuagint, Philo (De Gigant 2:358), Josephus (Ant. 1.31), the Dead Sea Scrolls (1QapGen 2:1; CD 2:17–19), Justin, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Origen, among others.
Unfortunately, the phrase that comes to mind when I see that list is "legendary embellishment." From time to time the Bible makes cryptic, tantalizing statements which generate reams of extrabiblical pious fiction. A literary tradition that takes on a life of its own.
iv) I'm also like to make a point about assessing supernatural explanations. Consider an illustration. On the issue of large numbers in the OT, Colin J. Humphreys said the following: 
A further reason relates to the crossing of the Red Sea, which the book of Exodus records happened in less than one night. 1.75 million people, ten abreast and 1 metre apart, would form a column of people 175 kilometres long. It is hard to believe that so many people could cross the Red Sea on foot in one night. 

Now a Christian might object on the grounds that we're dealing with a miracle. But I think that's too indiscriminate. Parting the Red Sea is a supernatural (or preternatural) event, but crossing the Red Sea is a natural event. God does the parting, but humans do the crossing. The Israelites crossed on foot at a natural pace. God was able to teleport them from one side to the other, but he didn't. When it comes to interpreting the narrative description, when it comes to visualizing the scene, it's not inappropriate to consider logistics. It's not wrong to ask if 1.75 million Israelites is a realistic figure. To say "it's a miracle," or "God did it" is not an adequate response to that specific issue, for the narrative doesn't say or imply that there was anything supernatural about the Exodus in that particular respect. To appeal to a miracle to solve that problem (if it is a problem) would be a classic deus ex machina. Hence, it's proper to question the traditional interpretation of the figures. 

Even within a supernatural framework, we need to be consistent. We need to follow through with the same principle–be it natural or supernatural. Not begin with one principle, but end with another–after changing horses in midstream. Not begin with a horse but end with a unicorn, or vice versa.   

v) With that in mind, let's begin by stating what the angelic interpretation amounts to. To recast the claim in modern terms, humanoid angels mated with human females, thereby procreating a race of genetically-enhanced supersoldiers. It's a paranormal form of genetic engineering. 

Now, I don't have any antecedent objection to the supernatural interpretation. But considered on its own grounds, I think it lacks internal consistency. 

There are degrees of interspecific compatibility:

a) Many species lack sufficient anatomical compatibility to copulate with other species.

b) Of the subset of species that pass that barrier, many species lack sufficient genetic compatibility to reproduce with other species.

c) Of the subset of species that pass that barrier, many species lack sufficient genetic compatibility to reproduce fertile offspring by other species. 

The physical constraints for interspecies breeding are extremely exacting. For the angelic interpretation to be feasible, I think angels would have to become human. Wholly human. 

If so, that's a trick you can only perform once. By that I mean, you lose your angelic powers in process of using your angelic powers to become human. You put your angelic nature behind you. Angelic kenosis. An angel that turns itself into a human can't turn itself back into an angel, because it ceased to be an angel. By exchanging greater powers for lesser powers, it lacks the supernatural ability to restore itself from lesser to greater. Even if a supernatural agent can make itself a natural agent, a natural agent can't make itself a supernatural agent.   

It's like stories of immortals who fall in love with mortals. The immortal lover can't raise the beloved mortal to his level, but he can lower himself to her level–by relinquishing his immortality. Yet once he trades down, that's what he's stuck with. There's no going back to what he was, for he gave that up. He no longer has access to his erstwhile superior abilities. 

If, however, angels became merely human, then their offspring would be merely human. Not superhuman hybrids. So I don't think the angelic interpretation is consistent all the way through. 

Compare that to pagan gods who sire offspring by mortal women. Although that's mythological, it has a certain inner logic. The gods are humanoid to begin with. Physical beings. Like genetically enhanced humans. The range along a common continuum with man. Therefore, their offspring by mortal women would be demigods: more than human but less than divine. Sharing qualities of each. 

If you reject anthropic interpretations (e.g. the text is about the rise of prediluvian Nimrods), then a theogonic interpretation is more coherent than an angelic interpretation. But, of course, treating Gen 6:1-4 as a bowdlerized theogony is harder to defend on orthodox grounds. At best, I suppose you could try to classify that interpretation as polemical theology. 

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