Carmenn Massa and Dodging the Real Arguments

   I was directed to a blog article that took a shot at A&O based not upon what I have published in my books on Catholicism or Mormonism (the writer is a young Roman Catholic), not upon what I have written on our website, not upon what I have said in formal debates against Catholics or Mormons (more than forty such debates are widely available), not even upon what I have written in a blog article or taught in a Sunday School class or Sunday sermon. No, Mr. Massa, though he has all of that material available to him upon which to draw for foundation for criticizing me and this ministry, chose instead to go after some short e-mails written by my partner in ministry, Rich Pierce. Rich often answers the e-mails that he doesn’t think need to be sent on to me (which is the vast majority of incoming mail) and yet which may require some kind of response. The topic, ironically, involved the interchange between Massa, a Roman Catholic, and a Mormon, on the use by LDS apologist Kerry Shirts of materials from Dr. Michael Heiser, one of the Academic Editors for Logos Bible Software. Over the years various folks, primarily evangelicals of one sort or the other, have called and promoted Heiser’s views of the “heavenly council” as a “better” way to approach the issues surrounding the LDS use of Psalm 82. Heiser takes the view that the beings referred to in Psalm 82, while ontologically distinct from Yahweh and lesser than the one true God, are yet, in some sense, divine beings, following the common view of much of secular scholarship in asserting a kind of “divine council” in early Hebrew thought. Heiser’s interpretation of Psalm 82 is quite different than my own, and evidently some folks (one fellow in particular) called, and wrote, repeatedly, asking us to have Heiser on The Dividing Line. Rich mentioned this to me, but aside from looking at his view, noting my rejection of it, I didn’t give it too much more thought.
   Evidently, at some point, a correspondent sent Rich’s challenge to Heiser’s view, which was basically, “What does Psalm 82:7 mean when it says ‘You will die like men'”? to Heiser directly. Heiser responded:

I see he still hasn’t read my ETS papers. Oh well. The questions are a lot easier if you don’t look at all the data. Those of us who are in the orthodox camp and whose training is in semitics know things aren’t this easy, and glib responses won’t suffice.

   Rich says he forwarded these to me, but looking at the dates (May, 2006), I know this was around the time of my debate with Shabir Ally at Biola, hence, I do not even recall reading them in more than a superficial manner. I know I would have responded to a statement like that, had I been in a position to do so. Rich attempted to explain to the correspondent that he was wasting everyone’s time trying to get us to have a guest on the DL that we clearly were not going to invite, but some folks just don’t give up. One more round of “cc this to such and such a person” took place, and Heiser commented again:

I don’t mind people disagreeing with me when they read and understand the material. I do mind being dismissed (even if I am not privy to the discussion that refers to me) since I have spent my life as a believer defending the faith. I’m not offering “theories” – I am offering exegesis that was good enough for a doctoral degree in semitics, one that was earned while retaining a belief in the orthodox faith and inerrancy. I believe you when you say your answers were serious. Please believe me when I say they are deficient, and will provide no sound defense against those who seek to use Psalm 82 and other passages against the faith. I speak here primarily of Mormons, neo-gnostics, and neo-pagans. My agenda is to oppose error and nothing more. When someone like Mr. Kennedy takes an interest in these topics, you should read the material before answering in ways that won’t address the issues he has detected in my own papers and (I guess) others. We’re all on the same side.

   Both of these comments are dated May 23rd in the e-mails I am looking at.
   So though this is really not “on my plate” at the moment, being ten days out from a debate on the uniqueness of Jesus over against the multitude of secular claims about Jesus being the creation of early Christians drawing from such materials as the Osiris myth, Mythraism, etc., I am taking a few moments here to respond to Massa’s citation of a particular paragraph from Heiser’s “Heavenly Council” document which in essence summarizes the conflict. And may I say directly to Mr. Massa: if you want to attack A&O in the future, I would suggest you do so on the basis of published materials, not e-mails that directly and repeatedly state that the opinion being offered is NOT based upon first-hand research. It would help your credibility out a good bit. You might start with my exegesis of James 2:14ff in The God Who Justifies.
   Let me first provide my comments on the citation of Psalm 82:6 in John 10:34 from Is the Mormon My Brother? pp. 155-158:

I Said You Are Gods
   John chapter ten is one of the most beautiful in all of Scripture, for it speaks of the Lord Jesus’ relationship to His people in the terms of the Shepherd and His sheep. In the midst of talking about the glorious salvation that belongs to those who know and trust Christ, Jesus asserts that He and the Father are one in their bringing about the final and full salvation of all those who are given by the Father to the Son (vv. 28-30). When the Lord says, “I and the Father are one,”[1] He offends the Jews, who realize that such a claim implies deity. No mere creature can be fully one with the Father in bringing about redemption itself! This prompts the dialogue that concerns us here:

“I and the Father are one.” The Jews picked up stones again to stone Him. Jesus answered them, “I showed you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you stoning Me?” The Jews answered Him, “For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy; and because You, being a man, make Yourself out to be God.” Jesus answered them, “Has it not been written in your Law, ‘I SAID, YOU ARE GODS’? If he called them gods, to whom the word of God came (and the Scripture cannot be broken), do you say of Him, whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?” (John 10:30-36)

The use of this passage in LDS literature is widespread. “I said, you are gods” is used to substantiate the idea of a plurality of gods, and men becoming gods. Yet, even a brief review of the passage demonstrates that such is hardly a worthy interpretation, and some of the leading LDS apologists today avoid trying to press the passage that far, and for good reason.[2] The unbelieving Jews seen in this passage, with murder in their hearts, are hardly good candidates for exaltation to godhood. What is more, the Lord Jesus uses the present tense when He says, “You are gods.” So, obviously, He is not identifying His attackers as divine beings, worthy of worship by their eventual celestial offspring! What, then, is going on here?
   When we allow the text to speak for itself, the meaning comes across clearly. As usual the context is determinative. The Jewish leaders were acting as Jesus’ judges. They were accusing Him of blasphemy, of breaking God’s law. Their role as judges in this instance is determinative, for the Lord is going to cite a passage about judges from the Old Testament. The Jews make it plain that they understand Jesus’ words to contain an implicit claim of equality with God (v. 33). It is at this point that the Lord quotes from Psalm 82:6, which contains the important words, “I said you are gods.” But when we go back to the passage from which this is taken (and surely the Jewish leaders would have known the context themselves), we find an important truth:

God takes His stand in His own congregation; He judges in the midst of the rulers. How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Vindicate the weak and fatherless; do justice to the afflicted and destitute. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them out of the hand of the wicked. They do not know nor do they understand; they walk about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken. I said, “You are gods, and all of you are sons of the Most High.” (Psalm 82:1-6)

Here we have the key to the passage, for this is a psalm of judgment against the rulers of Israel. God takes his stand in His own congregation, that being His own people, Israel. He judges in the midst of the “rulers.” The Hebrew term here is “elohim,” which could be translated “gods.” The NASB however, recognizes that the context indicates who is being discussed, for the next verse reads, “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked.” Who judges unjustly and shows partiality? Human judges, of course, human rulers amongst the people. Hence, the NASB rendering of “elohim” as “rulers.” It is important to recognize the use of the term elohim in verse 1, for the very same term appears in verse 6, and is what lies behind Jesus’ citation in John 10:34. Before moving on in the text, it should be noted that even at this point recognizing that this passage is talking about unjust human rulers removes this passage from the realm of possible passages to cite in support of a plurality of gods, and certainly, Jesus was not, by citing this passage, calling His accusers true divine beings.
   When we get to verse six, we find that God has placed the judges of Israel in a position of being “gods” amongst the people. They were entrusted with the application of God’s law. God calls them to vindicate the weak and fatherless and to do justice to the afflicted and destitute (v. 3). This is their task, their duty. But they are failing that duty. They are not acting as proper, godly judges. Verse six, then, begins the pronouncement of judgment. Jesus only cites the beginning of the judgment-which was enough to make His point. But since many today do not immediately know the context the way the Jews did, we need to point it out. The rest of the phrase Jesus quotes is this: “Nevertheless you will die like men and fall like any one of the princes.” Such is hardly the terminology one would use of divine and exalted beings! And this explains the use of the present tense verb “You are gods” in John 10:34. Jesus is saying His accusers are, right then, the judges condemned in Psalm 82. And what kind of judges were they? Unrighteous judges, who were judging unjustly. Jesus was calling His accusers false judges, and they well knew it.
   That this is the meaning of Jesus’ use of the passage is seen by going back to John chapter ten. Jesus refers to these rulers as those “to whom the word of God came.” Surely this is an apt description of the rulers who were set to judge in God’s place. Once He has made His application, and identified His accusers as false judges, He then asks, “Do you say of Him, whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God.'” Here He points to their judgment of blasphemy and contrasts their errant decision with the Father’s sanctification and sending of the divine Son. The folly of their false judgment is manifest to all. This is the meaning of the passage, and pressing it to support the idea that men can, after aeons and aeons of evolution, become gods, only shows how far removed the LDS position is from biblical Christianity.
1) We should note that this passage is not teaching that the Father is the Son. The doctrine of the Trinity expressly denies the identification of the Father and the Son as one Person. The verb used in this passage is plural; hence, it can literally be translated “I and the Father, we are one.” LDS often assume that Christians are modalists, who believe the Father and the Son are one person, when this is untrue. The issue is always one Being shared by three Persons.
2)In fact, the common LDS usage of the passage is directly contradicted by a leading LDS authority, James Talmage, in his book, Jesus the Christ, 15th ed., rev. (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1977), p. 501, LDSCL. Note Talmage’s words:

Divinely Appointed Judges Called “Gods.” — In Psalm 82:6, judges invested by divine appointment are called “gods.” To this scripture the Savior referred in His reply to the Jews in Solomon’s porch. Judges so authorized officiated as the representatives of God and are honored by the exalted title “gods.” Compare the similar appellation applied to Moses (Ex. 4:16; 7:1). Jesus Christ possessed divine authorization, not through the word of God transmitted to Him by man, but as an inherent attribute. The inconsistency of calling human judges “gods,” and of ascribing blasphemy to the Christ who called Himself the Son of God, would have been apparent to the Jews but for their sin darkened minds.

   In light of Dr. Heiser’s claim that this viewpoint cannot give you grounds for responding to Mormons, I point the reader to the rather lengthy and in-depth discussion of just this very text with Brigham Young University professor Dr. William Hamblin from eleven years ago, found here.
   With this in mind, we note Dr. Heiser’s objections to this exegesis, an exegesis that he himself notes is held by “many scholars”:

Many scholars understand the plural elohim of Psalm 82 and 89 as human rulers, namely the elders of Israel, no doubt due to the specter of polytheism. This position is highly problematic. If these elohim are humans, why are they sentenced to die “like humans”? A clear contrast is intended by both the grammar and structure of the Hebrew text (Prinsloo; Handy, “Sounds”). At no time in the Hebrew Bible did Israel’s elders ever have jurisdiction over all the nations. There is no scriptural basis for the idea that God presides over a council of humans that governs the nations of the earth. In fact, the situation is exactly the opposite—Israel was separated from the nations to be God’s own possession, while the other nations were abandoned by Yahweh to the rule of other elohim in the wake of the incident at Babel (Deut 4:19-20; 32:8-9 [LXX, Qumran]; cp. Dan 10:13, 20; Heiser, “Deut 32:8”). It is also difficult to see how the corrupt decisions of a group of humans would shake the foundations of the earth (Ps 82:5).(“The Divine Council, 2.2″)

   Let us begin by laying aside non-issues. The Old Testament makes reference to angelic beings, creatures of God that are not human but are not divine either: they are creatures, created beings, dependent upon Yahweh for their existence, yet they inhabit heaven, worship God, and are used by Him to accomplish His purposes. The issue here is a simple one: does Psalm 82 give us sufficient contextual information to determine the audience addressed relating to the judgment of God? I believe it does, and that its answer to the question of who the “gods” are is different than that offered by my LDS opponents, as well as Dr. Heiser. As he well knows, scholars have divided over the issue, and I am surely not alone in my viewpoint. I do believe, however, that there is an important point to be made about lining “scholars” up on one side or the other. This text is cited in John 10:34. Only a (today) relatively small percentage of modern “scholarship” will care about how this text is used in John. That is, outside of believers, how this text was understood centuries after its original writing is irrelevant, since they believe the Bible to be merely a collection of books without any coherent, let alone consistent, message. And amongst liberal Christians who do not hold to a canonical view of inspiration and consistency, it is common to ignore the relationship of one’s interpretation of one text in relationship to another (for an example of how the Psalm can be handled in such a fashion, see Marvin E. Tate’s comments in the Word Biblical Commentary series, volume 20). But for the believing Christian, Jesus’ use of the text must be taken into consideration, and I truly believe that the exegesis offered above fits perfectly with Jesus’ own citation of the text and conclusions drawn therefrom. I do not believe Heiser’s allows for Jesus’ application in John 10.

   First, Heiser alleges that the “many scholars” who hold the view that the judges of Psalm 82 are the judges of Israel, i.e., are human beings living in the day of the Psalmist, do so “no doubt due to the specter of polytheism.” I disagree. The activities of these judges are plainly human. Unless one is going to assert some kind of cosmic justice play wherein these elohim are involved in judging unjustly and showing partiality to the wicked, what other context can be offered? Exactly how are angelic beings to be judged for unjust judgment regarding the weak and the fatherless, in biblical theology? How are the bene-elohim to deliver the weak and needy out of the hand of the wicked? Does Heiser suggest some kind of group of intermediate beings who are morally involved in bringing judgment in defense of the widows? Who are these beings, and where do we get the information that they, rather than the judges of Israel, would be held accountable for the sad state of affairs in Israel that so often brought the condemnation of the prophets? These seem like obvious, and fair, questions.
   Next, Heiser asserts that seeing these as human judges is “problematic” because “If these elohim are humans, why are they sentenced to die ‘like humans’?” He insists that “a clear contrast is intended by both the grammar and structure of the Hebrew text.” First, this question does not answer the questions posed above. Secondly, aside from making reference to two scholarly articles, some specific argumentation as to what exactly about the grammar and structure of the Hebrew text communicates this “clear contrast.” What about the phrase ‮אָ֭כֵן כְּאָדָ֣ם תְּמוּת֑וּן‬ demands that “like a man” means “you are not a man”? It is true that אָ֭כֵן is used in such a way as to produce a contrast, but Heiser is reading too much into this to insist it is a contrast of being. Rather, the contrast is between the honors given to these judges by God in verse 6, and the judgment that will overtake them for their unfaithfulness and unrighteousness in judging in verse 7. While the judges may be called gods, and may view themselves as above God’s judgment (is this not a common theme in the prophets in calling for humility from the leaders of Israel?), the fact is that their judgment is coming: they will die (is this not the normal term for human death?) and they will fall—another term often used in judgment pericopes, is it not (Jeremiah 6:15)? So if the terms are used in these ways, what, exactly, from the text demands Heiser’s interpretation?
   Next, Heiser makes the observation that “At no time in the Hebrew Bible did Israel’s elders ever have jurisdiction over all the nations.” That is hardly a disputable statement, however, upon what solid principle of interpretation are we to take the final verse as an assertion that they did? Note what it says: “Arise, O God, judge the earth! For it is You who possesses all the nations.” There is an obviously unwarranted leap from the Psalmist’s reflections upon God’s judgment of the judges of Israel who have judged unjustly and his final plea that justice will be done in all the earth, since Yahweh owns all the nations. The assumption is that if the Psalmist calls for justice in the earth, then the aforementioned judges must have authority over “all the nations.” Just what is the basis for such a leap of interpretation? One is hard pressed to know, unless Heiser is translating the last verse as a call to the “elohim” as a group, which seems highly unlikely.
   Next, Heiser asserts that Yahweh has “abandoned” other nations “to the rule of other elohim in the wake of the incident at Babel.” I think it is a tremendous leap to move from the reality that Israel had a special relationship to Yahweh (by his own choice) to the idea that Yahweh’s rulership had been abandoned over all the nations of the earth. Yahweh is the “Lord of all the earth” (Joshua 3:11, 13); all the earth is to fear Yahweh (Psalm 33:8); he is the great king over all the earth (Psalm 47:2). There is simply no reason to confuse the special covenant relationship Yahweh established with Israel, for His own purposes, with an abandonment of His rulership over all the nations, especially in light of the fact that the prophetic announcement of God’s accomplishment of His purposes is over all the earth, not just over Israel.
   Finally, Heiser expresses difficult in understanding how, if the judges here referred to are in fact human judges, “the corrupt decisions of a group of humans would shake the foundations of the earth.” This ignores the obvious biblical teaching that Yahweh is a God of justice, for as the Psalmist put it, “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne” (Psalm 97:2). The same term referring to the “foundations of the earth” is found in Psalm 18:8 where God’s wrath makes them tremble and quake; Isaiah 24:18 likewise uses the term metaphorically in reference to God’s wrath coming in judgment; they are called as witnesses by Yahweh against His people in Micah 6:2, again, a metaphoric use. The point of the Psalmist is actually rather easily seen: when justice is perverted, as it is by these judges, the proper order is perverted. Men walk about in darkness. The foundations of the earth are shaken (metaphorically, as in the other texts cited). The very foundation of society is its righteous judges, and much is said in Scripture about what happens when unrighteous judges sit amongst the people.
   So we find no reason to accept Heiser’s objections to a position that has been held by many, and that is perfectly consistent with a high view of Scripture and canon. But briefly, how would Heiser’s position fare in John 10? There is no discussion of this in the linked file from which the above citation is taken. But let’s consider for just a moment the argument of John chapter ten. How would the citation of Psalm 82:6 function as a meaningful defense given Heiser’s view that what we have there is in reality not ontologically true “gods,” equal with Yahweh, but non-humans, divinities of a lesser order? This seems to be his thinking, for at the end of his paper he writes,

The belief in two powers in heaven was a contributing factor in the advent of what scholars have termed “binitarian monotheism” in Second Temple period Judaism (Hurtado, “Binitarian”), which in turn contributes to our understanding of the advent of New Testament Christology. This contextualizes the description of Jesus as the monogene4s (sic) (“unique”; Grudem, 1233ff.) son of God in the New Testament. Since the Hebrew Bible is clear that there are other sons of God (bene ha elohim), New Testament writers clarify that Jesus, as the same essence as the Father, is unique among all heavenly sons of God.

   It seems Heiser is suggesting that while Jesus is “unique” He is still “among” the “heavenly sons of God.” I have no idea what this means, to be honest, nor how it is helpful in defending the faith against Mormonism, but clearly, Dr. Heiser thinks he is onto something here. In any case, I fail to see how this interpretation fits Jesus’ assertion that the reason the term “gods” was used in Psalm 82 was not because these beings were ontologically deities, but because the word of God came to them. How does the word of God come to intermediate deities who are lesser than Yahweh but greater than men, and who are somehow responsible for judging in the earth and protecting the weak and the widows? One would evidently have to develop a very unusual cosmology to make all of this work.
   So I have now taken the time to respond to Dr. Heiser’s comments, not because I was looking for something to do today rather than study for a very soon upcoming debate, but because Mr. Massa decided to take the low road and use brief e-mail comments as a means of attacking the ministry. I can only hope that the time invested here is helpful to those who would be engaging the discussion of Psalm 82 and John 10.