Friday, February 3, 2017

Are there Gods among us?

It is not such an idle question as one may think. Many Christians believe that "entertaining angels unawares" is at least still possible even in the twenty-first century (Heb 13:2).  In other words they think that angels are actual heavenly entities who still walk among us in today's world.  Certain biblical texts support this way of thinking by describing humanoid angels interacting with human beings in the ancient world (Genesis 18:1-19:23; Judges 13:2-21; Tobit 5:4-5).
            The Greek Gods, for example, are well-known for their philandering ways; they descended from Mount Olympus in human guise on many occasions involving themselves in human affairs and having amorous liaisons with human women; similar activities are at least suggested by Genesis 6:1-2 where the "sons of God" (a sort of heavenly being) discovered that human females were fair to behold and "took to wife such of them as they chose." By contrast the God of Hebrew faith was more circumspect in his activities among human beings.  He descended from Mount Sinai and involved himself in human affairs, at times even taking on human form (Genesis 18:1-19:23, 32:24, 28, 30). He is described as having face, hands, and backsides (Exodus 33:11, 21-23), among other anthropomorphic characteristics such as eyes and ears, mouth, heart, arms, fingers and feet. He talks, writes, sees and hears, sits and rests, smells, whistles, laughs, walks, sleeps and awakes, and claps his hands.1
            Occasionally God is described as walking among human beings as an angel (Judges 2:1-4; 6:11-18; 13:2-22). More often God's presence in the world is portrayed by natural visible phenomena: a cloudbank (Exodus 16:10-11; Leviticus 16:2; Deuteronomy 31:15; Mark 9:7), fire (Leviticus 9:24), or a burning bush that was not consumed (Exodus 3:2-6; Acts 7:30-33). Frequently his presence is signaled by an unnatural light referred to as "the glory of the Lord" (Exodus 16:10; Leviticus 9:6, 23; Numbers 14:10; 16:19, 42; 20:6; Acts 7:2). One modern writer described it this way: "The 'glory (kabod) of Yahweh' was God manifesting Himself in the brightness of light, revealing His holiness and power to men."2 Sometimes glory is spoken of as an aspect of God, rather than God himself; that is, the glory appears with no reference to God's presence (Leviticus 9:6, 23).
            There is only one other figure in the Judeo-Christian tradition who has been described as God in human form: Jesus the Judean teacher of wisdom, who was called the Anointed (Christ). Only one passage in the early Christian canonical literature makes his identity as God even remotely possible, John 1:1-2. Other passages cited in this regard do not claim that he is God, but they do hold that he is a divine personage. In these high Christological passages there is always a clear distinction between the Anointed and God (Romans 1:3; Philippians 2:5-11; Hebrews 1:1-4; Colossians 1:15-20). Later in the fourth century the Nicene Creed confessed what the church believed was the true identity of Jesus: "We believe in one God the Father…And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, only-begotten, that is, of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father…"3
            Worshipping Jesus as God is rendered marginally respectable by the fourth-century Nicene belief in the Trinity (382 CE): "it is the faith that teaches us to believe in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. According to this faith there is one Godhead, Power and Substance of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost; the dignity being equal and the majesty being equal in three perfect hypostases, i.e., three perfect persons."4 With three divine personages in the Christian pantheon, Christians had to find some way to ensure they were not really polytheists—hence the doctrine of the Trinity.
            If angels can walk among us, shouldn't Gods (if such there be) be able to do so as well?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
1 Paul Heinisch, Theology of the Old Testament (St. Paul, MN: Liturgical Press, 1955), 57-58.
2 Heinisch, Old Testament, 57.
3 Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder, eds. Documents of the Christian Church (3rd ed.; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 27.
4 "The Synodical Letter of the Council of Constantinople," in H. R. Percival, ed., The Seven Ecumenical Councils, of The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers (second series; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), vol 14: 189.


Hedrick jr said...

Well, your blog always surprises me! I had no idea that there were such references to divine beings in the bible. Do you think this is a relic of polytheism? The influence of other cultures?

Charles Hedrick said...

Good afternoon Charles,
It is likely a survival of polytheism. The Ancient Hebrews were henotheists--that is to say, they recognized that other Gods existed, although they only worshipped one.

Elizabeth said...

Charlie, I have questions about Christianity's claim to be monotheist. In your opinion, how did they succeed at ensuring this label- that they were not really polytheists? I marvel at how they pulled that off so well. What about you- did the Nicene council convince you that they are monotheists?

The ancient Greek gods you mentioned earlier had a similar set up as God the Father and Jesus the Son. Zeus was an all powerful mega-god, too busy running the universe to listen or become involved with mortals... The lowly human was too intimidated to approach him. So mere mortals had to approach a lesser god such as Apollo or Aphrodite, etc, to obtain help or make an appeal... It's a similar situation with Jesus... God the Father was, I suppose, too big and important to become involved with human activities... Therefore, he sent his son to interact with and become involved in earthly matters of sin and atonement, etc. But we are supposed to call that arrangement a "monotheistic" Godhead... Really??

One final question- can one be a Christian and yet not believe that Jesus was divine? Or that his crucifixion atonement for human sin (vicarious atonement)? What's your view?

Thank you for this thought provoking article! Elizabeth

Charles Hedrick said...

Good Morning Elizabeth,
Fourth Century Christianity protected itself from a charge of polytheism by inventing the Trinity (three distinct figures in one, or one figure in his three manifestations). Whoever buys into that will not think of themselves as a polytheist. I personally think of the doctrine of the Trinity as a political solution to accommodate the three divine figures in the earlier texts. They only became a problem later.
Second paragraph: The many deities and divine figures in the Greek and Roman religious traditions were not under Zeus. The situation was much more diversified than is suggested by a traditional Twelve (or 13 counting Dionysus) Gods of the Greek Pantheon. See Robert Graves, The Greek Myths (in two volumes 1955).
With regard to your third paragraph see my article "Is Belief in the Divinity of Jesus Essential to Being Christian" the Fourth R 24.5 (September/October), 15-20. 26. My answer was no, it is not.

Anonymous said...

Hi Charlie,

Back in the early 70's I delivered a sermon on the Trinity to a United Methodist congregation. I made a psychological interpretation, namely that God behaves, influences time and space, in three ways: creator, redeemer, and sanctifier, to use traditional language. I made a strong point that the trinity is about three behaviors, not about three objective beings somehow glued together in the 4th century. With the rise of the science of psychology my behavioral approach was distinctively 20th century

After the sermon a middle age woman came up to me claiming that I had saved her life with the best sermon she ever heard. For years she couldn't figure out how to divide up God into three parts and make any sense of it.

Why are gods still among us? Perhaps because we cannot create, redeem, and sanctify ourselves.

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa.

Charles Hedrick said...

Good afternoon Gene,
You suggest that we can view God from the perspective of his behaviors--one God who acts in three ways: Creator (i.e. God in his role as the creator of the Hebrew Bible), redeemer (God the Son who redeems), sanctifier (God the Spirit who sanctifies). It is of course modeled on the 4th century political solution of the Trinity. And it is the Trinity by another name, but it does fit well into Christian Theology, because of its Trinitarian feature. But if you are really going to evaluate behaviors shouldn't you consider all the behavioral traits of the ancient Hebrew God? He doesn't have only three and some of the ways he was portrayed to behave are less than kind, even bordering on the cruel.

Robert Wahler said...

Yes. Baba Gurinder Singh Dhillon, Radha Soami Satsang Beas, Beas, India, is a God-man. God in the flesh. Only living Masters can save. That is what THEY all say (John 6:40 RSV and 9:4-5 C. Sinaiticus) The reason there is only one Christian God on earth is because it paid the clergy well.

Robert Wahler said...

Notably absent are any responses. I know what you mean, Charlie, when you muse, "widely unread"!

I'm not a dream-wreaker. I used to BE a Christian myself. I only want to help others see the reality available, not the imitation. The NT is not what Christians think! It was designed to mislead, not to inform. I can show so many proofs I needed to write the books I wrote to cover it all.