Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Mark Driscoll's week of zombies and demons, revisiting the pattern in OT literature of God sending spirits to torment wicked kings we discussed a couple of years ago

Halloween draws near and zombies are in pop culture (no, haven't bothered watching The Walking Dead or reading it, either). Even though Driscoll could have spent the last three months commenting about his neo-Calvinist cohorts on the Trinity and whether or not he subscribes to the eternal subordination of the Son and all that may or may not imply for the role of women in ecclesiological issues Mark Driscoll has decided to field a really compelling set of questions.  No, not endorsing one candidate or another in what many may regard as one of most defining and fractious electoral cycles the nation has seen.  Nope.  Nor addressing any questions about the nature of the Trinity and whether or not one time allies and public supporters like Wayne Grudem are as orthodox as previously supposed by some. 

That  neither.

Instead ... zombies.

and ... demons, specifically the question of whether Saul was afflicted by a demon in 1 Samuel 16.  In a somewhat predictable way Driscoll sets up a trichotomy in which he lays out two views he considers obviously problematic and a third that he considers the most reasonable guess.  We'll get to these presently.
October 19, 2016
Mark Driscoll

... The "harmful spirit" that causes Saul such suffering and problems in 1 Samuel 16 is a tough thing to work out because we often don't think of God as bringing harm. This is because we often associate harm with evil. As such, it's not within our comprehension to think of a good God bringing harm.
The reality is, however, that not all harm is evil--and can, at times, be quite helpful. For instance, God gives us the good gift of lesser pain to keep us from more substantial pain. When my side hurts badly, it's a lesser pain to prevent me from having my appendix burst. God also uses the gift of discipline, which can bring harm, for the growth of those he loves and to keep them from harming themselves to a greater degree.  Finally, because he is just, God will harm those who oppose him, his plans, and unjustly bring harm to others.

There have been many ideas put forth to explain the harmful spirit in 1 Samuel 16. Some claim it was a demon sent to torture and torment Saul as a result of his continual sin. Others claim that it was a demon possession that would be temporarily exorcised when David played his harp. Still others offer that the "spirit" was not a distinct entity, but was descriptive of Saul's temperament. Each of these ideas has merit, and each has weaknesses. ...

Driscoll mentions that there are problems with the proposal that the harmful spirit was a demon.
Even though this idea has some strengths, there are also some problems.  First, the phrase "evil spirit," ... appears only one other time in the Bible in Judges 9:23, and in that instance does not necessarily mean "demon". The Hebrew word ra'a, which is translated as "evil," has the basic meaning of bad or harmful. ... So the most basic translation of ruwach-ra'a as "evil spirit" or "harmful spirit" does not appear to necessarily imply a demon.

Furthermore, those who espouse this idea must struggle with the fact that God himself sends the spirit to Saul. Normally, commentators get around this by arguing that God permitted the spirit to be sent, and that Satan was the one responsible for sending it. However, as some commentators point out, there is nothing in the text to suggest that satan was actually involved.  Contextually, God is clearly the originator of the spirit.

For longtime readers you might recall that here at Wenatchee The Hatchet we looked at not only Judges 9 and 1 Samuel 16 but ALSO looked at 1 Kings 22 and 2 Chronicles 18.

When God set out to have Ahab go out to meet his death in the Kings and Chronicles narratives God asked how this might be brought about and a spirit volunteered to be a lying spirit in the prophets of Ahab.  God sent the spirit that lying work to entice Ahab to his doom and then had a prophet WARN AHAB that this judgment had been made. 

So, yes, God sends spirits of calamity to people in the Old Testament narratives.  In fact there was this recurring pattern that God is only described as dispatching a spirit of calamity or "evil spirit" to wantonly evil and self-serving leaders who oppress people and ignore the will of God.  Driscoll seemed to be in too big a hurry to insist that God couldn't have sent a demon to torment Saul because ... "God himself sends the spirit to Saul."  God gave permission to Satan to torment Job, too.  Rather than get into the five books of Jeffrey Burton Russell on the history of monism and dualism and modified dualism in diabology in Judeo-Christian thought we'll just skip ahead to Isaiah 45:7 because Driscoll didn't bother mentioning it.

Yes, Isaiah 45:7 reads as
I form light  and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the Lord, who does all these things.

The word for calamity is ... ra`
So ... if God says through Isaiah that he creates shalom and ra'a then God is described by Isaiah as fashioning peace and calamity.  That word is the root underlying the spirit of calamity sent to torment Saul and also Abimelech.

It's kind of amazing that Mark Driscoll got a degree in exegetical theology and seems to have had no use for consulting Isaiah 45:7 on the question of whether God fashions calamity.  The objection that God wouldn't send an evil spirit could be based on any number of intuitions but there's no clear evidence that those intuitions are based on biblical texts. 

We could spend a lot of time referencing Jeffrey Burton Russell's work or Susan Garrett's work and that of others highlighting that diabology in Jewish and Christian thought took a while to develop into what is conventionally recognized in contemporary thought as demonology.  Let's not bore you with all those details.  For the time being it suffices to say that Driscoll missed the forest for some trees.  He was eager to shoot down the viability of the "God sent a demon to torment Saul" for reasons that are hard to ascertain.   If God let Satan torment Job; if God sent a spirit to lie to the prophets of Ahab; if God dispatched spirits of calamity to torment Saul and to create discord that led to the death of the self-appointed king Abimelech then it's one thing to admit that there's troubling mysteries about what God does with evil things and evil agents and another to insist against actual biblical narrative that God implicitly "could not" send evil spirits.  Of course God can.  That God is not described as doing this apart from exceptional cases of evil men lording it over others, shedding innocent blood, worship idols, and being generally evil can be granted. 

So the answer to the question "does God work through demons" would be better reformulated as "CAN God work through demons?"  The answer to that, obviously, is yes.  If the question is refined into a more personal question such as "do I personally have to worry that God could let demons afflict me?" the answer based on Old Testament narrative literature cumulative seems to be that unless you're someone who has lied, killed, cheated and abused wrongly applied political and military and religious power to oppress people or aggrandize yourself over against the word of the Lord you are probably relatively low-risk of getting a demon personally dispatched to torment you to the point of death or unseat you from your self-selected kingly throne.

Notice how for Driscoll's rhetoric to work he has to drive a wedge firmly between option 1 and option 3 as though they could have no conceptual overlap when, in fact, they can be construed as semantically variant forms of a single core position.  The semantic distinction is between "evil" and "harmful" but a quick consultation of Yahweh as quoted in Isaiah 45:7 makes it difficult to insist upon Driscoll's delineation between "evil" and "harmful". The reason this distinction can be a bit pedantic is that the spirits sent out to punish evil kings were sent out to punish evil kings.  The pattern is pretty consistent throughout the Old Testament narratives. 

If God could send a spirit to bring calamity on a man's empire because the man turned away from following the Lord in favor of vaunting his own name and reputation in the biblical literature who's to say God couldn't occasionally choose to do that here and now?  Didn't Mark Driscoll recount how he resigned from leading what used to be known as Mars Hill back in 2014 because he claimed to get permission from God to have been released?  Or what about "a trap has been set"?  Generally what we learn from the cases of spirits tormenting leaders like Saul or sowing discord in the rule of a man like Abimelech or lying to the advisors of Ahab is that once God sets a trap for you there is absolutely no way you're escaping that trap; Ahab's downfall as recounted in Kings and Chronicles suggests that the measures Ahab took to avoid the fate marked out for him was paradoxically a contributing variable to his own downfall.

So even if to this day there might be those who would say the downfall of Driscoll's empire and the dissolution of Mars Hill was nothing but attacks from Satan, the narratives Driscoll looked at recently give us an occasion to remember that the few times the Bible describes God sending spirits of disaster to afflict men it was because they were so terrible they were described as basically deserving that judgment from the Lord.  As Mark Driscoll put it back in 2011.
You deserve hell. Everything else is a gift.
10:25 PM - 25 Feb 2011

So perhaps harmful spirits are sent by the Lord to afflict people so they will repent.  But this proposal has to ignore the facts of the biblical narratives, that the men who were so afflicted did not repent, they doubled down on their ill-chosen paths. 

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