Monday, November 22, 2010

Angels & Demons 28: Angels as Agents of Divine “Feedback”

In my scholarly capacity, I have frequently served as a referee for articles submitted for publication to scholarly journals. Recently, an article I was refereeing identified a perplexing problem for many believing Christians--unanswered prayer. The article analyzed the issue from the standpoint of contemporary evangelical rhetorical strategies used to defend God for His failure to answer. Although the article neither compared prayer to nor contrasted prayer with advertising in the mass media, a case could be made that there are definite similarities. Mass communication tends to be more unidirectional, as compared with intrapersonal communication, interpersonal communication, small group communication, and online communication (which are all much more interactive than mass communication). Even public communication (in which one speaker addresses an audience) has a more easily obtained feedback than does mass communication. In public communication, the speaker can, at least, see the nonverbal facial expressions and body language of his or her audience. S/he can hear the applause, gasps, or heckling. In mass communication, on the other hand, the communicator is separated from his or her audience by some “medium”—radio, television, newspaper, magazine, billboard, etc. The communicator cannot “see” how his or her messages are being received. Advertisements in the mass media are impersonal and there are problems associated with discovering whether members of the intended (target) audiences even paid attention to the advertisements, let alone whether they decoded the messages in the same sense in which the advertisers encoded them. Nor do advertisers know whether the persuasion strategies used in the advertisements were successful. Hence, advertisers seek some sort of “feedback” from their target audiences (which those audiences do not typically offer without additional prodding). I submit that to the extent advertisers are unable to secure the desired feedback, they are in much the same boat (in terms of communication feedback) as are Christians who do not sense that their prayers are being answered.

Prayer, for many Christians, is a fairly unidirectional form of communication. As is the case with the target audiences of advertisers, the intended audience (God, in this case) cannot be “seen.” He may be paying attention and may be decoding the messages in the same sense in which those offering the prayers encoded them. Whether the persuasion strategies used in the prayers were successful may sometimes be adduced by whether specific requests were granted, but even then—absent some accompanying message from God--skeptics may easily question whether the granting of requests was accomplished by God or was simply a matter of coincidence. Christians, like advertisers, are desirous for some form of feedback. Unfortunately, while advertisers have developed quantitative and qualitative methods of discovering feedback, Christians face a far more daunting task.

The very words for “angel” in Greek and Hebrew denote a “messenger.” The Hebrew word MALACH (from which we also derive the name of the last book of the Old Testament: Malachi) means “messenger.” A MALACH may be either an angel or a human messenger. The same holds true for the Greek word AGGELOS. One can easily see, for example, the word “angel” in the word “evangelist”—one who is a human messenger of good news. In prior commentaries, I have demonstrated that angels are the personification of God’s creative fiats, His intrapersonal communication, and His own unidirectional messages. I have indicated the role they play in God’s communication network. So, here I offer a few examples of angels representing God’s tangible “feedback.”

Although Mary and Joseph never requested a miraculous birth, according to Luke 1:26-38, the Angel Gabriel appears to Mary to announce her pending pregnancy. Matthew 1:20-23 reports that an unnamed angel also visited Joseph in a dream to verify that Mary’s pregnancy was divine. Since these two angelic visitations, however, were not prompted by a prayer request, they are not to be classified as “feedback.” They are, instead, in the category of God’s own unidirectional messages. Joseph’s angelic message was presented as entirely unidirectional; Mary’s encounter with Gabriel included interaction between Mary and Gabriel, as Mary questioned how the virgin birth would be possible.

While the angelic encounters of Mary and Joseph were classed as God’s own unidirectional messages, the similar encounter between Zachariah (the father of John the Baptist) and an unnamed angel, in Luke 1:11-20, fits the category of “feedback.” In Luke 1:13, the angel says to Zachariah, “Your prayer has been heard.” The old man Zachariah and his old, barren wife Elizabeth are to have a child. This is angelic/divine feedback.

In Acts 10:31, the gentile Cornelius reports being visited by a man in bright clothing (no doubt, an angel) who says, “Cornelius, your prayer was heard and your alms were remembered before God.” The angel directs Cornelius to the house where Simon Peter was staying and Cornelius becomes the first gentile Christian.
Acts Chapter 12 relates an account of Herod persecuting the church. He has the Apostle James executed and, since that act appears to please some Jews, he next proceeds to arrest the Apostle Peter (with a similar result in mind). The church meeting in the house of Mary the mother of John Mark, fearing an impending murder of Peter, prays fervently. The night before Herod planned to bring Peter to judgment, Peter is bound with two chains, sleeping between two soldiers, with more soldiers guarding the door to the prison. An angel comes to Peter, breaks his chains, tells him to get dressed, escorts him past the guards at the prison door, and takes him to the gate in the wall of the city, which opens for them automatically. Once on the street to John Mark’s mother’s house, the angel leaves Peter. Peter proceeds to the house and knocks on the door. He explains what has happened and then flees to another place.

These New Testament accounts of angelic encounters exemplify God’s angelic feedback. Old Testament examples include angels responding to the cry of Abraham’s son Ishmael to preserve him from dying in the wilderness (Genesis 21:17), responding to Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac--telling him not to do so (Genesis 22:11-12), answering the prayer of Manoah, the father of Samson--confirming that he had indeed visited Manoah’s wife with instructions about Samson (Judges 13:8 ff.), answering the prayer of Elijah concerning the threat to his life (1 Kings 19:7), answering the prayers of Isaiah and King Hezekiah to defend Jerusalem (Isaiah 37 and 2 Chronicles 32:21), and of course, answering the prayers of Daniel by protecting him in the lions’ den. Perhaps, the account of the angel confronting Balaam and his donkey, in Numbers 22, is also an example of divine feedback.

Angels are not the only means of feedback used by God in the Bible. Gideon’s fleece, the Urim and Thummim of the high priest, and fire sent from heaven to consume sacrifices are other representative examples of feedback. The point here, however, is that angels are the personification of God’s communication. Feedback is but one aspect of communication.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Angels & Demons 27: The Spirit of Truth and God’s Communication Network

While the New Testament makes no comment on the existence of an Angel of Truth, as presented in Rabbinic writings, John (14:17, 15:26, and 16:13) speaks of the Spirit of Truth, whom John also identifies as the Comforter (14:16, 15:26, and 16:7), and whom John, in turn, equates with the Holy Spirit (14.26). Old Testament writers equate various terms for truth with God, some fifty times. Besides the three references to the Spirit of Truth, John connects truth with the Spirit at least one more time, with God at least four times, and with Jesus at least nine times. The Spirit of Truth shows up again in I John 4:6 where he is contrasted with the Spirit of Error. The Spirit of Error seems to be connected with false prophets, in I John 4:1. (We will return to a discussion of the Spirit of Error in future commentaries on demons.) It is clear that the biblical authors would have real problems with postmodernists who proclaim that there is no truth. They believed that God communicated truth, but that there is also the communication of error in the world.
The role of the Spirit of Truth seems to be a mediating communication role. I point out the following in my commentary “Angels & Demons 23: Angels as the Personification of God’s Word”:

“Jewish scholar G. F. Moore (in Volume I, page 414, of his book Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era) . . . [i]n his chapter entitled, ‘The Word of God: The Spirit,’ . . . states, ‘God's will is made known or effectuated in the world not only through personal agents (ANGELS), but directly by his WORD or by his SPIRIT’ (emphases mine). Here all three terms of Caird's puzzle fit neatly together. If the seven stars represent ‘angels,’ then ‘angels’ are a part of the whole. If the stars ‘represent’ ‘spirits of God,’ then spirits are a part of the whole. If ‘the spirit’ is ‘say[ing]’ things to the churches, then what ‘the spirit says’ (i.e., the ‘word’) is a part of the whole.”

To demonstrate a further equation between the Spirit and Word, I cite Ephesians 6:17. Paul lists among the various pieces of the armor of God “the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.” The English translation is confusing and seems to indicate that the “sword” is the Word of God. The Greek word for “which,” however is a MASCULINE or NEUTER pronoun. It cannot refer to “sword” because “sword” is a FEMININE noun. “Spirit” is, however, a NEUTER noun and serves easily as the antecedent to “which.” Paul clearly states that the Spirit is the Word of God.

So, what is the difference between the various methods God uses to communicate with men? Sometimes, God speaks directly to a specific human. Sometimes, God places His Holy Spirit inside a prophet, a priest, or a king and that prophet, priest, or king, then, delivers God’s message to other humans. Sometimes, God sends a message to an individual through a dream or vision. Sometimes, God sends a personal agent (or angel) to convey his message. Sometimes, His Word is written down and read to or by others. Sometimes, the message is merely audible. Once one person receives the message, he passes it on via interpersonal communication to others. It all sounds very much like the communication networks studied by organizational communication specialists. On pages 95-98 of my book, Psychotic Entelechy: The Dangers of Spiritual Gifts Theology, I explain the processes:

“Certainly, the Jewish Bible (the Christian Old Testament) accepts the premise that God spoke to and through certain individuals. That God spoke directly to Moses is the fundamental premise upon which Jewish Law is founded. . . . According to tradition, Moses is the essential author of all five books.

Genesis provides a rapid-fire account of more than two thousand years of human history prior to Israel’s four hundred year sojourn in Egypt. Prior to the account of human history, Genesis offers a one-chapter account of the creation of heaven, earth, and the plant and animal kingdoms. Presumably, if Moses authored the creation and human history accounts, he would need some inspiration from God to certify that his account was accurate. Moses’ account has God speaking directly to Adam and Eve, warning them not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Following their Fall, God interrogates them and communicates to them their respective punishments. To their children, God signifies his preference for the animal sacrifices (of Abel) to the vegetable sacrifices (of Cain). Then, God warns Cain not to kill his brother. After Cain murders Abel, God personally interrogates Cain and tells Cain of his punishment. Later, God speaks to Noah, instructing him to build an Ark. After the Flood, God provides Noah and his family a brief list of laws. Then, God does not appear to communicate with humans until he begins to communicate with Abram, whom God renames Abraham.

In the final three-fourths of Genesis, God communicates frequently with Abraham and his family. God makes covenants with Abraham, his son Isaac, and Isaac’s son Jacob, whom God renames Israel. In addition to his son Isaac, Abraham has another son through surrogate marriage with Hagar, the handmaid of his wife Sarah. . . . One of those sons, Joseph, God takes special interest in, communicating with him through dreams. God has a special purpose in mind for Joseph, which takes Joseph to Egypt. His brothers sell him into slavery, but God causes him to rise to leadership in that land. Eventually, God uses Joseph’s position of influence to rescue his father and his brothers’ families from famine in the land of Canaan as they emigrate to Egypt. The entire account of Genesis, if authored by Moses, would require that Moses be inspired by God to be certified historically accurate. Moses’ perspective was four hundred years removed from the most recent historical circumstances he reports on. The suggestion that Joseph may have written some accounts that Moses found in the Egyptian archives would argue for some historiographical accuracy, but none of the first five books make such an assertion.

Exodus begins with the Israelites still in Egypt four hundred years later. Now, the name of Joseph is long-forgotten by the Egyptians and the Israelites have become an enslaved people. God raises up an Israelite named Moses, educates him in Phaeroh’s palace, and eventually speaks to him through a burning bush, commanding him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt and back to the Promised Land (of Canaan). God infuses Moses with miraculous powers and, upon his successful campaign to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt, God gives Moses the Law on Mount Sinai. The various laws and instructions God gives to Moses are detailed in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These four books pertain to historical issues occurring during the lifetime of Moses. The exception to this observation is the final chapter of Deuteronomy, which discusses the death of Moses. The primary purpose of spiritual gifts theology in the final four books (of Moses) is to certify the accuracy of Moses’ messages concerning the Law. The Law (Torah) comes from God.

After Moses, there is a lesser profusion of spiritual giftedness throughout Jewish history. God speaks to Moses’ successor Joshua throughout his leadership career in retaking the Land of Canaan. He performed miracles through Joshua—such as causing the Walls of Jericho to fall. After Joshua’s death, God inspires and speaks to various judges—Othniel, Deborah, Gideon, Samson, and others. These judges receive miraculous abilities and counsel from God as they defend and protect Israelites in battle.

Although Moses, following God’s Law, institutes the priesthood, it is not until later that the High Priest becomes the primary vehicle for God to communicate with humans. After the time of the Judges, God speaks to Samuel, as a child, and calls him into the priesthood. God continues to communicate messages to Samuel throughout his career. Samuel, with God’s direction, anoints the first Israelite king, Saul. Then, Samuel, with God’s direction anoints King David to replace Saul. The anointing of Samuel as priest (and the sense in which Samuel’s anointing also made him a prophet) combined with the anointing of David as King (and the sense in which David’s anointing also made him a prophet) introduces a new era in God’s communication with humans. The three anointed (messianic) offices—prophet, priest, and king—become God’s primary mouthpieces for Israel. The Hebrew word meaning ‘anointed one’ is ‘messiah.’ (The Greek word meaning ‘anointed one,’ incidentally, is ‘christ.’)
King David, under inspiration from God, writes many psalms. His son King Solomon, with similar inspiration, writes many proverbs. Later kings and priests are not considered to have equal inspiration. Later prophets, however, become the voice of God to Israel. The prophet Nathan was a contemporary of David. Elijah, Elisha, Micaiah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel are the most famous prophets.

Other prophets whose writings are included in the Bible are: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. Pharisaic and Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity accept the premise that God spoke through these prophets. Other early Jewish groups such as Sadducees and Samaritans accepted only the inspiration of the Torah. Pharisaic and Rabbinic Judaism believes that God's activity of speaking through prophets, however, ended with the canonical prophets of the Jewish Bible. Ezra the scribe instituted a new way for God to speak to Israel—through reading the Torah aloud to the people. Even though the age of the prophets ended with the canonical Tanach (or Old Testament) for the Jews, Pharisaic and Rabbinic Judaism still allowed for the possibility that God might speak through infants and fools.

Pharisaic and Rabbinic Judaism also taught that God could speak through a Bat Qol (or ‘mysterious voice’). This type of communication is claimed by the early Christians on a few occasions. When Jesus was baptized, a voice from Heaven said: ‘This is my son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased’ (Matthew 3:17 NIV). When Jesus was transfigured, his disciples were startled by a bright cloud. A voice from the cloud said: ‘This is my son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him’ (Matthew 17:5 NIV) When Saul of Tarsus (who later became the Apostle Paul) was confronted on the road to Damascus, he was blinded by a light from heaven and heard a voice saying: ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ Saul asks who is speaking and the voice responds: ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting . . . . Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do’ (Acts 9:5-6 NIV).

Christianity also believes that God continued to speak through the visitation of angels (as when Gabriel announced John’s and Jesus’ births) and through prophets and prophetesses such as Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:25-38) and especially through John the Baptist who lived at the time of Jesus. Christianity also teaches that God spoke through those (such as apostles and prophets) who had received spiritual gifts in the first generation of the church.”