Does the Bible Presuppose Fatalism?

I’m trying to decide the best way to frame the next in the Prophecy in the NT series, and while pondering that came across something that looked like fun to tackle.

I recently discovered Dominic Bnonn Tennant’s blog via a post to one of my Facebook Groups–specifically, his post, “Presupposing freewill theism is the opposite of the naked Bible method.” It’s a direct challenge to some of Michael Heiser’s statements on his Naked Bible Podcastwhich I found rather interesting given some of my own reservations regarding some (not all) of Heiser’s positions. After complimenting Heiser’s goal to strip the Bible of presuppositions and simply approach it as it is in it’s original context, Tennant states:

Unfortunately, some of these directions are actually just a big circle, coming all the way around to the opposite of a true naked Bible approach. This is especially obvious with the rejection of divine determinism and predestination by both Mike, and many of those who enjoy his Heiser-Aid (a flavor I am partial to more often than not).

This is ironically non-naked, because it is a reading of (certain parts of) Scripture that is naïvely conditioned by modern, Western presuppositions. The predominant worldview of Israel’s neighbors was fatalism.

While I’m behind on listening to The Naked Bible Podcast, I’m familiar enough with Heiser’s teachings to have the gist of what Tennant is objecting to: Heiser often speaks of God having a “Plan B” when human (or angelic) sin disrupts the original plan. He has argued in word and print for years that all, or nearly all, prophetic promises are contingent on human behavior. (A proposition that I challenge here.) He actually takes this so far as to argue that Israel “may” have forfeited its promises due to her sins, causing God to turn to yet another Plan B, which is the Church. Of course, what Heiser does not consider is that given the Church’s many sins and failures over the centuries (which he himself admits), does that mean that God has a “Plan B” to replace Christianity?

While it’s good to see this challenged, I find that Tennant, in typically Calvinist fashion, goes in the far opposite direction, insisting that the Biblical view is one of extreme fatalism:

The predominant worldview of Israel’s neighbors was fatalism. There was no concept of personal autonomy like we have it; there was no concept of meaning and responsibility in individual lives as we would assume; even the notions of right and wrong were cashed out corporately in terms of honoring or shaming the tribe. Actions which advanced the tribe were good in that sense, while actions that did not were bad—regardless of whether we’d say they broke God’s law (John Oswalt’s The Bible Among the Myths is helpful here).

To think that the Israelites, conditioned by that prevailing worldview, therefore read texts like 1 Samuel 23 and thought they illustrated what modern Western Christians see in them—conditioned as we are by what is basically the polar opposite worldview—is genuinely silly.

For those who don’t know, Heiser points out that in 1 Samuel 23, David inquires of the Lord whether the men of Keilah would surrender him to Saul. God says they will, so David and his men high-tail it out of town. Therefore, Heiser says, the Lord clearly foresaw something that didn’t happen because the conditions on the ground changed. Heiser uses this to support a view that is either molinism or very close to it. Tennant, taking the opposite extreme of Calvinism, doesn’t actually provide an alternative interpretation–he simply says that people in the Ancient Near East were fatalistic, so that can’t be what the passage indicates.

And this perfectly illustrates the fallacy of taking the Bible’s historical context to the extreme: It ignores what the Biblical text actually says in favor of guessing what its authors really meant on the basis of studying their neighbors’ views. My challenge to the Chisholm paper Heiser promoted to support his view on conditional prophecy (see the link above) pointed out several places where this form of eisegesis causes one to see failures of prophecy where the text itself does not. Apparently, one fall into that same kind of eisegesis in Calvinism.

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Calvinism vs. Hobbsism

There are a few problems with this approach. First, Tennant appears to confuse fatalism with collectivism in his description. Certainly, those in the ancient world (and the majority of people today) were very collectivist, seeing themselves as extensions of the clan, tribe, and nation rather than as autonomous individuals. They simply didn’t have the luxury of individualism if they wanted to survive. Consequently, honor and shame in the eyes of one’s host clan meant everything to them. Our modern idea of individual guilt being the driving ethical force did not develop until much later.

However, that’s not exactly the same thing as fatalism, even if the two tend to go hand-in-hand, and Tennant would have been much better off supporting the latter to make his point. Fatalism is simply the idea that one’s destiny is fixed by Fate or the gods, for good or ill. Fatalism does go together with a strong clan structure since one’s “fate”–say, to be the leader or at the bottom of the totem-pole–was often fixed by birth and changed only by events that were completely outside of the control of the individual: the death of the leadership, a famine, etc.

However, even among the pagans that fate was far from devoid of choice and moral consequence. More importantly, the Bible actually undermines the assumption of a fixed fate in many passages. For example, Ezekiel 18 rejects the fatalism of those who say, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” by pointing out that God would judge each man on the merits of their own sin and repentance, not on their fathers’. As Bruce K. Walke notes in the Theological Workbook of the Old Testament, while it is true that “In mythopoeic thought time has no significance and history no meaning,” the Biblical view stands in sharp contrast:

Moreover, from the biblical viewpoint man’s behavior in the present determines his state in the future. Time is the defined arena in which it will be demonstrated that righteousness is rewarded with life and evil is punished with death. Such a viewpoint invests man’s time with the greatest moral value and history serves as an instrument whereby God’s character can be displayed. (p. 371)

In other words, the Bible’s view on free will and history stands in direct contradiction of their neighbors’ views!

Overreaching on Parallels

This is where we have to be very careful when doing comparative studies. It is true that the Bible, particularly the pre-exilic books, speaks in terms of a symbolism that would have been familiar territory to most ancient near-eastern (ANE) cultures: The ark of the covenant, for example, serves the same function as an Egyptian sacred palanquin, by which the priests carried idols between their temples at set times. However, the ark very tellingly has no idol. Even when the visible sh’khinah (presence) of God wasn’t resting on the ark, the absence of an idol would project a message about Israel’s God’s otherness.

Unfortunately, those who do these sorts of cross-cultural studies have a tendency to assume that the Israelites, alone of all the peoples of the ANE, had no imagination (let alone actual Divine guidance) and were only capable of aping the cultures around them. This gets particularly bad with the minimalists (those who deny that there is anything historical in the Bible before the Babylonian exile), but also crops up even among believers when they have a theological axe to grind. What the Bible actually says takes a back seat to what someone thinks it should say based on a parallel element in a nearby culture or the perceived mindset of its prophets. Thus we have Michael Heiser and Robert Chisholm arguing that certain prophecies “failed,” not because the actual wording of the prophecy was proven wrong but based on what they think the prophet must have had in mind, and we have Dominic Tennant arguing that the Bible must teach fatalism simply because this was a common view among Israel’s pagan neighbors.

Parallel studies are fascinating and certainly have their place in framing the Bible’s words, giving us a better insight into the backdrop of the Scriptures. These studies are particularly useful in getting us to revisit and test old assumptions, as when studying the words of the rabbis have led Christian scholars to revisit assumptions about Paul’s work. However, our ultimate interpretation must be based on careful exegesis of the Word itself, not on eisegesis, reading back into the Word what we think it should say.

Shalom

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