The Invisible War – Review and Response

The Invisible War, Donald Grey Barnhouse, Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1965.

Buy this book from [ listing: Zondervan Publishing House; ISBN: 031020481X; (October 26, 1980). Note: The edition reviewed was the 3rd printing, 1966.]

by Henry Neufeld

I undertook to read this book after some considerable discussions held on the Religion Forum of Compuserve™ in which reference was made to it in support of certain specific ideas about creation. I would first note that the book covers a great deal more ground than the issues about creation. Because of my involvement in discussions not only of the creation/evolution controversy but also of spiritual warfare I have decided to make a more extensive response rather than simply a review. I am well aware that this author is a well-known conservative writer who is well respected in conservative and evangelical circles, and one who has passed away. Nonetheless, I find a number of serious Biblical and logical difficulties with portions of his thesis that should be addressed.

Because I will list a number of key issues on which I disagree and find the author’s exposition inadequate, let me first state what I do agree with. I do not want my position on these points to be misunderstood as I dispute things which I consider to be of lesser importance.

I not only do not wish to debate the basic theme of a cosmic conflict, but I would wish to affirm it in its general outlines. The basic outlines would include the assertion that there is an enemy, that there is a spiritual conflict going on, that God will bring this conflict to an end at the second coming of Christ by ending the reign of evil and restoring the rule of God’s will on earth. In addition, I would reaffirm that the center of God’s victory in this controversy is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who died to save us and rose again from the dead.

The outline of prophecy presented in chapters 30-33 (pp 249ff in my edition) is well-presented with the basic approach laid out clearly. The author also presents this material with a spirit that supports Christian unity rather than dividing on the basis of issues of prophetic interpretation. I do not agree with his interpretation in all points, yet they are presented clearly and with wisdom. Let me quote, for example, from page 271:

In the discussions concerning the prophetic order of events, I will never spend a moment in discussing whether the seals, trumps, and vials are overlapping or consecutive. I believe that they do not overlap, but I also believe that I am going to live in heaven forever with many people who now think that they do . . .

I disagree with him on the order here, but absolutely agree with him on the importance of this particular issue.

I also appreciate the constant emphasis on the centrality of Jesus and his mission in the understanding of Christian faith. This emphasis is very important, and especially so when one talks about the cosmic conflict and ideas regarding spiritual warfare.

I find myself in considerable disagreement, however, over one major issue, and several subordinate issues. I will deal with these issues in what I regard as a logical order, rather than taking them as I encountered them through the book. In many cases, the same issue crops up repeatedly, and it would be inappropriate to respond piecemeal. My own notes while reading the book show cases in which I crossed out a point when I found some later exposition of the same issue that clarified matters.

The major issue is fundamental. How do we understand scripture to have been given, and how is it properly to be interpreted. I believe that if one does not interpret scripture according to sound principles, in such a way that one subordinates one’s theology and understanding to scripture, one denies its authority as surely as if one denies that God speaks through it at all.

Subordinate to that key issue are: (1) The order of creation and the relationship of Genesis 1:1 to 1:2, (2) The coexistence of good and evil in Christians, i.e. the battle over our soul, (3) The nature of the will and of God’s will and exclusive sovereignty, (4) The struggle of Jesus approaching the cross and (5) The nature and position of women in the world, the church and in God’s plan.

Scriptural Interpretation

On page 10, we see the Dr. Barnhouse introduces the fundamental issue when he uses the example of a jigsaw puzzle in his understanding of scripture. Having brought up the puzzle analogy, he then states: “The unfortunate person who takes some text by itself and attempts to build a doctrine on it will be in utter confusion before he has gone very far. Only with this wrong type of Bible reading can anyone ever come to the absurd conclusion so often expressed, ‘You can prove anything by the Bible'” (p. 10 & 11). It is my contention that Dr. Barnhouse proceeds to use a method of scriptural interpretation that is even worse than the one he has just described.

He continues: “When, however, the shape of the individual verse is fitted into the whole divine plan of the revelation of God, the full-rounded, eternal purpose begins to be seen; and the whole of the Word of God becomes something so stupendous, so eternal, so mightily divine, that every rising doubt is checked immediately.” Again, I will maintain that the approach taken to scripture in this book in fact makes it impossible to actually discern the meaning of scripture, but instead opens the door to a great variety of possible understandings. In fact, the approach is one which places one’s theology prior to scripture, and superior to it; that scripture is, in fact, forced into the mold of the theologian’s preconceptions rather than understood and interpreted in its context.

We are to understand scripture spiritually. Here I certainly agree. We must have a spiritual attitude toward it. Here again, I agree. More importantly I would specify that the spiritual attitude we should have toward scripture, or toward the Word of God in any form, is one of surrender. I agree as Dr. Barnhouse quotes 1 Corinthians 2:14, that the things of the Spirit of God are spiritually discerned, and with the statements of Jesus of Jesus that he quotes in which Jesus says that certain things are given to his disciples to know.

But notice the following quotation, with bracketed interpolations by Dr. Barnhouse:

“For whosoever hath [new life in Christ], to him shall be given [knowledge of the divine plan and revelation], and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not [the new life in Christ], from him shall be taken away even that [common sense and deep learning that might make him one of the world’s leaders of the world’s thinking] he hath” (Matthew 13:12).

Now the bracketed items might, in fact, be true, though a great deal more might be said about the parable, but they certainly require some demonstration that this is, in fact, what Jesus is talking about in this case.

This technique of implying that one’s opponents lack spiritual understanding is used many times in Christian writing, which is very unfortunate. We understand that “. . . the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God” (1 Corinthians 3:19 NRSV). Yet in many cases we are expected to assume that this means that every form of human foolishness is therefore divine wisdom. The cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. They cannot or will not accept the forgiveness offered, the sacrifice which God has given, or the resurrection and eternal life that He has offered. This is foolishness to human wisdom, yet it is wisdom to those who are renewed in Jesus Christ.

But God did not, through Jesus Christ, baptize all forms of foolishness. He did not mean to say that every interpretation of scripture suddenly is immune to examination simply because someone claims it is spiritual and refers to the wisdom of the world as foolishness. I want to bring forward this point forcefully now because Dr. Barnhouse uses this approach to disarm opponents in several cases in this book, starting here. There is nothing like suggesting any opposition lacks spiritual discernment to cause people to hesitate to oppose you.

At the end of page 11 he continues: “The proper method of Bible study, then, is analogous to the putting together of the puzzle.” I would note here that he has made a large number of assertions, but has failed to back any of them scripturally, though he has cited a number of texts. The puzzle analogy itself is not scriptural. The puzzle is no more scriptural than any random approach. And the texts cited don’t suggest a “puzzle” approach to scripture.

“Taken one by one, the verses may be no more than mere shapes, meaningless as far as the over-all purpose of the inspired revelation is concerned” (p 12). In one sense, right, though no more right than it would be to assert that, taken by themselves, the sentences of this article are mere shapes, and that one has to read whole paragraphs and sections in order to understand my purpose and what it is I am asserting. He continues with 2 Peter 1:20, and I agree with the interpretation in that scripture is not to be taken as individual passages, but rather must be understood as a whole.

He continues with examples, including the doctrine of the trinity and the Lamb that was slain, to provide the basis for his approach to study. We will see how he applies this shortly. Right now, let me simply note that in forming those passages we deal with scriptures in their immediate context and what they teach in that context, and then we take the parts, valid in context, and build a doctrine using scriptures that deal with related topics. We do not simply seek individual passages in various places and put them together according to some preconceived scheme.

Dr. Barnhouse continues by explaining that the writers of scripture were inspired, and that the writings did not inherit the errors of their carnal minds. Now this is a major topic in and of itself, but let’s examine just a couple of examples.

How many people did Paul baptize in Corinth?

14. I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius,
15. so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name.
16. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.)
(1 Corinthians 1:14-16 NRSV)

I certainly do not propose this as an error in the Bible. But I do propose it as an example of the imprint of the human personality on the words of scripture. Paul first says that he didn’t baptize any but two, then he remembers another household, and then he says he can’t remember (more or less). This is certainly not an example of divine fumbling. It’s an example of Paul. The point being that the limited, finite mind of the apostle had something to do with how scripture came out.

Again, can the Holy Spirit remember scripture references?

6. But someone has testified somewhere,
“What are human beings that you are mindful of them,
or mortals, that you care for them?
(Psalm 8:6 NRSV)

Obviously this doesn’t make any difference to the message, yet the Holy Spirit allowed it to occur. Rather than saying where (“David says” might be common in quoting a Psalm), we are allowed to see the mind of the human writer at work in presenting the divine message.

Now Dr. Barnhouse doesn’t tell us in this discussion precisely where he is going on this point, but we will find out over the next few chapters. I am just going to use one example, the use of Jeremiah 4:23-26 and Isaiah 45:18 to produce an interpretation of Genesis 1:1 & 2. I will discuss the Hebrew of Genesis in more detail in my discussion of the “gap” theory of creation.

On pages 16 & 17 we find the discussion of God’s creation of the earth. Genesis 1:1 states that God created the earth, and Genesis 1:2 states that it “was” without form and void. (There is considerable discussion of the terms “was”, “formless” and “void” in the passage.) We then are turned to Isaiah 45:18, where it states that God did not create the earth “tohu” (the Hebrew word translated “formless”), he formed it to be inhabited.

Now if you examine Isaiah 45:18, you will find a prophecy of the restoration of Judah from the exile and of their land. Isaiah 45:18 is a proclamation of the creator God who will accomplish his purposes with what He has created. The prophet makes no reference here to how God created, or when, or to any destruction of the entire world for judgment. (We’ll examine Jeremiah 4:23-26 shortly.) There is no necessity in this passage to understand that the “created it not in vain” or “created it not formless” refer to any particular moment in creation. It does not in any way deny an interpretation that suggests that God first created matter “without form” and then formed it according to his purposes.

I will now use an analogy. I recently went and looked at a property on which I will soon live. There are building materials scattered about the site and it is not in shape yet for us to move. It has an aspect of formlessness. A few weeks ago it was much less formed. Yet when all is finished, I can say that the builder didn’t make it in vain, he made it so that I could live there. To those who object that I use an analogy of human activity in illustrating God’s activity, let me simply note that in scripture God’s activities take varying amounts of time. Some are instant; some are slow; all are sure.

In the context of Isaiah 45, this is a much better understanding of the passage. We can certainly relate the statements about God’s creative power and purpose in Isaiah 45:18 to other passages in order to get at a fuller understanding of God’s creation. But when we apply it to a particular moment which is, in fact, contrary to its context, then that is another matter. There is no valid basis in scriptural principles of interpretation for connecting the two verses in that particular way.

Yet Dr. Barnhouse states (p. 16) with reference to Isaiah 45:18: “This categorical statement is sufficient to prove beyond any shadow of doubt that the first and second verses are separated by an interval.” But since Isaiah does not, in fact, say any such thing, we are still left with only the word of an interpreter, unsupported by any contextual argument, that it is so.

Now on p. 55, Dr. Barnhouse also applies Jeremiah 4:23-26 to the period postulated between Genesis 1:1 & 2 as well. I suggest that you read Jeremiah 4, which contains a very clear prophecy of the devastation of an attack, siege, and exile of the people of Judah which was fulfilled by the Babylonian invasion and the exile in the 6th century BCE. There is absolutely no reason in the context or contents of the passage to expect this to refer to another period. Certainly, it uses vocabulary from the creation story, because that becomes, in scripture the language of judgment. But in the absence of any clear statement, the application to Genesis 1:1 & 2 is simply a wresting of one passage of scripture from its rightful place and an application to another place which happens to suit an author’s theology.

I would suggest that those who think the vocabulary is overblown may perhaps have difficulty with ordinary poetry, with symbolic language in general, and expect a literal type of precision in describing the devastation that is the result of an invasion. On page 25, Dr. Barnhouse quotes C. S. Lewis, “Christian Behavior” saying, “There is no need to be worried by facetious people who try to make the Christian hope of ‘heaven’ ridiculous by saying that they don’t’ want ‘to spend eternity playing harps.’ The answer to such people is that if they cannot understand books written for grown-ups, they should not talk about them.” I would suggest that this passage could as well apply to Dr. Barnhouse’s treatment of Jeremiah 4:23-26. I would not tend to quote such a passage except that this type of ridicule of opposing viewpoints characterizes the main portion of this book.

In contrast to this approach to scripture, I would briefly suggest the following:

  1. Every scripture must be taken seriously in its own context, including knowing who the writer was, the purpose of writing, the audience, and the time and culture which was to receive the writing. This is a simple principle resulting from looking at the nature of scripture.
  2. Other contexts should be connected in a way consistent with the original usage. This can include typology, analogy and other similar uses, but does not allow the placing of a scripture at any point desired.
  3. One should not combine scriptures in such a way as to produce a doctrine which would contradict the intent of the original passage.
  4. Scripture comes before theology.

I express these basic principles here simply to illustrate my approach. I will not take time in this article to support them further.

If you disagree with me concerning the basic approach to scripture, you are unlikely to find the remainder of this response terribly helpful. I would point out here that I regard careful, precise scriptural interpretation to be essential to any claim to scriptural support for one’s arguments. If one presents a process of interpretation that is inconsistent and that does not regard the actual intent of the author, one simply is giving oneself license to support one’s preconceptions in any way possible. That is not scriptural. It is scripture abuse.

Order of Creation and the Gap of Genesis 1:1 & 2

Dr. Barnhouse makes a good deal of the gap between Genesis 1:1 & 2, but is there, in fact, such a gap? There are two major pieces to this argument, neither of which turns out to have a basis in fact.

First, we have the argument that the Hebrew word bara’ means, in and of itself, “creation from nothing” and that therefore since there is material present in Genesis 1:2 this must refer to some other creation. Isaiah 45:18 then is intruded onto this picture to show that the creation of the formless matter couldn’t be what is referred to in Genesis 1:1. But since we have already shown that Isaiah 45:18 refers to the completed creation in context, and not to the process of creation, we can safely leave that passage out of this particular problem.

I would suggest checking a Hebrew lexicon and concordance on the translation of bara’. You will find that it is used exclusively of the activity of God, though not exclusively of creating from nothing. God also works through processes and providentially through the events of history. Thus we find that God creates (bara’) a clean heart (Psalm 51:12), God is the creator (bara’) of Israel (Isaiah 43:15), God creates a “destroyer” (Isaiah 54:16) and in Amos 4:13 God creates the wind.

In addition, bara’ is used repeatedly in synonymous parallel with other words for making. A basic example is Genesis 1:26 and 27: “And God said, ‘Let us make (;asah) . . . So God created (bara’) . . .” Another example is in Isaiah 43:1: “But now thus says the Lord,
he who created (bara’) you, O Jacob,
he who formed (yatsar) you, O Israel:” (NRSV)

So the idea of creation from nothing is not contained simply within the word for create, but is rather a broader concept we get from comparing scripture to scripture on the doctrine of creation. Hanging too much on one verse, as Dr. Barnhouse warned us, results in misinterpretation.

But then we get to the next verse and the issue of “was” or “became.” You will note that the vast majority of translations of the Bible, modern and otherwise, translate this as “was.” The Hebrew word in question is hayah. On page 16, Dr. Barnhouse states: “That we have every right to translate the verb by the continuing form “became” is amply demonstrated by the fact that this precise form is thus translated in other parts of the Old Testament, as for example, ‘Lot’s wife looked back and she became a pillar of salt’ (Genesis 19:26, emphasis by Dr. Barnhouse).”

But there are two major problems with this statement. First, it does not consider the construction in which the word is used. Let’s consider the English word “have.” I can say, “I have a car.” You would likely interpret that as, “In my possession there is a car” or something similar. Or I might say, “Yes, I have been to California.” You would likely interpret this as meaning that, at some time in the past, I traveled to California. Second, in the example provided, the word is not, in fact, in precisely the same form, but in both a different form and a different construction.

Anyone with knowledge of Hebrew would likely accept that the construction in Genesis 19:26 was appropriately translated as “became” as are many, many similar constructions throughout the Bible. But we have very close at hand a construction which is similar to Genesis 1:2, in Genesis 3:1, “and the serpent was more subtle . . .” When similar forms in similar constructions are examined, we find a very different situation. In the vast majority of these cases, the meaning is simply “was.” (Note that there is one difference between Genesis 1:2 and 3:1-in 1:2, the verb is in the feminine form, agreeing with “earth” which is feminine in Hebrew, while it is masculine in 3:1.)

Coexistence of Good and Evil in Christians

On pages 166 & 167 Dr. Barnhouse makes a very strong statement on the possibility of demonic invasion or activity in Christians, but in doing so he contradicts his own approach in the previous several chapters. It seems that for Dr. Barnhouse, the battle is a theological one over a particular set of beliefs, rather than one over the souls of human beings. In particular, his espousal of absolute predestination and his particular expression of it (pp 120 and following) is particularly harsh, and I don’t think terribly helpful.

He claims to have reconciled responsibility with predestination, but he has actually done nothing more than restated the paradox that we already have in scripture. God is sovereign, and yet man is regarded as responsible. The debates between Arminians and Calvinists and other variants revolve around these two established scriptural principles. Dr. Barnhouse states the paradox, but he really does nothing to get us out of it. I don’t particularly expect him to, but he would do better to simply admit that it is a paradox and that we do not have a good resolution of it.

The Nature of the Will and God’s Sovereignty

This leads up to the nature of the will and of God’s sovereignty. Dr. Barnhouse uses the concept of the will, and the one will of God as opposed to rebellious wills extensively, but I don’t think he ever gets terribly clear on what each will is, and how they would interact. Why, for example, did God create wills capable of being opposed to his?

Surely somewhere in this discussion we must suggest that God likes free creatures and their freely offered worship. Otherwise he would not have created them. There is a need to define just what God has placed in humanity, and what it is that we have done with it. The battle for the human soul is more than a battle over words, in my view. It is a battle over whose way is best. Deuteronomy 30:15-20 is relevant at this point. Sometimes we seem so obsessed with the failure of the law as a means of salvation, something rather well established, that we fail to notice that God does have a way of living that is not only right, but that we are expected to follow!

I don’t think I can do justice to his discussion in summary, so I will suggest those who are interested simply read at least this section of the book.

Nature and Position of Women

This is really a sideline, but it is so odd in its place, that I cannot help but make reference to it. Dr. Barnhouse states that there is a difference between women’s heresies and men’s. Specifically, he suggests that they tend to speak of the love of God without adequate reference to his hatred of sin (p. 90 & 91). Included in this category is Ellen White, the only one whose writings I know well enough to comment. I will simply state that his charge is false in the case of Ellen White. It is interesting that she would agree with him on the bulk of the invisible war theme.

Struggle of Jesus Approaching the Cross

I would like to discuss a point here that seems to me to partially deny the humanity of Christ. Dr. Barnhouse shares with many who are very much God-centered a desire to make sure that we do not lower Jesus too much. But it is also a characteristic of his “transactional” view of salvation that sometimes Jesus is ignored as an example, as a high priest like us, tested as we are (Hebrews 4:15).

After quoting Matthew 26:39, Dr. Barnhouse states: “Some have thought that he was flinching before the agony of the cross that was about to come. Such flinching would have been a spot and a blemish, which would have rendered Him ineligible to be the Lamb slain for sinners.” I disagree. As a human, Jesus could very much wish not to have to go to the agony of the cross. But his will was submitted to the Father’s, and he accepted that agony because of that submission. Thus he was fully human, and yet without sin.


There are numerous other points which I could discuss, but I think that these key points will make a clear why it is that I disagree so extensively with this work. Some may wonder why I respond in this way to a book by someone who has passed away. This book has a considerable following still. I discuss regularly with those who hold to many of the doctrines expressed in it. It is certainly a convenience to have my responses gathered in one place.

But even more I believe it is necessary to respond to an extremely doctrinal approach to Christianity, one which runs other people down spiritually on the basis of their understanding of particular doctrines. This doesn’t mean that doctrines are unimportant. But it does mean that we need to be very careful to care for people first. Often those who are less doctrinally oriented simply ignore these points, but that gives rise to the charge that those who hold positions such as those expressed in “The Invisible War” are somehow more scriptural. I am pointing out that they are not. They have spent time with scripture, but they have not come away with something that is scriptural.

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