Appendix: The Heresy of Dr. Belcher’s “Self-Maledictory Oath”.
This appendix was written to handle four citations from Dr. Belcher’s book regarding what he terms the “Self-Maledictory oath”.
I regard these as heresy, no more no less. To say that I found them shocking and irresponsible would be a major understatement.
These will be cited by number in my commentary below.
“The smoking fire pot and a flaming torch symbolize the presence of God as they pass between the slain animals. Normally, both parties of the covenant we walk through the animals but here God is the only party to pass between them. He places himself under Covenant curse if he does not keep the promises. In other words, the curse would fall on God, and he would become like the slain animals if he is not faithful to the covenant (a self-Maledictory oath). Support for understanding the ceremony as involving a self-Maledictory oath is found in ancient Near Eastern texts and in a similar covenant ceremony described in Jeremiah 34.17-20.” [ch 5, pg 64, emphasis mine]
“On the one hand, it is difficult to conceive of God undergoing covenant curse, but He allows Himself to be bound by covenant obligation to show that He is serious about keeping the covenant promises.” [ch 5, pg 64, emphasis mine]
“On the other hand, we know that God did take upon himself a covenant curse, not because He failed to keep the covenant promises, but because the descendants of Abram failed to keep them (Exo 24.7; Deu 27-28).” [ch 5, pg 64]
“Thus, God in the person of Jesus Christ took upon himself the curse of the covenant that should have fallen on those who are covenant breakers.” [ch 5, pg 64]
I felt that the most effective way to keep the rebuttal below organized is by means of a table, with rows correlated to the number sections in the clips above.
Moreover, Dr. Belcher's comment of “Normally, both parties …” is so nonchalant that it's easy to skip over the fact that he also has no biblical proof for this foolish assertion, nor has this ceremony been seen prior to this event in the Scripture (so how can he apply the phrase "normally...")?
Further, any appeal to the reference that “their dead bodies will be food for the birds …”, a parallel with an identical event in Gen 15, is invalid. It is a typical curse used in Deu 28.26; 1 Sam 17.44,46; 1 Kin 14.11; Psa 79.2; Jer 7.33; 16.4; 19.7. In none of these references is there any mention of split animals or any comparison to what befalls a sacrificial animal if a covenant is broken.
It was a curse, plain and simple, used both by the LORD and by men.
Dr. Belcher's assertion that “The smoking fire pot and a flaming torch symbolize the presence of God as they pass between the slain animals.” may or may not be true. The important point is that he does not prove the symbolism from the Scripture. The even more important point is that the LORD Himself does not tell us the meaning. Bible “commentators” and “teachers” frequently miss this little (#SARC) detail and think that they need to comment anyway about everything. It is an historical detail without biblically-sourced commentary—something Dr. Belcher needs to learn and thereby refrain from foolish speculation.
[This interpretation (the self-Maledictory oath) is opposed also by the venerable Keil and Delitzsch commentary. (Note: while I concur with their opposition to this error, they came to the right conclusion for what I view as the wrong reason, as I cite below.)
From K&D, V1, p137, Gen 15.7-11:
“In the case before us, [the sacrificial animals] were meant to typify the promised seed of Abram. This would not hold good, indeed, if the cutting of the animals had been merely intended to signify, that any who broke the covenant would be treated like the animals that were there cut in pieces. But there is no sure ground in Jer 34.18ff. for thus interpreting the ancient custom. The meaning which the prophet there assigns to the symbolical usage, maybe simply a different application of it, which does not preclude an earlier and different intention in the symbol.”
Another not-so-subtle point revealed by K&D is that this is a very old error dating back at least 150 years, since K&D was first published in 1867. How it has lasted so long is a witness to the fact that while truth must be maintained by great and constant effort, error lives on effortlessly through the religious elite.]
The event is “physical” – that is, the split animals, the arrangement of the animals, the ground, the attempts by the “birds of prey” to pick at the dead animals, the time of day and its associated conditions (like waning light) are all real. The account was not a vision.
Lending weight to this understanding is the fact that immediately after the deep sleep fell upon Abram the LORD spoke to him. The information that the LORD revealed to Abram was of such importance that it seems very likely that Abram “woke” nearly immediately after falling into that sleep and was thereby fully aware of what was happening. In simple terms, Abram needed to fully understand the information the LORD revealed.
[Regarding the fact that “a deep sleep fell upon Abram”: the Apostle John might have experienced something similar when he viewed the Lord Christ in all His glory: “When I saw Him, I fell at His feet like a dead man.” (Rev 1.17a) Yet, after that initial encounter and he was strengthened by the Lord Christ he was able to record the scene in what we now have as the Revelation!]
We must also not lose site of the fact that this is the LORD's answer to Abram's question, “O Lord God, how may I know that I will possess it?” (Gen 15.8) The entire scene may be nothing more complicated than the fact that the LORD arranged an object lesson (for lack of a better term) for Abram. That is, it seems very likely that the smoking oven and the flaming torch are revealed in the Shekinah glory of the LORD in the pillars of smoke and fire that appeared to accompany Israel as they began their journey to the promised land to take possession of the Promised Land:
The Lord was going before them in a pillar of cloud by day to lead them on the way, and in a pillar of fire by night to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night.
The angel of God, who had been going before the camp of Israel, moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them. So it came between the camp of Egypt and the camp of Israel; and there was the cloud along with the darkness, yet it gave light at night. Thus the one did not come near the other all night.
Moreover, just as the “smoking oven” and the “flaming torch” passed between the animal parts, so the visible glory of the LORD remained between Israel and the Egyptians who sought to destroy them. And, of course, this protection was “physical”, just like Abram's experience.
The four points above are important in their own place, but this last point identifies one of the most serious errors to date in Dr. Belcher's book: his comments regarding the “self-Maledictory oath”. They are not merely wrong, they sink to the level of heresy. (Frankly, I expect far better from someone who was a pastor for 10 years, then taught at RTS Charlotte, NC for 25 years (as of the date of this rebuttal).)
I recognize that this is serious charge, but it is true nonetheless as I prove (below) from the Scriptures.
[The identical heresy was found on Ligonier.org:
A Smoking Fire Pot
“Notice that it is God alone who passes between the animals; Abram is not invited to participate. He has already shown his trust and faithfulness. Here we have the Lord alone swearing by himself that he will see to it that his promises will come to pass. This sworn oath is promissory and self-Maledictory (invoking death to himself if it is not fulfilled), giving His people confidence that he will accomplish all that He pledges (Heb 6.13-18). It is an unparalleled manifestation of the Lord's Grace, for he promises to care for his loyal servant and his descendants forever.”
The words and phrases used by Dr. Belcher and Ligonier are nearly a copy of each other. There is no author listed on this article, though it is dated Aug 11, 2006 and Dr. Belcher’s book (The Fulfillment of the Promises of God) is dated 2020.]
So, let's review the exact text from Dr. Belcher and very carefully dissect his statement:
“He places himself under Covenant curse if he does not keep the promises. In other words, the curse would fall on God, and he would become like the slain animals if He is not faithful to the covenant (a self-Maledictory oath).”
Earlier, the Bible states “Then [Abram] believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Abram did not require any further assurance for the LORD's promise; he believed all that the LORD stated. What would the LORD accomplish by killing Himself? To do so (something actually impossible, but just suppose…) would mean that He failed to keep His word (something equally impossible). How could the "True and Living One" ever overcome the failure of His word? It is part and parcel of His being!
Based on this text,
2 Tim 2.13
If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.
It would be impossible for the LORD even to entertain the thought of failing to keep His own Word! In all of space and time His Word is inviolate and can only be absolutely true and binding; His promise to Abram could not fail in any circumstance, real or imagined.
He is incapable of deception! If what Dr. Belcher maintains is true, then the LORD is being deceptive since the oath implies that he can fatally (or in any other way!) harm Himself! Dr. Belcher, do you hear how thoughtless and irresponsible this is?
The LORD's nature is self-existence.
Then Moses said to God, “Behold, I am going to the sons of Israel, and I will say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you.’ Now they may say to me, ‘What is His name?’ What shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM”; and He said, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”
Any promise He makes will be absolutely consistent with His nature! Any “oath” which presumes to violate His own nature can’t happen; the very speculation has no meaning!
Imagine: the LORD cursing Himself—what a bizarre and useless thought! Only careless "theologians" who, apparently, try to score dramatic points without true, biblical meaning would even dare to make such a careless and heretical assertion!
When the LORD sought to emphasize one of His oaths, He used the following phrase: “As I live”!
Here is the first example found in the Scripture:
The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, “How long shall I bear with this evil congregation who are grumbling against Me? I have heard the complaints of the sons of Israel, which they are making against Me. Say to them, ‘As I live,’ says the Lord, ‘just as you have spoken in My hearing, so I will surely do to you; your corpses will fall in this wilderness, even all your numbered men, according to your complete number from twenty years old and upward, who have grumbled against Me.”
The LORD never swears by His death! In those few occasions (above) in which He added an oath to His words, He swore by His life! He swore by something that IS, not by something that doesn't and can't exist!
Again, Dr. Belcher's (and Ligonier's) “self-Maledictory” claim is clear and wretched heresy! It is extraordinary that someone who claims to be a theological writer and teacher could be so careless and unthinking with the LORD's own nature!
Here Dr. Belcher attempts to soften (or undo!) his foolishness about the LORD's so-called self-imprecation. The LORD was cursed, Dr. Belcher maintains, but not because He failed to keep His Word but because “the descendants of Abram” failed to do so. This is nothing but theological gaslighting! In effect, Dr. Belcher is maintaining something like this:
“Oh, you thought I was referring to an oath the LORD made upon Himself!? No, it was Abram who broke the covenant, so the Son of God steps up to endure the curse, not the Father!”
But there is a much more important detail to recognize here: the covenant of Gen 15 with Abram had no conditions to break! Or, to put this into words that even die-hard covenant theologians can understand:
The covenant of Gen 15 with Abram was unconditional. It can never be broken! So, Dr. Belcher’s presumed explanation could never be applied. We’re now left with no target upon which the curse can be applied, since Dr. Belcher maintains that it was not applied to Abram.
Moreover, the covenant of Gen 15 contained no curse! I dare any CT to find it. It’s not there! So, how can a curse be invoked upon a party when there was no curse to begin with?
Of course, biblical truth and Dr. Belcher are not necessarily friends. He attempts to apply the curse to the Lord Christ, something that in this context can’t be true—ever!
Dr. Belcher is here very careless with his language by conflating the fact that the Lord Christ “became a curse for us” (Gal 3.13) with the LORD cursing Himself (according to Dr. Belcher) if He failed to keep His Word! The former is the true meaning of the substitutionary death of the man the Lord Christ for His people in contrast to the so-called self-administered curse that was to be an assurance that the LORD would keep His promise.
It should be mentioned that the curse which fell upon the Lord Christ occurred at the fall of Adam without the requirements of a covenant with Adam (which doesn't exist) in the first place.
This is clearly error, another example of the forced narrative of the covenant "theologian": the definitive Bible statement on sin and substitution is Rom 5.12-21. There, the Apostle Paul has clearly in mind the simple statement of Adam's sin and the curse it brought to all his posterity. He speaks only of transgression and grace: no covenant of any kind is mentioned or even implied! This is long before the covenant with Abram.
For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.
Of course, Dr. Belcher attempted (in an earlier chapter) to read the Covenant of Works into Romans 5 and failed miserably.
It is indeed a very sad day that a presumably respected ‘theologian’ should have to be rebuked for teaching not only error, but error which I believe ranks as unmitigated heresy. It speaks to just how far the American church has descended into the abyss and is one major reason why America has been receiving the trials from the LORD that it has. It has long been my opinion that the United States is in serious trouble, beginning with the pulpits and seminaries and working down from them.