What Does Heterosis have to do with Prophecy?
If you look up the word Heterosis, you will find that it is a scientific term regarding genetics. It means that the trait of an offspring (plant, animal, etc) is superior to the same trait in the parents. In other words, the offspring’s trait is improved by the combining of the genes from the parent. So what does Heterosis have to do with prophecy in the Bible?
The term heterosis was first proposed by G.H Shull in 1948 to replace the term heterozygosis. So what? Well, before that, the word “Heterosis” was used by E.W. Bullinger in his book, “Figures of Speech Used in the Bible,” which was first published in 1898. Bullinger’s use of this word has a completely different meaning than that which you might find if you do an internet search on “heterosis.” Before we get to Bullinger’s definition, let me relate a conversation I had.
Sin and its relationship to us
The conversation revolved around a Sunday message given at a church. The message taught that our sins (plural) have been mitigated by the blood of Jesus and sin (singular) has been taken care of by the cross. The preacher continued to make the point that we are not sinners because we have sinned but we sin because we are sinners and that our sinful nature comes to us as an inheritance from Adam.
The person who had heard the message, explained that he understood how our sins have been forgiven by the blood shed by Jesus. He didn’t understand how sin has been taken care of at the cross. After all, we are still sinners, our sinful flesh continues to lead us to do what we do not want to do (Romans 7:14-23). Even the best of us falls short of perfection.
However, the Bible teaches that we have died to sin:
How shall we who died to sin still live in it? – Romans 6:2
Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. – Galatians 5:24
For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. – Colossians 3:3
How can it be that the Bible teaches us that sin is dead, yet we continue to sin?
Heterosis – AKA The Prophetic Perfect Tense
Here we come back to Bullinger’s definition of the term “Heterosis”:
[The past tense is used instead of the future tense] when the speaker views the action as being as good as done. This is very common in the Divine prophetic utterances where, though the sense is literally future, it is regarded and spoken of as though it were already accomplished in the Divine purpose and determination. The figure is to show the absolute certainty of the things spoken of. – Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible, Heterosis III-2
In other words, the Biblical writers used a writing method that we can understand, even if we ourselves do not use it often. That method is to use the past tense for something that has not yet happened but is certain to occur. Since the Prophets use this method most, the term, “Prophetic Perfect Tense,” has been coined as a synonym to Heterosis.
I have not used this term up to this point because there are Hebrew scholars who will say there is no “Perfect Tense” in Hebrew. This seems like semantics to me. However, I am not an expert in Hebrew and will therefore acquiesce by avoiding the use of the term “Prophetic Perfect Tense” and sticking to Bullinger’s “Heterosis.”
The point is valid regardless of the terminology. Throughout the Old and New Testaments, the Bible often uses the past tense to show the certainty of a future event. Some examples of Heterosis:
Then Eliezer the son of Dodavahu of Mareshah prophesied against Jehoshaphat saying, “Because you have allied yourself with Ahaziah, the Lord has destroyed your works.” So the ships were broken and could not go to Tarshish. – 2 Chronicles 20:37
He was despised and forsaken of men,
A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
And like one from whom men hide their face
He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. – Isaiah 53:3
It was also about these men that Enoch, in the seventh generation from Adam, prophesied, saying, “Behold, the Lord came with many thousands of His holy ones”, – Jude 14
In these three examples, we see that the past tense is used, even though the event had not yet happened. In 2 Chronicles 20:37, Eliezer prophesied that the Lord had already destroyed, before the ships were broken. Eliezer prophesied using the past tense because he knew the certainty of the future.
In Isaiah 53:3, we read that Jesus was despised, forsaken, acquainted with grief, and we did not esteem Him, 700 years before Christ was born. Isaiah prophesied using the past tense because he knew the certainty of the future.
In Jude 14, Jude relates that Enoch prophesied about the coming of Christ using the past tense, even though Christ has not yet come. Enoch prophesied using the past tense because he knew the certainty of the future.
The Problem with English
There are many more examples. However, it’s difficult to find them in most of our English Bibles. The reason for this is that most English translations change the tense to the future tense. The assumption the Biblical translators have made is that English readers will be confused if they read something in the past tense when it hasn’t happened yet.
So we have the following:
So the Lord said, “If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare the whole place on their account.” – Genesis 18:26
In famine He will redeem you from death,
And in war from the power of the sword. – Job 5:20
For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us;
And the government will rest on His shoulders;
And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. – Isaiah 9:6
In each of these examples, the use of the future tense lets us know that these things are in the future from the time of the speaker. However, in the original language, these were all written in the past tense.
Young’s Literal Translation
Robert Young’s “Literal Translation of the Holy Bible” (YLT) does a much better job of translating these verses. Young was a stickler for keeping the literal meaning of the original language. Here are his translations for these verses:
And Jehovah saith, `If I find in Sodom fifty righteous in the midst of the city, then have I borne with all the place for their sake.’ – Genesis 18:26
In famine He hath redeemed thee from death, And in battle from the hands of the sword. – Job 5:20
For a Child hath been born to us, A Son hath been given to us, And the princely power is on his shoulder, And He doth call his name Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty God, Father of Eternity, Prince of Peace. – Isaiah 9:6
For those unfamiliar with the older English (i.e.: “King James” English), each of these verses have been translated in the past tense.
Heterosis in the New Testament
We’ve already seen Jude 14. However, there are other examples of heterosis in the New Testament. The problem is, sometimes the translators have kept the past tense. This has led to some confusion. For example:
and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, – Ephesians 2:6
Obviously, we are not already seated with God in the heavenly place. Nor are we already raised up into the heavenly places. This is an example of Heterosis. Yet, this has confused many people so that there are many who would say that we are already seated with God in the heavenly places (in some spiritual sense). We begin to run into some very difficult theological problems and move down an unbiblical path.
Regarding this verse, the Geneva Bible’s note says:
That is, as he adds afterwards, in Christ, for as yet this is not fulfilled in us, but only in our head by whose Spirit we have begun to die to sin, and live to God, until that work is fully brought to an end. And yet the hope is certain, for we are as sure of that which we look for, as we are of that which we have already received.
Additionally, F.F. Bruce writes in The New International Commentary on the New Testament, The Epistle to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians:
That God has already seated his people with Christ in the heavenly realm is an idea unparalleled elsewhere in the Pauline corpus. It can best be understood as a statement of God’s purpose for his people—a purpose which is so sure of fulfillment that it can be spoken of as having already taken place.
Back to the Conversation
So back to the conversation I had, those verses that speak of sin already being conquered, they are true. However, they are not necessarily conquered already. Sin continues to live in our flesh. The Bible is clear that Christians continue to choose to live by the Spirit or by the flesh (Galatians 5:16-17, Romans 7:14-23).
Even as I mention Galatians 5:16-17, which exhorts us to walk by the Spirit and not the flesh, Paul writes in verse 24, “Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” How can this be?
Say it with me: Heterosis.
It is important that we recognize Heterosis in the Bible, especially in the New Testament. We will come to unbiblical theological conclusions if we do not.
Hence, when we read a passage that is written in the past tense but apparently has not yet happened, do not try to invent a new theological argument in an attempt to be literal. Instead, recognize it may be Heterosis. If it is, the literal interpretation is that the writer is telling us something will happen in the future but because God has said it, it is as sure as if it has already occurred.