Book Review: The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism

The more I read of G.K. Beale, the more I appreciate his work.  Beale is a NT professor at Wheaton College, an excellent biblical theologian, a well-established author, and an aspiring gardener (according to Doug Moo)–if you have read his The Temple and the Church’s Mission you will understand why

In his most recent book, The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism, professor Beale unleashes a sustained critique against Peter Enns and those who are questioning the doctrine of inerrancy.  Particularly, as the title addresses, Beale makes a case for the necessity and biblical warrant of inerrancy.

The first two chapters present responses to Peter Enns and his evaluation of the Old Testament.  Chapters three and four address Enns’ intertextual assessment of how the New Testament authors interpret the Old Testament.  Chapter five addresses the specific problem of Isaianic authorship, asserting that the NT authors were right in ascribing singular authorship to Isaiah 1-66.  Beale wraps up his case for inerrancy by looking at the cosmology of the OT and the ANE.

Chapter 1: Beale quotes Enns book at length.   He shows the weaknesses of his proposals, and concludes with eight summary points.  I have abbreviated them here (53-54; for the list en toto see Beale’s article “Myth, History, and Inspiration”):

(1) Enns affirms that the Creation and the Flood accounts are “shot through with myth.”

(2) Enns questions the accuracy of the biblical witness because the testimony is not objective history.  

(3) Enns fails to define how exactly Christ’s incarnation is like the Bible.  This analogy sounds good, but is ambiguous.

(4) Enns digs a ditch between the OT world and modern society, where present definitions of truth and error cannot be judged in a pre-scietific world.  

(5)  Enns does not follow his own evaluative proposal of humility, honsty, and charity.

(6) “Enns’s book is marked by ambiguities at important junctures of his discussion.”

(7) “Enns does not attempt to present and discuss for the reader significant alternative viewpoints other than his own…”

(8) “Enns appears to caricature the views of past evangelical scholarship by not distinguishing the views of so-called fundamentalists from that of good conservative scholarly work.”

Chapter 2: Beale replies to Enns open response (JETS 49 [2006]: 313-26), which seems to reassert points made in the first chapter.  Only in the surrejoinder, Beale is able  to defend the historicity of the Bible in more detail, expose the weaknesses of the incarnational analogy. Then going on the offensive, he challenges Enns with his own criticism, namely that Enns reads Scripture using extrabiblical standards (i.e. the surrounding cultures of the biblical authors).

Chapters 3-4: Beale begins by recognizing the merit of Enns “christotelic” hermeneutic.  This approach affirms the OT’s eschatological trajectory, aiming the whole of the OT towards Christ without forcing Jesus of Nazareth  into every verse.  However, Beale quickly delineates his concerns with Enns’ intertextual approach.  He lists five concerns (86-101):

(1) Enns determination that NT authors quote the OT in odd ways is insufficient in scope and not compelling in content.  Just because we have questions about how ancient authors are interpreting one another, does not give us freedom to discount their method as non-contextual. 

(2) Similarly, Enns denies reading of the OT in context.  The NT writers did not do this, and following their lead, we should have the freedom to interpret the passage in light of Christ’s coming and without grammatical-historical boundaries.  

(3) The pervasive and controlling influence of Second Temple Judaism predominates Enns theology.  Beale shows that Second Temple Judaism is not monolithic, yet Enns, while conceding the point, treats it as a singular interpretive method that the NT writers absorbed.

(4) While rejecting the “historical-grammatical” approach to Scripture, Enns employs his own hermeneutical grid and “imposes” theological constructs on his interpretations as much any other evangelical or fundamentalist.

(5) Enns posits that Paul adopted legendary material in his writings (i.e. Enns on 1 Cor. 10:4).  Yet, for Paul to incorporate this legendary material is to contradict his warning to Timothy and Titus about foolish legends and wives tales.

Chapter 5: Beale addresses the question of who wrote Isaiah.  He submits that many current evangelicals have adopted formerly liberal positions on this matter, and he goes on to argue for the importance of holding to a single author–the historically evangelical position.  He gives copious quotations from the NT and later Jewish writers to support this view.

Chapters 6-7: Finally, Beale examines cosmology in the Ancient Near East.  Where some scholars lump OT Israel in with their pagan neighbors, a worldview that disagrees with modern science, Beale contends that Moses and the other OT writers use phenomenological language to describe occurences as they appear.  In other places though, they use theologically-informed language to describe the universe as YHWH’s giant temple.  Beale concludes in chapter 6, “Many of the purported socially constructed, mythological expressions of the cosmos reflected in the Old Testament are better understood as descriptions of the way things appeared to the unaided eye or are related to to theological understanding of the cosmos (including the unseen heavenly dimension) as a temple” (213-14).  

This conclusion finds support from Beale’s extensive work on the temple (cf. The Temple and the Church’s Mission), which he draws on heavily here.  Speaking of the similarities and differences between OT and ANE temples, he writes, “These ancient pagan commonalities with Israel’s temple reflected partial yet true revelation, though insufficent revelation for a personal knowledge of God.  Yet Israel’s temples are not like her neighbors, merely because they reflect some degree of perception about the true reality of God’s dwelling; rather, Israel’s temple was intended to be viewed as the true temple to which all other imperfect temples aspired” (182-83).  In this regard, Israel’s temple served as a “polemical statement” against her polytheistic rivals. 

In short, OT language is not scientific with modern exhibitions of precision, but neither is it a mythical accomodation filled with modern errors.  Beale shows convincingly the makeup of the Old Testament is polemical, theological, and phenomenological.  And thus, he concludes his book with a constructive argument for understanding the Old Testament worldview.  Against Enns and those like him who flatten Israelite distinctives, Beale shows how the temple serves as a point of reference for how God’s covenant people and His revelation to them are similar yet altogether different than the religious documents and pagan worldviews from which Abraham and Israel were rescued.

Overall, Beale’s book is not an easy one to read.  While he is trying to help a lay audience better understand the problems of Enns argument and its impact for divine inerrancy, he does recruit some very technical arguments.  Moreover, the polemical nature of the book ensures that students first coming to the discussion have some background with the doctrine of Scripture and issues of Old Testament studies.  Nevertheless, Beale’s work is important because of the way it exposes a trend in current evangelicalism away from the firm foundations of biblical inerrancy, and the willingness to test historic doctrines with  novel conceptions that appeal to biblical critics.   Moreover, Beale’s work is helpful because it sets out better arguments for understanding the Bible that coheres with the Truth and encourages Christians to trust God’s inspired Word.  For that, I say thanks.

May we learn from Beale’s scholarship and fidelity to the Scriptures, and press on to know the Lord.

Sola Deo Gloria, dss

4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism

  1. Pingback: Stephen Evans on Myth: An Impartial Arbitrator « Via Emmaus

  2. So – how does a polemical, theological, and phenomenological reading of Genesis 1 look like?

    Is it a 7 day (24hr) creation, or how is it read?
    I am honestly curious.

    I am asking because I assume that if he does not read Genesis 1 in a ‘literal’ way – many will say that BEALE himself is not an inerrantist (despite the title of his book)! :(

    • Cristian,

      Very basically, I would say that in Genesis 1-11, the polemical makeup comes in that Moses is writing against the polytheism of the ancient Near East by crafting his creation account in such a way that it either rejects or corrects the other creation myths, though in so doing it will of necessity deal with some of the same phenomena and shared history.

      Then, Gen. 1-11 is theological in that it is saying something positively revealed to Moses from YHWH. Beale, following the work of Kline, Dumbrell, and others makes much of the tabernacle imagery in the creation account, and so it could be argued that Moses, when he is shown the heavenly tabernacle (Ex. 25:40) incorporates that languge and those ideas in his creation narrative. Either way, he is saying that God is the Creator, Judge, and Redeemer. Genesis 1-11 sets the stage for the rest of the Bible (cf Warren Gage, The Gospel of Genesis).

      Finally, phenomenologically, Gen. 1-11 speaks about creation as humanity observes it. It is not a scientific account, though I do not believe it is at odds with some kinds of theistic science (e.g. creationism, ID). Instead, the Bible gives grounds for having dominion, and stewardship over creation to explore it and understood it–that is part of naming creation, right? So while, Gen. 1-11 does not have the grammar or the tools of modern science to make its claims scientifically, this does not negate its veracity and/or reliability. Everything said in Genesis 1-11 is factual and true, as well as authoritative–God is the Creator and he created by his word, not by some impersonal cosmic belch and billions of years of chance permutations to living matter.

      Finally, I do not remember Beale’s exact stance on the length of days in Genesis, but I don’t think that should be used as a litmus test for those who are really biblical and those who are liberal. There are solid, evangelical inerrantists in both camps–Young Earth and Old Earth. I myself have vacillated between those two positions, but not on the matter of the Bible’s inerrancy.

      So, it would be sad if others charged Beale with some kind of deficient view of Scripture because he reads the Bible according to its genre, with a literary view, and not simply a wooden view. He is defending his views with solid academic research and doing so upholding the truthfulness of God’s word in its original wording. He is arguing against the passage as myth, but as inspired revelation, which is historically reliable.

      Let me add, I think that those two subjects–inerrancy and a literal hermeneutic– fall into different categories. Inerrancy is a statement concerning the nature of Scripture, its origin and its truthfulness; a literal reading of Scripture is methodological and concerns principles of hermeneutics. They are not the same, and just because one holds to the first does not mean they must hold to the second to be orthodox, though certain brands of Christianity would say so.

      Certainly we see a counter-example to this logic with biblical metaphors in the Bible. For instance, Jesus is the lamb of God. That is a true statement, but it is not a literal statement. Yes, it is real, but he does not have wool any more than he has tail and a great roar as the Lion of Judah. This language is metaphorical, that compares Jesus to the lamb(s) slain in the OT sacrificial system–you know this better than I. My point is that we must be careful to not confuse inerrancy with a literal hermeneutic, and when we do, we unnecessarily cut ourselves off from brothers in Christ who share our convictions concerning God’s living and true Word.

      Brother, I have answered with probably far longer an answer than you desired, but I hope this explains, what I think is the position that Beale holds. Would love to hear your thoughts.

      Dave

  3. Dave – thanks for the lengthy response. I appreciate it.
    I agree with many of the things you say (including the length of days etc)..

    However – there are some problems, especially when you (or Beale) talk about phenomenological language in creation.

    “Finally, phenomenologically, Gen. 1-11 speaks about creation as humanity observes it. It is not a scientific account, though I do not believe it is at odds with some kinds of theistic science (e.g. creationism, ID).”

    The PROBLEM is that humans (and that includes MOSES) did NOT observe CREATION…so how can they describe their ‘observation of it.’ And – since the sun is only created in the 4th day, how could an ‘observer’ talk about a morning and an evening prior to the creation of the sun…?

    In other words – how can you explain the 7 day sequence (whether 24 hrs or ages) and the later explicit statement: rest on the 7th day…because in 6 days the Lord created etc…?

    Also – the fact is that there are people out there who (if you do not interpret the text with a 7 day 24hrs, or even if you do not follow the sequence of creation) – will say that Beale and others are not inerrantists. Or – that he is an inerrantist, but one that ‘forces’ the texts who do not fit his presuppositions. I read some of Beal and others, but I am not sure I understand the analogy between the creation of the universe and a temple. And how do you relate the creation of the universe to that of the temple….and what do the days have to do with that? I will try to read the new Walton’s book, but many make a strong argument (I believe) that a Jew 2000 years ago (and maybe 3000 too) would have read the account in Genesis quiet literally…?

    I haven’t read Gage, but I hope to read it someday. You may also be interested in this:
    http://www.amazon.com/Gospel-Genesis-Fig-Leaves-Faith/dp/1433501201/ref=sr_1_8?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1247403657&sr=8-8

    P.S. I tend to interpret Genesis 1 both theologically and polemically. I am just not sure what to make of the 6 days of creation and Sabbath…?

    Blessings,
    Chris

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