Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism by G. K. Beale

The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism:
Responding to New Challenges to Biblical Authority
by G. K. Beale, Crossway, 2008, 300pp.
The doctrine of Scripture is one of the most highly contested areas of Christian theology. Evangelicals and liberals have been fighting hammer and tongs over the Bible for many decades and there is no sign of the war reaching a conclusion any time soon. One feature of the conflict in recent years has been the blurring of the battle lines. It could once be assumed with a degree of certainty that Evangelical and Reformed theologians held to biblical inerrancy while almost everybody else, from liberals to Barthians rejected that view. Now that is no longer the case. The traditional Evangelical take on the Bible is being questioned within the fold. Recently the prominent Scottish Reformed theologian Andrew McGowan argued in The Divine Spiration of Scripture that we should jettison inerrancy in favour of a reconfigured notion of infallibility (see here). Across the Pond, Peter Enns raised issues relating to biblical inerrancy in his book, Inspiration and Incarnation. It is all rather confusing for those who knew where they stood when Evangelicals wearing white stetsons challenged the villainous, back -hatted liberals to a draw at High Noon over the inerrancy of Scripture.
Greg Beale wades into the debate as a New Testament scholar. His main purpose is to interact with the proposals of Peter Enns, who was suspended from his post at the Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia) because of concerns regarding his views on biblical inerrancy. Beale does not get involved in the rights and wrongs of this suspension. He concentrates his firepower on Enns' teaching.
The main areas of discussion are the relationship between ancient near east (ANE) mythology and the Old Testament and the New Testament's use of Old Testament texts. According to Enns, Old Testament writers incorporated ANE mythology into the biblical text, not realising that what they regarded as historical fact was really myth and legend. The Genesis accounts of creation and the flood are cases in point. Enns finds examples of this approach in the New Testament as too, with Paul citing the Jewish myth of a moving well in 1 Corinthians 10:4. This approach clearly raises problems for the inerrancy of Scripture. Beale argues that the Old Testament alludes to ANE myths for polemical purposes, to insist that the Lord God rather than the gods of the nations created and ordered the universe. But the Old Testament narratives in Genesis and elsewhere are essentially historical rather than mythological. He takes issue with Enns' interpretation of 1 Corinthians 10:4, providing a more cogent explanation of the verse than the 'moving well' proposal.
On the New Testament's use of Old Testament texts, Beale scrutinises Enns' view that the writers of the New Testament paid little attention to the contextual meaning of the Old Testament. In sum, he claims that they obtained the right doctrine from the wrong texts. Beale shows that the apostles were sensitive to the original meaning of Old Testament passages, even as they understood the Old Testament in the light of its fulfilment in Christ.
A chapter is devoted to specific problem the unity of the Prophecy of Isaiah. Many Old Testament scholars hold that the Isaiah should be divided in two, with chapters 1-39 written by the eponymous prophet and chapters 40-66 penned by a post-exilic author. The New Testament however attributes texts from both supposed sections of the Prophecy to Isaiah. Is this a case of New Testament writers unwittingly suggesting that the Book of Isaiah was the work of one prophet, while critical scholarship has shown that this does not match the facts? Beale presents detailed arguments in favour of the unity of Isaiah and argues that respect for the authority of Scripture demands that we take seriously what the New Testament says regarding the single authorship of the Book.
A major plank in Enns' proposals is that the Old Testament's account of creation incorporates elements of ANE myth. To counter this Beale includes two major chapters on Old Testament cosmology. In common with ANE mythology, the Old Testament seems to depict a three-tier universe, comprising of the earth, the domed sky and the heavenly realm beyond the dome. This model is obviously unscientific. But is it even intended to be a scientific description of the universe? Beale carefully relates the Old Testament's vision of a three-tier creation to Israel's Tabernacle and Temple. Both constructions were three-tierd. The outer court represented the earth, the holy place signified the sky, and the most holy place stood for God's heavenly dwelling place. The lamp in the temple with its seven lights symbolised the sun, moon and five visible planets in the heavens. The temple was intended to be a microcosm of the universe. Beale tightens the link between temple and cosmos by drawing on Old Testament texts such as Isaiah 66:1-2, where creation is described as a huge temple. In other words, when Old Testament writers spoke of a three-tier universe, they were not trying to give a scientific account of the world, so much as emphasising that creation is God's great temple. This is hinted at in the temple-like description of Eden and finds its fulfilment in the new creation, where the tabernacle of God comes to the earth and God dwells among men, Revelation 21:1-3.
Jesus affirmed the Old Testament creation and flood narratives and seemed to hold to the unity of Isaiah. If we say that the Old Testament presented myth as history and the New Testament's attribution of Old Testament Books is to be doubted, that raises questions regarding the authority of Jesus. Was he simply accommodating himself to the knowledge of the times although he knew better, or was he also mistaken? Either option causes problems for our understanding of the person of Christ. The Father through the Holy Spirit revealed to the incarnate Son whatever he needed to know for the purpose of salvation and for the instruction of his people. If we believe that Jesus is the final revelation of God, then we must accept his word as truth without reservation. The disciples learned their method of Old Testament exegesis from the Master (Luke 24:45-49). To cast doubt on the reliability of the apostle's use of the Old Testament is to question Jesus' ability as a Bible teacher.
The book concludes with a series of appendices. The problems entailed in Steve Moyise's postmodern approach to interpreting Scripture are discussed at some length. Beale draws heavily on the work of Kevin Vanhoozer at this point. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy is reproduced. What an amazing, all encompassing statement on Scripture it is too. Finally Beale gives some selected quotes from Karl Barth, where the theologian explicitly denies the infallibility and inerrancy of the Bible.
The book is a little choppy in style. The first two chapters reproduce Beale's review of Inspiration and Incarnation together with Enns' response in summary form, followed by further comments by the writer. Yet Beale argues his case well and the chapters on Old Testament cosmology are simply outstanding, yielding fresh insights into creation as God's temple. The author has highlighted some recent challenges to biblical inerrancy from within the world of Evangelical biblical scholarship. He gives a cogent response to the new teaching and in so doing has helped to bolster our confidence in Scripture as God's inerrant Word. Beale clearly wears a white stetson still. It seems that Enns' headgear is a rather vague shade of grey. How about you?

1 comment:

Patrick Hamilton said...

The current issue of the Westminster Theological Journal(Vol 71, No 1) has a review of Enns by Bruce K Waltke and James W Scott. James E Scott in a footnote (page 131) states that Enns reached an agreement with the seminary and left on August 1, 2008.
I have not read the reviews as yet but they look very technical at a first glance.