The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism by GK Beale

The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism: Responding to New Challenges to Biblical AuthorityTakeaway: If you are going to respond to another author, it is best to deal with their actual arguments.

GK Beale opens the book with a fictional discussion between two Evangelicals.  This fictional discussion was one of the better parts of the book. It actually took both the conservative and more moderate evangelical students seriously.

Beale is directly responding to Peter Enns’ Inspiration and Incarnation.  I was interested in reading a good conservative response to Enns.  It is not that I think that Enns’ book was perfect, it was far from it.  But Beale’s problems with Enns’ book seem to rely less on the evidence that Enns’ presents than on the defense of what Beale views as an Evangelical view of inerrancy and the doctrine of scripture.

Early in the book Beale reprints (with minor edits) his original review of Enns’ Inspiration and Incarnation that was printed in a journal.  He has a long discussion about Enns’ use of the word myth.  It is at this point that I start to question whether Beale is being serious in his review or just intentionally obtuse.  Enns several times gives definitions of what he means by myth, but Beale continues to confuse the popular understanding of the word myth with the academic History of Religions definition of the word myth that Enns is using.  Beale interprets Enns as meaning that all early stories in the OT, especially Genesis are ‘made up stories’.  But Enns is saying something very different.

Enns (using a commonly accepted academic understanding of the word myth) to mean that early OT, especially Genesis, are origin stories that may be based in factual history, but are not primarily concerned with relating the history of Israel as they are about relating the point of the story for the people to understand their origin.  This is important.  This academic understanding of myth was defined in order to separate a modern (post-enlightenment) understanding of history as primarily about the transmission of facts instead of a pre-enlightenment understanding of history as primarily conveying meaning.

By the end of the Beale’s first review, I am beginning to wonder if he has ever had a History of Religions class.  This is a serious question, not an intended slight.  I was a student at the University of Chicago, which has a very solid history of religion program.  So maybe I am assuming a basic level of understanding that Beale does not have, but surely there are others that should have discussed with him the basic academic understanding of the term myth before he published a review in a major scholarly journal that so significantly misunderstood Enns.  Beale is a very solid scholar in New Testament and I would not question is ability there, but this may be case where Beale just stepped too far outside his area of expertise.

Enns (according to a summary of his response) makes the very good point that Beale is arguing for a repetition of fact from people that could not have observed the actual events.  Not even Beale would suggest that the event of creation or the rest of the first eleven chapters of Genesis were written by anyone that actually observed the events.  So what Beale is really arguing for is the relating of oral tradition to written tradition authentically.  But he never actually says that.

Beale can debate whether Genesis should be understood as myth or as history, but by mis-characterizing Enns’ argument (and the purpose of his argument) he moved me from an interested reader to a very skeptical one.  I want to understand areas that Enns might be wrong.  But I do not want to listen to a discussion where the different sides are talking past one another and not actually engaging with other.

Another area that just seems petty is Beale’s constant harping on the lack of footnotes.  He has a point, Enns could have footnoted more.  Enns responded that he was trying to write a book primarily for a lay audience.  So while it is worthwhile for Beale to say he made an editorial mistake by not footnoting more it that does not actually make much of a different to the argument that Enns is trying to make.  (And certainly there was not a need to repeatedly bring it up over and over and over and over.)

Beale also seems to be arguing against the very idea of intellectual paradigms.  He asserts that because Babylon and Egypt had a concept of mathematics and astronomy they were not as far apart from a modern understanding of science and history as what Enns suggest.  The problem is that again, Beale is misunderstanding the argument, in fact the entire purpose of Enns early part of I & I.  Enns is suggesting that what was being conveyed by especially Genesis 1-11 (but possibly other passages as well) is that Israel was a part of early ANE culture.  So it was a way of the myths of creation and the flood from other cultures around them, and as part God’s inspiration, the writers used these stories to communicate that God was a different type of God than the God’s around them.

Beale’s argument about how close the people of ANE are to today’s culture would seem to suggest that we can find other stories of creation around the time of the original writing of Genesis 1-11 and they would be history-focused in a way that understood as history by modern readers.  If not then Beale would seem to be suggesting that it is only through God’s Inspiration that the writers could write accurate history.  If that is the argument I would listen to it. But again, Beale does not make that argument, he just suggests that Enns is wrong for asserting that the ANE cultures had a different understanding of the purpose of what Genesis 1-11 is than what some modern Evangelical Christians want to understand.

Beale also then takes a strange turn by referring to John Walton’s work on the Genesis 1 as a temple dedication ceremony.  Walton’s work would actually seem to support Enns concept of myth because it is not communicating historical fact, but functional origin story wrapped in a mythic container.  Again, it is fine for Beale to suggest that Enns is wrong about his interpretation of Genesis 1, but for Beale to suggest that then Walton’s interpretation of Genesis 1 meets the requirements of Beale’s understanding of Genesis 1 as history and not Genesis 1 as myth seems to misunderstand both Walton and Enns.  (He later has an entire chapter an ANE cosmology that depends heavily on Walton.)

One area where I think Beale has a point is in Enns discussion of diversity of thought in the Old Testament.  Several of Enns areas of diversity seem to be quite minor.  But Enns’ point was simply to show that there is diversity.  Virtually any diversity is enough.  But again Beale goes too far by suggesting that since Enns shows more than one type of diversity that Enns is unclear about what he is actually trying to show.   Either there is diversity in the Old Testament or there is not.  Enns walked through multiple types of diversity to show that is was wide-spread.  Beale references DA Carson who has a good point in that apparent discrepancies in place names, or number or historical parallel accounts cannot be solved by Enns’ appeal to a Christological hermeneutic.  But in order for that point to really make sense, Beale would need to say that there are discrepancies.  Enns resists that type of characterization because he believes that the point of most of these passages is not the numbers or the place or this historicity of the passage, but the grand narrative of God’s work in Israel moving toward Christ’s incarnation.  So while Beale can reference DA Carson’s argument it does not serve to strengthen Beale’s own position.

Later in the book, Beale has a couple chapters that are independent of Enns.  These are better chapters, but no more persuasive.  His chapter on the single authorship of Isaiah was probably the best chapter, but primarily the argument seemed to revolve more around preserving his conception of inerrancy rather than dealing with the actual evidence of multiple authors for Isaiah.

Overall, this was a very weak response to Enns.  Beale’s use of prior journal articles, his summary of Enns responses instead of actually re-printing them and fairly random supplemental chapters make this book feel very thrown together and a very weak piece of scholarship.  If Enns is important enough to write a full book about, he should be important enough to actually write a decent book about.  Instead, this book seems to be exactly the type of book that Christian Smith wrote Bible Made Impossible to address.  Beale’s concern does not actually seem to be the authority of scripture, the value of the text or following the evidence of the text, but preserving his preconceived understanding of what the is necessary to maintain inerrancy.

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