This is my final installment in my lengthy review of G. K. Beale’s A New Testament Biblical Theology. During the previous three parts of the review I have tried to provide the thrust of Beale’s “already-not yet new creational” model with few critical remarks (though, as a “Dispensationalist” I clearly have a bias against the author’s new way of presenting covenant theology).
In this piece I shall enter into criticism more plainly. I had envisaged a detailed critique and had lined up several pages of references to problems I see in the book, but that would be impracticable. There are literally dozens of issues where I believe Beale is seeing things that just aren’t there while missing things that plainly are there. But I will have to be satisfied with more selective comments.
The book has received more than its share of adulation since its release, and, from the perspective of supercessionist theologies, it is easy to see why. The book represents a very impressive presentation of the amillennialist thesis, mixed, as contemporary presentations of that approach are, with G.E. Ladd’s “already/not yet” hermeneutic. It employs fully up-to-date arguments and extensive “exegetical” reasoning. It seeks to persuade readers that this is how the Bible itself presents its interpretation. Moreover, despite its considerable size (circa, 1,000 closely printed pages), it makes appeal to other significant studies by the same author in support of its teachings. I want to say that the author is both brilliant and reflective. In pushing his theology into farther reaches he has done precisely what I believe a generation or more of recumbent dispensationalists have not done (I do not include progressive dispensationalists in this number, since, although one can learn from it, I believe PD is a different animal than the dispensationalism of Scofield, Chafer, Walvoord, Ryrie, or even Erich Sauer or Michael Vlach).
The following critique is from a certain point of view. Notwithstanding, I stand behind it as a solid basis for not recommending Beale’s work as an accurate account of biblical theology.
Some Quick Miscellaneous Criticisms:
1. The prolixity of the author’s style. Beale takes a long time to say what he means. Granted, one must argue a point, but Beale still needs more words than necessary to say it. Just a look at his headings and subheadings proves my point. One example from among many will do the job: chapter 19 is entitled “The Story of the Eden Sanctuary, Israel’s Temple, and Christ and the Church as the Ongoing Eschatological Temple of the Spirit in the New-Creational Kingdom.” Nuff said.
2. This problem leads to another one, which is the dearth of references to or critical interaction with opposing views (a rare example includes a note on page 350 n.94). As with some other of this author’s work (e.g. The Temple and the Church’s Mission), one gets the feeling that Beale thinks he’s just right and doesn’t need to defend his views. Hence, someone wishing to find involved discussion with other viewpoints will not find it here. This is acutely the case with dispensational writers (hardly even mentioned). This is a covenant theologian writing for covenant theologians.
3. The author’s thesis, drawn as it is from his interpretation of allusions and types, is, I firmly believe, quite beyond the ken of the vast majority of Bible students past or present. This is esoteric theology funded by esoteric reading of the Bible. Scripture’s constant “transformations” of seemingly clear teachings via the sorts of subtleties Beale appeals to make it the preserve of scholars. The Bible is not for Everyman, since the key to its interpretation is an enigma to most of us (saved or lost). Instead of just using language to tell us straight, it seems, if Beale is to be followed, that God hides the reality within the symbolically concealed. A man who can write, “Perhaps one of the most striking features of Jesus’ kingdom is that it appears not to be the kind of kingdom prophesied in the OT and expected by Judaism” (431 my emphasis), without contemplating the gravity, philosophically speaking, of what he is saying, is not, in our estimation, a safe guide. What use then are the tests of a prophet (Deut. 18:22) if fulfillments can be transformed into something the original hearers wouldn’t have understood? Those who take their queue from Paul, who told others, “Therefore, keep up your courage, men, for I believe God, that it will turn out exactly as I have been told” (Acts 27:25), have, it would seem, gotten hold of the wrong end of the interpretative stick.
What is Missing:
1. The most glaring absentees from Beale’s book are the biblical covenants. Although one might argue that this is explained by this being a New Testament theology, the author’s subtitle, “The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New” fairly screams for attention to the covenants. He does briefly refer to covenants (e.g. 42-43, 166), and he uses Hugenberger’s definition, which, as already pointed out, presupposes covenants cannot undergo transformation and must mean exactly what they say. The “problem” of the covenants, as I see it, is that they are useless unless their words are stuck to (see Gal. 3:15). And God Himself appears to be of the same opinion (see Jer. 34:18-20). Indeed, the live illustration of the Rechabites in Jer. 35 would lose all its poignancy if the meaning of God’s words could undergo the sorts of “transformation” which Beale and others envisage. To my way of thinking at least, any biblical theology which ignores the biblical covenants needs to go back to the drawing board. The biblical covenants act as sentinels against wayward theological constructions – if they are heeded! But who heeds them?
2. Ignoring dissimilarities. A real danger for Bible interpreters is to fasten on to similarities which appear to support their position while disregarding important dissimilarities. Proponents of the mythical Jesus, for instance, like to compare the resurrection stories to ancient myths of Osiris and Tammuz while neglecting major differences between them. Evolutionists commonly do this in their superficial discussions of homology; choosing not to notice crucial discrepancies in their comparisons. The dissimilarities tend to show themselves in the details (i.e. in the context). His remarks about God overcoming chaos and establishing “creational order” (39) find no foothold in Genesis. On page 40 he avers, “Just as God had achieved heavenly rest after overcoming the creational chaos…” Where does he get this? Assuredly from connecting Genesis 1 with ANE creation accounts (cf. 247 n.44; 630 n.36).
Millennial references are routinely given new creational (as in New Heavens and Earth) fulfillments (56, 71, 101, 109, 121, etc.). In chapter 19 Ezekiel’s Temple is equated with the New Jerusalem (615), which in turn is the entire new cosmos (616). As an aside, thanks to the pliability of “apocalyptic genre” Stephen Smalley, in his commentary, can make New Jerusalem the new covenant! Unperturbed that the New Jerusalem is distinguished from “the new heaven” (Re. 21:1-2), and “the new earth” (Rev. 21:24), and “no temple [is] in it” (21:22), or that the temple in Ezek. 40ff. has specific detailed measurements differing markedly from those in Rev.21:16-17, which God commands it to be built to (Ezek. 43:10-12); that Zadokite priests minister in it (43:19; 44:15), including offering sacrifices for sin (43:21), whereas other Levites serve within it in a lesser capacity (44:10-14), and that it is distinguished from the land around it (47:12-23), the similarities trump all this and the dissimilarities are assimilated.
Are Abraham and Israel truly given Adam’s commission (47-53)? Does the fact that the Church shares the same general descriptions as Israel mean the many discontinuities between the two vanish in the typological ether? Do all the patent repetitions of covenant oaths to Israel run out of gas when Jesus comes? Just what is God saying in Jer. 33:14-24?
Esoterism and Speculation
This problem is only exacerbated by Beale’s confusing appeals to “literal” interpretation. In some notable cases this means nothing but “I literally mean what I am now asserting having changed the surface meaning of the passages.” (see e.g. 151, 641).
The most obvious thing is Beale’s position on the NT reinterpreting (my word) or transforming (his word) the natural meanings in the OT. How often throughout the book is one informed about the “transformation” of meaning from what was expected before the cross! Here are a few more examples:
Mark 10:45 depicts Jesus as beginning to fulfill the Daniel prophecy [7:13] in an apparently different way than prophesied…in a hitherto unexpected manner (195)
The word [musterion] elsewhere, when so linked with OT allusions, is used to indicate that prophecy is beginning fulfillment but in an unexpected manner in comparison to the way OT readers might have expected…(202)
Then what was the use of the prophecy? And what becomes of the perspicuity of revelation? Doesn’t this mean that for all intents and purposes the OT really wasn’t for the original recipients, but for us? But it is far from clear to many of us! There is a fine line between this sort of interpretation and casuistry. The subtitle of the book is “The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New.” A more accurate subtitle would be “The Transforming of the OT in the New.”
One example, Beale says that “readers need to be aware that they are living in the midst of the “‘great tribulation”…so that they will not get caught off guard and be deceived.” (153 my emphasis). If that is so, couldn’t one Apostolic writer have just come right out and said it like Beale did? (apparently we are also reigning now too – 208 n.35, 678).
The book is filled with esoteric interpretations. Among many we find:
The centrality of the covenant community’s mission…is to be understood primarily through the lens of the extension of the temple of God’s presence over the earth. (175)
Luke is indicating that Jesus is a new Moses and is inaugurating a new exodus in order to restore eschatological Israel [who is the church] (573)
the implied reference to “circumcision made without hands” in Col. 2 further enforces the notion that it is idolatrous to continue to trust in the OT “shadows” once their fulfillment has come (804)
Adam is “the anointed cherub” of Ezek. 28:13 (74, 360 n.7). It was he who allowed the serpent into the Garden (359). Adam should have judged the serpent at “the judgment tree” (35), and ruled over him (34). Evidently the tree of the knowledge of good and evil really was “desirable to make one wise” (67). Moreover,
Adam’s shift from trusting God to trusting the serpent meant that he no longer reflected God’s image but rather the serpent’s image. (359).
Another thing is his fixation on allusions. As I have already said, establishing the presence of an allusion does not tell you what it is being used for. Since the Hebrew (or Old Greek) Bible was the only Scripture these men had, it should surprise no one that their writings are saturated with references and allusions to it. But one must be careful not to allow such allusions to drive the argument of the author, especially when doing so would divert attention away from the surface meaning of the passage in question.
Beale sees allusions everywhere (see esp. 195, 309. we even get “analogical allusions” – 806), and none is without significance to him. He would have benefited from a more careful definition of allusion (as is done in G. Klein’s recent NAC Commentary on Zechariah, 50f., where Klein distinguishes between quotation, intentional indirect allusion, and unintentional coincidental echo). By permitting this littering of allusion broadcast through the NT one gives tacit approval to a submerged analogy of faith principle by which only the specialists understand what’s going on, and God is portrayed as the God of the nod and the wink. This is more and more the trend in evangelical circles and it is very disturbing. The clarity of Scripture cannot stand up under this ulterior method of interpretation. And when that goes, the sufficiency of Scripture goes too. To someone like me, this represents the Author of the Bible as playing cosmic scrabble.
Was Luke – Acts written to those “in-the-know”? Are we really to believe that Luke wrote his Gospel and the Acts with a mainly Jewish audience in mind? Beale’s thesis requires it since non-proselyte Gentiles could never have cottoned on to the underlying motifs and allusions which he thinks shed true light on what Luke is doing (e.g. 595-596). This goes against the grain of most NT Introductions’ view of his intended audience, but Beale needs it to be that way.
Satan is an extremely active character in this book. Supposedly Adam ought to have ruled over him but failed (34, 53, though I find nothing in the Bible which teaches such a thing), while also guarding the sanctuary from unclean creatures (45). Beale requires the serpent to have made several visits to Eden (32). He is an amillennialist who believes Satan is presently bound and (presumably) in the abyss (Rev. 20:1-3, though “apocalyptic” helps to liberate him). Bound or not, Satan is at large (149-150, 188-189, 223, etc.). As he puts it,
Since Christ’s death and resurrection, a woe is directed to the sphere of earth because the evil “has been cast down” to it. The woe is announced because the devil will now concentrate his efforts on causing chaos among the inhabitants of earth…the devil’s fury is expressed against Christians, as Rev. 12:11, 13-17 makes clear…believers are always undergoing deceptive influence. (217-218).
Beale thinks the woman with child of Rev. 12:1-2 is the church (223, thus the church gives birth to Christ), even though the clear allusion to Gen. 37:9 marks her as Israel. Satan uses “all manner of deception,…to tear us away from our faith in and loyalty to Christ” (223). If we then venture to ask just what the words “so that he would not deceive the nations any longer” (Rev. 20:3) mean, one thing we could not say is that this applies to the church, but must instead refer to the unsaved world (despite 2 Cor. 4:4). This runs contrary to standard amillennial apologies on this phrase. One thing is clear, the angel in charge of binding, imprisoning, and sealing up Satan ought to be placed on traffic duty somewhere where his bungling won’t have such disastrous results!
Even though there is much more to say, I shall only mention two more issues. The first is the prevalence of replacement theology (e.g. 161, 173, 182 n.65, 215, 307, 574, 770, etc.). So on page 211 the redeemed nations are called “authentic Israel,” and new covenant believers (the church) are “true Jerusalemites.” (671). In his comments on the supercessionist test-text Matt. 21:41 he speaks of God “rejecting ethnic national Israel as God’s true people” (680), and of Israel’s stewardship being taken from them and given to the gentiles (681). He says, “Jesus identifies himself with Daniel’s stone which smashes the ungodly nations, which also includes…Israel.” (682). Christ, of course, is the “true Israel” (140-141, 151, 307). Personally, I find this kind of theologizing obnoxious and quite contrary to Scripture. The author’s tailored definition of eschatology (23, 177) aids his approach.
Beale, along with all amillennial covenant theologians, believes in two kinds of resurrections; one physical (“actual”), and the other spiritual (i.e. the new birth, 237, 240, 250-252, 331, 333, 579, 590). He places a huge burden on John 5:24-29:
Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life. 25 “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear shall live. 26 “For just as the Father has life in Himself, even so He gave to the Son also to have life in Himself; 27 and He gave Him authority to execute judgment, because He is the Son of Man. 28 “Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs shall hear His voice, 29 and shall come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.
Verse 24 is well known and refers to the new birth as a passing from one realm (death) to another (life). The “dead” in the next verse correspond to the pre-regenerate in v.24. This happens now and in the future (“the hour is coming and now is”). In vv.28-29 Jesus speaks of “all who are in the tombs” (definitely not the pre-regenerate, but physically dead saved and lost), who “shall come forth” in the future; one to “the [physical] resurrection of life,” and the other to “the [physical] resurrection of judgment.” Anyone can see that v.29 probably alludes to Daniel 12:2, and physical resurrection. But Beale wants v.25 to refer to a resurrection too – only spiritual (238), and he thinks the key word that assures this is “hour” (131-132). He thinks that because this word is used in Jn. 5:25 it “clearly refers to the same Daniel prophecy.” What is more clear to me is that Dan. 12:1-2 is not cited in Jn. 5:25, where resurrection is not in view, but is cited in Jn. 5:28-29 where resurrection is plainly spoken of. But once Beale has got what he wants he sees spiritual resurrection everywhere, and often Jn. 5:25 is brought in to remind the reader of what has formally been proven (238 n.32, 261, 301, 333, etc.).
Beale wants to demonstrate how the NT interprets the OT. Many will follow him enthusiastically. Perhaps they are right to do so, but I cannot be among them. I simply do not see how the NT can appeal for its authority to the OT and at the same time “transform” and gain interpretive authority over the OT. I cannot see how saints in the first century could comprehend the new interpretations behind OT “types and shadows” without having personal acquaintance with the NT. Nor can I approve the notion that a 20th century hermeneutical approach (already/not yet) was the one intended by God to unlock His meaning from the start. The tacit belief that the perspicacity of the allusions used by the NT’s authors, contingent as many of them would have to be on the general availability of the LXX and the ability to read septuagintal Greek between c.400-1500 is too hard for me to digest. Finally, the view which makes the Author of language so inconsistent and ambiguous in His use of language I cannot countenance. If God transforms His meanings so unexpectedly (Beale’s word) then He may do so again in the future. If, as Beale thinks, the NT indicates fulfillment of the OT in ways that render the OT language misleading (again try Jer. 31:31ff. & 33:15ff.), then the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture is risible. And if the Bible can’t be taken at face value (like Beale occasionally wants it to be – 83-85, 91, 96-97, 113, 150, 155, 178, 201 n.21, 233, 351), then it is insufficient as revelation to mankind.
Biblical theology can be done in many ways. A clever man can do all kinds of things with it. Those who seek to comprehend it through types, shadows and often obscure allusions, believing that the NT reinterprets the Old, may win the day. They are good men who love the Lord and will answer to Him. But their approach differs so substantially from that of those of us who believe that God does not transform His stated meanings that there can be no theological rapprochement.