Review of Beale, We Become What We Worship

G. K. Beale. We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2008. 341 pp. $26.00. Paper. Published in The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 14.4 (2010): 121–22.

G. K. Beale is well known for significant contributions to biblical scholarship in general and biblical theology in particular. His commentary on Revelation, his work on the Old Testament in the New, and his recent The Temple and the Church’s Mission are now complemented by the volume under review here. Beale states his thesis clearly and argues it convincingly: “What people revere, they resemble, either for ruin or restoration” (16, italics removed). After an introductory chapter, Beale establishes his thesis in Isaiah 6, then broadens out to show it from the rest of the OT. He narrows the lens again in chapter four to focus on the origin of idolatry in the OT, before tracing the thesis through the “intertestamental bridge” of the literature from early Judaism. Beale then examines the theme in the Gospels, giving particular attention to the use of Isaiah 6 in all four gospels. He proceeds through the book of Acts and the Pauline epistles, concluding the direct examination of the Bible with a chapter on the book of Revelation. The volume is rounded out with two chapters: the first examines the reversal of the process of idolaters becoming like their idols as they worship the true and living God, and in the conclusion Beale pastorally applies his findings to contemporary culture.

In the introduction Beale explains, “we will proceed primarily by tracing the development of earlier biblical passages dealing with this theme and how later portions of Scripture interpret and develop these passages (what is today referred to as ‘intertextuality’ or ‘inner-biblical allusion’)” (16). As he elaborates on his interpretive perspective, Beale affirms both the divine inspiration of the Scriptures and the accessibility of the divine author’s intentions communicated through the human authors of the biblical texts. He seeks to combine grammatical-historical exegesis with canonical-contextual exegesis, relying on the criteria for validating allusions to earlier texts in later ones set forth by Richard B. Hays. Against those who are opposed to allowing the meaning of later texts to influence the interpretation of earlier ones, Beale writes, “If the presupposition that God ultimately has authored the canon is correct, the later parts of Scripture unpack the ‘thick description’ of earlier parts. . . . My view is that if a later text is truly unpacking the idea of an earlier text, then the meaning developed by the later text was originally included in the ‘thick meaning’ of the earlier text” (26). The idea is that later biblical authors correctly understood earlier biblical texts and commented upon them. This obliges interpreters “‘to recover unstated or suppressed correspondences between the two texts’ (quoting Hays). . . . part of this task is to discern such interpretive links that are not verbally stated by the writer making the quotation or allusion” (28). Beale explains that he is “trying to forge a newer way of doing biblical theology in the English-speaking world,” wherein he attempts “to focus on and interpret those Old Testament texts that [are] repeatedly alluded to and quoted in subsequent Scripture, both later in the Old Testament and in the New Testament” (27).

This is important and helpful work. Beale writes, “I would characterize my biblical-theological approach to be canonical, genetic-progressive (or organically developmental), and intertextual” (34). He convincingly demonstrates his thesis with meticulous (and at times painstaking) detail. It would be hard to overturn Beale’s thesis, given that it is explicitly stated in Psalm 115:4–8, and again in 135:15–18. The connections that Beale makes between texts are always stimulating, even if some are more convincing than others.

This book deserves a wide reading, especially among those who seek demonstrable ways to understand the unified theology of the whole Bible. I have a minor quibble about an interpretive matter here and there, none of which impinge on the book’s main thesis, and I think that at points the thesis was pursued in ways that might eclipse other important aspects of the texts under discussion. But no book can do or say everything, and everything that Beale sets out to do in this book he does very, very well. This book is exemplary, setting high standards for methodological precision, control of primary and secondary sources, and bringing out the wealth of meaning these texts contain. Here’s a warning: if you read this book, you will begin to see the thesis Beale establishes all over the Bible. You’ll also be spurred to return to the texts, to ask questions about how earlier texts are being interpreted, and to establish the connections between texts with criteria that can be examined and understood. I join Beale in the prayer with which he closes the volume: “I pray that all who read this book will revere the Lord in his Word and resemble him for restoration and redemption. May God be with us as the true, new people of God” (311).

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