Overall I am very impressed with the book, We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry by G.K. Beale, and would certainly recommend it to theologians in the academy as well as those in the ministry or preparing to serve. While this book will not be for everyone due to its length and sometimes dense exegetical analysis of selected texts, Beale does a superb job explaining his thesis throughout his work by means of tracing “one particular aspect of idolatry as it is sometimes developed in Scripture.” Therefore this book is interested only in one particular strand of Scripture as traced throughout the Old and New Testaments, rather than a Biblical or systematic theology of idolatry.
And so immediately following, Beale lays out his thesis of “What people revere, they resemble, either for ruin or restoration,” by making the assertion that we are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26). We, therefore, are beings made to reflect God and His glory; however, if we do not commit ourselves to Him we will reflect something else in creation. This understanding is central in order to understand Beale’s thesis because at the heart of it, we are reflecting beings, either reflecting God or something else in creation. This is how Beale lays out the two competing understandings of one revering God for their restoration or one revering something in creation to their ruin in a juxtapositional dichotomy (p. 16).
To aid in understanding idolatry more clearly, Beale uses Luther’s Large Catechism explanation of the first commandment in Exodus 20:3, and agrees with him in “whatever your heart clings to and relies upon, that is your God,” with the addition of “whatever your heart clings to for ultimate security” (p 17). This of course is a move Lutherans would naturally agree with. As Beale continues, he refreshingly provides his theological presuppositions in a straight forward manner upfront. It is clear that Beale has a high regard for Scripture including its inspiration as authoritative through human authors. Beale also holds the two canons of the Old and New Testaments as being God’s Word in unity, cohesive together by understanding both canons developed through progressive revelation, and that the same basic message is continually brought forth throughout the Bible (p 22). This is another central idea to Beale’s work because the Old and New Testaments together form God’s unified Word, so it is not only possible, but likely that latter Old Testament writers and New Testament writers followed a pattern of alluding to previous Scripture when formulating their writings.
This could be in the form of word-for-word quotes (or nearly word-for-word), or through the use of allusions to previously written texts. In this, Beale makes great use of intertextuality, or the study between literary allusions between texts of the Old and New Testament with an emphasis on the previously written Scripture the writer is alluding to (p 23). And within intertextuality, Beale asserts that he is a maximalist, meaning that he will further investigate and study any allusion from a given text to determine if there is a connection with a previously written text. This is opposed to a minimalist who will be leery of such allusions (p 24). With Beale being a maximalist, he further admits to doing hyperegesis where he sometimes will go beyond what the conscious mind of the original Old Testament writer could have known by transcending its meaning by latter writings.
This method is supported by his understanding of progressive revelation revealing more depth than the original (p. 32). So in understanding Beale’s presuppositions, his methods of study must be scrutinized. We know that Beale intends to use intertextuality, studying allusions to the maximum, and even going beyond that, allowing latter Scripture to place additional meaning into earlier written Scripture for a “full understanding,” but is this acceptable scholarship? From the reviewer’s understanding, this is all acceptable to confessional Lutherans who would take intertextuality a step further to assert that all the Scriptures testify about Jesus. To that end, Beale uses a combined method of grammatical-historical and canonical-contextual to interpret the Scriptures which are fine methods of interpretation, that by-and-large remain faithful to Scripture as opposed to the many negative higher-critical methods.
Therefore Beale’s work can be seen as legitimate for confessional Lutherans holding to Biblical inspiration and inerrancy; however, this is not an all-inclusive, across-the-board approval of all of Beale’s conclusions, but one that approves of his Scriptural study methods. The basis for Beale’s study of idolatry begins with Scripture that seems odd at first glance, but as he develops its meaning throughout the Old and New Testament, his genius starts to show through the choice of Isaiah 6:9-10 (p.36). We learn that listening really has to deal with not perceiving just as looking really has to deal with not understanding in the form of “sensory organ malfunctions.” Is this a case of Yahweh “hardening the hearts of his people,” a Calvinistic God? How does the question of theodicy relate here? In light of several passages in Isaiah 42-44 along with Psalm 115:4-8, Isaiah 6:9-10 is actually discussing the situation where the Israelites have become idolaters. They have become idolaters through becoming like their idols who have mouths, but cannot speak; who have eyes, but cannot see (p 44-45). In short, they revered idols the most, and became like them to their ruin.
The Israelites have turned their minds from God, thereby not reflecting His image nor glory, but the dead image of their idols, thus making them dead. Beale then takes Isaiah 6:9-10 (referred to as Isaiah 6 hereafter) back to Deuteronomy 4, and 29 to see the verbal connections in relation to earlier generations of Israelites. Additionally, he compares these verses with Psalm 115:4-7 as Psalm 115 is one of the clearest Old Testament passages on idolatry. Even the golden calf event in Exodus 32 reinforces all of these understandings with the idea of a “sensory organ malfunction” which carries through into later Israel in such areas as the divided kingdom. Hosea can even be seen picking up this theme in Hosea 4:16 by using the word “stiff necked” which approximates Israel’s stubbornness which is analogous to the stubbornness of a heifer (p. 83). So now moving forward beyond the Pentateuch, Beale also explains how this understanding of “stiff necked” Israel continues. As alluded to above, the divided kingdom with Jeroboam gives the best example of this in 1st Kings 12 as he creates two golden calves, more than the one of Exodus 32 (p 94).
Even in Jeremiah’s prophesies it is not God, but the Israelite’s worship of Baal that causes them to turn to cannibalism, even allowing them to sacrificing their infants to the Baals (p. 120). But in the end, the Israeli king’s failures lie with the fall. The tree of good and evil was seen by Beale as a way of discerning good and evil which was the authoritative mandate of the king who was to make judgments of justice (p. 28). This of course was and is Yahweh’s job! Beale further asserts that Adam’s vocation included not letting anything unclean into the garden or antagonistic to Yahweh. Whether or not this is truly the case, it is clear that Adam allowed the serpent to rule over him, instead of Adam ruling over it (p. 132). As Beale moved forward into the New Testament, he saw connections in the synoptic Gospels as well as John’s Gospel. While the synoptic Gospels do quote Isaiah 6, and Matthew 15 and Mark 7 quote the subsequent reversal of Isaiah 29, the connections seem a little tenuous because Jesus is not using them to specifically talk about idolatry. However, Jesus is probably reinforcing that the problem of idolatry is not resolved.
For John’s Gospel, the upper room discourse in John 12 shows that the idolatry theme of Isaiah 6 was still very much a problem in the first century A.D. as well (p. 178). And while Acts does quote Isaiah 6 in Acts 28, it is hard to gauge its meaning, at least for this reviewer, and seems to be downplayed by Beale. However, Stephen calls the Sanhedrin “stiff necked” in Acts 7, which harkens back to the idolatrous Israelites beginning with the golden calve of Exodus 32. Basically, those in Exodus 32 and now in the first century A.D. have placed their assurances in temples and rituals instead of the living God. Perhaps this is the most pointed connection in the New Testament. Moving towards the end, Beale points out the many connections with Paul and Isaiah 6, most notably Romans 1:18-28. However Beale also points to the fact that Paul gives the antithesis to this problem of idol worship in Romans 12:1-2 which is to be transformed by the renewing of your mind (p. 216-218).
So Paul almost sounds Lutheran (Law [Romans 1] – Gospel – Sanctification [Romans 12])! Moving along quickly to idolatry’s conclusion, Beale sees John’s Revelation as the final step in salvation from idolatry, but only after God has destroyed everything in creation that could become an idol, and created it anew. This includes a new earth, sun, moon, stars, heaven, and every mountain and land (p. 186). In closing, God has revealed through Israel what happens when we worship the creation rather than the creator. We were created in the image of God to reflect His glory back to Him, and to all of creation. Of course with a fallen nature, we will gravitate towards obtaining our own glory, but that is not what God has created us for, and searching after anything in creation for ultimate security is a kin to becoming dead, not being able to hear or see the living God because we have become like our idols, inanimate and lifeless. This is the warning to a post-fall creation that we can look to Christ and be transformed into His image, which will transform our minds to His mind to reflect His glory in the truest sense.
While I do not hold to every allusion which Beale does, I do believe that many of the connections are indeed correct, and help to shed a much needed light on how important idolatry is in God’s plan of salvation, and how it can pull even the most ardent Christian away from Christ. Again, I recommend this book to everyone in the ministry as this book has single handedly changed my prospective on idolatry. Yes, as a Lutheran I understood that Luther taught all of the commandments hinged on the first, but to see that narrative strand hold true throughout the Scriptures, I must say increased my awareness of how easy idolatry can infect us. To that end, I believe a much more developed and long-term approach to teaching and preaching against idolatry needs to be incorporated into my ministry as it appears to be much more of a central threat than it once was before reading Beale’s book. The simple questions at the end of book were helpful to understanding a practical approach to rejecting idolatry, and gauging its current influence.