Over the past few years both of us (Shane and Andrew) have benefited from G.K. Beale’s work on numerous Biblical-theological matters (i.e. his commentary on Revelation, his work on the temple, and so forth). Recently, however, we’ve had to pause because evangelicalism has divided itself along what it believes to be a perfectly straight “line in the sand” when it comes to the matters of inspiration and inerrancy.
While “conservatives” have raced toward Beale’s side of the line in droves simply to not be branded a “liberal” or a “post-modern,” we’re surprised that so few have expressed any doubts as to whether his book The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism (hereafter Erosion) is really the answer that will best serve those with a high view of scripture as they face difficult issues raised by critical studies. Indeed both of us were quite dissatisfied as we worked through this volume, noting that the issue is not simply newer approaches to biblical studies, but a fundamental epistemological precommitment foreign to our Reformation principles.
What is key in our critique is that what Erosion assumes as an epistemological and hermeneutical starting point is at odds with the historical Reformed approach rooted in analogy and the creator/creature distinction. Note this quote from Erosion:
…It is true that we can perceive God’s in-breaking revelatory presence and communication as that which enables us to see through our aberrant presuppositional lenses and to apprehend God’s unerring truth from his perspective or lens. (pp. 258-59)
Beale also explains that God’s word forms/reforms in people “his lenses on reality,” so that “we see reality more truly from the divine perspective.” “We should want…God’s subjective though true perspective on truth…” On page 260 (in appendix 1), Beale says this is his view of epistemology which relates to how the NT interprets and understands the OT.
Note the “lens” language Beale uses to describe Christian knowledge. He says clearly that we can and should know things from God’s perspective or point of view. This runs roughshod over our Reformation epistemology, which holds that we cannot know things from God’s perspective or lens. To be sure, Beale sees himself as standing in line with Cornelius Van Til by starting with scripture and then judging all things by scripture (pg. 78, n. 45). He also asserts his shared commitment to presuppositionalism with Van Til (pg. 79; though we’ll note his hesitations below). There was, however, more to Van Til than the primacy of scripture and presuppositionalism, i.e. the Reformed view of epistemology in general or more broadly (how we know what we know).
We find this Reformation thought in Van Til’s book, A Christian Theory of Knowledge, wherein he makes a very important contribution to the doctrine of scripture, primarily in noting how the creator/creature distinction comes to bear on the issue. He helps to show that scripture is indeed “self-attesting” and therefore: “The doctrine of Scripture as self-attesting presupposes that whatsoever comes to pass in history materializes by virtue of the plan and counsel of the living God” (pg. 28). While humans can never know the world or even the word of God exhaustively, it is God himself that knows these things exhaustively. Because we have knowledge that is analogous to God’s, we can know things adequately even though our knowledge does not intersect with his.
Van Til continues:
The system of truth set forth in Scripture cannot be fully understood by the creature. The point here is not merely that creatures who are sinners are unwilling to believe the truth. The point is further that man as finite cannot understand God his Maker in an exhaustive manner. As he cannot understand God exhaustively, so he cannot understand anything related to God in an exhaustive way, for to understand it we would have to penetrate its relation to God and to penetrate that relation we would have to understand God exhaustively. (pg. 36)
In sum, Van Til makes clear that man simply cannot “share God’s lens” when it comes to knowledge of anything in creation. This plays itself out in important ways in the way that Van Til responds to historical-critical proposals; the same sorts of proposals Beale responds to in Erosion. Thus Van Til notes that there are “discrepancies” in the Bible (quotes in original) resulting from the difference between the original text and the versions/translations of that text. Indeed these discrepancies “are of no great moment for the ‘system of doctrine’ contained in the Bible” (pg. 35). Indeed he argues that the Christian interpreter must “freely admit that orthodox scholarship has not solved all of the difficulties deriving from the phenomena of Scripture. It is not even likely that these difficulties will ever be fully resolved” (pg. 35).
Van Til concludes: “It must be said, therefore, that there is a sense in which the orthodox believer holds to his doctrine of scripture ‘in spite of appearances’” (pg. 35). While Van Til does not seem to have had a “believing critical” approach to biblical studies on his radar, his insistence of the analogical relationship between man’s knowledge and God’s gives him much more epistemological and hermeneutical humility than we tend to find in Erosion. That Erosion(along with the rest of evangelicalism) shies away from Van Til’s approach to presuppositionalism rooted in analogy (Erosionpg. 79, n. 50) fits the univocal-esque tenor of the rest of the book as well as some of Beale’s other writings.
Van Til did not articulate this approach de novo. The earlier Reformers also spoke of the difference between God’s knowledge and human knowledge. Amandus Polanus explained it like this: God’s knowledge “is a formal wisdom, absolute or perfect, infinite, utterly simultaneous, incommunicable, and such that only its image or reflection can be communicated to rational creatures” (PRRD, I.233). Bavinck was the same: “Our knowledge of God is the imprint of the divine knowledge God has of himself but always on a creaturely level and in a creaturely way. The knowledge of God present in his creatures is only a weak likeness, a finite, limited sketch of the absolute self-consciousness of God accommodated to the capacities of the human or creaturely consciousness” (Dogmatics I.213).
[For more information on this Reformed epistemology, see Francis Turretin, Institutes, I.i.9, Wilhelmus a Brakel, The Christian's Reasonable ServiceI.5, Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, I.c, and Mike Horton's Covenant and Eschatology, 183, 251; or simply look up the "standard speak" of the Reformed (archetype/ectype, accommodation, univocal/analogical, ministerial use of reason, pilgrim theology, Creator/Creature distinction, etc.) in Muller's Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms and other places. Or, to go even deeper, review the debate between Gordon Clark and Cornelius Van Til.]
At the end of the day it seems to us that the problem is not that Peter Enns (Beale’s chief foil) has encouraged evangelicals to ask a different set of questions of the biblical text, but rather that evangelical fundamentalism dies hard. After all, evangelical fundamentalism is much easier. The black-and-white certainty it offers doesn’t require Christians to bow to mystery and live with the cognitive dissonance that results when humans with limited knowledge wrestle with divinely inspired scriptures – scriptures that are, at the same time, difficult to harmonize with a modern[istic] approach to history.
Shane and Andrew