We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry
I get frustrated by books that – either intentionally or unintentionally – do the following:
1) Treat me like an idiot and suppose I will take its arguments at face value. The author barely attempts to address the natural questions that spring forth from her arguments (if she addresses them at all).
2) Treat me like an informed scholar and assume I understand the implications of the arguments without explaining them.
Too often, studies in theology and philosophy fail on either or both fronts. Not so with Wheaton College New Testament scholar G.K. Beale’s latest work We Become What We Worship. Beale sets himself diligently to the task of illustrating how idolatry affects the idolater through a foundational biblical theology. As he eloquently asserts: “What people revere, they resemble, either for ruin or restoration.”
Rather than charting a course of the biblical narrative from start to finish and demonstrating how this idea develops across Scripture, Beale uses Isaiah 6 as his locus, develops its meaning (in a way that sheds light on a text that I have never properly understood), and then explains why this text is chosen by Jesus to explain his use of parables. In essence, Beale argues that in Isaiah 6, God makes the people spiritually blind and deaf because they worship idols that are blind and deaf. They worship that which has no spiritual life, so God makes the people spiritually dead.
Beale extends his study of the effects of idolatry into other areas of the OT, particularly the golden calf episode of Exodus 32, to assert that when Moses came off the mountain with tablets, that his face was horned, not “radiant” or shining as many modern translations choose. Beale argues:
…the bright horned-like appearance of Moses’ face suggests a divine mocking of the worshippers of the calf idol, who had come to be described already in Exodus 32 as a calf. The rhetorical point accordingly is: ‘Oh, you want to worship the calf idols, do you? Then not only are you becoming like the calf idol, but in so doing you have become like my idolatrous enemies and are being judged by the only true God, who has the only true glorious power’. (p.81)
I like it when scholars can recognize God’s sense of humor.
Beale then examines how the themes developed in Isaiah 6 are given emphasis in the New Testament: how Jesus uses them (locating the “idolatry” of the 1st century Jews in the oral tradition over/against Scripture), in Acts, in Paul’s Epistles, and in the Apocalypse of John (where NT idolatry is most pronounced).
What I like:
1) Beale does not try to address the totality of scripture but where the idea bubbles most convincingly to the surface. There are a few instances that I feel he does this better than others (for example, the golden calf episode is well-examined, while his discussion of 1 Corinthians 10 could have been stronger) but for the most part I was persuaded by his assessment.
2) I liked his self-awareness of the occasional flaws in his argument which he humbly presents to the reader while still arguing for the overall trajectory he is tracing.
3) I have always been skeptical about the idea that adherence to the oral law of 1st century Judaism was “idolatry”. I did not hold much hope that Beale would persuade me. I was surprised when he did persuade me. His arguments for locating the idolatry of Israel in the adherence to the oral law are compelling. This argument alone was worth the whole book.
4) There is a practical component for pastors in Chapters 9 & 10 where Beale discusses the biblical remedy for idolatry and its subtle influence on our lives even today.
5) Though seemingly insignificant, I think the layout was exceptional – a great font used, thematically divided sections with headings, charts that compare parallel texts. These elements are important for me – as a bad font or boring layout makes it difficult for me to focus on the text.
6) Beale’s study is well-researched from a diversity of sources: John Calvin, Walter Brueggeman, D.A. Carson, N.T. Wright, Harold Attridge, Herman Ridderbos, John Piper, Jacob Neuser, and many more are cited in the extensive bibliography. No Mennos, though (oh well).
What I didn’t like:
1) I tend to be a minimalist – I don’t like to read too much into a text of Scripture. Beale, on the other hand, is a maximalist and tries to make as many connections as possible (within reasonable limits). I think he curbs this tendency to a degree by noting the arguments that are stronger than others and making the best cases for the stronger arguments. For some, this could be a problem, for others, it is a strength.
2) The chapter on Acts – while supporting the arguments of the other chapters on the effects of idolatry on the idolater – does not stand on its own. In order to make the arguments that he makes from Acts, Beale had to prove convincingly that the texts that are quoted in Acts point to idolatry. He has to explain the meaning of Isaiah 6 in Chapter 2, make the link between Isaiah 6 and Mark 7 as the oral tradition in Jesus’s day in Chapter 6, and then show how this is the same kind of idolatry in Acts in Chapter 7. I think this is the weakest chapter; however, Beale recognizes this deficiency. All the other chapters can stand on their own.
Why YAR should be interested in this book:
While we examine the implications of empire, violence, and materialism in American culture, Beale’s study is a useful foundation for demonstrating how American empire is an idol and how we – as its constituent idolaters – are disfigured as a result. Beale’s assessment of how idolatry affects the church today is predictably conservative (and not without a great deal of truth) but I don’t think it excludes a progressive slant. Does our worship of cheap “stuff” make us spiritually deaf to the cries of child labor, blind to the sweatshops of the third world? Does our worship of militarism make us a violent, uncharitable, neighbor-hating people, and will this eventually destroy us? Does our worship of “security” makes us deaf to the cries of Iraqi and Afghan peoples, blind to the suffering of the homeless on our streets and shut away from our communities?
Beale’s study is useful for laying the foundation for these arguments and will no doubt be a dog-eared reference to which I will frequently return.
Read Beale’s book, examine the Scriptures, pray feverently, and ask that God would give the church the charisma of prophecy against empire, materialism, sexual excess, apathy, hatred, and conflict, until the fullness of God’s Kingdom comes.