John Currid’s new book, Against the Gods: Polemical Theology of the Old Testament (Crossway, 2013) offers answers to the challenge of OT higher criticism that provide a welcome alternative to evangelical scholars who feel that they must give priority to ANE texts in the interpretation of the OT. Without denying the complexity of the relationship between OT and ANE, Currid offers solutions to some of the thorniest problems while maintaining a high view of Scripture.
Currid advocates, among other approaches, polemical theology as a way through the difficult terrain of OT studies. Polemical theology “is the use by biblical writers of the thought forms and stories that were common in ancient Near Eastern culture, while filling them with radically new meaning. The biblical authors take well-known expressions and motifs from the ancient Near Eastern milieu and apply them to the person and work of Yahweh, and not to the other gods of the ancient world.”
Currid is not the only one who advocates polemical theology. Others agree, but with a caveat. These scholars believe that since the OT writers were using thought forms common in the ANE in order to proclaim Yahweh as the true God, the details need not be factual. What matters, they say, is that Yahweh, and no other god, is the true God. They claim that many of the stories in the OT are mythic in nature, but they accomplish the purpose of countering pagan myths and establishing Yahweh as the true God. Many of these same scholars also believe that Genesis is directly dependent on Mesopotamian and Egyptian texts. One must ask, if this is the case, where does inspiration fit, or more pointedly, why is it even needed?
Currid, however, refuses to think so uncreatively and simplistically. He believes that there is no conflict between polemical theology AND inerrant Scripture.
“We must strongly question, however, whether the position that the Bible demythologizes ancient Near Eastern legends is the only and proper way to understand the relationship between the two literatures. It seems to me that this position emphasizes the symbiotic relationship between Genesis 1 and other Near Eastern cosmogonies [theories of the origin of the universe] to the detriment of the uniqueness and distinctiveness of the biblical record. It undervalues and undercuts the originality and exceptional nature of the Hebrew world-and-life view. Thus sits the question in a nut-shell: is the Hebrew creation account distinct thought at its very core or not? Is it merely another ancient Near Eastern myth that has been cleansed or is it a radical, unique cosmogonical view? Or is it something in between?”
Currid also questions whether every Mesopotamian ANE text that is claimed to be the source of OT texts really is all that similar to the OT text. “Indeed, important parallels do exist between the two; however, one wonders whether these parallels have not been overly emphasized to the detriment of cosmogonic parallels among other societies of the ancient Near East.” He proceeds to document in several chapters that the parallels between OT texts and ANE texts are abundant, and not limited to one culture or language. This fact worries many people and leads critical scholars to conclude that the biblical text is, therefore, not unique, and consequently our concept of inspiration and inerrancy must change.
It perhaps would be helpful for OT scholars who feel that there is no way to preserve the traditional view of inerrancy in the face of these issues to consider the doctrine of the universal implanted knowledge of God (Romans 1:18-23). The ANE creation and flood accounts (among others) that parallel the OT accounts are best explained, I believe, by an understanding that every person has a knowledge of God from birth, yet suppresses that knowledge and exchanges it for a lie. Societally this could mean that early civilizations retained knowledge of the creation and flood, yet exchanged the truth of these events as sovereignly initiated by Yahweh for pagan myths. As a result, many ANE texts written before their OT parallels were partially distorted, pagan cosmogonies developed in rebellion from the truth and rejection of Yahweh. The OT texts, therefore, serve a twofold purpose: reveal the true accounts of the origin of the universe, AND refute the parasitic, counterfeit pagan accounts with the truth.
Surprisingly, few OT scholars have considered this possibility, which has the explanatory power needed for the most significant challenges in OT studies. This oversight may arise for any number of unfortunate reasons. Either these scholars are unfamiliar with this concept, or they don’t find it has sufficient explanatory power, or finally, they may already have a pre-commitment to the OT as a document of its times, with no revelatory uniqueness. Either way, it is unfortunate that only a few scholars, such as Currid, leave room in their proposals for an idea that is effective and faithful.
Currid concludes his book with a cautious approach to OT studies that belies a humble, yet confident belief in the reliability of Scripture. “Polemical theology certainly does not answer every question about the relationship of the Old Testament to ancient Near Eastern literature and life. There is much to that relationship that simply cannot be understood and explained by the use of polemics.” At times, however, he argues that polemical theology can serve as a solid and reliable interpretive lens by which one can provide explanations for the relationship between ANE and OT parallels.
I highly recommend Currid’s book for those who have encountered some of the problems of OT studies. He documents enough parallels to demonstrate his argument convincingly. Additionally, he provides a creative solution to the challenges of OT studies that doesn’t require an abandonment of inerrancy as has been traditionally held. Against the Gods is highly beneficial to the body of Christ and to OT scholarship. He is to be commended for his valuable and faithful work.