Biblical Theology, Book Review

“What Is Biblical Theology?” by James Hamilton – A Book Review

What Is Biblical Theology? provides an accessible tool on demonstrating how Hamilton does biblical theology—which is thinking through the whole story of the Bible by “interpreting particular parts of the story in light of the whole” (p. 12). For Hamilton, the Bible is a true story, and What Is Biblical Theology? is about “the Bible’s big story” and “how we become people who live in that story” (p. 12). The three main parts of the book are story, symbol, and church. After defining what is biblical theology in ch. 2, he summarizes the Bible’s big story in Part 1 (chs. 3–5). Afterwards, he breaks down his method of discovering the whole through the parts via symbols, imagery, typology, and patterns in Part 2 (chs. 6–9). Lastly, Hamilton discusses the role of the church in the Bible’s storyline in Part 3 (chs. 10–13).

Hamilton, James M. What Is Biblical Theology? A Guide to the Bible’s Story, Symbolism, and Patterns. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014. 120 pp.

Synopsis

Chapter 1 introduces the main goal of the book: to narrate the Bible’s big story and how we live in that story (p. 12). Chapter 2 fleshes out what Hamilton means by “biblical theology.” For Hamilton, biblical theology refers to the biblical writers’ framework of assumptions and presuppositions that shapes the whole story of the Bible. Biblical theology teaches readers that the Bible itself provides a way on how the Bible should be read. Conversely, reading the Bible is the best way to learn biblical theology.

In Part 1, Hamilton summarizes the story line of the Bible. Chapter 3 discusses the narrative of the Bible. The setting of the Bible’s story is the world as we know it (p. 27), which is God’s “cosmic temple” (p. 28). The triune God is the protagonist; Satan is the infinitely outmatched antagonist. Humans are either the seed of the woman or the seed of the serpent. The plot can be summarized as creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. Here is my favorite paragraph in the entire book regarding the plot:

God responded to Satan’s pride with the humility of Jesus. God answered the rebellion of Satan with the obedience of Jesus. All the misery and rage of Satan is overwhelmed by the grace and love of Jesus, who for the joy set before him endured the cross (Heb. 12:2). That cross is the plot’s great twist: the long awaited hero came, and he was not only rejected but killed. Killed dead. Put in the tomb. Then hope rose from the dead. The death of Christ was not his defeat but his conquest. God judged sin, condemned it, and Christ died on the cross to pay the penalty for it. Through the judgment that fell on Jesus, God saves all who will trust in him. The demands of justice satisfied by the death of the Son, the Father shows mercy to those who repent and believe. Jesus died to give abundant life (John 10:10), to complete joy (John 15:11)…. The plot will culminate in the return of Jesus to judge his enemies and save his people. The people Jesus saves will know, serve, and worship God, seeing his face in a new cosmic temple, a new heaven and new earth. The plot will be resolved. The characters will be transformed into the image of Christ. And the world, the setting, will be made new.

P. 32

Chapter 4 expands on the plot. The main conflict is the cosmic campaign of the Devil to war against God and his children (p. 35). Repeatedly on various episodes, Satan always seems to have the advantage, but God chooses weak things to do the impossible. Hamilton focuses on five key episodes: exile from Eden, exodus from Egypt, exile from the land, death of Jesus on the cross, and the promise of his return to glory (p. 36). Hamilton argues the events of the fall, flood, exodus, and exile are reflection of Jesus’ death and resurrection (p. 39). The theme of these episodes is God showing his glory by saving his people through judgment. Chapter 5 is about the mystery of promises of a coming Redeemer that are found throughout the Bible. These promises (e.g., Genesis 3:15; 12:1–3; 2 Samuel 7; etc.) were interpreted by psalmists and prophets (e.g., Psalm 72; Isaiah 11; Psalm 2; etc.) and later fulfilled in Jesus.

In Part 2, Hamilton speaks about “the Bible’s symbolic universe.” In Chapter 6, he answers the question, “What do symbols do?” For Hamilton, the biblical writers use symbols to summarize big ideas in pictures, including imagery, typology, and patterns. Chapter 7 focuses on imageries, which are illustrations employed by the biblical writers. Examples include a tree (Genesis 2; Psalm 1; Isaiah 5–6; Revelation 22), a flood (Genesis 1:9 – 10; 6 – 9; Exodus 2:3; Psalm 124; Mark 10:38 – 39; 1 Peter 3), and a temple (Genesis 2:3; Psalm 78:63; Isaiah 66:1; John 2:19). These images are mere shadows, but Christ is the substance (Colossians 2:17). In chapter 8, Hamilton speaks of two features of typology: 1) historical correspondence and 2) escalation. He notes that types are real people, events, and institutions that finds its ultimate expression in the antitype. Chapter 9 is on patterns, which are events that typically happen—making them noticeable and expected. Hamilton lists two examples: Israel’s feasts and the pattern of the righteous sufferer. These two events are repeated throughout the Bible, and they point to Jesus.

Part 3 is about the church and its role within the storyline of the Bible. This is the Bible’s love story. Hamilton argues that the Bible’s story and symbolism teach the church’s identity and lifestyle while awaiting the return of Jesus the King. Chapter 11 talks about the identity of the church in the story. Hamilton discusses the Bible’s metaphors for the church: sheep of the shepherd, bride of Christ, body of Christ, adopted family of God, and temple of the Holy Spirit. In chapter 12, the setting of the church in the story is the whole world. Unlike Israel, the church is no longer in a specific land allotment; but like Israel, they are “to cover the dry lands with God’s glory as the waters cover the sea.” Hamilton argues that

the people of God are no longer a sociopolitical nation with boundaries. We are transnational. We are no longer an ethnic entity with a military. We are from all nations…. We no longer go to the temple in Jerusalem to worship the Lord. Now we worship the Lord in Spirit and in truth wherever God’s people gather (John 4:21-24).

p. 107

The church is a preview of a future world—God’s people in God’s presence in the holy city. Chapter 13 speaks on the church’s plot tension and resolution. The tension is felt at the present—worries, burdens, enmities—but the church is to follow Jesus in being faithful unto death. Someday, God’s kingdom will come. The bridegroom will come for his bride.

Analysis

Hamilton’s What Is Biblical Theology? is an insightful view behind the curtain of his bigger work, God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment. Most of the content and examples are summaries form that larger work. The question “What is biblical theology?” was a demonstration of Hamilton’s own biblical theology with not much discussion on other BT methods (James Barr, NT Wright, Francis Watson, Geerhardus Vos, or Eugene Merrill). While comparing his own BT approach from others does not seem to be Hamilton’s purpose, the title “What is BT” seems to suggest that Hamilton’s BT is the only way to approach biblical theology.

One appreciates Hamilton’s emphasis on letting the biblical writers speak and follow the clues that they leave behind. The overly cautious Bible interpreter may go to the opposite spectrum and not make any connections and miss what the biblical writers themselves are drawing attention to. To say “I would rather err in this side than that” is a copout. However, a responsible Bible interpreter will be aware of the dangers of reading too much into the text. A work that dwells with imagery, types, and patterns, it seems important to warn about irresponsible hermeneutics that practices eisegesis in the guise of biblical symbolism.

Certainly, God’s glory in salvation through judgment is a predominant theme in the Bible. Yet is this the central theme of Scripture? While Hamilton is not making an argument that that is the central theme of Scripture (an argument he made in his larger volume), he assumes that argument in this smaller monograph. Is it possible that one views the storyline of the Bible according to one’s own lenses? If one is looking for 1) God’s glory, 2) salvation, and 3) judgment, he will find it in the text. But are those the only themes found in the text? How can we be sure about that?

Having said all that, it is evident that Hamilton has satisfactorily demonstrated—by letting the biblical writers speak for themselves—how the Bible is replete of patterns and symbols. Hamilton successfully points his readers to God’s glory, salvation, and judgment, which are three dominant themes in the Bible.

Lastly, Part 3’s discussion on the church contributes to the discussion on Bible storylines. Most works—both technical and accessible—have been published regarding the storyline of the Bible (Part 1) and/or typology and symbols (Part 2). Hamilton’s Part 3 provides an application for the church of today in finding its identity and role while waiting for the story’s ending at the holy city.

Conclusion

Hamilton has gifted the church with an accessible volume that helps Bible believers read their Bible better by seeing repeated concepts that the biblical writers have placed throughout Scripture. What Is Biblical Theology? spiritually enriching full of devotional flavor. The story of the gospel—Jesus by his death and resurrection saves those who will repent and believe in him—is rehearsed over and over again in different ways and from different angles. This is by no means a dry theological treatise. Yet it provides not only theological content (the Bible’s storyline), but also theological method (hermeneutics of symbols and patterns) that both affect how to God’s people ought to live life today (application).

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