Biblical theology is a discipline that is long overdue for biblically-based scholarly attention in a more public, accepted and permeating manner. The Biblical Theology Movement, as spearheaded by Brevard S. Childs in the 1940s-60s, did not accomplish what it set out to do in reaction to the source and form criticism of liberal theology. Until the last ten to fifteen years, biblical theology as a discipline had been lying almost dormant in terms of major influence within the broader theological world.
There have been a number of major biblical theology works that have had a significant and timeless influence upon the Christian world. Authors such as Geerhardus Vos, William VanGemeren, Daniel Fuller, Walter Kaiser, Graeme Goldsworthy and Charles H. H. Scobie have made classic contributions to the cause. But regardless of how long these works have been around, one wonders if they have had the impact they and others had hoped for.
Perhaps the work accomplished by biblical theologians in the past 10-15 years signals the rise of a new biblical theology movement, one that will take Scripture seriously as we have it and not as we might assume or wish it to be—not just biblical theology in regards to the whole canon but applying that same method to its various sub themes.
With God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment, James Hamilton Jr. makes a significant contribution to the growing number of books seeking to tackle the daunting task of canonical biblical theology. Hamilton sees biblical theology as concerning itself “with what the Bible meant for the purpose of understanding what the Bible means” (p. 45). Thus, the purpose of biblical theology
is to sharpen our understanding of the theology contained in the Bible itself through an inductive, salvation-historical examination of the Bible’s themes and the relationships between those themes in their canonical context and literary form (p. 47).
From this purpose we see Hamilton’s binocular-like view of biblical theological method. The first lens looks at the canon itself. “I will interpret the Protestant canon, and the Old Testament will be interpreted in light of the ordering of the books in the Hebrew Bible” (p. 44). This is consistent with how biblical theology has been practiced traditionally. After all, the word “biblical” in this context implies dealing with the whole cannon.
The second lens in Hamilton’s binocular view is literary. Of the two features of Hamilton’s approach, this seems to be the most unique. Hamilton explains, “I will seek to interpret books and sections of books in light of their inherent literary features and structures as we have them in the canon” (p. 44). This literary emphasis is clearly seen throughout the entire book and on almost every page. On page after page, Hamilton proves himself to be adept at picking out the inherent literary features of the text both within verses, chapters, individual books and groups of books (i.e. Pentateuch) and in both testaments together.
Hamilton believes that the Bible has a center and that if we listen to Scripture we will hear it tell us what that center is. Hamilton further believes that the Bible has a center because “the Bible has a coherent story” and therefore “it is valid to explore what that story’s main point is (p. 39).” As the title of the book indicates, Hamilton believes the Bible communicates to us that its central theological message is the “glory of God in salvation through judgment (p. 41).” This central message “is the ultimate reason the Bible gives to explain what God has done (p. 48).” Throughout the book (and all 66 books of the Bible, for that matter) Hamilton shows how this central idea is repeated over and over again as it is woven into the very fabric of the canon, each book and the thought of each biblical author.
Though Hamilton unashamedly puts forth what he believes to be the center of biblical theology, he is not blind or ignorant of the fact that others have previously proposed other centers. In light of this, Hamilton seeks to introduce both willing listeners and those skeptical of the idea of a definite theological center to how he arrives at his own view of the theological center of the Bible. Hamilton states,
The center of biblical theology will be the theme that is prevalent, even pervasive, in all parts of the Bible. This theme will be the most demonstrable centerpiece of theology contained in the Bible itself, because this theme will be what the biblical authors resort to when they give ultimate explanations for why things are they way they are at any point in the Bible’s story (p. 49).
For Hamilton, the overarching story or meta-narrative of Scripture is the fourfold sequence of creation, fall, redemption and restoration. He sees this sequence not merely as an overarching grid to understand the big story of Scripture but as something that “is repeated again and again in the Bible” (p. 49). For example, he sees this sequence in the life of Israel as God creates them as a nation, “The nation falls at Sinai, is redeemed by God’s mercy, and, in a sense, is restored through the second set of stone tablets” (p. 49). The pattern occurs so frequently throughout the Bible that Hamilton concludes, “Within the grand drama that goes from creation to consummation there are many such “plays within the play” (p. 49).
After surveying many proposed centers of biblical theology (p. 53-56), Hamilton explains what the phrase “God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment” means. First, the display of God’s glory is the ultimate message and purpose of Scripture and, thus, of biblical theology.
[T]he glory of God is the weight of the majestic goodness of who God is, and the resulting name, or reputation, that he gains from his revelation of himself as Creator, Sustainer, Judge, and Redeemer, perfect in justice and mercy, loving-kindness and truth (p. 56).
In addition, God responds to the fallen state of mankind in salvation through judgment. The two themes of salvation and judgment are to be viewed together and as working in tandem with each other. “Salvation always comes through judgment” and “everyone who gets saved is saved through judgment” (p. 57-58). The two are inseparable acts of God and reveal inseparable aspects of God. God is both a Savior and a Judge of man and sin.
A book by book overview of how Hamilton brings his proposed biblical center to the surface is not possible here. What follows is a summary of the canonical structure Hamilton moves through in his quest to prove his proposed biblical center.
Hamilton’s handling of the OT follows the lead of Stephen Dempster and addresses the books as laid out in the Tanach—the threefold outline of the Law, the Prophets and the Writings (see also Luke 24:44). This method walks the reader through the historical narrative first as it appears in the Torah and the Former Prophets (Genesis to Kings). Next, the reader considers a commentary on that storyline in the Latter Prophets (Isaiah through Malachi). This commentary continues through part of the Writings from Psalms to Ecclesiastes. Finally, picking up with Esther and ending with Chronicles, the narrative storyline concludes (see Table 1.3 on pg. 61).
Hamilton approaches the NT in similar fashion, again following Dempster. The Gospels through Acts provide the introductory narrative material. Commentary on the Letters (Romans through 3 John) follows. Finally, the narrative resumes in Revelation.
Chapters 2-7 address the major sections of the canon and bring the biblical center of “God’s glory in salvation through judgment” to light page by page. Each major section includes an an introduction featuring a one-sentence summary of each book in the section. Then Hamilton works through each book of the Bible, with concluding summaries for each.
The book is structured such that one can read through it in its entirety as you would any other book. It’s structure also allows the reader to read the relevant section on a particular book of the Bible without feeling like he is jumping in the middle of a story or argument without any context. These two approaches are the intended approaches to reading the book (p. 29-30).
Throughout the book, Hamilton uses the phrase “God’s glory in salvation through judgment.” This is probably unavoidable, but nonetheless becomes tiresome at times. The reader may find it a struggle to follow the argument through the Minor Prophets since the discussion there is scant compared to the rest of the books. While readers may appreciate the many literary nuances Hamilton brings to light, there are times when one wonders if things are being stretched just to make them fit. Thankfully, in several of these instances the author acknowledges the possible stretch.
I felt that the discussion from Genesis to Acts and on Revelation to be the most fruitful and engaging. I found the discussion to be less so in the section from Romans to 3 John, though Hamilton does stay on course throughout the entire book.
I highly recommend this book as a good way to work through the Bible in order to grasp the overall story line. The book will also aid readers in gaining a better understanding of the purpose of each book in the canon. Hamilton not only seeks to prove his proposed biblical center but also weaves many sub themes throughout the book, such as creation, rest, the garden, the seed of Satan and of God/Christ, the temple and how Christ ultimately fulfills and brings to close in the NT (now and in the future) what was promised and anticipated in the OT. The book is a great whole-Bible tool and book study reading companion for everyone from the Bible college student to the seasoned pastor and teacher. I would suggest that a new believer read through the Bible on his own first, then use this volume as a companion the next time through.