What is Biblical Theology? | A Book Review

 

Introduction

What is Biblical Theology?[1] is a short and well-written book that introduces readers to the Bible’s big picture. Drawing attention to themes, common images, and typological examples, the author helps readers see the brushstrokes made upon the canvass of redemptive history in all of their marvelous display. James M. Hamilton, Jr. holds a PhD from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS), and he is currently the Professor of Biblical Theology at SBTS. Hamilton is also the author of a lengthier book on the subject of biblical theology, God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment.[2] His familiarity with the topic is obvious as Hamilton walks the path of biblical theology through the grand narrative of the Bible itself, all the while holding the reader’s hand and pointing out all of the important cites along the way.

 

Summary

Hamilton’s book is a marvelous introduction to the field of Biblical Theology, and I believe that this text is quite accessible – even for the least experienced reader. Helpfully, this concise work is arranged in three sections, which provide varying perspectives from which the reader may survey the landscape of biblical theology. Each section brings the reader from one vantage point to another, and each takes the reader a bit closer to actually becoming part of the landscape. Hamilton describes the sections in the following ways:

“[The first section] sets out the Bible’s big story, the second looks at the way the biblical authors use symbols to summarize and interpret that story, and the third considers the part the church plays in that story. So the three parts of this book can be put into three words: story, symbol, and church” (22).

Story

The first section of the text provides a brief overview of the “Bible’s big story.” From creation to final re-creation, the Bible sets out to tell a story of God’s redeeming nature and work. Of course, every story has a plot, including conflict, episodes, and themes. Hamilton’s chapter on these items was especially informative and interesting. While wickedness seems to triumph, what appears to be weak and foolish actually proves to be “power and wisdom” from “the true and living God.” This pattern of conflict, says Hamilton, “happens over and over again” (36). The common theme is also observed as “the word of salvation” and “kindness” comes alongside and even inside of “the word of judgment” and “severity” (40).

Symbol

Hamilton says, “Symbolism is developed through the use of imagery and through the repetition of patterns and types” (62). Imagery, patterns, and types are the stuff of biblical theology, and Hamilton helps the reader recognize these basic tools for greater and richer biblical understanding. The tree, the flood, and the temple are all pregnant symbols found in the Scriptures; and the importance of understanding these symbols is found, primarily, in their ultimate substance. Hamilton says, “The tree, the flood, and the temple are shadows, but the substance belongs to Christ (Col. 2:17), the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15)” (75). Pointing towards the historicity of those things that provide a prefiguring or foreshadowing of what is to come, Hamilton encourages readers to marvel at the wonder of God in His providence. He says, “To examine biblical typology is to examine the orchestration of the sovereign God” (78).

Church

Finally, Hamilton ushers the reader onto the canvass of redemptive history by presenting the reality that “the church” is that which “inhabits the story of the Scriptures” (97). Hamilton says, “We don’t merely want to think about story and symbol; we want to be swept up in them. We want to be identified by these symbols” (97). The Church is the flock, the body, the family, and ultimately the bride of Christ. In ironic fashion (fitting perfectly with the paradoxical norms in the rest of the story), the bride of Christ will be ultimately victorious, as she remains faithful unto mortal death and enters into everlasting life with her Husband, Savior, and King.

 

Critical Interaction

Biblical Evidence

It is one thing for an author to claim an interpretive code or a useful cypher, but it is another thing entirely to demonstrate the value and accuracy of such things. In his references to various themes, episodes, images, types, symbols, and patterns, Hamilton evidences his own findings with multiple examples from the Scriptures. For example, Hamilton cites a couple of episodes, which he asserts at least one biblical author (the Apostle Paul) noted as a pattern and/or symbol of the person and work of Christ. Speaking of the similarities between the Noahic flood and the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt led by Moses, Hamilton says:

“As at the flood, waters closed over the rebels. As Noah was saved through those waters, Israel passed through the Red Sea on dry ground… Moses floated in an ark covered with tar and pitch on waters where others died (shades of Noah). God humbled the strong and proud Pharaoh by means of the ten plagues and the death of the firstborn. God identified the nation of Israel as his firstborn son. The death of the Passover lamb redeemed the firstborn of Israel. The people fled into the wilderness having plundered the Egyptians and were baptized in the cloud and in the sea (1 Cor. 10:2)” (37).

Hamilton’s citation of the passage from 1 Corinthians demonstrates even more of a correlation between the Noahic, Mosaic, and Christological episodes than what he is drawing out above. In 1 Corinthians 10:1-4, the Apostle Paul says:

“For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ” (emphasis added).

The Apostle Peter also saw a correlation between the symbol of Noah’s salvation through the flood and the water baptism of new Christians. Peter says, “God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you” (1 Peter 3:20-21). Clearly, Hamilton’s episodic pattern is warranted from the Scriptures. Not only is the pattern observable, it is also noted as being observed by the biblical writers themselves. Hamilton cites this passage from 1 Peter too, but in another context – biblical imagery.

Imagery is the use of concrete and “real-world illustrations” to help the reader grasp “abstract concepts” in the Bible (67). Hamilton draws out the imagery found in the link between “creation and redemption” and “judgment and de-creation” (70). Going much more deeply into the Creation, Flood, and Exodus parallels, Hamilton points out the concepts of judgment and de-creation viewed in these episodes though the imagery of water. “God parted the waters to make the dry land appear in Genesis 1:9-10” (70). Both Noah and Moses were saved through waters, while all of their “contemporaries died” (70). Hamilton says, “At the flood and the exodus from Egypt, God saved his people through judgment” (71). Finally, he concludes, “When believers are baptized by faith into Jesus, they are united to him in his experience of the floodwaters of God’s wrath” (71). This is to demonstrate that God offers salvation, consistently throughout the Scriptures, through His judgment. Therefore, water is a biblical image of both God’s judgment and His work of salvation.

Potential Limitation

At this point, it might be worth noting that some may find Hamilton’s view of baptism less than preferable. While a Paedobaptist may have wonderful agreement with Hamilton’s findings throughout the book, and even accept much of his assertions on the correlation between baptism and these Old Testament episodic images, Hamilton’s concluding statement does reveal his denominational affiliation and his theological position on baptism. Because he is a professor at the flagship Southern Baptist seminary, one can be sure that Hamilton holds the Baptist view of biblical baptism; he is a Credobaptist. For a Paedobaptist, “believers” are not “baptized by faith,” but children of the covenant community are baptized as a sign of their inclusion among the covenant people of God. It seems that the Credobaptist position enjoys a better correlation with the imagery cited by Hamilton. Without getting any deeper into the differences, it is also helpful to note that this potential limitation is likely not a restrictive factor for most readers – even Paedobaptist ones.

Comparison

My own interaction with texts on the subject of Biblical Theology is limited. The only other exposure I have had up to this point is George Ladd’s more technical work, A Theology of the New Testament.[3] Hamilton’s book (What is Biblical Theology?) was not intended as a technical work like Ladd’s book, so the comparison is not tremendously helpful. However, I must say that Hamilton’s book was far more approachable and readable. This is obviously by design, but I have to admit that Hamilton’s book has provided me with a new perspective on biblical theology. The technical address from Ladd was not in itself off-putting, but Hamilton has helped me to see biblical theology as uniting the Scriptures rather than separating them. I don’t know Ladd’s positions well enough to place him under the “South Pole” category that Hamilton described early in this book, but Hamilton definitely seemed to me a more likely candidate for the “North Pole” category (18).

 

Conclusion

This text is a quality and brief introduction to biblical theology. Christians benefit from a general knowledge and functional understanding of the overarching biblical narrative, the recurring themes and symbols, the plotline, and the forward movement of the biblical story. Hamilton’s work provides all of this in an accessible and understandable format for both beginners and seasoned studiers of God’s Word. Because of his prolific examples and sturdy biblical foundation, as well as his writing style and climactic hope of eternal glory, this book would be a great addition to anyone’s reading list.

 


 

 
Hamilton, James, M. What is Biblical Theology?. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014.
 

[1]See this book on Amazon: http://smile.amazon.com/dp/1433537710

[2]See this book on Amazon: http://smile.amazon.com/dp/1581349769

[3]See this book on Amazon: http://smile.amazon.com/dp/0802806805