Book Review: “What Is Biblical Theology?” (by James M. Hamilton, Jr.)

Biblical theology is theology that is biblical, right?  While that’s certainly a way in which biblical theology can, and often is, utilized, that is not what is particularly in mind here.  Don’t get me wrong, biblical theology as a discipline, as related to systematic and historical theology, certainly seeks to be biblical.  But there’s more to it than that.  In his book, What Is Biblical Theology?, James M. Hamilton, Jr. defines what it means to do biblical theology:

To do biblical theology is to think about the whole story of the Bible.  We want to understand the organic development of the Bible’s teaching so that we are interpreting particular parts of the story in light of the whole.  As an acorn grows into an oak tree, Genesis 3:15 grows into the good news of Jesus Christ.[1]

He goes on to say that “the stories told in the Old Testament work together to set up a mystery resolved in Christ.”[2] Hamilton is essentially saying that biblical theology pertains to the unfolding revelation of God in redemptive history.  With this unfolding narrative are various symbols, images, typological figures and events, and patterns that all work together to teach us something of God’s redemptive purpose in and through Jesus Christ.  These concepts quickly become complex, yet Hamilton skillfully navigates the biblical terrain, only bringing to the reader’s attention what is most important for grasping these concepts so they can understand the larger picture.

Hamilton structures this book in three parts: Story, Symbol, and Church.  Under story, he traces out the biblical narrative, showing how the “the world is a theater for the display of God’s glory,” how there are two categories of characters in this story – seed of the serpent and seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15), and how the plot culminates in Jesus Christ.  He discusses key “plot episodes,” such as the exodus from Egypt, noting how “later biblical authors treat the events of the exodus as a paradigm of God’s salvation.”[3] Every good story has a central theme.  Hamilton understands this theme to be God’s glory in salvation through judgment.[4] He concludes this section by talking about mystery – the various symbols, images, types, and patterns that hint at the fulfillment of the promise made to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:15, the seed of the woman crushing the head of the seed of the serpent.  Who is this seed?  What will this look like?

The section on symbol is essentially an elaboration on the previous section.  For example, touching on typological people and events, he remarks,

Jesus is a new and better Moses who has offered a new and better sacrifice because he is the new and better priest mediating a new and better covenant as we progress toward the new and better land.  Jesus is also a new and better David, and he is leading us into a new and better kingdom, one that will never be shaken.[5]

In other words, both Moses and David typified Christ but Christ is far better for he is at once Prophet, Priest, and King, accomplishing the redemption of God’s people – Christ is the fulfillment of the seed of the woman!  The promised land typifies the new and better land in the new heavens and earth.

The section on the Church seeks to bring home the previous two sections by showing how biblical theology speaks to the life of the Church.  “The Bible’s story and symbolism teach us as the church to understand who we are, what we face, and how we should live as we wait for the coming of our King and Lord.”[6]  He proceeds to discuss the Church as being the sheep of the Shepherd, the bride of Christ, the body of Christ, the adopted family of God, and the temple of the Holy Spirit.  The Church, the people of God, spreads the knowledge of the glory of God throughout the earth, which is what Adam and Eve were originally commissioned to do.

Just as God put Adam in the garden to extend its borders so that Yahweh’s glory would cover the dry lands as the waters cover the sea, God put Israel in the land to take up that same task, giving them a preview of what it would look like when he filled tabernacle and temple with his glory.  Jesus sent his disciples on the same errand to all nations: as disciples are made, the temple grows, the place of God’s presence expands, and God’s glory spreads over the dry land.  In the age to come, these realities will be fully realized.  The earth will be full of the knowledge of the glory of God.[7]

This is biblical theology in a nutshell.  Hamilton has provided a great service to the Church in writing this introductory work to enable pastor, seminarian, and laity alike to better understand the glorious unfolding of God’s redemptive story in Jesus Christ and where they fit into it.  Biblical theology is a necessary discipline that will bring much light to our Bible studies, to our preaching and teaching, and to our lives in general.  It will open up more of the Bible to you, helping you to see important symbols, images, types, and patterns.  Having this understanding will help you to connect the dots from Adam to Christ and from Christ to glory.  I cannot recommend it to you enough.

 


[1] Hamilton, James M. Jr. What Is Biblical Theology? (IL: Crossway, 2014), 12.

[2] Ibid., 13.

[3] Ibid., 37.

[4] Ibid., 40-41. For a more in-depth treatment of this central theme, see Hamilton, James M. Jr. God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment (IL: Crossway, 2010).

[5] Hamilton. What Is Biblical Theology? (IL: Crossway, 2014), 80.

[6] Ibid., 97.

[7] Ibid., 106.

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