The greatest stories don’t just take us to faraway places, they tell us about ourselves and world. Often this is far more effective than a direct approach. Look to the example of Nathan’s story in 2 Samuel 12; his story cut to David’s heart and revealed his hypocrisy. Likewise, in What is Biblical Theology?: A Guide to the Bible’s Story, Symbolism, and Patterns, James Hamilton wants to help us see the storyline of the Bible – the true story of our world – and thereby make sense of what God is doing in history and see our own place within it.
What is Biblical Theology?
Biblical theology has become a bit of a buzz-word today, and yet it has a multitude of definitions depending on who one talks with. To Hamilton, the heartbeat of biblical theology “is to think about the whole story of the Bible” (p12) and to properly understand the Bible we must enter the worldview of the Biblical authors, to see the world the way that they do. To guide us in this adventure of biblical theology, Hamilton approaches the topic in three broad sections: discerning the Bible’s story (ch 3-5), understanding its symbolism (6-9), and then applying these to the role of the church (ch 10-13).
In section one, Hamilton analyses the Bible as one would a story. What is the setting? What are the characters? What roles do they play? Where is the story headed? This approach helps the Christian grasp that the Bible doesn’t only record a set of propositions that should be believed and exhortations that must be obeyed, rather the Bible presents a world that must be entered. One of the unique aspects of this section is where Hamilton draws attention to major episodes in the Bible that the Biblical authors then drew upon to describe later events, such as our salvation in Christ being likened to the exodus out of Egypt. Also Hamilton notes God’s promises and how they are woven throughout Scripture, being picked up by later biblical authors. There is also mystery to this story. How will God accomplish His promises?
While part one covered important territory part two was where the book came to life for me. The Bible is full of truth conveyed through symbolism and understanding how these symbols work is crucial to reading the Bible well. Imagery, typology and patterns are all explained in this section. These chapters were rich and packed full of good content and any attempt of mine to summarise would be a shame, they just have to be read.
Lastly, the Biblical plot and symbolism are then applied to ourselves as the church, or in Hamilton’s words, “the Bible’s story and symbolism teach 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” (p109). These chapters are where the book brings everything closer to home. Who are we? What are we supposed to be doing?
I’ve already offered some praise in my summary above, but let me turn to specifics. This book was a joy to read through Hamilton’s prose, which helps bring this topic to life for the Christian. Just as Hamilton argues that the Bible uses symbols to communicate complicated concepts, Hamilton himself does the same thing to illuminate difficult topics such as typology in this book. I was surprised that so much could be communicated so simply and concisely, bringing profound truths from the top shelf of academia down to the table for all to enjoy. This is not to say that the book isn’t difficult at times: the section on the ‘fulfilment’ of John 19:36 was probably the most complex. However, within the context of the book as a whole, this section is important and very helpful.
One of the enjoyable aspects here is that Hamilton not only tells but shows. For example, he doesn’t just explain how one can understand symbolism, but he actually walks us through some test cases. With this approach he gives the reader enough to be excited to then go away and dig for gold themselves.
It’s for this reason that I wonder if the title What is Biblical Theology? was the best choice for this book. Granted, this is a book explaining biblical theology, but it is not just for those interested in the topic. While some will pick up this book to understand the topic, others may be turned away because it sounds like a more abstract book than it really is. Many Christians may be turned away from a book with theology in the title and, considering the accessibility of this book, it would be unfortunate if it were the case here.
I was pleased that Hamilton as a biblical theology professor closed his book with an exhortation to read the Bible. “The best way to learn biblical theology, the best way to get yourself out of the world’s way of thinking and into the Bible’s is to study the Bible itself. Don’t make this harder than it needs to be. Read the Bible. A lot” (p115). He recommends reading large chunks of the Bible, marking it along the way, and to use a biblical theology book to assist one’s reading at times. I’ve done this with his God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment and am currently doing it with Schreiner’s The King in His Beauty and I can heartily agree in the benefits in his suggestions here. Hamilton closes with a list of suggested further reading. I was surprised that the list was fairly short (13 books). I really think this section could have been expanded a little to include a wider range of titles and also a guide as to the difficulty of the book and/or a short summary of what to expect. For example, if one were new to biblical theology and read the clear and poetic What is Biblical Theology? and then picked up Beale’s A New Testament Biblical Theology since Hamilton recommends it, some overheating of the brain would likely occur within the first few pages. However Alexander’s book From Eden to the New Jerusalem would be a very natural place to turn. A little more guidance in the list would have been welcome.
In my review of Hamilton’s God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment I expressed a hope that he would put together a shorter and more accessible book devoted just to establishing his titular thesis. This book meets but far exceeds my desire. It wasn’t Hamilton’s purpose to establish the thesis in this book, but through showing the bigger picture of Scripture, I think it is clearly seen as central to the Scriptures. This is was welcome bonus!
What is Biblical Theology? serves as a great introduction for those interested in the topic of biblical theology, but it also has so much more to offer. Ultimately, Hamilton here wants to create better readers of the Bible. This is no small ambition but neither is it an obscure or unimportant one. All Christians should know their Bibles better because life is in His Word. As such, What is Biblical Theology? is a book for every Christian and one that I would wholeheartedly recommend. Get this book!
[Many thanks to Crossway for providing a copy of this book to review via Netgalley. All opinions are my own].
- Reading level: Any
- Watch an interview with Hamilton and other SBTS authors
- Publisher: Crossway
- Paperback: 128 pages
- ISBN: 978-1-4335-3771-4
- Review copy: Yes