Guest Blog (Grant Taylor): A Book Review of “God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment: A Biblical Theology”

[Editor’s Note: Jim Hamilton’s fine book, “God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment: A Biblical Theology” has been a topic of interest on our campus this semester, having been discussed in PhD seminars and Master’s level courses. For this reason, we invited Grant Taylor to compose a brief review of the book. Grant is a Ph. D. Candidate in Biblical Theology.]

Biblical theology (BT) is a discipline with a harried history and uncertain future (like most theological disciplines). Yet BT properly explained and presented by Christian scholars is essential for the building up of the saints for ministry. Enter the recent work by James M. Hamilton, Jr. (Associate Professor of Biblical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary), God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment: A Biblical Theology (Crossway, 2010). This review will outline the contents of the book and interact with his proposed “center” of biblical theology.

In chapter 1, Hamilton discusses the practice of BT for the renewal of the church (p. 39) and seeks to define the center of BT. For Hamilton “the center of biblical theology will be the theme that is prevalent, even pervasive, in all parts of the Bible” (p. 49). Following a brief review of the recent history of BT, Hamilton proposes the main theme, his center, of the Bible: God’s glory in salvation through judgment, which reflects the character of God (see Ex. 34:6-7) recounted across the storyline of the Bible (pp. 53-59).

In chapters 2-4 Hamilton traces this “center” through the Hebrew order of the Old Testament: Torah, Prophets, and Writings (pp. 67-353). By way of this “canonical approach” (p. 64), each major section is summarized as a whole and book-by-book. According to Hamilton, each book itself and each major section provides “God’s glory in salvation through judgment” as the major theme, or center, of that unit (see pp. 132-33, 267, 350-51). Thus, the story of the OT is the story of God’s glory in salvation through judgment (p. 352).

Chapters 5-7 continue tracing this center into the Gospels and Acts, Letters, and Revelation. As in the OT, each NT book and major section is about the center Hamilton has proposed (see pp. 439-40, 537-38, 549). For Hamilton, the NT continues the storyline begun in the OT: new exodus (see pp. 201-210) is fulfilled in the cross of Jesus Christ (see ch. 5) and return from exile (see pp. 75-82, 140) is finally fulfilled at the coming of New Jerusalem (see pp. 546-49). Between these events the NT narrates a “cosmic metanarrative” with God’s glory at the center of this story (pp. 358-59). Like the OT, the story of the NT is the story of God’s glory in salvation through judgment (p. 550).

In chapter 8 Hamilton addresses objections, mainly from I. Howard Marshall, to his methodology and proposal for the center of BT. Hamilton sees his center as defensible because it aligns with God’s ultimate purpose: to glorify himself (560-63; cf. 47-49). Chapter 9 concludes the book with a welcome argument for the necessity of BT in ministry. Evangelism, discipleship, corrective church discipline, Bible reading, and prayer stand to deepen in rigor, devotion, and wisdom if BT is applied to the corporate and personal lives of Christians. This chapter reveals Hamilton’s solid motives for doing BT, and invites more work to be done in this area by both scholars and pastors.

God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment is a welcome addition to the field of BT. Hamilton demonstrates his wide knowledge of the storyline of Scripture, across both Testaments. Numerous charts and tables illumine his rigorous exegesis and point the reader to further lines of study on a given text and/or theme (e.g., Gen. 3:14-19; pp. 75-89). Key components of BT, such as typology (see p. 42, n. 28), weave through the book to advance his argument, especially in the Gospels and Acts. Furthermore, the book is very well written and should receive high marks for its accessibility. Hamilton eschews complex prose, opting instead for clear language that indeed seeks to build up the church by consistently arguing his thesis.

Despite these and other strengths, one wonders if Hamilton’s thesis has been argued too well. Hamilton’s center, and title, God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment, crisply captures the character of God revealed in the Bible (Ex. 34:6-7) and running through salvation history. God’s glory is without a doubt the ultimate concern of his action in saving Israel from Egypt, exiling then rescuing Israel from exile, and promising and giving his Messiah for the redemption of humanity and all creation. Many biblical authors explicitly make these points (see e.g., Exodus, Isaiah, Ezekiel, John, Romans, Revelation). Yet, do all biblical authors make this point in what they write, and (even if so) do they make it in the same way?

For instance, the Writings stress what it looks like to live as a God-fearer in a world that does not fear him. Proverbs instructs one where true knowledge comes from (Prov. 1:7) and what it looks like to live out that knowledge. Hamilton agrees and argues that each section of Proverbs thus describes God’s glory in salvation through judgment (pp. 290-301). Yet, by arguing this point in this way, readers may think that the author of Proverbs makes this point in all proverbs in the same way. Perhaps clarifying the terms “salvation” and “judgment” when dealing with this specific genre would explain how the various proverbs demonstrate an explanatory center of Proverbs, however that center is conceived.

For another example, we can bring in the Gospel of John. John deals greatly with the glory/glorification of God in Christ (e.g., John 1:14; 2:11; 12:43; 17:24). Yet, John also tells us why he writes in John 20:31, “… these things are written so that you might believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you might have life in his name.” How does John’s purpose statement, which is a function of his writing a Gospel, relate to God’s glory in salvation through judgment? It does, but does it do so in the same way as Exodus, Proverbs, Romans, or Hebrews?

My critique here is one of reckoning with the genre of biblical writings in doing biblical theology. Genre is the combination of what biblical authors write and how they write it. The various biblical genres thus give us guides, frameworks, as to how to find the themes and perhaps even the theme of biblical books. Kevin Vanhoozer states,

The diverse literary forms are like different kinds of maps, maps that have been collected together in a unified atlas: the Bible. As with maps, so with the forms of biblical discourse: each renders reality selectively, according to its own ‘scale’ and ‘key.’ The biblical stories, commands, promises, songs, prophecies, and didactic discourse all mediate God’s communicative action, but not all in the same way. What they share, however, is the same basic orientation.[1]

In God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment, Hamilton stresses the same basic orientation in all the books of Scripture: all bear witness to God’s character and action, his glory in salvation through judgment. Yet by summarizing all sections and genres of the canon as about God’s glory in salvation through judgment, Hamilton’s approach may treat each genre of the Bible as the same kind of map. There is biblical unity in the theology of God’s glory, for sure. Yet as Vanhoozer states, “it is possible to view canonical diversity not as a problem to be solved but as a blessing to be received with thanks.”[2] The biblical authors use various ways with words to bear witness to God, indeed glorifying him as they do. Such ways with words, then, should guide us to think and speak about life in Christ in similar ways. Other readers will want to wrestle with these issues as they work through the book to see if this critique has any merit.

Hamilton has done us a service by stressing the character of God and his action, his glory in salvation through judgment, throughout the Bible. Its accessibility and readability makes this book a great resource for seminary students, for instance, in becoming more familiar with individual biblical books and the theological and narrative unity between those books. These sacred books indeed point us to the ultimate end of reality-God-and also show us how to live by faith in light of that reality. As Hamilton states, “The biblical authors not only tell us particular truths, but they also model for us how to interpret the Bible and how to communicate God’s truth. We will never exhaust what the Bible has to teach us on these three fronts” (p. 560). Agreed.


[1] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005), 297. For more on the significance of genre in relation to the canon, see Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 211-220, 272-275, 282-285. See also Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text? The Bible, The Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 335-350, on the way genres function as literary “covenants,” guiding one’s interpretation.

[2] Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 275.

Engaging Exposition (8): Apocalyptic Literature

Apocalyptic is perhaps the most challenging of all biblical literature to interpret. This is due primarily to its use of symbols to represent future events. The word means to “unveil” or “reveal.” At its core, Apocalyptic literature deals with the eschaton, or end times. When we think of the Apocalyptic literature in the Bible, our minds turn first to Revelation. However, it would be a mistake to assume that Revelation is the only evidence of Apocalyptic literature in the Bible. Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, and parts of Isaiah also contain this type of writing.

Walt Kaiser notes that there are some generally accepted features of Apocalyptic writing: “(a) rich symbolism involving angels, demons, and mixed features of animals, birds, and men; (b) a formalized phraseology indicating that the revelation came by a vision or dream; (c) frequent conversations between the prophet/seer/apostle and a heavenly being who disclosed God’s secret to him; (d) cosmic catastrophes and convolutions; (e) a radical transformation of all of nature and the nations in the near future of that day; and (f) the imminent end of the present age and the establishment of the eternal kingdom of God.”*

When we study these texts, we are dealing with more than simple fantasy or myth-we are dealing with truth. As a result, our interpretation of these writings requires our utmost diligence. Today, there is a great attempt by many pastor-teachers to “explain” every symbol or to predict the exact manner in which the eschaton will occur. This is neither wise nor necessary. Grant Osborne notes,

This does not mean that prophecy and apocalyptic should not be applied to the current situation nor that their ‘fulfillment’ should not be sought. Rather, it means that the interpreter should seek first the ‘author’s intended meaning’ in the original context before delineating the way that the prophecies apply to our time…At the same time the purpose of esoteric symbols in apocalyptic is to turn readers from the actual event to its theological meaning. In other words, readers are expected to see the hand of God in the future but are not supposed to know the exact sequence of events-that is, they are not given a description of what will actually happen. In short, we have no blueprint in Scripture for current events, but rather theological signs which tell us in general that God is going to draw history to a close. Symbols are literal in that they point to future events but not so literal that they tell us exactly how God is going to accomplish his purposes.**

Interpreting Apocalyptic literature is a challenging endeavor. We must work diligently to discover the author’s main idea of the text (MIT). Then, with great care, we share its truth with our contemporary audience. As we encounter the elaborate symbolism of Apocalyptic literature, however, we must acknowledge that we can only go so far in our finite thinking. When we reach the end of ourselves, we must acknowledge our limited understanding and place our confidence in the work of an infinite, sovereign God.

_____________________________________________________________

* Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. Toward an Exegetical Theology (Baker, 1981), 93-94.

** Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (2nd Edition; IVP, 2006), 283.

Engaging Exposition (7): Discovering the Author’s Method of Communication

Some people use the terms Hermeneutics and Exegesis as synonyms. We should see a distinction, but they are closely related. Every close reading of a text-any text-is an act of exegesis. Exegesis refers to the process of discerning the truth of Scripture by allowing a text to reveal its meaning and significance, rather than reading the interpreter’s bias into it.

As we begin the process of Exegesis, we must inspect the content of the biblical text. When we speak of content, we are talking about the author’s use of semantics, syntax, and genre. It is essential to begin the exegetical process by studying the Scriptures, as opposed to commentaries, so that our interpretation is not prejudiced by external sources before we have taken the time to inspect the text itself. However, there is a time and a place for the use of external sources, but it should always follow our own close inspection of the biblical text.

We begin by determining the literary genre (or style) chosen by the author to communicate his intended meaning to his audience. We suggest a four-step process for discovering the author’s Main Idea of the Text (MIT). They are:

1. Inspect the Text

2. Inquire about the Text

3. Investigate the Text

4. Identify the MIT

1) Inspect the text. Ask the following questions: Who, What, When, Where, How, and Why? This will help us understand both the content of a biblical text and its context.

How was the Text Written?

In literature, the word used to reflect a unique style of writing is genre. Genre is defined as “a kind of style, especially of art or literature (e.g., novel, drama, satire).” The study of genre provides valuable insights for the interpreter. It may help the interpreter discern between the need for a literal or figurative reading of the text. We limit our description of biblical genres to five specific categories: Prose, Poetry, Historical Narrative, Wisdom Literature, and Apocalypse.

Prose

In its simplest and broadest understanding, Prose is any genre of writing that is not Poetry. It is important to note a couple of things about Prose. First, texts written in this style are often descriptive in nature. Second, while an author may use Prose as his primary genre, it does not mean that he did not incorporate other genres into his writing.

Historical Narrative

Prose is the predominant genre in the Bible. Historical Narrative is one of the styles of Prose that appears with the greatest frequency. Historical Narratives provide far more than just the recounting of historical facts. Historical Narrative has a spiritual focus and theological dimension.

When we turn our attention to the unique writing style of Historical narratives, we must be sure to understand the basic elements that are included in every narrative. First, we must understand our primary concern is with the text. We must never lose sight of the fact that the text itself is of first importance. Second, we must work to understand the point of view that the author uses when writing his story. Every author is writing from a specific perspective. Third, we must identify the plot of the story. Every story has several key plot elements. (E.g. conflict, protagonist, antagonist, suspense, turning point, and final resolution).

Fourth, we must be able to identify the characters and their traits as they are revealed in the story. Often we are given insights into the characters by their descriptions in the text. Fifth, we must grasp the setting of the story. Often, the setting is as significant to its meaning as anything. Sixth, we must look for the implied or explicit commentary of the author. We must understand that the author had an intended meaning for the story, and sometimes he makes that very plain.

Historical Narratives are by far the most common example of Prose in the Bible. Yet for all of their abundance, many pastor-teachers fail to spend time preaching these amazing texts.