[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.
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.” 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.
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.
 Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 275.