Review: What Is Biblical Theology?

What Is Biblical Theology?
James Hamilton, Jr. does a wonderful job on simplifying the Bible’s grand, overarching story in his new book
What Is Biblical Theology?: A Guide to the Bible’s Story, Symbolism, and Patterns. I often hear about how the Bible is a continuous story, but I often forget just how much of it really is a unified story. I forget to picture it with story qualities: episodes, themes, conflicts, victories, mystery, symbols, a protagonist, an antagonist, and many other mini-characters in other mini-settings.

What Is Biblical Theology?

Hamilton defines Biblical Theology as the interpretive perspective of the biblical authors.
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What does that mean?
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It is the way in which the authors reflected how they understood earlier Scripture, redemptive history, and the events they are describing in the form of narratives, poems, proverbs, letters, and apocalypses. They do this within the framework of knowledge and truths they live in to describe the way they understand the world and the events that take place in it.

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For example, Moses didn’t write a story about Balaam in Numbers 22-25 because he was desperately searching for a good story to tell. He singled that event out of all the events of the 40 years in the wilderness, carefully arranged it amongst the rest of the narrative, and presented the true story. Doing it this way enabled his audience to clearly see how what Balaam said and did fits into the true story of the world we live in which Moses shows in the Pentateuch.
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Moses didn’t write down facts for the sake of being a historian. He followed and wrote down the themes he saw so that we can see the connections between stories:

  1. Noah survived through the Flood while God’s enemies (rebellious humanity) were destroyed.
  2. Moses and the Israelites made it across the Red Sea while God’s enemies (Pharaoh and the Egyptians) were destroyed.
  3. The faithful remnant made it through the “flood” of the Assyrian and Babylonian armies while God’s enemies (unfaithful Israel) were destroyed.
  4. Jesus was baptized and fully submerged into the Jordan river, and as Christians our old man is put to death in Christ and raised in the likeness of Him, putting off the body of the flesh and putting on the new man [Col. 2:11-12]. Who is God’s enemy that is destroyed? The old man, and sin’s reign over us [Rom. 6:6]. Sin is still here, but it is no longer our master; Jesus is.

Literary Forms

The images in the Bible are meant to give real-world illustrations of abstract concepts. In Psalm 80:8, Asaph helps us to understand Israel’s importance by comparing her to a vine planted by the Lord, recalling Genesis 2:8-9 when God planted the garden of Eden and Isaiah 5:1-7 where God relates Israel to a rotten vineyard. (Or perhaps Isaiah 5 recalls Psalm 80. Who knows?)
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Typology

Hamilton explains the extra step of Typology over Symbolism. Typology doesn’t have to be difficult or weird to understand. It’s just what God typically does (p. 44). We have the initial occurrence of an event (the archetype), then we have the uphill climb (the installations) until the type finds fulfillment in its ultimate expression.
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These themes culminate in Jesus Christ, but some of these themes continue in the church too. The seed of the woman was always antagonized by the seed of the serpent (Gen 4:8; 6:5; 9:22; 21:9; 27;41; 31:24; 34:2; 37:5; 37:18; Ex. 1:15-16), but through the suffering and persecution God would save His people and put down the enemy (Gen. 3:15; Mk. 15:33-41). Through the cross, Christ died for His people in agony, weakness, and humiliation, but rose in great strength according to the power of the glory of God (Rom. 1:4).
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This flows into how we should perceive the church, why the church seems so unimpressive, yet is considered so important in the New Testament. We are the mystery revealed by the Holy Spirit (Eph. 3:5). 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.

The Chocolate Milk

Most of what I’ve said previous to this section could also be included in this section, but I thought I would put in a few specific points here.
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This book clears up a number of the issues people have with biblical prophecy. How can Jesus say in John 13:18 that the one who eats His food will turn against Him according to the Scriptures (in Ps 41:9)? When you read Ps 41:9 it just says that the one who shared the author’s food, who he trusted completely, has turned against him (my paraphrase).
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Why was this scripture prophetic?
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There’s a recurring theme through the Bible to have your closest ally turn against you (Noah with Ham, Jacob and Esau, Jacob and Laban, Moses and Aaron, David and Saul, Jesus and Judas). Jesus is just fulfilling one of the messages of the grand story: someone very close to you is going to turn against you.
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His chapter on Typology was great. His definition of it was super-easy to understand. Typology is what God typically does. As you can tell from the section above, I don’t have much more to say about it here: I did appreciate it. I remember hearing about typology in high school and thinking it was a neat idea. As I got older I wondered what the base of it was. How can you tell what the typology is? Are we just making it up as we go or is there a clearer road to understanding the process? This section lays it out in layman’s terms, which is just what I need.
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The application of Chapter 13 “The Church’s Plot Tension and It’s Resolution” was highly favored. Why does the Church suffer? Because Christ suffered. He was hated for who He was, and we will be hated for the One we know and are united with. Satan is pursuing the same strategy with the church as He did Jesus. He thought he had the upper hand in the death of Jesus, but God accomplished victory with what looked like defeat. And He will do the same for us (Dan 7:23-27).

The Spoiled Milk

As great as I think this book is, there are some shortcomings in my view.
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Patterns: Hamilton reuses the Israel’s Feasts and the Righteous Sufferer examples. These are good examples, but I would like to have seen more (I know they’re in there). Otherwise it makes me wonder why there even had to be a Patterns chapter. Even in the beginning of the chapter he says patterns are almost the same as typology.
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I was disappointed in how short Chapter 12 (The Church’s Setting in the Story) was (three pages long). The temple is a symbol of the cosmos, and the church being the temple of the Spirit means that the church is a preview of what the world is going to become. It was a wonderful section on the place of the church in the Big Setting.
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Thankfully, this was one of four chapters of Part 3 that makes up roughly 21 pages (in my version). Despite Part 3 itself not being very long, it still provided an adequate explanation of the purpose and place of the church in the setting of the Scriptures.
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Of course I wish this section was longer. I wish this whole book was longer! It’s hard to fault Hamilton though for how clear he is throughout the book. This is one of those books that makes me want to read more because of how easy it is to read yet how much you can learn in it. I guess I’ll just have to keep reading Hamilton’s God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment and start reading Schreiner’s The King In His Beauty.

Recommended?

This was a great book that introduces the overall themes of the Bible to it’s reader. It’s important to go book by book when studying the Bible, finding out what each passage really says as well as the book as a whole. But also important is how the entire Bible flows together. If it’s important to know how we went from verse 1 to verse 10, it’s equally important to know how we went from Genesis to Revelation.
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The only way to get out of the world’s thinking and into the Bible’s is to actually read the Bible itself. A lot.
What kind of character defines our God? What kind of character should we have? What is so important about being a Christian over any other belief? Read the Bible. Hamilton doesn’t give detail to every connection in this book, but he gives you a framework on which to start viewing the Bible.
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Lagniappe

[Thanks to NetGalley and Crossway for allowing me to read and review this book before it came out. I was not obligated to give a positive review in return for reviewing my copy.]+
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