David A. Booth
God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment, by James M. Hamilton Jr. Wheaton: Crossway, 2010, 640 pages, $40.00.
The desire to see the Bible as a unified whole where Scripture is taken on its own terms has produced a flowering of biblical theology over the past century. Regretfully, many of these theologies should carry warning labels regarding how they subvert particular biblical truths, ignore the history of theological reflection, or require formal theological education in order for the reader to profit from engaging them. What is needed is a biblical theology that is reliable, robust, committed to the absolute authority of God’s word, and accessible to non-specialists. James M. Hamilton Jr., associate professor of biblical theology at the Southern Baptist Seminary, has given us just such a book.
The conviction that God is the author of both history and Scripture naturally leads us to search out the Bible’s plot line. As Professor Hamilton puts it, “If the Bible tells a coherent story, it is valid to explore what that story’s main point is” (39). So what is the Bible’s main point? This apparently simple question has received a bewildering variety of proposed answers, each of which has generally been found wanting. The failure of so many proposals to attain broad acceptance has led some scholars to suggest that we search for a cluster of central themes in Scripture rather than a solitary unifying center. Nevertheless, James Hamilton is unwilling to give up the quest. God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment is Hamilton’s attempt to both identify the central plot line of the Bible and to demonstrate how this central point unifies the message of God’s Word.
The Bible-believing, Reformed tradition has placed great emphasis on both the glory of God and, particularly over the last generation, understanding Scripture in terms of the history of redemption. Orthodox Presbyterians will therefore naturally appreciate how Professor Hamilton combines these two emphases in crafting his proposed center, which is also the title of the book, God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment. Yet, how can we know whether this is a central theme or the central theme of God’s word? Professor Hamilton reasonably suggests “that all the Bible’s themes flow from, exposit, and feed back into the center of biblical theology” (53). He then skillfully walks the reader through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation demonstrating “that God’s glory in salvation through judgment is the heart of the Bible, the idea being that it is the muscle that pumps life-giving blood to the whole body” (556). Among this engaging book’s many strengths are its clarity, sober exegesis, cogent reasoning, helpful use of tables, and thoughtful application of the truths it is expounding to the life of the local church. The book concludes with two short but valuable chapters. The second to last chapter involves an interaction with objections to the book’s thesis raised by I. Howard Marshall and Ben Witherington. The final chapter addresses how the book’s thesis impacts ministry in the local church. Hopefully future works of theology will follow this example.
Professor Hamilton’s stated aim was “to allow the biblical text to set the agenda for the contents of this book” (553). I believe that he has largely succeeded in this quest, but I do have a few reservations. If “the biblical text set the agenda for the contents of the book” why does it spend as much time discussing 1 Peter as it does discussing Job, Ezra, and Nehemiah combined even though the latter books are approximately fifteen times larger? In a similar vein, given that the primary content of our Lord’s own preaching was the “kingdom of God,” Hamilton gives this theme less attention than it seems to merit. Perhaps the book’s thesis could be improved by balancing its emphasis on God glorifying himself through acts of judgment and rescue with God glorifying himself through the consequences of these acts. Such an approach might more fully explain the amount of Scripture dedicated to wisdom, moral law, sanctification, and the church as God’s family. Professor Hamilton recognizes that this book is not the final word on biblical theology (558). Those who wish to appropriate and extend his proposal should find it fruitful to integrate Hamilton’s insights with those of Meredith Kline and Greg Beale.
We should not allow this book’s failure to provide the definitive grand theory of biblical theology to blind us to its many admirable qualities. Most Christians who pick up this work simply want help understanding the Bible better. God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment is an excellent tool to help with that quest. This is far and away the best organized and clearest of all the biblical theologies that I have read. While lacking the profundity of Greg Beale’s massive A New Testament Biblical Theology, this book is dramatically more accessible to those who lack seminary training. Early in the book Professor Hamilton tells us what he hopes this work will accomplish: “The goal is not a return to an imaginary golden age but to help people know God” (38). Professor Hamilton is entirely successful in achieving this lofty goal. The admirable clarity and robust orthodoxy of this book makes it my top choice in biblical theologies for thoughtful laypeople and for those beginning formal training in biblical studies. Highly recommended.
David A. Booth is an Orthodox Presbyterian minister serving as pastor of Merrimack Valley Presbyterian Church in North Andover, Massachusetts. Ordained Servant Online, June/July 2013.