James M. Hamilton Jr. What Is Biblical Theology?: A Guide to the Bible’s Story, Symbolism, and Patterns. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013. 128 pp. $12.99.
What do you think of when you hear the word “theology?” Maybe you’re a nerd and love getting into the academic study of the Bible and theology; loving God with your mind naturally fuels loving Him with your heart. On the other hand, maybe you dislike or fear theology. It’s boring. It’s dry. Christianity is about a relationship, and you don’t want head knowledge. Well, the reality is that every Christian is a theologian because theology is the study of God. So the question isn’t whether you’re a theologian; the question is whether you’re a good theologian or a bad one. The question is: do you know the God of the Bible, or a god of your own design?
In order to grow in our knowledge of God as He has revealed Himself in Scripture, we need to learn to read the Bible well. And this is precisely what Dr. Jim Hamilton (associate professor of biblical theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and preaching pastor at Kenwood Baptist Church) teaches us to do in his latest book, What is Biblical Theology? For “the Bible teaches Christians how the Bible should be read. Studying biblical theology is the best way to learn from the Bible how to read the Bible as a Christian should. By the same token, studying the Bible is the best way to learn biblical theology” (19-20).
So what is biblical theology? In the academy, there is not agreement as to definition or methodology. However, Hamilton does not get into those complexities in this book. Rather than get bogged down in details that might cause the eyes of the average Christian in the pew to glaze over, Hamilton instead jumps right in, giving his definition of biblical theology and spending the rest of this book developing it. For Hamilton, biblical theology is “the interpretive perspective reflected in the way the biblical authors have presented their understanding of earlier Scripture, redemptive history, and the events they are describing, recounting, celebrating, or addressing in narratives, poems, proverbs, letters, and apocalypses” (16). One of the primary aims of biblical theology, according to Hamilton, is to understand and embrace the worldview of the biblical authors – “to know the story they take for granted, the connections they see between the events in that story, and the ways they read later parts of the story by the light that emanates from its earlier parts” (12). Biblical theology concerns the whole story of the Bible and seeks to interpret the parts in light of the whole.
This book is structured in three parts. In Part 1, “The Bible’s Big Story,” Hamilton describes the setting, characters, and plot of the Bible’s big story. He draws attention to five plot episodes and shows how in each of them, God is showing His glory by saving His people through judgment (40). Part 1 concludes with a look at key promises in the Old Testament concerning the coming Redeemer that prompted later prophets to highlight similar patterns in their own material. Part 2 examines the way the biblical authors used symbols to summarize and interpret the story of the Bible, highlighting imagery, typology, and patterns. “If we want to understand the Bible, we have to consider what its symbols stand for, what story they’re telling, and how they’re interpreting and summarizing what has gone before as they point to what is and will be” (65). And finally, Part 3 considers the part the church plays in the story. Hamilton highlights the church’s identity in the story as the sheep of the shepherd, the bride of Christ, the body of Christ, the adopted family of God, and the temple of the Holy Spirit. “The Bible’s story and symbolism teach the church to understand who she is, what she faces, and how she should live as she longs for the coming of her King and Lord” (113). In this last section Hamilton’s pastoral heart really comes out as he addresses the unbeliever several times, exhorting him to repent and trust in Jesus.
This book is an accessible, readable, engaging, and pastoral “guide to the Bible’s story, symbolism, and patterns.” It is not just a great book for those interested in (biblical) theology, but a stellar book for any Christian who wants to read the Bible better. This is not an academic book written for the scholars and “wannabe-scholars,” even though “theology” is in the title. This is for the “average joe” sitting in the pew. I highly recommend this book to any Christian wanting to read the Bible better and understand more of the Bible’s big picture, as well as any Christian looking for an introduction to biblical theology. For those initiated in the discipline of biblical theology, I highly recommend Hamilton’s whole-Bible biblical theology, God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment.
1 For an introduction to the theory and practice of the five major schools of biblical theology, see Klink and Lockett’s Understanding Biblical Theology: A Comparison of Theory and Practice.
*I received a free copy of this book from Crossway in exchange for an unbiased review.