Book Review: What Is Biblical Theology?

What is Biblical Theology

Hamilton, James. What is Biblical Theology?: A Guide to the Bible’s Story, Symbolism, and Patterns. Wheaton: Crossway, 2014. 127 pp. 

A question that fascinates me is: How does the entire Bible fit together?  How does Scripture – with its diverse human authors, cultural settings, stories, literary genres, and writing styles – coalesce to form a unified message and narrative?

This slim volume seeks to address these questions by orienting people to the discipline of biblical theology.  By the term “biblical theology,” Hamilton means:

“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, emphasis mine)

The term biblical theology, then, does not simply refer to theology or doctrine that is biblically true.  Biblical theology here refers more specifically to the discipline of reading earlier parts of Scripture in light of later parts and understanding how the two are mutually interpretive and thematically intertwined.  Biblical theology accounts for the organic growth, development and transformation of themes throughout the Scriptural storyline.  “What I’m suggesting is that the Bible teaches Christians how the Bible should be read.” (19)  In other words, Scripture is its own best interpreter.

Outline of the Book

The book is divided into three main sections: The Bible’s Big Story, the Bible’s Symbolic Universe, and The Bible’s Love Story.  Each main section has three or four chapters within it.

Part 1: The Bible’s Big Story

Hamilton begins by providing a big-picture overview of the biblical storyline.  “In broadest terms, the Bible’s plot can be summarized in four words: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.” (31, emphasis original)  There are “five episodes in the Bible’s plot: exile from Eden, the exodus from Egypt, the exile from the land, the death of Jesus on the cross, and the promise of his return in glory.” (36)  Hamilton explores how earlier episodes introduce themes that are built on and expanded by later episodes.  For example, the exodus from Egypt was used by later writers as a pattern to describe salvation through Christ.  “Israel’s prophets used the paradigm of Israel’s past to predict Israel’s future.” (38)  Likewise, Jesus himself “recapitulates the history of Israel” (39) and is described in terms that were used of Israel.  Thus “the events of Israel’s history function like schematics, or templates, and they are used to communicate the meaning of who Jesus was and what he accomplished.” (39)

Part 2: The Bible’s Symbolic Universe

With an overview of the biblical storyline established, Hamilton then explains the literary mechanics by which this story is advanced.  The story progresses through the use of symbols.  Biblical authors “interpreted earlier Scripture and communicated its meaning through the symbols they employed.” (62)  Through these symbols, the themes and promises of Scripture develop from their seed form in the Old Testament and become fully mature in the New Testament.  There are three types of symbols: images, types, and patterns.

Images are “real-world illustrations of…abstract concepts.” (67)  For example, creation is described in Genesis 1 as a temple to illustrate that it is God’s dwelling place where He is to be worshiped by humans, His images. (72-73)

Types involve “historical correspondence and escalation.” (77)  Later events in redemptive history correspond to earlier events and are heightened in significance.  For example, the events of Moses’ life are repeated by Christ (78-79), and the OT sacrificial system is a shadow of Christ’s redemptive work. (80)

Patterns are in a sense typological; they create a common sequence of events which later biblical persons fulfill.  The pattern of the righteous suffer in the Psalms is fulfilled by Jesus’ suffering. (89-90)  Earlier parts of Scripture contain patterns which are shadows of later parts of Scripture, and those later parts use earlier patterns to describe the person and work of Christ.

Part 3: The Bible’s Love Story

This chapter explains how biblical theology informs ecclesiology, the doctrine of the church.  “The Bible’s story and symbolism teach us as 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.” (95)  Understanding members of the church as God’s adopted sons and daughters helps us see the continuity of the NT church with OT Israel. (103)  Understanding the metaphor of the church as a “body” shows its unity, which transcends all racial boundaries. (101-102)

Assessment

This book is a fine introduction to the art and science of reading the Bible as a whole.  When I first began reading the Bible, especially the OT, it was difficult for me to understand how it all fit together. This easy-to-read volume can help readers see the threads that run through the diverse parts of Scripture.  Here I will highlight three specific benefits this book offers to readers.

1. An orientation to the ways the biblical storyline is unified

Often, I suspect that even knowledgable Christians read the Bible (especially the OT) a bit like Aesop’s fables: a collection of stories that offer moral lessons and examples to follow or avoid.  This book helps Bible readers begin to ask questions about how the different parts of the Bible fit together.  If there is one Divine mind behind the entire Bible, surely there is an internal coherence and consistency.  The challenge is that the Bible offers clues about how its storyline fits together but does so in non-literal ways – for example, through types and patterns.  These literary devices can be subtle and go undetected if one does not know to look for them.  When Matthew’s gospel records Jesus recapitulating the history of Israel, Matthew does not explicitly say, “Jesus is fulfilling Israel in himself by succeeding where the nation failed.”  To discern this message, one must pick up on the literary devices that Matthew uses to allude to and retell the history of Israel.

2. An introduction to the relationship between the testaments

Even though Scripture is unified, themes established in the Old Testament often undergo transformation in the New Testament.  Behind much of NT theology lies OT themes, concepts, and images.  That the NT speaks of heaven as the believer’s inheritance (1 Pet. 1:4) indicates that it is appropriating and redefining the OT concept of land through using terminology for the land drawn from the OT (Deut. 4:21, 38, 15:4).  This connection is difficult to make if one does not think in terms of how the NT appropriates and redefines OT themes in light of the cross of Christ.

Many theological debates, such as dispensationalism versus covenant theology and infant baptism versus believer’s baptism, are, at root, differences about how to understand the degree of continuity and discontinuity between the testaments.  While this introductory volume does not thoroughly answer questions about those debates, it can provide the tools necessary for one to understand the interpretive issues involved in those debates and do further study.

3. An introduction to the way the NT cites the OT

New Testament citations of OT verses can be puzzling.  Often, the NT claims an event fulfills the OT and then cites a verse to prove it; but the OT context says nothing about the event of which the NT is speaking.  Did NT authors disregard and misuse the OT?  Thinking in terms of typology and overarching themes helps us understand how the NT can claim to “fulfill” OT verses without disrespecting their original context and meaning.  As an example, Hamilton discusses John 19:35’s use of Exodus 12:46. (81-85)  His explanation of this verse also helps us understand other disputed citations, such as Matt. 2:15’s use of Hosea 11:1.  Understanding the theological and interpretive assumptions behind the NT authors’ use of the OT teaches us how to fit the entire biblical storyline together.

Conclusion

Overall, this is a theologically rich book written in a manageable, introductory fashion.  It would be a great resource for individual study or for a group Bible study.  At the end, there is a list of recommended books for further study on biblical theology, which is helpful because this brief book merely wets the reader’s appetite to study biblical theology in more depth.  Hamilton’s brief volume provides the reader with foundational interpretive skills to continue studying and understanding the entire narrative of Scripture as a unified whole.

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