WHAT IS BIBLICAL THEOLOGY? A Guide to the Bible Story, Symbolism, and Patterns, James Hamilton, Jr.

Published on October 23, 2014 by Jim Zaspel

Crossway, 2013 | 128 pages

Reviewed by John T. Jeffery

The “bottom line up front” of this review is that Hamilton’s book is my first choice to introduce others to this subject. It has three big elements in its favor apart from the perspective of the author: its size, its readability, and the depth and breadth of the subject communicated in such a short yet easily digestible volume.

There are no footnotes which leaves the pages uncluttered and increases the readability of the text for the intended audience.

The subtitle of the book may contain a misplaced emphasis. Throughout the book (e.g., pp. 13, 19, and 22), and embedded in the three main parts of the outline are “story, symbol, and church.” Yet the subtitle appears to substitute “patterns” for “church.” This seems inexplicable, and may have been an editorial decision. What makes this decision strange is that the role this subject of “patterns” has in the book is subordinated by the author to the second of the three main parts as a concluding chapter to the treatment on symbols. This subordinate role is coordinated with those of imagery and typology under the heading of symbolism. Elsewhere it is coupled to promises and prophecies (pp. 43-44, 51, and 62), none of which singles it out as a subject that warrants “top billing” in the subtitle at the expense of “church.”

Hamilton is very clear on the divine inspiration of the Scriptures while not diminishing the reality of the compositional activity of the human authors (pp. 15-21). This is gratifying when the works of so many other academics are absolutely silent concerning any material significance to the activity of the divine Author in the composition of the Scriptures.

Hamilton is to be commended for sticking to the task at hand, and resisting the temptation to engage in controversy, e.g., the nature of typology, or the continuing relevance of the land promise.

The reader who comes to this book with a familiarity with the following will be ahead of the game: Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (pp. 21-22), C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia (pg. 22), John Knowles’ A Separate Peace (pp. 61-62, and 90-91), Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (pp. 97-98), and Elizabeth Gibson’s 2003 discovery of Rufino Tamayo’s Tres Personajes in Manhattan trash (pg. 19). Otherwise, “that manxome foe,” the “Jabberwock,” and the “frumious Bandersnatch” (pp. 21-22), etc., won’t get you where Hamilton wants to lead with these mentions! 

The uses of the following terms may perplex the average reader: “figural” (pp. 61-62), and “de-creation” (38, 70, ad 74). These are good and legitimate words, especially as the author employs and explains them. However, at least in the case of “figural” the expected alternative or synonym “figurative” may give fewer readers pause. In another case, however, we may have what can only be characterized as a “Hamilton original”: i.e., the use of “metaphor” as a verb, “metaphored” (pg. 99), an undocumented usage.

On occasion the reader is expecting more content, or slightly more development of a subject.  One example is in Chapter 8 on “Typology” where “people,” “events,” and “institutions” are dealt with (pp. 78-81). Certainly Hamilton made his point about what is involved with “typological foreshadowing,” but “institutions” seem to have gotten shortchanged when compared to the presentations of the other two subheadings here.

An  issue this reviewer has with current works on the subject is that what may be characterized as “Metanarrative Theology” appears to have dethroned “Biblical Theology” as originally understood. Any readers who still understand Biblical Theology as flowing from Exegetical Theology into a series of building blocks book by book, author by author, section by section, type of literature by type of literature, etc., into the edifice of Systematic or Dogmatic Theology will wonder where the older Biblical Theology went. Perhaps this is an unfair impression, and certainly is not directed at this author or work specifically, but the method seems to have gotten lost in the focus on the overarching unified plot line in current publications. The impression given is that there are a lot of perceived narratives being woven into an assumed metanarrative without sufficient exegetical substantiation for many of the assumptions along the way. The concern here is that metanarrative content is read back into passages without convincing exegetical warrant when “Metanarrative Theology” drives the exegesis rather than the reverse.

A short bibliography titled “For Further Reading” (pp. 117-118) listing 13 titles by a variety of authors for those readers whose appetites are whetted by Hamilton’s introduction to venture deeper into the subject.

A “Scripture Index” and subject index (“General Index”) are provided at the end of the book (pp. 121-127). These are frequently not found in books of this size, but their presence increases the usefulness of the book such as when interacting with small group sessions, as does the brief list of suggested titles for further reading on the subject.

Hamilton permeates this book with Gospel invitations to the unbelieving reader along with challenges to the Christian reader from the biblical truths he presents. This makes What Is Biblical Theology? a useful and practical work to hand out to anyone, and to use in home Bible studies or classes in church gatherings.

Another valuable aspect of this book is rooted in the author’s skill as a writer and a preacher. This may be exemplified in the following selection of twelve quotes:  

“As an acorn grows into an oak tree, Genesis 3:15 grows into the good news of Jesus Christ.” (pg. 12)

“If the text as a whole is not authoritative, it easily conforms to our agenda.” (pg. 18)

“…we will make mistakes. The history of interpretation is full of mistakes.” (pg. 21)

“No offense, but you aren’t the main character in the big story of the world.” (pg. 29)

“It doesn’t take a genius to predict victory for the Creator, but it takes the power of the Spirit to side with him.” (pg. 29)

“…into words of judgment he folded hope.” (pg. 36)

“Isaiah gets a lot of mileage out of branch imagery…” (pg. 68)

“Types are not arbitrary correspondences invented by the biblical authors but genuine accounts of what really took place…. To examine biblical typology is to examine the orchestration of the sovereign God.” (pg. 78)

“…if the church is so special in God’s program, why does it seem so unimpressive?” (pg. 97)

“A Christian who is not a member of a church is like a hand or an eye that is not joined to the rest of the body. Can it live? Will it be useful?” (pg. 102)

“…the church is to be a preview of what the world is going to become.” (pg. 106)

“The best way to learn biblical theology, the best way to get yourself out of the world’s way of thinking and into the Bible’s is to study the Bible itself. Don’t make this harder than it needs to be. Read the Bible. A lot.” (pg. 115)

John T. Jeffery is Pastor of Wayside Gospel Chapel, Greentown, PA


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Crossway, 2013 | 128 pages

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