What is Biblical Theology?
by James M. Hamilton Jr.
This past summer I went out to Kentucky to take some summer classes at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a friend invited me to his church. When I arrived, the first person I just happened to meet was James Hamilton, who I later learned is the head pastor. (For the record, I had already received my free copy of What is Biblical Theology? from Crossway’s Beyond the Page program, but had not yet read it for this review.)
Dr. Hamilton opened his sermon with an illustration from a Shakespeare play — and not one of Shakespeare’s more popular ones. Later in the sermon, he quoted John Gardener, a writer’s writer, author of books like Grendel and The Art of Fiction. Having a B.A. in English myself, I concluded Dr. Hamilton must have an English/literature background. Later, I found out I was correct.
Maybe I’m a bit biased, but I do believe having a background in literature gives a biblical scholar a unique advantage. The Bible, after all, is a work of literature. Not only is it a collection of various genres of literature, many of the more poetic parts is abound with figurative language. Further, even the histories use literary devices to tell history as narrative. James Hamilton is the right man for writing a book like this.
Biblical theology is the study of the story of the Bible as a whole. Many of us grew up hearing stories from the Bible, thinking that the Bible is just a collection of random, unconnected stories. Yet there is one overarching story-line that continues throughout the whole Bible. In order to better understand this metanarrative, one must see the connection between the themes, symbols, and patterns (typology) of the Bible. Again, call me biased, but I believe someone with a literature background is best qualified to do this.
We need more books like this: books written by quality scholars who can break down big ideas into readable books for everyday readers. Biblical theology is an important subject for all Christians to be familiar with because it leads to a huge jump in understanding and confidence in their faith. This short, readable book would be ideal for pastors to use to lead a group of laypeople through lessons on the unity of the Bible and the harder-to-grasp concepts like symbolism, theme, and typology (patterns that repeat throughout biblical history and even foreshadow future events).
As Dr. Hamilton states, if we don’t understand the symbolism used by the authors, we’ll miss the meanings of the authors’ messages. As an English teacher, I find symbolism is one of the harder concepts for people to grasp, yet the Bible is filled with symbols. If you pick up What is Biblical Theology? for nothing else, it’s a great explanation of the predominate symbols seen throughout the Bible.
Sometimes, Dr. Hamilton’s short, terse sentences reminded me of Hemingway’s style, and sometimes I found myself wishing he’d expound of an idea more. There’s a lot packed into this short book, but obviously a book this length can only serve as an introduction — but an extremely useful and important one. (And at the end of the book, Dr. Hamilton suggests books for deeper study on biblical theology.)
As Dr. Hamilton writes, “[T]he 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… Biblical theology is not just an interesting topic. It informs who we are and how we live.”
(To read my blog article titled “2-Minute Lesson on Biblical Theology — the Progressive Revelation of God in Human History” click here.)