Salt Lake School of Theology – Book Review – What is Biblical Theology? by Dr. Jim Hamilton
For an introduction to Dr. James M. Hamilton Jr.’s musings on theology, I obtained his short, helpful, introductory theological primer, What is Biblical Theology? A Guide to the Bible’s Story, Symbolism, and Patterns (Crossway 2013). Dr. Matt Emadi, one of the professors at the new school, gave this book to me as a gift for travelling from Idaho Falls to the Salt Lake School of Theology Psalms Exegesis Colloquium.
Surprisingly in Eastern Idaho, we live in an increasing culture of different ideas. Our dominant stamp would be fiscal conservative, independent rural, and Caucasian Republican. But pockets of Democratic political viewpoints abide in Bannock County, the home of Idaho State University, and the wealthy resort region of Teton County. Multicultural streams are the original, long-standing native American views and the steady growth of Hispanic immigration. Yet the religious movement of majority is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The town of Franklin is the first LDS settlement in 1860. Above Idaho Falls, there is the LDS collegiate center of Brigham Young University-Idaho in Rexburg.
In saying this, should we consider a theological center of thought for the Eastern Idaho region? Our young adults are molded by LDS instruction through regular Sunday School instruction, testimonials, Ward meetings, and seminary classroom teaching. But obviously, they interact with everything on social media that ranges from postmodernism, theological deconstructionism, atheism, agnosticism, liberation theology, feminist theology, and on to Queer Theology. Occasionally, they will have conversations with evangelical friends whose backgrounds might be the Southern Baptist Convention, Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, Pentecostal, Calvary Chapel, or Bible nondenominational, etc. Amid all these names, backgrounds, and viewpoints, does the Bible itself have a central, singular, theological story? Dr. Jim Hamilton would declare a resounding yes.
In this slim, theological primer of 100 pages, Hamilton lays out (1) the redemption story in the Bible, (2) helpful cues for interpreting the signposts along the way as you read the Bible, and (3) genuine, life application with your Christian community.
Random, competing theologies come from selecting certain Bible verses that parallel your own personal inclinations and desires. It might be tempting to elevate certain Bible passages and ignore other narratives in the Bible that you find distasteful. We divide the Bible into Old Testament theology and New Testament theology, and then with New Testament theology we section it further into subcategories like Johannine theology and Pauline theology, etc. Since there are 66 books in the Bible, would there be 66 different theologies? If there are around 40 different human writers of the Bible, do they all add variant ideas that might even contradict each other? Some theologians contend this to be so. And yet I consider that to be a grave mistake. The Bible is complete, and, in all its diversity, there is the communication of one grand story. Should that surprise us if we consider that that there is one supreme Author?
“To do biblical theology is to think about the whole story of the Bible. We want to understand the organic development of the Bible’s teaching so that we are interpreting particular parts of the story in light of the whole. As an acorn grows into an oak tree, Genesis 3:15 grows into the good news of Jesus Christ” (12).
But many who would attempt to read the Bible, might find it first boring in our age of Hollywood entertainment, secondly outdated to our sexual preferences and ideas of social justice, or thirdly puzzling and contradictory.
Is theology too musty for today? Confining? Deadening to our lifestyles as we know it in 2021? Should Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, and “GenZ” jettison 1500 years of God’s interaction with Jewish people and declare that we have outgrown and matured in our understanding of the God of the Jewish people?
We live seven days a week in a postmodern culture. What are the lies? What is truth? Hamilton contends that to open the Bible is to step into the real world, to see an ongoing battle between good versus evil, between a righteous and unimpressive band of sons and daughters who follow the true King versus the powerful and worldly elite who are seduced by the lies of the serpent.
Biblical theology is a challenging art. Hamilton puts it this way:
“To summarize, by the phrase biblical theology I mean 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).
In his little book, Hamilton touches on three aspects within the Bible: “story, symbol, and church” (22).
In the big story, we discover God creating the world and yet man sinning—great is the fall. But even greater, God initiates and overcomes the serpent’s hold upon sinners by providing atonement for iniquities and victory over spiritual death. There is redemption through our faith in the Savior! And God’s people have confident hope that the Warrior King will restore everything as it once was in the beginning, a new heaven, and a new earth, a perfect harmony of the spiritual and the physical.
To read the Bible, you will intersect with different writing genres. The narratives, poetry, and prophecy are filled with metaphors, similes, symbols, types, and patterns. For instance, the Bible speaks of people as trees and the presence of God through temples. In eastern Idaho, we can connect with these vivid ideas. Look at the oak trees that line the banks of the Snake river in downtown Idaho Falls and note the rich imagery in the Bible. If you meditate upon the Bible and follow its wisdom, you are like that tree with your roots by the river. In eastern Idaho, we have three large, white, religious temples in prominent locations in Rexburg, Idaho Falls, and Pocatello. There is abundant discussion about temple imagery in our region. The one Jewish temple in the Old Testament is an image of what? Why was it destroyed? Is Jesus building a new temple? What about the imagery of a cosmic temple?
God instructed Moses about Jewish tabernacle, and He allowed King David to gather the supplies for a permanent Jewish temple. Woven into the narratives of these two men, we find that they are types of Jesus to come.
Hamilton concludes this theology primer with Christ’s love for his Church. How does the Church differ from Israel?
“We are no longer in a specific allotment of land, but our responsibility is still to cover the dry lands with God’s glory as the waters cover the sea. The people of God are no longer a sociopolitical nation with boundaries. We are transnational. We are no longer an ethnic entity with a military. We are from all nations” (107).
More than ever, Christians are understanding this in the United States of America. I highly recommend Hamilton’s short primer as you open your Bibles to read and discover God and His ways in 2021. As you read the written Word, may you come face to face with the living Word through the glorious ministry of God’s Spirit.