Exploring Biblical Theology: An interview with James Hamilton
In the new issue of Credo Magazine, “What the Big Story? Why Biblical Theology Should Matter to Every Bible-Reading Christian,” editor Joshua Greever had the pleasure of interviewing James Hamilton about his new book, What is Biblical Theology? The interview is titled: “Exploring Biblical Theology: James Hamilton walks us through the basics of the Bible’s Story, Symbolism, and Patterns.” Hamilton is Associate Professor of Biblical Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also the author of God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment.
So let’s begin with the most obvious question: What Is Biblical Theology?
I define biblical theology as the attempt to understand and embrace the interpretive perspective of the biblical authors.
It’s not systematic theology, which organizes what the Bible teaches by topics (and can be more philosophical, depending on who is doing it). It’s not Theological Interpretation of Scripture, which, it seems to me, is the attempt to read every passage of Scripture from the perspective of one’s Systematic conclusions (in some ways TIS seems to be a move toward Biblical Theology from the Systematic wing).
The attempt to understand and embrace the interpretive perspective of the biblical authors is the attempt to understand the hermeneutical world-view the biblical authors used to interpret earlier Scripture and their own circumstances. It is based squarely on the inspired intention of the human authors (authorial intent), and it cannot be divorced from understanding the grammatical meaning that the human authors communicated in their historical contexts (grammatical-historical exegesis).
In the last few decades there has been a growing field of literature on biblical theology, including your own whole Bible theology, God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment (2010). How does your approach to biblical theology differ from that of other recent biblical theologians?
I think what I’m doing is very similar to the methodology pursued by Schreiner, Beale, Dempster, Alexander, and others. We don’t all have to write the same book in the same way discussing the same topics. In broad terms, we’re moving in the same stream, even if—like rafters running the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon—we’re pulled by different currents in the water. The guys listed above were my first guides through the river. Every run will be different, and those who love the Canyon never tire of exploring it, and always see new things.
I want to be carried downriver as much as possible by the demonstrable intentions of the biblical authors. So in a discussion of the kinds of schematic breakdowns of salvation history, along the lines of what Goldsworthy discusses in Christ-Centered Biblical Theology, I would want to find the current fed by the passages where the biblical authors have summarized salvation history, such as Nehemiah 9 or Acts 7. Or, if we’re looking for the relationships between the covenants, I’m scouting the waves for a confluence of passages like Hebrews 8–9 and Galatians 3 and other texts that are going to make for a rollicking rapids run that will have us so splashed with the intentions of the biblical authors we’ll come out soaked, smiling, and exhilarated. The life-giving word of God is better than a wonder of the world.
You note that there have been a variety of reactions to the Enlightenment’s impact on biblical interpretation, and that even many of the conservative responses to these challenges have begun with the same assumptions found in the more liberal camps. You respond by distancing yourself from these reactions, claiming that biblical theology should be a bridge into another world, namely, the world of the biblical writers. Why is it so important for us to cross that bridge and to breathe the air of the biblical writers?
I’m trying to say in different words what John is after in 2 John 9 when he speaks of abiding in the teaching of Jesus Christ: “Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.” How do we conceptualize living in the teaching?
The biblical authors are building a symbolic universe in which they intend believers to live. They’re trying to move people into that world, and help them inhabit it. We want to live in the world as conceived by the biblical authors, not the fake-world invented by the evolutionists and secularists and rebels of other stripes.
At that point in my book I am also responding to what Hans Frei demonstrated in The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative. Frei shows how conservative interpreters surrendered the presuppositions necessary for typological interpretation to make sense when they tried to prove historicity and authenticity in response to historical-critical objections. Demonstrating historicity and authenticity is a good thing to do, but if we step onto that playing field we have to play within the lines drawn by those umpires. When Frei titled his book Eclipse of biblical narrative, what he depicted was the way that the typological function of the biblical narratives had been eclipsed by the concerns of historical-critical discussions. So to change the metaphor, what I’m saying is that we need to stop trying to play baseball in the basketball gym. We need to get out of the closed system into the open air.
There are certain things that have to be taken for granted in order for us to understand the interpretive moves the biblical authors make. If we’re not willing to allow those assumptions to stand, if we’re constantly trying to demonstrate historicity or authenticity, we’ll never be free to think the way the biblical authors thought. The pop-ups will keep ricocheting off the ceiling of the gym.
I think it’s important to play baseball on the baseball field, that is, to cross the bridge into the world of the biblical authors, because unless we do so we won’t begin to understand the thick richness of the Bible’s interconnectedness and meaning.
You mention that, since the Bible is a story, it has a setting, characters, and a plot. The five central episodes in the plot of Scripture you focus on are the exile from Eden, the exodus from Egypt, the exile from the land, the death of Jesus on the cross, and the second coming of Jesus. Why do you focus on these five episodes as the main points on the plotline?
I focus on these because they seem to me to be the ones that most impact the biblical authors. Moses narrates the exile from Eden and the exodus in the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), and he prophesies the exile from the land and the glorious eschatological restoration. Then in the Former Prophets (Joshua–Kings) the people take and are exiled from the land. In the Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve Minor Prophets), the prophets are warning of the exile and pointing to a new exodus, and it sounds like the new exodus will be not merely a return to the land but a return to Eden. Jesus dies as the new Passover Lamb in the new exodus, and at his return he brings his people into the new Eden of the new heaven and new earth.
This is a short book, and it can’t retell the whole Bible. It’s like a three-day trip down the Canyon. In keeping with what I said about authorial intent above, I focus on these five because I think they’re the five the biblical authors focus on. Obviously there are other significant features of the story. If we spent the summer in the Canyon, we wouldn’t run out of stuff to look at.
The second of the three main sections of your book is devoted to some of the major symbols found in the Bible, including the Bible’s images, types, and patterns. Why is it imperative for Christians to understand and rightly interpret these symbols?
I happen to have on my desk a copy of Baseball’s Greatest Quotations. Trying to understand the Bible without understanding the symbolism employed by the biblical authors would be like trying to understand Baseball’s Greatest Quotations with no knowledge of the game of baseball.
Even someone with no knowledge of baseball can appreciate Yogi Berra saying “Ninety percent of this game is half mental.”
But what about when Yogi, a catcher, comments on the manager experimenting with playing him at third base: “Third ain’t so bad if nothin’ is hit to you.”
If you know baseball you get it. If you don’t know baseball, as Yogi said: “In baseball, you don’t know nothing.”
Yogi Berra aside, the point is that the biblical authors, borne along as they were by the Holy Spirit, intended the symbolism they employed to convey more than the bare words would bear.
You use John 19:36 as an example of how the New Testament can apply a type (in this case, the Passover lamb) to Jesus. In this example, John makes it clear that the Scripture (Exod. 12:46; Ps. 34:20) is being fulfilled in the death of Christ, thus providing the biblical interpreter warrant for unpacking the intertextual connections. Would you say that believers should seek to discover types only when and where the New Testament writers make such explicit statements? Or should believers feel more freedom to find types in the Old Testament, even if the New Testament does not explicitly make such connections?
If we’re trying to understand and embrace the interpretive perspective of the biblical authors, our interpretations should be like theirs. I don’t think it’s wise to interpret an Old Testament text in a way that is different from the way the biblical authors interpreted that text or others like it.
There are of course many OT passages that are similar to the ones the NT authors treat as types, so I would have no problem seeing those as pointing in the same direction as the ones the NT authors use.
There are also a lot of places in the Old Testament where later OT authors are operating typologically, and not every instance of this is identified in the New Testament. The water imagery in the Psalms, for instance, should in my view be read against earlier texts in the Bible that have to do with water (the flood, the Red Sea, the Jordan River) rather than against extra-biblical ideas from ANE backgrounds that reflect understandings of reality foreign not just to the nation of Israel but to biblical theology. I don’t think we need an NT author to tell us that the flood became a type of God’s judgment (though Peter does!), and that when later biblical authors spoke of God’s judgment in the form of human armies they used flood imagery (see Ps. 124).
What we need to do is keep reading the Bible. There are lots of subtle things there awaiting examination and consideration.
Does any biblical author treat the stick that sweetened the waters (Exod. 15:25) typologically? I can’t think of one, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Until I find a place, though, where a biblical author sets a precedent for me, I wouldn’t venture to declare that twig a type.
You try to show at various points how encouraging and comforting it is for believers when they recognize that the story of the world they live in is a story larger than they are. Tease this out for us, for instance, in the case of death itself: How does knowing biblical theology comfort us in the face of death?
Did you read that article about Bryce Harper spending time with Gavin Rupp, a 13 year old boy who has terminal cancer? As a father of young sons, I can’t imagine going through something like that without an understanding of where the world came from, why people die, and where hope can be found. We need biblical theology to survive the death of loved ones, and we need biblical theology so we can rehearse it to and with loved ones in hospice. The Truth is our only hope as we weep through dying days in this vale of tears.
What Bryce Harper did for Gavin Rupp was magnificent. I hope that Gavin’s dad has been able to explain to him how God is good, how there was no cancer in Eden, how through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin. We all face death, and we all need to know how death came through the first Adam, but in Christ will come the resurrection of the dead—resurrection to a new heaven and new earth. Like Sam Storms, I hope there’s baseball in that happy land, but even if not I have no doubt that what is there will be better than baseball.
The kind of comfort I’m describing is basic to Christianity, whether described as biblical or systematic theology. The narrative setting of these truths and the practice of tracing out the back-story that informs what the biblical authors say is what biblical theology enables us see.
You make the point that the best way to learn biblical theology is to study the Bible itself, and that one method you have found particularly helpful in studying the Bible is to read large sections of Scripture in one sitting. Why do you recommend this as a particularly advantageous way to study the Bible?
Authorial intent again! When John wrote Revelation, it’s most likely that he conceived of it being read aloud to a gathered congregation all at one sitting. We can say the same about Hebrews—it was probably a sermon meant to be heard all at once.
I’m not suggesting, however, that the authors of the biblical books would have required that their books be read all at once, nor that they would have frowned on a piecemeal approach to working through them. It is a historical reality, though, that these books weren’t given chapter/verse divisions by their authors.
Aside from my somewhat tongue in cheek authorial intent exclamation above, reading big chunks is just being a good reader. In How to Read a Book Mortimer Adler advises that, if possible, every book should be read all at one sitting. Whether you’re reading philosophy, history, or literature, reading the whole thing all at once would give you a fuller appreciation of the way an author uses words and the big picture he’s painting than chipping away in little bits over a longer period of time could provide.
We want to live in the Bible and thereby abide in Christ. The Bible is better than the Grand Canyon, better than baseball, and we have the freedom to read it. We have access to it.
Ah! You want to read it now? I was hoping you would. Enjoy!
You can follow Hamilton’s blog at jimhamilton.info and read about his trip to the Grand Canyon here.
Read other interviews and articles in the new issue of Credo Magazine today!
What’s the Big Idea Story?
Why Biblical Theology Should Matter to Every Bible-Believing Christian
When the sixteenth-century Reformation erupted, one of the alarming dangers that became blatantly obvious to reformers like Martin Luther was the pervasiveness of biblical illiteracy among the laity. It may be tempting to think that this problem has been solved almost five hundred years later. However, in our own day biblical illiteracy in the pew continues to present a challenge. Many Christians in our post-Christian context simply are not acquainted with the storyline of the Bible and God’s actions in redemptive history from Adam to the second Adam.
With this concern in mind, the current issue of Credo Magazine strives to take a step forward, in the right direction, by emphasizing the importance of “biblical theology.” Therefore, we have brought together some of the best and brightest minds to explain what biblical theology is, why it is so important, and how each and every Christian can become a biblical theologian. Our hope in doing so is that every Christian will return to the text of Scripture with an unquenchable appetite to not only read the Bible, but comprehend God’s unfolding plan of salvation.
Contributors include: Justin Taylor, Darian Lockett, Edwards Klink III, David Murray, Stephen Dempster, James Hamilton, T. Desmond Alexander, Stephen Wellum, Peter Gentry, G. K. Beale, Graham Cole, and many others.