James M. Hamilton Jr. Crossway 2010-11-04

Two hundred years of a dearth of confessedly conservative works on biblical theology (with the notable exceptions of J. C. K. von Hoffman [1841] and G. F. Oehler [1845]) in the nineteenth century and Geerhardus Vos [1948] in the early twentieth) came to a merciful end in the last quarter of the twentieth century with the worthy contributions of Dempster, Dumbrell, P. House, Kaiser, Martens, Routledge, Scobie, R. Smith, and Waltke, among others. Added now is the work under review by a young scholar from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary who justly deserves to be included in this list for reasons to be presently detailed.

First, his is a biblical theology as opposed to one limited to either Testament alone. That is, it incorporates the whole revelation of God in its span, an undertaking so formidable that few have dared take it on. The reason of course is that both Old and New Testament studies have become respectively so vast in their compass that even the most erudite theologian feels inadequate to break out of his or her own specialty to venture into less familiar territory, though every Christian scholar recognizes this ought to be done.

Second, the prose of the work is elegant and riveting. Hamilton surely has read good literature and knows in turn how to compose it, even in a technical work like this. Only a minimum of theological jargon is evident, the reasoning is clear and compelling, and the arguments generally well set out and ably defended. Moreover, author, editor, proofreader, and publisher are to be commended for a virtually error-free text garbed in beautifully appointed dress.

Third, Hamilton has scoured the literature pertinent to his purpose and has made use of some of the best current (and older) resources both supportive of and antagonistic to his case. His tone is firm but not belligerent, unambiguous but not unduly rigid, clearly evangelical but not close-minded to other traditions. One may fault his premises and development of supporting arguments, but certainly not his irenic spirit.

On the other hand a number of other factors and features of the book call for careful scrutiny with the objective of assisting theologians engaged in this vital biblical discipline to avoid potential presuppositional and methodological perils and pitfalls. First among these in the present work is the relatively jejune point of the title itself. Surely some creative mind could have phrased the wording before the colon to make it as clear as the subtitle is. The title in this instance is an articulation of the theme or center of the work, a point made apparent early on. But a title should not have to be explained by the work; rather, the work should be introduced by a title whose clarity ushers the reader into territory already made somewhat familiar by it.

Second, centers, themes, or organizing principles—all descriptive of attempts at organization or coherence—are endemic to the nature of biblical theology. Usually, if not always, they are selected by the theologian to suit his or her own preconceived notion as to the principal motif(s) that inform the approach to be taken. Hamilton is therefore not to be faulted for having chosen a center; rather, it is the selection he has made that is at issue here. Undeniably, glory, salvation, and judgment are major biblical emphases and frequently they relate precisely as Hamilton has laid out over and over again. But it is the “over and over again” that is most troublesome. Not only does the verbal formula—which becomes mantra-like—recur scores of times throughout the text, but to the point of seeming to be special pleading, the kind of ploy found for example in the familiar illustration of the preacher who, at a weak point in his sermon manuscript, says, “Pound pulpit here!” Or as Queen Gertrude observes, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks” (Hamlet, Act III, Scene 2). One gets the feeling that the theme in places is too square a knot for too round a hole. This is not to say the theme is wrongheaded. It is a most reasonable and viable center, but less forcing of it would have given it more credibility.

The issue of method must also come to the fore in any work on biblical theology, particularly the question of diachronic as opposed to synchronic, or “canonical” as opposed to both. Hamilton has chosen the last option, tracing as he does the structure of the canon of the Old Testament according to the Hebrew tradition and that of the New Testament in line with its universally accepted and familiar unfolding. The problem with the canonical method, if employed injudiciously, is that it tends to flatten out the material with little regard for its historical and chronological development. Thus it fails to attend to questions of authorship, audience, setting, dating, and the like, and concomitantly to the important matter of progressive revelation. The diachronic approach also has its pitfalls, of course, the major one being the impossibility of arranging all the biblical material in an unquestioned chronological sequence, especially the poetry and wisdom literature. Perhaps the best solution is to attempt an amalgamation of the “canonical” with the diachronic, though this too is beset with enormous difficulties, as any who have attempted it can attest.

The broad swath of these critiques should not leave the impression that Hamilton has failed in his quest to produce a first-rate biblical theology. He has not come short at all. Most of the concerns voiced here can be addressed to the works of all practitioners of the discipline. On a personal note, this reviewer’s course Introduction to Old Testament Biblical Theology includes lectures on the thinking of leading contemporary theologians. Hamilton’s work will be on this list.

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