Every so often a book comes along that simply changes things. We, of course, only know the book has changed things are a considerable amount of reflection given to it, and its argument found accurately critical of the status quo, while also pushing the conversation on to new ground. The first book I ever read that I knew had achieved precisely this was Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.
My interview today is with Biblical theologian James Hamilton. His book God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment, is a book that has the possibility of revolutionizing (saving?) our understanding of the Bible’s content and the unity of its message. Ultimately, all of you out there will be the judge of that. Hamilton’s book as I have stated in an earlier post is a tour de force of the biblical narrative that pinpoints a central and unifying theme. Just the attempt to accomplish such a task warrants an interview, but to think that Hamilton may actually accomplish it is astounding.
Matthew: What was the major impetus for this study?
Hamilton: The Scriptures convinced me that God’s purpose is to bless people by lavishing his glory on them, and as I studied the Scriptures I saw the servants of God from Moses to Paul proclaiming the justice and mercy of God. Then as I read academic discussions of biblical theology, I was surprised that God’s glory was not prominent in the debate as to what might be the center of biblical theology. So the Scriptures convinced me of the centrality of God’s glory in salvation through judgment, and at the same time it was a note not being sounded by scholars.
Matthew: Was the project derived from previous work that you had done, or is it its own independent project?
Hamilton: A little of both. I lay out the time line of my work on the project here, but the skinny looks like this: I started reading and thinking about the question during a PhD seminar I took with Mark Seifrid back in the spring of 2002. Then I was blessed with the opportunity to present a paper arguing that God’s glory in salvation through judgment is the center of biblical theology at a Tyndale Fellowship meeting in the summer of 2004. That essay was eventually published in the spring of 2006.
So the book carries forward a thesis that I have been thinking about and working on for a while now, but the book is an independent development of the thesis. The essay does not reappear as one of the chapters in the book, but the book does develop the argument of the essay.
Matthew: Given the current season of the year, could you briefly outline how the Christmas story contributes to your understanding of God’s Glory?
Hamilton: When God set in motion his plan to save his people and defeat his foes, he sent his son to be born. Overturning all worldly expectations, the high King of heaven was born in a barn, the helpless babe of a peasant girl. “Out of the mouths of babes, you have established strength because of your foes, to still the enemy and the avenger” (Ps 8:2).
One of the consistent themes that exposit the center of the Bible’s theology is the way that God demonstrates power in weakness. He lifts the needy from the ash heap and humbles the proud (cf. 1 Sam 2:1–10). Paul explains in 1 Cor 1:29 that God does this so that no one can boast before him.
Through the judgment that falls on the proud and strong, God delivers those who are humble and repentant–those who seek his mercy.
God’s mercy, in the wondrous humility of a newborn child, is stronger than all the proud wickedness of worldly strength.
God’s unconquerable Champion was so unimpressive that there was no room for him in the inn at his birth, and he had no place to lay his head as an adult. He was the companion of tax collectors and sinners, the teacher of fishermen and a leader of losers.
The baby born in the manger is God’s agent of salvation through judgment. God shows his glory as the humble prince of fools slays the dragon, crushing the serpent’s head, dooming his enemies to judgment, decisively liberating those who take his yoke and embrace the reproach of the cross.
And the paradoxes multiply: the conquest of the King of kings was as unimpressive as his arrival. This child, born to the meek and lowly girl in questionable circumstances, conquered not by slaying but by being slain, he showed his greatness not by being served but by serving. God’s glory is seen in salvation through judgment at Christ’s birth and at the cross, and in both places the humble righteousness of justice intensifies the surprising wonder of mercy.
God’s righteousness is gentle, like the newborn Christ-child, but those who reject the stone laid in Zion will be shattered by the gentle justice of the humble King. Similarly, God’s tender mercy is austere and unyielding as the complement of God’s justice; this is a mercy only shown on God’s terms. He gives his mercy to whom he pleases, and he is pleased to give it to those who confess and forsake their sin (Prov 28:13). Behold, indeed, the kindness and the severity of God (Rom 11:22).
The newborn child seemed weak and vulnerable, but the dragon and the world could not overcome him (cf. John 1:5).
Matthew: Biblical theology, as a discipline, presents an almost endless array of opinions concerning the theological contents of Scripture. Yet, by in large, the consensus of scholars has been that unified or central theological theme can be identified. What is it that allows you to identify “God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment” as the central concern?
Hamilton: I would identify three strands that form my “cord of confidence” not easily broken. The first is the way that I define the center of biblical theology; the second is my understanding of what biblical theology should be; and the third is the way that I approach the Scriptures in general. These move from the particular to the general, and thus from the inductive to the deductive. So I think that my confidence arises from the text itself and is not imposed from the outside.
First, then, the definition of the center of biblical theology: what biblical theologians mean when they use the metaphor of a center is taken for granted more often than defined. I define it as follows: the center of biblical theology is the idea that the biblical authors present God stating to be his own ultimate purpose. I am convinced that God revealed his ultimate purpose to Moses in Exodus 34:6–7, and that everything that Moses thought about God and wrote about God was shaped by God’s declaration of his own name (Exod 34:6–7), when he caused his goodness to pass before Moses (33:19), showing Moses his glory (33:18, 22). When God proclaimed his name, he identified himself as a merciful and forgiving God who does not clear the guilty (34:6–7). He is just and merciful, and his mercy does not contravene his justice, as he works salvation through judgment. I think God’s ultimate purpose is to show his glory in salvation through judgment, and I think the other biblical authors learned this from Moses and were themselves inspired by the Spirit to reveal the same truth in their writings.
Second, against other ways of approaching the task of biblical theology (some of which are described in the first chapter), I think that our goal should be to understand and embrace the perspective reflected by the biblical authors. Our goal is not to read and evaluate the Bible according to the standards of our culture, but to seek to understand the Bible so that we can read and evaluate both ourselves and our culture from the interpretive framework modeled for us by the biblical authors.
Third, as I have argued elsewhere, I think that the Bible itself claims to be totally true and trustworthy, and that we would need far more information than we will ever have to overturn its claims or show its falsehood. Therefore, I want to approach the Bible not from a skeptical perspective but from a sympathetic one, trusting that its authors were neither stone-age idiots nor less-evolved troglodytes whose ethical and theological sensibilities are objectionable to modern, enlightened sensibilities. These biblical authors bore the image of God and communicated, I think, a coherent message in stunning artistry.
So I take these three strands to form a cord not easily broken: the definition of biblical theology as the search for what the texts reveal God’s ultimate purpose to be, the task of biblical theology as the attempt to understand and embrace the interpretive perspective modeled by the biblical authors, and the acceptance of the Bible’s claims to be trustworthy with the humble rejection of chronological snobbery (whatever impression modern scholars may give, ancient people were not stupid).
Matthew: In your book, you state “this book, quixotic as it may seem, seeks to do for biblical theology what Kevin Vanhoozer has done for Hermeneutics and David Wells has done for evangelical theology” (38). Can you unpack this statement for us in direct relation to your project?
Hamilton: In my humble opinion, modern western culture is committing intellectual suicide.
In his book Is There a Meaning in This Text?, Kevin Vanhoozer lovingly seeks to intervene by patiently vindicating the idea that the task of interpreting a text is the task of seeking to understand what the author of a text meant to communicate (authorial intent). The idea of seeking an author’s intent has been slandered and maligned with all manner of sophisticated sounding logical and rhetorical fallacies from scoundrels who refuse to do unto others as they would have done unto themselves. When they write, they want to be interpreted according to their intent, but they would deny this privilege to the authors of the texts they distort and pervert with so much post-modern slime. Vanhoozer waded through all the muck, exposing logical and rhetorical fallacies and cutting a path for any who wish to follow him to the solid ground of virtuous interpretation.
In his book, No Place for Truth, David Wells shows how evangelicalism saw liberal protestantism committing intellectual suicide with western culture, felt left out, and tried to join the party. The problem is not so much that the big ideas of Christianity were challenged as it is that big ideas have become unfashionable. As a result, in many churches the big truths that make Christianity what it is are hidden away so that no one will be troubled with the unpleasant chore of being a thinking human. Wells is calling the church to help humans be what they are–image bearers of God endowed with faculties sufficient for knowing, experiencing, and worshiping God and his mysteries.
So I see Vanhoozer and Wells (and many others!) courageously, patiently, lovingly seeking to save the west, and I want to follow them as they follow Christ. People make all kinds of claims today about how diverse the theology of the Bible is, but what is so shocking about the Bible is its unity, not its diversity. So Vanhoozer engaged the battle for hermeneutics, Wells for evangelical theology, and I’m trying to join the fray on the biblical theological front (following in the footsteps of Tom Schreiner, Desi Alexander, Greg Beale, Stephen Dempster, and others). I don’t know if I’m worthy to stand with them, but I’m honored to seek to join these knights-errant as a fool for Christ’s sake seeking to steward the mysteries of God.
Matthew: Do you actually employ Vanhoozer’s hermeneutical methodology in your book? If so how does it aid your argument?
Hamilton: On the big idea of authorial intent, yes, I follow him. It aids my argument in that throughout the book I’m trying to understand and exposit what the human authors communicated. The body of God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment moves book by book through the whole Bible, and in most cases I try to explain the literary structure the biblical author used to communicate his message. My goal is not to pursue my own agenda but that of the biblical authors. In pursuing the intent of the biblical authors, I am trying to help people understand what the Spirit of God inspired the biblical authors to write.
Matthew: In direct fashion, your book directly addresses the theological unity of the Bible. In doing so, it also addresses two growing trends in the way many Christians have begun to understand the Bible: 1) the inability to see coherence between the OT and NT; 2) an increasingly popular view that Jesus’ teachings are irreconcilable with those of Paul. In what ways can (or does) your book help resolve these issues?
Hamilton: It seems to me that many treatments of Paul, for instance, seem to start in the middle with a bunch of unfounded assumptions, and they go on to conclude that Paul changed the meaning of the OT texts he quotes or that he departed from what Jesus taught. These unfounded assumptions often come in the form of subtle insinuations that are not the main argument, so if we’re not reading carefully they slip by without being argued or evaluated.
There are at least two ways to respond to this kind of problem. The first is to my thinking more appropriate for a book review, and this approach lays out the argument and discusses the fallacies in the premises. I’m happy to do that kind of work, but I didn’t want this book to be a collection of book reviews. So I chose a second way of responding, which is to try to lay out a compelling alternative vision.
All this to say, I try to show the unity of the Bible by starting from the beginning not from the middle, and by founding my assertions squarely on the texts. As I worked through the Bible starting from Genesis, I became thoroughly convinced that the OT Prophets learned to interpret earlier Scripture, the world, and their own lives from earlier biblical authors, chiefly Moses. Then I think the authors of the Gospels present Jesus interpreting earlier Scripture, the world, and his own life the same way that Moses and the Prophets did–and Jesus taught this way of interpreting to his followers (e.g., Luke 24).
I think that the Apostles rightly understood Jesus. Building on this, Jesus taught his Apostles how to read the OT–and I’m a lot more confident about the interpretive conclusions reached by Jesus and the Apostles than I am of today’s skeptics!
One final note on a related problem: it seems to me that today’s skeptics aren’t really trying to understand the texts. They have come to their conclusions and they have their assumptions, and what they are doing is evaluating the texts in light of their own conclusions. This is neither open minded nor teachable, and it isn’t humble, either.
When I come to the Bible, I want to be humble, teachable, and open minded. I gladly submit to the authority of Scripture, and I want to understand how Moses and the Prophets and Jesus and the Apostles are operating so that I can embrace their perspective. I do not evaluate them; they evaluate me.
Matthew: At least functionally, and often times systematically Christians place “love” at the center of how they understand the Christian faith. Yet, all too often (it seems to me) the concept of love they espouse has little to do with the biblical notion, and a lot to do with mere warm feelings. Your book, using terms such as “God’s glory”, “salvation”, and especially “judgment” are not words typically associated with love in many theological dialogues, an almost never in popular culture. In what way does your biblical theology understand love, and how is this brought out in the book?
Hamilton: Let’s use an example. Take the incident with David and Bathsheba. Would Uriah’s mother have thought it was loving of God to forgive David? It seems that Bathsheba’s grandfather Ahithophel never forgave David, because he later sided with Absalom in rebellion against David. I suspect that Ahithophel didn’t think it was loving for God to forgive David.
What this example illustrates is the necessity for justice to be upheld if words like mercy and love are going to mean anything other than sentimentality or favoritism. The Bible teaches that God does not show favoritism, and while he shows steadfast love, his willingness to discipline wayward children shows that he isn’t captive to sentimentality.
So I guess a simple way to put it is that we have to define the word love according to the Bible not Hallmark.
Justice makes mercy and love possible, and justice also serves as a black cloth and a spotlight. God lays down the black cloth of the law, then he trains the spotlight of his just commitment to keeping his word on that black cloth, and then he puts the diamond of his merciful love under that spotlight in front of that black cloth.
God’s glory in salvation through judgment through the agency of the Messiah, displaying God’s mercy and justice as the Spirit ministers, is the center of biblical theology.
Be sure to look for part 2 of our interview with Jim Hamilton in the next few weeks.