Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for June, 2012

Live Like an Atheist

A prayerless life is one of practical atheism.

Gordon Fee, Paul, the Spirit and the People of God, p149

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

Thanks again to Connie at Crossway for a review copy of this book. 

This part of my review of Hamilton’s book, God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment, will deal directly with the thesis of the book (unlike Part 1, which dealt with other matters in the book).  Hamilton’s thesis is found in the title itself: that the central theological theme of the Bible is God’s glory in salvation through judgment.  Every other theme (God’s love, holiness, etc) “flow from, exposit, and feed back into the glory of God in salvation through judgment” (p56).

Hamilton is making a big claim here.  As he points out, some have tried to make a similar claim, while others despair of finding a single center.  But Hamilton isn’t shy about making his point (and even, somewhat audaciously, outright attempting to do for biblical theology “what Kevin Vanhoozer has done for hermeneutics and David Wells has done for evangelical theology” [p38]), so I won’t be shy in evaluating his attempt to defend his thesis.

Hamilton’s basic approach is to move book by book, arguing that the underlying theological center of each book is ‘God’s glory in salvation through judgment.’  He does this by means of looking at smaller units and stories within each biblical book.

Sometimes it works…

There are certain books that fit Hamilton’s thesis like a glove.  The first book that came to mind when I heard Hamilton’s thesis (even before reading the book) was Exodus.  God judges Pharaoh & Egypt and saves Israel, and does so that Moses/Israel/Egytians/Pharoah will know that he is Yahweh (see chart on p94).  It would be hard to argue against Hamilton in this case.  Another biblical book amiable to Hamilton’s thesis is Revelation.  As in Exodus, God saves his people by pouring judgment on their enemy (Babylon) ultimately resulting in God being glorified for who he is.  Again, not too hard to see the point.

On the whole, Hamilton tends to be strongest in his treatment of the prophetical books, where salvation and judgment are often seen side-by-side and God’s glory is a central theme.  Although there are some questions regarding the definitions of ‘salvation’ and ‘judgment’ in these sections, as well as the exact nature of their relationship to each other, Hamilton makes a strong case for his thesis in the prophets.

…and sometimes it doesn’t

As strong as he is in some areas, Hamilton is particularly weak in others.  I came away completely unconvinced that ‘God’s glory in salvation through judgment’ is the central (or even a central) theme in the epistles.  More on this in a bit, but suffice to say he has to assume his thesis too often in this section to make it work.

Because Hamilton insists on seeing his thesis everywhere, he has some painfully forced interpretations.  This can be seen in some treatments of smaller units of Scripture.  In dealing with the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son Isaac, Hamilton claims “Isaac is saved through the judgment that falls on the ram” (p88).  But what exactly was the judgment for?  Did anyone do anything wrong?  What is being judged?  Does all sacrifice have to happen because of judgment?

Hamilton runs into problems on a larger scale, too.  In Ecclesiastes the judgment found is “the judgment of discontentment and unrealistic expectations” (p317).  Really?  I’m not entirely sure what that phrase means.  In Ruth, Hamilton has to read judgment into it on such a deep level that one has to question whether it can rightly be read as the ‘theological center.’  Can something be the center if it’s never mentioned or alluded to?

In his treatment of Jonah I honestly had to wonder if we were reading the same book.  God kills the plant that provided shade for Jonah, then rebukes Jonah for getting mad about it (Jonah 4:5-11).  Hamilton writes, “Jonah was brought through the judgment of his attitude to salvation.  This salvation takes the form of rejoicing in Yahweh’s inclination to relent and show mercy” (p247).  Umm, who exactly is rejoicing and what verses record that rejoicing?  Would anyone have read Jonah thought of this unless they were importing the theme and insisted on seeing it?

The truth is Hamilton’s thesis doesn’t fit most of the books of the Bible.  You may be able to argue it’s there, but arguing the centrality of it is something he doesn’t pull off.

The problem of definitions

What I just touched on is a significant problem for Hamilton’s thesis: how exactly are salvation and judgment defined?  Oddly enough, he never really offers a definition; the result is that their usage is at times so broad it cheapens the ‘real thing.’

Sometimes salvation is obvious- God rescues his people from enemies, sickness, etc.  But sometimes Hamilton really needs to step back and explain what exactly he means by ‘salvation.’  What does it mean for Paul to lead his readers unto salvation when they are already saved?  For example, at the end of his (very short) discussion on 1 Corinthians 15, Hamilton writes, Paul “judges and condemns false notions about the resurrection and through that seeks to deliver the Corinthians for the glory of God” (p461).  But deliver them from what, exactly?  What does it mean for readers who are already saved (in some sense) to be lead to salvation by having judgment cast upon false theology?

I’m not saying that Hamilton is necessarily wrong here, but he never explains what he means.  Perhaps he thinks the answer is so obvious that it doesn’t need an explanation, but, I’m sorry to say, he’d be wrong.

The same point can be made for the concept of ‘judgment.’  There are obvious cases (previously mentioned), and not so obvious ones (note the aforementioned ‘judgment of discontentment’).

So what happens is that the definitions of both words seem flat.  If something good happens- rescued in battle, healed from sickness, falling in love- it’s salvation.  If something bad happens- going into exile, overcoming sin, or wondering if your life is going anywhere- that’s judgment.  Methinks someone lacks a bit of nuance…

None of this is simply an academic critique or a debate over fine points of theology.  I have a deeper reason for my frustration regarding this.  I agree that salvation comes in many forms in the Bible; it is, as they say, a many splendored thing.  My problem is this: Hamilton never weaves the various strands together to demonstrate the beautiful tapestry that the Bible itself presents to us.  To change the metaphor, he’s too busy strumming his one chord- an important one, no doubt- that he can’t allow the reader to hear the symphony.

Contrast this, for example, with Christopher Wright’s Salvation Belongs to Our God (reviewed here).  Now, I have disagreements with Wright’s book; at least as many as I do with Hamilton’s.  But Wright does something that Hamilton doesn’t.  He connects the themes and shows the reader how it all fits together.  All throughout his book I was blown away at how brilliant God’s plan of salvation has been shown throughout history, and will be right up until the end.  In 1/3 of the space, I learned far more about what the Bible actually says about salvation than I did reading Hamilton’s book.

Can the Center Hold… Methodologically?

Truth be told, I think Hamilton’s project- proving that salvation through judgment to the glory of God is the central theological theme of the Bible- is pretty much doomed from the start.  Because what he cannot do is find a method that will actually back up what he says he’s going to do.

Hamilton has to assume his thesis in too many places to prove its centrality.  This is most clearly seen in his treatment of the epistles.  Hamilton’s method is basically this: show how each NT epistle fits with the thesis, then say something like “see, this is the central theological theme of the book.”

But all he can really do- and I would argue this is true of any one proposed center- is show how it fits, but not how it is central.  For example, let’s say I wrote a book arguing that creation/new creation is the central theological theme of the Bible.  I can easily demonstrate (in fact, far more easily than Hamilton can with his thesis) that Paul, John and the other NT writers assumed that God’s new creation is primarily seen in his people, so when they wrote their epistles they expect that Christian communities live out of the life of a new creation (in their ethics, in their preaching, in their ministry, etc).  So even if not explicitly stated, ‘new creation’ is the controlling theme underlying everything that is said.

What I would be doing in this hypothetical book is exactly what Hamilton is doing; that is, showing how my thesis sheds light on aspects of the Bible.  But what I’m not actually doing is showing that it’s central.  It’s there, it’s important and it is a basic assumption of the biblical writers.  But the central theme?  I can’t really even begin to think of a method that could carry that weight (unless, of course, your central theme is ‘God’).

Concluding Thoughts

I realize it seems I’m being hard on Hamilton.  The truth is, as I’ve stated, he sets the bar high for himself with his rather large claims.  He claims to be demonstrating the single most central theme of the entire Bible.  He doesn’t hedge his bets much, an admirable trait.  If he had simply said ‘here’s an important, but often overlooked, theme of the Bible’ this review would have been about ¼ of its size.

I truly did enjoy this book.  I learned a lot, was challenged in some areas, and confused in others.  I feel sorry for whoever might borrow this book from me, as there are now markings all over the place.  This is a sign of a good book, one I’m glad I read.

So I’m not convinced his thesis is correct, but I am convinced that Hamilton is on to something important.  I happily recommend the book to anyone who would wish to read it and learn more about our glorious God.

Read Full Post »

Ethics for Paul, therefore, is ultimately a theological issue pure and simple- that is, an issue related to the known character of God.  Everything has to do with God, and what God is about in Christ and the Spirit.  Thus: (1) the purpose (or basis) of Christian ethics is the glory of God (1 Cor 10:31); (2) the pattern for such ethics is the Son of God, Christ himself (1 Cor 4:16-17; 11:1; Eph 4:20), into whose likeness we were predestined to be transformed (Rom 8:29); (3) the principle is love, precisely because love is at the essence of who God is; (4) and the power is the Spirit, the Spirit of God.

Gordon Fee, Paul, the Spirit and the People of God, p106

Read Full Post »

With thanks to Connie from Crossway for a review copy of this book, and special thanks for your patience. 

Once in a while I run across a book that I want to read slowly and carefully, taking in the good, wrestling with the parts I’m unsure of and weighing the arguments of the author against the Word of God.  God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment by Jim Hamilton is one of those books.  I received this book before my son was born, and now he’s 18 months old.  I had a big move in the middle and actually restarted the book, hence the long delay.

The truth is I could probably write 100 pages on this book, but no one would sit through that.  So I’m opting for a 2-part review instead.  The title of the book is Hamilton’s main thesis, that the central theme of biblical theology is ‘God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment.’  But Hamilton tries to accomplish more than this.  So my approach is the following: this review will focus on a few aspects of the book not directly related to his thesis, and the next one will interact exclusively with his supporting arguments for his thesis.

Structure and Overview of Books

Hamilton pays careful attention to the structure of bibilical books, often giving very helpful overviews of each book.  Sometimes he nails it, particularly in the OT.  On the macro-level, for example, his rundown of the flow of the 5 ‘Books’ of Psalms is excellent, helping the reader see more than a random collection of songs but an intentional (albeit implicit) storyline presented in the Psalms.

On a slightly less macro-level, I didn’t buy his Revelation chiasm (although it’s intriguing) but his ability to distill the central teachings of the book in a short amount of space was remarkable.  On a micro-level, his discussion of Isaiah 40-55 (in particular chapter 40) was refreshing and convincing (making it all the more strange that chapters 56-66 received less than a page- did he tire?).

But there are times Hamilton is less strong in this area.  For instance, in his introductory comments on Matthew’s Gospel, he notes the major shifts (at 4:17 and 16:21) and their impact on how we read Matthew.  But in his actual discussion of Matthew, he doesn’t follow this at all, making me wonder why those turning points are mentioned as anything more than a minor curiosity.

In the section on Acts, the Holy Spirit doesn’t get nearly enough attention considering his central role in the book and the crucial events in chapter 15 received 2 sentences (compare that to his nearly masterful treatment of Acts 7, which was 3 pages).  And when it comes to the NT epistles, Hamilton essentially restates the contents of the books rather than focusing on their flow of thought, to the point that I wondered why I was reading his book rather than simply picking up the NT itself.

All in all, I appreciated his discussion of structure and summaries of each book.  He is especially strong in narrative (which is the majority of the Bible) and handles the prophets well.  I’ve heard it said Hamilton’s book could also double as a good Bible introduction.  I’m not sure it should be the primary book used for that purpose, but it does fit the bill (maybe Hamilton ought to write one).

Extra-Curricular Discussions

Like many writers, Hamilton has trouble passing up an opportunity to comment on his favorite ‘pet’ topics, whether or not they are related to his thesis.  Depending on your perspective, these little tangents will either infuriate you or get you pumping your fist.  Examples include baptism and election/predestination, but there were two in particular that detracted from the book.

Anti-“liberalism”- Hamilton occasionally takes potshots at (unnamed) ‘tenured theologians’ at schools such as Yale, Princeton, Duke and Fuller (pp525-526), in particular for those holding anti-imperial readings of NT passages.  In Hamilton’s view, they go directly against passages such as 1 Peter 2.  Now, I tend to agree with Hamilton’s conclusions that there is not a strong anti-imperial focus in the NT.  But, I have two issues with Hamilton’s treatment of the topic:

1) If one were introduced to the topic through this book, they would come away thinking there are only two camps: those who reject biblical teaching on this matter; and those who accept the biblical teachings (and Hamilton falls into that camp, of course).  Is there no nuance?  Is there no argument to be made in favor of those who see anti-imperial readings?  Why was Jesus killed on a Roman cross?  Or why was Paul eventually killed by the Romans?  Or why does Revelation come down so hard on the Roman Empire?

2) To take shots at scholars without really naming them or interacting with their arguments is, at best, cheap.  Either give a respectful, detailed critique of their position, or leave it out.  The latter would have been a wiser course of action.

Complementarianism– Hamilton rarely misses a chance to point out the need for women to submit to men.  The issue here isn’t his complementarianism, it’s that it receives a disproportional amount of space.  For example, more is said about 1 Tim 2 than about 1 Cor 12-14 (or the Holy Spirit in Acts), even though the latter passage is arguably more central to its letter and is, at the very least, longer and thus arguably deserving of proportionally longer treatment.

In one case, Hamilton’s complementarianism skews his reading of an entire book, a reading not required by his complementarian viewpoint.  After reading his discussion of Esther (pp320-322), I came away this with basic moral point: submission is more important than purity.  Who cares that Ahasuerus was an immoral pagan king who wanted to give Esther ‘a try’ before he committed to marry her?  Esther needed to submit to him (and Mordecai) in order to be blessed by God.  Premarital sex and marrying a pagan?  Not nearly as bad as not submitting to a man (who wasn’t even her husband, might I add).  It was, quite frankly, hard to read this section.

Miscellaneous

Tables & Charts– Included in the book are dozens of helpful charts and tables which aid the reader.  He was especially strong in the Pentateuch, such as connecting Eden and the Tabernacle (p74), Abrahamic blessing answered Genesis 3 curses (p82) and so on.  At other points he compiles related concepts into charts, such as all the doxologies in the NT (pp538-539).

Translation & Writing Style- Hamilton opts to use his own translation, supplementing it with the ESV.  For the most part, then, everything sounds like the ESV.  There is one case, however, where he translated something that made me chuckle aloud to myself.  I’m still not sure how a warrior can ‘innocently’ shoot an arrow in battle, but Hamilton thinks it can happen (2 Chron 18:33-34, p349).

I’ll point out that I never really caught any typos, other than Onesiphorus is called ‘Onesimus’ on p508 (discussing 2 Tim 1:16-18).  The lack of typographical errors is a rather noteworthy achievement given the size of the book.  Well done, Crossway.

Concluding Thoughts (Non-Thesis)

Hamilton includes a lot of wonderful things in his book that are not directly related to his thesis.  There are benefits and drawbacks to this approach.  The upside is that he can unlock treasures in Scripture for the reader that make the book very exciting.  It also makes his book useful on a couple different fronts.

The downside is that he all-too-easily distracts from the purported purpose of the book.  It’s a shame, really, because he makes some fine points on almost every page.

In Part 2 of this review I’ll deal directly with Hamilton’s thesis and the evidence marshaled in its support.

Read Full Post »

I’m not sure how many people judge a book by the blurbs found on it, but I pray that number dwindles greatly.  Because frequently, perhaps more often than not, they are misleading, particularly if they are written by a well-known scholar, author, pastor, etc.

Case in point: a while back Justin Taylor, one of the most popular bloggers in evangelicalism, highlighted a new book put out of IVP, The Roots of the Reformation.  The author, G R Evans, is apparently a well respected Cambridge medievalist.  Taylor includes in his post 4 endorsements of the book, two of which were particularly glowing:

“G. R. Evans is one of our finest scholars, and she has written a superb book placing the story of the Reformation in the wider context of Christian history. Comprehensive, well researched and readable.”

—Timothy George, general editor, Reformation Commentary on Scripture

“Briskly and breezily, but very efficiently, medievalist Gillian Evans here surveys Western Europe’s changing and clashing views of Christianity from the fourteenth century through the seventeenth century. This large-scale introduction is certainly the best of its kind currently available.”

—J. I. Packer, Regent College

But, a month later and Taylor (admirably) issued a ‘mea culpa‘ for implicitly endorsing this highly-praised book.  Why?  What changed his mind?

Because an expert on the subject matter of the book in question actually read the book carefully.

Carl Trueman wrote an absolutely devastating review of the book, pointing out numerous (and I mean numerous) embarrassing errors that undermine the credibility of the book, and thus, the author and those who praise it so unreservedly.  How devastating is this review?  IVP has opted to pull the book off the shelves, revise it (in time for the fall semester, although I wonder if any professor will opt to use it now) and give free ones to those who purchased the 1st edition.  You can read their letter here.

Now, I don’t want to overstate the damage done here.  No one’s salvation is at stake.  There won’t be a generation of scholars who will screw up basic facts about Calvin, Luther and the rest of the reformers.  The 2nd edition will fix the errors and the world will move on.

But I have to wonder about the endorsers, particularly the two I quoted.  Was Packer right when he said the book is “the best of its kind currently available?”  Are the other options so awful that Evans’ book is, in fact, better?  I highly doubt it.  The better question is: did Packer read the book?  Or, perhaps, is Packer qualified to write an endorsement for a book on the Reformation?

Same goes for Timothy George.  He said this book is ‘well researched.’  Did George read the book?  Is he qualified to make such a claim about the book?

I’m being a bit sarcastic.  Both Packer and George are highly qualified scholars.  Their credentials speak for themselves.  They ought to be able to read a book on the reformation and determine its value for classroom use.  But the only real explanation for their high praise is probably the simplest: they didn’t read the book carefully.  Trueman can’t be that much better of a scholar to be able to see frequent errors while they are not.  If so, they aren’t the scholars we all think they are.

So what’s the point in trusting blurbs for a book?  If you can’t trust J I Packer and Timothy George, then who can you trust?  I’ve read too many books that received high praise, only to read the book and wonder if the endorsers actually read it.  But often times it’s a matter of opinion to a certain degree.   In this case, it’s plain and simple.  The book had so many errors it has to be pulled off the shelf.  This isn’t a matter of opinion, it’s a matter of getting basic facts correct.  IVP shouldn’t be the only ones apologizing here.

I’m not the first to note the uselessness (or at least, the limited usefulness) of book blurbs.  Nick Norelli makes the same point here.  Esteban Vazquez (the only blogger to blog less than me) nail it pretty well here.  Or even better, read this.

Anyway, to bring my rant to a close, it’s disappointing to have your suspicions confirmed: sometimes (oftentimes?) endorsers don’t read carefully the book they are endorsing.  The quicker we all realize this, the better off we’ll be.  But we’ll be even better off if endorsers stop doing it altogether.

Read Full Post »