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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.

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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.

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It is my custom to end the year with a “5 Favorite New Reads of the Year” post here at BBG, highlighting my 5 best books I read for the first time that year.  It’s not that they were published that year, I hardly have time only to read the latest and greatest (which cease to be the latest and greatest in short order anyway).  This year, however, is a little different.

I mentioned to Marcus the other day that I only completed 3 books this year, which upon further review isn’t true.  There’s one I have yet to finish, although I’m putting it on this list anyway because I’m almost done.  So I’ve actually only read 2 books from front-to-back this year.  With my family making a major move this year, there simply wasn’t time to read.  In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever read this few books in a calendar year since I learned how to read.  Shoot, I used to polish of 3 books a week.  Granted, I was in middle school and they were the Hardy Boys, but still.  (Side note: I’m eternally thankful for Franklin W Dixon for introducing the phrase “Man alive!” into my vocabulary.)

So this year I’m only going to highlight 2 books for the year, with a look ahead at 2 more books that I’m looking forward to reading in 2012.

2. God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment, by James Hamilton

I’m actually working through this book (albeit very slowly) for a book review.  Quite honestly, I could write 100 pages on it.  It’s been one of the more interesting books I’ve read in a while, even though I have some big reservations at points.  I have a million (give or take) markings in the margins recording my thoughts and, sometimes, rather frank reactions.  Part of the reason why it’s so intriguing to me is that Hamilton has stated his thesis so strongly (that the center of the Bible’s theology is… well… read the title) that it’s fun seeing whether or not he can pull off a defense of it.

So I’ll give Jim Hamilton some credit.  He didn’t hedge his bets at all.  He’s making a big claim and he’s doing what he can to back it up.  He also includes a lot of other tidbits throughout the book, breaking up the monotony a bit, as well as distracting from his point.  All in all, I’m glad I’ve worked through it so slowly.  It repays careful reading.  You’ll have to wait for my review to see my final thoughts… if I ever get around to writing it.

1. T4T: A Discipleship ReRevolution, by Steve Smith with Ying Kai

This book is written by a veteran missionary and a Chinese church planter, detailing the method (T4T- Training for Trainers) used by Ying Kai which (in part) led to one of the largest church planting movements in the world.  It is no exaggeration that using this method has radically changed the work of many in cross cultural ministry.  It’s a convicting and convincing call to adjust ministry methods that are neither commanded in the Bible or demanded by necessity.

The strength of the book is it’s attempt to emphasize that there’s nothing new they’re promoting, hence the word “rerevolution” in the title.  It would be easy for some to slip this book from “very helpful and effective” to “don’t mess with it, it’s perfect.”  The latter would be wrong, but just as bad would be to breeze over it with some lame excuse of “that’s overseas, not the US” or “what about tradition.”  Smith and Kai try their best to root all of their suggestions in the Word, and even if they can’t convince you (or me) that it’s 100% what the Bible says, at least it’s biblically grounded and sound.

I can’t recommend this book enough.  I think it needs to be read more than once, and best if in a group of people who can beat the ideas around together, going back to the Scripture and praying through the method.

Now for what’s ahead…

Gregory Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology

It’s rare that I’m completely surprised by a Christmas gift, but this was one.  Beale’s strength is in connections between the Old and New Testaments, as well as eschatology, which for Beale go hand-in-hand.  Given the paucity of spare time in my life, I can’t imagine how long it’ll take me to read this book.  But I’ll give it a go.  I’m convinced that eschatology is more important in biblical theology than most Christians care to think, but I’m also convinced that biblical eschatology looks radically different from the eschatology commonly peddled in the church.  This book, hopefully, will help me sort through all that.  If I ever get around to reading it.

Rachel Jankovic, Loving the Little Years: Motherhood in the Trenches

I know, I know.  This book is for mothers, not fathers.  But I am married to a mother of little children, so I’m only one step removed from the target audience.  If crusty old men can review movies for adolescent girls and get paid big bucks to do it, surely I can handle this.

Actually, my wife got this for Christmas and we decided we’d read it aloud together.  It’s short (just barely over 100 pages), fun (so far, haven’t read too far into it) and comes highly recommended.  I actually haven’t read a single parenting book, partly because I dread “how to” manuals.  This doesn’t seem like that sort of book, and I’m grateful.  Besides, my wife will be blessed by it, and her blessedness is in my best interest.

What books did you read this year?  Anything you’d recommend?

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I read the following quote in Jim Hamilton’s book God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment (a book I’m reviewing and have enjoyed thoroughly) during his discussion on the sentence of death in Genesis 3 (p78), and it got me thinking.

Adam, at the moment of his sin, brings death into the world.  Death is alienation from the life of God.  Death truly removes the couple from the freedom and innocence and lack of shame and fear that is found only in perfect obedience.  The moment they sin, Adam and Eve are removed from that realm of life, and in the opening of their eyes (3:7), they find themselves in the realm of death.  This spiritual reality is made a physical reality when they are banished from the garden of Eden (3:23-24).  But even here there is mercy: they will not have access to the tree of life, whereby they might live forever in a fallen state.  God gives the gift of physical death (3:22; 5:5).

I’ve italicized the sentences that give me the most trouble theologically.  This is not the first time I’ve encountered this viewpoint, but I’ve never been able to understand how one squares this with the biblical teaching on death.  Even within his own paragraph, Hamilton is holding two views that seem to me to be contradictory: death is both a judgment and a gift.  How can that be?

There are strong arguments against this view, besides the context of Genesis 3 and following.  Look at Paul’s writing in 1 Corinthians 15.  There he refers to death as an enemy, in fact, the last enemy to be defeated when Chris himself returns (vv20-26).  Or how about these verses from Romans 5, where “gift” appears:

But the gift is not like the trespass.  For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!  Nor can the gift of God be compared with the result of one man’s sin: the judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification.  For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!

Here, there is a true gift- grace, righteousness, life- that overthrows the sentence of death brought about by sin.  It seems odd to me that God would give a gift to overthrow a previously given gift.  If that’s the case, was the first “gift” really a gift at all?

Now, I understand the logic behind what Hamilton is saying.  The problem with it, however, is that he doesn’t (can’t?) back it up scripturally.  Death is never referred to as a gift, at least not that I’m aware of. It is an enemy that has been defeated in Jesus’ resurrection (see 1 Cor 15, previously quoted).  Death did, for a time, have reign, but that reign has been cast aside by the reign of life in Christ (Rom 5).  And its end is pictured so powerfully in Revelation 20:14, when death itself is thrown into the lake of fire.

So what do you think?  Is Hamilton drawing a valid inference from Gen 3:22?  Can death be a gift from God, as Hamilton asserts, and an enemy of God (as I’m sure he also believes)?

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The biblical theologian who writes in the service of the church does so to elucidate the biblical worldview, not merely so that it can be studied but so that it can be adopted.

James Hamilton, God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment, page 45.

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