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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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