26 April 2011

Book review — God's Glory in Salvation through Judgment, by James M. Hamilton, Jr.

by Dan Phillips

God's Glory in Salvation through Judgment, by James M. Hamilton, Jr.
(Wheaton:Crossway, 2010; 639 pages)

Jim Hamilton is Associate Professor of Biblical Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and has an active blog that's on my personal daily-visit list. I know that, yet I keep thinking of Hamilton as an OT guy, because he's made particularly notable contributions in that area. For instance, Hamilton did a detailed, solid grapple/review of Sailhamer's recent opus. Before that, I knew him as author of God's Indwelling Presence, a book helpful to me in writing part of The World-Tilting Gospel.

However, in this terrific book, provided by Crossway for me to review, Hamilton's scope is as wide as the Bible itself. He sallies forth into the already-crowded field of those proposing a "center" for the Bible. Seminarians, particularly of the OT-phile species, will nod knowingly. They will recall the many previous propositions concerning the OT itself or the Bible as a whole, such as Kaiser (promise), Eichrodt (covenant), Terrien (presence of Yahweh), Martens (God's design), and so forth (cf. Hasel's discussion of the field as of 1991). In fact, Hamilton himself engaged the alternatives in a Tyndale Bulletin article in 2006.

In such a populous arena, does Hamilton's contribution stand out? My verdict is an unequivocal "Yes." What distinguishes God's Glory in Salvation through Judgment is a happy conjunction of various valuable features. I'll enumerate, then expand on some of them.

Sparkling and distinctive aspects of this book include:
  1. Accessibility.
  2. Literary quality.
  3. Comprehensiveness.
  4. Currency.
  5. Lively engagement by the author.
  6. Clarity of conviction.
...and all of this is irrespective of whether or not Hamilton convinces you that his chosen center is in fact the center of all the Bible.

Let me start with that last thought, then move to the other aspects. Hamilton insists that the center of the Bible is as the title suggests: God's glory in salvation through judgment. By "center" he means a "singular coherent faith articulation" (41, quoting Brueggemann). In Hamilton's own words, it is "the theme that is prevalent, even pervasive, in all parts of the Bible" (49), which indeed "organizes the thoughts of the biblical authors" (48, footnote).

Walter Kaiser grappled with this decades ago, insisting that "successful exegesis" required a means of "identifying the center or core of the canon" (Towards an Old Testament Theology [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978], 18). Kaiser identified the "center" as a key for "an orderly and progressive arrangement of the subjects, themes and teachings" of the OT (ibid, 20). He warned against refusal to identify such a center as "the tyranny of the particular," whose hostile modern grid would make constructing an OT theology impossible (28). Kaiser insisted strongly that the Bible emphatically lays forth a central plan (29ff.), centering on what the NT would identify as promise (33). Kaiser attempted to develop this throughout the OT, and has now (in a more recent book) extended his argument more fully to the New.

For any system, though, books such as Proverbs and Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon are a challenge. I found Kaiser's treatments to fall short of conviction. Did Hamilton fare better on their rocky shoals?

I think he did, though one sees it only if he understands Hamilton's broad use of "judgment." As a Proverbs-lover, I thought going in that Hamilton would have tough slogging finding his proposed center in Mishley. But Hamilton corrected me, pointing out that judgment is a constant refrain in Proverbs: the foolish are judged in myriads of ways for their belittling of the fear of Yahweh, whereas the wise can be saved in life and beyond only through that knowledge grounded in the fear of Yahweh, which thus is to the glory of Yahweh.

One might object, "I don't think Proverbs uses those words." True enough; but Hamilton reminds us here and elsewhere that tracing concepts is more than an exercise in word-study, and it takes more than plugging words like "salvation" and "glory" into a concordance/Bible software program to follow a theme out through Scripture.

Hamilton's clarity, personal engagement and conviction shine out from the very beginning. In the Acknowledgments (25ff.) Hamilton lists Scriptures extolling God's word, then he gives glory to God for His goodness in his life. What is more, he is up-front as to his goal. It is not to dissect the Bible as one might approach a cadaver, as an object of detached inquiry. "My goal... is to help people know God," he tells us candidly (38). To Hamilton, academics serve as tools to pursue that goal, not as ends in themselves.

Is this an inappropriate goal for a scholar? Affected, bloodless detachment may be de rigeur to many in the Academy, but I've often argued that personal engagement as a Christian academic is far from inappropriate. Look: worldviews are like belly-buttons. Everyone has one. Worldview controls all. To insinuate that one can write from a Weltanschauung-free perspective is a silly conceit, and Hamilton is free of it.

After laying his basic case, Hamilton sets out to demonstrate it by going through every book of both Testaments. In that way, this tome ends up being an extended argument, a Biblical theology of sorts, and a Bible survey. It is full, very useful, and satisfying.

What is more, Hamilton not only writes with clarity, but with style. He turns phrases memorably, seasoning with elements of irony and humor, as well as sharp conciseness. It is not only helpful and informative reading, it is good reading.

We noted that Hamilton is a professor of "Biblical theology." What does that mean, to Hamilton? He approaches biblical theology as focusing on "what the Bible meant  for the purpose of understanding what the Bible means" (41). Exactly right; there can be no facile, "great gulf fixed" between examining the Bible's contents, and finding that those contents are in fact examining us. To approach the Bible as if it were not what it claims to be is a faith-commitment; just not a Christian faith-commitment.

Further, that Bible is a whole Bible, starting with Genesis and not resting until Revelation. Thus Hamilton chides Goldingay for wanting to write about the OT — but not through Christian or NT lenses (46). Hamilton views this with something like incredulity, as a sort of pretending not to know what one knows. "If our presuppositions do not help us understand, rather than pretend we do not have them, why not revise or, if necessary, reject them?" (47). 

At this point, I realize that this is going to be a very, very long review indeed if I discuss everything I liked about the book. So let's shift gears.

Who would profit from this book? Anyone who wants to understand the Bible better. If I were teaching through Bible books in survey fashion or in-depth, I would want Hamilton's opus on my desk. His summaries are as a rule masterful, he captures the flow of the book expertly, and he often brings out themes and patterns that, in thirty years of attentive reading, I hadn't noticed. As an added bonus, Hamilton's footnotes are a rich resource. The man reads encyclopedically, and his notes are direction-signs to other treasure-troves of fuller reference works. It's simply a goldmine.

Did he convince me, and does it matter? Hamilton absolutely convinced me that God's glory in salvation through judgment is a theme-complex that literally runs through Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. I am not quite convinced, however, that it was a conscious driving force behind the writing of each canonical book.  Maybe my brain is too small. But that truly does not matter a speck in terms of the value or usefulness of the book. Further, Hamilton does not do as some, flattening uncongenial details of books if they fail to further his thesis.

Do I have any quibbles with the book? Significant quibbles, nary a one. Minor ones, sure. The publisher was unkind to us old geezers in using such a small font on the footnotes — but at least they're footnotes, so I'm content to squint. I don't share Hamilton's exact interpretation of this and that, and find myself a good bit more on the not-yet side of the eschatological spectrum than Hamilton is. Our eschatologies may not be identical. So, we have the same marginal distinction that I experience in reading Spurgeon, Owen, Lloyd-Jones, Calvin, Machen, van Til, and a truckload of other brothers who have done me a world of good.

Honestly, we're talking hiccups in a hurricane of wonderfulness. I so profited from the way Hamilton carries forward the Seed-of-the-woman/seed-of-the-serpent conflict themes, keeps identifying intertextual relationships, and a hundred other ways. Heck, I even hustled to insert some interaction into my forthcoming (DV) Proverbs book. Now I'm going back through the book, adding note upon note to the treasures I've already transferred from this book to my BibleWorks notes.

Therefore, I recommend God's Glory in Salvation through Judgment unqualifiedly and enthusiastically. Five matches. You want a better grasp of the Bible's big picture as well as vital small details? Get this book. Dive in. Stay in. Once won't be enough. You will not regret it.

POSTSCRIPT for Kindlefolk: the terrific Kindle deal I mentioned in March is still in effect. Amazing buy.

Dan Phillips's signature


JackW said...

This has been recommended to me before and your review is the tipping point ... glad there is a Kindle edition.

Thanks Dan!

Anonymous said...

I don't ever recall you using the word sparkling before.

DJP said...

JulesI don't ever recall you using the word sparkling before.

Are you suggesting that this post was actually a pious forgery, perhaps the work of a pseudepigrapher... possibly a "deutero-DJP"?

Literary evidence backs claims of genuineness: here, here, here, here, and elsewhere.

So that school of thought which traces the post back to the hand of Dan is not without its supporting arguments, though contrary views continue to be voiced, and are not without merit. Some have proposed an "ur-Dan," a "deutero-DJP," and a "DJP{sparkling'}" school of scribes.

The controversy continues to rage in literary circles.


Anonymous said...

DJP - Positively effervescent!

Anonymous said...

p.s. Just ordered the book, too.

Chris Brauns said...

I also thought it was a sparkling book.

DJP said...

That's a consensus.

Mark Lussier said...

I'm going to have to pack a lunch to read this post. What I read thus far makes me look forward to lunch with great anticipation!

Scot said...

This book has glitter all over it? I'm having second thoughts...

I also vote that we start a fund for the research and development of a time machine so the Pyro readers have time to read all these books.

Thanks for a great and through review Dan. Maybe someday I can pick it up, but not in the near future.

100 Mile Pants said...

Great review, great book, great man.

MSC said...

I've been holding back the temptation to purchase this book ever since you first started recommending it. But now the force of your enticing words have thrown me over the edge. I could resist no longer and it took me only one click to do so.

Backbone Threads said...

Aaagh, my to-read list keeps growing longer!

matt damico said...

As a student and friend of Dr. Hamilton, I can say that his character validates his scholarship. He loves the Lord, the word, his family, and his church.

Trustworthy book by a trustworthy man.

Stefan Ewing said...

A belated thanks for this review, Dan!

lee n. field said...

Another one to keep an eye out for, in my < sarc>Abundant Free Time< /sarc>.

Read Beale's book on the Temple?

DJP said...

Hamilton read it, and I read Hamilton.

Does that count?

lee n. field said...

"Does that count?"

Kind of like conversion by proxy.

Anonymous said...

I have this book but haven't yet cracked it open. Thanks for the encouragement to do so.

What does he do with the covenants?

Paul H.


Jim Hamilton said...

What does he do with the covenants? Great question! According to one reviewer, not enough : ).

I don't spend a lot of time on this issue in the book, b/c I'm focused on making the argument that the glory of God in salvation through judgment is the center of biblical theology. I do this by trying to get at the literary structure of each individual book, then trying to show how God's revelation of his justice, which highlights his mercy, is the heart that pumps the blood through the biblical author's theology.

I did a ThM at DTS, and dispensationalism has left an imprint on me. I'm not a dispensationalist, though, but nor have I signed *that* covenant. I appreciate the New Covenant Theology critique of that line in the Westminster Confession that says, "So then therefore there are not two covenants but one . . ."

To put my cards on the table, I'm somewhere between progressive dispensationalism and new covenant theology.

I hope this helps. Thanks, Dan, for the incredibly encouraging review, and thanks for the other very encouraging words posted here.