Sunday, December 15, 2013

Book Review: What Is Biblical Theology

What is Biblical Theology: A Guide to the Bible's Story, Symbolism, and Patterns. James M. Hamilton Jr. 2013. Crossway. 128 pages. [Source: Review Copy]

When I hear the term, "biblical theology," I think of it in terms of meaning "theology that is biblical." That is doctrines which make up a person's theology being biblical, biblically sound, finding their source in the Bible, clearly for the most part with perhaps a little wiggle room here and there, or, a bit more wiggle room on the non-essentials. But. That is not how the phrase is used in this one. In fact, he seems a bit annoyed with those who interpret the phrase differently*. He interprets the phrase to mean the theology held by the authors of the Bible. That is he means the theology of Peter, Paul, John, Luke, James, Isaiah, Moses, etc.

To be precise,
The phrase biblical theology is used here to refer to the interpretive perspective of the biblical authors. What is an "interpretative perspective"? It's the framework of assumptions and presuppositions, associations and identifications, truths and symbols that are taken for granted as an author or speaker describes the world and the events that take place in it. What do the biblical authors use this perspective to interpret? First, the biblical authors have interpreted earlier Scripture, or in the case of the very first author on record (Moses), accounts of God's words and deeds that were passed down to him. Second, they interpreted world history from creation to consummation. And third, they interpreted the events and statements that they describe….
To summarize, by the phrase biblical theology I mean the interpretive perspective reflected in the way the biblical authors have presented their understanding of earlier Scripture, redemptive history, and the events they are describing, recounting, celebrating, or addressing in narratives, poems, proverbs, letters, and apocalypses. (15-16)
If we can see what the biblical authors assumed about story, symbol, and church, we will glimpse the world as they saw it. To catch a glimpse of the world as they saw it is to see the real world. (19)
I don't have a problem exactly with his definition. It's just that I think it's a bit more complicated (and by complicated I might mean merely scholarly) than absolutely necessary. I think it could simply be stated as seeking to know and understand what the text meant to the writer(s) and the original audience(s) and letting that inform and instruct your own theology. Drawing your doctrines, your "theology" from the doctrines held by the writers of the Bible. In other words: read the Bible, believe the Bible means what it says, live what you believe.

The author has arranged the book in three sections: "The Bible's Big Story," which sums up the narrative, the plot, and the mystery; "The Bible's Symbolic Universe," which may be too technical for some readers, but delightful for others--the focus is on explaining the concept of symbols, imagery, typology, and patterns; and "The Bible's Love Story," which focuses on the church. A background in literature might come in useful when reading this one. He does try to bridge the gap however for his readers. But he likes using words that might bring a bad association to some readers. I definitely didn't appreciate the discussion of A Separate Peace a book that only brings back horrid memories.
What's a narrative made of? Narratives have a setting, characterization, and plot. Plots are built out of episodes and conflict, and if successful they communicate themes. (27)
My favorite chapter was probably the first chapter, "A Better World Breaks Through."
What we think and how we live is largely determined by the larger story in which we interpret our lives. Does your story enable you to look death in the face? Does your story give you a hope that goes beyond the grave? (12)
The world does have a true story. The Bible tells it. This book is about the Bible's big story, and it's about how we become people who live in that story. To do biblical theology is to think about the whole story of the Bible. We want to understand the organic development of the Bible's teaching so that we are interpreting particular parts of the story in light of the whole. As an acorn grows into an oak tree, Genesis 3:15 grows into the good news of Jesus Christ. One of the primary aims of biblical theology is to understand and embrace the worldview of the biblical authors. In order to do this, we have to know the story they take for granted, the connections they see between the events in the story, and the ways they read later parts of the story by the light that emanates from its earlier parts. (12)
The book is certainly informative and attempts to clearly present "the big picture" of the Bible to readers. But I'm not sure the text was as clear and concise as it could have been. Has reading the Big Picture Story Bible by David Helm spoiled me for reading more messy presentations for adults? Perhaps! Maybe authors are so concerned about not coming across as condescending or childish that they don't realize that simple and basic can be good and refreshing no matter one's age. I did like that the book could be thought-provoking in places.

I think hidden beneath all the scholarly-talk, all the fancy phrases, the message is good and sound. Essentially the message of this one is: read your Bible; read it often, read it well. As I was reading this one, I couldn't help thinking about the Gospel Transformation Bible. I finished this one days ago, and it is such a wonderful Bible. The goals seem to be similar. The Gospel Transformation Bible has commentary pointing readers to see the big picture in passages and verses. The big picture, of course, being Jesus Christ.

Here is the purpose of the ESV Gospel Transformation Bible:
The goal of the Gospel Transformation Bible is twofold: 1) to enable readers to understand that the whole Bible is a unified message of the gospel of God's grace culminating in Christ Jesus 2) to help believers apply this good news to their everyday lives in a heart-transforming way. (vii)

*Here at the outset, let me say what biblical theology is not--in my opinion, anyway. Some use the phrase biblical theology to mean something other than what I have hinted at above. Though we're using the same phrase, we are coming at the subject very differently. By biblical theology I do not mean "my theology is more biblical than yours." Nor do I refer to that stick some biblicists keep at hand for whopping the unsuspecting systematic theologian who happens along. (17)

© Becky Laney of Operation Actually Read Bible

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