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Blog / What Is Biblical Theology?: An Interview with Jim Hamilton

What Is Biblical Theology?: An Interview with Jim Hamilton

Jim HamiltonBetween systematic theology, dogmatic theology, historical theology, moral theology, and more, the study of Christian theology can be a bit overwhelming.

Dr. Jim Hamilton (@DrJimHamilton) is professor of Biblical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (@SBTS) and preaching pastor at Kenwood Baptist Church (@KenwoodBC).

Bible Gateway interviewed Dr. Hamilton about his book, What Is Biblical Theology?: A Guide to the Bible’s Story, Symbolism, and Patterns (Crossway, 2014).

Why do you begin the book with a story of death?What is Biblical Theology

Dr. Hamilton: That particular episode was a gripping experience in my own life–to have been talking with a man just a few hours before he died.

Though everyone dies, so many of us have so little direct exposure to death. Our distance from death, real or imagined, protects us from the questions death forces on us.

The Bible means to answer those questions, and I am eager for us to feel our need for the Bible’s answers.

How does biblical theology differ from other forms of theological study, such as systematic theology?

Dr. Hamilton: Systematic theology attempts to organize everything the Bible says about God, man, Christ, sin, salvation, and so forth. The history of philosophy is important for it, as is the history of theology.

Biblical theology is more like what you do when you read a news article or blog post written by someone you disagree with but want to understand. To understand, you want to find out why the author thinks the way s/he does, and for that you are looking at what they have written for clues about their worldview. Assuming there is an internal coherence to their logic, you have to figure out the world they live in, where the premises they’re using reflect reality.

You say an aim of biblical theology is to understand the worldview of the biblical authors. How is that possible, since the authors span such a long period of time and events?

Dr. Hamilton: It’s possible because we have so much that they have written! This assumes, of course, that the authors agree with each other–that the Psalmists aren’t disputing the creation account in Genesis but assuming it. Without an assumption like that we can’t get anywhere. But if we assume that the books of Moses were as influential as the Bible says they were, then we know the controlling narrative that shapes their worldview. From there it’s a matter of putting the pieces together.

Your book is divided into three parts: story, symbol, and church. How do these help the reader understand biblical theology?

Dr. Hamilton: The story is the account of how things got started, who started them, what went wrong, how it’s going to be set right, and what things will be like when the righter has done the righting. The Bible tells this story.

Symbols are used to summarize and interpret aspects of the story. They re-tell, reinforce, and refresh our experience of the story. To understand the Bible, we have to know the story and understand the symbols.

All this pertains to us because God has given us the opportunity to participate in the story through the church. So in what the Bible says about the church, it’s telling us how we fit in the story, what our role is, and how we’re to play it.

Briefly, what is the Bible’s big story?

Dr. Hamilton: Creation, fall, redemption, restoration.

We could also use the Apostles’ Creed as a kind of skeleton for understanding it (this is the way the Creed was intended to function), filling in some details along the way.

“I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth”

God made the world and made it good, but the pristine setting was defiled by a slithering serpent, the arch-villain, who fomented rebellion, resulting in judgment, death, tragedy, and woe. God made promises to redeem, however, and then he set about preparing the world for the redemption he would accomplish in Christ, prefiguring it through the history of Israel.

“And in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord, . . .”

At long last Christ came as the world’s redeeming King, champion, hero, savior. We will celebrate him forever.

“I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy baptist church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.”

This statement about the Spirit, the church, communion, and forgiveness details what preserves the church until the resurrection and eternal life. This is where we are in the story, awaiting the one who “ascended into heaven, where he sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.”

You say the biblical authors extensively used symbolism in their writing. What do you mean and how does this differ from what some people call the “secret codes” in the Bible?

Dr. Hamilton: One example will suffice. Peter says in 1 Peter 3:20–21 that baptism corresponds to the flood. What is he talking about? In the Old Testament, the waters of the flood came to symbolize the wrath of God: when God judged Israel, he would bring foreign armies to destroy them, and those armies are likened to the waters of the flood (e.g., Isaiah 8:7–8; Psalm 124). Then Jesus talks about the cross as a “baptism” that he has to undergo (e.g., Mark 10:38–39). On the cross, Jesus was baptized, i.e. plunged, into the floodwaters of God’s wrath. When believers are baptized into Christ, they are united to him by faith in his death and resurrection, and the baptism of Jesus in the floodwaters of God’s wrath counts for them.

This is about as far as you can get from some secret code that has nothing to do with what the biblical authors mean. To understand the Bible’s symbolism is simply to understand what the authors meant to say.

Praise God for Jesus. Praise God for baptism. Deliverance from the crushing flood of the wrath of God.

Explain what imagery, typology, and patterns are and why readers of the Bible should be familiar with them.

Dr. Hamilton: That’s a lot for one question! Briefly–more could be said–but I’ll keep this short.

Imagery is the use of a symbol to summarize and interpret a big story in a few words.

Typology happens when a pattern of events is repeated, and as it gets repeated, it picks up significance.

There are similarities between Joseph, David, and Jesus. Joseph’s story matters, but it takes on added significance when aspects of it are repeated in David’s story. Then the importance of these things is “filled up” when the stories of Joseph and David are recapitulated in Jesus.

Readers of the Bible need to see these things because the biblical authors have seen them, thought about them, and meant to draw our attention to them. They attempted to draw our attention in subtle ways. They knew the story and expected their audience to know it, so it’s more like a subtle wink than like someone setting his hair on fire.

If we don’t catch the wink, we won’t get the message.

“Church” is the third element of biblical theology and you place it under the heading of “the Bible’s love story.” Why?

Dr. Hamilton: The true story of the world is that we’re in a love story with a happy ending. God married Israel at Sinai, and the adulterous wife brought consequences on herself. But God remains faithful. He promised a new covenant to be initiated by a Bridegroom who would cleanse and forgive the wayward wife. Jesus washes the church in the water of the word, with the result that she is without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish. When he returns, the marriage feast of the Lamb will be the consummation of the ages.

The church is the lady in waiting, the bride bought by the blood. As my friend Gunner recently put it, the bride will wear white because the Groom wore red.

What’s the best way you recommend for people to see the interconnectedness of the Bible?

Dr. Hamilton: Read it!

Read big portions all at one sitting. Read straight through Genesis all at once, and it will be even better if you do so with a set of colored pencils or pens and note repeated words, themes, promises, and so forth all in the same color.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Dr. Hamilton: The psalmist wrote, “Forever, O Lord, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens” (Ps 119:89).

What a treasure to have the Bible. Rich Mullins sang that he memorized every word Jesus said. May that be our disposition to the Bible.

May the Lord sanctify us in the truth of his word (John 17:17).

Filed under Books, Interviews, Theology