James M. Hamilton Jr. – God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment: A Biblical Theology (Crossway, 2010)
What is the most fundamental purpose of the Bible? What unites all its parts and compelled all its writers? For Jim Hamilton the certain answer to these questions is the glory of God in salvation through judgement. This, he contends, is the centre of the Bible’s theology, its foundation and ultimate purpose. This theme is ‘broad enough to encompass all the data while also being focused enough to help readers of the Bible organize what they find in all the texts they read’ (p. 52).
His approach is straightforward: after introducing the theme he spends 500 pages going through the Scriptures book by book and for every one showing that the discernible theological centre is God’s glory in salvation through judgement. At his weakest this amounts to simply summarising the book and asserting his contention – which becomes an irritating refrain as it is used repeatedly on most pages. But at best Hamilton gives a clear introduction to each book, placing it within the biblical metanarrative (commonly overlooked in individual commentaries). He shows themes, motifs and extended metaphors that emerge through the Bible as a whole and helpfully explains how the New Testament typologically fulfils what has gone before. He highlights the structure and literary features of each book. And does all this with a very readable style, focusing on expounding the texts while debates in secondary scholarship are consigned to footnotes.
Hamilton does much to show God’s glory. In his hands, God’s judgement, which is often treated as something of an unfortunate necessity if not an embarrassment, becomes something beautiful and true. God’s abundant love, patience, and grace in remaining committed to the salvation of his people is expounded with sincere passion.
But this book must be judged according to its purpose, and in this it falls short. Hamilton forces his model uncomfortably onto the text and, ultimately, allows this agenda to trump the theology of the text. This is most blatant when dealing with books such as Ecclesiastes or Song of Songs, which have a unique purpose quite separate from salvation and judgement. Also, in order to conform the text to these themes, the terms become so broad that they lose much of their meaning. ‘Salvation’ comes to apply to anything good, ‘judgement’ to anything bad and ‘glory’ to the implicit presence of God in events. For example, he writes ‘Salvation through judgement for God’s glory manifests itself in this section of Proverbs [10:1-22:16] as judgement on wickedness is announced and righteous behaviour is commended’ (p. 297), the intimacy expressed in Song of Songs is equated with salvation, and, when commenting on the Gospel of Mark, he says, ‘[Jesus] brings salvation through judgement in his healing, which glorifies God, whose king comes with healing in his hands to reverse the effects of the curse’ (p. 360).
What Hamilton does succeed in showing is that God’s glory, salvation and judgement are three themes that pervade Scripture (though they do not consistently appear in the formulation he suggests). The corrective judgement seen through the OT (particularly in Judges and in the exile) and the atoning judgement of the Mosaic Law and the cross can be expressed as salvation through judgement and these are foundation to the Bible’s theology. But in focusing so totally on these expressions of God’s character and glory Hamilton inadvertently devalues the glory of God seen in acts of creation, revelation, love, and through human agency.
Early on Hamilton quotes Andreas Köstenberger: ‘The quest for a single centre of NT theology is misguided and should be replaced with an approach that recognises several themes as an integrated whole’ (p. 52, a perspective shared by Carson, Scobie et alia). Ultimately Hamilton’s failures prove Köstenberger and co. right.