Book Review: God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment, by James Hamilton Jr.

Review
12.23.2010

When Don Quixote embarked on his quest for the impossible, it was a humorous and tragic adventure. He tilted at windmills which he thought were giants. He looked at peasant girls and saw noble ladies. And he thought an old dilapidated tavern was a castle. Obviously, Quixote was carrying “a few bricks short of a load.”

Some might think that James Hamilton Jr. follows in the footsteps of the knight-errant from La Mancha. In his book God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment, Hamilton sets out in pursuit of the holy grail of biblical theology—the elusive centre, the main point of the Bible. This theologian-errant is not deterred by the countless attempts before him, nor by the admonitions of contemporary scholars to give up such a quixotic quest.

As a biblical theologian, Hamilton comes with good background knowledge, which is evident throughout his 600 plus page volume. It is also abundantly evident that he is not a few bricks short of a load. Over the last few years he has been distinguishing himself with publications in the area of biblical theological themes.[1] This book is in fact a sort of culmination of his studies to date.

What makes Hamilton’s attempt at writing such a biblical theology impressive is the vast amount of knowledge required. In an age of increasing specialization, the academy boasts not just Old and New Testament scholars, but Torah scholars, Wisdom Literature scholars, Chronicles scholars, Johannine scholars, and so on. Very few feel up to the task of treating the entire Bible as their specialty. In this day and age the task is downright daunting.

THE QUEST

This theological knight-errant begins his quest for a unifying theme with a thoughtful discussion of the vast literature of biblical theology. In the last few centuries, scholars have proposed nearly one hundred themes for a biblical centre. Thus, calling Hamilton’s quest quixotic would seem to be an understatement. Yet Hamilton observes that many scholars may have abandoned this quest not only because so many writers before them have failed, but because of the prevailing spirit of the postmodern age. We’re inherently skeptical toward the possibility of certitude as well as the possibility that any overarching theme might unite life’s fragmented diversity. But Hamilton proposes to do for biblical theology what Kevin Vanhoozer has done for interpretation and David Wells has done for evangelical theology—not only restore a measure of certitude to the interpretive task but “to help people know God” (2). Although this may sound quixotic in today’s theological climate, surely no theologian worthy of the name could argue with knowing God as a theological goal.

Hamilton observes that if the Bible is just a hodge-podge of literature culled from disparate sources, any quest for a unified meaning is doomed before it starts. But if the Bible is not just a collection of stories of ancient Jewish literature, but presents a coherent Story, we should try to find its main point. And if so, it should be possible to know the main purpose of the Divine Author. Accordingly, Hamilton, citing Robin Routledge’s recent work on Old Testament theology, argues that “it is possible to discern a single divine purpose: to reveal God’s holiness and glory throughout the earth so that it is acknowledged by all peoples.”[2]

In his introduction Hamilton announces his theme: the purpose of God is that he seeks to be glorified in salvation through judgment. God seeks to display his glory through both his saving and judging work. The methodology that Hamilton uses to depict this central theme is a literary one. He considers the structure of each book in the Bible in canonical sequence and seeks to trace the respective themes by “describing the literary contours of individual books in canonical context, with sensitivity to the unfolding meta-narrative.”

To see his proposed theme as the organizing principle of the entire Bible, Hamilton realizes that he has to show how all other themes relate to it. He finds useful an important distinction Jonathan Edwards made between two types of ends: ultimate and subordinate. In biblical theological terms the subordinate ends (sub–themes) are the means by which the ultimate end (central theme) is accomplished. Thus all the variety of data found in the Bible, the story-line, the prophetic commentary, the didactic letters, the genealogies, the prayers, and so on all emanate from and support the main theme: “Having originated from their center, all other themes exposit and feed back into it” (51). Thus, many of the proposed centers of biblical theology are seen as subordinate ends that serve to highlight the ultimate end—the glory of God—whether they be covenant, election, promise-fulfillment, the holiness of God, or  the steadfast mercy of God. These are all sub-themes which are controlled by and subordinated to a larger theme. This larger theme finds textual expression in the revelation of the divine name to Moses in Exodus 33-34 in which God reveals that he is a saving and judging God. This is the “gravitational lodestone” of the Bible—a God who “defined himself as a saving and judging God, a God who saves through judgment” (63).

As Hamilton embarks on his journey through the Bible he utilizes the Hebrew structure of the Old Testament, which was probably the structure that the early Christian church used: The Law, the Prophets and the Writings. He seeks to describe each book and then show how each of the books and each major division contribute to the main theme of God’s glory in salvation through judgment. Thus, for example, he describes the centre of the theology of the Torah, the first five books of Moses, in the following way:

From the Garden to the plains of Moab, the Torah proclaims the glory of God in salvation through judgment. Yahweh speaks the world with a word and it is. When his word is broken, the creation itself is subjected to futility. In the judgment, though, comes a hint of future salvation. Some few hold to that hint, and the hints and promises grow, waiting for the day when the seed of the woman arises to crush the head of the serpent and his seed…the faith the Pentateuch teaches is faith in a God who is just and merciful, and it is not faith that is ultimate but God’s glory in the salvation through judgment that he will accomplish. (132-133)

This is classically shown in God’s salvation of his people from Egypt and in his judgment of the oppressive Egyptians. Salvation and judgment are the two sides of the same theological coin.

As Hamilton explores the Historical Books the quixotic quest continues. The conquest demonstrates the glory of God both in salvation—the gift of the land to the Israelites—and in judgment in the destruction of the Canaanites. Hamilton does not flinch from the difficult passages:

The total destruction of the inhabitants of the land is only just if the deity who calls for such a measure is worthy of all honor. If Yahweh’s worth is not so great that those who reject him have committed a crime that cries out for infinite justice, then the zero-tolerance policy against the people of the land is a brutal, unjust, ego-maniacal atrocity. (141)

Writing like this does nothing to please modern sensibilities, as Hamilton notes, but it needs to be borne in mind that the Bible was not written to cater to the sensibilities of twenty-first century postmodern, western culture. In Judges, the spiraling into sin of the Israelites leads to both judgment and salvation when the people repent. The book of Samuel becomes a virtual litany of the same when the mighty are brought down and judged and the lowly are lifted up and saved. In Samuel and Kings Yahweh shows mercy, promising an eternal dynasty to David, but David falls and his sins “were exaggerated in the sins of his sons; adultery to rape; murder to fratricide; several wives to hundreds of them” (187). The exile at the end of the Kings is a solemn reminder of the judgment that God brings upon human sin.

Following Miles[3] and Dempster,[4] Hamilton argues that with the beginning of the Latter Prophets the story-line of the Old Testament is suspended and commentary is provided by largely poetic books—the Latter Prophets and many of the Writings—before the narrative is resumed again by either Daniel or Esther and is continued until its end in Chronicles. The commentary section provides a dramatic pause to explain the storyline and to provide some perspective for its continuation into the future.

Thus, Isaiah provides a picture of a God exalted in justice and holiness, who judges but also saves his people from exile. In Ezekiel’s vision, God is transcendent both in judgment and salvation and he acts for his own glory. Jeremiah’s God smashes, uproots, pulls down and obliterates before he builds and plants. And the God of the various Minor Prophets does the same. The exile is clearly God’s judgment but it is not his last word.

In the Writings, the quest continues as Hamilton, citing Mays, points out that the “Psalms themselves …contain more direct statements about God than any other book in the two testaments of the Christian canon…The works of God and the attributes of God are the constant agenda of the Psalms” (277). The beginning of the Psalter shows two ways to live: the way of the righteous, which leads to salvation, and the way of the wicked, which leads to judgment. In Proverbs the order of the universe is such that the wicked are judged and the righteous live lives that glorify Yahweh. Similar points are made regarding Ecclesiastes and Job and are nuanced accordingly. In my judgment, some problems are encountered in the quest in books like Lamentations where the negative note of judgment predominates and there is little of the note of salvation, and in the Song of Solomon where the positive note of union and blessing proliferates while judgment is largely absent.

My description of the New Testament will be rather brief since I am not a New Testament scholar and I do not wish to expand this review to inordinate length. A similar narrative structure is observed in the New Testament with the Gospels and Acts functioning as narrative, the Letters functioning as commentary and the Apocalypse resuming the narrative to continue to the end of time. Each of the Gospels provides its own treatment of the life of Christ, but in each the passion narrative is crucial in which judgment is suffered by Jesus so that salvation can come to his people. Similarly, in Acts the early church preaches this message to the ends of the earth, and in the Letters there are further expansions and elaborations of this essential message. The Apocalypse brings everything to a grand conclusion with a return to Eden as the world is both judged and saved and Eden is restored. A final chapter considers some objections of contemporary theologians to this theme.

EVALUATION OF THE QUEST

What is to be said about this quest? Is it successful? I think that there are many good points about Hamilton’s book. And I will focus on the strengths first and then suggest ways where the analysis could perhaps be sharpened.

Strong Points

Hamilton observes a strange but obvious omission in our narcissistic culture: that God is God is God. As such, God being concerned for God’s own glory is a function of God’s unique transcendence. This means that he will act for that glory to show who he is—and therefore what is really true—by judging and by saving. The saving aspect gets a lot of attention in theologies and sermons but not so much the judgment. To speak of God’s judgment nowadays consigns one to the asylum. But it is important to note that judgment is the reverse side of salvation. This is not the dark, “wild, unruly” side of God,[5] but is endemic to his nature. The holiness and justice and “God-ness” of God are revealed in the punishment of sin which violates God’s own character and the way he has ordered the universe. There is no question that in a culture like ours which trivializes sin, this is a relevant point in Scripture. Hamilton performs a needed service in highlighting this point. A similar concern preoccupies a recent Old Testament theology of sin which utilizes the same literary methodology as Hamilton: Mark Boda notes that sin is not merely forgiven in the Old Testament, it is judged. And forgiveness should result in an impetus to a new way of life.[6]

Secondly, Hamilton does not write as an obscurantist who is preaching only to the choir. He interacts with many scholars, Christian and Jewish, conservative and liberal. He provides concise, often irenic, evaluations of their work in footnotes. This secondary research is also extremely current. I appreciated very much this interaction which provides scholars and lay persons alike with opportunities to pursue other themes that Hamilton encounters on his quest.

Hamilton’s book also provides many exegetical insights. His description of Genesis against its ancient near eastern context highlights the majesty and unique glory of the biblical God. He demonstrates that the depiction of the creation of Eve in its ancient context shows the radical dignity of the female in the Bible. He exposes the revolutionary nature of the command to love God in Deuteronomy since anything like it is off the theological radar screen in the ancient world. He argues that the depiction of the creation as a temple in which the image of God is placed as the last act of creation shows that the greatest creative act—the creation of humanity—is about doxology. Hamilton deftly points out the significance of the fall narrative which is downplayed if not denied by many Old Testament interpreters. He observes in the giving of the Decalogue that the absolute power of Yahweh deabsolutizes every other power and makes Israel a unique phenomenon in the ancient world. He makes a number of references to the contemporary relevance of texts, including his observation that the idolatry in Isaiah’s time might have its counterpart in the cult of the female body today, which is worshipped by all and sundry, leading women to define their identity by a cultural standard which leads to psychological disease which inevitably destroys their own bodies.

Places Where the Analysis Could Be Sharpened

Nevertheless, there are some ways that the analysis could be sharpened, and I make these observations in the spirit of another knight-errant in biblical theology who believes in the quest.

A vital insight of the book is the study of the narrative structure of the Bible which helps to discern “the unfolding drama of redemption” as Graham Scroggie once described it.[7] While Hamilton methodically provides insightful inductive analyses of each book in canonical sequence and shows how each book contributes to the major theme, I think that this could be further developed. The larger Story is not one-dimensional. And although the Bible is a coherent Story, it is a sprawling one, a sort of ramshackle narrative with many stops and starts, dead ends and detours, and any number of high and low points.[8] Often it is only the perspective gained from a later point in the story that enables one to see the overall shape of the narrative. This perspective would indicate that the revelation of the divine name in Exodus is one of the early narrative peaks. In fact one scholar has pointed out that everything before this revelation could be called the Old Testament of the Old Testament.[9] Hamilton unpacks this revelation nicely but it would be helpful to see its place in the big picture of the overall Story itself. God is now revealing his name! And the enigmatic character of that name (I am who I am/will be who I will be) anticipates the further filling out of its content as the narrative unfolds. Thus the revelation of the name which sets the bush near the mountain on fire, and later sets the mountain itself on fire, and later still sets Moses’ face on fire is an amazing development. For, as Moses learns, the meaning of the name is unpacked in terms of grace and mercy as well as judgment, and he descends the burning mountain with the tablets of the law, not to smash them but to provide the basis for a new society which is granted a second life because of God’s mercy. Similarly, when the New Testament begins by continuing the narrative of the Old Testament in Matthew, it rewinds itself four times to give four different pictures of the life of Christ! There is nothing like such repetition in the entire Bible. The reader of the larger Story is being told in clear and plain terms: “This is important!” And within the Gospels themselves it is no accident that John, the Gospel of glory, concludes the meditation on the life of Christ. Here there are clearly four huge theological Everests in succession making the centre of biblical theology absolutely clear. The content of the divine name has been filled out finally in Jesus Christ the Lord. This is what Jesus himself said, that everything in the Old Testament was about this event.[10]

As I see it, this understanding of the entire shape of the Story clarifies an important difference between biblical theology and systematic theology. Biblical theology gives a sense of integration to the biblical message because it connects all the dots in the story, but it also is able to discern a sense of proportion so that at the end of the study one is able to see that one set of facts is more important than another. When Jesus excoriated the Pharisees for losing sight of the forest for the trees, he was engaging in biblical theology.[11] Thus it is an important “bridge” discipline connecting exegesis and systematics, and it should show the major points on which systematic theology should concentrate. Without biblical theology, systematic theology has no sense of proportion.

As I alluded to before, sometimes Hamilton overstates the presence of his main theme. I don’t think it is necessary to repeat the theme after each book study but that is more of a stylistic matter. But there are clearly some books where salvation is emphasized to the virtual exclusion of judgment  and vice-versa (e.g. Lamentations, Song of Songs, Philemon), and there are other books where  I think the glory of God is shown in very different ways than what one would normally think. I think that Irenaeus’s statement that “the glory of God is man fully alive” could help more fully describe the statements about the wise and the foolish in Proverbs. The virtuous wife is thus a culminating, powerful display of this glory at the end of Proverbs, where human and divine glory shine through in all her activities, and the adulteress in Proverbs 7 is the negative image of this glory, a woman who lurks and preys in the dark, whose bed is found in hell itself. Similarly Job in all his suffering and lament is a reflection of the glory of God, while the polar opposite is Satan, who does not believe anyone can truly love God for who God is in himself.

Finally, there are two further points I would like to make about the book. Hamilton astutely deals with the criticism that for God to seek his own glory would make God the greatest egotist of all, and thus God engages in an activity that he condemns for human beings. As Hamilton indicates, this criticism does not really understand the “God-ness” of God. To seek to honor someone or something above God would make God not God and would be idolatry.

The idea that God is the only being who can be full of himself without leading to pride is an important observation, but this is because not only does all power reside in God but all love as well. When power is separated from love in human beings, as it nearly always is, then this results in further corruption. In the words of Lord Acton, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But God is the only being who can legitimately be full of himself because in love he is constantly emptying himself. Consequently, this has tremendous implications for what happened at the centre point in the Story: the cross. The greatest exaltation of God’s glory is found in his emptying himself, taking the form of a servant . . . and being obedient unto death, even to death on a cross” (Phil. 2:7-8). This, of course, is an area where biblical theology needs help from systematic theology. It is the doctrine of the Trinity which can clarify this emptying and filling, for God is a being in relationship who can be described as Love, and Love cannot exist apart from relationship.

One final note concerns the “theological lodestone” which Hamilton discovers in Exodus 34:6-7. I agree that he has found an important piece of the theological puzzle. But I only note that there is a sense in which judgment is God’s strange work.[12] His first desire is to shower mercy, salvation, and grace. When Yahweh recites the meaning of his name to Moses after the sin of the golden calf and Moses’ successful intercession, he says,

6The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful andgracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7 keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation. (Ex. 34:6-7)

Traditional Jewish theology counts thirteen attributes of God here (the divine name is counted twice). But it is important to note that the attributes of mercy greatly outnumber the attributes of justice. Furthermore, the attributes of mercy are all “front-loaded.” Similarly, in the helpful tracing of this “Apostles’ Creed of the Old Testament” throughout Scripture which Hamilton provides, there are some twenty references to it in the Old Testament. Thirteen of these twenty focus on grace alone. I think there is something fundamental here about the divine nature, that God’s first move is always grace and that judgment is a last resort. This is why the gospel is gospel—good news! God takes the judgment on himself so that there can be salvation. Of course the gospel is preceded by the bad news of the human condition and impending judgment, but nevertheless the dominant strain is good news.

CONCLUSION

In his novel Life After God, the Canadian author Douglas Coupland writes about a few blind tourists in Stanley Park, Vancouver getting off the subway and handing a camera to a stranger while requesting that he take their picture.[13] Coupland notes that even though they are blind, they still believe in sight. There is a note of instruction here for theologians and lay people alike as we seek to study the Bible. All our best efforts can be described as seeing through a glass darkly.[14] The fact that no theological centre has been found does not mean that there is none. It points to our human condition. I personally think that it is far from pejorative to refer to James Hamilton as a “theologian-errant” in the manner of Don Quixote. He believes in vision, and he believes in the quest. While God and his word are inerrant, all our theology partakes of errancy. As Hamilton has come back from his quest, in stressing the glory of God in salvation through judgment he has certainly pointed us all in the right direction.

[1] E.g., “The Glory of God in Salvation through Judgment: The Centre of Biblical Theology?,” Tyndale Bulletin 57 (2006) 57-84; “The Skull Crushing Seed of the Woman: Inner-Biblical Interpretation of Genesis 3:15” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 10 (2006) 30-54; “The Messianic Music of the Song of Songs,” Westminster Theological Journal, 68 (2006) 331-45;  God’s Indwelling Presence. New American Commentary Studies in Bible and Theology Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2006; “The Seed of the Woman and the Blessing of Abraham,” Tyndale Bulletin 58 (2007) 257-73.

[2] Robin Routledge, Old Testament Theology: A Thematic Approach (Downer Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2009), 313.
[3] Jack Miles, God: A Biography (New York: Vintage, 1996).
[4] Stephen G. Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty: A Biblical Theology of the Hebrew Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003).
[5] Walter Brueggemann, Theology Of The Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005), 271.
[6] Mark J. Boda, A Severe Mercy: Sin and Its Remedy in the Old Testament (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2009).
[7] W. Graham Scroggie, The Unfolding Drama of Redemption (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Classics, 1995).
[8] For the words “ramshackle and sprawling” to describe narrative see D. Steinmetz, “Uncovering a Second Narrative:  Detective Fiction and the Construction of Historical Method,” in Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays, The Art of Reading Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003) 54-65.
[9] R. W. L. Moberly, The Old Testament of the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1992).
[10] Luke 24:25-27.
[11] Matt. 23:23-24.
[12] Isaiah 28:21.
[13] Douglas Coupland, Life After God (New York: Washington Square Press, 1995), 338.
[14] 1Cor. 13:12.

By:
Stephen Dempster

Stephen Dempster is Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada.