What Is Biblical Theology?: A Guide to the Bible's Story, Symbolism, and Patterns

What Is Biblical Theology?: A Guide to the Bible's Story, Symbolism, and Patterns

by James M. Hamilton Jr.


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781433537714
Publisher: Crossway
Publication date: 11/30/2013
Pages: 128
Sales rank: 846,715
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

James M. Hamilton Jr. (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is professor of biblical theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and preaching pastor at Kenwood Baptist Church. He is the author of God's Glory in Salvation through Judgment and the Revelation volume in the Preaching the Word commentary series.

Read an Excerpt



Sitting uneasily in his chair, straining for breath, he tilted his head toward his wife, nodded in the direction of my three sons, and said, "It's good for them to be here."

Looking at me he continued, gasping out the words, "We wanted to hide things like this. But it's good for these boys to see me dying. Death is real."

Later that night, his wife of more than fifty years became a widow.

Knowing that life was leaving his body, he saw right through our medicated, sanitized, hedonistic culture. He could ignore death no longer, and he was convinced others shouldn't either. There was no avoiding it, so he looked it in the face and affirmed the goodness of the true story of the world. His approaching death was like a strong wind blowing away a fog of falsehood. A better understanding of the world broke through, as it had been doing since he was born again.

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?

In the throes of death that night, my older brother in Christ was rejecting false stories of the world. He refused to live his last moments informed by stories that would have people pretend death isn't real or fear what lies beyond it.

He wouldn't have put it in these words, but he was affirming that it is good for children to see that the Bible's story is real. That's what he meant when he said that it was good for my boys (ages six, three, and one at the time) to be there as his body fought through its failing moments.

Will it take the nearness of your own death for you to reject false stories in favor of reality?

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 that story, and the ways they read later parts of the story by the light that emanates from its earlier parts.

The Bible has a narrative arc that begins at creation, rises over all that has been and will be, and lands at the end of all things. The prophetic and poetic parts of the Bible provide interpretive commentary on the story, and the apocalypses unveil the way things are and will be.

The Bible's big story, this overarching narrative, is also built out of smaller stories. At the same time, the stories told in the Old Testament work together to set up a mystery resolved in Christ. Have you noticed the clues and hints that build to the climactic revelation?

Let's think more about what biblical theology is, and then we'll turn to the Bible's big story, the symbols that summarize and interpret the story, and the church's place in it.



What is biblical theology? The phrase biblical theology is used here to refer to the interpretive perspective of the biblical authors.

What is an "interpretive 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. Moses didn't recount everything that Balaam said and did in the instances presented in Numbers 22–24. Moses selected what he wanted, arranged it with care, and presented the true story. The presentation of Balaam's oracles that Moses gives us in the book of Numbers is already an interpretation of them, and because I believe that Moses was inspired by the Holy Spirit, I hold that his interpretation makes his account of the Balaam oracles more true, not less. More true because the way Moses selected, arranged, and presented (i.e., interpreted) enables his audience to see more clearly how what Balaam said and did fits into the true story of the world Moses tells in the Pentateuch.

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.

The previous sentence mentions various kinds of literature. The Bible is a book, and the men who wrote the sixty-six books that make up the Bible were engaged authors. That means we have to think about literature as we think about interpreting the Bible. A short guide like this cannot exhaust these topics, but it can point to the path and offer some thoughts on how to stay on it. Our struggle is not against flesh and blood. The study of biblical theology is like a quest to become someone who can pull down strongholds with weapons mighty to God. For the quest to succeed we must learn to destroy arguments and lofty opinions raised against the knowledge of God, taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:3–5). Welcome to this entry point on the path toward becoming a biblical theologian. With the Lord's help, the quest will take you into another world, the thought-world that is biblical theology.

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 (I once heard a biblical scholar declare, "Systematic theology is bad; biblical theology is good").

After the Enlightenment, certain ways of thinking about the world fell out of fashion in the academy. Particularly, the Bible's. Heretics who styled themselves as courageous free thinkers chucked ideas that had prevailed among students of the Bible — biblical ideas about God's sovereignty, the inspiration of Scripture, and the coherence and unity of the Bible's message.

The story the Bible tells was rejected, and an alternative was put in its place. The evidence for this alternative narrative exists in the "scholarly" imagination. This alternative narrative has its own time line, its own authors, and its own account of what really went down: evolutionary development, competing ideologies, the documentary hypothesis, and so forth. On this reading, what the biblical texts say and the story the Bible tells is mere propaganda.

We have seen a world of responses to the influence of the (so-called) Enlightenment on biblical interpretation. One might say the responses have ranged from pole to pole.

At the South Pole the liberal response to the Enlightenment was to develop the academic discipline of biblical theology as a way to sift the wheat from the chaff. Liberal academics sought to discern which parts of the Bible's theology remained relevant and which parts no longer were. Someone doing biblical theology in this way today might employ the method to argue that the Bible endorses same-sex marriage and denounces the use of fossil fuel. If the text as a whole is not authoritative, it easily conforms to our agenda.

From the North Pole, the conservative response to the Enlightenment at many points sought to use biblical theology to reassert the unity of the Bible. In an effort to establish common ground and persuade skeptics, conservatives (at least for the sake of argument) conceded the chucked ideas. They were trying to prove the Bible's coherence to those who thought its unity had been shattered, so they resorted to methods and assumptions developed by and approved in the unbelieving guild. These methods and assumptions naturally placed limits on what the Bible could say.

There is of course a vast terrain between these two poles, plenty of room for a variety of "biblical theological" programs. You might have a scholar trained at the South Pole (in a liberal environment) who critiques the excesses of "Antarctica" (the left) from a biblical theological perspective. Conservatives get really excited about these types. Or you might have a scholar trained on the North Pole denying the existence of true north. These scholars find themselves the darlings of post-evangelical publishers.

The thing to note about these poles is that they're on the same planet. That is, the biblical theologians going about their work these ways, whether starting from North Pole or South, are all living in the same world, breathing the same air, sharing the same assumptions. But what if biblical theology is a bridge going somewhere else? What if it's a way to get out of one world into another?

This book is not trying to be a compass you can use to go north or south. It's trying to help you find treasure in the trash. The way of thinking modeled and taught by the Bible's authors was scrapped, but when we pull these ideas out of the garbage, we find them worth more than the million-dollar painting Tres Personajes that Elizabeth Gibson found in the trash on the street in New York City.

Our aim is to trace out the contours of the network of assumptions reflected in the writings of the biblical authors. 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.

I hasten to add that the Holy Spirit inspired the biblical authors. That gave them a level of certainty about their interpretive conclusions that we cannot have about ours because the Holy Spirit does not inspire us and guarantee our inerrancy. If he did, our books would be added to the canon of Scripture, which is not happening. Still, we're called to follow the apostles as they followed Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 11:1), and part of doing that means learning to interpret Scripture, redemptive history, and the events that happen to us the way the biblical authors did, even if absolute certainty eludes us.

What I'm suggesting is that the Bible teaches Christians how the Bible should be read. Studying biblical theology is the best way to learn from the Bible how to read the Bible as a Christian should. By the same token, studying the Bible is the best way to learn biblical theology.

How should a follower of Jesus read the Bible? The way Jesus did. Jesus of Nazareth did not write any of the books in the Bible, but he taught the writers of the New Testament how to interpret earlier Scripture, redemptive history, and the events they were narrating and addressing. On the human level, Jesus learned the interpretive perspective he taught to his disciples from Moses and the Prophets.

So I'm arguing that the biblical authors operated from a shared interpretive perspective. They inhabited the same thought-world, breathed its air, and shared its assumptions. The world they lived in wasn't Darwin's. In their world we might find things for which we have no analogy and of which we have no experience. There is no analogy for the God of the Bible. He stands alone. We will experience him only if he reveals himself. In the Bible he has done just that. How do we come to know him? From his revelation of himself, from learning to read the Bible from the Bible itself. To learn to read the Bible is to learn to understand this world from the perspective of the biblical authors, which is to learn a divinely inspired perspective.

Moses learned and developed the ability to see the world this way from the accounts of God's words and deeds that he received, from his contemplation of what God had done in his own life, and from the inspiration of the Spirit of God. The biblical authors who followed Moses in the Old Testament, whether historians, prophets, psalmists, or sages, learned the interpretive perspective that Moses modeled for them and had it confirmed by other Scripture available to them. Jesus then learned to read the Bible, history, and life from Moses and the Prophets, and he taught this perspective to his followers (Luke 24). What we find in the New Testament, then, is Christ-taught, Spirit-inspired biblical interpretation.

The biblical authors model a perspective for interpreting the Bible, history, and current events. Should we adopt that perspective today? Absolutely. Why? I'm convinced that the biblical authors were inspired by the Holy Spirit, that God guided them to the truth by his Spirit, and that, therefore, they got it right.

I am confident that the apostles got it right and that those who would follow Jesus (Christians!) should follow the apostles as they followed Jesus (cf. 1 Cor. 11:1). I am also confident that as we try to follow Jesus by following the apostles, we will make mistakes. The history of interpretation is full of mistakes. We see through a glass darkly (1 Cor. 13:12). But again, the fact that the Spirit is not ensuring the inerrancy of our conclusions does not mean we should adopt an un- or a-biblical perspective when reading the Bible, thinking about redemptive history, or trying to understand our own lives. It does mean that we should hold our conclusions with humility, fight that manxome foe, and allow the Bible to correct us.

At this point I hope you want more — more of the Bible, mainly, but also more information on how to understand and embrace the network of assumptions modeled by the biblical authors. As mentioned above, a short book like this is a little like standing by that path that leads to the bridge that leads to a different world. The Jabberwock and the frumious Bandersnatch prowl the path, and you can take your chances starting from this point. I'm writing this book because I'm convinced that the world to which this path leads is worth any risk to reach.

There are more detailed descriptions of this path, even guided tours of it, but for those with an opportunity and an adventurous spirit, here's what this book has for you. The rest of it falls into three parts: the first sets out the Bible's big story, the second looks at the way the biblical authors use symbols to summarize and interpret that story, and the third considers the part the church plays in that story.

So the three parts of this book can be put into three words: story, symbol, and church. There's obviously more that could be said about biblical theology, but these are the three things about the path to the bridge into another world we'll focus on here: the overarching metanarrative that is the Bible's big story, the way the biblical authors use key symbols to summarize and interpret that story, and the place of the church in it.

If biblical theology is a way to get into another world, the world inhabited by the biblical authors, you have a right to understand my intentions. My hope is that you cross the bridge into their thought-world and never come back. I hope you will breathe the air of the Bible's world, recognize it as the real Narnia, and never want to leave.

If this happens, you will have come to inhabit the Bible's story. My prayer is that its symbols and patterns will shape the way you view the world, and that your understanding of the church's place in story and symbol will make you know the riches of God's inheritance in the saints (Eph. 1:18), the great power "he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead" (1:20), and the glory he displays in the church and in Christ Jesus forever (Eph. 3:21).

In brief, I hope that you will adopt the perspective of the biblical authors and that you will read the world from the Bible's perspective, rather than reading the Bible from the world's.



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.


The Bible is set in the world as we know it. Most of its story happens on the three bodies of land around the Mediterranean Sea, but the story is about the whole world. The Bible presents an interpretation of its own setting that gets at the meaning and purpose of this world God created.

Shakespeare showed his genius in a theater named the Globe. The place was aptly named, as Shakespeare held the mirror up to nature and depicted the world as it is. The real world where God shows his genius is the archetype of the theater where Shakespeare showed his. God built this stage to show his craft. The world is a theater for the display of God's glory.


Excerpted from "What Is Biblical Theology?"
by .
Copyright © 2014 James M. Hamilton Jr..
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1 A Better World Breaks Through 11

2 What Is Biblical Theology? 15

Part 1 The Bible's Big Story

3 The Narrative 27

4 Plot: Conflict, Episodes, and Theme 35

5 The Mystery 43

Part 2 The Bible's Symbolic Universe

6 What Do Symbols Do? 61

7 Imagery 67

8 Typology 77

9 Patterns 87

Part 3 The Bible's Love Story

10 A Song for the Lady in Waiting: The Bride of Christ and Biblical Theology 95

11 The Church's Identity in the Story 99

12 The Church's Setting in the story 105

13 The Church's Plot Tension and Its Resolution 109

Epilogue 115

For Further Reading 117

Acknowledgments 119

General Index 121

Scripture Index 124

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

What Is Biblical Theology? confirms Jim Hamilton’s reputation as a top-shelf thinker and a wickedly good writer. This slim volume builds on the presupposition that the capacious biblical narrative—sixty-six books written by numerous authors and including stories, poems, proverbs, letters, and apocalypses—possesses a deep inner unity. Its unity arises from its divine inspiration, and it is in fact the true story of the whole world. Hamilton teaches his readers to engage in biblical theology, allowing the biblical story to shape us and conform us to God’s will.”
Bruce Riley Ashford, Professor of Theology and Culture, Dean of Faculty, and Provost, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

Theology is a word that comes with baggage. Most people, like me, find their brains shutting down a little at its mention, mainly because it stirs up the same sort of feelings as words like calculus and dentist appointment. But from the outset of this book James Hamilton assures us he’s not performing mental acrobatics (though I'm sure he could if he wanted to). Rather, he’s showing us that if the Bible is a story, and God is a storyteller, then biblical theology is less like math and more like literature; it’s less like a cold study of the chemical properties of paint and more like gazing at a Van Gogh. This is a book I wish I could have read a long time ago.”
Andrew Peterson, singer/songwriter; author, The Wingfeather Saga series; Founder, The Rabbit Room

“This short, accessible book shows how we can move away from making the Bible all about us, reducing it to just another self-help book. Anyone who reads What Is Biblical Theology? will begin to discover what the Bible is really about and will have more ‘Now I get it!’ experiences as it equips readers to trace the thematic threads and story-line resolutions of the Bible from beginning to end.”
Nancy Guthrie, author, Even Better than Eden: Nine Ways the Bible’s Story Changes Everything about Your Story

“Disoriented Bible reading leads to disoriented living. Too often the Bible reader parachutes into a passage without understanding the immediate context or the overarching context of the entire Bible. Getting oriented to the whole story of the Bible is the only way to right interpretation and right living. Gaining this whole-Bible interpretive perspective is the burden of biblical theology, and Jim Hamilton has given us an outstanding introduction to this import yet neglected discipline. If the interpretive approach of Hamilton’s book is applied, the reader will be able to better understand God’s Word, know the mind of Christ, and glorify God.”
Erik Thoennes, Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies, Chair, Biblical and Theological Studies Theology Department, Talbot School of Theology, Biola University; Pastor, Grace Evangelical Free Church, La Mirada, California

“It is always a delight to read a book written by someone saturated in Scripture. This is one of those books.”
Douglas Wilson, Senior Fellow of Theology, New St. Andrews College; Pastor, Christ Church, Moscow, Idaho

“It is an exciting privilege to watch and benefit from ‘the coming of age’ of the discipline of biblical theology in our generation. But in the explosion of literature we have needed a simple, brief, popular-level introduction—someone to provide us with an aerial view of the forest before we begin making our way among all the trees. This is what Jim Hamilton has done for us here. What Is Biblical Theology? provides a very helpful jump start for beginning students, and students of all levels will be blessed in the reminder of the marvelous patterns and themes that make Scripture such a glorious book.”
Fred G. Zaspel, Pastor, Reformed Baptist Church, Franconia, Pennsylvania; author, The Theology of B. B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary and Warfield on the Christian Life: Living in Light of the Gospel

“I am truly amazed at all that Jim Hamilton has packed into this little volume. What Is Biblical Theology? is an engagingly written distillation of years of both scholarly and devotional study of the Bible. The reader will find a succinct, clear, and compelling guide to the overarching story of Scripture. It will be at the top of my list of books to recommend for any who want to better understand the Bible, the world, and their place in God’s story. This is a gift for which I am exceedingly thankful.”
Rob Lister, Associate Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies, Talbot School of Theology

“Want to know your Bible better? Of course you do! Jim Hamilton can help. What Is Biblical Theology? is a manual for seeing how the many books of the Bible tell the one story about Jesus Christ: who he is and what he has done. Dr. Hamilton will help you love Jesus more by understanding your Bible better.”
C.J. Mahaney, Senior Pastor, Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville

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What Is Biblical Theology?: A Guide to the Bible's Story, Symbolism, and Patterns 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
mojo_turbo More than 1 year ago
James M. Hamilton is the associate professor of biblical theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kentucky. He's the author of several books including his new one; What is Biblical Theology? A Guide to the Bible's Story, Symbolism and Patterns. And you'd think a book with such a long title might be long and unapproachable, but truthfully Mr. Hamilton writes a wonderful starter on such a grand topic. Each chapter guides the reader through the over-arching theme of scripture which is a pursuant creator who tirelessly reaches down to creation to protect, love and bestow His grace. Mr. Hamilton does a great job breaking the walls down between New and Old Testament or even chapter and verse to pull the curtain back on reading the Bible as a single work. Often times I felt that I was in a Church service with Mr. Hamilton, or even in one of his classes and I could just picture him speaking. Again, this is not a text book - it reads like a conversation - it reads like Mr Hamilton is with you, guiding you through the pages of the Bible and he's telling his own story along the way. I acquired this book, hoping that it would be a good reference in our Church library and I am pleased that it is exactly what I was hoping for. This would make a wonderful introduction to the scriptures for a new believer, or even make great source material for a sermon series on the word of God. Well recommended.  Thank you to Crossway books for this advanced copy in exchange for a fair and honest review.