WHAT IS BIBLICAL THEOLOGY? – James M. Hamilton Jr. (2014)

Biblical Theology is “interpretive perspective reflected in the way the biblical authors 1433537710_bhave 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.”  So says, James Hamilton in his latest work, What is Biblical Theology?

Hamilton is no stranger to the world of biblical theology.  In 2010, he wrote God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment, a book that I devoured and greatly benefitted from.  In many ways, What is Biblical Theology? could serve as a sort of introduction to the earlier work as it summarizes the important discipline of Biblical Theology.

The sub-title accurately reflects the essential nature of the book: “A Guide to the Bible’s Story, Symbolism, and Patterns.”  One important question that Hamilton addresses is, “How is God going to bless Gentiles in Abraham’s seed?”  Ultimately we learn that “all families of the earth will be blessed in the seed of Abraham, Jesus the Messiah” (Gal. 3:14-16).  But Hamilton leaves no room for ambiguity here: “Gentile Christians enjoy all the blessings given to Israel in the Old Testament” (Eph. 1:3-14).

The emphasis on continuity is a breath of fresh air, especially to one like myself who was trained with the presuppositions of classical dispensationalism.  The remainder of the book explores these and related themes.  In the final sense, the author seeks to draw readers into the drama of the biblical plot line.  Of course, he should receive high marks for writing a book that mines out the deep truths of Scripture in clear and winsome ways.

Readers who are interested in other works of biblical theology should turn to The King in His Beauty by Tom Schreiner and Kingdom Through Covenant: A Biblical Understanding of the Covenants by Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum.

5 stars

 

Advertisements

A DIVINE AND SUPERNATURAL LIGHT – Jonathan Edwards (1734)

Jonathan_Edwards_engravingJonathan Edwards would have been rightly horrified at the anti-intellectualism of the 21st century church; a rugged anti-intellectualism that has the church by the throat.  When he preached the sermon, “A Divine and Supernatural Light” in 1734 he could have never predicted the opposition to the Christian mind in our days.

Edwards presents his doctrine in typical Puritan form: “That there is such a thing as a spiritual and divine light, immediately imparted to the soul by God, of a different nature from any that is obtained by natural means.”

A Description of the Light

Edwards begins negatively by showing what the light is not.

1. The spiritual and divine light is not common grace

“These convictions that natural men may have of their sin and misery, is not this spiritual and divine light … Common grace differs from special, in that it influences only by assisting of nature; and not by imparting grace, or bestowing any thing above nature.”

2. The spiritual and divine light is not an impression upon the imagination.

3. The spiritual and divine light is not a new truth or revelation.

Edwards proceeds to show what this spiritual light consists of.

1. It is a real sense of the excellency of Christ and the works of God revealed in the gospel..

“He that is spiritually enlightened truly apprehends and sees it, or has a sense of it.  He does not merely rationally believe that God is glorious, but he has a sense of the gloriousness of God in his heart … There is a difference between having a rational judgment that honey is sweet, and having a sense of its sweetness.”  John Piper has rightly noted that this involves “seeing and savoring” God.

Edwards adds, “But when a person has discovered to him the divine excellency of Christian doctrines, this destroys the enmity, removes those prejudices, sanctifies the reason, and causes it to lie open to the force of arguments for their truth.”

2. It helps the faculty of reason and removes hindrances to the faculty of reason.

The Originator of the Light

Edwards argues that God alone if the Originator of divine and supernatural light.  He argues strenuously that such light is not obtained by natural means.

1. God makes use the natural faculties which receive the divine and supernatural light.

2. God reveals the divine and supernatural light through the gospel.

3. God uses means to reveal the divine and supernatural light.  Here Edwards makes a strong appeal to the ministry of the Holy Spirit: “But the sense of the excellency of Christ by reason of that holiness and grace, is nevertheless immediately the work of the Holy Spirit.”

The Truth of the Doctrine

Edwards maintains this doctrine is both scriptural and rational.  He adds, “Reason’s work is to perceive truth and not excellency.”

The conclusion of the Puritan divine as duly noted: “This knowledge will wean from the world, and raise the inclination to heavenly things.  It will turn the heart to God as the fountain of good, and to choose him for the only portion … It conforms the heart to the gospel, mortifies its enmity and opposition against the scheme of salvation therein revealed: it conforms the heart to embrace the joyful tidings, and entirely to adhere to, and acquiesce in the revelation of Christ as our Savior … and it effectually disposes the soul to give up itself entirely to Christ.”

A Divine and Supernatural Light is a short and readable sermon that exposes the heart of Jonathan Edwards and his love for the gospel.  Oh, that writers in our generation would write with the Christ-saturated joy of the man from Northampton.

FIVE POINTS – John Piper (2013)

I remember fighting the doctrines of grace during my university days.  Perhaps it was the moniker, “Calvinism” that put me on edge.  I remember believing in perseverance1781912521_b of the saints (inconsistently I might add), but rejecting the other points of Calvinism.  While I affirmed the doctrine of sin, like all Arminians – I refused to embrace the doctrine of radical depravity.  I held to election according to foreknowledge but denied the doctrine of unconditional election.  I believed that God’s grace could be resisted in an ultimate sense (which is rooted in a robust belief in libertarian free will) and I found the doctrine of limited atonement deplorable.

I remember battling with my roommate in Bible College, mustering every argument I could to defend my rather fragile Arminian stance.  However, in the late 80’s my Arminian worldview came apart at the seams and my semi-Pelagian presuppositions were rendered useless on the safe shore of God’s truth.  First, the book of Romans dealt a devastating blow to my man-centered theological views.  Ephesians, the Gospel of John, and Galatians moved in and graciously woke me up.  R.C. Sproul’s book, Chosen by God confirmed what I was learning about the doctrines of grace and God’s redemptive purposes.  John Piper’s book, The Pleasures of God played a huge role in my thinking during those days.

Five Points by John Piper is a short but powerful summary of the doctrines of grace.  The author’s aim is to “persuade the mind concerning biblical truth and thus awaken a deeper experience of God’s sovereign grace.”  And he succeeds at every level.  The historical roots of the debate are explored which provide a helpful context to this much debated topic.  Piper maintains, “These five points are still at the heart of biblical theology.  They are not unimportant.  Where we stand on these things deeply affects our view of God, man, salvation, the atonement, regeneration, assurance, worship, and missions.”

The next five chapters unpack the doctrines of grace, carefully.  While Piper rightly utilizes logic, the main driver is Scripture – which supports the five points throughout.  The arguments are clear and compelling and serve to magnify the greatness of God’s worth and lead worshippers to a deeper experience of God’s grace.

Piper includes some helpful personal reflections and shares how the doctrines of grace have revolutionized his life:

1. These truths make me stand in awe of God and lead me into the depth of true God-centered worship.

2. These truths help protect me from trifling with divine things.

3. These truths make me marvel at my own salvation.

4. These truths make me alert to man-centered substitutes that pose as good news.

5. These truths make me groan over the indescribable disease of our secular, God-belittling culture.

6. These truths make me confident that the work which God planned and began, he will finish – both globally and personally.

7. These truths make me see everything in the light of God’s sovereign purposes – that from him and through him and to him are all things, to him be glory forever, and ever.

8. These truths make me hopeful that God has the will, the right, and the power to answer prayer that people be changed.

9. These truths remind me that evangelism is absolutely essential for people to come to Christ and be saved, and that there is great hope for success in leading people to faith but that conversion is not finally dependent on me or limited by the hardness of the unbeliever.

10. These truths make me sure that God will triumph in the end.

In the end, John Piper makes his point and leaves no room for misunderstanding.  This powerful little primer deserves a wide readership and is destined to help many as their navigate their way to the Celestial City.  Soli Deo Gloria!

THE KING IN HIS BEAUTY: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments – Thomas R. Schreiner (2013)

The King In His Beauty by Tom Schreiner is a book about biblical theology.  But my suspicion is 0801039398_bthe author would agree enthusiastically with my assertion that the book is a worship manual.  Schreiner’s work weighs in at 646 pages.  Each page is filled with heart-warming theology and mind-stretching propositions.  But when the work is considered as a whole – it is, in the final analysis a worship manual.

The book is arranged in nine parts.

Part 1: Creation to the Edge of Canaan

Part 2: The Story of Possession, Exile, and Return

Part 3: lsrael’s Songs and Wisdom

Part 4: Judgment and Salvation in the Prophets

Part 5: The Kingdom in Matthew, Mark, and Luke-Acts

Part 6: Eternal Life in the Gospel and Epistles of John

Part 7: The End of Ages Has Come According to the Apostle Paul

Part 8: Living in the Last Days According to the General Epistles

Part 9: The Kingdom Will Come

Schreiner makes it clear that Redemptive history is going somewhere: “The Scriptures promise that there will be a new heaven and a new earth – a new creation where the glory of God will illumine the cosmos.  So, the kingdom of God has a threefold dimension, focusing on God as King, on human beings as subjects of the King, and the universe as the place where his kingship is worked out.”

The author demonstrates over and over again that Christ is the King; Christ intends to fulfill his promises; that the offspring of the woman will be the Victor; he will triumph over the serpent through the son of David (Gen. 3:15).  He reiterates the theme that runs throughout the Scripture, namely, the theme of judgment followed by salvation.  But the most penetrating reality in Schreiner’s work is the main truth he wishes to communicate, namely, the people of God will see the King in his beauty.

This is the book I’ve been searching for since my days as a Seminary student.  For years, I was taught the distinctives of classical Dispensationalism that saw two peoples of God, a distinction between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven, a rigid distinction between Israel and the church, and a pre-tribulational rapture.  Schreiner is not content to rest in the land of classical dispensational theology, a terrain that is filled with horrible hermeneutics and wacky exegetical propositions.   He moves forward and as far as I can tell, lands squarely in a historical premillennial arena.

One paragraph in particular is worth citing; a paragraph that has ended a thirty year search for answers to the dispensational dilemma.  Schreiner writes, “The coming of Jesus Christ means that the old covenant, the Sinai covenant, has passed away, and the new covenant has become a reality.  The promises of Abraham are being fulfilled in the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Now inclusion in the people of God is not restricted to Israel but is open to both Jews and Gentiles who believe in Jesus.  Those who trust in him are truly children of Abraham (emphasis mine).  Those who belong to Jesus Christ and who have received the gift of the Spirit are truly circumcised.  Those who are members of the new creation are the new and true Israel of God.  In the church of Jesus Christ the worldwide promises given to Abraham are becoming a reality, for Jews and Gentiles are one body in Christ, equally members of the people of God together” (p. 642).

Schreiner also clears up the essence of the land promises that are a major part of the dispensational warp and woof: “The new new heavens and the new earth fulfill the land promise given to the patriarchs, but now the promise encompasses the entire universe” (p 617).

The King in His Beauty is a fitting companion to recent works that have also jettisoned classical dispensational distinctives, namely, Kingdom Through Covenant by Gentry and Wellum and God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment by James Hamilton.  Indeed, it is an essential part of every pastoral toolbox.  But “toolbox” is the wrong metaphor.  The King in His Beauty is a treasure chest.  Readers who open this treasure chest will be immediately struck with the majesty, sovereignty, and the beauty of the Lord Jesus Christ!  Open the worship manual and respond rightly with God-centered worship!

Highly recommended

SIMPLY CHRISTIAN: Why Christianity Makes Sense – N.T. Wright (2010)

0061920622_lN.T. Wright has generated some controversy over the last several years.  That’s putting it mildly.  His views concerning the so-called new perspective on Paul have drawn the attention and criticism of well-known authors like John Piper.  But his book Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense jettisons that whole debate.  I found the book to be thought-provoking and helpful on many levels.

Wright explores what he calls the “echoes of a voice,” a yearning for justice, spirituality, relationships, and beauty.  Each one of these quests, while basic to the human condition eludes us and appears to be just beyond our grasp, yet each will be attainable one day as Christ makes all things new.  This is the essence of Part One.  He takes each theme and likens them to the “opening movements of a symphony” which alert readers to echoes that are still to come.

Part Two seeks to set forth the basic theological framework about God and the revelation of his Son, Jesus Christ and his plan to rescue sinners from their sin and renew or reshape creation.  Wright explores themes the relate to the kingdom of Christ and living by the Spirit.

Part Three explores what it means to follow Jesus, lean into the Holy Spirit and ultimately “advance the plan of this creator God.”  Wright dispels the notion that the main purpose of the Christian faith is to live, die, and then go to heaven.  Rather, we are called to be “instruments of God’s new creation, the world-put-to-rights which has already been launched in Jesus and of which Jesus’s followers are supposed to be not simply beneficiaries but also agents.”

One of the things I appreciate most about Wright’s work is his interaction with other worldviews.  In Schaeffer-like fashion, he contrasts historic Christianity with deism, pantheism, and panentheism – to name a few.  He sorts through various options and shows how the Christian faith is the only viable option.  In many ways, Simply Christian is an introduction to biblical theology with strong apologetic arguments along the way.  In other ways, it is an introduction to spiritual formation – alerting readers to the riches found in Christ and the power of his resurrection and beckoning them to find their satisfaction in Christ.

The author concludes by challenging readers:  “We are called to be part of God’s new creation, called to be agents of that new creation here and now.  We are called to model and display that new creation in symphonies and family life, in restorative justice and poetry, in holiness and service to the poor, in politics and painting … Christians are called to leave behind, in the tomb of Jesus Christ, all that belongs to the brokenness and incompleteness of the present world.  It is time, in the power of the Spirit, to take up our proper role, as agents, heralds, and stewards of the new day that  is dawning.”  This is a book that deserves careful attention.  Like a child who longs to explore the countryside, I plan to return for another visit — for there is more to explore and understand.

4 stars

KINGDOM THROUGH COVENANT – Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum (2012)

One of the thorniest theological dilemmas in my mind concerns two systems of thought, namely, Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology.  God found me and saved me by his grace in a Conservative Baptist Church that was heavily influenced by Classical Dispensationalism.  With the arrival of the third pastor, I learned the distinction between the church and Israel, various dispensations, two peoples of God, not to mention the so-called carnal Christian theory.  These notions particular to Classical Dispensational thought were fairly commonplace at the time and I accepted them uncritically.

My time in a well known Christian University continued to engrain dispensational distinctives into my mind.  But in 1988,  the theological tides began to shift.  It began with the publication of a book by John MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus.  MacArthur delivered a death nell to the so called “carnal Christian theory” and distanced himself from some of the primary tenets of dispensational theology.  At the same time, MacArthur was writing as a committed Dispensationalist, what we refer today as Progressive Dispensationalism.  The Gospel According to Jesus not only refuted some of the errors in Classical Dispensationalism; it also introduced readers to the Puritans and spoke in positive terms about Reformed theology – both subjects that were frowned upon by several professors in the Christian University I attended.

Kingdom Through Covenant by Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum, is in many ways the book that I have been waiting for.  The authors strive to forge a path between dispensationalism and covenant theology.  Their two-fold purpose is set forth at the beginning of the book: “First, we want to show how central the concept of ‘covenant’ is to the narrative plot structure of the Bible, and secondly, how a number of crucial theological differences within Christian theology, and the resolution of those differences, are directly tied to one’s understanding of how the biblical covenants unfold and relate to each other” (p. 21).

The thesis of Gentry and Wellum is that “the covenants constitute the framework of the larger story.  They are the backbone of the biblical narrative” (p. 138).  As such, God would sovereignly choose Israel to be his covenant representatives, “a light to the world of what it means to be properly related to God and to treat each other properly according to the dignity of our humanity” (p. 138).  But Israel failed.  They did not keep the Mosaic Covenant.  As a result they were cursed for their disobedience.  However, the Scripture speaks of a new covenant; a day when it would be possible to keep the covenant.  Jesus fulfilled prophecy and rescued Israel from the curse: “Then as King of Israel, he had to do what the nation as a whole had failed to do: bring blessing to the nations.  He accomplished both by dying on the cross” (p. 296).

In presenting the via media between dispensationalism and covenant theology, the authors aim to strike a biblical balance while paying a certain degree of homage to each respective school of thought.  In a pivotal moment, the authors appear to strike the necessary balance with a great deal of precision: “Contrary to covenant theology, which has a tendency to speak of God’s one plan of salvation in terms of the ‘covenant of grace,’ or ‘dispensational theology,’ which tends to partition history in terms of dispensations, it is more accurate to think in terms of a plurality of covenants, which are part of the progressive revelation of the one plan of God that is fulfilled in the new covenant” (p. 602).  The authors continue add, “In contrast to the other theological views, our proposal of ‘kingdom through covenant’ wants consistently to view and apply the previous covenants through the lens of Jesus’ person and work and the arrival of the new covenant age.”

Kingdom Through Covenant is written by two godly men who are fair-minded in their approach and careful to accurately describe their theological opponents.  While their proposal is fresh and bold, they in no way claim to have the final answer on this disputed matter.  Rather, this 716 page tome serves as the entry point for meaningful discussion.  Their approach is light years away from some of the mean-spirited polemics that took place between the proponents of covenant theology and dispensationalism in the 70-‘s and 80’s.  The church should receive the work of Gentry and Wellum as a gracious gift that will spark meaningful discussion for decades to come.  A fine work, indeed!

4.5 stars

GOD’S GLORY IN SALVATION THROUGH JUDGMENT – James Hamilton (2010)

God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment by James Hamilton is a theological tour de force.  The author rightly maintains that many evangelicals have lost the “theological center.”  And where there is no center, everything collapses.

Hamilton seeks to remedy this loss of a theological center by making a bold claim, namely – that there is unity in the Bible’s diversity.  His thesis is set forth at the beginning of the book and is defended for nearly 600 pages: “The glory of God in salvation through judgment is the center of biblical theology.”

The author makes it clear from the outset that he is engaged in the needed work of biblical theology: “The purpose of biblical theology is to sharpen our understanding of the theology contained in the Bible itself through an inductive, salvation-historical examination of the Bible’s themes and the relationships between those themes in their canonical context and literary form.”  The book sets out to accomplish this very task.

Prior to defending his thesis, Hamilton defines his terms: “The glory of God is the weight of the majestic goodness of who God is, and the resulting name, or reputation, that he gains from his revelation of himself as Creator,  Sustainer,  Judge, and Redeemer, perfect in justice and mercy, loving-kindness and truth.”  As such, the glory of God in salvation through judgment is:

  • God’s way of showing his glory and defining his own name.
  • the goal of God in redemptive history.
  • the pattern of the Bible’s metanarrative – creation, sin, exile, restoration.
  • the pattern of each major redemptive event in the Bible – fall, flood, exodus, exile from the land, the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the return of Christ.
  • the existential experience of individuals who are convinced of their sin, feel condemnation, trust God for mercy, and join him in seeking the glory of his great name.
  • the ground of the Bible’s ethical appeals – fear of judgment curbs behavior and keeps people on the path that leads to salvation.
  • the content of the praises of the redeemed.

With the foundation sufficiently in place, the author defends his thesis with a vengeance.  His typical pattern is to overview a book of the Bible and show how the theme of the book is consistent with his thesis.  Then, he painstakingly walks through each biblical book, linking the important themes that help shape his thesis.

I read God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment  from cover to cover and was greatly encouraged with Hamilton’s effort.  I intend to return to this book, each time I set out to preach or teach through a biblical book.

Hamilton concludes with a helpful application section:

“The center of biblical theology has application in the church, in Bible study, and in the prayer closet.  More significantly, it has application on the great day.  When God arises to judge the earth, he will display the glory of his justice and his mercy.  Those who have trusted in Jesus will be astonished at the mercy shown to them, and that mercy will be all the more precious in view of the everlasting display of justice God will visit on the objects of his wrath.”

5 stars