The journey into the ‘interpretive perspective’ of the biblical authors: A conversation with Dr. James M. Hamilton Jr.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Below, James M. Hamilton Jr., associate professor of biblical theology at Southern Seminary, discusses his new book, What Is Biblical Theology?, with Towers book review editor Matt Damico. A brief review of the book can be found here.
MD: Why did you write this book?
JH: I wrote the book because I perceive that there’s a general interest in biblical theology but a lack of clarity on what it is. So, if you ask someone, “What is biblical theology?” the answer is likely to trail on for several minutes. And I wanted to come up with a way to say what biblical theology is that could be put into one phrase and articulated cleanly, crisply and hopefully clearly so people could really get their hands around it, lock in on it and understand it.
MD: For whom did you write this book?
JH: I wrote it for anyone who’s interested in the Bible, whether that’s a housemaid or a professor who’s in another discipline, or maybe it’s a professor who’s in biblical studies and he wants to know exactly what biblical theology is. Anyone who can read, I hope, can read and appreciate what’s in this book. I hope people will always be growing in their understanding of Scripture and in their ability to interpret what’s going on in the Bible.
MD: What is biblical theology?
JH: In my opinion, biblical theology is the attempt to understand and embrace the interpretive perspective of the biblical authors.
MD: What do you mean by “interpretive perspective”?
JH: By “interpretive perspective,” I mean this shared set of assumptions and notions that are taken for granted when one communicator speaks to an audience or when a writer communicates for someone to read. For instance, in our culture, if we start talking about this football game that’s going to happen with a lot of commercials, and it’s going to be the N.F.L. championship, everyone knows we’re talking about the Super Bowl because the Super Bowl so pervades our culture. You don’t even need to explain the relationship between commercials and the Super Bowl; it’s just information that saturates our society. And, what I’m trying to draw attention to is the way that there are many truths and many ideas that saturated the world of the biblical authors, things that they took for granted, and things that, if we don’t understand what they’re talking about, it’s going to be very difficult to understand what they’re saying in their books.
MD: If this perspective is 2,000 years old, why should we try to get back there?
JH: We should try to get back to this perspective because God, by his Spirit, inspired these authors to communicate these truths within the context of this story and with these assumptions that they make. So, there are some people who want to argue that some of those assumptions the biblical authors make are actually wrong. This is in some ways the gist of Peter Enns’ argument, that people like Paul the apostle have assumed mythology that is false and incorrect and, therefore, you should not believe everything the Bible says. But I would argue that God so worked in the inspiration of the Scriptures that anything the biblical authors thought that was mistaken was not brought to bear on what they were writing. So God superintended the process, and as they wrote they were borne along by the Holy Spirit, and what they’ve communicated and what their writings reflect is all true and good for us. So, this is what we need to know and understand in order to be saved and in order to live lives that are pleasing to God.
MD: How does an average Bible reader adopt this interpretive perspective?
JH: The most important thing anyone should do in trying to become a biblical theologian is simply read the Bible a lot. Constantly immerse yourself in the Scriptures. And as you do this, if you read the Bible from a believing perspective, the assumptions the biblical authors make will begin to become your assumptions. And, if you’re reading it prayerfully, submissively, humbly and asking the Lord to renew your mind, you’ll begin to look at the world the way the biblical authors do. It will happen instinctively, even in situations where you might not expect it to.
For instance, when I lived in Houston, our next-door neighbors went to Lakewood Church, where Joel Osteen is the pastor. My next-door neighbor was a Christian, and he said to me one day, seeming like he had come to a profound conclusion, “You know, the Bible has good news, but there’s bad news in there, too.” He felt the need to articulate that because the Spirit had worked in his heart and because he was approaching the Scriptures humbly and submissively. Even though only one side of it was being emphasized where he went to church, he was able to see there’s more to this story than what he was being told. So, I say just read the Bible.
MD: How has your background as an English major influenced how you read and
JH: Well, at one level, being an English major could be a detriment because of the range of ways people are taught to read. But, by God’s grace, influences on me have pushed me to the view that we should try to read to understand what the authors intended to communicate. So, in other words, we should pursue the intent of the author of this text. And, from that perspective, having read a lot of literature and having seen the way stories work in fiction or the way poetry works, I think all of that is like being a baseball player who runs track in the offseason to try to gain speed, or being a football player who does ballet to try to increase his balance and his core abilities. What these things do is hone and strengthen and sharpen your capacities. And hopefully the exposure to other kinds of stories helps me to see the way authors portray things and help me to understand the way stories work. So, hopefully there’s a well-roundedness to reading that has come from other literature.
I would also say that the best authors in the western literary tradition are the authors who best imitate the biblical authors. For instance, in a book like James Joyce’s Ulysses, I think he’s imitating the big, ramshackle, connected — though not on the surface — narrative of the whole Bible. And who is more revered in terms of English literary figures than James Joyce? And what I think he’s trying to do is what the biblical authors have done.
MD: What role do the non-narrative books play in the Bible’s big story?
JH: I think what you have in the narratives is the basic storyline, and then in the poetry and in the wisdom, you have poetic commentary on that storyline. So it would be wrong, in my view, to read the book of Proverbs, for instance, as this sort of abstract wisdom that comes down from on high. Much better to look at, for instance, the book of Deuteronomy, where fathers are commanded to teach the Torah to their sons, and then come to the book of Proverbs where this father is saying, “Hear, my son your father’s instruction” — and often that word “instruction” reflects the word “Torah” — so essentially what the father in Proverbs, whom I take to be Solomon for the most part, is doing is teaching the Torah to his son in obedience to Deuteronomy 6.
It’s the same with things like the Psalms. These are not abstract installments in the world’s poetic register, these are summaries and interpretations of the stories that we find in the narrative.
MD: Where does biblical theology fit among the other theological disciplines?
JH: I prefer to think about the disciplines — whether we’re talking about exegesis or systematic theology or historical theology or whatever — as tools that we use the same way I would use tools to work on my lawn.
So, for instance, I have a riding lawnmower, and I have a weed eater, and I have a rake, a shovel, a hoe, trash bags, trash cans and I have all these different tools – and as we try to do the work of the ministry, as we try to equip the saints for the work of the ministry and bring everyone up to the measure of the stature of Christ, we want to bring all these tools to bear in their understanding of the Scriptures and their knowledge of God.
So I don’t think of a process where you go from exegesis to biblical theology to systematic theology. I think it’s better to come at it like, well, if I’m just doing biblical interpretation, I’m going to use the lawnmower – exegesis – to cut the grass, and then if I want to do some real deep digging and plant a tree, I’m going to use systematic theology for that, and then if I want to somehow put the whole thing together and get all the edges right, I might get the weed eater out and use that tool, which in this analogy would be biblical theology, to bring everything into line. So, I think it’s best to think of them that way rather than think of them in a process, at least that’s what I prefer.
What role does biblical theology play in your preaching?
JH: Well, I tend to think most in terms of biblical theology. So, connected to the previous answer, some people speak as though they want to start as a text critic, then become an exegete, then become a biblical theologian and then some day, at the end of their life, they’ll be a systematic theologian. I don’t have that goal. I don’t see myself ever really thinking the way systematic theologians think, and I don’t see myself wanting to approach questions the way systematic theologians approach questions. Nothing against systematic theologians, I’m grateful for what they do, I’m thankful they have the background that I don’t have in philosophy and other ways of thinking about knowledge, but I would prefer to think in terms of the Bible’s story. And I would prefer to think in terms of the way the biblical authors are thinking about the questions they face.
So, basically, when I’m preaching, for the most part I’m doing biblical theology. I’m approaching the text, or trying to, from a perspective that’s sympathetic to what the author is saying and then I’m trying to exposit the text from that perspective.
MD: What’s your next project?
JH: Right now I’m working to finish a book on the theology of Daniel. Then, Lord willing, when I have that done, I’ll continue to work on an ongoing project on the Gospel of John and then, eventually, I have a contract signed to do a commentary on the book of Psalms from a biblical theological perspective.