This is a guest post by Dr. James Hamilton Jr., associate professor of biblical theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and preaching pastor at Kenwood Baptist Church. He is the author of What Is Biblical Theology?: A Guide to the Bible’s Story, Symbolism, and Patterns.
The Challenge We All Face
The challenge confronts us all. We face it for ourselves, as our parents did before us and the coming generations will after us.
What challenge? That of being human, bearing the image, striving to know God, to find truth, and to help others find their joy, satisfaction, purpose, meaning, and life in knowing God through his Son, Jesus Christ, by the power of the Spirit. Mercifully, God gave us a book that teaches how to take on this great challenge of our lives. The book is no mere user’s manual. It’s a grand narrative that explains the meaning of life, the universe, and everything.
The grand narrative stitches stories together, and adorning it are commandments and coaxings, poems and prophecies, prohibitions and promises, apothegms and apocalypses. There is no book like this one. Sweeter than honey, more precious than gold, inspired by the Holy Spirit, and like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times. Every word of God proves true.
What a book. Breathtaking in scope. Often imitated; impossible to replace. The Bible is just what we need. Jesus prayed the Father to sanctify his people in the truth. Then he said: “Thy word truth.” The Bible is true. The Bible is the tool God uses to change lives. This book, the Bible, really is the great code. Crack it, and it will explain everything. If you come to understand the Bible, you will rise to the great challenge of life. Not only will you be made like Christ, you will equip others for this most epic of tasks.
How do we crack the code? How should we understand the book?
How Do You Read It?
I contend that we should interpret the Bible the way later biblical authors interpreted earlier Scripture. If we learn to do that, it’s a short step to learning how the biblical authors interpreted their own lives and the situations they addressed in their writings. What does it mean to attempt to understand and embrace the interpretive perspective of the biblical authors? To attempt that is to attempt biblical theology.
Who Taught Them That?
Who taught the biblical authors how to interpret earlier scripture and their own lives? 2 Peter 1:21 says “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” This means the biblical authors were inspired by the Spirit to interpret things the way they did. In addition, the authors of the New Testament learned to read the Old Testament from Jesus himself. Jesus taught his disciples to read earlier Scripture, to understand the world, and to make sense of life.
Should We Try This At Home?
If we aren’t inspired by the Holy Spirit, and if we haven’t been taught by Jesus, dare we attempt this?
The fact that we are not inspired by the Holy Spirit does not mean we should not follow the example of the biblical authors. It does mean that our conclusions are not inspired by the Spirit the way theirs were. Nor does the fact that we were not taught directly by Jesus mean that we shouldn’t learn from those who were.
We are not Apostles, but we follow them as they followed Christ (1 Cor 11:1). We are not inspired, but we are taught in the Scriptures by those who were.
So I say yes: you should try this at home. You should try to interpret the Bible and life the way the biblical authors do. What alternative strategy do you have? Read the Bible in an un-Christian or a-Christian way? Adopt a perspective other than the one the Spirit and the Lord Jesus taught the biblical authors?
If someone suggests that what the biblical authors have done is illegitimate, consider what they are saying: that the Spirit inspired something that doesn’t withstand examination? That the teaching of Jesus somehow led people into unreliable interpretive practices?
I don’t know about you, but I’m sticking with the inspired guys. I’m not sure those who conclude that the biblical authors are bad interpreters have understood them. What if those who say a New Testament author got the Old Testament wrong have failed to understand both passages in question? It doesn’t matter where he got his PhD or who published his book: the biblical authors get the benefit of the doubt. Challenge them at your peril.
That doesn’t mean I understand everything. It does mean I don’t declare the biblical authors wrong, I keep reading the Bible, and I keep looking for satisfying answers.
Soak Yourself in the Text
The Bible has a story, it uses symbolism and imagery, and the symbolism and imagery summarize and interpret the story. The best way to learn biblical theology, to embrace and apply the interpretive perspective of the biblical authors, is to read the Bible. Constantly. Ask the Lord for insight into it. Memorize it. Meditate on it day and night. And keep at it.
There is always more to see. The Lord has yet more light to break from his most holy word. Open it up and ask him to do it.
James M. Hamilton Jr. (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is associate 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, the Revelation volume in the Preaching the Word commentary series, and What Is Biblical Theology?: A Guide to the Bible’s Story, Symbolism, and Patterns.