I met Jim Hamilton, associate professor of biblical theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, on a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon earlier this summer. Jim loves guacamole, his “sweet wife Jill,” and his Lord, though not in that order. Jim exudes Southern warmth and charm that make me envy his congregation at Kenwood Baptist Church, and he is a prolific theologian who has already published numerous articles and two books, God’s Indwelling Presence and God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment.
The latter is a biblical theology which recently made Al Mohler’s list of “Top ten books that every preacher should read in 2011.” John Piper said that when he received his copy in the mail, he sat down and immediately read the first 60 pages. So as you can see, Jim has already contributed much to the church, and we’re going to be hearing a lot more from him in the future. God’s Glory is a thoroughly researched, well-written, and compelling read. I admire how Jim kindly yet firmly interacts with those, such as I. Howard Marshall, who have offered some critique. God’s Glory is a model of evangelical scholarship, the kind of intelligent writing for the church that we desperately need.
Jim has graciously agreed to carve out a few minutes from his hectic schedule to answer a few questions about God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment.
1. I noticed that you begin each chapter with quotes from literary works, which probably arises from your undergraduate degree in literature. Putting aside your bad advice that I finish Moby Dick (just find the whale already!), how has your degree in literature benefited you as a pastor and theologian?
Jim: I hope that studying literature has helped me to understand the way the Bible functions as literature, and reading literature gives a window into people I haven’t known and worlds I haven’t visited. So I hope that the great books have helped me to understand the Bible and to sympathize with other people. Besides that, they’re a lot of fun to read!
As we seek to serve people well, we want to understand them, and then we want to speak biblical truth into their lives that is both concise and piercing–whether from lectern, pulpit, or printed page. Reading the likes of Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, and Dostoevsky helps us understand life, and these authors model for us how to communicate: their statements are world shaping and memorable.
2. I know that your thesis was influenced by Jonathan Edwards and John Piper, but I couldn’t help noticing some similarities with Karl Barth. For example, the use of paradox (salvation through judgment initially sounds like an oxymoron) and the preference for God’s love over his power (“salvation through judgment” sounds similar to Barth’s definition of God as “the One who loves in freedom”, where “judgment modifies salvation” as “freedom modifies love”). Are these similarities coincidental, or did Barth influence your thinking on these points?
Coincidental. Thanks for the very complimentary question, but I’ve never read Barth. Pascal humbly wrote, “How many kingdoms know nothing of us!” (42). I can rephrase it for my predicament: “How many great thinkers I know nothing of!”
3. I like your answer regarding whether a God who focuses on his glory is selfish. You write that God “is seeking his own glory…by loving us” (p. 561). I love how this balances God’s transcendence (glory) with his immananence (love), reminding us that God is both one (so no one is as important as him) and three (so his nature is to love the other).
With that said, did you intentionally rank the elements of your thesis? You lead with God’s glory, which is paramount, then modify this with salvation, which manifests that glory, and then modify salvation with judgment, which is the means of that salvation. So to rank them: 1) God’s glory; 2) seen in our salvation; 3) accomplished through judgment. Does this order fit what you are saying, and if so, why do you think it’s important to rank these elements in this way?
Amen – I can’t think of a better way for God to astonish us with his mercy–mercy that is not unjust. So to establish the wonderful, sweet surprise of mercy, God lays a foundation of justice. Without that foundation, mercy would be nothing more than favoritism gone cosmic. On the foundation of justice, however, mercy towers up to win praise for God.
God’s glory is indeed ultimate, and God establishes and upholds justice to set the stage for mercy.
4. You rightly explain that God saves us by judging others (p. 57, Jesus died in our place, the Egyptians were judged during the Exodus, and the Philistines were killed so the Israelites would be saved from idolatry). To borrow once more from Karl Barth (and Romans 6:1-14), have you also considered whether in some sense the very people who are saved are also judged?
Absolutely! See #5 on p. 59, and I think you’ll see this developed throughout the book, but especially in places that show people repenting of sin. We repent when we realize that God’s justice is standing over us condemning us, and we have no hope of escape.
5. How does your thesis account for Genesis 1-2?
In that section I briefly compare the Genesis account with ancient creation accounts from Babylon, Egypt, and Greece. In contrast with these attempts to describe the beginning of the world, the Bible highlights the purity and power of the one true and living God. He is the originator, and thus he is the world’s moral authority. And he didn’t need to defeat some other god or engage in some disgusting Egyptian activity (see pp. 70–71). There was no violence, no perversion, and in contrast with the Greek stories, the Bible actually answers the big questions by telling us who the first mover is and what he wants. The world was made as a place in which God would be worshiped, served, known, and present. That is, the world was made as a cosmic temple in which God set his image bearers so that they would know his justice and experience his mercy.
6. You write that creation “serves as the cosmic matrix in which God’s saving and judging glory can be revealed” (p. 53). I’m wondering if your thesis commits you to supralapsarianism. If the theme of the entire Bible is “God’s glory in salvation through judgment,” then are you committed to saying that God created the world for the purpose of salvation in judgment? Could someone hold your thesis and remain infralapsarian—i.e., that God logically chose to create the world, then to permit the fall, and only then to bring salvation through judgment?
In Exodus 34:6–7 (and a host of other passages) I think God is telling us that he “created the world for the purpose of salvation in judgment.” But I don’t think this commits one to either side of the supra vs. infralapsarian debate (I’m not sure the Bible gives us a lot of help in this debate. I’m mainly trying to understand the Bible, and I don’t expect to exhaust it!) There are a lot of questions that are too big for my little brain. If an omniscient God knows exactly what will take place if he creates the world with a certain set of conditions, doesn’t creating the world with those conditions constitute a choice to bring to pass all that he knew would take place in that world?
I think that the best thing God can do for us is make himself known to us, in all his justice and mercy, and the Bible is telling us that God has done just this for us–made himself known–most clearly in Jesus the Messiah. And at the cross, the justice of God is displayed and upheld so that all who will repent of their sin and trust in Jesus will know that free mercy that evokes everlasting praise from those who receive it.
7. I could tell by the short time we spent together that you are a dynamic man of God who will contribute much to the church of Christ. How has your understanding of the theme of Scripture (“God’s glory in salvation through judgment”) influenced your pastoral ministry?
Thanks for your kind words! Ditto!
Honestly I think the biggest thing it has done is given me confidence, boldness, and a willingness to say hard things to people. Backbone is not common in our culture, and I’ve been in my share of situations where I’ve needed some and not known where to get it.
Studying the Bible, however, and seeing God’s judgment all over the place, has quite honestly given me a willingness to say unpleasant things to people when I become convinced from the Scriptures that it’s what the Lord would have me do.
It gives me a willingness to hold the line on church discipline. If God doesn’t judge an unrepentant adulterer, for instance, he hasn’t been loving to the betrayed spouse, and he hasn’t kept his word. If God doesn’t keep his word, we have no reason to trust him. Sticking with this example, if we as pastors don’t lead our congregations to discipline unrepentant adulterers, we haven’t shown love to that betrayed spouse, either, and we haven’t kept our word professing to be followers of Jesus, who told us what to do in Matt 18, or in professing to adhere to our church constitutions), and we indicate that we aren’t trustworthy.
God keeps his word and so should we. God judges people, and we don’t have the authority to overturn the Bible by relativizing its statements about acceptable ways to believe and live.
So I think it’s vitally important that we see that without justice there is neither love nor mercy. That’s true for God, and it’s true in our dealings with each other as well. This enables us–when necessary–to say confrontational things to arrogant young whippersnappers and to cantankerous old codgers. This is exactly what we’re called to when we’re instructed to speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15).
May the Lord help us to be imitators of his character (Eph 5:1), and may we love his truth and his kindness, for the praise of his great name.