This past Wednesday, April 23, prominent United Methodist pastor Adam Hamilton spoke at Foundry UMC about his newest book Making Sense of the Bible. Hamilton is the pastor of the largest United Methodist congregation in the country, Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas. Hamilton is perhaps most famous for his failed proposal at the 2012 General Conference to change the Book of Discipline to acknowledge that United Methodists were divided on the issue of homosexuality.
IRD has reported at length about Foundry UMC, a Washington, D.C. “reconciling” congregation that voted in 2010 to allow same-sex marriage to be performed on the premises, a violation of the Book of Discipline. Foundry frequently invites guest speakers who espouse a liberal Christian view, including defrocked United Methodist pastors, NETWORK’s Sister Simone Campbell, and the first openly gay Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson.
Rev. Hamilton began by expressing his deep respect for the Bible, and telling the story of how he was converted from agnosticism to Christianity by reading a Bible his grandmother gave him. But over time, his understanding of the Bible changed. Every pastor, he said, comes across a part of Scripture where their reaction is simply, “Man, I don’t know what to do with that.” Those verses– such as Old Testament violence seemingly ordered by God– often form the blunt of attacks by atheists such as Bill Maher. His newest book in part was written to address many of these claims.
Much of what Hamilton said about the Bible and how Christians should interpret it was relatively uncontroversial. He made the familiar points that the Bible was inspired by God, not verbally dictated as many believe, that biblical canon was formed after centuries of debate, and that many Old Testament commandments were declared moot at the Council of Jerusalem as depicted in Acts 15. But from there, things took a turn towards the controversial.
Hamilton said that every verse in the Bible that people found confusing or troubling fit into one of three “buckets,” which he illustrated using three physical buckets he brought with him. The largest bucket was composed of verses which were metaphors, such as the Creation story. The second largest bucket was verses that were relevant for a certain time and place, but no longer apply to Christians today, such as much of the Mosaic Law. But third, and most controversially, was Hamilton’s assertion that very few parts of the Bible “never ever reflected the heart and character of God.”
He recognized that the last part would anger some. “That’s an unsettling thing to say…[I]t took me a long time to be able to finally say those words, even though I felt them and believed them for a long time.”
Hamilton’s “buckets” first made their appearance in blog post he made about a month back questioning whether prohibitions of homosexuality still apply today. There he gave examples of which verses fit in the third bucket, the same examples he repeated in his lecture:
Leviticus 21:9 requires that if the daughter of a priest becomes a prostitute she must be burned to death. In Exodus 21:20-21, God permits slave-owners to beat their slaves with rods provided they don’t die within the first 48 hours after the beating “for the slave is his property.” God commands the destruction of every man, woman, and child in 31 Canaanite cities and later killis [sic] 70,000 Israelites in punishment for David taking a census. These passages seem to me to be completely inconsistent with the God revealed in Jesus Christ who cared for prostitutes, commanded that we love our enemies, and gave his life to save sinners.
Concerns about the brutal violence of the Old Testament are hardly new. Some Christian scholars argue that Old Testament violence was regrettable but necessary, in order to ensure the uniqueness of a people that would one day birth the Son of God. Others argue that compared to other societies in ancient times, the Old Testament laws were relatively liberal. There are pros and cons to these responses. But I’ll admit that simply wishing away the verses you don’t like (the Jefferson school of biblical interpretation, as I call it) is one way of dealing with the problem.
Here’s the crux of my problem with Hamilton’s proposition: let us suppose for a minute that it’s true that there are verses that contradict the loving message of Jesus Christ. Why does it follow that it’s the violent verses that are the false ones? Why not suppose that the Gospels have somehow included false teachings? This isn’t just an idle thought experiment; the supposed contradiction between the Old Testament and New is one major reason Jews reject Christianity.
To say nothing of its implications for biblical inspiration: the theological guidelines of the United Methodist Church claim that “The biblical authors, illumined by the Holy Spirit, bear witness that in Christ the world is reconciled to God.” As a United Methodist pastor in good standing, presumably the Reverend Hamilton agrees that the biblical authors were at least partly inspired by the Holy Spirit to write the Scriptures.
Are we supposed to believe that in Exodus 20, the biblical author was divinely inspired to transmit the Ten Commandments, only for the Holy Spirit to take a break just in time for Exodus 21 to go on about slaves? And then in Exodus 22, the Holy Spirit is around for the verses about respecting property rights, but absent in verses 19-20 when “destruction” is mandated for bestiality and idolatry. But verse 21 is that one about not mistreating foreigners that proponents of immigration reform love; that’s got to be divinely inspired! Verses 22 and 23 are all about not mistreating widows and the fatherless… but then verse 24 says, “My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless.” Yikes, looks like the Holy Spirit ducked out mid-thought there.
And let’s suppose that there are verses that do not reflect God’s will or character, and that many of them can be found in the Old Testament. Wouldn’t such verses have been around in Jesus’ time? Either Jesus Christ knowingly allowed a false picture of God’s nature to persist, or we’re supposed to assume that Jesus did correct the falsehoods, but early Christian writers forgot to mention that God didn’t actually order the deaths of millions of people. Instead, the Gospels paint a picture of Jesus very much in love with the Scriptures, the Scriptures Hamilton would have us believe are teeming with falsehoods.
Basically, I don’t see any way of writing off the supposedly “bad” biblical verses without condemning the Gospels to the same fate. Jesus himself actually put it pretty well in John 5:46-47: “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?” Of course, I recognize that there’s little point in quoting Scripture at a pastor who has declared the power to simply segregate certain verses from our understanding of God. But the point remains that you can’t pull a Jefferson on the Bible and expect to retain any sort of consistency in your beliefs.
As I said, there were many great points raised by Rev. Hamilton in his speech. He’s correct that troubling verses of Scripture are among the most frequent ammunition used by atheists. Christians need to meet their accusations head-on and make sense of these verses. Hamilton also made the point that addressing these concerns is especially important for young Christians entering college and hearing these arguments for the first time. Most Christians are content to never think about these issues, and Hamilton is to be commended for taking them head-on.
But his approach is wrongheaded and contrary to millennia of Christian teachings. Even most liberal Christians who dislike certain passages– like the ones that have traditionally been interpreted to condemn homosexuality– do not simply declare those passages contrary to the will of God. Instead, they bicker over the meaning of Greek words, debate what exactly the sin of the Sodomites was, contextualize commandments, and otherwise try to find reasons why the text doesn’t say what it says. But perhaps this too will change; Hamilton’s book comes with glowing endorsements from Tony Campolo, Jim Wallis, Shane Claiborne, and Brian McLaren.
I must stress that I have not read Adam Hamilton’s book. From what he’s said, the “buckets” make up only two paragraphs. It’s possible that he gives a better explanation than in his Foundry speech and blog post, and perhaps even addresses some of my critiques. It’s possible that my sense of his book will mirror his sense of the Bible; an excellent book with a few troubling passages that we should ignore. But I even find the mindset behind the buckets analogy troubling; namely that Scriptures should take a backseat to MY understanding of justice, rather than vice versa.Google+