Brent White is an elder-in-full-connection in the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church. He’s currently serving as pastor of Hampton United Methodist Church in Hampton, Georgia. He has a Master of Divinity from Emory’s Candler School of Theology. This review originally appeared on his personal blog. Reposted with permission.
Hurricane Irma had been downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it reached my home south of Atlanta on Monday, but it was powerful enough to knock out our power. So, in preparation for my upcoming sermon on Sunday on sola scriptura, I spent the day reading a book by an author whose viewpoint I knew I wouldn’t share, United Methodist megachurch pastor Adam Hamilton’s Making Sense of the Bible.
It was from this book that he articulated his “three buckets” approach to scripture, which caused great controversy a few years ago. Most of scripture, he says, belongs in Bucket #1: It reflects God’s heart, character and timeless will for human beings. Other scripture belongs in Bucket #2: It expressed God’s will in a particular time, but is no longer binding. The ceremonial aspects of the Law of Moses, for example—including Jewish dietary law, circumcision, and purity laws—would fit within this bucket.
I would only qualify this by saying that there’s a sense in which none of us Christians is bound by any part of God’s law: Christ has fulfilled it all on our behalf. We are free from the law, although, as the Spirit writes the law on our hearts through sanctification (Heb. 10:16), we will naturally do works of the law out of love for God and neighbor. We are not antinomians.
Still, so far so good. The problem is with Hamilton’s Bucket #3: There is scripture, he says, that “never fully expressed the heart, character or will of God.”
He offers a few predictable examples of Bucket #3 scriptures, including the conquest of Canaan in Joshua.
In the last chapter [in which he discussed Noah’s Ark], we learned that God was “grieved to his heart” by the violence human beings were committing against one another, and for this reason he decides to bring an end to the human race. Now God is commanding the Israelites to slaughter entire towns, tribes, and nations, showing them no mercy and providing them with no escape. How can this be? 
When he was young, Hamilton was untroubled by these passages of scripture, but when he got older, he
began to think about the humanity of the Canaanites. These were human beings who lived, loved, and had families. Among them were babies and toddlers, mothers and fathers. Yet they were all put to the sword by “the Lord’s army.” Thirty-one cities slaughtered with not terms of surrender offered and no chance to relocate to another land. I came to see the moral and theological dilemmas posed by these stories.
His solution to these dilemmas? The Israelites, he says, were mistaken about what they believed God told them. While there’s still value in reading the Book of Joshua (he especially likes the last chapter), here’s “the most important reason” (emphasis his): “to remind us of how easy it is for people of faith to invoke God’s name in pursuit of violence, bloodshed, and war.”
Hamilton says that we should filter everything in the Bible through the “words and great commandments” of Jesus Christ, who alone is the true Word of God (John 1:1). Jesus is not merely a “lens” by which we read the Bible; he is a “colander,” through which we can filter the rest of scripture to determine what scriptures belong in Bucket #3.
I’m reminded of Andrew Wilson’s blog post on what he calls the “Jesus Tea-Strainer.” As Wilson argues, this colander or tea-strainer approach is self-refuting:
The strange thing about this, of course, is that Jesus himself seemed so comfortable with many of those passages, and affirmed stories about destroying floods, fire and sulphur falling from the sky, people being turned into pillars of salt, and so on. Not only that, but he actually added to them, by telling several stories that present God in ways that modern people are not inclined to warm to. Here’s a few examples of things Jesus said that wouldn’t fit through the Red Letter guys’ hermeneutical tea-strainer:
“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it will be more bearable in the judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades.” (Luke 10:13-15)
“And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.” (Matt 22:12-14)
“But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’ In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out.” (Luke 13:27-28)
He offers six more examples in his blog post, but you get the idea: to say the least, hell, about which we learn more from the red-letter words of Jesus than any apostle or Old Testament writer, is infinitely more violent than violence perpetrated by human beings. How would Christ’s own words pass through Hamilton’s colander? In which case, Hamilton’s “canon within the canon” wouldn’t even include all the red-letter words of Jesus himself!
Throughout the book, Hamilton argues that we can’t reconcile scripture’s depiction of God’s violence with the “forgiveness and mercy” demonstrated by Christ. In doing so, however, he underestimates the problem of sin—the way it makes us “enemies” of God (Rom. 5:10) who deserve God’s wrath (Rom. 1:18)—and the effects of Christ’s atoning death, through which forgiveness and mercy are made possible. By all means, throughout the gospels, Jesus tells people, “Your sins are forgiven,” the only condition of which is faith and repentance. But theologians would say (as the rest of the New Testament makes clear) that Christ’s forgiveness isn’t free: even before Good Friday, it looks forward to and is made possible by his substitutionary death on the cross, on which he suffered the penalty of our sins for us. The effects of the cross are applied retroactively to the people Jesus forgave in the gospels.
By the way, this is also the basis of forgiveness for Old Testament saints. Abraham, for example, was justified by faith alone, as Paul says in Romans and Galatians, but it was a faith that looked forward to the cross, however incomplete Abraham’s understanding was.
Hamilton fails to wrestle with the debt that we human beings owe God. The Bible’s clear teaching is that we all deserve God’s judgment, death, and hell because of our sins. And forgiveness is infinitely costly, because it requires the death of God’s Son Jesus.
I feel like these are the A-B-C’s of the gospel, about which a self-identified evangelical like Hamilton shouldn’t need a refresher. Yet, in his book, he doesn’t deal with the cruciform shape of God’s love—at all! Why? What a glaring omission from someone who is purporting to “make sense” of the Bible!
In a future blog post, I’ll talk about Hamilton’s view of scripture’s “inspiration” and the way in which it’s also self-refuting.
- Adam Hamilton, Making Sense of the Bible (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 211
- Ibid., 216
- Ibid., 213