Adam Hamilton Making Sense of the Bible UMC

September 18, 2017

UM Voices: Pastor Brent White – Adam Hamilton’s Self-Refuting “Jesus Colander”

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? [1]

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.[2]

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.”[3]

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,”[4] 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.

  1. Adam Hamilton, Making Sense of the Bible (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 211
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid., 216
  4. Ibid., 213

29 Responses to UM Voices: Pastor Brent White – Adam Hamilton’s Self-Refuting “Jesus Colander”

  1. Andrew says:

    Thank you for your candor and courage to stand for the full truth of God’s mercy and grace, yet not denying His full character; which involves holiness, justice, and sovereignty. This is the message the church needs.

  2. Andrew Hughes says:

    Thank you for your candor and courage to stand for the full truth of God’s mercy and grace, yet not denying His full character; which involves holiness, justice, and sovereignty. This is the message the church needs.

  3. 22044 says:

    Thank you for the article. I started to review some of Adam Hamilton’s viewpoints, found some of them to be concerning, but was unsure how to put it together.

  4. William says:

    Seems Adam Hamilton is trying to establish a means of dancing on past this crisis in our church by minimizing the very core of the problem, Scriptural authority. It’s not a possible for two people to disagree on what the Bible says about marriage and the practice of homosexuality without one party discarding what the Bible actually does say about these matters — one method advocated by Hamilton in Biblical interpretation. If the church adopts this “centrist” interpretation model of Scripture that Hamilton advocates, then what other parts of the Bible are safe from being discarded/ignored as well?

  5. Thanks for addressing Hamilton’s huge issues. I left the UMC after 17 years and was sad to hear that former members were studying a book of his.

    His theology is a joke to anyone who actually reads the Bible and simply notes how many passages relate to the clearing of the Promised Land. It just goes on and on in the OT, from Genesis onward. And Jesus had ZERO issues with any of it.

    Hamilton is just another false teacher making a god in his own image by choosing the scriptures he thinks he agrees with.

  6. Edward Rodarmel says:

    Adam Hamilton may be some version of a modern day Marcion of Sinope.

  7. Lawrence Kreh says:

    I don’t think he is a “false teacher” even if his theology may be off on the non-essentials of the faith.
    What I do know is that God, through Jesus, transformed my own life in a way similar to John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience. It seems almost like a different God who destroyed men, women, and children who never even heard of our God if, indeed, the history is literal and not allegorical (e.g. Job). So I am having to regard that as a troubling mystery.

    • Brent White says:

      But what did you make of what I describe as the “starting point” of the gospel: that we are sinners who deserve death, judgment, and hell? As I said in my post, Jesus himself teaches us most of what we know about hell. Also, follow the link (in my post) to Andrew Wilson’s “Jesus Tea-Strainer” post: he gives several examples in which Jesus describes Final Judgment and hell in violent terms, which seem perfectly consistent with Old Testament depictions of God’s acting in judgment against sin and evil.

      My point is, you can’t say, “Jesus isn’t like that,” without examining what Jesus actually says and teaches (alongside the rest of scripture). Otherwise, you’re cherry-picking in order to see the Jesus you want to see.

      I also had a “heart-warming” experience of God’s love and mercy when I came to faith, but we should interpret these kinds of experiences in light of what God reveals in his Word, rather than interpreting the Word in light of our experiences. Don’t you agree?

      If you think my post has gotten it wrong, please tell me how.

    • Dan says:

      I posted this elsewhere as well. Perhaps, just perhaps the age-old idea that God knows the full picture better than we do is meaningful when evaluating Hamilton’s stance.

      For example, the basis of Hamilton’s argument about scripture is that the phrased “God-Breathed” cannot be understood fully. He then goes on to minimize the term used by Timothy to be that of God-influenced.

      This de minimization removes all life and soul from the phrase “God-Breathed),” something that is heavy handed, even if we grant Hamilton’s assumption that the phrase is not understandible.

      Certainly we can know at least part of the phrase. Certainly we can agree that the idea of breath or ruach is seen throughout scripture and is correlated to the life-giving nature of the Holy Spirit. Shouldn’t we rightly see this idea of the metaphor “God-Breathed” in that life giving light? Isn’t the reduction of the idea of inspiration to that of influence a choice to remove a wholistic view of the entire grand narrative of scripture from interpreting that passage?

      Finally, when viewed in light of the entire, life-giving narrative of scripture, we can find powerful understanding of these violent episodes in scripture. Just like marriage (through the man’s pursuit of his wife as presented in Song of Solomon) is a picture of Christ’s pursuit of the Church, the OT can be viewed as a physical picture of the spiritual warfare during the NT era. This view (I believe a correct one) brings and understanding of the life-giving nature of all scripture, including the OT and does not mandate a reduction to the fullness of power and beauty of this grand narrative, like Pastor Hamilton’s approach does.

  8. Mark Riley says:

    The starting point for all truth is that there is no path from our intellect to truth or God. The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. God reveals to us what sin is, why it is bad. Sin is the opposite of God. God cannot be reconciled to sin. We self absorbed people of the West cannot imagine ourselves as aborant to God. So rather than being fearful of our sinfulness, we seek to deny his revelation to us about his relationship to sin.
    I may love my wife and lay my life down for her but despise her for her adultry. Those two parts of me cannot be separated.

  9. Tim says:

    Adam Hamilton lost me when in his book Half Truths, he said that Paul “got it wrong on homosexuality”, I was done with Hamilton after that.

  10. Danny says:

    I lost all respect for Hamilton when in his Book Half truths, he said that Paul “got it wrong on homosexuality”. He said that Paul was not inspired to write this but that Paul went back to his legalistic background when he wrote this.

    • William says:

      Me too. I felt betrayed by Hamilton. He turned out to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. I was shocked when the real Hamilton emerged. We had been using his books in Sunday School. Unfortunately, he helped divide that Sunday School class. No Adam Hamilton, people cannot be in the same Sunday School class who have opposing views on marriage and the practice of homosexuality. It DOES NOT work. Hmilton does not unify, he divides people. His “centrist” rhetoric of late is certainly not a unity message, is very misleading, and will NEVER work!

      • Brent White says:

        Don’t read “Making Sense of the Bible,” then. In it, he says that the Bible’s authors were inspired in the exact same way that you or I might be inspired when we write. As an example, he says that the works of C.S. Lewis are inspired just like the Bible. The Bible is more authoritative than C.S. Lewis, but its authority comes from its proximity to the life of Jesus. Exactly the same way that the writings of our (U.S.) Founding Fathers are more authoritative than political or legal writings today.

        While I’m incapable of being shocked or disappointed by Adam Hamilton anymore, this aspect of MSOTB was far more surprising than what he said about the “three buckets” or sex and marriage.

  11. Brad Pope says:

    Brent – I am a frustrated Methodist in the N Ga conference because from where I sit all the momentum is in favor of the Hamilton view. I have wrestled with leaving but have not yet. You are the first Sr Minister I have heard that has chosen truth over culture in the UMC in quite a while. What should laity do when our pastors and Bishops are in lock step with this type of dangerous theology? I am concerned for my children to grow up hearing that they have authority over the Bible rather than the other way around. Of course I will teach them but sometimes I feel like staying and giving makes me part of the problem…sort of like hearing a hearing a sexist joke and laughing along instead of stepping up and saying something against it.

    • Brent White says:

      Thanks, Brad, and I sympathize with your concerns. There are many pastors in our conference and elsewhere who share our convictions regarding scripture. Indeed, an increasing majority of our global church share those convictions. This is why our doctrine on sex and marriage hasn’t officially changed. (Unless progressives change the rules by which we amend the Book of Discipline, it likely never will. Not that they haven’t tried!)

      It will all come to a head in 2019. We’re having a specially called General Conference to decide our future. I’m pessimistic that a split can be avoided, but, whatever happens, I will side with those who hold dear the authority of scripture.

      In the meantime, I believe a decision to leave or stay should be made in the basis of the local church: is it being faithful to God’s Word. And before you leave, if that’s what you decide, please talk to your pastor first. He or she needs to hear your concerns and convictions.

  12. Barbara Walts says:

    A couple years ago, our study group at church decided to read “Making Sense of the Bible” by Adam Hamilton. Every week I felt like I went to class to do battle with what was in the reading for that week. By the time we got finished, I had already vowed, and told the class, that I would NEVER read another thing written by Adam Hamilton.

  13. Kay says:

    Why does Adam Hamilton have the authority and wisdom to decide what needs to be in the tea strainer, and why cannot everyone choose his/her least favorite Scriptures to join his selections? Then we can all do what seems right in our own eyes. That worked so well for Israel!

  14. james says:

    I turned Mr. Hamilton off a long time ago. I do not believe in “replacement theology.” The covenants that Father/Son/Holy Spirit made with the Patriarchs of the OT are just as valid today as they were when they were made. Modern day Christianity–for the most part–rejects Father/Son/Holy Spirit as a “Judge.” Rather, the church sees the Trinity as it is depicted on Renaissance canvases. The Age of Grace is dimming–when that Light goes out, we will all stand alone at the Judgment Throne. Are you washed in the Blood…………………..

  15. Don Zlaty says:

    God blessed Rev. Hamilton when he first started in ministry. Like many mem and women before him and many to follow after him, Adam began believing his own press. He leans on his own thought and intellect which resides in this world rather than remaining submissive to the Holy Spirit. I know many Methodists that love his work, i cannot in good conscience contribute to his psuedo religious doctrine though i pray for a reconnection with the Holy Spirit to happen soon.

  16. Nathan Gift says:

    In the parable of the workers in the vineyard, there are some workers who think the owner is unfair. They are envious of other workers who receive the same salary, but didn’t work the whole day. They don’t recognize the sovereignty of the owner to be “fair” in his own definition of the word. The owner makes his own rules. The workers must live by them. The owner does not operate a democratic republic, but has the first and last say on all things. We cannot conform God to our image. God conforms us to God’s likeness, transforming us by the renewing of our minds. My how far we are removed today from the theology, devotion and mission of the Wesleys!

  17. Eriberto (Eddie) Soto says:

    Thank you very much for your very well articulated response to Hamilton’s book. I trust many will read it. God richly bless you!!

  18. Penny says:

    God’s omniscience revealed that those in Canaan would not accept him. In teaching small children about fire, we talked about good fires – those that cook our food or warm our houses, and bad fires – those that burn our fingers or burn a forest. But fire is fire either way. God is often described as fire in scripture. He is just and holy and offers his very self to be the substitute in payment for our sins. The sacrifice was indeed violent. It is also salvation. The Second Coming will precipitate great destruction and loss of life. Be prepared as a bride for a bridegroom. He stands at the door and knocks.

  19. Dan says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful article. One thing I’d point to in response to Pastor Hamilton’s take on violence in the OT – the OT is a physical picture of the spiritual warfare in the era of the new testament. When viewing scripture as God breathed and life giving, rather than just God influenced (as Hamilton himself has stated), the context of those violent passages as they sit relative to the NT era, begin to be viewed in a new light.

  20. James G. Foley says:

    I am not a Methodist nor hold to any of their doctrines but began attending a men’s bible study at the UMC church next to my home. The men have a heart for God but no understanding of any biblical doctrines (I asked them if they knew the UMC doctrines, with none admitting they did). This greatly saddened me. One of Hamilton’s books (John: a gospel of light, etc.) was introduced for the study. It took me all of a few minutes of reading to discern a”different gospel.”

    I am reformed in theology and doctrine and spend countless hours studying to have a correct understanding of the scriptures. It is difficult at times but it is my way of returning love back to the One who called me out of darkness. Now I must go to the bible study and tell them why I will not be attending until they are finished with this false gospel.

    I see little hope for the UMC.

  21. Robin Lavender says:

    I have been a Methodist all of my life and am very saddened to see the direction it is headed. My Sunday School class has recently started studying this book MSOTB. In my opinion if should be call “Making NO Sense Of The Bible”. Not long after starting to read the book, I felt evil in my Spirit. I have trouble attending each Sunday now. Two weeks ago I “exploded” in class, which was not a good thing, but pointed out things that “the Bible says”. The next week, the teacher set down some “rules” for the class. Sad to say, I will probably not go back to this class that I have been a member of for many years. In fact, my husband and I have even discussed leaving the Methodist church period. If it wasn’t for our local church, we would have years ago. Thank you for writing this article.

  22. LILY says:

    I am glad that I am not alone in finding Adam Hamiltons’ theology disturbing. I attend a Baptist Church in the U.K. and the present senior pastor “preaches” Adam H. almost word for word. A.H.’s take on the authority of Scripture or rather lack of it is particularly worrying. We have been warned about false teachers, but it seems so many committed Christians are falling for the untruths.

  23. Bryan Bockhop says:

    I really appreciate the clarity of your thinking. Interestingly, Hamilton wrote that he began thinking of the “humanity of the Canaanites” and “came to see the moral and theological dilemmas posed by these stories.” Yet, the Canaanites were incredibly evil people. They practiced child sacrifice (passing children through the fires to Molech) and we know this because archaeologists have found Canaanite baby graveyards that show evidence of babies having been burned. Is there anyone today who would say that the Allied governments at the end of WWII were not justified in hanging the Nazis after Nuremberg trials? The Canaanites appear to have been worse. So, viewed in that light, maybe justice had merely been served.

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