Engaging Adam Hamilton's Approach to the Bible
By Teddy Ray
"The Bible does not work according to the, 'The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it' formula. Instead, we must read its words in the light of their historical context, try to understand why the authors wrote what they wrote, and read its less humane verses (calls for vengeance, for example) in the light of its loftier verses (calls for love, mercy, and compassion). Most importantly as Christians, we are to read all of Scripture through the lens of Jesus Christ, his life, teachings, ministry, death, and resurrection. He is the only unmitigated Word of God." - Adam Hamilton That's the heart of Adam Hamilton's argument about how we should read the Bible. After his forceful and biting speech at General Conference and many things he has written about biblical interpretation, several friends and congregation members have asked me what I think about his approach to Scripture. A few have specifically pointed to his post, "The Bible says it ... that settles it," which is quoted above and contains much of the same content as his speech. I'm writing this post for people who have been influenced by Hamilton's approach to the Bible and other similar approaches. I'm also writing for those trying to think critically about his proposals. If you haven't read his article and didn't hear his floor speech, you might give those two minutes before reading here. Adam Hamilton is a brilliant thinker and an outstanding communicator. He breaks down complex subjects for simple understanding. I think he's sincere in his appeals here. I believe him when he says he loves the Bible and seeks to live it. From fundamentalist reading to contextual reading Here's what I think Hamilton is doing: He's trying to move people from a fundamentalist reading of the Bible to a contextual reading. He's exposing the hypocrisy of a fundamentalist reading. You can't just say, "The Bible says it!" Look through the imperatives scattered throughout the Bible, and you'll find many things that we don't do today. Right on, Adam. His move to a contextual reading of the Bible does a few things - some good, some problematic. The force of his full argument and the many good points he makes distract from some problems in his argumentation. He says we need to understand why something was said in its historical context. Absolutely! And this is part of why we don't follow every word literally. Every word doesn't apply to our present context as a literal word for us today. We need to ask why it was written in its particular time, place, and community. But I have a problem with two other things Hamilton is doing. From contextual reading to historical-critical reading First, I think he's appealing to the human nature of the Bible's authors to suggest that not everything written is really inspired by God. He talks about biblical authors' personalities coming out in their writing and then follows with a long list of "We no longer believe" statements. Though it's not quite explicit, Hamilton sounds like he's suggesting that these portions of the Bible never reflected the mind of God - only how the biblical writers imagined God to be from their limited context. He's right that we no longer practice polygamy nor have concubines. It's important to note that not every description of life in the Bible is an endorsement of the lifestyle it's describing. And he's right that we don't believe work on the Sabbath is a capital crime. But the way he writes seems to suggest that this part of the Bible was a human invention, not a divinely inspired word of God. This comes closer to an historical-critical reading of the Bible. It begins with an assumption that the Bible reveals more to us about its historical setting than it reveals about the character and will of God. It can dismiss certain parts of the Bible as merely human, not expressing God's character or will. That's a problematic approach to Scripture. Hamilton has done this in other places, and Dr. Bill Arnold has already written a strong response to it. I'll link to that rather than attempting what Arnold has already done well. His article is helpful all the way through on these questions. One key quote from Dr. Arnold's article that I'll highlight: "In our interpretive tradition as Wesleyans, we do not elevate one portion or sub-portion of the Bible as more authoritative than others. There is a definite progression or gradual revealing of God and God's message in the Bible. But we do not believe that later stages of revelation necessarily replace, dismiss, or nullify earlier stages of revelation (known as supersessionism). When we dismiss any portion of Scripture as outside the character, will, or heart of God for any reason, we have essentially turned Scripture into an historical witness about God, not a revelation from God" ("A Response to Adam Hamilton's 3 Buckets Approach to Scripture"). Following Dr. Arnold's suggestion here, I think it's best to read those difficult passages in Scripture as inspired words, even if they don't operate as God's mandates for us today. Rather than asking if God would have ever intended such things be written, it's better to ask how and why God may have intended those words then. The reason we don't follow these mandates today is because of other Scripture. That's the kind of progressive or gradual revelation Arnold mentions. We haven't stopped viewing Sabbath-breaking as a capital crime simply because we're a more "enlightened" society today, but because we see from ongoing revelation in Scripture that this isn't God's intention for us. A contextual reading can see that God is revealed differently in different contexts. An historical-critical reading is quicker to assume that a particular text isn't a revelation from God at all. Hamilton's version sounds more like the latter. From contextual reading to a canon within the canon Second, Hamilton is appealing for us to read the "loftier verses" over against the "less humane verses." He's setting these within an appeal to read the Bible in context, but that's not really what he's doing here. I think he's choosing which passages we should use to interpret the others. Interpreting Scripture by Scripture is a valuable tool, but the rubric Hamilton suggests is incomplete. He focuses on love, mercy, and compassion, but given his approach, I wonder where, for instance, God's wrath and judgment would be considered. We have plenty of passages about these in the OT and the NT, including ones that come off the lips of Jesus.  Does God have wrath toward anything that would lead us astray from his intentions? Does God cast judgment against those things? And do we have any responsibility in the church to warn each other of those things? I appreciate how Fleming Rutledge, borrowing from Paul Ricoeur, describes God's wrath as an essential aspect of God's love: "The wrath of God is always exercised in the service of God's good purposes. It is the unconditional love of God manifested against anything that would frustrate or destroy the designs of his love" (in The Crucifixion, 323). In the end, I think Hamilton has given himself a rubric that allows him to make the final judgments about what's right and what's wrong. That rubric is "love, mercy, and compassion," but it's a rubric that allows the reader to pass judgment on any of the particulars found in Scripture, even those that involve the speech or actions of God in the OT and Jesus in the NT. "Is this really loving?" If it doesn't pass our test for loving, it doesn't pass as a real word of God for us. That ignores anger and judgment against sin as anything that could have to do with God's character.  I don't think Hamilton is doing this intentionally or maliciously. But this is where his approach to Scripture fails. And it does damage to other theological convictions. If we accept Hamilton's very good point about reading in context, I think the next proper step is not to his limited rubric, but instead to reading the Bible as canon. From contextual reading to canonical reading If we stop at a contextual reading of the Bible, Hamilton is right - there are only a few passages that deal with same-sex sex. And there are only a few passages that deal with women in ministry. But when we read the Bible as canon, there's a lot more there to inform our understanding. When we read the Bible as canon, we find many women in ministry. They're there in both OT and NT, proclaiming the gospel. That's affirmed even by Paul. The reason we affirm women in ministry isn't because we read those few prohibitions in Paul's letters and reject them as inhumane because of "loftier" verses. It's because we read the whole Bible and find many affirmations of women in ministry. That situates Paul's few prohibitions as proper but limited in scope. Hamilton's arguments about slavery and women in ministry demonstrate that we don't hold strictly to every letter of the law in Scripture. But does this mean that our only other option is to take cultural norms as accepted ethics, at least so far as they seem loving, merciful, and compassionate? If you're interested in going deeper into this, I recommend William Webb's book Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis. Webb considers context, as Hamilton keeps advocating, but shows that these three groups of people and the surrounding issues aren't all treated the same in Scripture. He shows that while we may take many biblical texts as harsh toward women and slaves, in their context they were redemptive. We see a general movement toward liberation and redemption for slaves and women both. Meanwhile, we see no such movement regarding homosexual behavior. It's too simplistic to say, "See, we've changed our positions on slavery and women in ministry. We should do the same for homosexual sex."
When we read the Bible as canon, I think we see that the five verses Hamilton mentions aren't sitting there all alone. They're there as part of an ongoing thread about human sexuality throughout Scripture. That's a thread that affirms the gift of human sexuality as something that is designed for union and procreation. And it's a thread that recognizes the power of our sexuality and often urges restraint (against the notions we've gotten from the sexual revolution that exalt freedom and pleasure). To be sure, this leaves us with lots of things still to wrestle with - contraception and divorce/remarriage to name two big ones. This is why the Roman Catholic Church has held the positions it has held. They seem out of step with our times, but they have a theological coherence that I think we all need to grapple with. (And what a shame to see their current crisis and how far their institution has fallen from their teaching!) For more: A group of brilliant theologians published this article in 1994 in First Things, and most of it is still relevant. I should be clear to say that I still have many things to wrestle with concerning human sexuality. I don't want to pretend that I have this all worked out. Here, I want to say that I believe Hamilton's approach is inadequate and won't have us doing the hard work we need to do. Teddy Ray is the lead pastor of the Offerings Community of First United Methodist Church in Lexington, Kentucky. This article was first published on Ray's personal blog at teddyray.com. He is grateful to Dr. Ruth Anne Reese for her questions and comments on earlier drafts of this. Footnotes 1. With this claim and a similar one below, I'm not advocating my own "canon within the canon" to make Jesus' words paramount. I'm saying that though Hamilton appealed to Jesus as his final lens for interpretation, I think he fails to be consistent in this. 2. Another note to say that while I'm emphasizing Jesus' words here because of Hamilton's focus, a canonical approach will take Paul's words seriously, too. Why does Christ's greatest proclaimer tell the church to expel someone living in sexual immorality? If Paul's words don't sound sufficiently loving, merciful, and compassionate, should we dismiss them as uninspired? A canonical reading won't allow this.