Engaging Adam Hamilton’s Approach to the Bible

Rev. Teddy Ray

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.” – The Rev. Adam Hamilton, senior pastor, Church of the Resurrection, Leawood, Kansas

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. [1] 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. [2]

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.

 

Comments

  1. “We see a general movement toward liberation and redemption for slaves and women both. Meanwhile, we see no such movement regarding homosexual behavior.”

    Women and slaves are shown throughout the Bible, as they are significant presences in society (even when subservient).

    Homosexuality isn’t presented more than a couple of times, half of which are very questionably translated.

    I’ll have to check out the Webb book to see how he deals with that.

  2. Another rebuttal of Hamilton–this is about the third in the past week I’ve seen. I have no dog in the fight; I do know that 2/3 of the American delegates with the 2019 G C did not vote for the Traditional Plan. Don’t misunderstand what I am saying, if it were not for 80% of the International delegates who supported the Traditional plan, I’m sure that WCA and Good News recent articles would be substantially different in content with a different outcome in this particular vote. I do appreciate the note and spirit desire of many for finding a path forward toward possible agreeable exit plans and the need to stay connected in the Wesleyan tradition, if possible. I also appreciate the comments I’ve heard many times from delegates and laity to the effect this was “bitter-sweet”, “are no “winners here” and today there is sadness in “The Methodist Church.” While I appreciate, Rev. Ray’s position, I already see others rebutting it with such questions as, whether Ray and others place the same standard referenced as immoral sexual conduct toward single heterosexual pastors (male or female) whether not married, separated or divorced? Particularly, if we are to start into a litany of “we no longer believe” type statements. Ray, obviously, did not address head-on the many arguments other scholars and theologians will continue to debate about and only briefly touched on “movement changes” such as current thought of covenantal relationships among same sex couples (whether it is civil agreement/contract or marriage), etc. For a lay person, it’s really a little frustrating to me, to have to rely on personal research for “several different” sides as, I’m sure we can all agree, expert scholars and theologians abound. I’m torn, as a “traditionalist” who, like many others, know and love many who are hurting now—it becomes very real when extended family members come to grandpa for advice and ask why, in effect, I am being rejected. There is much at stake here; keep the conversation going with honesty, a sense of humility and, above all, seeking God’s direction for wisdom and understanding. Peace and blessings to you.

    • Jesus rejects no one who comes to him in repentance. Grace is available to all who will partake — prevenient grace, justifying grace, and sanctifying grace. There’s no greater gift, there’s no greater welcome. All this “pain” being expressed is irrelevant with relation to the pain Jesus experienced on the cross for our sins.

    • Excellent, thoughtful and caring comments. This is tough, because we care about both truth and grace; about real standards of moral behavior and holiness, but also about real people who are struggling. It’s the mess of ministry, and it’s messier because we’re not all on the same page.

      One other observation concerning the overall vote of the US delegates at GC2019 (and many General Conferences). Sadly, the delegates do not reflect accurately the theological positions and beliefs of United Methodists in the pews. If they did, over 40%, and perhaps more than 50% of US delegates would have actually voted FOR the Traditional Plan.

      This would have made for a much different vote percentage overall at GC, and would not have painted the church as being so divided over this issue. I realize that General Conference, and electing delegates, passing legislation, etc., is chock-full of politics, but it is unfortunate, because it has led us to this place of hurt, anger, mistrust, and an overall sense of being adrift. And this leaves a bad taste in peoples’ mouths, both inside and outside the body of Christ.

  3. Teresa Dawson says

    The bible is fairly consistent in both the old and new testament in confirming that homosexuality is a sin: Genesis 19 vs 1-13, Leviticus 18 vs 22, Leviticus 20 vs 13, Romans 1 vs 26-27, 1st Corinthians 6 vs 9, Jude 1 vs 7. The difference between the old and new testament is that Jesus came and offered us hope in repenting from sin. 2nd Corinthians 5 vs 17 says that if any one is in Christ, he is a new creature, the old is passed away and the new is here. The old includes all of our former sins. When we accept Christ, we receive the holy spirit who works with us in our daily battles against sin. Jesus also said “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them, but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5 vs 17) I trust the word of God and do not lean on any persons’ interpretation of the word.

  4. The use of the slavery and women argument as justification for the modern practice of homosexuality is beyond ridiculous. Yet, progressives continue to press on with it purely for the purpose of deceiving and confusing. The order of a society at any place in history has nothing to do with individual sin and salvation. Was Paul called to overthrow the Roman Empire and eradicate the entrenched slavery system or go and preach the Gospel to all — Jews, Romans, Greeks, Gentiles, men, women, slaves? The Bible clearly answers that, and all these who responded were saved and worshipped together as the SAME in Jesus Christ. That was RADICAL. Even as a Roman citizen, Paul was eventually executed by the Roman government. . If he had of started a slave revolt, how far would he have gotten on his missionary journeys? He supported slavery? He grouped slave traders into a group of sinners, including murderers, thieves, homosexuals, etc. As noted, he worshipped with slaves in equality, all in Christ. He called on them out of love to obey their masters so as to avoid abuse or death in this cruel Roman system. He degraded women? He disciplined women at Corinth but did not ban them. Again, they were all the SAME in Christ. Why were women such a part of his ministry, such a part of the ministry of Jesus?

  5. “The” Gospel is 1 Cor. 15: 1 – 4. These verses says it is “the” Gospel and that it saves. “The” is a singular word meaning only one. Paul is writing to believing Gentiles. He’s trying to convince them to not go back under the Law. Grace in different from the Law. Romans 2: 16 says Jesus will judge you by this Gospel. Gal. 1: 8 says if you preach any other Gospel besides this one you will be accursed.

  6. Charles Armour says

    “For the Jews demand signs and the Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified a stumbling block to the Jews and a folly to the Gentiles, but to those who God has called both Greeks and Jews, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” I cor. 1:22-24

    Those who rely upon some postmodernist world view, or any particular secular benchmark as some sieve through which to filter God’s word, will always find it lacking. Not because it is, but quite the opposite. The Word of God will never be completely reduced to any human notions of understanding however wise they might seem. Its infinite richness always extends beyond our finite abilities to fully perceive. As Paul noted we shall always, “See through a Glass darkly”, and no matter how much wisdom we might amass, we nevertheless, only “know in part.”

    Even the so called contradictions of which many speak stand within its special divine purpose. They force us to wrestle with God’s word in a Jobian fashion while in turn it wrestles with our own hardened hearts. Prayer, historical analysis, and careful study slowly teach us that what at first might seem to be contractions are in truth complex paradoxes imposed upon us to help us grow and which can only be resolved by employing a higher order of prayerful thought and and deeper reflection.

    If one approaches scripture as actually the “Word of God” written by divinely inspired people, who were forced to use human language with all its limitations to discuss matters of eternity, it makes all the difference. This is the primary point that Progressives miss as they do just the opposite. They too often see it as an artifact to be dissected from only that which coheres to current notions of worldly wisdom might be retained. It is indeed an artifact, but rather a living one to be approached and kept in its divine completeness which yet contains power and wisdom of such a depth that the world for all its human wisdom has yet to fully plumb.

  7. John Loper says

    It is easy for Hamilton to say “he loves the Bible and seeks to live it” when he freely jettisons the parts of it that are disagreeable to him. Like Mark Twain used to say, “I don’t fear the parts of the Bible that I don’t understand, it’s the parts that I understand that I fear.” In Hamilton’s case, I fear it is not possible to “love it and live it” unless you first “believe it.”

  8. Gary Bebop says

    I appreciate Teddy Ray’s challenge to Adam Hamilton’s hermeneutics. We must all push back where we can. Many church elites are using Hamilton’s interpretive strategy to indoctrinate everyone within their reach. Because of his celebrity notoriety, many church folk regard Hamilton as canonical for contemporary Methodism. There’s a dearth of critical thinking in our ranks. Teddy Ray represents a needed counterpoint.

  9. Rev Teddy,
    Thank you for sharing God’s truth. I remember be a fellow pastor with you in the annual conference a few years back when you spoke out against a decision that was questionable. You spoke truth then as now. Keep standing strong. Blessings to you.

  10. Nakisa Towfighi says

    I really do believe the point Adam makes. Alot of modern fundamentalists tend to pick out parts of the bible in order to justify their political agreement. I believe that the bible should be treated as a moral guide to conribute to the common good of society not a deontilogical reference for your arguments. What about Deuteronomy and Joshua chapters that reiterate the violence of God, how men, woman and children died just for the accumulation of land? alot of the bible that is filled with love also promotes genocide and has almost encouraged it within our modern era. Homosexuality cannot be condemned because the bible was wrote and heavily influenced by its culture at that time, people weren’t as intelligent and didn’t have the common sense that can some what be debated in our moral era. There are valuable teachings and yet ones not so. The most important thing is to treat everyone equally and not castigate them for loving the same sex, its not right to tell someone they are sick or wrong because of this action, if you honestly believe that, thats the right way to treat someone regardless of what any moral scripture says, you will never find peace within yourself.

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