by Rod Groom
Adam Hamilton gives us a good introduction to what is formally known as biblical hermeneutics, the study of how to interpret—or make sense of—the Bible. He does so in that plain-speaking, neighborly and friendly way that has made him one of America’s best-known pastors and preachers, as well as a best-selling author.
Adam divides his book into two sections, “The Nature of Scripture” and “Making Sense of the Bible’s Challenging Passages.” He explains to us in the first section what the Bible is and what it is not, and how it came into being. He also discusses which books were included and excluded, gives us interesting 15-minute summaries of the overall message of the Old Testament and the New Testament, and offers various views on the inspiration and authority of Scripture.
In the second section, he tackles difficult passages on science, the historicity of biblical characters, stories and events, and the violence of God in the Old Testament as a reflection of the culture and history of Old Testament times. Along the way, he presents us with an excellent chapter (#23) on “Suffering, Divine Providence and the Bible.” Here he reminds us that “Punishment is the direct and intentional intervention of God bringing suffering to us, while consequences are the natural results of our actions” (pp. 225-226), and that most suffering is in fact the natural results of actions we have done or that others have done, and not necessarily punishment for specific sins we have committed. God does indeed get involved in our world, but his “role in superintending our world, and our lives is neither absentee landlord nor micromanager” (p. 229).
Hamilton also presents us with a defense of the Gospel accounts of Jesus, an examination of Jesus’ use of hyperbole, as well as explaining some theories on how Jesus saves us. There is one chapter on the ordination of women, which I believe has been better defended elsewhere. Using the example of tattooing and slavery, Hamilton advocates picking and choosing what to obey from the Old Testament Law, similar to what was done by the Jerusalem Council.
Adam also includes a conventional reading of the Book of Revelation, distinguishing the preterist and idealist perspectives of many scholars from the futurist and literal interpretations of some conservatives and many television evangelists. He concludes with a helpful last chapter on actually dealing seriously with the reading of the Bible, and offers some helpful hints and suggestions.
However, Adam’s most critical chapter is Chapter 29 on Homosexuality. Whatever viewpoint Christians may have on this subject, all should be in agreement that homosexuals are persons of sacred worth, as laid out in our own Book of Discipline, and should be lovingly accepted in all of our churches, as everyone should be. However, many conservative and evangelical Christians do not condone the act of homosexuality, and find the practice of it incompatible with Christian teaching. In recent years, many interesting arguments to the contrary have been given. Adam Hamilton presents several of these.
He first presents the abomination passages in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 as depicting homosexual rape, instead of “loving, committed relationships between two people of the same sex” (p. 268). Secondly, Adam goes on to suggest that Moses may have been condemning the pagan use of “sacred” or temple prostitution. This references Deuteronomy 23:17-18, which forbids the daughters and the sons of Israel from being temple prostitutes. As Hamilton writes: “If this was the model for sex between men, then Moses’s commands in Leviticus 18 and 20 may have been prohibiting Israelite men from visiting pagan male temple prostitutes and thus practicing idolatry. Once again, this practice was a far cry from two people of the same gender sharing their lives together” (p. 269, emphasis added). Thirdly, he claims that the same-sex acts of Romans 1 would have been pederasty, the Roman practice of adult men taking on boys as students. Of course, this is “very different from two people sharing their lives together in a covenant relationship” (pp. 270-271).
Hamilton also argues that Jesus does not speak to the issue of homosexuality at all, which leaves open for him “the possibility that Moses and Paul did not accurately capture God’s will concerning same-sex relationships” (p. 271). Conservatives argue that Jesus does speak about marriage as approved, but Adam notes that these are in the context of divorce. However, Matthew 19:3-9 is one of the references in question and quotes from the Creation story, Genesis 2:24-25. There is no similar Creation passage concerning any other sort of relationship that I can find.
The author also draws a curious analogy on pp. 269-270, wherein what is considered unclean is really something that was not just normal. He argues: “Homosexuality did not conform to the norm for sexual relations, and hence it was unnatural, unclean, detestable, or an abomination… Is it possible that the backdrop for Moses’s condemnation of a man lying with a man as with a woman was this sense that something was either clean or unclean, acceptable or detestable based upon whether it was “normal” (i.e. conforming to the norm) or abnormal?” (p. 269).
Hamilton also argues that the writing of some biblical authors “do not seem to reflect the heart of God revealed in Jesus Christ. We have seen that the New Testament church took the bold step of acknowledging that much in the Old Testament did not reflect God’s continuing will for his people, setting aside circumcision, kosher laws, and much more” (p272). This leads into Adam’s “Three Buckets” theory. Let him explain:
As we read and interpret scripture, I’d suggest that there are three broad categories— let’s call them buckets— that biblical passages fit into. There are passages of scripture— I would suggest the vast majority —that reflect the timeless will of God for human beings, for instance , “Love your neighbor as you love yourself .” There are other passages that reflect God’s will in a particular time but not for all time , including much of the ritual law of the Old Testament. And there are passages that reflect the culture and historical circumstances in which they were written but never reflected God’s timeless will, like those related to slavery (pp. 273-274).
In other words, “(w)hich bucket we put scriptures in, or how we see them in the light of their culture, is not a matter of biblical authority but a matter of biblical interpretation” (p. 274). In my view, without very clear standards for interpretation, it’s a free-for-all. My understanding of hermeneutics is limited, but I have been taught over and over that inductive Bible study is about what the text actually says, what it would have meant to those who originally heard or read it, and how we can accurately transpose that to relevant meaning for us today. I see none of that in Adam’s arguments, clever as they may be. The Three-Buckets-Theory strikes me as a simple pick-and-choose approach, choosing what you like, and blaming cultural irrelevance and better knowledge of God’s intentions for whatever you prefer. We can all do that whenever we want, at least in this country, but I do not see it as biblical Christianity. Better minds than mine can hash out the details, but for me, this book does not help me in my personal walk of discipleship, nor in any attempts to help resolve the differences in our church over the very divisive issue of same-sex relations.
Finally, Adam gives us the viewpoint that biblical authors were inspired by God in ways not very different from our own experience of inspiration. While this is essentially true, it strikes me as somewhat immodest. What then of the authority of Scripture? He notes:
What makes the Bible more authoritative than contemporary inspirational writings is not a different degree of the Spirit’s inspiration but the proximity of the biblical writers to the events that they were recording and the fact that the church experienced God speaking through these words, felt they contained the essentials of the faith and found them helpful or useful during the opening centuries of the Christian era (p. 294).
The difference between us and them seems to be that they were born earlier, and the Church experienced God speaking through them. So if the modern church no longer experiences that, the possibility of ignoring them is left open to us? Seems so, according to Adam Hamilton. What do you think? If you read the book, please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.