Making Sense of the Bible? Rightly Handling the Word of Truth

I watched an hour long talk that Rev. Adam Hamilton gave at a conference of The Uniting Methodists in Dallas a few weeks ago (See HERE). Rev. Hamilton rightly said the controversy over sexuality in the United Methodist Church really comes down to differing views regarding Scripture. He insists that despite claims of conservatives to the contrary he does indeed have a high view of Scripture. As with many terms, however, Hamilton has a different definition than conservatives of what that means. But he does seem convinced that he has the view of Scripture that Jesus and Paul had; he also believes he employs the same method of interpretation that they did. In Scripture Hamilton apparently believes he finds a precedent and a trajectory of interpretation for rejecting the binding authority of some straightforward commands of Scripture in light of new experiences. He places himself in the position of Jesus and Paul and conservative United Methodists in the position of the Pharisees and Judaizers, the latter being those Jewish Christians who insisted that Gentiles be circumcised for salvation.

Rev. Hamilton insists that the Pharisees and Judaizers also had a high view of Scripture and were understandably concerned when Paul set aside the clear commands of Scripture regarding circumcision. He believes Paul did this primarily in light of the experience of Gentiles receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit because of which he interpreted Scripture differently so that circumcision was no longer binding. I get the impression that Hamilton believes Paul went in search of a few prooftexts to “theologize” in order to justify his new position.

But from Hamilton’s talk it’s not all that clear that he thinks Paul came to completely Spirit-inspired conclusions. Rather awkwardly and quite arrogantly, he also suggests that Paul could have handled the circumcision question in a more conciliatory way so that more Jews would have remained in and come into the Church. I suppose he would have had the church agree to disagree over the necessity of Gentile circumcision so that some would preach salvation by grace through faith alone, and others would preach salvation by grace through faith plus circumcision. Though it’s hard to see how that would have resolved the confusion and strife rather than intensifying it even further, but …

The problem with Hamilton’s line of reasoning is that it renders much if not all of Paul’s letter to the Galatians to be misguided at best. And what does it say about the actual decision reached by the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15? It was not an agree to disagree middle way position. Hamilton’s reasoning here also brings Paul’s reasoning in Romans 9-11 into question. There Paul concludes that the Jews by and large as a whole people have not responded to the Gospel because God has allowed a temporary hardening of Israel so the Gentiles could be grafted into the family of Abraham too. According to Paul this was all in fulfillment of Scripture in accordance with the mysterious will of God.

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ~ Romans 11:33 ESV

So according to Adam Hamilton’s reasoning is Romans 9-11 the mysterious wisdom and knowledge of God or the mere rationalization of Paul who should have been more gracious with Judaizers?

At any rate, it’s really not all that clear that the Pharisees and Judaizers actually had a high view of Scripture. Like Adam Hamilton they may have claimed to, but Jesus thought the Pharisees had a higher view of their own traditions that they developed through a poor interpretation of Scripture. Jesus did not chastise the Pharisees for taking the law too seriously; he chastised them for taking their extra-biblical traditions so seriously that they ended up using them to find loop holes around keeping the true spirit and intent of the law.

And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,“‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! ~ Mark 7:5-9

In fact, Jesus said the Pharisees made the word of God—specifically in this case the commandment to honor father and mother—void through their traditions (Mk 7:10-13).

Rev. Hamilton is right that the Bible has to be interpreted, but it should be rightly interpreted on its own terms. As Paul wrote to Timothy, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). While Rev. Hamilton sees the apostles simply making a decision to set aside the straightforward commandment regarding circumcision for Gentiles primarily in the light of a new experience, they clearly did not see themselves doing that. So what was going on at the Jerusalem Council recorded in Acts 15?

Well, they discerned from the Old Testament that Gentiles who were coming into the church through faith in Christ did not have to first become Jews through circumcision and be required to keep all of the ceremonial laws required of Jews under the Old Covenant. As Old Testament Professor Bill Arnold argues, the elders in Jerusalem led by James, the brother of Jesus, discovered from the Scriptures with the help of the Holy Spirit that the Gentiles who were becoming Christians could abide by the few regulations required of Gentiles living in Jewish communities according to Leviticus 17-18 (see specifically 17:8, 10, 12, 13 and 18:26, which pertains to sexual immorality). The key is that these verses from the holiness code found in Leviticus pertained to what was also expected of the resident aliens living in Israelite communities. These would be uncircumcised non-Jews who were content to live among the Jews without becoming Jewish. With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Church at the Jerusalem Council found guidance for what should be expected of Gentile converts in terms of basic behavior as they lived among Jews and had fellowship with Jewish Christians. Nevertheless, the main point again is that even at the Jerusalem Council the elders of the Church decided the questions before them in this transitional period with the guidance of the Spirit and from the law and the prophets, the latter made obvious with James’ quote from Amos 9:11-12 (Acts 15:12-21). Here the council was far from rejecting the straightforward commands of Scripture in the Old Testament. Instead they were trying to discern how to best understand the implications of the fulfillment of its promises in Jesus Christ and how best to apply the intent of its principles and precepts as Gentiles were welcomed into the family of God while remaining Gentiles. Adam Hamilton simply does not fairly represent what actually happened at the Jerusalem council. As Bill Arnold says, “James and the apostles gathered for the Jerusalem Council would have been shocked to learn that some today are suggesting they overturned Mosaic law.” It’s far worse to use the Jerusalem Council as an example for rejecting some of the prohibitions against sexual immorality that very same council commended to be of ongoing significance for Gentile Christians.

As is evident in the letter to the Galatians, Paul did not interpret Scripture prooftext by prooftext; rather he interpreted each text and passage from the wider perspective of the grand narrative of Scripture. This is what John Wesley called the overall tenor of Scripture. Paul identifies the Gospel being preached by Scripture as it records the promise to Abraham that in him “all the nations shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3 as quoted in Gal 3:8). The law of Moses given to Israel was meant to serve that greater promise and blessing, according to Paul (Gal 3:15-29). Israel living in obedience to God’s law was always intended to be a witness to the rest of the nations (Dt 4:5-8). The prophets, as the Jerusalem Council saw, testified to the eventual blessing of the Gentiles that was initially promised to Abraham (Gen 12:3). The mystery was that this would turn out to mean they would be blessed not by becoming Jewish through accepting the symbolic identity markers that set Jews apart from Gentiles; rather they would be welcomed into the covenant family of Abraham while retaining their ethnic identity as Gentiles. Based on Amos 9:11-12 (from the Septuagint–Greek Old Testament), this is the conclusion reached by James, as the spokesperson for the apostles, during the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15). That’s the same conclusion Paul gives in Galatians and Ephesians. These are very subtle and difficult-to-detect distinctions that the Church saw in Scripture not in spite of it. And it was not without mystery and some paradox.

For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles—assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. ~ Ephesians 3:1-6 (see also Eph 2:11-13)

From what Paul says in Romans it is seems quite evident that he saw by revelation Gentile inclusion among the elect people of God as Gentiles in Scripture not apart from it.

even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? As indeed he says in Hosea,“Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’” “And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’there they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’” ~ Romans 9:24-26
Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith—to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen. ~ Romans 16:25-27

In light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of Israel’s Scriptures, Paul and the church saw clearly in those same Scriptures what was once obscure so as to be hidden. These are the incredibly fine and subtle distinctions in the Old Testament Scriptures that became clear in light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Hypothetically speaking, even if Paul was mistaken in his interpretation of the Old Testament, he certainly didn’t see himself as declaring certain Scripture no longer relevant simply in light of a new experience as Adam Hamilton suggests. By not recognizing these distinctions and by not making reasonable distinctions himself, Rev. Hamilton, does not “make sense” of the Bible; he makes mincemeat of the Bible. And as a result he ends up in the awkward position of criticizing the apostle Paul and arrogantly suggesting that he might have handled things better himself in addition to using as Gentile inclusion as an analogy that is incredibly dubious at best. Moreover, there is no way that he can search the law and prophets to find anything that would even come close to a hint that homosexuality should at some point be accepted by the Church; there is certainly nothing in the New Testament remotely close to that. As I have repeatedly shown even some of the best liberal scholars admit this. Gentile inclusion is a horrible analogy for accepting behavior that the Bible consistently and unequivocally condemns.

From Rev. Hamilton’s talk it seems quite clear to me that he is more interested in rationalizing behavior that the Old and New Testaments both clearly condemn as immoral. He fails to rightly handle the word of truth. He conflates rather than making proper distinctions; he creates false dichotomies; he argues against straw men, and even seems to set up Scripture itself as a straw man, all while claiming a high view of Scripture.

During one portion of his talk he quotes a slew of verses out of context from the Old Testament where the death penalty is commanded such as the one in Deuteronomy about stoning a disobedient son (Dt 21:18-21; see my effort here to put that passage in perspective). He also brings up the so-called genocide of the Canaanites in Joshua that really wasn’t (the language of total annihilation was an ancient near eastern idiom common among the Canaanites themselves and the Egyptians) to make the God described in those passages look as bad as possible. The Bible itself makes clear that the language of total annihilation of the Canaanites was hyperbolic because the Canaanites continued to maintain a strong presence and a persistently negative influence on Israel, as well as being a military threat, as the full context of Joshua and Judges makes clear (see also Paul Copan & Matthew Flanngan, Did God Really Command Genocide? Coming to Terms with the Justice of God—Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004 to really “make sense” of these texts). We also might want to consider that our modern culture that by and large stands by as unborn children are slaughtered by the thousands daily mainly for reasons of personal convenience, may not really hold the moral high ground it seems to think it does.

Some people, nonetheless, wrongly prooftext to defend Biblical authority; others prooftext to undermine it. Likewise some resort to wooden literalism to bolster the authority of Scripture, others again to undermine it. Hamilton is obviously engaged in the latter as he suggests that certain Old Testament passages do not reflect the God revealed in Jesus. He posits those texts tell us more about those primitive human’s misunderstanding of what God is like rather than what God is really like. But there is more than one way to play the misleading game that Adam Hamilton likes to play with Scripture.

I could easily pull sayings of Jesus out of context to make him seem overly harsh and vindictive and then compare them to prooftexts from the Old Testament that make the God revealed therein seem more gracious and merciful.

The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. ~ Matt 13:41-42
Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ ~ Mark 9:42-48

But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me. ~ Luke 19:27 (Cf Luke 20:9-18)
But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols. I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality. Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works. ~ Revelation 2:20-23

I could then take these prooftexts and compare them to the way God is described as being so merciful and compassionate in Psalm 103 and the book of Jonah, for example, both of which are based on the revelation of God given in Exodus 34:6, and say this Jesus doesn’t reflect the merciful and compassionate God revealed in Moses and the Prophets. Either way it is a deceptive exercise. The God revealed in Jesus is none other than the God whose full character as a God of mercy and justice is revealed in Exodus 34:6 and 7.

The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” ~ Exodus 34:6-7

Instead of pitting prooftext against prooftext and throwing our hands up and saying we all just pick and choose, which seems to be Adam Hamilton’s definition of “interpretation,” we should seek to understand each verse, passage, and story within the overall framework of the grand narrative we find in the overall sweep of the Bible. We should also work hard to make the proper distinctions to the best of our ability. There are difficult passages and things hard for us to understand, but as Augustine and John Wesley taught we should seek to understand the difficult passages in light of the plethora of the clear. Adam Hamilton, however, seems determined to use the difficult verses to muddy the waters of the clear passages of Scripture in order to exert self-will over the authority of Scripture as an objective standard. As Peter warned there are some who will twist the hard-to-understand portions of Scripture to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:16). Adam Hamilton, albeit for different reasons, quite clearly seems to be employing tactics similar to the teachers that Saint Irenaeus wrote against. Regarding these teachers, whom Irenaeus says they also boasted that they were “correctors of the apostles,” Irenaeus said:

But when they are refuted from the Scriptures they turn around and attack the Scriptures themselves, saying that they are not correct or authoritative, that they are mutually inconsistent and that the truth cannot be found from them by those who are not acquainted with the tradition. (Saint Irenaeus, Against Heresies III, 2.1)

The tradition of which Irenaeus’ rivals boasted included a tradition of Biblical interpretation where they felt free to correct the writings of the apostles and to declare certain portions of Scripture to be a false representation of the the Supreme God of their worldview and of that God’s actual will. They pitted certain passages of Scripture against others and developed at least an implicit unofficial canon within the canon. Marcion, however, was more explicit with his deconstruction project. In all cases they failed to make the proper distinctions in context, and failed to rightly interpret the word of truth (2 Tim 2:15). They brought a foreign worldview to Scripture and twisted and distorted Scripture to fit their worldview rather than adjusting their worldview to Scripture.

We can, however, detect how best to make the proper distinctions through clues within the Bible itself. For example, Jesus spoke about the “weightier” or more important matters of Scripture that the Pharisees neglected in favor of lesser issues (Matt 23:23). In the Old Testament law we can detect what are weightier matters through the differing degrees of punishment we find in the penalties that were to be imposed under the Old Covenant. We also see this reflected in Jesus’ statements that there would be greater degrees of punishment in the judgement for some towns over others for their rejection of the good news of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 10:5-15).

Based in 2 Corinthians 3, Saint Augustine detected a distinction between symbolic laws for Israel that were types and signs of a greater spiritual reality that we enjoy through faith in Jesus Christ to whom they pointed. As Paul said, as Christians Christ is our Passover sacrifice (1 Cor 5:7), for example. Through faith in Christ we keep the spirit of Passover. We also need to make distinctions between literal and figurative language. In some cases it is more subtle than others—there are dozens and dozens of different types of figures of speech, all of which point to something very real. And while considering that the distinctions we find in Article 6 of the Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church between the ceremonial, civil, and moral law in the Old Testament are not absolute with no overlap, we should seek to understand the nuanced distinctions to which they point and stop trying to find loop holes around the moral prohibitions that are unequivocally stated in both Testaments. There are plenty of legitimate distinctions to make and we can make them in a principled fashion as difficult as it may be. We can do better than pretending like we all just pick and choose more or less arbitrarily.

Article VI — Of the Old Testament

The Old Testament is not contrary to the New; for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and man, being both God and Man. Wherefore they are not to be heard who feign that the old fathers did look only for transitory promises. Although the law given from God by Moses as touching ceremonies and rites doth not bind Christians, nor ought the civil precepts thereof of necessity be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian whatsoever is free from the obedience of the commandments which are called moral.

Rather than doing the admittedly difficult work of making the distinctions that we need to make, Adam Hamilton works hard to stir up as much doubt and confusion as he can to justify rejecting the straightforward command of Scripture regarding homosexual practice. I know from personal interactions with Adam that he will throw everything he can, including the kitchen sink, at you to ward off criticism. It would take more than a long blog article to deal with every objection he throws out.

The bottom line is this: his arguments clearly show that he has a view of Scripture that is not compatible with our own doctrinal standards. His view of Scripture may be higher than Richard Dawkins’, but that doesn’t make it a high view. In his talk Adam also went to great lengths to distance Scripture itself from the concept of “the word of God.” Ironically he used Scripture to argue that “the word of God” is something more than Scripture itself. With that general statement I actually agree, but I disagree that Scripture as a whole is something far less than the “word of God.” According to Rev. Hamilton’s view only some of Scripture is the inspired word of God. He reduces Scripture to a medium through which God may speak, rather than seeing it as a trustworthy and reliable record of how God has spoken first through his prophets and finally through his Son (Heb 1:1-2). Whereas for the apostles and Christians in Acts Scripture was used to judge the authenticity of the verbal proclamation of the Gospel (Acts 17:11), Hamilton sits in judgement over Scripture according to another standard, the spirit of this postmodern age. Ironically he also uses 2 Timothy 3:16-17 to try to justify his view, but not without trying to bring its meaning into doubt too.

The context of 2 Timothy 3:16-17 is pertinent. There Paul warns Timothy about times of apostasy when many “will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Tim 4:3-4). It’s in the context of warning about apostasy and rebellion against the truth that Paul tells Timothy,

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. ~ 2 Timothy 3:14-17

In the face of those today who are arguing that some Scripture actually may have never been inspired by God, that’s still a much needed admonition for Christians today. Do not be deceived. We will not be judged by what we are able to know with certainty, but by what we are willing or not willing to believe with conviction. People can make seemingly plausible arguments for anything. You can use uncertain

light through gray clouds

ty of knowledge as an excuse for doubt and unbelief; or you can see it as an invitation to faith. Indeed, “for we walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7). Perhaps God is inviting us out of the cloud of gray and into the light.

Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. ~ 2 Corinthians 4:1-6

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