United Methodist pastor and author Adam Hamilton was gracious enough to engage in a Twitter exchange with me recently, which given all the important things he has to do is likely not the best use of his time.
Hamilton has a proposed a principle of biblical interpretation that appears to have a lot of support in our denomination. In a nutshell, he argues that texts in the bible can be sorted into three different categories or “buckets.” In the first bucket are all the texts that truly reflect the eternal will and character of God. In the second bucket are the texts that reflect the will of God in a certain time and place but no longer apply to our different context. In the third bucket are texts that never reflected the will or character of God.
For quite a long time, much of the church has recognized the existence of the first two buckets. It is a Christian commonplace that the coming of Jesus Christ changed the relationship between human beings and the law of the Old Testament. The way I’ve seen of talking about this is to say that the law could be divided into three categories — civil, ceremonial, and moral — and only the third is still binding today. This view is reflected in the language of the United Methodist Articles of Religion’s discussion about the Old Testament, for instance.
This two bucket approach is not reserved for the Old Testament alone. Scholars have also argued that some of what authors such as Paul argue in their epistles are similarly meant for a particular audience in a particular place and should not be taken as eternal decrees binding forever on the church. There is a lot to argue there, but the principle that some of Bible is directed at a particular context or problem is not widely disputed.
So, I have no problem with the first two buckets.
What has caused me trouble since I first read about Hamilton’s three buckets approach is that third bucket.
I don’t have a problem with saying that some of the verses in the Bible do not reflect the will and character of God. For instance, the men demanding Lot throw his daughters out in the street to be raped are not speaking on behalf of God. But that is not Hamilton’s point. What he argues is that there are some passages in Scripture that claim to represent the will and character of God but do not. We might say they are mistakes or lies or fabrications or even blasphemy.
One thing that is not clear to me is how we should fill up this third bucket. I posted a question to that effect on Twitter and eventually Hamilton graciously responded with a few tweets:
In Hamilton’s book on the Bible and elsewhere he argues that we should use Jesus Christ as a kind of filter to help us read the Old Testament. Based on what we know of Jesus, we screen out parts of the Old Testament that don’t fit with our understandings of Christ’s character.
I have no standing to argue with Hamilton, and so do not wish to frame what I’m about to write as an argument. It is more my testimony, a discussion of why I find this whole third bucket concept troubling. Clearly, there are a large numbers of United Methodists who do not share my struggles, so hear this for what it is, one imperfect man’s difficulty.
I’m not sure how to rank my struggles, so in not particular order, they go like this.
The Trinitarian Concern: At my most recent meeting with my supervisory committee, the first question they asked me was to explain the Trinity in three minutes or less. I’m sure my answer left something to be desired, but I passed the test. The one sentence summary is that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three-in-one. I don’t know how to use Jesus as a filter to read the Old Testament without dividing the Trinity against itself. I believe that Hamilton would say we are not dividing the Trinity but using the clearest revelation of the nature of God to strain out the imperfect or mistaken pictures of God. But I can’t make my brain do that because our Trinitarian claim is that every action of God in the Old Testament was an action taken by Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Old Testament is just as clear about the character of God as the New. When God called for vengeance on the Midianites in Numbers 31, the pre-incarnate Christ was the one calling for that. That is just as much a revelation of Jesus Christ as the Sermon on the Mount.
The Lack of Imagination Concern: Some of the candidates for the third bucket get there because we can’t understand or imagine God doing some of things that the Bible says God does or did. To be completely frank here, I don’t think my imagination is a good standard by which God should be judged. If things that I could not imagine happening were used to throw texts out of the Bible a lot of what Jesus did would have to be ripped out of our New Testament. When my imagination becomes a box into which God must fit, I get a God no larger than my imagination. That is an idol, one I’d rather not depend upon.
The Pretty Full Bucket Concern: If Numbers 31 outrages us so much that we say it must be a lie about who God is, what do we do with the Exodus? Let’s be clear about this. In the Exodus, God killed thousands of children and babies. Do we third bucket that, too? Numbers 31 is a fairly obscure chapter. The Exodus is central to the story of all the Bible. That whole Passover celebration was precisely in response to the death that God unleashed on the Egyptians. Passover does some important theological work for Christians, too. If we take out every chapter and verse of the Bible that shocks us, how much will be left for the first two buckets?
So how do I answer Hamilton’s questions in his tweets?
The only answer I have is that God is the creator of heaven and earth, and I am not. I do not understand how the Son could command the death of children and also die on a cross for the sins of the world. I don’t understand that, but in the end I think that is my problem not God’s.
I know that answer is not very persuasive to “thinking Christians” or skeptical non-believers. It does not make the Bible more reasonable or attractive. It does not make it easier for me to explain God in a way that won’t offend people. Since I’m still trying to break out of the sin of seeking to please people, it would be easier for me if I could toss stuff that confuses and scares me in the third bucket, but I simply don’t know how to do that and say what remains deserves the respect and attention of our congregations.
I’m not prepared to start tossing parts of the Bible in the third bucket. I do not know how I could do that and still stand up every Sunday and preach from the Bible. Personally, I could not do that.