Making sense of bucket three

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.

23 thoughts on “Making sense of bucket three

  1. Why “two,” Rev. Brent L. White? Why not even just “one”? (Don’t misunderstand, however; I tend to agree with John, not with Adam Hamilton.)

    Does the pot/clay say to the Potter, “Why have you made me thus?”? Likewise, does the pot/clay say to the Potter, “Why do you conduct Yourself thus?”?

  2. I appreciate this blog’s comments and insight. The whole issue shows we need to better address difficult passages of Scripture and not just ignore them. My understanding of all the O. T. killing of entire groups of peoples was deeply affected when I read the NIV text note to Isaiah 34:2. “The LORD is angry with all nations . . . He will totally destroy them, he will give them over to slaughter.” Destroy “refers to the irrevocable giving over of things or persons to the LORD, often by totally destroying them.” The same term is used several times in Joshua 6 and 7 regarding the city and people of Jericho. I was overwhelmed with the insight that O. T. destruction is a reflection of God’s character and a picture of the judgment we all have coming, but for God’s loving intervention through Jesus Christ. Christ came to save–such difficult O. T. passages reflect what he came to save us from. Jesus’ words aren’t all warm and fuzzy, either. Would the third bucket be limited to O. T. passages? I didn’t particularly like the words of Jesus that I read in Luke 12:47 just this morning: “That servant who knows his master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows.” What? Sounds violent. But I don’t think “third bucketing” the verse is the best approach!

    1. Thanks for your comment. I also greatly benefit from the comments here. It is often the best reason to have a blog.

  3. John, this was an outstanding blog piece. It’s so good that I’m sharing it with the lovable (but irrefragable) neopagans and MTD enthusiasts and progressive acolytes in my family.

  4. A view from the pew: And what is a person from the pew supposed to think about this discussion? It leaves me where I was for years–confused and muddled what basic orthodox Christianity is about. John Wesley did not need buckets–he was simply a man of one book, the Bible. He did not put any uncomfortable texts in a bucket and yet he certainly did not advocate violence although he was the recipient of it. John Wesley discovered a triune God of holy love throughout the whole of the Bible. The God I encountered in the Heidelberg Catechism and three books about it was a triune God of holy love who is most definitely way more verb than noun and determined to love us.

    After a pause to collect my thoughts, one of my many watershed moments came back to me as I engaged the Heidelberg Catechism in conjunction with the book “Body & Soul” by M. Craig Barnes:

    “In Jesus Christ, the Son of Man and the Son of God, God’s mercy and justice came together.”

    In other words, God himself came to earth and suffered a very violent judgment on our behalf that God at least allowed, if not ordained, so that those who believed in Jesus as the Son of God would not have to! If the Heidelberg is to be believed, Jesus’ death on the cross was the final bloody sacrifice ever required.

    I am not sure how coherent my thoughts are. Basically, I am frustrated with discussions like this that just show the theological diversity present within the UMC which means the person in the pew is pretty much up a creek when it comes to any sort of clear understanding of who God is and who we are. In contrast, the Heidelberg Catechism and three modern authors–M. Craig Barnes, Kevin DeYoung and Starr Meade had no qualms embracing the mercy and justice of God. And neither did John Wesley–his invitation to people was to “flee the wrath to come.”

  5. John, I truly enjoy and concur with your thoughts here concerning the buckets. As a pastor who has concerns with the trajectory of the theological debates and other major movements within our denomination, I thank you for voicing and posting your excellent thoughts on this very serious issue. May God’s blessings continue to you and to those you serve.

  6. A good word, John. And two or even three buckets is better than what they taught me at Claremont, that God is growing and learning in response to human progress and thus much smarter and nicer than he/she was in OT or even NT times.

  7. That is a good word, John you are far more correct than Adam Hamilton. Any time we start down this road of throwing Scripture out of the Bible, which is basically what the third bucket wants to do, it reminds me of two things. First, is the mystery of God. God is far above our mortal understanding and comprehension, thus as mere humans we have no right to stand in judgment of God’s revealed word in Scripture. Second, is 2Tim. 3: 16-17, Paul writing inspired by the Holy Spirit, says “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correction and training in righteousness. So that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (NIV) When Paul wrote 2 Timothy he was talking about the OT. Paul who knew both the OT and Jesus Christ had no problem reconciling the two as being valid for proper Christian teaching and training. Our job as Christians is not to sit in judgment of Scripture, but to study it and learn from it. So, that we can share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with a hurting world.

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