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.

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It is the Presbyterian who speaks to me

Two contemporary books define between them nearly all the tensions I feel in pastoral ministry.

The first is Eugene Peterson’s Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. The second is Adam Hamilton’s Selling Swimsuits in the Arctic.

Hamilton is an extroverted and visionary mega-church pastor who in his book tells the story about how selling shoes taught him a lot about what it takes to be a good pastor. Peterson is a Presbyterian church planter, best known for his biblical paraphrase The Message, who recoils at the idea of a church having anything in common with a shoe store.

By temperament, I am much more inclined toward Peterson. He once told his congregational leaders that what he most wanted to do among them was pray, study Scripture and the world, get to know them, and lead them in worship. He wanted to stop all the projects and work of running a church. He also tells the story about the denominational official who told him to respond to a decline in worship attendance by launching a new building program. Americans, the official told him, only respond to projects. Peterson said he left the meeting knowing he was not going to take that advice, but not knowing what to do.

I understand that feeling.

Hamilton, in contrast, is energetic and extremely skillful at casting visions and getting things done. He understands how to communicate and is brilliant at organization. His church has without any doubt had a huge impact on its community and the entire United Methodist denomination. I’m not sure if Hamilton ever had a talk with his congregational leadership about the things that he most wants to do among them, but I have no doubt that he has a list of items that would be quite persuasive as an outline of what a church pastor should do.

I admire Hamilton, but I know I am not him nor will be any time soon. And yet, I still feel the tug of his example. It is duplicated by so many pastors who bring a set of practical gifts for helping other people encounter Jesus and grow in their faith. They are people of action and vision. They get things done. It feels like the United Methodist Church needs people who get things done.

As many people who know me will testify, getting things done is not one of my defining traits. I worry that makes me a poor fit for the needs of the church right now, but at my age I am not likely to become a different person than I am.

And so my copy of Five Smooth Stones is dog-eared and underlined heavily. My copy of Selling Swimsuits is in a box with my other books. It is from Peterson’s book that I find the most encouragement. I don’t think that is because Hamilton is wrong, but he simply is not very much in tune with my gifts and faults. Thank God for pastors like Hamilton. Thank God for pastors like Peterson.

Violence in the Bible – Two approaches

Adam Hamilton recently published three blog posts about violence in the Old Testament.

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Allan Bevere recruited Ashland seminary professor Dan Hawk to provide a response.

Part One 

Part Two

Part Three

The posts on these two blogs and the comments they have generated would make an interesting small group study.

Here is how Hawk concludes his second post:

On the question of divine violence as in so many others, the canon calls faithful readers out black-and-white thinking and into the gray; out of an impulse that seeks to simplify, dichotomize, and resolve in order to determine who is right– and into a communal conversation as fluid and contentious as the clamor of voices that vie with one another in the biblical canon. The plurality of voices, postures, testimonies, and declarations that configure Scripture reflect the diversity of the same that characterize the church. The very nature of Scripture, then, directs the community shaped by it to seek the truth from all sides and prayerfully ponder together what God is doing in any given day and age and so to align its witness and involvements accordingly.

I notice the reference to living in the gray, which may or may not be a reference to one of Hamilton’s other books. Reading Hawk’s response to Hamilton, I am mindful as well of another response to this question about the violence of God. Some — and John Wesley would fall in this camp — that we are all creatures of God, and so God is justified at any moment if he destroys us for any reason. We are like clay pots the potter can smash on a whim.

This “clay pot” solution to the violence of God comes to mind as I was reading these posts because it strikes me as the mirror image of Hamilton’s approach. Hamilton — as I think Hawk rightly argues — simplifies the witness of Scripture too much by shearing off those parts seem to conflict with a certain vision of who Jesus is. Wesley — and contemporaries such as John Piper — simplify the witness of Scripture the other way by smashing clay pots every time someone raises a qualm about Hell or the destruction of Jericho.

Hawk — quoting Walter Brueggemann — testifies to a God who defies simplification, and in that way becomes much more dangerous and awe-inspiring. You just don’t know what God is going to do next. Such a God is hard to cram into a Sunday School lesson or a sermon. Such a God certainly is not chiefly concerned with making us comfortable. But such a God — at least for me — feels much less like an idol created out of my own imagination and needs. Such a God feels worthy of worship, fear, and love.