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.

‘For I keep your statutes’

In the movie Luther there is a dramatic scene when Luther is overcome with grief and agony over his sin and the devil’s power. His father confessor comes to him and directs him to pray this terribly simple prayer to Jesus: Save me. I am yours.

I had not noticed until this morning that the prayer was from Psalm 119: 94.

The full verse in the NIV is translated like this: Save me, for I am yours; I have sought out your precepts.

Maybe it is what I have been reading recently — both online and in book form — but reading Psalm 119 for my Scripture this morning brought home to me the ease with which my ears are tempted by calls to set aside the law and the teaching of God. It is so easy to talk yourself into the idea that God’s law is fluid and defined by the culture of the day. It is so easy to lift up verse against verse in the Bible and melt any sense that there is something hard and fast and unchanging at the base of it all. It is so easy end up double-minded and hating the law (contra. 119:113).

Psalm 119 ends with this: I have strayed like a lost sheep. Seek your servant, for I have not forgotten you commands.

May God’s grace give me the faithfulness to be able to pray those words in truth.

Purity and justice

See how each of the princes of Israel who are in you uses his power to shed blood. In you they have treated father and mother with contempt; in you they have oppressed the foreigner and mistreated the fatherless and the widow. You have despised my holy things and desecrated my Sabbaths. In you are slanderers who are bent on shedding blood; in you are those who eat at the mountain shrines and commit lewd acts. In you are those who dishonor their father’s bed; in you are those who violate women during their period, when they are ceremonially unclean. In you one man commits a detestable offense with his neighbor’s wife, another shamefully defiles his daughter-in-law, and another violates his sister, his own father’s daughter. In you are people who accept bribes to shed blood; you take interest and make a profit from the poor. You extort unjust gain from your neighbors. And you have forgotten me, declares the Sovereign Lord. (Ezekiel 22:6-12)

I was reading Ezekiel last night. Chapter 22 grabbed my attention in more than one way. In the latter part of the chapter when it talks about God’s wrath refining Israel like silver, I thought of John the Baptist and Jesus. I wonder if they had this chapter in mind when they preached.

But it is the quote above that opened up a question I wanted to share with you.

In the passage above, God lays out a list of offenses including things we divide into different categories. Some are things we might call concerns with purity — ritual or personal — and some are things we might call justice issues.

Jesus does the same in his preaching. The Apostles do as well.

It seems like we tend to separate these things. You find churches where the emphasis falls almost entirely on the need for us to purify our hearts and conduct. You find other churches where the emphasis falls almost exclusively on care for the poor and vulnerable.

Righteousness in the Bible strikes me as involving both things.

How do we hold these two things together and so honor God?

And some United Methodists?

Here’s the background I need to get to post this quote below. Sewanee Uniiversity gave N.T. Wright an honor. A professor wrote that Wright did not deserve to be treated as a serious biblical scholar. Internet hilarity ensued.

And then this piece was written that included this great bit:

Well, Wright is an Anglican and one thing about us Anglicans is that we regard Scripture as sufficient and supreme in the life of the church. In fact, I would point out that the majority of people engaged in biblical studies do so out of a deep reverence and high regard for Scripture as providing authoritative direction for the Christian faith. It is only unbelievers and perhaps some Episcopalians who  are dumbfounded as to why anyone would regard the Bible as somehow normative for their beliefs and ethics.

Why bone cancer does not shake my faith

British actor and comedian Stephen Fry caused a bit of a storm in some sectors of the Internet recently. In an interview he was asked what he would say to God if he met him at the pearly gates:

His language is powerful. He delivers his message well. I can see why it has stirred up people.

Of course, it is not original. Humans have been angry about suffering and death from the first. Job, Ecclesiastes, the Psalms, and Lamentations all give voice to the range of despair and anger that both atheists and the faithful have raised for as long as humans have drawn breath.

Fry suggests that bone cancer and other afflictions reveal God’s character — if he exists — as a cruel, selfish, and insane god not worthy of worship. What person who has lived any life at all does not understand the pain and anger expressed by such accusations?

I am writing this post on Ash Wednesday, when many Christians gather in worship to be reminded that from dust we have come and to dust we will return. It is a day we remember and are reminded that we will all one day die.

If faith is only possible to us in a world without suffering or pain, then faith will be impossible for us until the end of all days.

Of course, if a man is determined to face mortality and suffering by spitting in the eye of God, we cannot reason him out of his plan. We certainly don’t do any honor to God by getting angry at him or posting nasty things about him on the Internet.

If Fry professed to be a Christian and said such things, it would be cause for some church teaching and perhaps discipline. But he is not of our tribe. We can and should be ready to explain the hope that is in us. We should be ready to offer him Christ. We should pray for God to bless him. But we should not be surprised by his outrage.

Our Bible speaks of the same kind of anger and fear. We know suffering and pain. Ashes and dust await us all. And yet God is God.

Reading & living with humility

For a number of years now I’ve been attracted to William J. Abraham’s contention that scripture is a means of grace rather than a source of claims and facts to settle theological arguments. (He does not use those exact words, but I think that is fair to what he means.)

The longer form of his argument can be found in this book. A less exhaustive version can be found here.

As a means of grace, the Bible challenges us and calls us into the life of God. Its complexity and internal arguments are not problems to be solved. They are rather reminders that we see now only in part. The Holy Spirit uses the Bible to meet us in different ways at different times, calling us ever deeper into the life of God.

If this is true, then one of the things we are called to surrender to the Holy Spirit is our need for certainty. Not only is the truth the Spirit teaches me today not necessarily the same the truth you need to be taught, it may not even be the same truth I need to learn tomorrow or next year.

This kind of attitude toward scripture plays havoc with our desire for certainty and system. All those virtuoso tomes of systematic theology are beautiful but can never be the final word. No pastor — no matter how successful — can ever claim to have captured the final truth of faith. No blogger — heaven help us — has been given full access to the mind of God. We all must be more humble than that.

And this humility must extend especially to the forms of Christian life and faith that we find least comporting with our own. My theologically liberal friends who sneer at the Sinner’s Prayer and greet with incredulity talk of spiritual healing and demonic attack could be more humble, as could my theologically conservative friends who did not know how to comment on the recent death of Marcus Borg without first pointing out that they disagreed with a lot he wrote and find themselves wanting to put air quotes around the word “Christian” when they refer to some of their brothers and sisters.

I know these comments extend to me as well. In recent months, I’ve learned the hard way that things I once regarded as certain can quickly melt into nothing. I have been guilty as any of confusing what appeared to be clear for the whole truth.

Yes, to exist, the church needs borders and boundaries. It needs bishops to exercise discipline. I do not for a moment doubt that. But I am reminded these days that I am not a bishop, nor am I well suited for that office.

Part of humility may be leaving to those called to that office the tasks of that office, even when it looks from my vantage point as if they could or should be doing something differently than they are.

The great paradox I feel in all this is that while we are called to be humble about what we think we know of God, we are not called to sit on our hands. What we know only in part should still should shape the way we live and act, while we remain ever ready for the Holy Spirit to challenge and call us into new paths.

And so, today I find myself seeking to be more humble about what I know even as I — perhaps paradoxically — try to be even more intent on following the one who has called me.