Look, I really admire Adam Hamilton. He has led thousands of people to Christ and provided invaluable leadership in the UMC. His church has launched incredible ministries. He’s an amazing person, and I have no doubt that he is utterly committed to serving Christ.
Rev. Hamilton recently published a blog post called “Homosexuality, the Bible, and the United Methodist Church.” I don’t want to focus on the matter of homosexuality in this post, but only on Rev. Hamilton’s method of categorizing different passages of scripture. He says that he places scriptures into three buckets:
1. Scriptures that express God’s heart, character and timeless will for human beings.
2. Scriptures that expressed God’s will in a particular time, but are no longer binding.
3. Scriptures that never fully expressed the heart, character or will of God.
Actually, I think this is how most UM’s do interpret scripture, whether they are progressive, evangelical or something in between, and whether they admit it or not. Take, for example, the prohibition in 1 Tim 2:9 against women having braided hair and wearing gold or expensive clothes. As far as I can tell, this passage has no normative force in the UMC. Bucket #3. Paul’s discussion of food sacrificed to idols (1 Cor 8)? Well, in the modern West, we don’t often see people sacrificing food to little statues in alcoves on the street. Bucket #2. There are other passages, such as the story of Jepthah’s daughter in Judges 11. This story simply isn’t going to show up in the lectionary, nor is it likely to be incorporated into a sermon series on how to live a Godly life. It has no normative force in our churches. Bucket #3. But John 3:16? Bucket #1—off-the-backboard 360 slam dunk.
Further, most of the time we make these kinds of moves without thinking much about them. We do this because whether we are aware of it or not, we read scripture theologically. Put differently, we employee a set of theological concepts that largely determines which scriptural passages we consider normative and which we do not. For example, we believe that God is a loving, creative, and powerful deity, and therefore we have no problem assigning normative force to John 3:16. Jephthah, on the other hand? Not so much.
“No!” you may say. “You have it all backward! Scripture determines our theology, and not the other way around!” Many people do believe this to be the case. The relationship between scripture and doctrine, though, is not a one-way street. It is dialectical. In other words, scripture and doctrine inform and shape one another. Ask yourself, “Why do we have a New Testament canon to begin with?” The main reason is that certain Christian writings were thought to teach and inform the faith of the Church, embodied in the Rule of Faith, a kind of proto-creed. They became canonical, and over time helped to shape the further development of our doctrines. These doctrines, then, have informed the ways in which we read scripture. So it goes, back and forth: scripture informs our understanding of doctrine, and doctrine informs our reading of scripture. Thus it always has been, and thus it always will be.
So the really important question here is this: What theological concepts do we employ when we read scripture, and how intentional are we in appropriating these concepts? Even if we all agreed on the three-bucket approach, we would not agree on which scriptural passages go in which bucket. Rev. Hamilton acknowledges this in his post. This way of dealing with scripture, then, doesn’t help us a great deal in sorting out controversial issues.
One final point: I believe God can teach us through any passage of scripture. We don’t have to regard a scriptural passage as prescriptive or normative in order for God to teach us. God might in fact teach us through the passages of scripture that we find most difficult. God might teach us through passages that make us mad, sad, or confused. The Holy Spirit is a teacher who will consistently surprise and stretch us in our walk of faith.
Now, you may say, “Watson, that is all fine and good for you seminary types, but what about the people in the pews of the churches each Sunday? All this high-flying theological talk isn’t going to help them very much.” True enough, so here’s how I would boil this down. Rather than setting out the three buckets and sorting scriptural passages into one of the three, perhaps we should simply ask this question:
Given what I know to be true about God, how can this passage of scripture inform my understanding of God and the Christian life?
Yes, this question presupposes that we know something about God before we begin to read the Bible, but Christians should be catechized before they launch into Bible study.
To sum up, I think that Adam Hamilton has articulated the way in which most people in the UMC (and many other traditions) approach scripture. I don’t think this approach is sufficient, nor do I think it helps us to move forward in terms of our current disagreement over homosexuality. While I have great respect for Rev. Hamilton, I don’t think these remarks on scripture are his most helpful contribution.