Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today by Adam Hamilton

“Gifted” is an understatement when it comes to Adam Hamilton. In addition to writing this and 15-20 other books; in addition to planting Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, KS in 1990, then growing it to over 20,000 members; Hamilton is an incredibly influential preacher and Biblical teacher; and while I don’t know how much pastoral care ends up on his plate these days, his writing has always displayed a pastor’s heart.

Hamilton’s communication skills and pastoral skills are in full force in Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today. In the first three parts of Section One: The Nature of Scripture, he gives a helpful and well-done overview of his personal relationship to Scripture, overviews the contents of the Old and New Testament in fifteen minutes apiece, provides some history on how the early Church came to the Scriptures, and talks about the process of canonization.

It’s that last–canonization–when Hamilton begins to stumble. Hamilton opens Chapter 13, “Which Books Made It into the New Testament and Why” by talking about the emergence of the New Testament in the first four centuries of the Church, with reference to the Apostolic Fathers, Marcion, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Athanasius. I’m not sure where you would find a better introduction for the interested non-specialist than his summary here. As in his sermons, there is always enough depth for the intellectually wired hearers to go as far as they want. Then Hamilton moves to the criteria for canonicity.

“Criteria for canonicity” is the name we give to the reasoning used by the early church to determine if a given book was actually to be included in the canon. As Hamilton writes, “The process by which our New Testament books came to be seen as authoritative was not neat and tidy, but it does involve identifiable criteria. Typically scholars list these criteria as Apostolicity, Catholicity, Orthodoxy, and several others” (pp. 120-121). However, instead of Apostolicity, Catholicity, Orthodoxy, etc., Hamilton offers Usefulness, Consistency, Association, and Acceptance. The problem is not the admirable and pastoral desire to translate academic language for lay ears, but that his is sometimes a poor translation, which goes on to affect his teaching on the nature of Scripture and his exegesis of particular texts.

Hamilton’s first criterion is Usefulness. By this he means that the early Church found some writings to be “useful to large numbers of churches over a period of several hundred years” (p. 121). At one level this is accurate, because the writings achieved universality (or Catholicity, as most writers on the canon would put it) because the Church found that a letter initially written to one church with its particular issues was applicable to other churches and their own issues. That is to say, the Epistle to the Ephesians was always intended for wider consumption than the church at Ephesus. The Revelation of John was likely not addressed and sent only to the seven churches it names.

The difficulty with Usefulness as a criterion, however, is that it injects a big dose of pragmatism into our doctrine of Scripture right at the foundations. Immediately, it makes us ask what happens when a Biblical book or a section of a Biblical book no longer seems to be as useful. Rather than the criterion being the authority, we can easily become the the authority by which the criterion is to be judged. This isn’t just a slippery slope argument. It is actually what Hamilton goes on to do.

On page 177, Hamilton writes, “Christians may legitimately set aside clear teachings of scripture as no longer binding, seeing them as written primarily for another time and not reflecting God’s timeless will.” Hamilton’s examples are how Jesus reinterprets and often seems to break the Mosaic Law, and how the Council of Jerusalem discerned that the commandment of circumcision was not binding on Gentile converts. The problem is that Hamilton then says that we have the authority to do the same thing, but he never names who can legitimately take up the authority to do so, and he never lays out the deeply needed argument for how we make that discernment.

It’s the problem of Protestantism in general mixed with the problems of Wesley and of the US churches. The problem of Protestantism is that taken to its complete end, there is no authority beyond the individual and a single Bible verse. The problem of Wesley (or at least his followers) is a focus on the pragmatic, sometimes without theological reflection. (This is the definition of the work given to and accomplished by the Commission on a Way Forward.) The problem of the US churches is that we still think (despite ample evidence to the contrary) that we are a City on a Hill, here to enlighten the world. Saute this unholy trinity (sorry, Cajun readers) for a while, and you’ve got a great start to one hell of a gumbo.

Yes, Jesus and the New Testament writers read Scripture in ways I would never have read Scripture if they hadn’t first. Yes, the Council at Jerusalem came to a conclusion that was only right if the Holy Spirit was actually present to them and in the treif-filled dreams of Peter. (The Holy Spirit actually was.) No, we aren’t Jesus or Paul. No, we cannot wait for the church to be able to hold a truly ecumenical council once again before we interpret Scriptures for our context. Neither can we ignore that even without an ecumenical council for the last 1000 years, there are indeed interpretations of Scripture on which the Church has spoken with near unison. But Hamilton does not tend to these important interpretive questions, and so Usefulness remains a deeply flawed criterion for canonicity.

Hamilton’s second and third criteria–Consistency and Association–correspond to Orthodoxy and Apostolicity. In the first, I would have rather he simply defined orthodoxy, rather than substituting “consistency,” a definition which doesn’t recognized the chorus of different–not unison–voices at work in the Scriptures. Apostolicity likewise has much greater depth than mere “Association,” but it also requires an understanding of the church and the importance of the apostles, bishops, and elders that is more at home in the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches than is common among Protestants. Finally, Hamilton’s Acceptance corresponds to Catholicity. I guess that’s fine, but as a United Methodist who leads people each week to say we believe in the “catholic church,” it seems like a missed opportunity to define an important term in the life of Christians.

As Making Sense of the Bible proceeds into its second half, I’m grateful to see Hamilton arguing for a “high” view of Scripture apart from using the words “inerrant” and “infallible.” I don’t know how these terms function elsewhere and I know they were well-intended, but in the US, they have often led to teachings that can be summed up as, “either you believe the earth is a few thousand years old or you are no disciple of Jesus at all.” I find it easy to believe that this has kept more people from Jesus than it has ever drawn to Him. We would never have had a Saint Augustine if Saint Ambrose had insisted on that belief in his catechesis.

On pages 176-177 Hamilton writes,

As we seek to interpret scripture faithfully, we must not set aside what is inconvenient or challenging to us simply because it is difficult. We will, however, read scripture in the light of the life, ministry, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus. When we find something that is inconsistent with the way God reveals himself and his will through Jesus Christ, we may legitimately ask questions. In those situations, it is Jesus who serves as the final Word by which other words of Scripture are to be judged.

I feel like I probably have written or preached something similar. I find Jesus to be supremely challenging, difficult, and inconvenient. What about this “light of the life, ministry, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus?” How do we read Scripture in light of those things when it is only by Scripture that we have received a witness to these things? I think this means I need to be constantly having my Jesus lens polished, ground, shaped, cleaned. I’m convinced that this is one reason to read the Gospels and preach from them often. This summer, I should finish up the Gospel of Mark after preaching 67 non-contiguous Sundays covering every verse of the book. I think it does make me read every other verse of the Bible differently, and it’s not even the only Jesus lens the Bible offers.

To finish up this review, I’ll move on to Hamilton’s 100+ pages worth of responses to particular questions (Creation; Historical Adam and Eve; Divine Violence; Revelation; Homosexuality). These are uneven, with some begging to be lengthened a good deal. It almost feels like a different book, because they aren’t truly case studies of an approach offered by Hamilton, but specific arguments about specific issues and texts. The one on homosexuality, which Hamilton must have known would have been the most controversial, is surprisingly weak, likely mostly because it’s very short.

Many negative reviews of the book at its release focused on a framework which Hamilton offers in that chapter, Homosexuality and the Bible. It’s notable, given those reviews, that this is very late in the book, page 272 out of 309 pages in the paperback. (Italics are his.):

As we read and interpret scripture, I’d suggest that there are three broad categories – let’s call them buckets – that biblical passages fit into. There are passages of scripture – I would suggest the vast majority – that reflect the timeless will of God for human beings, for instance, ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ There are other passages that reflect God’s will in a particular time but not for all time, including much of the ritual law of the Old Testament. And there are passages that reflect the culture and historical circumstances in which they were written but never reflected God’s timeless will, like those related to slavery.

For my part, I think Hamilton describes this as prescriptive, but I wonder if it’s more useful if it’s descriptive. Yes, we’re always tossing things into the buckets. Sometimes we mis-categorize something in one season of life and re-categorize it later, given new information or new life experiences. But once we notice that this is what our default setting seems to be, do we just continue doing it? Do we ever question our labels or the bucket system? When do we get to the question of how we do this work as a community rather than individuals? (To his credit, Hamilton makes a few slight nods to reading in community.) Do we ever get to the question of the criteria that precede the buckets, where those criteria come from, and what authority we ourselves hold?

In the end, while I could likely choose some quotes or some sections (particularly in the first half of the book) to recommend to others, this is not a book I would recommend for people seeking to develop a doctrine of Scripture. I could not just hand it off to someone and feel like it expresses questions of the doctrine of Scripture and of our relationship to Scripture well. It’s disappointing, because I’ve been looking for a while now for such a book. For anybody who has recommendations, leave it in the comments. (But please don’t recommend Incarnation and Inspiration or How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. I’ve already been disappointed by those too.)

Bonus: The best, brief guide to “How to Read the Bible” is still here. Yes, Dr. Celia Wolff has held the title now for over five years.