MAKING SENSE OF THE BIBLE: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today. By Adam Hamilton. San Francisco: Harper One, 2014. 324 pages.
Years ago – before I arrived at Fuller Theological Seminary – a battle was underway. It was a “Battle for the Bible,” that focused on the inspiration and authority of Scripture. The issue was whether or not the Bible was inerrant, and if so what did that mean? Did it mean, for instance, that we must take the creation story in Genesis 1-2 as historically and scientifically accurate portrayals? What about questions of cultural context – should we replicate views of women and even slavery that we find in the Scriptures (at the time homosexuality wasn’t front and center). Then there was the question of what actually should be considered inerrant – the current texts or the “original autographs.” Even defenders of inerrancy weren’t sure how to answer the questions. At Fuller, they hedged a bit by embracing infallibility, a softer way of defending the divinely given authority of Scripture. Along the way, I found defenses of inerrancy and even infallibility problematic, and even a deterrent to interpreting the Bible and affirming its authority in the present day. The question then is – what does a high view of Scripture look like – in practice?
Making Sense of the Bible is Adam Hamilton’s attempt at answering that question. Hamilton is the pastor of United Methodist megachurch – Church of the Resurrection in metro-Kansas City. The author has evangelical roots, affirms a high view of scripture, but believes that appeals to inerrancy and literalism not only undermine the witness of the church, but undermine our ability to hear the voice of God emanating from Scripture. In this book, he hopes to clear away the clutter and help the reader engage with Scripture in all its complexity and wonder.
In the course of thirty-two relatively brief, fast-reading chapters divided into two sections, Hamilton takes us on a tour of the Bible, addresses questions of inspiration, authority, and interpretation, and then addresses some of the reigning questions of the day, ranging from bible and science to homosexuality. He begins with pointing out what Scripture is not – a theological text book, owner’s manual, science book, or even a “Magic 8 Ball” that will give answers to our most personal questions. As for what the Bible is – well that’s the question addressed by the rest of the book. Before we get to the modern questions, Hamilton spends time with biblical geography and timeline. It’s just a reminder that the Bible is an ancient book that emerges out of a particular context. From there, he moves to chapters exploring the Old Testament and the New Testament. He offers an overview of both, addresses questions of authorship and canonicity as well. From these basic treatments of the two Testaments he moves on to inspiration and authority, addressing questions of how God might speak through Scripture and whether it is inerrant. The fact that he addresses inerrancy is important because it signals a significant audience – those wondering whether the Bible is in fact somehow an error free text, and what that means. He believes that the Bible is God-breathed (inspired), that God does speak through Scripture (it is the Word of God – but in a way that is secondary to Christ), but rejects claims of inerrancy as undermining Scripture’s voice. He also notes that the way in which inerrancy often gets defined – especially when connected to non-existent original autographs -- it is a concept devoid of meaning. Rather than trying to prove that the Bible is inerrant, he is content to affirm the Anglican and Methodist confession that “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation” (p. 169). Instead of trying to define inspiration, this statement focuses on its utility for helping lead humanity into reconciliation. In a helpful move, Hamilton reminds us that Scripture is a living witness. The texts are ancient, but with the aid of Tradition, Experience, and Reason, we can hear a word that is relevant for today. So if a high view of Scripture doesn’t rest on inerrancy or even infallibility, what does it rest upon? Hamilton answers:
Someone who holds a high view of scripture approaches scripture with a deep appreciation for its history and the way God has spoken and continues to speak through it. That person recognizes both the Bible’s humanity and its divine inspiration, and seeks to study it carefully in order to be shaped and guided by it. Someone with a high view of scripture actually reads the Bible, listens for God to speak through it, seeks to be shaped by its words, and tries to follow its commands (p. 182).
It is not merely a theological construct – it is a decision to engage thoughtfully with an ancient document recognized to be a source of words from God.
With the foundations set, Hamilton is read to “mak[e] sense of the Bible’s challenging passages.” Chapters nineteen through thirty explore topics ranging from science and the Bible’s creation stories to homosexuality in the Bible. He addresses questions that might be on many people’s minds – homosexuality, science, and women, and ones that might be less pressing (the presence or lack thereof of dinosaurs on the Ark. On matters of science, Hamilton doesn’t believe that evolution will diminish the glory of God. We can, he asserts, learn truth from both science and the Bible. If you embrace evolutionary theory then you needn’t worry about a historical Adam and Eve or whether dinosaurs made it onto the Ark, but some might have questions. One area of deep concern is related to the question of divinely authorized or initiated violence, especially within the Hebrew Bible. He notes a number of solutions and in the end recognizes that the lesson of these passages might be the ease with which “we might still be led to invoke God’s name as a justification of violence in our world” (p. 217). For Christians, viewing God through the person and message of Jesus will help us reject such views. He also deals with questions about women (not all Scripture passages offer a modern or just view of women) and tattoos (again context is important).
In the current cultural context the true litmus test, for many people, centers on how he understands the Bible’s teachings on homosexuality. He does address the question, noting the changing cultural attitudes toward homosexuality. He gives brief responses to the usual texts – Sodom and Gomorrah, Leviticus, and Romans 1. The discussion of this issue leads him to detail three categories or buckets in which we can place texts like these. There is the “timeless will of God” bucket, “God’s particular will,” and texts that reflect a particular culture. In offering these categories, he notes how difficult it is put these texts in a “times will of God bucket.” Not even most conservatives are willing to follow the command to execute men who lie with men, or women with women. As for his own views, they have evolved over the years. And like many, it was experience (pastoral experience in his case) with gays and lesbians that began to push him in a new direction. And so he writes:
The Bible informs my relationship with my wife, and it should inform how two homosexuals share their life and love. And just as heterosexuals are called to fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness as the highest ideal, so too are homosexual Christians called to such ideals. One doesn’t get a pass for immoral behavior by being homosexual, but most homosexuals I’ve met are not looking for a pass to be immoral; they are looking for a blessing to share their life with another person as “companion and helper” (p. 276).
Thus the issue isn’t homosexuality or heterosexuality – it is teaching what healthy sexual and romantic relationships should look like. His own views on the subject have changed as his views of scripture have changed. By coming to appreciate the humanity of the Bible, he has been better able to hear within its words a Word from God.
What does Adam Hamilton desire from us? He desires that we embrace an honest and reverent view of Scripture. He wants us to recognize both the humanity and the divine inspiration of Scripture. He seeks a balance that will allow us to hear that Word from God. How shall we do this? Hamilton closes the book with eight ways in which we can “read the Bible for all its worth.” We do this by putting ourselves into the story; discover the context; ask about its teaching on humanity, ourselves, and about God; pray the Scriptures; memorize them; study them with others, bring the text into our own lives (this may involve some allegorizing, but it has usefulness), and finally imagine what might have been. In regard the last point he invites us to consider the witness that Judas might have had, had he waited three days before taking his life – being forgiven of betrayal would have been powerful.
Why did Hamilton write the book? He wrote it as an encouragement to read it. While the Bible is the story of Israel, the church, and God, it is also our story.” Thus, “when we read with ears and hearts open to hear, God speaks and the scriptures convey to us ‘wonderful words of life’” (p. 309). If this book can help persons, especially Christians, read and engage the Scriptures with a reverent and inquisitive posture, then Hamilton will have achieved much. It would be an excellent study text for churches, Bible study groups, anyone who wishes to hear the voice of God anew. That there is a leader's guide available from the publisher makes this even more accessible for study groups [Making Sense of the Bible Leader Guide].
Take and read – not only Hamilton’s book, but the Bible as well. For, in reading the Bible with newly opened eyes, one might rediscover its power today!