Unsettled Christianity

Gloria Dei homo vivens – St Irenaeus
June 30th, 2015 by Joel Watts

A gentle response to Adam Hamilton

umc logoAdam Hamilton has attracted a lot of negative attention regarding his latest book and the presupposition that there are three buckets of interpretation for Scripture. This had led to charges of liberalism and the like.

I have, much to some of my friends’ consternation, defended him upon the grounds that at least one previous Christian sect looked at the Old Testament the same way. The sect that gave us the Pseudo-Clementine homilies viewed the Old Testament as a mixture of three parts. Some is under the guidance of God, some by Moses, and some by the evil one. They didn’t go through with scissors, but they did seek to understand the Old Testament through a lens that preserved Scripture and understood it rationally without going into the realm of Marcionism. They begin, of course, with Jesus (Matthew 19.8). Hamilton’s three buckets (not that he refers to this part of Christian history) seems to parallel this but without any support from Tradition.1

Until the other day. The Rev. Adam Hamilton, like many, reacted to the Supreme Court decision. He rightly noted,

…that the Supreme Court is charged with interpreting the U.S. Constitution, not the Bible.  The Court is not asked to discern God’s will, or what constitutes ethical or moral behavior for Christians.  Likewise, Christians do not determine their morals from public opinion polls.

Amen.

Further, he writes,

…the Bible has also taught me that the Bible is at times complicated.  Within its pages we learn of the heart, character, and will of God, but we also find on its pages things that we might question.  Things that seem to reflect the culture and times the biblical authors lived in more than the timeless will of God.

One of the many issues people have with this is that it is so subjective. Does a pastor have the right to say what is timeless or not? Surely not only the Roman pontiff would stake such a claim. Further, who says what is God’s will and what is questionable? Do we not then make it where we only accept something as God’s will if we do not question it — and thus create a God of our own choosing? And that is where the problem surfaces. He gives the standard list of problems modern people have with the Old Testament usually offered by skeptics and antagonists, ending with:

The Apostle Paul teaches that women are to pray with their heads covered and to not wear their hair in braids.  They are not permitted to teach a man, and Paul notes that it was “shameful” for a woman to even speak in church.

This is from the New Testament, the document that provides the interpretative measure for the Old Testament (for Christians), the same document that provides for the founding of the religion Rev. Hamilton adheres. Without a single reference to either the New Testament, to the Patristics, or the Wesley, not to mention any scholarship, confessional or otherwise, Adam Hamilton (the most respected and powerful pastor in The United Methodist Church) writes,

The Bible, in its writing, content, and canonization, is wonderfully complex and we do not do it justice, nor are we always able to discern God’s will, simply by quoting a handful of verses.  If it worked this way we’d still embrace slavery, polygamy, and concubinage.  Victims of rape would still be forced to wed their rapists. We’d not allow women to serve as pastors; but rather, we’d require them to remain silent in the church.

But that’s wrong. There is a lot of theology in the Catholic Church that prevents women from being ordained — and only in a few various free churches have I seen a requirement to women to be silent. The Church Fathers recognized the complexity but they never took that license to ignore Scripture. Rev. Hamilton often criticizes what others call the plain sense (the literalist reading) reading while he himself engages in the same literalistic reading and in doing so mischaracterizes Scripture. And, believe it or not, as complex as we want to make it, Scripture in The United Methodist Church, is interpreted through the Sermons and Notes of John Wesley. These are called the doctrinal standards and serve as models of exposition.

Yes, scholarship aids us, but my suspicion is that many like to point to the complexity of Scripture so as to avoid what it may or may not say. Even as United Methodists, we have guidelines and helps in understanding Scripture from a theological standpoint. That is why we don’t require women to keep quiet and why women are pastors. Not because we disobey Scripture, but because we struggled with it, what it has said and what it might say.

The canonization is rather simple. There is not only the writings of the Church Fathers on this, but some excellent current resources that I could offer Rev. Hamilton (including my own theory). The NT canon is actually pretty natural. But, let me move on.

The New Testament, I would argue (and not alone, mind you), condemns  “slavery, polygamy, and concubinage.” Indeed, what we see in some of the later books in the Old Testament is the same thing — the ending of such practices. Yes, Scripture is complex and does not deserve a literalist reading, but neither does it deserve the continued charge of “complexity” in order to elevate our own ability to properly read it (or to ignore it).

But my biggest issue this: If Rev. Hamilton sees in Scripture these things, and yet refuses to do them, where does he place Scripture? Sure, Adam Hamilton is known as a rather nuanced individual. And having read this post several times, I know exactly the path around it.  But he has a responsibility to his parish (and if he is modeling himself on Wesley, then the world is his parish) to teach better than this. It is not enough to say “if we are literal, then we would force rape victims to marry their rapists” and point to that as a reason to condone monogamous homosexual unions.

Our homosexual friends, brothers and sisters, deserve something better than that.

And then there is this:

I don’t believe God makes us gay or straight.  I think sexual orientation is developed in most of us at a very early age through some combination of nature and nurture.  Heterosexuality is normative, but roughly 5% of the population is drawn to love someone of the same gender in the same way that heterosexuals are drawn to love the opposite gender.2

I am deeply troubled by this, not only as someone who believes many are born gay, but by someone who listens to anti-gay comments about the gay agenda making kids gay. This is highly irresponsible as it leads credence to the notion of reparative therapy, something proved not only ineffective but likewise destructive. Not only does this tableau rasa stand against biblical and Church teaching, but likewise science. My concern is that this sounds like he is putting people into buckets — while ignoring those who see SSM as a struggle, or those who do not identify as Gay (or straight).

I hope that Rev. Hamilton, one of The United Methodist Church’s most visible leaders, will be more responsible with his words in the future.

  1. Perhaps, had he referenced Tradition, he would have noted the Catholic view of Scriptural interpretation, which is far better than dividing the Old Testament up or placing it into buckets.
  2. The statement seems to be at odds with itself. If we are born orientation neutral, then how is heterosexuality normative? Does that mean that if given enough time and Supreme Court decisions, homosexuality could be normative?
Joel Watts
Watts holds a MA in Theological Studies from United Theological Seminary. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians, as well as seeking an MA in Clinical Mental Health at Adams State University. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

Comments

11 Responses to “A gentle response to Adam Hamilton”
  1. “Adam Hamilton has attracted a lot of negative attention regarding his latest book and the presupposition that there are three buckets of interpretation for Scripture.”

    Three buckets! I’d say that there is a bucket for each author of the bible texts, including each redactor. Each author had his own interpretation, before they wrote each text. Trying to draw consistency is impossible. The ancient church fathers tried to artificially create consistency by creating the creeds. If the scriptures were consistent, we wouldn’t all be endlessly debating them, and we wouldn’t have a million different denominations. Pretty self-evident, as far as I am concerned.
    But back to Hamilton. I’d be interested in hearing about these three buckets, since I am unfamiliar with his writings.

    • Ok, I plead ignorance. Looking at Hamilton’s list of books, I don’t see any obvious references to three buckets of interpretation.

    • Adolf Hansen says

      I would encourage you to read his recent book, Making Sense of the Bible. The chapter dealing with homosexuality names and defines the “three buckets.”

      • I will. “Adam Hamilton has attracted a lot of negative attention regarding his latest book”. Must find out why.

      • I see the buckets are passages of scripture that:
        1. Reflect the timeless will of God for human beings.
        2. Reflect God’s will in a particular time but not for all time.
        3. Reflect the culture and historical circumstances in which they were written but never reflected God’s timeless will.

        Personally, I see nothing wrong with his approach, if it makes him, and others, feel good.
        I have only read that section (homosexuality), Adam and Eve, Science and Creation, Dinosaurs, and Who Wrote the Old Testament. Overall, it seems to be a “feel good” book, but lacking technical details that I prefer. Since he is a pastor, and not a scholar, it makes sense. Will read the rest. But prefer Friedman, Pagels, Ehrman. At my age, I don’t need guidance. I want data.

  2. I don’t have time to address everything you have said but there is one thing I would note…. The things you are claiming are obvious ie. the end of Old Testament and the New Testament also condemning slavery … took a heck of a long time to be obvious. I acknowledge that the church had a mixed response to slavery through history but even the church fathers and teachings down through the centuries claimed people of color were from Cain or one of Noah’s children (Ham I believe) and the conclusions we have in the 21st century were not so obvious for the first 1800 years of church history. Same goes for other things we readily accept today. Obviously there is an historic element to interpretation that is not always self-evident to the people of its day. William Wilberforce stands out as one of those who saw the future but it was not hard for ant-abolitionists to oppose him. They just went for a literal read of scripture. His response from a quick read of some of his speeches was to focus on the mistreatment of slaves which ran counter to biblical teaching.

    So it seems that interpretation of scripture is not an easy process…. it can be affected by cultural biases. Whether you use the analogy of buckets or some other descriptor it is obvious that we no longer take certain parts of scripture at face value. Also … I never thought Adam Hamilton was trying to write an academic level book. It seems to me that he wrote it in terms that the lay person could understand.

    God bless,
    Dave

  3. Joan M. Hampton says

    Joel, what an awesome job you did here! Had no idea I was getting such good possibly lifesaving advice and way less misery to head my way with your infinite words of wisdom. Thanks, again.

    I have only one comment that always gives me strength to encourage true spiritual leaders, as yourself…… We are in this world… but we don’t have be “of this world”. You have clearly set yourself apart with such grace that can only come from God’s guidance… Best always, Joan

  4. Ronald D. Doub says

    The best an gentle reply was done by professor Watson:
    https://youtu.be/-KnTBKq0Yo4

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