Buckets, Buckets, Buckets That Don’t Hold Water

Many United Methodists have heard the popular hermeneutical (biblical interpretation) teachings coming from one of our most prominent pastors.  In contrast to more holistic and classical methods of Biblical interpretation, this method separates out the words of Scripture and places them into one of three “buckets.”  According to this “bucket” method, Scripture can fall into one of three groups as follows:

A plastic yellow bucket.

  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.

Different people have written on the positives and negatives of this method, so I do not guess that my words about it will add much to that particular discussion.  Nevertheless, I offer two criticisms to the method that I hope will provide a bridge for us to see a more comprehensive and better method to deal with passages.

Hermeneutics has a specific objective: take an ancient text, understand its meaning and then apply it to ministry contexts we find in the current day.  This task is never a simple endeavor, and one that should be approached with a humble and meticulous spirit; it’s God’s Scripture, after all.  That being said, any method of hermeneutics that seeks to short-circuit this methodical process should receive thorough criticism.  Many current day methods, including this one, attempt to jump too quickly from one necessary step of hermeneutic, that of context, directly to the final step, that of application.  I would place this method forefront among them.

Secondly, another concern coming from the method is its objective of being a sort of winnowing fork.  The pastor who envisioned the method presents it as a way to deal with difficult passages that seem to have little relationship to the current context of today.  Instead of trying to deal with the passages on their merit, it isolates and confines them to their historical worlds, refusing to see them as any more than dusty signposts in the life of the people of God.  Standing resolutely against the separation advocated by this method are Paul’s words to Timothy, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (3:16-17, NIV, emphasis added).

As a result of this method, one walks away with a Scriptural record that looks more like that proposed by Thomas Jefferson or Mark Twain.  Jefferson’s and Twain’s uses of this method provided them with a cut-up version of the Scriptures that very much reflected their own personal pictures of the Christian religion, rather than the orthodox faith that has come through the centuries.  Yet, their efforts pale in comparison to those of the early church leader Marcion.  Marcion wanted to put the entirety of the Old Testament into either buckets two or three, leaving the Church with only the New Testament’s vision of God.  The church rejected Marcion’s bucketing of Scripture long ago, but that has not stopped it from re-appearing elsewhere.

With these ideas in mind, and before turning to a method that would deal with the concerns, let us examine how this method might work in practice a passage so that we can see the difficulties.  Let’s look specifically at Leviticus 19:18-19:

“Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.  I am the Lord.  Keep my decrees.  Do not mate different kinds of animals.  Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed.  Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.”

Now, using the logic of the bucket method, combined with some aspects of the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral, we should split this passage apart into pieces and place it section by section into different buckets.  It would keep verse 18 as a ‘timeless’ command and throw away most (but not all) of 19 because we ‘enlightened people’ know much better about science and life than those to whom this was written.  Except by doing so, we have disobeyed both Lev. 19:19a itself as well as 2 Timothy 3:16-17.  In effect, we have bifurcated the two Leviticus verses over some arbitrary line that we seem to have drawn based on some idea of ‘enlightenment.’

Now some have made the argument that the New Covenant has abrogated much of the Old Testament Law (of which this is a piece), and thus, these commands are mostly a part of an outdated code that is no longer in force.  I find this argument extremely weak, especially in light of the context of Paul’s statements to Timothy about Scripture and the multiple places in the Psalms where the Torah of God is praised.  Paul makes no such case here but instead insists that all Scripture has use.  Furthermore, Christ indicates in Matthew 5 that he has come not to abrogate Law, but to fulfill it.  Additionally, this “bucket” method has been used on supposedly “outdated” pieces of the New Covenant.  Instead, it actually hands us a Swiss cheese type of Bible.

In its impatience to find some possible application, if it seems not to fit any kind of “enlightened” context, this method ignores any kind of teaching that the text might provide (Paul calls Scripture useful for teaching!).  Therefore, we need a method that works to help us use the whole Scripture, fits well with our own Wesleyan Theological Task (the “Quadrilateral”), and is faithful to the whole Biblical narrative.  It must consider context, investigate the pedagogy, and provide a useful application.

The late Distinguished Professor of Old Testament, Dr. David A. Dorsey, in his work on understanding the role of the Torah in the life of the believer, developed a method that can be expanded for all of Scripture.  His framework can be used as a foundation for other hermeneutical methods and honors all of the issues we have noted.  The framework has three parts: Clarification of the context; Insight about God and God’s ways; Application, called for short C.I.A.

Context clarification is of first importance, as has been said, “a text without context becomes a pretext for prooftext.”  Nonetheless, as N.T. Wright has written, context does not mean just the text within its larger pericope.  It also means the context of the entire narrative of Scripture.  Where does the writing appear in the story with respect to Creation, Fall, Israel, Jesus, Church, Consummation?  Wright encourages us to recognize the location of the action and in that see the point of the particular text.

The second step is the most important of the three.  What insight do we gain about the heart of God, story of God’s people, and the ways of God’s Kingdom through a particular piece of Scripture?  What does this text tell us about what God wants or values?  Here is where the teaching part of Scripture gets its place.

Lastly, how do we begin to apply, not the bare text itself, but the insight we have gained into our investigations.  Scripture is revelation, i.e. an intimate look into the heart of God.  We must find out how to reflect that into our current context of today.  What we do not do is, after context clarification, determine that some text doesn’t apply because our context has changed.  The text exists to teach us something about God.  It is that insight that must be reapplied in the current context, while being faithful to the heart of the God who revealed it in the first place.  Otherwise we are left with a Bible that looks like Swiss cheese and an incomplete picture of the One who inspired it.

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27 Replies to “Buckets, Buckets, Buckets That Don’t Hold Water”

  1. I don’t know why everyone (it seems), is upset at Hamilton’s buckets. His book was a popular book, not a biblical scholarship book. The bucket reference is only in a few pages in one chapter, in a book that is about 300 pages. My take, is that it was used to address inerrancy more than making a significant comment about buckets.
    Since you referenced 2 Timothy…
    I would put it into a bucket called pseudepigraphical. It may be holistic, but not written by Paul. So Hamilton’s rather limited use of buckets in his popular, not academic, book; I view as just a limited expression of not believing in inerrancy. I would leave the UMC, and never give them a dime again, if they adopted a requirement for belief in inerrancy. To me, way more important issue that the whole gay thing.
    As a matter of fact, I would say 2 Timothy 3:16 has four buckets:
    1. Teaching
    2. Reproof
    3. Correction
    4. Training

    Part of training, is recognizing pseudepigraphical works.

    1. Gary, the problem is, is that Adam is doing is best to make sure it is the theological statement of the UMC.

      It reminds me of the great phrases of history, such as “who would rid me of that damned priest”

      1. I only know it from his book. If he is touting it elsewhere in his sermons, youtube’s, blogs, etc, then I can see that it would be overused. To me, it seemed a rather simple minded analogy to begin with, and nothing I would use repeatedly. I would go to Ehrman, anyway, for a good discussion of inerrancy. Buckets are like using Lego blocks for building. OK if you are in preschool. But….
        I liked his book, but a little boring. And, at least for me, nothing controversial.

        As I have mentioned before, I read your blog, but I don’t get into all these various other blogs were Hamilton’s buckets are used more. Maybe call them the Bucket Brigade!

    2. Gary, pseudepigraphical or not, the 2 Timothy verse is a part of the Church’s canon, from a very early time, and recognized as part of the inspired Scripture. The point of the verse (whether by Paul or another early writer), is correct and worthwhile. Furthermore, there is an excellent academic case to be made that it is genuinely Paul. You might try reading a little wider on the subject.

      As for your statements about Hamilton’s “bucket” method. He is by no means the only one currently suggesting this model, but he certainly brought it a lot of attention. The model is bad, no matter who suggested it. If it’s not “academic,” then perhaps the academic credentials of the one I have suggested is much better.

      1. “pseudepigraphical or not, the 2 Timothy verse is a part of the Church’s canon”

        I realize that. And I think I have read plenty on the subject. And, heaven forbid, I’ve seen inerrancy first hand in various religions that I attended, and left in disgust.

        “there is an excellent academic case to be made that it is genuinely Paul”…
        Not so. Best they can come up with, is fragmented, from apologetics. I prefer academics.

        1. Academic sources are there. I could suggest some if you want.

          Why do you keep bringing up inerrancy? I never mentioned it in my post and I actually have very little use for the term. In fact, the CIA method, which I suggest, is something that can be used independent of the entire inerrancy issue.

          1. I think it is a poor attempt to explain inerrancy by Hamilton by using buckets. Like, some scripture was true then, but not now. Some authors inject their own culture. Not God dictated. But that’s just my interpretation of why Hamilton used buckets. Either way, simplistic and not a good analogy. But no reason to spend time attacking an analogy, when it was poor to begin with.

            Now, C.I.A. Sounds more like hand waving to adopt inerrancy without admitting to it.
            “Scripture is revelation, i.e. an intimate look into the heart of God.”

            Scripture is the AUTHOR’s vision of the heart of God. When I say author, I do not mean God. Multiple authors, multiple times, with each, their own vision (not Revelation) of God. “Inspired by God”, is not Revelation by God. It is one person’s vision of God.

  2. You will have to pardon Gary. He doesn’t seem to actually think the Bible is God’s revelation and anything he encounters that does not conform to what he believes he calls innerency.

    1. I think inerrancy in fundamentalist churches is well defined. I don’t think anyone needs to have my opinion to spell it out. Or bucket analogies. Not my conformation. You are the one that apparently must conform to inerrancy. Pastoral’s are by Paul. 2 Thess by Paul. Pentateuch by Moses. Sure. Believe that if you want. But I will pass. And pass by any church that demands that belief. Luckily, UMC does not demand such nonsense.

    2. And this is addressed to Scott. After thinking about it, I certainly hope that you rather enjoy our give and take. However, since we are both good Christians, I do not want to cause hard feelings. If you say the word, I will cease commenting entirely. That would probably free a lot of spare time for both you and me. But a lot less fun. Your option, “Word”.

      1. Authorship has nothing to do with inerancy as an interpretive methodology. That said, it is not the way that I interpret scripture in the least. The scripture is canon. Who wrote is a fun chat but does little to confirm anything in it. Even at the time that the canon was being put together there were some doubts about certain authorship. While authorship was one thing examined for the canon, it was not the only thing. The only person talking about innerency though is you and personally I have no idea why as nothing in the OP suggested it.

  3. Gary, again, I never said anything about inerrancy. I don’t actually believe in the silly concept.

    “Scripture is the AUTHOR’s vision of the heart of God. When I say author, I do not mean God. Multiple authors, multiple times, with each, their own vision (not Revelation) of God. “Inspired by God”, is not Revelation by God. It is one person’s vision of God.”

    I’m so glad you are so knowledgeable about who God is and how God works to be able to explain to me what actually happened with those writers. What kind of god would God be if God allowed truth about God’s self to be mitigated in ways that were dishonest or unreliable? That’s not God. Do you believe in a God who has any kind of role in life whatsoever, or is God completely passive?

    1. Also. As I said before, it really doesn’t matter whether or not Paul wrote the Pastorals or Moses wrote the Pentateuch. It makes not difference who wrote them really. Their authority as Scripture is not bound up in who wrote them.

      To make the claim that Scripture is non-authoritative because of questions of authorship is lust as silly a mistake as those who would claim that they cannot be authoritative if they weren’t written by those authors.

      Try broadening your mind a bit and stop discussing tired old dichotomies. You’re as bad as the Fundamentalists you claim to dislike.

      1. “Try broadening your mind a bit”…
        I am glad we agree so much.
        I don’t hate Fundamentalists. Just their demand that I believe their nonsense, to be a member of their churches. To use their famous saying, “Hate the Sin, not the Sinner”.

        And, authority is different than inspiration. Hamilton has a whole chapter on “inspiration”. I am surprised you didn’t address that as well as buckets. Just like “revelation” has an entirely different definition than “inspiration”, and “authority”. You are mixing the three words, like they all mean the same thing. Which they do not.

      2. And btw, when I said “You are the one that apparently must conform to inerrancy”,
        I was referring the Scott, not you. Only because he said “anything that I encounter that doesn’t conform..”

        But I do indeed recognize that Scott was joking, in a barbed-way. But that’s Ok. We have a history of barbing each other. I think he rather likes it. And I do, too.

  4. Thoughtful piece. Thank you.
    Another way to look at the hermeneutical task, one we teach at Asbury, is to think of reading a task on four levels: (a) observation, (b) interrogation, (c) interpretation, (d) evaluation-appropriation. This last step is sometimes also called “application.” The idea of putting Scripture into 3 categories (Adam has stepped away from the “buckets” language), jumps to the last of these four, application, as you suggest. And it does so prematurely. Application may vary from season to season or culture to culture. But that’s not the same as saying a text was never what God intended. A text can be precisely as God intends it to be eternally, and be applied in different ways at different times. All too often, readers move directly over the first 3 steps of the exegetical process (observing, asking, and interpreting), and assuming prematurely that a text is not reflecting the mind and heart of God. Jumping to the application stage often results in a conclusion that a text doesn’t apply to our culture, and it therefore never expressed God’s will. This makes statement about Scripture that doesn’t comport with orthodoxy (IMHO). If I read a pericope of Scripture that I believe doesn’t express the mind and will of God, and never did so, I would assume my interpretation needs reconsideration or my understanding of God needs to be broadened.

    1. Dr. Arnold, thank you for the thoughts. I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment!

      “If I read a pericope of Scripture that I believe doesn’t express the mind and will of God, and never did so, I would assume my interpretation needs reconsideration or my understanding of God needs to be broadened.”

      I think this is where many most often fall into a trap. You (rightly) have an underlying assumption in this statement that others do not have. It is this divide that I believe is at the heart of problems in hermeneutics in the church. It has to do with authority, who has it, and why.

  5. I would summarize my point up front:

    Give Hamilton some slack!

    Perhaps people didn’t read the entire book, or they have a specific, directed agenda in criticizing Hamilton. And thinking inerrancy is not relevant to buckets.

    I find it telling that the post addresses buckets, which is in a small number of pages in the chapter on homosexuality, but seems to ignore the rest of the book. Bucket 3, “passages that reflect the culture and historical circumstances in which they were written but never reflected God’s timeless will”. Pg 274. Inerrancy lives in bucket 3.

    Buckets, only in one chapter, “Homosexuality and the Bible”, 5 out of 14 pages (273-278).

    In the index, there is not even a reference to “buckets”. However, there are about 44 pages on “inerrancy and infallibility of Bible”. There are 15 pages on “verbal, plenary inspiration”.

    Selected passages:

    “Many Christians read the word “inspired” or “God-breathed” in 2 Timothy 3:16 (theopneustos) and immediately give definition that Paul himself did not give.” Pg 138

    “Verbal, plenary inspiration is not taught in the bible, and it is not the essential meaning of theopneustos as it was used by Paul or the early church.” Pg 139

    “Verbal, plenary inspiration and the doctrine of the inerrancy and infallibility of the bible go hand in hand.” Pg 138-140

    Also, post seemed to ignore a bucket 3 category:

    The post mentions Marcion, but fails to mention a rather important chapter in the book that mentions Marcion, Chapter 22, “God’s Violence in the Old Testament. After quoting Ex 32:27-29, it says, “Can you imagine God asking you to strap on a sword and kill your friends, neighbors, and family members because they had offended him?” Pg 209.

    Or, “If every word of the Bible was chosen by God, then our conclusion must be that, at least in the Old Testament period, God was a violent God, burning people alive, stoning them to death for anything that brought him offense, killing tens of thousands for the sin of their king, and commanding his own people to wipe out entire cities and peoples.” Pg 217

    Seems like homosexuality upsets people more than big-time violence. Ex 32:27-29 fits bucket 3 nicely.

    1. I was not making any comment about the word ‘inspiration’ in any part of the blog post. I focused on the words ‘All,’ ‘useful,’ and all the purpose words. I don’t actually think it matters how you define or understand the word ‘inspiration.’ It was immaterial to the post. In fact, I don’t believe that Scripture is “inerrant.”

      God did indeed instruct the Israelites to kill those people. Why? There was a purpose. Maybe you should look for the purpose before dumping something that you don’t like. Does not God, the ruler of all the universe, have the right to direct the killing of those people whom God decides should be killed? Again, to decide that for God is to make yourself God, and you do not have that right.

      Perhaps you should stop trying to dump stuff in bucket 3 and learn to accept it. Figure out why they’re there and then try to work with them. That’s called ‘faith.’ It is submitting to things that don’t seem to make sense or are perhaps difficult to wrap your mind around.

      Nothing goes in bucket 3. It all means something and is useful for something.

      Perhaps you’d like to put Jesus’ resurrection in bucket 3?

      1. “God did indeed instruct the Israelites to kill those people.”…
        Please substitute “Jesus” for “God” in your statement, and see if you feel comfortable with your assumption! If you feel comfortable with your statement, then there is nothing more I can say, except I am sorry for you.

        1. You did not CLARIFY CONTEXT. All the steps are important. What was the context for God commanding? Why did God command them? God was taking a nation for God’s self. God was trying to separate Israel out from the rest of the world. (cf. the purpose in Deut. 20:18) This was the method. This context is COMPLETELY different from God acting in Christ.

          Nevertheless, you can see glimpses of it in Christ. Is this not the picture that is partially painted for us of Jesus in John 2:13-18? How about the picture we see of Jesus in Revelation 19?

          You must not put God into a box that that makes you feel comfortable. You must take God as you find God and submit. I feel sorry for you who are trying to make God in your own image.

          1. Remember, most comments/quotes I provided were from Adam Hamilton’s book. The context of my own comments was to just attempt a “time-out” for criticism for Hamilton. If you want specific answers for Hamilton’s thinking, you would need to ask him.

            Now, though, on Ex 32:27-29, since you ask about context, I would say (my opinion only, not Hamilton’s), the verse established the Levite tribe as the “ordained” priests of Israel (with blood). Since it glorifies Moses as a leader, and denigrates Aaron, it is most likely E, from Northern Israel and the Shiloh Priests of Moses’ side, not Aaron’s side. But that is just my guess. And, at least for me personally, I place this as an ancient, oral, camp story, highly exaggerated, to bolster the Levite’s priestly claim. Hardly a direct order from God to Moses, to ordain Levite’s as priests, by killing their relatives. Although, I certainly hope UMC does not decide to select their Bishops in this manner. 🙂

          2. Since things are a little slow, thought I’d add a video related to Ex 32:27-29, which reflects the Exodus as a Levite Exodus, not an entire (millions) Israel tribes Exodus. No archeological evidence of millions. Hamilton probably doesn’t buy this, but it expresses his overall theme of not buying into verbal plenary inspiration and inerrancy. But fits the UMC evaluation of scripture using known facts as well as faith. Maybe this explains some of Leviticus. Levite’s were not to be messed with – especially since they are ordained in blood as priests by killing their brothers.


          3. Gary. . .it’s interesting that you should want so quickly to tie this to some historical event. I never required or mentioned literalism, verbal plenary inspiration or the like. In my scheme, it makes no difference whether or not the Exodus happened the way it traditionally is taught or not. It does not matter. What matters is the context of the narrative of Scripture, and the fact that it is Scripture in the fullest sense. The Scripture has a purpose (to teach us about God). It is still relevatory. The authority of Scripture is inherent in that. The Community of Faith has recognized it’s authority (no matter what the source). Does it matter who wrote Hebrews? Not really. Authorship and historicity are only pieces to the larger puzzle of authority which must be carefully fit. Either way, it’s still Scripture and canonical. Thus, it is not relevant whether or not the Torah was written by Moses about actual events or by a group of Levites much later. Scripture’s authority does not flow from the perfect historicity of the event, but mind you, it is not relative either. There is a balance that MUST be held between the two poles. In my mind the balance is almost second nature, but that’s how I’ve been educated.

          4. Only trying to point out Hamilton’s thinking. Only he can actually explain for himself. But I do think his book explains buckets adequately. As you said yourself, you have to view the bible in its entire context. But you have to do the same to Hamilton’s book. (And noooo…not trying to imply Hamilton’s book is on a par with the bible). But a bucket in his book is only a small part of his book.

          5. Fair enough, and yes his section on buckets in the book was small. I see your point about taking the whole of his work. Nevertheless, here’s the larger issue. Any hermeneutical method that approaches Scripture with the idea that anything belongs is something akin to his bucket three is fouled. I’m not saying that literalism is correct. What I’m saying is that we don’t have the luxury of deciding that because something doesn’t immediately fit our context (or we don’t like what it seems to suggest), that we throw it away. Hamilton (even if it’s a small part of his book) suggests that something like this is proper. I fundamentally disagree.

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