By Erik Alsgaard
That is why, Hamilton said, he wrote “Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today,” his latest — and 19th — book. Hamilton began a book publicity tour at Foundry UMC in Washington, D.C., April 23.
Hamilton, senior pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection near Kansas City — the largest United Methodist Church in the United States — repeatedly called for a more sophisticated view of the Bible, and reminded the several hundred people gathered at Foundry and online that the Bible itself allows for latitude in its interpretation.
“Is the Bible ‘the Word of God?’” he asked. “Was it dictated? Is it infallible and inerrant, written without errors?”
Hamilton explored these questions during his talk, noting that the New Revised Standard Version has the phrase “word of God” 40 times in its pages. These references, he said, do not refer to a book, but to the way that God speaks to us. “And God is not silent; God speaks to us in a lot of ways,” Hamilton said.
“God wants to speak to us,” he said. “In the beginning of John’s Gospel, Jesus is ‘the Word’ made flesh. For me, Jesus becomes the only inerrant word of God.”
Hamilton noted that he was not trying to undermine anyone’s sense of the authority of the Bible in writing the book. “I love this book,” he said, holding out his own Bible. “But the Bible is a bit more complicated than many of us give it credit for.”
That’s because, he said, “there are things I read and I think, ‘What am I going to do with that?’”
In the book, Hamilton deals with thorny issues such as science and the Bible, women and the Bible, slavery, homosexuality, and all that violence and killing in the Old Testament. In his talk at Foundry, he touched briefly on each of these subjects.
Hamilton offered his own model of a way to view biblical texts. Using three “buckets” of various sizes, he suggested that biblical teachings can be placed inside one of the three.
The first — and largest — bucket contains the teachings that you just know are good and right, he said. “Love your neighbor, love God, love one another,” for example, he said.
The second — and medium-sized — bucket contains those teachings that were relevant for a particular time and place, but are not applicable for today. Hamilton noted circumcision and kosher laws as two examples Christians have discussed and come to different agreements about over the years.
The third — and smallest — bucket is the place for things that “never ever reflected the heart of God,” Hamilton said. Using Leviticus 20:13 as an example, Hamilton said that he knows no one who would “put to death” practicing homosexuals as is commanded here. Instead, he said, “Progressives would put it in bucket 3, conservatives in bucket 2, but no one sees it as a bucket 1 command.”
“Here’s the point,” he writes in the book (p. 273), “there are things commanded in the Bible, in the name of God, that today we recognize as immoral and inconsistent with the heart of God.”
Hamilton argued that everyone “judges” Scripture at one level or another. To illustrate his point, he pointed to a conversation he had with a fellow United Methodist pastor. During the conversation, the other pastor was saying that people should refrain from interpreting Scripture — judging Scripture — through their own eyes. Hamilton asked the pastor if he had a pension. The pastor said yes. Hamilton asked if the pastor contributed to his pension. The pastor said yes. Hamilton then asked the other pastor what he thought about the passage in the Gospel of Matthew about “not laying up treasurers on earth.”
“I’m inviting you to judge Scripture,” Hamilton said, “but to do so through the lens of Jesus. When confronting difficult issues, ask: Does this really capture the heart and character of God?”
Hamilton briefly addressed the difficult issues of homosexuality and same-gender marriage, issues, he said, that are threatening to tear apart the church.
“United Methodists on the extremes aren’t looking for dialogue,” he said. “They seem to want to defend their own points of view. Perhaps we need a middle way.”
That “middle way,” Hamilton said, means that faithful Christians can disagree on these (and other) issues. “We’re not disagreeing on the authority of the Bible,” he added. “If we can get to this place, we won’t need to divide. We have to figure out how to live with people who are in different places. Either we’re going to blow the church up or learn how to live together.”
Hamilton continues to read the Bible every day, carrying around a “pocket” testament wherever he goes. “I challenge you,” he said, “to carry one, too, and to get caught reading it.” In fact, he added, Hamilton wants to be buried with a pocket testament.
The Bible, Hamilton said at the end of his presentation, “is more complicated than we think. God speaks to us through it. In it, we find life and meaning.”