Is it the readers, not the writers, of the Bible who are inspired? A review of Adam Hamilton’s Making Sense of the Bible

Q. I’m reading quite an eye-opening book called Making Sense of the Bible by Adam Hamilton. I have some issues with it, but I am enjoying it! What is your take on this book?

Thanks for bringing Hamilton’s book to my attention.  When you asked about it, I checked into it, and I was so intrigued that I immediately got a copy and read right through it.  So let me now give you my “take” on the book.  (I will reference page numbers from the hardcover edition, New York: HarperOne, 2014.)

I have only one real disagreement with what Adam Hamilton writes in Making Sense of the Bible, although it is a significant disagreement, which I will discuss shortly.  Apart from this, I found the entire book valuable, useful, and quite cogently presented.

Hamilton’s goal is to help people who aren’t familiar with the Bible, or who are troubled by certain passages in it, to “make sense of it.”  To this end, he begins very helpfully with the crucial question, “What exactly is the Bible?” (p. 7). He explains that it is not what it is often considered to be:  an “owner’s manual,” a source of random guidance, a collection of data for systematic theology, a science and history textbook, or a treasury of “precious promises.”

Hamilton then provides historical, geographic, and literary overviews of the Bible to orient readers to its background and contents.  These will be valuable and helpful resources for the many today who don’t start out with a basic knowledge of the Bible.  Hamilton addresses some questions about the nature of Scripture and then devotes the last half of the book to “making sense of the Bible’s challenging passages.”

I found that over and over again I came out pretty much where Hamilton did on the interpretation of these “challenging passages.” Indeed, most of the things he says about them, and in the rest of his book, are things that I could have said myself, and actually have said, in my own books or in posts on this blog.  For example, he explains that many of Jesus’ most puzzling sayings are hyperbole or intentional “exaggeration designed to make a point” (p. 244).  After outlining the four major approaches to the book of Revelation (pp. 284–285), he advocates a preterist interpretation, one of whose implications is that Nero Caesar may be the name represented by 666.  Hamilton even takes up the subject of tattoos and concludes that these are fine for followers of Jesus today so long as they are not “permanently marking their bodies as a way of honoring a pagan god” (p. 263).

Indeed, as I read through the book, there were chapters that I found very meaningful personally.  Hamilton’s testimony in Chapter 24 of how he “came to love Jesus” by reading the gospels is poignant and beautiful.  And I would recommend his reflections on suffering in the preceding chapter to anyone who is going through difficult times:  “Suffering is not given to teach us something, but through it we may learn. . . . Suffering does not occur because our faith is weak, but through it our faith may be strengthened.  God does not depend on human suffering to achieve his purposes, but sometimes through suffering his purposes are achieved” (p. 226).

So if I like the book this much and find myself so closely in agreement with it at so many places, what’s my one disagreement?  It’s with Hamilton’s answer to the question of what the Bible actually is.  He says it is a collection of books “written by men seeking to express what they believed was God’s will.  They were writing in a given time and culture, and they were writing to address the needs of the people of their time” (p. 262; similar summary statements are offered on pp. 89 and 173).

Notice that in this formulation, the Bible is described as essentially a human product.  Is it also the inspired word of God?  Only in a qualified sense, according to Hamilton.  “The divine inspiration of scripture was . . . God working in the hearts of the biblical authors in a way not dissimilar to how God works in the hearts of modern-day preachers and prophets and laity . . . through a divine prompting felt in the heart, focused in the mind, and spoken with the lips or the pen” (p. 173).  In other words, “that divine influence on the writers was not qualitatively different from the way God inspires or influences by the Spirit today” (p. 143).

In fact, as Hamilton sees it, the divine inspiration of the Bible is actually something that occurs more in its readers than it did in its writers.  “The most important dimension of inspiration may be how God uses the words of scripture to speak to us today. . . . We may read a passage of scripture and hear nothing at all.  Then we read it again prayerfully, and we hear something we did not hear before.  We sense God speaking to us” (p. 142).

However, Hamilton says that he has experienced this same kind of “inspiration”—a seemingly divine prompting to say something or to do something—while reading a novel, listening to classical music, or “sitting in a Broadway musical.”  “These are all means by which God speaks to us” (p. 147).

So is there anything that makes the Bible itself a distinctive repository or vehicle of divine inspiration, so that its message to us is more authoritative than what we might hear from other sources?  Hamilton asks this very question: “What gives the biblical writings greater authority?” “Not a greater degree of inspiration,” he responds, “but closer proximity to the events described in the Bible.  Just as importantly, the scriptures are the foundational documents of the Christian faith and have been found faithful, helpful, inspirational, and useful to the community of faith over the nearly two-thousand-year history of the church” (pp. 173-174).

Hamilton offers the U.S. Constitution as an example of a similar “foundational” document, “written by the founding fathers of our country” (p. 174) that has “stood the test of time” and that has been “found to be useful and helpful” (p. 180).  But, he notes, while the framers of the Constitution “believed it was the best thing they could come up with at the time . . . they also knew that circumstances would change, and there needed to be a way to amend the Constitution.”  In the same way, he argues, “God knew that the problem with . . . laying down moral absolutes is that situations change.  While most of the absolutes might remain intact forever, at least some of them would need to be changed or dropped in the light of a changing world” (p. 181).

And so, Hamilton suggests, there must be a way to “amend” the Bible, just as we amend the Constitution. He writes that while “the bar should be very high for laying aside any clear command, practice, or teaching of scripture . . . I believe there must be a way for the church to continue to recognize that though God does not change, the needs of communities sometimes do” (p. 181).

Hamilton illustrates a method for “amending” the Bible this way at a couple of places in his book.  He considers the so-called imprecatory psalms, in which the psalmists pray for God’s vengeance on their enemies, and suggests that we should not think God wants us to do anything similar today because these passages “don’t sound like things we would expect the Holy Spirit to inspire,” since this is “the opposite of Jesus’ command to love our enemies” (p. 136).  Later in the book he argues that we can similarly set aside the “biblical condemnations of same-sex relationships” because they “seem out of sync with God’s will as we understand it today” (p. 271); they “do not seem to reflect the heart of God revealed in Jesus Christ” (p. 272).

I do agree with one aspect of Hamilton’s approach here.  As I’ve already said on several occasions on this blog (quoting my study guide to Joshua, Judges, and Ruth), “Jesus’ life and teachings provide, for his followers, the interpretive key to the entire Scriptural record of God’s dealings with humanity.  In light of them, believers identify what things are normative and what things are exceptional.”

Nevertheless, I still have a significant concern about Hamilton’s approach.  If “the most important dimension of inspiration” really is “how God uses the words of scripture to speak to us today,” then anything we find in the Bible that doesn’t square with what we think God is saying to us now in light of Jesus can be considered something that the human authors of the Bible believed was God’s will for their own place and time, but which is not necessarily God’s timeless will for all people (and may not actually have been God’s will even for the original audience).

And so if we are troubled, for example, by the places in the Old Testament where God supposedly tells his people to go out and completely destroy their enemies, we can conclude either that “the passage may reflect the culture, the worldview, or the perspectives of the human author of scripture” (p. 216)—who thought God was telling the Israelites to do this, though God really wasn’t—or that “these stories were written down long after their time to inspire others to courage and absolute commitment to God” (p. 215), but they didn’t really happen as described (a view I discuss in this post.)

And so, in Hamilton’s view, the Bible can be “wrong” in one of these two ways:  by interpreting actual events not according to the “timeless heart, character, and will of God” (p. 216), or by reporting events that did not actually occur. And this is where my concerns and objections really come in.

For one thing, this approach allows you to dismiss anything in the Bible that doesn’t square with “God’s will as we understand it today.”  As a result, the Bible no longer functions as an objective check on our limited human perspectives; it can no longer expose or critique our time-bound and culture-bound thinking.  This approach effectively condemns us to precisely the same fault that Hamilton finds with the biblical authors, whom he thinks sometimes reflected their own cultural biases rather than God’s timeless will.

For another thing—and this may be even more important—this approach ultimately prevents us from believing anything on the basis of the Bible’s teaching.  This difficulty makes itself felt in the very chapter in which Hamilton shares how he put his faith in Christ after reading the gospels, particularly after he realized that the resurrection had to be a reality, otherwise “darkness has overcome light, hate has overcome love, and death has overcome life” (pp. 240-241).

The problem is, as Hamilton himself acknowledges at the beginning of the chapter, some biblical scholars “believe the miraculous elements in the Gospels,” including the resurrection, “reflect the faith of the early church and not the actual Jesus of history.”  This is a perfectly valid option within Hamilton’s paradigm.  The stories of Jesus, like those of Joshua, may have been written down after their time to inspire others and they may include events that did not actually occur.  So how can we determine whether Jesus rose from the dead or not?

If we have accepted everything Hamilton has said to this point, we cannot simply trust the gospels about this, even though they were written by the people who lived closest to the time of the events they narrate, and even though they are the foundational documents of our faith and have been been found faithful, helpful, inspirational, and useful for so many centuries.  They could still be wrong.  So instead, as Hamilton acknowledges, “the question of the reliability of the New Testament witness to Jesus boils down to whether we can accept the idea that Jesus did things that other human beings are unable to” (p. 238).  Ultimately it is our presuppositions that determine what parts of the Bible we believe.

Now one might argue that it is actually the Holy Spirit, inspiring us as readers of the Bible, who leads us to accept such ideas.  But who can say whether the Holy Spirit did not instead inspire those of the opposite view to recognize and reject the resurrection as a well-intentioned superstition when they read the Bible?  It seems to me that once you let this genie out of the bottle, there’s no putting it back in.  So let me suggest an alternative.

Hamilton offers a helpful metaphor of three “buckets” that he believes biblical passages fit into.  Some “reflect the timeless will of God for human beings.”  Others “reflect God’s will in a particular time but not for all time.”  And still others “reflect the culture and historical circumstances in which they were written but never reflected God’s timeless will”—the biblical authors were simply wrong when they thought this (pp. 273-273).

If you allow for this third “bucket,” anything can be put in it, as I’ve just observed, so that the Bible ceases to be an authoritative source of guidance, no matter how highly one values it (short of it being divinely inspired).  I personally do not feel that this third bucket is helpful or needed (as nice as it would be to be able to put some passages in it!).

Instead, I would argue that from within our own culture and our place in human history and redemptive history, we do not have access, when it comes to certain passages, to an understanding of how what was said to the people of that other place and time could have been God’s will for them, even within their own specific circumstances.  We need to confess frankly that we do not understand how the Bible could say what it does in these cases—that this troubles us and confuses us and embarrasses us, and we regret how this creates an obstacle to faith for many.  We avow that these passages do not express the timeless will of God for all people and that they certainly do not express God’s will for us today.

But even so, we do not claim to have such a comprehensive understanding of God and of redemptive history, even in light of God’s definitive self-revelation in Jesus, and even with the help that the Holy Spirit indeed gives us when we read the Bible, that we can say confidently that these things could never have expressed God’s will for anyone, anywhere, under any circumstances.

In other words, when it comes to “making sense of the Bible,” there are a few parts that I think we can’t quite make sense of (though we work very hard to do this, as I trust my posts about such passages on this blog demonstrate).  But that does not keep me from believing that the Bible is the inspired word of God and from relying on what it says, rather than on any inspiration I might receive when I read it, as my guide to life and faith.  Certainly the Bible taken as a whole—its “big ideas and key messages,” as Hamilton puts it (p. 132)—is something we can make sense of and recognize by faith as God’s authoritative and instructive word to us.  This is enough to allow us to trust it despite the few parts that force us to say humbly, “I just don’t understand that.”

This is my general “take” on Hamilton’s book.  But I found the whole book so engaging that I will return to it in some follow-up posts and address the specific exegetical claims he makes about the meaning of the phrases “God-breathed” and “word of God.”

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

9 thoughts on “Is it the readers, not the writers, of the Bible who are inspired? A review of Adam Hamilton’s Making Sense of the Bible”

  1. I like your “2 buckets and a shelf” idea verses the “3 buckets” idea. There are some things in the Bible that are perplexing and pretending they are not is not a good way forward, as I see it. If we need to “put something on the shelf, pending more info” that is preferable to rejecting it outright; as you point out, where does rejection stop?

    Mark Twain said something about it not being the parts of the Bible that he did not understand concerning him, it was the parts he did understand that concerned him.

    One aspect that I think is not taught enough is that God’s instructions (Law/Torah) can change when circumstances change. Heb 7:12 When a change in the priesthood takes place, there must also be a change in the Law. The change in the priesthood is Jesus as high priest in the order of Melchizedek.

    1. “Two buckets and a shelf” is an excellent way to put this. There are some things we “put on the shelf,” pending more information or greater insight.

      I agree with you that we are better advised to give our time and attention to those parts of the Bible that we understand perfectly well but are not yet living up to than to those parts we can’t seem to understand.

      I will write in future posts about those things that do change under changed circumstances in redemptive history–the “second bucket.”

  2. Thank you so much for your excellent review of Adam Hamilton’s book, “Making Sense of the Bible.” I knew you were the right person to mention this book to on this very difficult and controversial subject. I agree with your main point of criticism, and I fear Evangelical Bible teachers will have a field day attacking Adam Hamilton. Rev. Hamilton is a godly man and I enjoy his heart and preaching and I see the work of God at the Church of the Resurrection. There are so many issues he tackled and some eye opening things — I found the most eye opening idea that the “word of God” as used in the Scripture is not always referring to the Scriptures, but to the message of the Gospel and Jesus! I believe this book is going to shake many out of the Magnolia trees. Thank you for looking at it and being kind with your criticism — we need more preachers like Adam Hamilton to wrestle with the Scripture and more Christopher Smith’s to help him wrestle and win the battle! God Bless you both!

    1. You’re welcome–I see no reason to be hostile or harsh in any way towards Adam Hamilton, who is unquestionably a godly and faithful pastor and scholar whose ministry God has richly blessed. Those “controversial passages” bother me just as much as they bother him, and even if I don’t come to the same conclusion about how we should regard them, I am grateful for his reflections, which have helped me develop my own thinking.

  3. Chris – I read Pastor Hamilton’s book and I have the same concern as you regarding his view of the Bible. What I am having trouble understanding is how you can still consider him a godly and faithful pastor when he is essentially leading his flock astray by teaching them that the Bible can’t be trusted? This is no small matter! You mentioned that by using Hamilton’s paradigm a person could explain away the resurrection as reflecting “the faith of the early church and not the actual Jesus of history.” It seems to me that Pastor Hamilton’s approach to scripture has the potential to undermine the gospel and that is very dangerous and should not be taken lightly. The Apostle Paul said, “For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine but instead gather around them a great number of teachers to tell them what their itching ears want to hear.” I believe that there will be many people who will read Hamilton’s book and use his reasoning to re-create God into their own image. Hamilton’s view of scripture, over time, will naturally lead to idolatry.

    1. Even while acknowledging that Adam Hamilton doesn’t answer to me for how he conducts his ministry, let me share an opinion: I believe he is following the parts of the Bible that all of us agree are the most unambiguous and directly applicable, the teachings of Jesus, and that in doing so he is experiencing God’s blessing on his ministry. But beyond that, I want to follow Paul’s counsel in First Corinthians: “Judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God.”

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