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Thursday, August 7, 2014

Making Sense of the Bible: the Most Important Religious Book I've Ever Read

Other than the Bible, of course.

A friend recently recommended a book called Making Sense of the Bible, by Adam Hamilton. It sounded intriguing, so I ordered it, read it, and was amazed. The author is a United Methodist pastor, a founder of Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City. The jacket blurb states, “The church is well known for connecting with agnostics, skeptics, and spiritual seekers. In 2012, it was recognized as the most influential mainline church in America, and Hamilton was asked by the White House to deliver the sermon at the inaugural Obama prayer service.” His church has 18,000 members, and no wonder!

The book is divided into two parts, but at the end of Part 1 there is a hermeneutic section that I intend to present here in detail. Part 1 is the stuff one learns in seminary: who wrote the Old and New Testaments? When were they written? Which books made it into the Bible, and why were other books rejected? He writes extensively about the Bible authors, Paul, Matthew, Luke, Mark, John, Peter, and Jude. We could call these chapters of nuts and bolts of how our Scripture came to be what it is today.

The section I want to emphasize in this post is at the tail end of Part 1, called “Questions about the Nature of Scripture.” Part 2 is very hermeneutical. It addresses the question of creation, Noah’s ark, Adam and Eve, violence in the Old Testament, suffering, divine providence, the sayings of Jesus, salvation, women in Scripture, homosexuality, and the Book of Revelation. These are all juicy topics that the church struggles with every day. Hamilton’s answers are wise and useful because he demonstrates how to apply scripture to these problems in a sensible manner that works today rather than in the first century or 1500 BC. I loved every word of the book, but in a blog we can only bring a small part of it to the table.

The premise of the book is how to find God in scripture. His point is that the wide spread dogma of ‘verbal, plenary inspiration’//‘inerrancy’ is not useful for making sense of God, explaining how we got our Bible, or explaining how to apply the Bible in today’s world. I just cheered my way through the book because I’ve been saying that for years. My declarations along those lines caused me to be blocked from ministry in almost all of the churches I’ve attended from 2000 on with the exception of the Lutheran church we attend now. It took me studying the Bible since 1965, and an additional 18 straight years of school beginning in 1992, to be so firm in my position against inerrancy that I was willing to be frozen out of church ministry to be free to make my point. I felt it was that important. I’ve written about it in my blog, indexed as ‘hermeneutics.’ I’ve discussed it in our present church at great risk of once again being nudged out. I totally agree with Adam Hamilton in that one cannot make sense of the Bible or of God or of salvation history while adhering to the dogma of inerrancy and plenary, verbal inspiration. Presented below are some of his zingers.

From Chapter 14, “Is the Bible Inspired?”

“God-breathed” is a translation of the Greek word Paul used to describe Scripture in 2 Timothy 3:16, a word typically translated as “inspired.” In this chapter I’d like us to think carefully about what is, and is not, meant by “God-breathed” or “inspired” as it pertains to the scriptures (p. 129).

“All scripture,” for Paul, would have referred to those scrolls or documents that were considered authoritative by the Jewish and early Christian community…If this is what Paul meant, then the biblical authors were moved, urged, or compelled to write the message yet did so in their own word, with their own cultural assumptions and within the limits of their vocabulary and knowledge. They may not have communicated perfectly, but they were nevertheless used by God as they wrote (p. 132, 133).

In Psalm 109, David prays that God will show no pity on one who has betrayed him. He prays that the man’s children will become wandering beggars. I love psalms like this because they are brutally and uncomfortably honest in expressing the author’s hurt and pain. But here’s the question: Would the Holy Spirit have inspired David to pray such a prayer? Is it not the opposite of Jesus’s command to love our enemies? (136).

In the appendix to his excellent book, A High View of Scripture?, Craig Allert lists nineteen examples of the church fathers, through the first four hundred years of the Christian faith, using theopneustos [JKS: God-breathed] or similar phrases to describe their own writings or the sermons, decisions, and writings of other. His point is that this term, as used and understood in the early church, apparently did not have the exclusive meaning that many Christians imbue it with today (p. 137).

Verbal, plenary inspiration was a way of building a fence around the Bible and making it impossible to question it or any doctrine built upon it. Those who held this view knew their doctrines were above question because “God says it (in the Bible), I believe it, that settles it” (139).  [JKS: I really hate that phrase. It’s a cop out for lack of diligent study and thought!]

This new foundation for the Christian faith, namely that Christianity is true because the Bible is infallible, inerrant, totally true, and trustworthy, feels to me like a house of cards that can easily be brought down (140). [JKS: And too often folks, our kids get to college and actually learn a thing or two, and down comes that house.]

From Chapter 15, “Is the Bible the Word of God?”

My point is that the Word of God by which all other words of God are measured my be the Word that was made flesh, Jesus Christ (146). [JKS: YES! Thank you, Adam! Jesus did NOT support all of the former OT writings.]

All other words about God are mediated through human beings. But in Jesus, God wrapped his message, his character, heart, and purposes, in human flesh (150).

The Psalms are interesting in that most are prayers to God, not prayers from God (146).

In a sense, the Bible is the biography of God. It is not an autobiography but an authorized biography (152).

So, is the Bible the Word of God? Or is it the words of people about God? I find Karl Barth’s way of answering these questions helpful: the Bible contains the word of God found within the words of its human authors (152).

From Chapter 16, “How Does God Speak to and Through Us?”

If Luke had been simply inspired by the Spirit, he would not have needed to “carefully investigate everything.” Luke doesn’t say, “God told me to write these things down.” Rather he says, “I decided to investigate and to write” (155).

From Chapter 17, “Is the Bible Inerrant?”

The second reason I don’t accept the doctrine of inerrancy is that the Bible, as we have it, is easily demonstrated to contain errors and inconsistencies (160).

This idea of the inerrant original manuscripts allows the inerrantist to speculate that any error that cannot otherwise by harmonized or explained did not exist in the original manuscript of the document (161).

[JKS: Hamilton makes the point that in many cases, a pastor or teacher that does not actually subscribe to the doctrine of inerrancy and verbal, plenary inspiration is likely to hide it for years because they know they will lose their pulpit, their post, or their congregation, 163.]

One concern I have for those who hold to inerrancy is that they seem to indicate that their entire faith would collapse if the Bible were found to have one real error. As I noted in a previous chapter, this seems a very weak foundation for one’s faith (168).

From Chapter 18, “A High View of Scripture?”

Does a belief in verbal, plenary inspiration and in the inerrancy of scripture constitute a “high view of scripture?” Not, I would suggest, if it is a wrong or misleading view of scripture (171).

But I believe they’ve created a dogma about scripture, in some respects not unlike the Roman Catholic Church’s dogma of papal infallibility, that is not substantiated by what we know of how the Bible was written, how it came to be canonized, nor the actual text of the Bible itself. And if, as I have suggested, this dogma about scripture is inaccurate, it does not constitute a high view of scripture (172).

[JKS: There is more, so much more, in this great book. Both Hamilton and I believe in the general inspiration and authority of the Bible. We live it, teach it, find God in it, rejoice in its relevance today. My original faith in and love of God has been no way diminished by my intellectual journey. But bloody bully for Hamilton who had the courage to write this book, thereby opening doors that have been closed to thinkers and questioners for years, educated people who cannot abide the intellectual contradictions that inerrancy demands.]