The Bible isn’t merely an “historical witness about God”


Last week, I wrote this critical response to Adam Hamilton’s “three buckets” approach to interpreting scripture, which he will likely expound upon in a forthcoming book (the three buckets approach, I mean, not my response to it!). The most objectionable part was “Bucket 3,” which includes those scriptures that Hamilton says “never fully expressed the heart, character or will of God.” One obvious questions is, how on earth does he know or decide which scriptures those are?

And even Bucket 2, which says that some scriptures are “no longer binding,” misses the mark. God still speaks through all of scripture, even those scriptures related, for example, to Israel’s dietary laws—whether we keep kosher today or not.

Dr. Bill Arnold, an Old Testament professor at Asbury Theological Seminary, explains why in this blog post, showing how Hamilton’s interpretive strategy is inconsistent both with what the Bible says about itself (keep in mind that 2 Timothy 3:16-17 is literally referring to the Old Testament) and with what United Methodists profess to believe about it.

As sacred canon (or authoritative standard) for the church, we believe the Bible is not primarily inspired for us to know things (epistemology). We learn quite a lot from the Bible, of course. But this is not its primary function in and for the church. Instead, the Bible is inspired and given by God to the church in order for Christians to know God through personal and corporate salvation (soteriology). Even my use of the word “know” in the previous sentences has different meanings. By “know” when referring to things, I’m essentially referring to the use of our brains to accumulate facts. But by “know” when referring to God, I mean encountering God and relating to God in a way made possible by the atonement of Christ on the cross. We believe the whole canon is a gift from God, inspired to lead us to an intimate relationship with God individually and corporately, and to transform us into God’s image…

In our interpretive tradition as Wesleyans, we do not elevate one portion or sub-portion of the Bible as more authoritative than others. There is a definite progression or gradual revealing of God and God’s message in the Bible. But we do not believe that later stages of revelation necessarily replace, dismiss, or nullify earlier stages of revelation (known as supersessionism). When we dismiss any portion of Scripture as outside the character, will, or heart of God for any reason, we have essentially turned Scripture into a historical witness about God, not a revelation from God. What is perceived as today’s superior wisdom trumps or supersedes the wisdom of the church’s Scriptures. The Bible becomes nothing more than a witness to God, not a revelation of God.

In a response to a commenter, Dr. Arnold wrote this nice summary of his objection:

My objection to the “bucket” approach is the language that certain texts “expressed 1 God’s will in a particular time, but are no longer binding” or others that “never fully expressed the heart, character or will of God.” Such language compartmentalizes passages (whichever texts the reader has deemed outmoded or offensive to God) and considers them irrelevant in developing Christian ethics. So while I agree this is not about literalism (and with Adam, I reject literalism), I maintain that such an approach is indeed an exegetical reading strategy, and I maintain that it’s flawed. Our exegetical method always ends in application, and we must do this for every text. In other words, interpretation of the Bible includes an “end-game” we often call “evaluation” or sometimes “appropriation” that takes the result of our exegesis of the ancient text, and asks what meaning it has for today. Or to use the old 3-step questions of the Protestant Reformation, we must ask (a) what the text said, grammatically, (b) what the text meant, historically, and (c) what the text means (the grammatico-historical method). And we do this for every verse in the Bible. The results of our exegesis (including appropriation) then become the foundation for biblical theology.

The “bucket” approach has decided (for whatever reason) that certain texts are excluded (bucket #3) or limited in value for today (bucket #2). I object because I think this approach is simplistically assuming that any grammatical imperative command in Old Testament law must be weighed as whether or not it should be obeyed by modern believers. That’s not really true of any OT law. Instead, these “laws” are to be read for the principles for holiness they are intended to reflect in their immediate literary contexts. This is also a fundamental misunderstanding of OT law, which is really “instruction [for holy living]” more than “law” as we usually think of it. We have no evidence that either Israel or Babylonia really ever enacted the hyperbolic laws, such as stoning the rebellious son. I believe they were “holy instructions” for our edification to indicate how truly serious such principles are.

Anyway, I believe the “bucket” approach is not only a reading strategy but reflects also one’s view of inspiration. What do we mean by taking the Bible as the “word of God”? Is the whole revelatory, or not? And if not, how are we to know which parts express the “heart, character or will of God,” and which do not? Who gets to say? My article was trying to recapture the canonical approach, taking the whole Bible for the whole world.

2 thoughts on “The Bible isn’t merely an “historical witness about God””

  1. I basically agree with this, but have a caveat, as is exemplified, I think, by this reference: “We have no evidence that either Israel or Babylonia really ever enacted the hyperbolic laws, such as stoning the rebellious son.” This sounds to me almost like a “bucket” approach to such passages, which is what is being objected to. I realize most people are “offended” by the “stone-the-son” passage and try to downplay it, but I fail to see the exegetical basis for such an “exclusion.” Honoring your father and mother is one of the Ten Commandments, not a “dietary law” which the New Testament shows to be no longer binding. Our relationship with our parents is intended as a picture of our relationship with God. Our parents brought us into this world (as God did, more ultimately). Disrespect for parents is disrespect for God-instituted authority, as well as unthankfulness, both things God condemns (even in the New Testament). Paul says that the Magistrate does not carry the SWORD for nothing. So, while it may be that no one has actually carried out the “stoning” command, I don’t think this ipso facto takes it out of the category of divinely inspired “law,” or makes it something not really “intended” to ever have carried authoritative weight. Perhaps in our “age of grace” we are not supposed to literally follow this Old Testament “command,” but that would be on some other basis than concluding that it surely could not ever have actually been such a “command” or law in the first instance.

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