Adam Hamilton’s unorthodox view of the inspiration of scripture

The following is Part 2 of my analysis of Adam Hamilton’s book Making Sense of the Bible. Click here to read Part 1.

As troubling as Adam Hamilton’s “three buckets” approach to scripture is, it follows logically from his view of the inspiration of scripture.[1] In Making Sense of the Bible, Hamilton asks what he admits are some “uncomfortable” questions in relation to 2 Timothy 3:16-17. Those verses include a word that Paul invented in order to describe the uniquely powerful thing that God accomplished through scripture: theopneustos, which means, as the ESV translates it nicely, “breathed out by God.”

Some translations, following the King James Version, use the word “inspiration.” Inasmuch as that English word retains its divine connotation, however, it implies that God “breathed in” to something, whereas the Greek word implies that God breathed something out. As others have suggested, a more literal English word might be “expiration.” Regardless, if Hamilton appreciates the difference between “breathing in” and “breathing out,” he doesn’t let on. It makes a difference, as I’ll describe below.

Hamilton asks:

[D]o you think the scripture writers Moses, David, Matthew, and Paul were inspired to a greater degree or in a different way than we experience the inspiration and guidance of the Spirit as Christians today? When a pastor prays while preparing his or her messages each week, ‘Holy Spirit, guide me that I might speak the words you would have me share with the congregation,’ will the guidance he or she receives from the Spirit be less than or different from that received by scripture writers?[2]

What do you want the answer to these questions to be? I know what I want the answer to be: “Dear God, I hope so!” God forbid the words of one of my sermons, no matter how “inspiring,” be perceived as no less inspired than the words of holy scripture. Yet Hamilton asks these questions as if we’ll feel relieved to know that (according to him) inspiration is nothing more than what we Christians experience today.

Why does he feel this way? As a former “progressive” Christian myself, I have my suspicions: If we no longer have to believe that God miraculously inspired the writers of scripture and the words they wrote, then—insert a sigh of relief here—that’s one less hard-to-believe thing that we Christians have to believe.

I’ve seen this mentality at work when it comes to other doctrines that progressive Christians often reject—like the bodily resurrection of Christ, his virginal conception, the existence of angels and demons. Not that Hamilton is a progressive Christian, but he has taken steps in that direction; he’s at least a “progressive evangelical.” But give him time (cf. Rachel Held Evans, Rob Bell, Brian McLaren).

Am I overreacting?

Can you imagine a traditional evangelical writing the following: “The Spirit’s inspiration of the biblical authors was consistent with the way the Spirit inspires human beings today”?[3] He goes on to say that the writings of C.S. Lewis, for example, are no less inspired than the Bible.[4]

Speaking of Lewis, I had a parishioner tell me one time that she was leaving the church. Among other things, she didn’t like my sermons. She said, “How can I put this tactfully? I don’t give a flip what C.S. Lewis says!” She apparently thought I was quoting Lewis too much in my sermons. Needless to say for those who read this blog regularly, I do give a flip what C.S. Lewis says. I love him and his books dearly. No modern writer has had a bigger impact on my life. But I wouldn’t dare suggest that his works were as inspired as the Bible! If Lewis could come back from the dead, can you imagine what he would say to Adam Hamilton?

But even Hamilton agrees that the Bible has more authority than Lewis’s writings—or any other Christian writing outside of the New Testament canon. Its authority, however, is based solely on its proximity in time to the life of Jesus. He makes the analogy to our country’s Founding Fathers: Their writings about our nation—our government, our political and legal systems—are more authoritative than anyone writing on these topics today because they were there when the nation was founded.[5]

Regardless of the Bible’s authority, Hamilton would say that God did nothing extraordinary or unique to inspire the Bible’s writers. Therefore nothing prevents the Bible from being wrong.

It’s hard to see how my argument from scripture can be anything but question-begging from his point of view. Still, let’s assume for now that Hamilton believes—however inconsistently—that Jesus’ red-letter words in the gospels are true.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven…”

Iotas and dots were very small marks within the Hebrew text of the Old Testament: every one of them is important, Jesus says, and every one of them will be fulfilled. Needless to say, if you’re assigning some of the “least of these commandments” to Bucket #3—arguing that God never commanded them—it’s hard to see how that doesn’t count as “relaxing” them!

(Or maybe Matthew 5:18-19 also belongs in Bucket #3? Adam, you have to admit this is confusing.)

Or consider John 10:35, where Jesus is making an argument from scripture, and he says it must be true because “Scripture cannot be broken”—it can’t be shown to be false. Or consider Mark 12:36. Jesus is quoting Psalm 110, and he says that David was writing his words “in the Holy Spirit.”

Or consider Jesus’ astonishing words in Matthew 19: He’s talking about the meaning of marriage: “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?” Jesus is quoting Genesis 1:27—God made them male and female—and Genesis 2:24, “Therefore a man will leave his father and mother… and they shall become one flesh.”

But notice this: He says that the One who created them male and female—God—is the same One who said the words written in Genesis 2:24. Except when you go back and look at that verse, you see that God himself is not the one speaking in it: Literally, the narrator of Genesis says that the “two shall become one flesh.” Yet Jesus attributes these words not to the human author, who is technically doing the speaking, but to God himself.

What does this mean? It means that Jesus viewed these human words in the Bible as the very words of God.

Isn’t it likely, therefore, that Jesus viewed all of scripture the same way? If not—if he knew, preternaturally, that Genesis 2:24 was spoken by God while other scriptures weren’t—wouldn’t it have been helpful, to say the least, if he told us which was which?

Hamilton, by way of Karl Barth and others, believes that the Bible is the “Word of God” only inasmuch as it bears witness to the Word of God who is Jesus[6]. That sounds nice, but it begs the question. Can Hamilton name one thing that we know for sure about Jesus Christ that isn’t also revealed in scripture?

We’re not mystics. The answer is no. My point is, Hamilton isn’t solving any problems by saying that Christ alone is the Word of God when our only access to Christ is mediated through the Word of God that is scripture.

But let’s get back to 2 Timothy 3:16-17. Hamilton describes “inspiration” in terms of what God did or didn’t do inside the biblical authors themselves when they wrote scripture. But 2 Timothy says nothing about the authors. Paul makes a much stronger claim: the words themselves are “breathed out by God.”

This doesn’t mean that God dictated the words of scripture to its authors: he let them write in their own individual style, from their own point of view, from their own unique set of life circumstances. God was working through their words to communicate his Word.

Isn’t this similar to the way God usually works through us human beings? Most of the time, we’re not even aware of how God works through us—often, we can only see God’s handiwork in retrospect.

In his book, one argument of Hamilton’s is that the Bible couldn’t be uniquely inspired because, after all, most of its writers were unaware that they were writing scripture. Paul, for example, was writing letters to different churches and individuals to address specific concerns that they were facing. Whether that’s true or not—I think Paul knew that he was writing what the Lord wanted him to write, regardless whether he imagined that his letters would later become part of an anthology we now call the New Testament—it’s beside the point.

God works providentially through people, whether they are aware of it or not.

Paul communicates this truth in 1 Corinthians 15:10: In comparing his work as an apostle to the other apostles he writes, “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” So Paul was doing the work, but not so fast: It wasn’t really him; it was the Holy Spirit doing it.

How can both those things be true? Because it’s not either the Holy Spirit doing the work or Paul doing the work. It’s both the Holy Spirit and Paul. And the same is true when God “breathed out” the words of scripture: the Holy Spirit was doing the work and the authors of scripture were doing the work.

In this way, the Holy Spirit ensured that the words of merely human authors could also be the very words of God.

Why is this hard to believe? The miracle of inspiration was not difficult for God.

I still have more to say. Stay tuned for Part 3.

1. Adam Hamilton, Making Sense of the Bible (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 273-4.

2. Ibid., 137

3. Ibid., 173

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid., 138

6. Ibid., 146

16 thoughts on “Adam Hamilton’s unorthodox view of the inspiration of scripture”

  1. I for quite a while thought there could be “minor errors” in the Bible that did not affect anything. In other words, every event happened, but there could be some slips on details, most notably in the parallel accounts of the gospels. I likened this to several newspaper reporters being sent out to cover the same event. It would be clear from reading them that the event happened, but they might not get every detail the same; which, as it turns out, would defeat any claim of “collusion.” I entitled this the “Peach Fuzz” analogy. I greatly enjoy eating a fresh peach, but I don’t particularly care for the fuzz, but I am happy to eat the whole peach anyway, fuzz and all. Thus, the “minor discrepancies” would not keep me from accepting scripture as a whole–the “errors” being just as much a part of what God intended us to have as the rest. In other words, the “fuzz” was intentional. Pretty brilliant, right? 🙂

    I based this view on things like Matthew having the Roman centurion come to Jesus and talk to him, whereas Luke says he came not. Also, in the account of the disciples on the road meeting with Jesus, when they returned to Jerusalem, in Luke they were met with the ecstatic report that the Lord had risen, whereas in the disputed part of Mark, it says, “neither believed they them.” That type of thing.

    The thing that finally persuaded me otherwise was Jesus’ “jot and tittle” statement (to use the KJV). I still have some puzzles, but I am wiling to have them worked out as I go along; or, wait until heaven to see them all resolved.

    (Incidentally, as to C.S. Lewis, I believe that I read somewhere that someone who interviewed him asked whether he considered his writings as inspired as those of scripture, to which he responded, “It’s a question of the canon.” So, he definitely saw the difference between what he wrote and what the scripture writers wrote.)

    1. Once we understand the conventions of first-century historical writing by which the Evangelists were writing, most of these alleged discrepancies (or contradictions) go away. For example, the convention of compressing events that took place over a lengthy period of time into a shorter period of time (as in the post-resurrection events) was not deceptive. (I think it’s called “telescoping.”) The rest can be harmonized by anyone approaching the questions with an open mind.

      For example, in his book, Hamilton makes an issue out of whether the angels at the tomb were human or supernatural, and how many, etc. I’m like, “Are you kidding me? How many times has that been asked and answered?” If we actually believe that the Holy Spirit inspired the writers and their words, then it’s clear that the men were angels and there were at least two. We let scripture interpret scripture. Why is this hard to accept—at least for anyone willing to approach the gospels with an open mind?

      Why would a minister of the gospel be unwilling to do that? What does Hamilton have to gain by acting like these small discrepancies are evidence against miraculous inspiration?

  2. Of all the writers of Scripture, I think that the inspiration of Paul’s writing might be the easiest to defend. After all, Paul spent 13 years under the tutelage of Jesus Christ himself. At least that’s how I understand the story.

    Moses likewise came into the presence of God, and God came also to him. As I understand that story, God filled Moses’ tent each night as he wrote out the Pentateuch.

    But, I don’t worry myself much about these things. I long ago decided to accept the Bible as the very Word of God. It is just a comfortable place for me to be when I read the Word.

    1. I eat the skins, too. No one likes the fuzz, but it’s a small price to pay to enjoy the best fruit God created.

  3. Look at a timeline for the Apostle Paul. Most have his conversion around 34 AD. He and Barnabas begin their missions about 37 AD. He was under the instruction of Jesus Christ in the wilderness and then in Tarsus or Damascus in the interim. I believe that he later explained that he was taught by Jesus Christ himself.

    1. Right. I don’t interpret that to mean that he was taught by Christ for those 14 years. The revelation, as I interpret it, is the one he had on the Damascus road.

      1. I believe he was taught directly in the desert for three years, if I read it correctly. Could be wrong.

      2. I’ve worked through some evangelical commentaries on Galatians recently. These views are not shared by those scholars at least.

  4. He did say that all that he learned, he learned directly from Jesus. I suppose Jesus could have done that in 13 days if he chose to. I have heard that it was at least the Damascus experience plus the wilderness experience. That would be 3 or 4 years.
    In any event, he waited 13 years before he felt “ready” to preach the gospel to the gentiles.

  5. From Ligonier Ministries:
    R.C. Sproul

    The Preparation of Paul

    “I did not consult any man, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus” (vv. 16–17).

    – Galatians 1:11–24
    Paul begins Galatians by saying that he was sent by Christ and the Father, and that the other church leaders agreed with him. In Galatians 1:11–2:10, he expands on these two points.

    He begins in verses 11 and 12 by saying that the Gospel he preached was not devised by human wisdom, nor had he received it from the other apostles; rather, he was taught it directly by Jesus Christ Himself. He continues by reminding them that he had been trained in and was fanatically devoted to the erroneous traditions of Judaism. When God called Paul on the Damascus road, he was commissioned to preach the Gospel of Christ.

    Paul said that when Christ called him, he did not go to Jerusalem to receive instruction from the apostles. Rather, he retired into Arabia for a time and not until three years later did he go to Jerusalem. Even then, the only apostle he met was Peter, and the only other leader he met was James, the presiding elder of the Jerusalem church. It has often been remarked that Paul clearly implied that he spent three years being taught by Jesus Himself (1:12), either directly or (perhaps more likely) through the study of the Word. Thus, like the other apostles, Paul studied with Christ for three years before beginning his ministry (compare Acts 1:21).

    Thus, Paul established for the Galatians that he received the Gospel by the same means as the other apostles —directly from Jesus. Fourteen years after his conversion, he had occasion to go to Jerusalem and there he met privately with the leaders, including the apostles Peter and John (2:1–10). He reports to the Galatians that they compared notes and found that there was absolutely no difference between what he had been teaching for eleven years in Antioch and what the apostles had been teaching in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria. There never had been a problem, nor was there one currently, between Paul’s message and the teaching of the Jerusalem church.

    The point Paul is making to the Galatians is that there has never been any question about the content of the Gospel. The same Christ taught Peter and Paul, and both men were in complete agreement.

    Coram Deo

    How likely is it that the acknowledged leaders of the church today could come to such unanimous theological agreement? It was no less difficult then, yet it was achieved. What would it require for such accord in our generation? Pray for the unity of Christ’s church and the resulting peace that would ensue.

  6. i am glad that i am not the only one with the news-report view of NT scripture. but i dont see it as discrepancies, but editorial discretion. yankee reporters see it one way, giants another and neither is wrong just different (so long as they are reporting facts, not opinion).

Leave a Reply