Rev. Adam Hamilton, pastor of Church of the Resurrection (a United Methodist congregation) in the Kansas City area, recently came out with an introduction to the Bible called Making Sense of the Bible. Hamilton does a great job of introducing laypersons to the overarching story of the Bible, both Old Testament and New Testament. He explains how the Bible came to be, and then examines a series of “challenging passages.”
On the whole, I think Hamilton’s book does a good job of making the Bible more understandable and more accessible. He leaves room for various options of interpretation in dealing with some of the controversial passages of the Bible. His love for the Bible and the influential place the Bible has in his own life comes through loud and clear. His last chapter on “Reading the Bible for All Its Worth” contains a very practical and Wesleyan approach to studying Scripture and incorporating its teachings into our lives.
My main concern with Hamilton’s view of the Bible is his understanding of the inspiration and authority of Scripture. He suggests that “the scriptures were written by human beings who were inspired by God yet wrote in the light of their own experiences, the scientific knowledge they had access to, and the historical circumstances in which they lived.” He goes on to say, “While affirming that the Bible is inspired by God, a key premise of this book is that the Bible’s authors were inspired by the Spirit in the same way and to the same degree as many contemporary preachers and prophets and even ordinary Christians have been inspired by the Spirit in every age. … I believe the inspiration experienced by the biblical authors was not different from our own experience of inspiration (emphasis original)” (p. 294).
So what gives the biblical writers the authority to tell us what to believe and how to live? Hamilton cites two factors: 1) that the biblical writers were closer to the events that they were recording, and 2) that the early church felt that the biblical writing contained the essentials of the faith and found them helpful. Thus, there is no qualitative difference between what the Bible says and what an inspired Christian says (think Augustine, Luther, Wesley, Barth, Mother Theresa, etc.). The church could find these later writers equally helpful (and authoritative?) for the church’s faith today.
I have no problem believing that the biblical writers were informed by their own world view and human experience. That is part of the context that helps us understand their writings. However, the biblical writers often claimed to be delivering “the word of the Lord,” not their own understanding. II Peter 1:20-21 claims that “no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” In fact, sometimes the writers did not understand what they were saying or what it meant (see Daniel 12:8-9, for example). Divine inspiration carried them beyond the limits of their human experience.
The early church seemed to regard the writings of the apostles as uniquely authoritative. It understood Jesus’ promise of John 14:25-26 to apply uniquely to the Twelve (minus Judas), “All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” One of the tests for including a book in the New Testament was its authorship or approval by one of the original apostles (plus Paul as the apostle who was “abnormally born” (I Corinthians 15:8) plus James and Jude, Jesus’ brothers—in by family privilege!). And Jesus himself affirmed the authority of the Old Testament Scriptures (Matthew 5:17-20).
The church has historically understood the biblical writers to be uniquely inspired in a way that the rest of us, even great early Christian leaders like Barnabas or Timothy, were not. That gave the apostles the authority to reinterpret the faith of Israel in a new way as followers of Jesus Christ. We today do not have that same authority.
So it is perfectly reasonable to believe that Peter and the other apostles could vote to do away with the food laws and clean/unclean requirements of the Old Testament. But we today do not have the same authority to do away with the moral teachings of the Bible around human sexuality and marriage. We can be inspired by the Holy Spirit for ministry today, but our inspiration is of a different order, and our authority is less than that of the Bible.
Yes, we need to ask questions and wrestle with the biblical text. Our task as interpreters, however, is not to judge the text (whether or not it speaks the mind of God), but to understand the text in its context. That context includes the entire Scriptures, so that later revelations and teachings can refine or even revoke earlier understandings. We can still learn from those earlier understandings, but we must be careful in applying them to our lives today.
The bottom line is that I am concerned Hamilton’s view of inspiration undercuts the authority of Scripture and allows the church to too easily discount biblical teachings that some Christians disagree with on the basis that they “reflect the culture and historical circumstances in which they were written but never reflected God’s timeless will” (p. 274). I believe we would do well to maintain the view of Scripture expressed in our doctrinal standards: “Whatever is not revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is not to be made an article of faith nor is it to be taught as essential to salvation” (Confession of Faith, Article IV). Conversely, whatever is revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is designed by God to be “the true rule and guide for faith and practice,” not set aside for human preference.