Is the Bible Inspired?

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.

Comments

  1. The biggest problem I have with Adam Hamilton’s opinions are the weak/ slanted and sometimes preposterous conclusions he draws form Paul’s writings in particular. He assumes a lot when it comes to Paul’s thinking and state of mind when the Apostle Paul writes. Some of those assumptions are dead wrong. Some are incomplete and that is a poor foundation to draw conclusions on. What he has to say about Moses is beyond belief taking into account what the apostles recorded Jesus as saying.

    There is no way for Hamilton to take the stands he is taking without undercutting the inspiration of scripture.
    That is the only way it can be done.

  2. John Leece says:

    Eloquently stated and sound theologically. Thank you for this thoughtful piece!

  3. David Lee says:

    In the books of Rev. Hamilton’s that I have read, it comes across to me as spending a great deal of time working to break down any belief the reader has in the Bible as the unique, literal, historical, completely true Words of God. For example, from page 85-86 of _When Christians Get It Wrong_:
    And when God in 1 Samuel 15:3 asks (sic) Saul to lead the armies of Israel against the Amalekites saying, “Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey,” is this really right? Why did God command that Saul destroy the Amalekites? Because 375 years earlier their ancestors had treated the Israelites with disrespect. Contrast this view of God with that portrayed in Luke 23:34, where Jesus (God the Son) hangs on the cross, looks upon the Romans and the Pharisees who crucified him, and prays “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do”? Is God vindictive, destroying a people 375 years after an offense, or is God one who shows mercy even to the people who tore torture, humiliate, and hang him on a cross?

    Rev. Hamilton is causing confusion, in my opinion, by putting himself over and above scripture. Why does he not mention the relationship between Agag (whom Saul disobediently spared) and Haman, who nearly eradicated the Israelites in the book of Ruth? Had Saul obeyed God, Agag’s descendent Haman would never have been born. By telling the reader that God is not who He represents Himself to be in the text of the Old Testament, Rev. Hamilton falsely teaches that we can sit in judgment of scripture.

    No matter whether one leans toward Wesley or Calvin, I think either of those great Christian men would agree with Wayne Grudem in this statement if they were alive today:
    “If We Deny Inerrancy, We Essentially Make Our Own Human Minds a Higher Standard of Truth Than God’s Word Itself
    We use our minds to pass judgment on some sections of God’s Word and pronounce them to be in error. But this is in effect to say that we know truth more certainly and more accurately than God’s Word does (or than God does), at least in these areas. Such a procedure, making our own minds to be a higher standard of truth than God’s Word, is the root of all intellectual sin.”

  4. In a prior iteration, in his book “Confronting the Controversies,” Adam Hamilton disagreed with the present-day Adam Hamilton. I think his own changing views illustrates the dangerous caprice that can destroy the foundations of the faith. Why not have a new revelation from the Holy Spirit on original sin? Divinity of Christ? Resurrection of Christ? If Hamilton is right, there is little to prevent such revelations.

    Another question Hamilton seems to avoid is this: why would the Holy Spirit contradict Itself? Is not the written Word more substantial, more reliable than the malleable revelations that some seem to be having today?

Trackbacks

  1. […] Tom Lambrecht zeroes in on the biggest question I had when reading Adam Hamilton’s book Making Sense of the Bible. […]

Speak Your Mind

*