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I have only one real disagreement with what Adam Hamilton writes in Making Sense of the Bible, although it is a significant disagreement, which I will discuss shortly. Apart from this, I found the entire book valuable, useful, and quite cogently presented.
Hamilton’s goal is to help people who aren’t familiar with the Bible, or who are troubled by certain passages in it, to “make sense of it.” To this, end he begins very helpfully with the crucial question, “What exactly is the Bible?” (p. 7). He explains that it is not what it is often considered to be: an “owner’s manual,” a source of random guidance, a collection of data for systematic theology, a science and history textbook, or a treasury of “precious promises.”
Hamilton then provides historical, geographic, and literary overviews of the Bible to orient readers to its background and contents. These will be valuable and helpful resources for the many today who don’t start with a basic knowledge of the Bible. Hamilton addresses some questions about the nature of Scripture and then devotes the last half of the book to “making sense of the Bible’s challenging passages.”
As I read through the book, there were certain chapters that I found very meaningful personally. Hamilton’s testimony in Chapter 24 of how he “came to love Jesus” by reading the gospels is poignant and beautiful. And I would recommend his reflections on suffering in the preceding chapter to anyone who is going through difficult times.
So what’s my one disagreement? It’s with Hamilton’s answer to the question of what the Bible actually is. He says it is a collection of books “written by men seeking to express what they believed was God’s will. They were writing in a given time and culture, and they were writing to address the needs of the people of their time” (p. 262; similar summary statements are offered on pp. 89 and 173).
Notice that in this formulation, the Bible is described as essentially a human product. Is it also the inspired word of God? Only in a qualified sense, according to Hamilton. “The divine inspiration of scripture was . . . God working in the hearts of the biblical authors in a way not dissimilar to how God works in the hearts of modern-day preachers and prophets and laity . . . through a divine prompting felt in the heart, focused in the mind, and spoken with the lips or the pen” (p. 173). In other words, “that divine influence on the writers was not qualitatively different from the way God inspires or influences by the Spirit today” (p. 143).
This is what I’m concerned about. If “the most important dimension of inspiration” really is instead “how God uses the words of scripture to speak to us today,” then anything we find in the Bible that doesn’t square with what we think God is saying to us now can be considered something that the human authors believed was God’s will for their own place and time, but which is not necessarily God’s timeless will for all people (and may not actually have been God’s will even for the original audience).
And so if we are troubled, for example, by the places in the Old Testament where God supposedly tells his people to go out and completely destroy their enemies, we can conclude either that “the passage may reflect the culture, the worldview, or the perspectives of the human author of scripture” (p. 216)—who thought God was telling the Israelites to do this, though God really wasn’t—or that “these stories were written down long after their time to inspire others to courage and absolute commitment to God” (p. 215), but they didn’t really happen as described.
For one thing, this approach allows you to dismiss anything in the Bible that doesn’t square with “God’s will as we understand it today.” As a result, the Bible no longer functions as an objective check on our limited human perspectives; it can no longer expose or critique our time-bound and culture-bound thinking. This approach effectively condemns us to precisely the same fault that Hamilton finds with the biblical authors, whom he thinks sometimes reflected their own cultural biases rather than God’s timeless will.
For another thing, this approach ultimately prevents us from believing anything on the basis of the Bible’s teaching. This difficulty makes itself felt in the very chapter in which Hamilton shares how he put his faith in Christ after reading the gospels, particularly after he realized that the resurrection had to be a reality, otherwise “darkness has overcome light, hate has overcome love, and death has overcome life” (pp. 240-241).
The problem is, as Hamilton himself acknowledges at the beginning of the chapter, some biblical scholars “believe the miraculous elements in the Gospels,” including the resurrection, “reflect the faith of the early church and not the actual Jesus of history.” This is a perfectly valid option within Hamilton’s paradigm. The stories of Jesus, like those of Joshua, may have been “written down long after their time to inspire others” and they may include events that did not actually occur. So how can we determine whether Jesus actually rose from the dead or not?
If we have accepted everything Hamilton has said to this point, we cannot simply trust the gospels about this, even though they were written by the people who lived closest to the time of the events they narrate, and even though they are the foundational documents of our faith and have been been found faithful, helpful, inspirational, and useful for so many centuries. They could still be wrong. So instead, as Hamilton acknowledges, “the question of the reliability of the New Testament witness to Jesus boils down to whether we can accept the idea that Jesus did things that other human beings are unable to” (p. 238). In other words, ultimately it is our presuppositions that determine what parts of the Bible we believe.
Now one might argue that it is actually the Holy Spirit, inspiring us as readers of the Bible, who leads us to accept such ideas. But who can say whether the Holy Spirit did not instead inspire those of the opposite view to recognize and reject the resurrection as a well-intentioned superstition when they read the Bible? It seems to me that once you let this genie out of the bottle, there’s no putting it back in. So let me suggest an alternative.
I would argue that from within our own culture and our place in human history and redemptive history, we do not have access, when it comes to certain passages, to an understanding of how what was said to the people of that other place and time could have been God’s will for them, even within their own specific circumstances. We need to confess frankly that we do not understand how the Bible could say what it does in these cases—that this troubles us and confuses us and embarrasses us, and we regret how this creates an obstacle to faith for many. We avow that these passages do not express the timeless will of God for all people and that they certainly do not express God’s will for us today.
But even so, we do not claim to have such a comprehensive understanding of God and of redemptive history, even in light of God’s definitive self-revelation in Jesus, and even with the help that the Holy Spirit indeed gives us when we read the Bible, that we can say confidently that these things could never have expressed God’s will for anyone, anywhere, under any circumstances.
In other words, when it comes to “making sense of the Bible,” there are a few parts that I think we can’t quite make sense of (though we work very hard to do this, as I trust my posts on this blog about such passages demonstrate). But that does not keep me from believing that the Bible is the inspired word of God and from relying on what it says, rather than on any inspiration I might receive when I read it, as my guide to life and faith. Certainly the Bible taken as a whole—its “big ideas and key messages,” as Hamilton puts it (p. 132)—is something we can make sense of and recognize by faith as God’s authoritative and instructive word to us. This is enough to allow us to trust it despite the few parts that force us to say humbly, “I just don’t understand that.”
(This is an abridged version of my review of Hamilton's book on my WordPress blog "Good Question." Amazon doesn't let you post URLs but you can find my review by going to the blog and searching for "Adam Hamilton.")