The buckets of the bible

Among the interesting responses to my recent post on Christianity and politics, Jon K. pointed me to this take on biblical interpretation from Methodist Minister Adam Hamilton.  I love it.  It rings so true to me:

In my upcoming book, Making Sense of the Bible, I suggest that there are three “buckets” into which scriptures fall:

  1. Scriptures that express God’s heart, character and timeless will for human beings.
  2. Scriptures that expressed God’s will in a particular time, but are no longer binding.
  3. Scriptures that never fully expressed the heart, character or will of God.

Bucket one scriptures include passages like the two great commandments: love God and love your neighbor.  They include passages that call us to “do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God,” and to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”   Most of the Bible fits into this category – capturing God’s heart, character and timeless will for humanity.

Bucket two scriptures, those that expressed God’s will for his people in a specific time and circumstances but which do not express the timeless will of God, include the command that males be circumcised, commands regarding animal sacrifices, clean and unclean foods, and hundreds of other passages in the Law.  The Apostles, in Acts 15, determined that most of the laws like these were no longer binding upon Christians.

The idea of a third bucket, passages that never reflected God’s heart and will, is disconcerting to some.  It challenges some deeply held beliefs about how God spoke and continues to speak through the biblical authors.  Here are a few examples of scripture I don’t believe ever accurately captured God’s heart, character, or will:  Leviticus 21:9 requires that if the daughter of a priest becomes a prostitute she must be burned to death.  In Exodus 21:20-21, God permits slave-owners to beat their slaves with rods provided they don’t die within the first 48 hours after the beating “for the slave is his property.”  God commands the destruction of every man, woman, and child in 31 Canaanite cities and later killis 70,000 Israelites in punishment for David taking a census. These passages seem to me to be completely inconsistent with the God revealed in Jesus Christ who cared for prostitutes, commanded that we love our enemies, and gave his life to save sinners.

Yes!  Bucket one.  Most everything Jesus actually said (especially those great sermons in Matthew and Luke).  Buckets two and three, what other people had to say about Jesus and much of the Old Testament (clearly meant for a specific time and place).

The post linked here goes on to argue that biblical admonitions fall into bucket 2 or 3.  Sounds right to me.  But more importantly, I just love the idea of of looking to “Scriptures that express God’s heart, character and timeless will for human beings.”  And honestly, I think we all have a pretty good idea of what those are.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

6 Responses to The buckets of the bible

  1. ohwilleke says:

    Sounds like intellectually dishonest unprincipled picking and choosing to me. And, honestly, some of the category (3) items are, IMHO, the probably some of the most historically accurate statements of the early Jewish religion. The notion that most of the Bible fits in category (1) is just absurd by any measure other than how often portions of it are quoted.

    And, the notion that God is the person making statements in any significant portion of the Bible undermines respect for the person making up these categories because much of the Bible on its very face consists of legendary history of the Hebrew people, including such details as purported census counts and genealogies, this person was leader and deputy and then that person, so and so begat such and so and then died at the age of X, or so and so married so and so and had these kids and moved from place A to place B, etc. or the King embarked on this project, and handled this policy issue in this way and made that military tactical call makes up a huge part of the Bible.

    Other parts of the Bible like Songs of Solomon and Psalms are specifically know to the tradition as statements of humans that are part of their culture and worship, but not attributed to God. One of the few things that is attributed to God in the Bible are the pronouncements of Jewish Law which this author puts in category (3). Category (2) is a far more intellectually honest way to deal with those passages than category (3) is you take the Bible at face value and buy into the existence of God at all.

    It floors me that someone who makes a living explaining the Bible could say something so profoundly disconnected from the work itself.

  2. Jon K says:

    I agree with what Adam Hamilton said in his book about “picking and choosing” (short version we all do it. how you go about doing it matters):

    First, I would suggest that both conservatives and liberals regularly “pick and choose” scriptures to emphasize or deemphasize, whether or not they believe in inerrancy. Conservatives have at times deemphasized or spiritualized the Bible’s teachings on justice and the poor. Some routinely set aside passages that do not support their political convictions. Liberals have at times deemphasized passages concerning God’s judgment, and at times have deemphasized scriptures related to personal piety. Both conservatives and liberals have ways of reinterpreting certain passages that do not support their biases and political or theological convictions.
    Be that as it may, it is important to ask by what criteria or hermeneutical principal we decide which scriptures may no longer be binding or which may not capture the will of God for us today. I agree with conservatives’ concerns that our human sinfulness will lead us to set aside passages that are inconvenient. We might choose to set aside passages on justice, or mercy, or self-discipline, or loving our enemies. We cannot merely decide that we like or don’t like this or that scripture. What I’m proposing is that we hear, examine, and interpret all scripture through the lens and filter of the definitive and unmitigated Word of God, Jesus Christ.

    Jesus stated that there were three commands that summarize “the law and the prophets.” In Matthew 7:12, Jesus says, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” We know this as the Golden Rule. We might say that anything that violates this statement in scripture or calls us to violate this statement would be open to question. In Matthew 22:35-40, he offers two more commandments that act as summaries of the rest of the scriptures:

    A lawyer asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

    A friend and fellow preacher noted that these two commands function like a kitchen colander or strainer, holding the important things while the less desirable are rinsed off. He proposed that anything in the Bible that is inconsistent with these great commands, which Jesus said summarized the law and the prophets, could be open to question.

    As we seek to interpret scripture faithfully, we must not set aside what is inconvenient or challenging to us simply because it is difficult. We will, however, read scripture in the light of the life, ministry, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus. When we find something that is inconsistent with the way God reveals himself and his will through Jesus Christ, we may legitimately ask questions. In those situations, it is Jesus who serves as the final Word by which other words of scripture are to be judged.

  3. R. Jenrette says:

    Jesus said (translation): Don’t think that I come to abolish the law of Moses and the prophets. I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.
    How does that fit into those buckets?

  4. Jon K says:

    That’s exactly right Jesus is the Word Made Flesh. That is why we should interpret scripture using Jesus and his life, teachings, and example as the filter to determine what is binding upon us today. For example we don’t stone disobedient children because it doesn’t fit with the example of Jesus who taught us to show mercy.

    In addition Paul and the early church determined that Jesus fulfilled the old law and was the beginning of a new covenant which included not only Jews but Gentiles. That is why Jewish Law isn’t required of Gentile converts. This was one of the first big decisions of the early church. It is covered in Acts and several of Paul’s letters.

    This passage from Hebrews Chapter 8 has always been one of my favorites on this subject:

    6 But now he has attained a more excellent ministry, by as much as he is also mediator of a better covenant which has been enacted upon better promises. 7 For if that first covenant had been faultless, occasion would not have been sought for a second. 8 For in finding fault with them he says,
    “Behold, days are coming, says the Lord,
    when I will complete a new covenant with the house of Israel
    and with the house of Judah,
    not like the covenant which I made with their fathers
    on the day I took hold of them by my hand
    to lead them out of the land of Egypt,
    because they did not continue in my covenant
    and I disregarded them, says the Lord.
    For this is the covenant that I will decree with the house of Israel
    after those days, says the Lord:
    I am putting my laws in their minds
    and I will write them on their hearts,
    and I will be their[e] God
    and they will be my[f] people.
    And they will not teach each one his fellow citizen
    and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’
    because they will all know me,
    from the least of them to the greatest.
    For I will be merciful toward their wrongdoings,
    and I will not remember their sins any longer.”
    13 In calling it new, he has declared the former to be old. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is near to disappearing.

  5. R. Jenrette says:

    I dislike counting the angels on the head of a pin, but how could the first covenant be faulty when God made it? How could there be an old law or covenant and a new when God is timeless and eternal?

    • Jon K says:

      The first covenant wasn’t faulty because of God. It was faulty because of human beings and their inability to adhere to the original covenant.

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