Part 1 of a 10-part series

Recent court decisions have raised questions about how to read and interpret both law and scripture. Disagreement about the right way to do so is being passionately debated in each discipline; even Supreme Court judges are stepping out of their normal posture of polite and measured disagreement to make rather strong declarations in criticism. The claim of each is no less than an assertion that their colleagues lack the basic understanding of how to interpret the law. Meanwhile, Jewish and Christian leaders, unharnessed from concerns for collegiality by the importance of their disagreement over what the bible may or may not say about marriage and sexuality, are almost ranting as they take their positions.

Little noted is the fact that the different ways the law and the scripture get interpreted is rather closely matched. That is, the modes of interpretation are pretty much the same for each. For example, there are legal analysts who read constitutional law as “strict constructionists,” and there are biblical analysts who read scripture by using a matching school of interpretation.

This should be of significant interest generally, given the ever-pressing question of how religion and society relate, and therefore the importance of how the disciplines of law and theology may clash and match. In particular the recent decision of the United States Supreme Court regarding the language of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) and the decision to recognize the constitutional right and equality of marriage between people either of the same or of the opposite sex has highlighted the different ways the judges read constitutional law, and the matching ways Jewish and Christian leaders interpret scripture.

(Do the personal opinions arise from the school an analyst chooses or do the personal opinions dictate the most effective analytical way to reach them? Either way, it is important for people of faith to understand, and even to choose, how to read and interpret scripture.)

Perhaps it will be interesting to approach the Christian interpretation of scripture related to same-sex marriage, and other issues of particular relevance to LGBT persons, through a comparison, on the one hand, of the modalities of interpretation of constitutional law and, on the other hand, of the constitutional foundation of the faith in scripture.

At the Threshold shall offer a summer series of postings that will attempt to do this. We will take our time and ask the reader’s patience as we proceed step by step. We will begin with an overview of the makeup and aim of the Bible, how scripture is to be read as a whole and how each part is to be read within that context. Then we will examine the different methods, or approaches, for reading and interpreting law and, concomitantly, of scripture. Finally, we will examine the different ways the church and the law has interpreted the constitution and the bible regarding “homosexuality,” and specifically “marriage.” Finally, we plan to offer a debate between those of the differing schools of scriptural interpretation.

For now, we offer you some brief insight into what may be the first question for some: Should scripture be subject to interpretation? Here is a taste of what one of the great biblical scholars in history had to say, a man who wrote after the dust from the 16th Century reformations was settling into the pattern of Protestant denominations and Roman Catholicism. Richard Hooker wrote from the perspective of one trying to identify and bring together the best of both the protestant and the catholic traditions.

Hooker posited Scripture, Reason, and Tradition in an analogy to three strands of a binding rope, each of which is necessary to the rope’s strength. (This often has been presented as a three-legged-stool.) Scripture, he insisted, must be interpreted and never taken literally. He defined “tradition” not as the one interpretation that is “right,” but as the history of changing and competing interpretations. Reason, he wrote, is the key. Hooker based unity, not on the interpretation of a literal, or magisterium, reading, but on the willingness to live a variety of interpretations until, over time, one rises to acceptance over the others as true.

Joe Morris Doss
President, At the Threshold

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