At The Threshold’s series on interpreting scripture continues this week. Today’s piece ponders the two opposing forms of legal and biblical interpretation. 

Part 3 of a 10-part series

Legal Interpretation:
The tools for interpretation of the law, especially in constitutional law, have developed down through the centuries. This process of shaping the ways interpretation can be considered legitimate long predates the American Constitution. In theory, no “school” should necessarily be the captive of the left or the right on the political spectrum, however that range is defined; in theory, none should prejudice any position that can be taken in a controversy that is in play. We will explain the application of each method for interpretation of constitutional law and then apply each to the way scripture gets interpreted. We will narrow these approaches to six. (These are not exhaustive; there are other options such as the theories of Jurgen Habermas, but these are sufficiently comprehensive.) But these six techniques divide respectively into two fundamentally different perspectives: the first half share the desire to base interpretations in objectivity and the second, in more subjective criteria.

The first three modes lean toward objectivism as described in these phrases: “objective interpretation” or “consentual interpretation” or “formal interpretation.” The terms, “formalism” and “consentualism” are variations on the assumption that only what has been formally consented to can be constitutional law. From this perspective, the primary question for the strict constructionist is the legitimate source of the law in question. For example, violation of human rights may or may not be considered wrong but throughout most of history international law recognized the right of a sovereign state to violate the rights of its citizens, as long as the violations were properly founded in the law of the land in accord with its procedures and processes. If the authority is legitimate and the law is formally consented to by that authority, whatever the form of government, then it is constitutional law. More recently, after the long struggle between totalitarian communism and facism over against parliamentary democracy, the source of law is increasingly open to question and to international interference.

From another angle, critics tend to speak disparagingly of the first three objectivist modes in terms of rigid legalism. In this view, legal truth, by and large, follows arbitrary rules without necessary relation to any particular content and thus is abstract and unrealistic. The objectivist view, by and large, is of the law as a hard and fast and defined reality in and of itself, that must be left inviolate above the vagaries, concerns, or realities from the outside and of the moment. The most obvious example is that interpretation and application of the law should be as independent as possible from politics and popular opinion.

The second group of three methods (1) leans toward a more subjective interpretation and (2) considers itself more sensitive to the actual effect it has on the moral order it seeks to uphold, to restore when violated, and to reconcile when differences arise between states and parties. This school of interpretation does not feel that the law is a perfectly independent reality that can remain above what is actually going on, to exist and judge apart from the fray. Critics regard these subjectivist modalities of interpretation as unduly dependent on politics or the exigencies of the time and place. From another perspective they are viewed as reliant on variations of some sort of “natural law” (although not in the sense that scholastic theology defined the term.) They are criticized for identifying something outside of the existing and formulated body of law that “naturally” validates the law in question, something that at once transcends concrete instances of law yet remains so fundamental that it must be allowed to govern. 

Adherents of these forms of interpretation do not believe it is necessary that everyone agree on what that something is or the relation that something must have to law in order to make a rule legitimate. Whether or not an interpreter believes in natural law as a transcendent reality, she or he can accept the proposition that legal rules must be in harmony with the “nature” of human beings and the world. For example, certain rights and obligations cannot be taken away or compromised, such as are revealed in actions of torture, murder, genocide, and slavery. These rights and obligations are founded over time and trial, become established in custom, enjoy the highest status within international law, and must be upheld in national law. They are binding on all nations and cannot be pre-empted by a nation’s legislation or by treaty.

Biblical Interpretation:
It is not necessary to be a student of biblical studies to recognize how this speaks to the two fundamentally different approaches to interpretation of scripture as well as law. It is possible to offer some brief indications: If one is of a tradition that sees matters of faith as relevant to eternal salvation and personal morality, including behavior toward fellow children of God with whom one associates and comes into personal contact, but not relevant to the political and structural realities of human society, then the school of interpretation that best fits and fosters that way of reading scripture will tend to be more objectivist. If one is of a tradition with a stronger emphasis on the partnership between God and humanity, perhaps especially the church, in the work to fulfill the purposes of creation and welcome the Kingdom, the concomitant mode of reading scripture will most likely be subjectivist.

If one is of a tradition that has a clearly defined and legitimating authority for what is to be understood and accepted as true interpretation of scripture, an authority that demands acceptance of what is taught as definitive and unquestionable, then the tendency will be to read scripture as an objectivist. If one is of a tradition that is believes in each individual reader’s ability and obligation to draw one’s own conclusions, or if one is suspicious of authorities that seek to dictate the positions and conclusions that come of interpretation, or if one does not adhere to, or any longer sufficiently trust in, a legitimating authority, the most compatible source for one’s own interpretation will be subjectivist. If one is of a tradition that views what happens in a transcendent realm, such as heaven, as more real than what takes place on earth and is to be taken as informing what is right and wrong from on high, the scriptural match will tend to be an objectivist mode of interpretation. If one is seeks to be more sensitive to the co-inherence of the heavenly and the earthly, perhaps of the mystical reality within and available as an important part of this life, the more likely method of interpretation will be subjectivist.

Finally, if the attempt is made to have denominations and traditions as they were delivered to us fit neatly into one instead of the other basic division, between objectivist and subjectivist modes of interpretation, it will soon become apparent how complex and subtle the picture is at the present moment for most people of faith.

Joe Morris Doss
President, At the Threshold

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