At The Threshold’s series on interpreting scripture continues this week. Our method is to examine the theories of how lawyers, judges, legal scholars, and politicians interpret laws, with a special eye to constitutional law, and then use that understanding to cast light on how scripture is interpreted by biblical scholars and theologians. We continue to examine the objectivist or strict constructionist school of interpretation by turning to those who limit their interpretation to the text itself.

Part 5 of a 10-part series

Some strict constructionists look strictly to what they consider the “plain meaning”: How does the contemporary “person in the street” understand the promulgated law as stated? If the law is to be obeyed, it is assumed that the ordinary citizen must be able to understand it by the plain language in the text. Nothing, it is claimed, should trump specific language for binding entities to the law, within which legal rules can be distinguished from statements of observation and morality.

Those who follow this mode of interpretation are uncomfortable in recognizing the binding nature of anything that becomes law, especially constitutional law, through custom, ethos, and precedent; they are comfortable only with that which is agreed upon in writing.

This test of a “plain reading” of text is applied to passages of scripture also, most often in a desire to find and establish binding rules of conduct. The problem is that it is impossible for a reasonable person to rely upon a mere “plain reading,” given the complex subtleties of scripture, the dynamic between its general purposes, and the specific aims of its many different authors. These writers, however directly inspired by the Holy Spirit, wrote to audiences that were specifically identified and who were contemporaries – actual human beings and communities, and most often well known to the writer. The texts were not addressed or intended for readers at distant times much later in history and living in unimaginably entirely different situations.

Paul, for example, never intended for his writings to be anything other than pastoral letters that addressed quite specific issues within communities he knew personally, most of which he established. Each of the other evangelists and authors whose works became a part of the canon of scripture held in mind their own purposes and those purposes never included a contribution of anything to readers of today, in the radically different contexts of the 21st century. It cannot legitimately be claimed that any of the admonitions and pleas for personal or community conduct offered during the first two centuries of the church, in the era of the Greco-Roman Empire, are to be applied universally and for all time.

The consensus formed among the present generation of moral theologians and biblical scholars recognizes that scripture speaks to moral life at the level of basic values and principles instead of at the level of a moral code. The church does, of course, trust that prayerful reasoning can discover moral standards for the Christian life within scripture. Moral discernment, however, does not take place in a simple reading of the text, isolating and pulling “rules” out of context. No reader of the Bible accepts as binding every utterance they find in the Bible, and they must not!

Jurisprudence cannot rely on a “plain reading” of the rules of law for interpretation in each and every case because no law can be written that foresees and anticipates every possible set of facts and circumstances for which it becomes applicable. In the same way, the Church cannot extract clear and unequivocal, universally applicable codes of ethical conduct from the Bible. Even if certain readers make a personal determination that the intention of a particular text is to bind Christians at the level of moral-rules. Such a reading, with the drawing of conclusions, demands perspicacity; the ancient text will have to be interpreted again and again to fit changed circumstances. Discernment of moral standards and mandatory laws requires the use of reason; discernment requires an appreciation of the whole text of scripture; discernment demands openness to new revelation.

The story of God’s people is a continuing one. It must be taken up by each generation, and no generation merely observes the story – and certainly not by a simple, all too often a simplistic, reading. We each participate in the story of God’s people. We each help provide the content of the story.

Jesus himself is the Word of God incarnate, so we must interpret all Scripture in the light of the gospel revealed in him — in his life and death and resurrection. We recognize scripture as authoritative in its witness to, and illumination of, the gospel of Jesus Christ. He is, if you will, the Word, the Plain Text. Easily read?

Joe Morris Doss
President, At the Threshold

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