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. Read More…