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…

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. Read More…

The church is constantly discovering the Gospel. In each era the People of God seem to wake up to see a Gospel imperative as though it is new, with eyes that seem to pop open. How, it will be asked, was this missed before – something so obvious, something so demanding! And yet, there it is, God’s will for society to lift oppression, to demand better treatment of some class of persons, or to do something in care of God’s creation that simply wasn’t recognized before but becomes apparent.

Slavery stands as one of the most obvious examples of this dynamic. Civilization was built on the backs of slaves, and this was true all over the world. At any given time in history the people who enjoyed citizenship in one of the civilized cultures would not have been able to imagine any other way to be the people they were – Babylonian, Assyrian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, you name it – than through the use of slaves. Only gradually did another notion take hold of the imagination of societies, the recognition that freedom, the freedom enjoyed by the slave-users was a precious human right to be held and exercised by everyone. Finally, and only after the idea of equality and freedom had taken hold and began to make its way forward, the church seemed to come to its senses and was forceful in convincing its societies to reject the entire institution of slavery.

Read More…

By Jim Somerville at Ethics Daily

I see them shuffle in on Wednesday mornings when I volunteer. If it’s been either a hot, muggy night or a bitterly cold one or the rain has been pouring down outside, it can break your heart.

They take their seats with a sigh, remove their hats out of respect and wait for me to say whatever I’m going to say so that, afterward, they can get a cup of coffee and a pastry and wait for someone to call their number for a shower.

Sometimes when I mention the homeless in a sermon, someone will tell me afterward that they’ve had a bad experience with a panhandler who only wanted the money to buy alcohol, an experience that has made them suspicious of all such people.

I’ve had an encounter with a neighbor of the church who wondered why we let those people into our building at all.

“I used to live near a church in another neighborhood,” he said. “They didn’t always have homeless people hanging around.”

Read the full story at Ethics Daily.