At the Threshold’s series on interpreting scripture continues. 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 have discussed the first of the two basic schools for interpretation, the “objectivist” methodology that Americans usually refer to as “strict constructionist.” We will now turn our attention to the “subjectivist” mode of interpretation. 

Part 7 of a 10- part series

A General Review

The subjectivist method 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. Instead of standing above what is going on in order to judge objectively, subjectivists are willing to go behind, or deeper within, what is seen on the surface of a disputation into the realities as they are and as they will be affected.

Judges and other interpreters of constitutional law often consider each of the three primary schools within it to be reliant on variations of some sort of “natural law” (although not in the sense that scholastic theology defined the term.) That is, instead of limiting their consideration to that which has already been agreed upon and instituted as law, subjectivist are prepared to rely on 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.

Even the most ardent objectivist interpreter acknowledges the existence of unwritten and pre-existing equities within the law, an understanding that there are certain inherent protections of the justice and fairness for which the law as a whole stands and which it seeks. The law cannot allow a law to be “inequitable.” If a court recognizes that this is happening in particular cases it will look to where equity is to be identified, even in the face of clearly written statues and precedents. The courts look to the foundational purposes of law itself and of the law in question. The great English jurist Francis Bacon defined equity as the set of maxims that “reign over all the law” and “from which flow all civil laws.” The equities always exist and always must be satisfied; otherwise the law would be forced to contradict its own purposes. Read More…

Part 4 of a 10-part series

Original Intent
        Application to Law

The school of legal interpretation that is most extreme in an attempt to remain as purely objective as possible is termed “Original Intent.”

Strict Constructionists are especially concerned to avoid having the law become political. Law must remain above the social, cultural, and political fray – especially their unstable and changing realities – to be a means of independent control that effectively limits the conduct of citizens, institutions, and communities. In particular, law is to remain faithful to the reasons for founding the institution or community. Only what has been formally consented to by a legitimate source of authority can be constitutional law.

To go outside or beyond the original intent is to raise the question of the legitimate authority to make law. Courts are not legitimate authorities for the creation of law, and must not usurp the political role or trump the will of the body politic. If law is to evolve and change, then the changes must be overt and established through the given political processes. The only appropriate way to expand or change the constitution is to amend it explicitly. Until then, only the original intention of the ratifiers is legitimate and binding because that intent defines the scope of the consent. Nothing else, certainly no extension of internal logic or interpretive implications can be applicable because they will go outside that scope.

The aim is to limit any and all interpretations to that original intent and then to enforce rules that claim to carry out that intent. What founders or revisers intended in a constitutional article can be found in legislative history, such as in floor debates and media reports, or in evidence, such as articles and books. For example, the Federalist Papers are often examined for interpretation of the Constitution of the United States.

Application to the Bible

Christians try to apply “originalism” to scripture. Most of the time this is an attempt to find within scripture a code of law or of ethics that is absolute, inviolate, and universally to be applied at all times and all places – as applicable in the 21st century as it was in the time and place of the Roman Empire. This is articulated as a belief that “God’s law” is to be found in scripture. Biblical strict constructionists reject the legitimate authority of tradition and reason in interpretation of scripture, viewing each as unnecessary and even as an impediment. This is, of course, based on the perception that the Bible presents clear rules that everyone can understand and should follow. From this outlook, Christians of every day and age stand under Scripture as a rule that others made, or that God made through human instruments. Concomitantly, today’s Christians do not have the authority to make or unmake the rules through interpretation. By this interpretation, the church is to apply Scripture; it is to avoid making or revising an understanding of it. Read More…

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.  Read More…

At The Threshold’s series on interpreting scripture continues. Today’s piece ponders the context of the bible, the build up to good news, and the continual re-interpretation of scripture forced by the need to correct positions wrongfully taken by church and society.

Part 2 of a 10-part series

The story of God’s people is a continuing one that must be taken up by each generation. The scriptures relate the story from the beginning of creation and the spread of sin though to the redemption in Christ Jesus and the establishment of his church.

The Bible is a library of separate books with a baffling variety of literary forms, composed by numerous and different kinds of authors over many centuries. Some of the writings are quite ancient; some of the earliest are versions of a prehistoric oral history. Various editors and redactors have re-written, edited and re-edited, or supplemented much of the material as each generation made its contribution.

Even so, from the very outset the scriptures are headed somewhere. They contain a particular logic and share a common aim. The logic and the aim reveal certain grand themes about God’s will for human life. From time to time such pervasive themes get articulated specifically, as in Jesus’ Summary of the Law. Each of the books has to be read and interpreted within the context of the general themes and the conclusions at which the aim is taken. Nothing can be read out of that context, and certainly nothing can be used against the aims and purposes of the scriptures.

According to Christians, the whole of scripture is aimed at the incarnation, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. This is definitive of the entire story of the people of God. From the first words scripture is going somewhere, and it arrives. Good news. Read More…