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 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…