The history of text interpretation is a great study. The discipline of text interpretation is called hermeneutics and is applied to historical writing from the ancient Greeks, to the Bible in parts or as a whole (if one believes as I do that there is a unity in the Bible that can be interpreted as a whole) to a newspaper from the 1930s to Shakespeare and Wordsworth.
Religious leaders many centuries ago developed rules of interpretation such as the Rabbinic rules from the early centuries A. D. A more exacting set of rules for interpretation is more recent. Only in the last few centuries was the primary thrust to understand a text according to the intention of the author or authors. Understanding that intent required some understanding of what became known as cultural-historical exegesis. In other words, we have to understand the language and culture of the time of writing to understand the intent of the author. Craig Keener’s Cultural Background Commentary of the New Testament is a good example and a great resource. I recall the adage, “A text without a context is a pretext.” The consensus until the mid 20th century was that we can know the meaning of texts with reasonable probability even when the author and something of his biography is not known.
Parallels in Biblical Interpretation to Constitutional interpretation
There are amazing parallels to the interpretation of the Constitution of the United States and the Bible. In both cases, we seek to know the original intent or as we say of the Constitution, the intent of the framers. With regard to the Constitution, we have an amazing resource in the Federalist Papers that give a commentary on the Constitution. Plus we know of the political philosophers whose ideas shaped the Constitution. The Constitution is one of the most amazing governmental documents. The United States has drifted away from it, but much is still in place. Here are three responses to interpreting texts which now will affect the hearings for a new Supreme Court Justice. The same responses are affecting Biblical interpretation.
- Conservativism. We can know the meaning of the texts. This meaning is binding law on the United States, and we cannot stray from the meaning. That which is not enjoined or precluded by the texts is required of us. So also, for the Bible. We can know its meaning and when we do know it, it is binding on us. In the Bible, we are bound to the New Covenant application of the Torah.
- Classic Liberalism. We can know the meaning of the texts, but that meaning is antiquated. The text may give us good principles but if it does not, we must have a flexible approach that enables us to make legal decisions that are more fitting to our cultural situation. This would be the approach of liberals to the Bible’s teaching on morals and its accommodation to the culture and especially today to the LGBT agenda in liberal churches. H. Richard Niebuhr in his classic Christ and Culture, described the liberal approach as Christ subsumed under culture. The prevailing directions of the cultural elite subsume the meaning of the Bible and the Constitution under their preferred vision for the society. The words of the text are made to say what they really don’t mean.
Of course, there are centrists that want to respect the text but still want a freedom of transcending the original intent when needed.
- The third approach to texts is postmodern interpretation. They say that a text has no objective meaning. It can mean whatever the reader sees it to say (reader-response). Postmodernists approach the Bible in churches and then build their orientation on the consensus of the readers. The tools for accurate interpretation are not really that important. How destructive to scholarship! Applied to the choice of a Supreme Court judge, postmodern ideas produce judges that simply make the text to say whatever he or she wants to and makes the law to say whatever he or she prefers. Postmodernism is a dangerous aberration leading to chaos and anarchy! Sadly is still pervasive in universities.
It is important to note that our texts, either in the Bible or in the Constitution do not cover all situations but may give principles for application to new situations. In Judaism, this is called Halakah. For example, is it wrong to disconnect a person from machines that prolong life when the person is in a coma? What about assisted dying? Taking large doses of morphine relieves pain but hastens death. Ethicists in Judaism and Christianity think about such issues. Is artificial insemination ethical? Abortion to save the physical life of a mother (very rarely needed)? And we can go on and on. Conservatives recognize the need for judging law application as well as being restrained so legislatures speak where the Constitution does not. Liberals want courts to be super legislatures that further their goals.
Obviously, the reader understands that I am a conservative. In choosing a congregation or denomination, we should only choose one that pursues an objective interpretation of the Bible and teaches that the text is normative. In choosing judges for the Supreme Court and other courts that judge constitutional issues, we need to choose judges that submit to the intent of the text and only show flexibility where the text gives principles but is not clear in application to new situations but also are reticent so that legislatures perform their duty. This is the battle we face from Joe Biden’s choice for a judge that most likely will be liberal, but the horror of horrors could be postmodern.
Liberalism and post-modernism in the Church are so very parallel to the same in civil government and the courts.