Interpretation of the Constitution and the Bible: Originalism or Activism?
FLOWER MOUND, TX: The country is embroiled in an epic battle over interpreting the meaning of the Constitution. Is it a living document subject to modern culture (judicial activism) or is it a document intended to be interpreted as originally written (originalism)? This same issue faces twenty-first century Christianity. Meaning is the interpretation of the Constitution and the Bible Originalism or Activism?
Is the Bible (Christianity’s constitution) to be interpreted as the original authors intended or at the whims of the reader (reader-response)?
Any theological issue can be construed to fit biases if interpreted by modern activism.
The battle over President Trump’s Supreme Court nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh has ignited a firestorm, and burning. Most would affirm that he is fully qualified to sit on the bench of the nation’s highest court. The issue is jurisprudence philosophy.
The question of the interpretation of the Constitution takes front and center stage.
What is the responsibility of the Justices? Is it to legislate law from the “bench” or to interpret the text as written by the eighteenth-century founders?
The Constitution and the Bible – Interpreting the source:
To interpret the Constitution as textualism requires a thorough understanding of eighteenth century culture, history, and purpose for writing. It emphasizes the beliefs that the Founding Fathers were thought to have had at the time of the signing of the Constitution. The Conservative school of thought also tends to have a stricter interpretation of the wording of the Constitution. It requires an interpreter to be a student of the document itself.
Hence the Supreme Court Justices must be men of intelligence and students of the law as spelled out in the Constitution.
The Liberal school of interpretation of the Constitution is more flexible and open to modern needs and situations. They view the Constitution as a living document that constantly evolves with the changing times. This gives the Justices the power to interpret the Constitution in light of political theory rather than placing decision on an outdated document.
Both views stigmatize the other as:
- “Right-wing judges don’t think for themselves, they just do whatever the Constitution says.”
- “We need judges to be advocates of progressive laws.”
- “Liberal justices can interpret the law so as to remove fundamental liberties guaranteed by the Constitution.”
Actually, there is a system in place that allows for change to embrace new realities while protecting individual freedoms. It is called the amendment process and has been enacted twenty-seven times. This prevents social justice from superseding fundamental rights.
It is the responsibility of the Congress to change laws by a majority of three-fourths of the voting members.
Authority of the Bible and the Constitution
There are many similarities between our national debate over the Constitution and the battle for the interpretation of the Bible. Most Protestant Christians recognize the Bible’s authority in faith and morals; additionally, Catholics consider Church tradition as authoritative. Of course, the Founding Fathers were not prophets and the Constitution never claimed divine authority.
The Supreme Court interprets the Constitution while the Church interprets the Bible.
The Bible is a bit more complicated because it doesn’t have just “two parties.” There are multiple groups within Christianity with varying views of the Bible. Protestants and Catholics both have numerous denominations and sects.
But the philosophy of interpretation of the Constitution and the Bible makes a great deal of difference in understanding the documents. The Bible is a document to be read as written (originalism/textualism) with attention to details of history, customs, literary (figures of speech, poetry, prose), and languages (Bible written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek). Otherwise anyone can read the Bible and spin it to fit one’s agenda.
Politicians demonstrate the temptation to abandon normal rules of Bible interpretation to reflect a preconceived notion.
Barton Swaim in an article for the Washington Post (December 2, 2015) writes, “But just remember what the scripture says,” Bill Clinton urged in his speech accepting his party’s nomination for the presidency in 1992:
“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” [Proverbs 29:18] [activism]
Swaim then correctly points out,
“It [vision] refers to God’s revelation; it has nothing to do with bold plans
for the future enunciated by a political leader.” [originalism]
Meaning: the goal of interpretation
Written communication has as its goal to convey a message to its readers. We assume what the author intends to communicate corresponds to the meaning of his text. Sometimes what the reader understands will not correspond with either the author’s intention or the text’s meaning. The reader cannot know the mind of the author. But with a study of the person, his writings elsewhere, and his times, one can begin to comprehend his intended meaning.
For Christians, the goal is author-text centered including the use of historical, grammatical, literary and cultural approaches to understanding.
Reader-oriented interpretation is based on situational needs and preconceived notions. Reader interpreters can find and create meanings in the text to meet their needs and presuppositions.
It is only possible to place controls on meaning (Constitution or Bible) if it would make sense to the author who wrote it. Then, seeking the original intent of the author is the best option. Otherwise meaning is left to the whims and prejudices of the reader. Sound familiar?