Thursday, May 17, 2012


Jeffrey Toobin in his book on the U.S. Supreme Court, The Nine, (New York: Doubleday, 2007) wrote

“Edwin Meese III, Reagan’s attorney general in his second term, provided a framework for the emerging conservative critique of the Warren and Burger era when he called for a ‘jurisprudence of original intention.’ Or, as the leading ‘originalist,’ Robert Bork put it, ‘The framers’ intentions with respect to freedoms are the sole legitimate premise from which constitutional analysis may proceed.’ According to Bork, the meaning of the words did not evolve over time. This was an unprecedented view of the Constitution in modern times. Even before the Warren Court, most justices thought that the words of the Constitution were to be interpreted in light of a variety of factors, beyond just the intentions of the framers. As the originalists’ greatest adversary, William Brennan, observed in 1985, ‘the genius of the Constitution rests not in any static meaning it might have had in a world that is dead and gone, but in the adaptability of its great principles to cope with current problems and current needs.’” (p. 15)

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer in his history of the Court, Active Liberty, observed that there is no way of knowing exactly what the framers meant by phrases such as due process of law or freedom of speech.

These comments provide helpful parallels with and insights for the task of biblical interpretation. First, as with the Constitution, nobody can know what the biblical authors intended by a particular word or phrase. The unknown identity of the authors and uncertain date of composition for much of the text compounds this difficulty. Seeking the original meaning (the phase biblical scholars prefer to original intent) may help shed light on the history of interpretation but cannot provide answers or a definitive meaning of the text.

Second, the context in which we read scripture has changed even more dramatically than the context in which we read the Constitution. For example, Article II of the Constitution employs the masculine pronoun in references to the President. This is not a generic use of the masculine. Only property owning, white males could vote. The framers did not intend a woman or a black man to ever be President. Thankfully, our thinking on this point has changed and we have moved beyond the original intent of the framers, changes codified in the 19th and 15th amendments. Since completion of the biblical text, globalization, space travel, the internet, nuclear power, reliance on the scientific method and a host of other factors have changed, making life in the twenty-first century radically different than life two thousand years ago.

The tenacity with which some Christians cling to the notion that women are second-class humans whom God intended to be subordinate to men reflects the utter inanity of attempting to apply original meaning (whatever that was) to the present day.

Third, interpreters of the U.S. Constitution look for principles. Finding principles, beyond vague generalities (e.g., love God and others), in the scriptures is of little assistance to interpreters because the challenge is how to apply those principles in particular situations. Most biblical interpreters agree that respect for life is a basic scriptural principle. However, that principle, in view of our ecological crisis and relatively newfound awareness of the mutual interdependence of all life, should apply not only to humans but also to all forms of life, including the earth in toto.

Hence, it is in struggling with the text in conversation with both the community of scholars and its history of interpretation that scripture can become a window through which the ineffable light of God can shine to illumine our path to love and life abundant.

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