Preaching like a Supreme Court justice: Are you 'strict' or 'realist'?

Nathan Bierma

April 19, 2010

Realism v. originalism is like the previous conversation re knowledge v. faith: both are needed to control excesses. Without a realistic interpretation of scripture, we fall into legalism, we must adhere to social rules instituted in the OT ("stone the rebellious child") and in the NT ("women ought not to speak in church"). Without an originalistic interpretation, we may fall prey to relativism ("thou shalt not kill" except in these necessary situations . . . )
The rabbinic discussion through the centuries, Jesus' questions, all served to engage us in thoughtful consideration in how to proceed instead of blind unquestioning adherence. Fluidity of a legal code, religious or secular, is not relativism. "Love God; love your neighbor" a great first principle; lots of discussion (and action) to follow.

April 19, 2010

It's a good question. An advantage the Bible has is that it is a document that was written and shaped over a very long time so there already is precedent to see it as a living document. Carefully compare some of the laws in Exodus and Deuteronomy. Then of course for Christians there's the Old and New Testament. I believe the book of Revelation is a very conscious updating of the OT story based on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Compare John's treatment of the Daniel texts about times and opening and shutting.

Both approaches require wisdom and humility and have their pitfalls. Originalists can sometimes presume to know that original intent better than they truly are able. There is seldom consensus. Realists can presume to explain away the bite of Scripture and without that bite it does not speak against us like we need it to. Nice post. pvk

April 19, 2010

Unlike the Constitution or any other text, the Bible is a book that is alive and contains the words of God. Changing the meaning of a passage or disregarding it is like rewiring your house with the power still on. There are consequences. We can argue over interpretation, but the clear intent and timeless authority must be respected. We may differ on the hermeneutics of reading the constitution but when it comes to scripture, Scalia’s approach seems the more correct position “Scalia, believes in strict construction or originalism” and that it can always be taken in its literal sense.

Can you imagine if in the Constitution itself the authors had inserted language like;

The Constitution is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens.

The Constitution is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives.

But know this first of all, that no statute of the Constitution, is a matter of one's own interpretation,

For the Constitution, is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit,

I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Constitution, until everything is accomplished.

And I solemnly declare to everyone who hears the words of statutes written in this Constitution,: If anyone adds anything to what is written here, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book. And if anyone removes any of the words from this Constitution, God will remove that person’s share in the tree of life

If we read this kind of language between the pages of the Constitution, we would be strict constructionists as well. And yet these are the words of the Bible. It contains its own hermeneutical principals. Actually, I really agree with Paul Vanderklay, I just tend to err on the side of origanialism.

Len Vander Zee
April 20, 2010

Brilliant analysis! It captures the contrast between a fundamentalist reading of scripture and, well, Jesus' own. I especially recall John 16:13, the Spirit will "guide you into all truth." It's not fixed interpretation, but it's not haphazard either, even a changing interpretation comes from the one who "declares to you the things that are to come." Scripture lives.

April 20, 2010

Your article makes me wonder. If the original intent of the author is subject to modern interpretation if this conversation might take place.

Bill: You my friend are to hell for failing to believe in Jesus.
Bob: I don't believe in hell as the Bible teaches it. I believe it must be understood in light of the less advanced people of an ancient society who did not have the scientific enlightment of the day.

Bill: Then what sin? The bible is very clear on that.

Bob: Yes it is- if you believe what these same tribal societies believe regarding sin. We don't really believe such things in our modern society. We now that that self-esteem, or lack of it, is what plagues mankind. Modern psychology has determined sin only promotes guilt and diminishes self esteem so we have done away with the notion altogether.

Bill: So what of Jesus
Bob: Oh Jesus was a wonderful man! He taught us of the love of God and how we should love each other.

Bill: But Jesus taught on hell more than anyone else!
Bob: Yes, but that was because he was trying to communicate with these primal societies in words they could understand. We are beyond that.

The point? If the original intent of the author is not the driving focus of hermenutics then we run the risk of subjective interpretations that are subject to cultural relativism and the whims of individuals.

April 20, 2010

In both constitutional law, and understanding of Scripture, it is necessary to APPLY timeless principles to factual situations which were not anticipated in the past. This understanding and application can be informed by experience, although personal experience does not amend timeless principles. For example, Justice Stevens may have found no good reason to consider the death penalty a violation of any constitutional principle, but the experience of cases coming before the court may have provided new insight into application of unchanged principles.

There is a distinction. The constitution was written by mere human beings, as the foundation for a mere human nation. Scripture was given by God, albeit through the medium of mere human beings charged to expound and record as best they could. The similarity is that each is a priori other considerations. In national law, the constitution defines what powers a branch of government may exercise, and at least some of what is inviolate from government intervention.

It may be that there are timeless reasons to affirm that adultery is sin, but the penalty of stoning might be modified by changing cultural contexts. It might even reflect that we are a bit closer to God now than certain tribal societies which were allowed to practice a harsher code "because of the hardness of your hearts."

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