A Constitutional Interpretation of the Bible

A large majority of my time this semester has been dedicated to studying constitutional interpretation for my freshman seminar. This has prompted me to think a lot about biblical interpretation, too, and how theories on constitutional interpretation might be applied to the Bible. As a brief background, constitutional interpretation can generally be bracketed into three large groups, but variations and combinations of the three are also common. These three are: the textualist, originalist, and “living” Constitution points of view. In common terms, the textualist interprets the Constitution based on what the words on the page actually say, the originalist interprets the Constitution based on what he believes the words would have meant when the drafters wrote them, and the living constitutionalist interprets the Constitution based on an adaptation of the original intention of the words to modern-day America. As a result, the same amendment – or even the same phrase – can be read very differently by different people. Indeed, entire court decisions have rested on the differences in these interpretations.

For those who haven’t studied constitutional law, let me give you a more concrete example to illustrate the differences between these three forms of interpretation. Take the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment:

No State shall […] deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

The textualist point of view would probably be the most simplistic. The amendment does not state that it specifically addresses race alone. In fact, it does not differentiate between types of discrimination, simply stating that the laws must protect every person equally. Thus, from this interpretation, the Equal Protection Clause can be used in cases beyond those of racial discrimination.

An originalist, however, would believe the original intentions of the drafters of the Fourteenth Amendment to be the most important point of consideration in interpretation. Thus, given the context of the Fourteenth Amendment – extreme racial discrimination after the Civil War – it would be reasonable to assume that the drafters had intended to specifically address race. The Equal Protection Clause was not meant to encompass gender, age, or sexual orientation based discrimination. Thus, while the Equal Protection Clause applied in Brown v. Board of Education, dealing with racial discrimination in schools, it should not have applied in Bowers v. Hardwick, a case dealing with laws outlawing homosexual sodomy.

Finally, someone who believed the Constitution to be a “living” document would say that while the drafters of the Fourteenth Amendment may not have been aware of cases of discrimination beyond race: they had intended to create equality. Adapting that concept of equality to our current society would allow the Equal Protection Clause to apply to discrimination based on race, gender, and age as well.

Given that background, what happens if we try interpreting the Bible from these different perspectives? Now, granted, there are major differences between the Constitution and the Bible – the Bible is God-inspired, but the Constitution was written solely by humans, for example –, but these discussions of original intent, actual text, and change in meaning as a result of time are applicable to both documents.

Is it possible to interpret the Bible from a purely textual perspective? While many people emphasize the literal nature of the Bible when speaking of the fact that Jesus really was the Son of God, literal interpretation of the Bible can cause problems for certain other issues. What happens if we take every single thing in the Bible at face value? Exodus 21:17 says that “Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.” Are we supposed to understand that literally when seventeen states have currently outlawed the death penalty? Or rather, how can we understand that literally when surely every child has called his or her parent “stupid”, or something to that effect, at some point or another?

But then again, can we assume that the Bible changes with the times, such as those in support of the “Living Constitution” claim? This would certainly explain away the above issue, since the death penalty is considered a much more cruel and unusual form of punishment today than it was in the past. This creates further problems, however, when we consider contentious modern issues such as homosexuality. The Bible clearly condemns homosexuality as a sin, but can we say that it is morally acceptable now because it is more socially acceptable today than it was in the past?

If we take an originalist point of view with the Bible, it appears at first to make the most sense since we, as Christians, are called to be a people who seek God’s heart. After all, if the Bible were God-inspired, then clearly the best way to understand the Bible is to attempt to understand God’s intentions when he inspired his people to write it. When God declared such intense punishments for children who disrespected their parents, for example, we can understand that He meant to instill in His people a certain amount of deference for their elders. This perspective still raises some issues, however, for more complex problems, since it is so difficult for us as finite moral beings to understand the intentions of an omnipotent and omniscient God. For example, in the Bible, homosexuality generally only comes up in the context of sodomy. How can we humans, who are so often conflicted with our own feelings, attempt to understand the attitudes of a much greater being?

After an evaluation of these three major forms of constitutional interpretation as applied to the Bible, all I can say is that one form of interpretation is not enough. Given the complexity of the Bible, attempting to force it into our own frame of understanding by choosing a point of view and sticking to it seems to be the equivalent of attempting to understand a cone by looking at a triangle. Perhaps we can best understand the Bible by reading it literally as God’s words but carrying it out according to His intentions. God makes it abundantly clear that His most important commandments are to honor Him and love our neighbors as ourselves. God is not a condemning god. He is a just and loving one, and He intended for us to be His just and loving people. Regardless of how we interpret the Bible, however, the most important part is that we don’t treat it as a novel to be read and discarded, but an indicator of how we should lead our lives.

Interpreting the Constitution is so important because it is the very foundation of our nation. Likewise, interpreting the Bible is so important because it is the foundation of our faith. As difficult as it may be to understand exactly what the Bible is saying, what is most important is that we don’t give up searching for the truth – God’s truth. Just as there have been and always will be disagreements on constitutional interpretation, Christians may never reach a consensus on the proper reading of the Bible. All we can do is continue to pray for God’s guidance as we seek to understand His intentions and live according to his Word.

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