Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Constitutional and Biblical interptretation

Over the past several years the political debate has ramped up concerning how one interprets the constitution.  Words like "strict constructionist" and "judicial activist" are used as missiles to dismiss one's opponents.  I am struck by the similarity between this debate and one that has long existed in biblical studies as well.  That is, when interpreting a text, should one take it literally, symbolically, historically, etc.

To (over) simplify matters, in the constitutional debate, there seem to be two extremes with any number of positions in between.  On the right there are textual literalists, meaning that the most natural and literal reading of a text is the proper one.  Advocates of this position will read the wording of the second amendment, "the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed," to mean just that, that people have a right to bear arms for whatever purpose they so decide.  On the left extreme are those called pragmatists, or sometimes judicial activists, who view the constitution as a living, breathing document that needs active interpretation and even reinterpretation to meet current needs.  In essence, on the left extreme, the text can mean nearly anything that the current situation demands.  Again, with the second amendment, the judicial activist might say that the current situation of gun related crimes, along with the change in weaponry and technology over the last two hundred years, along with the fact that militia's are not common anymore, necessitates a gun ban.  In between there are numerous positions, one of which are intentionalists, who argue that when interpreting the constitution it is neither current situations, or literal words of the text that determine meaning, but rather, the original intent of the framers of the constitution that matters.

There are similar debates in the field of biblical studies.  Once again, on the right are the biblical literalists who claim that the most natural and literal reading of a text determines meaning.  For example, if Genesis 1 says that God created the world in 7 days, then that means creation happened in 7 literal days.  On the left extreme are reader response critics who argue that only the reader (any reader) brings meaning to the text, and thus, all interpretations are valid interpretations.  In biblical studies there are also numerous positions in between these two extremes, one of which is the position of authorial intent.  This view, though problematic for numerous reasons, holds that the view of the author (Paul, Moses, Luke, etc.) is the determinative meaning of the text.

While I note the similarities in the debates of constitutional and biblical interpretation, I am no way equating the Bible and the Constitution.  Nevertheless, I think that a conversation between these debates could be mutually beneficial to constitutional and biblical scholars alike. 

How do you think these texts ought to be interpreted?


  1. What of the argument that that isn't the most natural way to interpret the second amendment? You did cut off the first half of the sentence...