For a long time, I have thought that the Supreme Court using the constitution as its basis for deciding on ever-changing issues and questions facing a dynamic society is a great analogy for the church’s dependence on the Bible. I was reminded of this last week reading Linda Greenhouse’s “Tragedy or Triumph,” a NYTimes article about the court’s decision on the President’s recess appointments.
Sometimes people worry about how… by what authority we interpret Holy Scripture. The New Testament writings suggest that we do so by the power of the Holy Spirit. But understandingly, people still find themselves feeling reticent — are we risking human understanding trumping Divine Wisdom? These jitters creep us especially when people find themselves at crux point where something previously understood without question is not only being questioned, but overturned. It’s as if the steady ground we all need under our feed isn’t so sure anymore.
There are, of course, differences between the constitution and the Bible. And some of them are quite interesting when it comes to considering how the latter is subject to evolving interpretation.
For example, the church’s processes for considering an issue — or reconsidering a decision — are a lot less clear or codified.
In the Catholic Church, there’s a single justice who decides, and there are no ways to initiate or influence his review of an area of understanding or even to have any guess when he might act. In Catholic understanding, the Pope always comes up with a majority decision with God.
And in the Protestant church, there’s really no centralized court. One could say there are persuasive trial lawyers making more or less compelling arguments on all sides of every issue. But the decisions are left to each individual, in his or her heart and mind. (And sometimes individuals feel they are being asked for complicated reasoning and difficult conclusions without sufficient training or evidence.) But the larger movement or development of the church’s teaching positions is not so clear: it’s more of an evolving but less than definitely articulated group consciousness.
One finds more similarities between constitutional and biblical interpretation when studying the various theories of interpreting the Bible. When the church is faced pressing problems or changing conditions, some radically different assumptions are employed and, therefore, various parties in the church end up with divergent conclusions. Likewise with Constitutional interpretation: there are at least seven different schools of theory: living tree, legislative intent, originalism, original intent, purposivism, strict constructionism, textualism… Interestingly, the theories of legal interpretation reflect many of the differences one finds in biblical interpretation.
But for me, the real advantage of the analogy is that the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the static text of the constitution is not so “loaded.” It’s easier to consider. We might agree or disagree with this or that decision of the court, but essentially, everyone accepts its a necessity. To keep the constitution’s contemporary relevance; to save from restricting it to an historical document with no greater meaning than as a reflection of the context, problems and assumptions of its authors.
Well, what if you apply that same insight or choice to Scripture? Is it simply a museum piece representing the situations in which it was formed or redacted? Or does God mean more for and with it? Is it also to be a source for direction and understanding today?
If the Bible is to matter more than as a window into an ancient historical setting, then it needs to be actively interpreted, mined for help for the questions and struggles we face in our day. Sure, many of our questions are exactly the same as those Sarah and Abraham, or Mary Magdalene and the Beloved Disciple faced. But the world in which we are trying to live out our faith has changed greatly since their days. Is it any surprise that we might therefore be finding different answers in those same holy words and sacred pages?
This time, I’m not going to get into the “how to” of interpretation. I’m simply making the case for its necessity. Like the constitution, some newer interpretations can be hard to imagine, much less swallow. Perhaps even more so with the Bible because we often think of the things of God as eternal and unchanging. But don’t we call it the Living Bible?
See you in church,