The Importance of Interpretation

In 1987 there was a giant flap in the United States Senate over the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. The problem with Bork? He was a self-declared originalist as regards constitutional interpretation. His philosophy of law was that a judge should seek to understand the original intent of the framers of the Constitution rather than legislate from the bench based on their own subjective interpretation – his nomination was defeated 58-42. His name became a verb – to bork is to thwart someone from public office through political obstruction and defamation.

A similar (but different) flap ensued in 1991 over the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Thomas was accused of years earlier sexual harassment by Anita Hill. After a lengthy tussle, Thomas’s appointment was upheld (52-48) and he still serves. The real problem for Thomas was not vague accusations of inappropriate sexual conversation in the workplace; it was interpretation.

Both Bork and Thomas would be classified as strict constructionists in their interpretation of the US Constitution. What does that mean? It means they believed that the Constitution is to be interpreted and understood in light of what the founding fathers intended when they wrote it.

Well, doesn’t everyone believe that? Nope. Those who blocked Bork, those who teach at the vast majority of law schools throughout this country, and most of those judges who now serve on federal courts throughout the land do not believe that. What do they believe? They believe that we can’t really know what the framers meant, and even if we could it wouldn’t really matter since we no longer live in the 18th century. What matters is how we interpret the Constitution.

This is hardly a matter of small importance for our country. After all, our President, our Congressmen, and our Supreme Court Justices (along with pretty much all government officials) take a vow like this one:

I, _________, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter.  So help me God.

What exactly does it mean to support and defend the Constitution if we can’t really know what the framers of said Constitution meant? What does it mean to support and defend the Constitution if I view my task as being that of subjective judge over the Constitution?

Now my interest in discussing all of this is not so much to investigate constitutional interpretation in its own right, but rather to illustrate a point that I will expand upon in future posts – the nature of interpretation. This is important if the topic is the governance of our nation. It is far more than important when it comes to the interpretation of the Bible.

Should we interpret the Bible according to the author’s intent, or according to how we choose to understand it for ourselves? Is there any methodology for rightly interpreting the Bible? How you answer these questions will lead to radically different understandings and applications of the Bible in your life and thought.

photodune-686768-bible-xsAre there objective principles of biblical interpretation or is it a subjective free-for-all? Can we know what Paul, or Moses, (or Jesus!) meant, or are we just after what this text means to me?

The Bible, like the Constitution, is not a Rorschach inkblot. You can’t just look at it and get whatever you want to find there. Well…you can, but you shouldn’t. There are right ways and wrong ways to go about interpreting it. In the weeks to come I’ll lay out a number of principles of interpretation, as well as exploring related issues like Bible translations, why the books that are in the Bible are in the Bible (the issues of Canon), how to interpret the various types of literature found in the Bible (genre), and so on.

The summary point of the whole thing (spoiler alert!) is that we need not despair of finding meaning in scripture. Everyone can learn to understand the meaning of scripture, which is necessary for us to believe and live rightly. Building our skills for rightly interpreting the scriptures ought to be a high priority for all believers in Christ. The Bible is God’s Word to us. We should all be growing as interpreters of that Word.