Stevens, Scalia, and the hermeneutics of Scripture

While my parents were in town my father mentioned attending an event where Justices Stevens and Scalia held a discussion on interpretation of the Constitution. Scalia’s position, at least as it was related to me, was that interpretation of the Constitution begins first with an investigation of the original intent of the authors of law, whether the Constitution itself or the various court decisions through the years. For instance, if there is a case involving an early court decision, it is important to begin by examining all aspects of the case, including the notes taken by the clerks in private sessions. In other words, Scalia would subscribe (loosely) to the first hermeneutic principle proposed by Fee and Stuart in their influential book How to read the Bible for all it’s Worth: a passage cannot mean to us what it could not have meant to its original audience. The current meaning of the passage foundationally rests on what the passage originally meant, and thus to properly interpret a passage our first move is to attempt to determine the passage’s original meaning. The first question of scriptural analysis is one of original meaning: the conditions and intent of the author in its original context.

Stevens, on the other hand, wants to suggest that our accounts of the original intent are unreliable, or at least uncertain. How do we know the notes taken by the 22 year old scribe accurately reflect the original intent of the Justices? How can we possibly know what nine guys 200 years ago meant when they were writing something? Going back and speculating on original intent seems to be a difficult, if not impossible enterprise. There is too much of a gap there, and even if we could be certain of their intent, what if it doesn’t really apply today? How do we know that what justices thought and how they interpreted law 200 years ago is still a valid interpretation today? Furthermore, how do we know the intent of the original founders jives with our current reality? They seemed to think non-whites were only three fifths of a person, and that Native Americans weren’t people at all. This seems not just old-fashioned today, but plain wrong. We believe today, at least in theory, that the ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence should apply to all people – not just white males. In such cases, how far can we really take the intent of the original framers or Justices?

The disagreement then, is one of hermeneutic principles. What approach do we take when we are trying to interpret a document written in a particular time period, context and culture that isn’t our own. It isn’t as much a disagreement in results as it is one of method. Where do we even start when we are trying to figure out what something means *for us*? It doesn’t seem to be a terribly clear cut question.

This doesn’t only apply to the Constitution, of course. For my purposes, it’s much more interesting in the approach different people take to Scripture. The approach taken by many churches today rests firmly with Stuart and Fee (and Scalia) – that first of all a passage cannot mean to us what it could not have meant to its original audience. If we take this as a starting point, though, it seems to leave us with some difficulties. First, the tools for getting at what the text meant “back then” are historical, not theological. In other words, to figure out what the passage meant, we need primarily to be good historians or anthropologists, rather than good theologians. In some sense, this makes theology subordinate to history, and, to borrow a criticism from Barth, makes the starting point of theology man instead of God. We can see this tension at work in the Quest and reaction to the Historical Jesus. The tools for getting at the Historical Jesus are history and literary criticism, not theology. As a result, (and because he tends to look a lot like the people who “created” him) the Historical Jesus turns out to be a pretty bad place to start a theological journey.

Second, as Stevens points out, our attempts to understand what the actual intent and original context of the author and audience is, at best, speculative and uncertain. The two thousand year gap is a big one to close, and while we can make guesses about the original intent, we are so far removed culturally from the modern near east, let alone the ancient near east, that our statements about the situation of the church in a particular city at a particular time are all a kind of fiction. This seems especially true because we generally attempt to read our source document (say, Ephesians) to get clues about what the cultural and socioeconomic context of the church was, then apply those cultural and socioeconomic realities to the source document as a lens to determine what the text “meant”. The unfortunate reality is that we don’t have a lot of extra-biblical sources that tell us what the church in Ephesus was like independent of Ephesians, and thus, our socio-cultural reasoning tends about particular New Testament churches tends to be circular.

Finally, the attempt to limit the meaning of the text to its original context seems to deny, in a sense, that the word of God is “living and active” – that it has any relevance for today. Christianity has proven remarkably resilient, surviving and even thriving in contexts quite different from its origin. A large part of this, it can be argued, is that the teachings of the Bible can be painted and repainted in new contexts while still remaining relevant. While Stuart and Fee would certainly not argue that Scripture could never speak to a subject outside its original context, I contend that their first hermeneutic principle is none the less highly restrictive, and when taken seriously effectively limits the interpretation of scripture to narrow historical contexts that have little relevance to today. Modern notions of egalitarianism, capitalism, and democratic government were completely outside the scope of the patriarchal, feudal, authoritarian structures of the day – structures that formed the basis for much of the original context of Scripture. If we accept Fee and Stuart’s first principle and apply it rigorously, it seems the scope of Scripture, and the critique it can bring to bear, is highly limited.

In short, I think as we approach Scripture we should be more open to the view of Stevens – that we should start first with what Scripture means and how it speaks to us today, and then go look at what it meant as a secondary enterprise. This is a starting point that makes many people (including me) a bit uncomfortable, because it seems to endorse the Liberal principle that Scripture can be interpreted however it needs to be in light of our current context, rather than being grounded by a guiding, universal context. However, if we believe both that God is the same yesterday, today and forever, and that his words speak to us where we are, I think we must believe that a community which openly and honestly submits itself to Scripture can faithfully follow Christ without needing to first interpret scripture across a gap that may well be intractable.

One Reply to “Stevens, Scalia, and the hermeneutics of Scripture”

  1. Yeah, I agree looking at scripture this way makes us a little uncomfortable, but ironically, hasn’t it been making people uncomfortable for centuries? There is also an aspect of eastern culture we need to get back in touch with; the mystical and spiritual. Not a new-age, magic rocks and tea leaves spirituality, but an ancient connection between our spirits and the Spirit. As I read your words it reminded me of 1 Corinthians 2:10-16

    “These are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for, “Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.”

    I’m not gonna say what I think that meant for Paul, but I think it means for us that we can learn a lot about God by living in constant communion with Him, and we do that through His Spirit in us. As Henri Nouwen said, “it’s one thing to sit and talk about what it means for Christ to be our Shepherd, but it’s entirely different to actually experience Jesus as your shepherd.”

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