Sunday, February 20, 2005

Biblical Authority and Constitutional Interpretation, Part 2

In Constitutional Law, there is widespread agreement that the Constitution itself - that short document drafted in 1787 and its subsequent amendments - is the ultimate source of authority. As influential Constituitonal scholars like Akhil Amar might put it, the Constitution is the "revelation" of the People.

Remembering that it is the text and structure of the Constitution itself which is ultimately binding - which is the "revelation" - in Constitutional Law is important. However, the Constitution is sometimes opaque. It is not always easy for us, over two centuries later, to interpret. Consequently, Constitutional Law accords some degree of authority to many other documents and actions which help illuminate the meaning of the Constitution. It does so without confusing these secondary documents with the ultimate source of Constitutional Law.

In the next few posts, I will suggest that Constitutional interpretation shows us how Christians should understand the portions of the Bible that do not directly record Jesus' Message. As in Constitutional Law, Christians should be clear about what the Revelation is: it is Jesus' Message. However, also as in Constitutional Law, this should not mean that we should ignore other critical documents which might help us understand that Revelation.

In this post, I hope to explain how Constitutional Law and interpretation shows us the way to understanding the authority of the book of Acts and possibly other parts of the New Testament.

As I indicated above, there are portions of the Constitution that are not 100% clear from the text itself. Congress's power to make laws is limited by "due process" and "freedom of speech," but what do those concepts mean? The President has "executive power," but what could that vague phrase possibly mean?

There are important things that happened after the Constitution was written that help us understand them. They are used as authority, in the sense that they carry some weight when cited to by lawyers and judges, in Constitutional Law.

The laws passed by early congresses - particularly the first Congress - help us understand what Congress's powers are under the Constitution. The members of early congresses were enacting laws just after the powers of Congress had been defined. Moreover, many early congressmen were also members of the Constitutional Convention, helping to draft the Constitution and signing it. Presumably congressmen so close to the Constitution - to the source of Constitutional Law - would not act in opposition to it. Consequently, the laws enacted by early congresses are considered to illuminate what the powers of Congress and its limitations are. Similarly (as Professor Amar has argued), the actions of the first President, George Washington, help us understand what the powers of the President are.

This may be analogized to how we should understand the Book of Acts' authority. Acts traces the story of the Christian movement from Jesus' resurrection. It records, among other things, important information about the first Christian community, the early Jersusalem Church, and the missions of Paul. In other words, it records the "Acts" of people who were very close to Jesus' message. Many, Peter for example, knew Jesus personally. The "Acts" of people who were close to the Ultimate Source of Christian Truth, like the actions of those close to the ultimate source of Constitutional Law, should be accorded some authority. We should presume, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, that they are acting in accord with - rather than against - Jesus' message.

Consequently, when, for example, Acts 2:44-45 tells us that early Christians "had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need" we should pay attention. We should accord this some authority in our understanding of Christian Truth. But we should do so because the actions of Jesus' early followers may help shed some light back on what His Message meant and not because the Book of Acts itself is an infallible, Divine revelation.

More tomorrow....


At 3:29 PM, Blogger DLW said...

Can't say I agree much. From what I've read the Constitution of the US is very much a living document. The word Constitution had previous been applied to the structure of the gov't as it was composed of a mix of monarchy, oligarchy and democracy.

Some have done at length work to show that one can explain a good deal of the US Constitution by virtue of protection of existing economic interests of the time. I know that work by John R. Commons have traced out the ways in which the meaning of the term property was strongly changed over a long period through incremental changes in interpretation. Likewise, with terms like "taking" that require compensation, there is an ambiguity that can not always be resolved with reference to precedent. This is because mandating compensation for the taking associated with a legal change, inevitably conflicts with and hampers the exercise of the police-power of the gov't.

I don't think we can compare the US constitution and the Bible. Its possible that people's understanding of the Bible affected how they understood the Constitution and its significance, but we must not interpret the former in light of the latter.

To give authority to scripture does not mean to endorse authoritarianism based on the Biblical authority, since the Bible never claims to be an exhaustive blue-print for right conduct in every conceivable ethical situation.

And there was really only controversy over the inclusion of some of the more marginal books, I don't see the canonization of the Bible as being that big of a deal...


At 8:42 PM, Anonymous lostinny said...

Any two texts with such a litany of interpretation are ripe for comparison in my book - no pun intended.

At 12:07 AM, Blogger DLW said...

we can find value in comparing the process of hermeneutical interpretation.

I guess my belief is that the wording of the Constitution is not that important. Other countries tried to emulate our constitution with considerably less success. I think that is because what has mattered is our willingness to accept the need for rules that govern us all, even when obeying the rules goes against our self-interest and the specific form of the rules has needed to change with our changing polity, economy and society over time.


At 3:53 PM, Anonymous LostinNY said...

"I guess my belief is that the wording of the Constitution is not that important."

Well, everything I've heard - at least about the current Justices on the Supreme Court - says just the opposite.

At 7:27 PM, Blogger DLW said...

Well, some of the Supremes have got a rather heavy chip on their shoulder...

'specially that Scalia-guy.


At 9:20 AM, Blogger jrl20 said...

The whole point is that the "text" of Jesus' message IS important, regardless of what you think of the Constitution's text. The comparison is between someone faithfully interpreting the Constitution's text and someone faithfully interpreting Jesus's message. Maybe as a normative matter, you don't agree with doing the first, but that shouldn't mess up the analogy.

At 3:30 PM, Blogger jrl20 said...

Furthermore, my point about the centrality of the Constitution's text is descriptively correct. "[N]early all theorists would agree that the text is the starting place for all constitutional interpretation, and most even agree that the text should be determinative if it clearly prescribes a certain result...." Gerhardt et al., Constitutional Theory: Arguments and Perspectives, pg. 65 (2d ed. 2000). And "theorists" are generally much more free-wheeling about the text than judges.

At 6:35 PM, Blogger DLW said...

looks like the jj's have decided to differentiate themselves, finally.

I'm not sure one can use the word faithfully and mean the same thing across the two documents. If a good deal of the specific form of the US constitution represents compromises between the extant interests of its time, then there would be necessarily choice as to how it got applied to resolving the later radically different conflicts of interests.

You can make the analogy, but it's important to bear in mind that it's a limited analogy. I think more harm than good comes from when people start thinking the US constitution can be read/interpreted the same way they think the Bible can be read/interpreted.


At 8:46 PM, Blogger jrl20 said...

We've always used separate tags to comment on each other's posts =P. It wouldn't make much sense for jj to critique jj.

At 9:02 PM, Blogger jrl20 said...

The notion of the bible being interpreted like the Constitution misses the entire analogy I'm making.

The Constitution is like JESUS' MESSAGE, not the bible. That's the comparison. The bible is the "toolbox" that can help us interpret Jesus' message. This will become even clearer as I continue the analogy.

At 11:15 PM, Blogger donzelion said...

I've often argued elsewhere that if our modern Constitutional Originalists interpreted Biblical authority the same way, they would be forced into a position of radical socialism on the authority of Acts 2 (as well as numerous related statements Jesus made).

If anything though, I'd have to say that the problems don't tend to arise from what the Constitution says, so much as what it does not say. Recall Dormant (Silent) Commerce clause cases - e.g., the states can't regulate commerce, but when Congress (and the Constitution) is silent, what can they do? Therein lies the meat of many a dispute.

And that's the limitation of any text that doesn't aspire to grow into a legal code. Unlike Jewish traditions and Muslim Shari'a, which could in fact grow into acts-based legal structures, the Christian texts are short and broad principle based.


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