Thursday, February 24, 2005

Biblical Authority and Constitutional Interpretation, Part 3

This week I have been arguing that we can look to Constitutional interpretation for a model of understanding the authority of the bible, (Part 1, Part 2). The goal is to put Jesus' message back at the center of Christianity without throwing the rest of the bible completely out the window.

Today, I'd like to suggest that Constitutional law's understanding of the authority of the Federalist Papers should be our model for understanding the New Testament letters of Paul, Peter, James, John, etc.

The Federalist papers were an exercise in apologetics. Hamilton, Madison and Jay wrote this series of articles after the drafting of the Constitution (and its adoption by the Constitutional Convention) in order to build popular support for the Constitution.

Although they were clearly not "objective observers," the views of the Federalists authors about the correct understanding of the Constituiton are accorded weight by most constitutional interpreters as a consequence of their proximity to the Constitution. They knew it inside and out. They were present at the drafting. They were writing in depth about the Constitution only months after it was drafted.

Consequently, the Federalist papers may be used to help resolve ambiguity and correct misunderstandings about the Constitution's meaning. For example, it is not entirely clear from the text of the Constitution that judges are given the power of "judicial review," that is, the power to declare acts of Congress unconstitutional. There are good textual arguments that can be made in support of this idea, but they are far from determinative.

Alexander Hamilton's views, expressed in Federalist 78, help us resolve this ambiguity. According to Hamilton, the limits the Constitution placed on the Congress could

be preserved in practice no other way than through the medium of courts of justice, whose duty it must be to declare all acts contrary to the manifest tenor of the Constitution void.

Is Hamilton's view on the matter the final word? Is the authority given to this sentence the same as if it had been included in the text of the Constitution? Certainly not. But if we are looking to objectively interpret the Constitution, surely it must be accorded some weight.

The New Testament letters should be accorded similar authority. They are not Jesus' Message. They are not themselves "the Constitution" of Christianity. But because they were written by people with real proximity to Jesus and His Message, we should accord them some weight as we seek to understand that Message two centuries later.

Take the classic faith/works debate. In Matthew 7:21, Jesus says "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven." Yet in Mark 16: 16, Jesus says "The one who believes and is baptized will be saved...." Which is it? How do we resolve this ambiguity?

The letter of James is helpful, just like Alexander Hamilton's piece was helpful in interpreting the Constituiton. James opines in Chapter 2 of his letter:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill," and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. 18 But someone will say, "You have faith and I have works." Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe--and shudder. 20 Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? 21 Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. 23 Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness," and he was called the friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? 26 For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.

James's opinion then, is that you can't really believe without also doing. Is this the final word on the matter? No, no more than was Hamilton's statement about judicial review. The authority of James's opinion is rendered even more doubtful by the letters of Paul which seem to contradict it. But my whole point is that we should be having debates about what light these letters and opinions shed back on Jesus' message rather than simply either (1) asserting that the bible as a whole is a divine revelation or (2) ignoring everything in it that isn't "in red" as it were.


At 11:23 PM, Blogger donzelion said...

Here's the thing though: you have the Federalists, you also have the Anti-Federalists, and you have divergent opinions among even the varying factions that formed the Constitution. First Amendment: does it protect speech? What about the Sedition Acts (which also had the benefit of being in close proximity, and the advantage of having a greater number of original signatories participate in their passage than the Federalist Papers themselves).

I think Constitutional interpretation has grown into a field that is naturally close to how religious texts have been interpreted by all three monotheistic faiths. Scalia's 'bright line rules' follow almost directly from Muslim traditions to 'promote the right and forbid the wrong' by creating clear lines that people should not cross.

But this doesn't mean to me that all 'bright line rules' are 'wrong' - only that an ardent Catholic may routinely adopt an ardent Muslim position, since the modes of reasoning are identical, and only the texts differ.

If we are to give a fair reading of the texts, an inquiry into original intent is worthwile but not dispositive. Likewise, an inquiry into the hermeneutics may be worthwile, but not dispositive. To my mind - the modern Supreme Court is the ideal manifestation of how religious texts should be read - because it reflects a variety of different approaches, rather than any one, simplistic mode of reasoning.

At 6:23 PM, Blogger jj said...


I appreciate your comments. Your point about the Federalists and Anti-Federalists I believe I addressed. Paul, James, and John often speak in widely diverging voices. That's one of the reasons why none of their positions can be dispositive.

Second, your point about the Sedition Acts is "getting ahead of the series" and smartly anticipating where I'm going. I intended from the very beginning to address the Sedition Acts in Part 5 and will do so then.

At 6:26 PM, Blogger jj said...

Note to Donzelion and DLW:

I am a product of public schools. I don't know what the word "hermeneutics" means. =P

I guess I need to look it up....


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