Saturday, February 26, 2005

Biblical Authority and Constitutional Interpretation, Part 4

I learned a new word today. Hermeneutics: "the study of the methodological principles of interpretation (as of the Bible)." Webster's. The various comments to the previous three posts in this series (many of which included the word) have goaded me to add it to my vocabularly.

Now if I can just learn the word "ontological" and understand what the heck "existentialism" is. I've read articles on the latter and still don't understand it.

Note to self: don't start off posts with rambling tangents. In today's post I want to use constitutional interpretation to illustrate how I think we should understand the authority of the Old Testament. (See previous three installments: Introduction, Book of Acts, New Testament letters.)

First, I think I should reiterate exactly what my hermeneutical claim is, since there's been some confusion expressed in the comments. (Two more times and that word is mine!) I'm trying to articulate principles for interpreting Jesus' Message, not principles for interpreting the bible. As will be clear to long-time readers, we sharply distinguish between the two. (Background here and here.) How to understand what the book of Romans is saying by itself is surely a worthwhile endeavor, but that's not what I'm trying to do here. My concern is this: once we understand Romans, what do we do with it? My answer: we use it as a tool for interpreting the Historical Jesus' Message, which is what really counts.

Constitutional interpretation provides a model for how we should understand the authority of the Old Testament. Constitutional interpretation uses history to bridge the semantic and cultural chasms that stand between us in the present and the eighteenth century Constitution. One of many examples: the Constitution guarantees criminal defendants a right to trial "by jury." But what is a "jury" and what does it mean to be "tried" by one?

Does a jury have to be twelve people? Can it be six? Five? Two?

Has a defendant had a "trial by jury" if the votes for guilty were not unanimous?

Does a jury's "trying" a case include the power to "try" the law as well as the facts? (Does it mean, in other words, that the jury can engage in "nullification"?)

Distinguished jurists and commentators have come up with different answers to all of these questions. Yet (and this is the important point), all have looked to British history -- to the history of the jury as an institution in England to support their claims of what the Constitution means when it guarantees a trial by jury.

In United States v. Maybury, for example, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals concluded (controversially) that the jury has every right to acquit a guilty defendant. In support of this conclusion, the court cited to English history books which claimed that the jury was never supposed to be a strictly rational institution because it replaced the totally irrational trial "by ordeal."

Whether or not Maybury has its history right, its insight that we should look to history to understand what a trial by jury means is sound. We should also look to history in interpreting Jesus' message -- to help bridge even larger linguistic and cultural gaps. The books of the Old Testament should be understood, then, not as "revelations" in their own right, but as a tool to put Jesus' message in context by understanding His social, cultural, and religious tradition.

Thomas Cahill's book, Desire of the Everlasting Hills, (which I am currently listening to on C.D.) provides an excellent example of using the Old Testament in this way. Cahill discusses the first words that Jesus speaks in the Gospel of Mark:

"The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near...." 1:14.

According to Cahill, these are extremely dense, loaded phrases. Kind of like, "trial by jury." We cannot hope to understand their full import unless we consider the Jewish prophetic tradition. Jesus' audience, according to Cahill, would have understood Jesus to be referencing not just "a time" but the time: the ultimate time of spectacular justice and righteousness promised long ago by prophets like Isaiah, who proclaimed that one day:

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.

Isaiah 11:6-9.

Thus, just as English History helps us flesh out and better understand phrases in the Constitution, the Old Testament may help us flesh out and better understand Jesus' Message.

In the next and final post, I will make some broad qualifications to what I have said in the past four posts on the authority of the bible.


At 9:34 PM, Blogger DLW said...

whooh boy, I'd want to cozy up with a good biblical hermeneutics book before I start writing about interpretation of the Bible vis-à-vis the US constitution.

I believe it was Schleiermacher who first developed the concept of hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is a key concept for continental thinkers like Derrida. It gets at the inherent difficulties of understanding the authorial intent and whether it matters or whether meaning is also located in the text or the reader.

For reading the Bible, I'd recommend, "How to Read the Bible for all its worth". The general hermeneutical principle is that we should strive for the literal interpretation as understood in its original context. Although, we have to bear in mind also that Jesus used metaphorical language quite often and should be wary to treat as logical propositions texts that were essentially narratives. A lot of the fallacies of the LeftBehind dispensationalists can be cleared up with a better understanding of the original context of the Bible. A context that early USAmerican Christians were deprived of in the way we developed our earlier traditions, including the pietistic emphases on hyper-individualism and hyper-evangelism. See my recent posts.

At 10:57 AM, Blogger DLW said...

According to the uber-scholarly James D. G. Dunn, author of Jesus Remembered, the best we can hope to find in the Bible is Jesus as he was remembered by the early church. Neoliberal attempts to get at the historical Jesus have mainly resulted in Jesus being Dismembered and Reconstituted in the historian's own image.

My fear then would be that, instead of glorifying Jesus as he was remembered, we end up glorifying ourselves, making God in our own image rather than learning from the one who took form and taught within a culture that was very different from our own cultures.


At 9:37 PM, Blogger jrl20 said...

As uber-scholarly as Dr. Dunn may be, I can't understand how it could be impossible to find out valuable information about any historical figure. Can we know nothing about Ceasar? Augustus? Plato? Augustine? Is all ancient history bunk?

At 9:40 PM, Blogger jrl20 said...

How can you "believe" in Jesus and simultaneously believe you can know nothing about Jesus?

At 10:23 PM, Blogger DLW said...

One can affirm the likelihood that our portraits of Jesus remembered have historical referents. What one cannot do is discern the historical Jesus, distilled from the way he was remembered by the early faith community. In the past, scholars like Bultmann have presumed that there were layers to the text that could be unpeeled with the right historical critical methods. Dunn does a lot of work to show that this reflects a text-centric view of how Jesus was initially remembered and builds a strong case that the discrepancies between the Gospels stories are better explained by virtue of oral traditions/transmissions/performances wherein the center part of a story is retold with different variations for different audiences and to shed light on different issues. Its not pure rote memorization, but there is group accountability for faithfulness to the key parts of the stories.


At 10:05 PM, Anonymous Shawn said...

first off, i just randomly found this site while bored and i am impressed. to start my comment off on a tangent of your tangent, if you have trouble understanding existentialism, read Grendal by john gardner. great book.
anyway, yeah, most of this is above my head but it is fun to think about. i do have some input though.
i am not a scholar. i am not a theologist or a historian. but i saw someone semi-complain about american christianity and the emphasis on "hyper-individualism" and i completely agree that Jesus never wanted the christian life to be alone at all and the modern church has lost sight of that. i think that if we take lessons from the bible but put our main emphasis on loving God and loving others, then we would be much better off. how about, instead of helping the unfortunate by giving a few extra dollars in the offering plate, people get off their lazy american butts and do something? i am just as guilty as the next guy though but i am trying to change. i loved the post on an individual changing the world.
well, that was one long tangent. i am done now.
i will check back later to see if anyone had anything to say.
God bless,

At 12:11 PM, Blogger jrl20 said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 12:12 PM, Blogger jrl20 said...


Thanks for finding us and commenting! You don't need to be a scholar to understand where we're going. Loving your neighbor as yourself is easy to understand. It's just so hard to do.


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