Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Biblical Authority and Constitutional Interpretation, Part 5

This is the final installment of my series on how Constitutional interpretation can help us understand the proper authority of the bible. I've made the following claims:

(1) Jesus' teachings, as distinguished from the bible as a whole, are like the Constitution in that they are the "binding" Revelation.

(2) The book of Acts and other books in the New Testament which record the actions of early Christians hold authority insofar (and only insofar) as they indirectly illuminate Jesus' message. The actions of early Christians indirectly show Jesus' message because we can presume that Christians so close to Jesus and his message would act consistently with that message. The book of Acts, thus, is like the legislation of the First Congress and the actions of George Washington - which we use to interpret the Constitution.

(3) The New Testament letters should be understood similarly. Their authors are entitled to deference because of their proximity to Jesus. The New Testament letters can be compared to the Federalist Papers, which we use to interpret the Constitution.

(4) The books of the Old Testament provide critical context for Jesus' message and illuminate "terms" in that message that might otherwise be obscure. This can be compared to our use of British history in defining constitutional terms like "trial by jury."

In this final post, I would like to pose some problems and add some major qualifications to this analysis. The problems will continue to draw analogies from Constitutional Law. In the end, the first of my claims will be pumped up at the expense of the last three.

I turn first to problems with the book of Acts' and the New Testament letters' authority.

When we say that these things are entitled to some authority because of their proximity to Jesus, we must remember that complete deference is not warranted. Unthinking deference is no more due to Peter or Paul than it is to the early congresses in Constitutional Law. Donzelion, a frequent commentor here, brought up what I had intended to point out all along. The First Congress, which we often defer to due to its proximity to the Constitution, passed the Sedition Act of 1789 -- which made writing "false, scandalous and malicious" things about the United States punishable by two years in prison. Are we to take this as a reflection of the proper interpretation of the First Amendment? Of course not. We can give the First Congress deference, but when it is clearly wrong, we must be unafraid to say so.

Similarly, when Paul tells us that "Slaves" have a Christian moral duty to "be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ" (Ephesians 6:5), we must simply say -- without qualms -- that Paul got it wrong. The First Congress got the First Amendment wrong, and Paul got slavery (among other things) wrong. We need not engage in careful exegesis to try harmonize Christ and Paul. This is not necessary because Paul's letters are not the Divine Revelation. They are authority only insofar as they illuminate that Revelation. His position on slavery doesn't do so because it is so blatantly at odds with Christ's teachings.

The status of the Old Testament is also plagued with difficulties. Insofar as it records the Jewish tradition/history out of which Jesus sprung, it does illuminate the terms of Jesus' message. But the Old Testament provides a selective, incomplete, and fallible history. The fact that we recognize the Old Testament as an authority, thus, does not relieve us of the burden of further historical investigation. Other books may supplement it and provide equal authority. I believe, for example, that it is difficult to fully grasp Jesus' message without knowing much more Roman history than the Old Testament provides.

Constitutional law, by comparison, does not depend solely upon some ancient rendering of British History. It uses old sources, but it also uses contemporary historical scholarship on early modern England to help define constitutional terms.

In sum, the bible is a valuable tool that helps us interpret Jesus' message. It should be recognized as "authority" in that sense. But we must not mistake the interpretive tool for the message itself. We must recognize that the bible is both fallible and incomplete. We should indeed read our bibles, but we should read them with care.


At 1:08 PM, Blogger donzelion said...

While I differ in the relative weights attributed, this theory of Biblical interpretation along the lines of constitutional interpretation seems plausible.

Nitpicking: Alien & Sedition Acts of 1798; your point is remains quite valid despite my nitpick, but their authority is furthered reduced by this lesser propinquity.

Dissent re Paul/Slaves: actually, the 'trembling submission to masters' strikes me as a fair reading that harmonizes naturally with Christ. Submit, even to blatantly sinful injustice, because by so doing, one overcomes it - both in this world, and in the next. Submission is not acceptance, but a tactic of self-purification required for eliminating injustice. Absent submission, one fights against an institution only to replace it with another, changing legal formalities but retaining the unjust substance (e.g., slavery gives way to sharecropping/apartheid).

At 9:39 PM, Blogger DLW said...

I agree that its a thought-provoking metaphor.

I think that one has to read Paul's letters under the meta-narrative of Creation, Fall and Redemption. We are in the process of redemption, but it is always a now and not yet sort of deal and so we always are making fallible judgments about what parts of the fallenness of this world we can and cannot change. At that point, slavery was something they could not change and slavery was a more human institution than it was in the US also. In that context, Paul's counsel for the slaves do parallel early words of Jesus to show love to one's oppressors as a means to change hearts that would eventually help lead to changed/transformed relationships/structures.

ps, check out my blog...

At 11:00 PM, Anonymous jrl20 said...

Re: reading DLW's blog. I do read it from time to time. But I find much of it over my head. I have no philosophical or theological training whatsoever. I'm just a cocky novice. If you want people like me to become habitual readers, then you may have to make your thoughts more accessible.

Re: Paul/Slaves
Very nice point that Paul's advice to slaves sounds a lot like turning the other cheek and going the extra mile.

But if that advice is, PERHAPS, defensible, Paul's advice to slaveOWNERS is not. His advice to them, also in Ephesians 6, is essentially to not be too "threatening" in continuing to deprive slaves of their freedom. Jesus came to demand that "the oppressed go free" (Luke 4:18), not to plead for a kinder, gentler oppression.

At 12:39 AM, Blogger DLW said...

I'm sorry to hear you've found it difficult to read my blog. I've been making some recent posts that you might find easier to read. Please let me know if something is just too complicated for you to understand easily.


At 11:12 AM, Anonymous jrl20 said...

I'll keep trying.

At 3:18 PM, Blogger donzelion said...

Paul v. Jesus v. Constitutional Interpretation: the question of slavery in Christianity is a useful illustration of our historical biases, and relates entirely to Constitutional interpretation.

There are at least two different positions here:

(1) Paul is as authoritative as any other scholar, but no more authoritative. If he gives advice to slaveholders, we may reject it as contradictory to our understanding of Jesus, and reject that advice. If our understanding is laden with historical prejudices/lessons, then we opt for our understanding over contrary understandings.

(2) Paul is more authoritative than any person not similarly situated, and therefore, his writings are not time-barred. Where he contradicts our understanding of Jesus, we should alter our understanding of Jesus to harmonize them both.

Both positions are quite defensible. Indeed, disputes between them mirror constitutional interpretations (the 'Originalist' v. 'Living Document' debate between Meese & Brennan).

At 3:39 PM, Blogger DLW said...

We also need to discern the intent of Paul's letter and interpret them in light of the Christian meta-narrative of Creation-Fall and Redemption. We are in the process of redemption and so the old should give way to the new. The issue is what do we focus our reform on now...

Paul was counseling the early churches as to how best to put their energies in advancing the kingdom of God and inculcating kingdom values. This was in the Roman Empire, where they did not have any chance of say-so in the rules that govern them all. They also dealt with a less severe slavery system that was not race-based. They also may have had expectations that the return of Jesus was imminent...

One needs both context and cotext(the passages surrounding the text) to discern its likely intent. And then one has to consider the issues surrounding the reapplication of the text to our present situation.


At 4:17 PM, Anonymous jrl20 said...


You're correct in saying that there are "AT LEAST" two positions.

The position I've sketched out is situated squarely IN BETWEEN the two you described. And I certainly think it is a defensible one.


Two things:

(1) I completely agree that it is important to read Paul's letters in context (both historically and textually). Yet, I don't think that ancient slavery was sufficiently different from modern slavery to make it any less condemnable. Furthermore, Jesus was faced with the same Roman Empire Paul was. He had no more political power or control than Paul did. (In fact, He had less.) But that did not prevent Jesus from flatly proclaiming the release of the captives and the freedom of the oppressed. In short, context does not justify Paul's stopping short of condemning slavery and merely asking for a more "compassionate" oppression.

(2) I have no idea what the first paragraph of your comment says. That's an example of something that is inaccessible to me. I am not familiar with the concept of "Christian meta-narrative of Creation-Fall and Redemption." Nor do I think other many other intelligent LAY Christians are.

At 10:43 AM, Anonymous Burleez said...


i just want to second jrl's most recent comment. i am a third year law school student and i read the social gospel today regularly. i think the conversations on this blog are both enlightening and important. i must say, however, that i often am unable to understand your posts.

to continue with jrl's example, even if i knew exactly what you mean by the "Christian meta-narrative of Creation-Fall and Redemption," i'm not sure i would understand why it follows from the fact that we are "in the process of redemption" that "the old should give way to the new." the fact that i am not familiar with the meta-narrative to which you refer makes it all the more important that you clearly identify the reasoning for your conclusion. in addition, it's not clear from your post why "the issue" must now be "what do we focus our reform on," nor is it clear what you even mean by that. i use the quoted paragraph as an example of how your posts often 1) assume readers have as much knowledge as you do on the pertinent subjects, and 2) sometimes omit various steps in your reasoning/logic which leave the reader (or maybe it's just me) quite confused.

i believe we all have much to gain from your knowledge and insights, but i agree with jrl that you need to make your posts more accessible and more transparent. i want to understand both what you say, and why you say it.


At 11:50 AM, Blogger DLW said...

thanks for the feedback...I'll try harder.

A Meta-narrative is a story that is used to understand all other stories. The Xtn Meta-Narrative is that we are beings in a world that did not just come about by chance. God intended for us to exist so that we can glorify and enjoy God and God's creation. However, we have fallen from a right relationship with God and each other as humans and are now in the process of redemption. The process of redemption is similar to "progress", except it is not natural nor inevitable.

The significance of the metanarrative for understanding slavery is that we should expect that our actions as Christians should be geared to the ultimate end of slavery and other evils. Paul's letter must be understood as giving advice to people without any political power. His advice is to focus on changing hearts about Christianity. I would argue that to convert others into Christianity proper would help lead to the end of slavery. This is because one cannot fully understand Christianity without also understanding the OT and its story of the liberation of Israel from Slavery. However, there has also been much Marcianism, the heresy of denying the importance of the OT, running around today. Many of the reformed misinterpretation of the text committed this heresy when they used Paul's passages to justify slavery. The broad principle for discerning what interpretation is right is the Meta-Narrative. Under the meta-narrative we should expect that our received structures would be in need of reform. Paul never said that slavery is part of God's design for human relations for all time. He did make a judgment that it was not wise for the early Christians to try to end it as an institution or free as many slaves as possible at that point in time. I earlier suggested some reasons for why he made that judgment. I would rather not second-guess his judgment, but rather point out how the circumstances have changed, mandating past movements to end slavery and the need to still work to end slavery and ensure greater economic equality today.


At 7:51 PM, Blogger Marcus said...

Would it be hopelessly graceless to agree that biblical interpretation is like consititutional interpretation in two respects: first, that it is almost all of it dishonest; and, second, that almost nobody wants it to be otherwise?

Hint: I think the Paleocons are right on the Constitution and am quite delighted there is slight chance any court will ever see it, or say it, their way.

PS. Confining ourselves to Jesus' remarks is apt to be unhandy, given that what are thought to be his remarks are so frequently hopelessly cryptic, and notably inconsistent as a body.

On the other hand, cutting the rug out from under Paul is quite a nice move in many ways, eh? Good bye to so much that is unhandy for a liberal reading of Christianity, eh? Paul the homophobe, Paul the sexist, Paul the upholder of patriarchy, Paul who urges acceptance of even the most wretched aspects of the social and political status-quo, Paul the anti-hedonist who so dislikes and mistrusts sexual pleasure. Good riddance, eh?

On the other hand, what kind of Christology can accommodate your relative de-sacralization (not really the right word, but what the heck?) of the OT? Much of the NT, after all, including the gospels, is quite emphatic on Jesus as fulfilling OT prophecy. Can you make much of that while making so little of the authority of the OT text?

Sorry, but I don't see quite how.

For the writers of the gospels as well as Paul, fulfillment of OT prophecy, as well as miracles and healings, all supplied both authentication for the unique and theologically critical role and position of Jesus, and the justification for situating him at the center of the meta-narrative of which you write.

So, are you stuck?

Just another thought.

At 11:27 PM, Anonymous jrl20 said...

Marcus, this is quite brilliant, very clear analysis. I firmly disagree with it, but it is definitely worthy of rebuttal in a formal post rather than in a mere response in tne comments. You can expect it this week. (I'm on Spring Break starting about 4:00 a.m. tonight.) Thanks for the feedback!

At 12:58 PM, Blogger DLW said...

I'm so sorry I can't be more clear. I'm so caught up in stuff right now.

I guess, I'd repeat G.K. Chesterton's statement that Christianity is not complicated, it's difficult.

Key to correct interpretation of the scripture is to refer to the highest level of interpretation, the Meta-Narrative, or big picture. In that picture, many of our existing relations are fallen and should be in the process of redemption. However, we need to make fallible judgments about what can and cannot be changed about life in the near future. Paul made such judgments about trying to end slavery during his day, but his counsel also implies that early Christians were already talking about trying to free the slaves, along lines of Luke 4:18-19. And, there is nothing in the text that says we can not end slavery later on.

The way I think about this, and tell me if it's not clear, is that the Bible is not an exhaustive definite blue-print for right conduct. It was never meant to be such and when Christians in the past have treated it like such, they read their very fallible traditions into Scripture. This ended up condoning all sorts of terrible things in the name of Xty. But the answer to the problem is to pursue better understandings of how scripture was understood in its original context, not interpret it within a modern-day glaze. We also need to take more seriously the fact that the Church was sent the Holy Spirit with Pentecost to guide us. We need to be more open to spiritual redirection and learning from our experiences as to how we should let our lights shine in this world.


At 2:47 PM, Anonymous jrl20 said...


Both of your last two posts have been much, much clearer.

As a law student, I fully understand how difficult it is to speak to "lay" people about your specialty. I sincerely appreciate the effort.

In fact, your latest post is absolutely accessible (to me at least). I completely disagree with you THEOLOGICALLY (as I do with Marcus), but I definitely understand your perspective now.

I don't disagree that the "big picture" (or Meta-Narrative, as you put it) is what is important. I just disagree with you as to what the big picture of Christianity is.

At 2:51 PM, Anonymous jrl20 said...

P.S. and now that I understand where you are coming from, I will definitely write a formal post explaining exactly how and why I disagree with you.

Geez, I'm making a lot of work for myself this week! I still have to finish my Galatians "sermon"!

At 2:52 PM, Anonymous jrl20 said...

P.S. and now that I understand where you are coming from, I will definitely write a formal post explaining exactly how and why I disagree with you.

Geez, I'm making a lot of work for myself this week! I still have to finish my Galatians "sermon"!


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