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Originalist Interpretation

Originalist Interpretation

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One year ago on Monday, US Supreme Court Judge, Justice Antonin Scalia passed away, leaving behind him a void that created the uncertainty to sway the presidential election in favour of Donald Trump. At least, that's how some view it. Whether that is true or not is not my interest, but what is fascinating is how important those nine seats on the Supreme Court are to the general tenor of the world's most influential country, and how much debate and discussion the nomination to fill Scalia's place, Neil Gorsuch, has created. 

It all comes down to one major issue, and that is to do with their opinion of the constitution. While it would be easy to split the Justices based on their liberal or conservative leanings, distinguishing them by how they interpret the constitution is the more informative distinction. This is important because as the final court of appeal in the land, it rules whether laws are 'constitutional' or not, and thus has significant influence over the direction of society. 

On the bench are a group referred to as 'Originalists,' so called because they deem that the appropriate method of interpretation is to determine what the original intent or meaning of the Founding Fathers was, and interpret the law accordingly. The Center for the Study of Constitutional Originalism defines it as the following: the "view that the Constitution should be interpreted in accordance with its original meaning—that is, the meaning it had at the time of its enactment." Opposing them are the group who adopt a progressive approach to interpretation, known as 'judicial activism.' They attempt to imagine what a Founding Father would determine now if faced directly with the particular circumstance and then rule appropriately. 

We live in days when the common approach to scriptural interpretation is reader activism

What should be obvious is that judicial activism allows for considerable ambiguity and opinion. But the bigger issue I want to focus on is how the principle applies to Biblical interpretation. We live in days when the common approach to scriptural interpretation is 'reader activism,' that is, in seeking to be relevant, we allow ourselves to imagine how God would rule on a particular issue if the Bible were completed today. This has the potential to be disastrous, in fact, I would argue that it has already brought much damage to the testimony of God's people. 

We are not afforded the license to reinterpret scripture, and therefore we must adopt an 'originalist' approach to its consideration.  Here is a reminder of some of what Scripture says about itself, which should help us to interpret it as God intended it, when He inspired it;

1. Scripture is eternal (Ma. 24:35)

Scripture didn't always exist, but since its inspiration, there has never been a moment when it hasn't been authoritative. As the Lord said, 'the heavens and earth will pass, but my word will never.' This being the case, it must mean what it always did. It cannot, and must not take on a fluidity of meaning. While Scripture didn't always exist, the God who inspired it did, and Scripture must be consistent with His character. Therefore, if God is unchanging–and He is (Mal. 3:6)–then by definition, Scripture must be unchanging also.

2. Scripture is true (Jn. 17:17)

It simply is not possible that Scripture can flex in its meaning from century to century because the words of God are true; they are trustworthy. This means that they must mean the same at any point that they are read. They cannot mean A for people living in the 1st century and B for those living in the 21st century. To suggest that they do is to make a mockery of the truthfulness of Scripture. They must also be internally consistent, that is that one section must not contradict another. 

3. Scripture cannot be broken (Jn. 10:35)

This means that the precepts of Scripture cannot be proved to be false by our experience. We cannot prove them to be wrong, or incoherent, or illogical. If we find that our experience doesn't cohere with the word of God, then it must be that our experience is wrong, and not Scripture. That doesn't mean that our situation won't be painful or confusing, but it does ultimately mean that God is right, and we are wrong.

The longer I live, the more effort I see dedicated to reinterpreting scripture. In many ways, we shouldn't be surprised by this as the longer time goes on, the greater the divide becomes between the standard of God and the standard of culture, but we must remember that points above expressly forbid us from reinterpreting Scripture. May we be like the Psalmist: "Thy word have I hid in mine heart" (Ps. 119:11).

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