ast week I argued that “Originalism” in the interpretation of the Constitution and the laws based on it is the only way to preserve the social covenant between us and our ancestors, the constitutional republic which is our political order. If the meaning of our foundational documents is not thought to be tied to what their authors were saying when they wrote them and to what their original audience understood when they passed 0r ratified them, if it is thought to lie in the eye of the beholder rather than in the intention of the author, then the laws lose their authority and the men charged with giving them their current interpretation become king. In such a situation, nobody who ever writes a law, nobody who ever votes to pass it, and nobody voting for the representatives who write and pass the laws, can possibly know what he is committing himself to. In such a situation, the entire fabric of political order comes unraveled, and the “living ” constitution becomes the death of inalienable rights and civil liberty.
A similar situation faces the church when similar subjectivist views of interpretation are applied to the Scriptures. The potential consequences here are even more dire, for two reasons. First, not just temporal civil order but the eternal destinies of the souls of men and women are at stake. This outweighs every other consideration–or should. But it is not the only thing to be considered.
Second, even on the temporal plane, unless the church is able effectively to act as salt and light in society, the moral sensibilities of that society become degraded and its respect for human life becomes compromised. Put simply, if the authority of the Word of God is compromised, how are Christians to find the path of salvation or to be discipled and transformed in it so that, living lives of integrity and speaking the truth in love, they can point their fellow citizens to the truth? If Christians’ testimony to the reality of the God of creation becomes clouded, if their trumpet gives an uncertain sound, then the formerly self-evident truth that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights becomes first an empty theory and then an unreal relic of the past for their unsaved neighbors. And make no mistake: The only way rights can be inalienable is if they are endowed by the Creator. If rights come from the state, then what the state giveth, the state can redefine and take away. A healthy church then is necessary to a healthy state, especially in our republic–not because we are theocratic, but because without it the foundations laid down for our state by the Declaration of Independence become weak and unable to support the political order which gave us our freedoms.
Well, the church is facing the same kind of crisis as the state when it comes to the interpretation of its foundational documents. I am not talking about the influence of liberal critical scholarship which purports to question the authenticity or historical reliability of the text. That is an equally serious problem, but not the one I am addressing here. I am talking about how pious, conservative believers who think they are being faithful read the Bible. They are more concerned with “what it means to me” than with what it means. And they do not see why this is a problem.
How did we get here? What in constitutional law is called “originalism” in theology is known as “grammatico-historical exegesis.” They are essentially the same thing. In secular society, originalism no longer seems to be common sense but has become a “new” (!) idea that seems counter-intuitive and needs defense. The same thing has happened in the churches. They have naively and passively allowed the secular academy to shape their children’s view of reading. As a result, most of those children take it for granted that texts are not capable of transmitting an objectively determinable meaning deposited in them by their authors. I have heard those children even in conservative Christian colleges say that texts have no meaning until they are read. Meaning is not left in them by the author but is created in them by the reader. The reader, not the author, determines what a text means. To these children, this is a self-evident axiom that requires no defense.
The refutation of this new way of reading, by the way, is very simple. It is the Golden Rule. Do you want people to make the effort to find out what you are trying to say and get it right? Of course you do. Therefore, you have to give other speakers and other authors, including dead ones, the same courtesy. Have you been hoodwinked by people who tell you it cannot be done? Ponder the fact that they successfully did it in those very books and lectures in which they talked of its impossibility. Did they intend for you to think you could not recover the author’s meaning when they said that? Of course they did. Give them the belly laugh they deserve and just follow the Golden Rule. It won’t always be easy, but it is simply the right thing to do.
What is the result when this new view of reading is applied to the Bible? Its ability to function as an authoritative text is inevitably undermined in exactly the same way as the Constitution’s is. It is in fact undermined even more drastically. Nobody thinks the Constitution is inspired or inerrant or speaks with God’s authority. It is a human product, albeit a very good one. So what is lost when the authority of Scripture is undermined is much, much more. It is the very possibility of a faithful church.
If Scripture means whatever you subjectively find it meaningful for Scripture to mean, then you, not Scripture, are the authority in your life. If Scripture means whatever you subjectively find it meaningful for Scripture to mean, then you, not God, are the authority in your life. Is it any wonder that we as an Evangelical movement are letting basic Christian doctrine and basic Christian morality slip through our fingers?
How we read the Bible?
We desperately need to restore originalism to the way our rulers read the Constitution. We have no hope of doing that unless first we restore it to the way we as believers read our even more important and foundational text, the Bible. (Indeed, we had better do that, whether the secular restoration ever happens or not.) The two losses are one. They happened together and will have to be reversed together, or the first one will not be reversed at all. We cannot expect the secular schools to lead the way in this recovery. Instead, they will thwart it at every turn. Judgment begins with the house of God, and if judgment is to be averted, recovery will have to begin there as well. But most of us aren’t even aware of the problem.
To you knees! To your Bibles! To your knees! Who will join me?
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A book that fights back against the darkness!