Constitutional Law and Theological Exegesis

This morning when I was raking leaves (a task unrelated to that which I am now writing), I recalled a conversation I had with a friend this past summer. He is a lawyer, and he was asking me about my research on the topic of theological exegesis (I was at the time enveloped in my preparation for qualifying exams, and he was curious as to what could possibly be so interesting). My understanding of theological exegesis, I explained to him, is as follows:

Theological exegesis attempts to affirm the notion that the biblical texts, as Christian Scripture, have enduring value that may at times transcend the intention of the original authors. Moreover, I told him that theological exegesis is not opposed to the reading of the biblical texts in light of developments that arise after them (the Nicene Creed, e.g.), and that such reading does not necessarily hinder the task of interpretation, but may in fact clarify it (this is of course not a direct quote…I have removed the “ums” and upgraded my vocabulary).

He said, “That’s interesting…it sounds a lot like constitutional law debates.” My response: “Say what?” He explained to me that there are in fact several “schools” of thought related to the interpretation of the United States Constitution, and there is an ongoing debate regarding location of meaning and the task of interpretation.

On the one hand, there are those who will say that the Constitution has a meaning, that which was intended by the founding fathers. This “school” of constitutional law, called “Originalism,” holds that discernment of the original meaning of the constitution is the task of constitutional law. One may rightly place Supreme Court justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas in this “camp.” Originalists will not claim that every precept of the Constitution needs to be followed exactly…there is a certain flexibility insofar as later generations may pass laws to override that which was said earlier. The 13th amendment, for example, in outlawing slavery, would supersede that which was said in Article 4 Section 2 of the Constitution, that “no Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.”

On the other hand, there are those who will say that the Constitution has an original meaning, but that its significance is precisely in its ability to transcend generations and speak to contemporary situations. In this vein, called “Living Constitution,” discernment of the original meaning is important, but equally important is interpretation of the document alongside developments that have transpired since its institution. Al Gore, for example, once said that “there are liberties found in the Constitution such as the right to privacy that spring from the document itself, even though the Founders didn’t write specific words saying this, this, and this…” The late William Rehnquist once wrote, in contrast, that contemporary leaning toward the idea of living constitution is “genuinely corrosive of the fundamental values of our democratic society.”

In short, the debate concerns whether or not the meaning in the Constitution is static or dynamic: may the “meaning” of this document be something different from what the original authors intended? At its root, the debate centers around the location of meaning and the task of interpretation. Is meaning to be found in text alone, or is meaning to be found within the tradition, which includes the text alongside other factors?

I find the debate interesting given the climate surrounding theological exegesis…I just returned yesterday from the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, where I was reminded yet again that the conversation is far from over. Regarding the biblical texts, there are, broadly speaking, two schools that parallel to a certain degree those present in constitutional law debates. On the one hand, the “Originalists” will say that the biblical texts have a meaning and that this meaning is located in the text or, better yet, in the mind of the original author. On the other hand, proponents of a “living” text will not deny that there is an “original” meaning, either in the text or in the mind of the author, but they will claim that meaning may in fact transcend this original meaning and that the text may rightly be considered (and may in fact only be rightly understood) in light of its effective history.

Two caveats:

1) I’m fairly certain that anyone with a legal background will take issue with the way I’ve framed things here, and I would welcome clarification from anyone with more knowledge on the topic (please do leave comments).

2) The analogy drawn here between constitutional law and theological exegesis is imperfect, as I would claim that the biblical texts are of a different vintage than the Constitution. I include this caveat to appease some who may fear that I am making the Constitution out to be somehow corresponding to Christian Scripture…that said, I suppose the analogy could through some gasoline on discussions pertaining to American Civil Religion (Dr. Michael Gorman has a wonderful ongoing series on the topic).


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