It’s all a matter of interpretation! We often hear words akin to these, often with the implication that “interpretation” is entirely subjective, almost to the point of whimsy. Reality shows a more serious and less dismissive situation. What is often forgotten is that the interpretation of a given writing is itself context dependent: the rules of proper interpretation depend in part on the type and purpose of the writing which is being interpreted. This article briefly discusses the interpretation of two constitutional documents (the Constitution of the United States of America, the Constitution of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod) and of the Bible.
1. It’s all a matter of interpretation!
How many times have you heard that declaration before? Perhaps you’re having a “discussion” with a friend about a passage from scripture, and he makes that statement. Or perhaps you have even found yourself making that affirmation. I know that I have.
What is the effect of these words? Too often it is a discussion stopper: it carries the implication that the issue is all subjective, that there is no “true” or “false,” that most likely there isn’t even “better” or “worse”!
Interpretation should not be dismissed so readily. English gets the word interpretation from a Latin root which means agent, translator or explainer.1 The interpreter of a document is to be the document’s agent, explaining how it applies (or does not apply) to a given situation.
In good American Lutheran form, one can ask, “What does this mean?” At a minimum, to be sure, it entails a number of consequences. One of these consequences is this: proper interpretation depends upon the type and purpose of the writing which is being interpreted.2 Specifically, subsumed in any valid interpretation of a text lies the very purpose of the text. The purpose of a recipe differs from the purpose of a poem like Dante’s Inferno; a person looking for deep symbolism in the words “Combine sugar, flour, lemon peel and salt in a mixing bowl” would rightly be considered extremely silly; a person claiming that Virgil actually gave Dante Alighieri a tour of Hell (which he later faithfully described) would raise silliness to the point of psychosis.
The Constitution of the United States of America and the Constitution of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS) differ in many ways, but they both have the title constitution, which indicates some commonality of intent. A constitution specifies how an organization is set up: its nature, condition and disposition and how it functions. It is designed to be relatively static, providing a stable basis for planning and action but with a provision for change as situations change.
In the one case, the constitution intends to specify how “We the People” have covenanted to govern ourselves publicly and so as to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”3 In the other, it is to follow the example of the apostolic church and carry out the Lord’s will that “the diversities of [spiritual] gifts should be for the common profit.”4
These are very different purposes, although both are titled “constitutions.” How might some of these differences lead to different rules of interpretation?
One difference is between the “secular” purpose of one and the “spiritual” purpose of the other. This difference may be important with respect to the goals of the organization each gives order to, but it seems unlikely that such a difference would lead to different rules of interpretation. Both still concern human beings interacting with other human beings.
More important is the difference in emphasis between “governing” and “cooperating.” While each has elements of both, the primary function of the U.S. constitution is to ordain a structure for the government of a people in a nation. On the other hand, the LCMS constitution seeks to provide a structure for people to voluntarily cooperate to achieve mutual goals.
The different purposes of the two constitutions point out two differing uses for the documents. The “governing” purpose requires more of a “rule of law” flavor: inherent is the idea of the existence of “bad guys and criminals,” in a word, conflict. The rule of law is a necessary counter to arbitrary rule by whomever holds power. In particular, it binds not only individual conduct but also the conduct of the government to rules which have been fixed and announced beforehand. This is important not only for individual and community comity but also for the advancement of general and economic prosperity.5
This requirement for “the rule of law, not of men”–that the rules embodied in the constitution be “fixed and announced beforehand”–bears directly on the rules of interpretation. The genesis of this essay was an email post from a friend contrasting the positions of two U.S. Supreme Court justices, left-wing activist Stephen Breyer from one side and conservative originalist Antonin Scalia on the right. The important difference isn’t which political wing each exemplified but the difference between an activist and an originalist interpretation.6
An activist will often pay lip service to the words of the constitution but will interpret them to mean what he actually thinks ought to be the case. Two well-known instances of activist interpretation of the U.S. Constitution are Dred Scott v. Sanford and Roe v. Wade. The latter is probably familiar to most readers, but a fresh look at the former may be somewhat enlightening.
In Dred Scott, the activist (and pro-slavery) Supreme Court majority extended legal slavery from the slave states7 to the territories and even into the free states (in a somewhat restricted manner). More to the point, the court held that “a free negro of the African race, whose ancestors were brought to this country and sold as slaves, is not a ‘citizen’ within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States.”8 Citing selected examples of public opinion and the preponderance of European law, they declared that “[Negroes were] so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”9 These statements were astonishing given the long history of ex-slaves as citizens–both in free states and in slave states–dating back to the origin of the U.S. Constitution.
Astonishing though it was, it was what Chief Justice Taney and the activist court majority wanted the law to be. And so they ruled. This example of judicial activism was decried by Justice Benjamin Curtis in his dissenting opinion, which gets to the core. Political reasons have not the requisite certainty to afford juridical interpretation. They are different in different men. They are different in the same men at different times. And when a strict interpretation of the Constitution, according to the fixed rules which govern the interpretation of laws, is abandoned, and the theoretical opinions of individuals are allowed to control its meaning, we have no longer a Constitution; we are under a government of individual men, who for the time being have the power to declare what the Constitution is according to their own views of what it ought to mean.10
Back to the topic of this essay: interpretation. The focus of interpretation in Chief Justice Taney’s ruling in Dred Scot v. Sanford and with Justice Harry Blackmun’s written opinion in Roe v. Wade is not merely that they enact bad laws but that they enact laws at all. In each of these cases, an activist Supreme Court based its interpretation not on what the U.S. Constitution and the body of law actually had “fixed and announced beforehand,” but on what the majority of justices wished the law to be. They therefore moved from being interpreters of the law to being unelected legislators, overruling elected legislators responsible for enacting laws. One cannot lay the full blame for the violence each of these decisions encouraged–the War Between the States (Taney) or the uncountable number of abortions and ongoing and increased political polarization (Blackmun)–but there is a reason why each of these justices often make lists of “Worst Ten Americans.” The interpretation of a governing document must be based upon what is written, not what one wishes were written. These men thought otherwise and had the power to enforce their thoughts on the nation.
The LCMS constitution is also a governing document but in a different sense. It is not set up to govern how people in an organization behave but how an organization is to function in achieving goals. It does have a legalistic purpose in specifying how decisions are to be made, the authority of officers and employees and the like, but these are subservient to the goals of the organization. In a word, the U.S. Constitution sets up a legal system; the LCMS constitution sets up a way to do certain things legally.
This “cooperating” purpose already starts out with a focus on goal; the presumption is that we seek the same goals. Or so it should be in a more perfect world. The reality is often different. Being a human organization, there will be problems, not the least of which are continuity of goals and change of methods. These are compounded by a number of factors, including:
Problem of generations. An organization such as the LCMS tends (and aspires) to keep the younger generation in the organization. However, many in the younger generation don’t have the dedication, ideals or aims of their parents, even though they may follow along in a rite of passage (e.g. confirmation).
Problem of definitions, compounded by the above. Words often change meaning over time or lose their currency. For example, in the context of the Prussian Union “unionism” had a fairly definite and restricted meaning. For someone growing up with the United Auto Workers making headlines–and where the local religions were limited to Lutheran, Roman Catholic and Baptist–“unionism” not only has a different meaning; it has no ready reference for its intended meaning.
Attitudinal shift of goal to self-perpetuation. As an organization ages, there is an increasing emphasis on self-perpetuation. While this may be especially so among people whose livelihood is entangled with that of the organization’s existence (e.g., the paid staff), it is also quite strong among those to whom the organization represents a way of life.
Changes in the environment. This can be compounded by the attitude of self-perpetuation, but it emphasizes the changing world in which the organization functions. The classic case is the March of Dimes, founded in 1938 to find a cure for polio. Twenty years later that goal had been met. The environment had changed, and the March of Dimes had to change or dissolve.11 An example from LCMS history is the initial major emphasis on “churching” German immigrants. As immigration waned, that purpose subsided.
These items have at least two implications for the interpretation of an organization’s constitution. The main need for interpretation should be to focus efforts on the goals of the organization and how to achieve them. This occurs when the points at issue in an interpretation concern questions of how decisions are to be made and what authority is granted to officers and boards of the organization.
However, when the focus shifts towards adjudicating membership (who is allowed to retain membership) and restricting members’ activities (elevating the organization to final arbiter of correct action in general), then the organization and its membership by definition have a serious disconnect. When the interpretation focus shifts to restricting or mandating methods of reaching goals (rather than the goals themselves), then the mere fact of that focus indicates that the organization is in serious trouble. When these happen, reason dictates that the organization change, divide or dissolve. Disagreements happen; pretending they don’t exist or covering them up by fanciful interpretations ensures that energy is diverted from the organizations goals–either the original goals or emergent goals.
This all leads to a final note on constitutions and their interpretation. A constitution is not absolutely static: it may be amended and often needs to be amended. Yet the very act of amending points to an agreement that the words of a constitution should have meaning in and of themselves.
It would be somewhat foolhardy of a physicist such as myself to propose a novel method of scriptural interpretation or even to explain basic principles to many of the august theologians reading this. I can, however, mention a few tenets pertinent to a discussion of biblical vs. constitutional interpretation.
The two types of constitutions discussed above are much more similar in purpose than either is to the scriptures. Constitutions are about governance and structure. Scripture has a very, very different aim. The Bible is not a “governing document” nor is it a “structure for cooperation.” The Bible gives God’s message of salvation from sin through the death and resurrection of His Son Jesus. Any method of interpretation–and any interpretation itself–which does not originate with an understanding of this purpose cannot be presumed useful, much less correct. The Bible’s primary purpose is “to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15b NIV). Only then does it become useful for “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2Tim. 3:16 NIV).
A second distinction is that of genre or type. The two constitutions mentioned are legal documents. They ordain a structure for doing things as a government or an organization. They are very prosaic in wording with little (if any) symbolism: few tropes or other literary devices.
The scriptures stand apart from these. The Bible contains and uses many, many types of literature or writing types: poetry, history, parable, didactic writing and others (including some constitution-like sections). Each of these genres has its own rules of interpretation: standardized “one size fits all” rules cannot be given. These differences cannot be ignored. The genre or literary type of a section of scripture was chosen by the Author. When this is disregarded, disparaged or deprecated, then the Author’s message is being changed.
And there’s the rub. With any interpretation of scripture–every approach to the Bible–the interpreter presupposes something about the Author. In the preceding paragraphs, I’ve presumed my own belief that God inspired the authors of the Bible (without going into any detail concerning methods) to such an extent that He can be deemed “Author,” and that He did this in order to bring people to Himself through Christ Jesus. A different presupposition (e.g., that the various authors were writing down their own understanding of God) would generate a different meaning. Both author and intention would change.
Similarly, diverse judgments of genre lead to diverse interpretations of the text. The Bible is not a guide to writing genres. There is no place in which the Bible describes anthropomorphization. Trees just clap their hands (Isaiah 55:12), and the reader is expected to understand. Knowledge and study of literary types and methods in general then influence the understanding of the Bible and the message of a particular text.
Even if the genre and its narrative meaning are straightforward, matters of purpose arise which are not always clarified in the text itself. For example, the story of King David and Abishag, his nubile bedwarmer, is generally interpreted as history (1 Kings 1:1-4). Is the history merely descriptive (describing what happened), or is it permissive (detailing allowed behavior) or even prescriptive (stating required behavior in like situations)? Perhaps there is little disagreement on this, but in another historical narrative given in Acts 13:3, Saul and Barnabas were commissioned as missionaries through the laying on of hands. Is the laying on of hands permissive, prescriptive or merely descriptive? Some people care deeply about the answer; others just roll their eyes if the question gets asked.
Perhaps these are good examples of where our limited understanding should be left in place without making requirements on others. There are others which quickly come to mind. Even those of us who accept “without reservation … [t]he Scriptures of the Old and New Testament as the written Word of God and the only rule and norm of faith and of practice…”12 may differ in many interpretations of scripture and still be faithful to our confessional and denominational subscription as well as faithful to each other.
There are thus two domains which fall under the question of the interpretation of scripture:
Author. Christians of various presuppositions as well as non-Christians (also of various persuasions) will each differ on the nature of the writer. Thus each interpreter will seek to be an “agent, translator or explainer” for the author (Author) as he understands him (Him). The contrasting understandings of the writer then lead to contrasts in understanding the overall intention of the scriptures. A non-Christian may even claim that there is no overall intention but that the various books may be divorced from each other. This is why it has been noted that the interpretation of the Bible belongs to Christians, for only they know the Author.
Writing genre. Those with a common understanding of the Author and His overall intent may yet diverge in their interpretation based upon the understanding each has concerning the genre of the particular text from scripture. There may be agreement on God’s general intention (“to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus”) and yet disagreement on the genre involved. Nor is there anything in scripture to rule out God’s ability to write something which provides multiple, non-contradictory meanings.
Constitutions–both political and organizational–have fairly straightforward rules of interpretation. They are very purpose-driven and are of a single literature type. Knowledge of the intent of the writing and the goals pursued are often sufficient: they are very prosaic in wording, seldom using literary symbolism. There can be differences of interpretation, but the goal remains to establish the intent of the law behind the words.
The scriptures are quite different. The Bible is not a rule book on life but a pointer to the Way, the Truth and the Life. While very prosaic and even ‘legal’ sections are included, these are set in amongst a wide variety of literary genres, each with its own rules of interpretation. Knowledge of these is required for proper interpretation: to establish what a particular passage intends, but also importantly, what it does not intend. In this way the Bible points to our Savior, from Whom we receive eternal life. We can therefore be assured that nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord (Romans 8:39).
1 The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1971).
2 I am, of course, only considering texts which have an intended purpose, leaving moot the possibility that there are writings with no intended purpose. I am explicitly rejecting various philosophies or schools of literature which deny the normative nature of authorial intent are.
3 Constitution of the United States of America, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 17 September 1787.
4 Constitution of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (2004). Full text available online at https://www.lcms.org/graphics/assets/media/LCMS/2004Handbook.pdf.
5 F. A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (University of Chicago Press, 1944, 1994).
6 There is no inherent barrier preventing a judge with leftist view from being an originalist nor one on the right not be an activist. Both types exist. The high correlation nowadays stems mainly from the recent history of judicial activism from the left as a means to achieve political goals and the present counter to such activism coming mainly from the conservative wing.
7 A citizen wasn’t forced to own a slave, so they might be called ‘pro-choice’ states.
11 Instead of disbanding, the March of Dimes shifted to combating birth defects.
12 Constitution of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. Art II.