Methods of Scriptural Interpretation


Constitutional Interpretation:

Judicial interpretation explains how a judge/court should interpret specific statutes of law, particularly in constitutional documents and legislation.

There are two main camps with regard to how this legal interpretation should work:

  • Originalism/strict constructionism – which would be characterized as “conservative” or “judicial restraint”.
  • Functionalism – which would be characterized as “liberal” or “judicial activism”.

Simply speaking, the former emphasizes fidelity to the original meaning [or originally intended meaning] of the words in the constitution.  It seeks to be loyal to the authors’ original intent by looking at things like what the words used generally meant at the time they were written and looking at what reasons the authors had for using particular phrases, etc.

While the latter would argue that the constitution was deliberately written to be broad/vague and flexible to accommodate social or technological change over time.  It seeks to be loyal to the author’s original intent by looking at what the words have generally come to mean in applicable ways to people today, etc.

The Constitutional Example of “Cruel and Unusual Punishment”:

In the 8th amendment of the US constitution, there is a clause that states:

nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

This seems cut-and-dry – however, there is controversy as to how to apply this clause/standard in specific judicial cases.  To look at it from the point-of-view of the two above schools of interpretation, we could interpret the clause in terms of:

  • What were generally accepted as “cruel and unusual” punishments during the late 1700’s?  What were the specific conceptions the founders had in mind when barring “cruel and unusual punishments”?  Etc.
  • Or what do we, as 21st century Americans, understand to be “cruel and unusual” ways to punish criminals?  How did the founders want us to be guided by the general concept of “cruelty” or “unusualness” in assigning punishments?  Etc.

In this way, one group has ground to argue, based on the idea of original intent, that hanging is not a cruel and unusual form of capital punishment because it would have generally been accepted at the time the constitution was written.

While the other group, still based on the idea of original intent, can argue that hanging is cruel and unusual at a time when we have developed more humane technologies for capital punishments – or that we have come to view the taking of human life as a form punishment itself as being cruel and unusual.

Scriptural Interpretation:

Scriptural interpretation can be seen as very similar to this constitutional/judicial interpretation.  There are different ways to approach the “original intent” question of passages that may seem quite vague when one attempts to apply them to particular circumstances.  These mirror to two schools of thought on judicial interpretation:

  • Strict textual/contextual interpretation – which would be characterized as “fundamentalist” or “conservative”.  Wherein this group focuses on the specific context of the scripture, what the author was addressing in that scripture, what did the words used mean at the time they were written, etc.
  • Liken the scriptures to yourself interpretation – which would be characterized as being more “liberal” with interpreting passages.  Wherein this group focuses on personal circumstances and concerns, what general concepts did the author outline in that scripture, what do the words used in the translation mean to me or what can I conclude from them personally, etc.

The former approaching scriptural intent by focusing on original context – the latter approaching the same goal by focusing on application to modern issues.

The Scriptural Example of Adultery:

Many directives in the scriptures seem cut-and-dry at first glance.  Take:

thou shalt not commit adultery

as an example.  What seems straight-forward can be really quite vague as we start to look into applying this “statute” to specific cases.  For example:

Alice is in an “open relationship” with Barry.  Both she and Barry have agreed to allow the other to seek extra-marital sexual partners for one-time flings – given that consent is granted prior to any intercourse.  Alice has had sexual relations with men other than Barry [her only husband], but she has always sought and obtained his permission for each of the encounters.

Barry [from the above example; married to Alice] has had some sexual relations with women other than Alice [his only wife], but maintains that – based on the original meaning of the Hebrew word “na’aph” – a man is not able to commit adultery.

Connor is married to two women.  Both know about the polygynous arrangement and both consented to it and find joy in it.  Connor engages in sexual relations with both women separately.

Darren is Christian.  Though he is married to only one woman and has only had sexual relations with his wife, he has imagined lust in his right-brain-heart towards other women.  Jesus Christ said:

But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.

Earl is Catholic.  Though he is married to only one woman and has not imagined lust in his right-brain-heart towards other women, he has imagined lust in his right-brain-heart towards his wife.  According to Pope John Paul II:

Adultery “in the heart” is committed not only because man “looks” in this way at a woman who is not his wife, but precisely because he looks at a woman in this way.  Even if he looked in this way at the woman who is his wife, he could likewise commit adultery “in his heart”.

Who in this group committed adultery – which did not?  For what reasons did that person commit or not commit adultery?  Answering these specific cases suddenly reveals how vague a simple command of “thou shalt not commit adultery” can really be.  Am I bound by what adultery would have meant to Moses when he wrote it – or by what the church currently interprets “adultery” to entail – or by what my wife and I have agreed would violate the terms of our marriage covenant?

The Scriptural Interpretation of Hot Drinks:

Another example is:

And again, hot drinks are not for the body or belly.

The current church method seems to be the “strict textual/contextual interpretation” method, wherein essentially all official exposition on the subject default to this quote from Brigham Young:

I have heard it argued that tea and coffee are not mentioned [in D&C 89]; that is very true; but what were the people in the habit of taking as hot drinks when that revelation was given?  Tea and coffee.  We were not in the habit of drinking water very hot, but tea and coffee — the beverages in common use.

However, Brigham Young is going thru some contextual reasoning.  He is answering the question in terms of what the saints were generally in the habit of drinking very hot.  He is not laying down a clear-cut definition of “hot drinks” so that “tea and coffee” simply can just be substituted in for the words “hot drinks” to make the revelation read:

And again, tea and coffee are not for the body or belly.

However, given Brigham’s line of reasoning, it could be argued that the Lord is counseling against habitually drinking things very hot — which for the early saints happened to be tea and coffee.  However, it doesn’t necessarily follow that those are the only two specific conceptions the Lord wanted the saints to be guided by.

Putting this into the perspective of the two schools of interpretive thought:

  • Are we bound by the specific conceptions of “hot drinks” – meaning we, today, should just not drink the things that people in the 1830’s were in the habit of drinking very hot [As Brigham was arguing] — such that even though tea and coffee are now often consumed cold, we still must avoid them?
  • Or are we bound to the general concept of “drinks that are hot” – meaning we, today, should not be in the habit of drinking anything very hot [regardless of what the early saints were habitually doing] — such that if the saints became in the habit of drinking apple cider or chocolate as “hot drinks”, then we must avoid those too?

Questions:

  • How do you interpret scripture?
  • Are you an “original meaning” kind of reader – or a “liken it to myself” kind of reader?
  • Might one be appropriate at some times, while the other more appropriate for others?
  • What are the implications of favoring one school of thought over the other?
  • How might an “original meaning” person give extra insight to a “liken it to myself” person.  What about the other way around?

Next Article by Justin:  The Healing Gifts
Previous Article by Justin:  The Will of God and Faith

Advertisements

7 Comments

  1. To answer some of my own questions, I wrote this post b/c I’ve come to believe that, in regards to D&C 89 and “hot drinks”, that:

    we [ought to be] bound to the general concept of “drinks that are hot” – meaning we, today, should not be in the habit of drinking anything very hot [regardless of what the early saints were habitually doing] — such that if the saints became in the habit of drinking apple cider or chocolate as “hot drinks”, then we must avoid those too.

    Though I do think that both have their merits and do supply important information at different times and in different contexts.

    I think, in general, that being guided by concepts is superior to figuring out the specific conceptions the original authors may have had in mind and then being guided by those. Perhaps I see the “original context” as only a good place to start — but that “liken to yourself” must follow.

    Thinking about my children as an example. I would rather they learn to govern their choices by the general concepts of “fairness”, “honesty”, “kindness”, etc. — than be limited to the specific conceptions I and my wife have of these things.

    They may be in circumstances that I could not have foreseen or imagined — I don’t want them limited to my current understanding, but would rather them go on to expand the understanding [while remaining grounded to solid concepts like “fairness”, “honesty”, “kindness”, etc.].

  2. •How do you interpret scripture?

    I don’t really know how to answer this question. I see literalism, as well as symbolism, as well as patterns, original meaning, general principles, etc., all in the scriptures. Sometimes I view a scripture in the original meaning, and sometimes I don’t. If I know the original meaning, or think I know the original meaning, I tend towards that, for I want to know what the prophet had view of when he gave his prophecy.

    •Are you an “original meaning” kind of reader – or a “liken it to myself” kind of reader?

    I think I tend towards original meaning, but I also see other interpretations in the scriptures. There are many levels to the scriptures and I often don’t see just one of them. You’ve read many of my own writings. What would you peg me as?

    •Might one be appropriate at some times, while the other more appropriate for others?

    I think so, depending on what you are trying to teach or learn. My understanding is that we are bound to the original meaning, insofar as we know and understand it, which might be considered the letter of the law, but we are also to know and understand (and conform our lives to) the principles behind the “liken it to myself” rule, which might be considered the spirit of the law. Both are important aspects, I believe.

    •What are the implications of favoring one school of thought over the other?

    I don’t think we should favor one side of the other. I think we should live both. If one side is favored, we run the risk of coming up short, either short because we didn’t live the letter of the law, or short because we didn’t enlarge our souls with the spirit of the law. The letter is the minimum standard, incompassing the finite, while the spirit builds upon that letter, encompassing the infinite, but both are important.

    •How might an “original meaning” person give extra insight to a “liken it to myself” person. What about the other way around?

    Original meaning persons are a great help in that they can clear up what is actually required to be lived. If the original meaning is not known, there may be as many interpretations as there are persons interpreting, causing our standard works to be no standard whatsoever by which to measure anything. That creates confusion. The spirit (liken it to myself) ought to build upon the original meaning, not vice versa. I believe we should start with the minimim standard (the finite), and then work outward to the infinite, not vice versa. When you start with the liken all scriptures to myself model first, the original meaning doesn’t hold a whole lot of weight, because it becomes just one of many infinite ways to interpret the scripture. Beginning with original meaning grounds the soul to the one meaning, and then they can add other meanings as they gain insight through the Spirit to the levels of scriptural understanding. In this way, the original meaning always remains an integral and important part of the gospel, in which to incorporate into one’s life, if applicable.

    Obviously, the law of expediency applies, so knowing the general principle is important, as the conditions among men are not always constant or the same. So, I guess I’m in both camps.

  3. You’ve read many of my own writings. What would you peg me as?
    Your quotes of the 1828 Websters seem to place you in the “original meaning” camp. I like the way you termed the “original meaning” as the starting place — and then saying we should go on and build with “liken to yourself” as the application.

    The letter is the minimum standard, incompassing the finite, while the spirit builds upon that letter, encompassing the infinite, but both are important.
    This reminds me of the right-brain/left-brain distinctions. The left-brain, searching for original meaning [definitions, etymologies, greek words, history, etc.] — with the right-brain infinitely applying the concept, not bound by any one meaning.

    Original meaning persons are a great help in that they can clear up what is actually required to be lived. If the original meaning is not known, there may be as many interpretations as there are persons interpreting, causing our standard works to be no standard whatsoever by which to measure anything.
    I like this also b/c most often, replies to posts like “Law of Chastity: What it is and what it isn’t“, or posts on the “surplus” model of tithing are met with claims that: “You are just trying to lower the bar” or “excuse transgression” — when really you aren’t trying to lower the bar, but are trying to place the bar where it really is. The minimal standard that “liking to yourself” can elaborate on as different circumstances arise.

  4. I like the post because it help examine that there is indeed different aspects of using and following the scriptures.
    I believe something that has served me well is that I try to see the principle which was being expressed by the author and then try to make sure all applications include this same principle. This is just speaking of using the scriptures to decide action based questions such as things to do and things to avoid how to do and how to act.
    For example in D&C 119 on tithing I realize the first part of the principle refers to a surplus. And then if you change the word (pervert the meaning) from interest to income the second part now refers to non surplus. And there is no indication that it should not continue to be based upon surplus. So reading it as interest and not income retains the principle.
    So I believe that is very important. We can go far afield by broadening the ”principle” so much that the intent is perverted.
    In today’s church we have gone so far that we make non sins into serious sins. Kissing out of wedlock is a sin. Thinking for yourself is a sin.
    And LDSA as you say, ”I don’t think we should favor one side of the other. I think we should live both.”
    So your writings do that. At times they are very original text meaning based. At other times they are the broader intent and likened to our circumstances.

  5. I think alcohol is the hot drink mentioned in the Word of Wisdom because it causes a warming sensation as it goes down. Japanese slurp soup so hot it would burn the throat out of a westerner. Surely this does bodily damage, however I cannot see the General Authorities outlawing soup.

    The Word of Wisdom can never be a legitimate law because subjectiveness prevents it. For example, it can be argued that a severely obese person has a greater health risk than an occasional drinker. However, to judge the allowable degree to which a person can be overweight and still meet the word of wisdom requires subjective reasoning. The Lord knew issues such as these would prevent a fair interpretation of the W of W so it was never made a law.

  6. Mossman — what I like about your answer is that it looks at what the word “hot” can generally mean to us today, rather than what is typically done within the Church [i.e. to define it in terms of what it meant to them in the 1830s].

    However, per LDSA’s comment on this thread:

    Original meaning persons are a great help in that they can clear up what is actually required to be lived.

    — would you say that tea and coffee [regardless of temperature] are to be avoided.

    The spirit (liken it to myself) ought to build upon the original meaning, not vice versa. I believe we should start with the minimim standard (the finite), and then work outward to the infinite, not vice versa.

    And then insights on distilled drinks being “warming” or caffeinated drinks being “exciting” in nature [or whatever] should then be added to the basic “tea and coffee” advice?

  7. So — when applying the concept of original intent to “hot drinks” — does one conclude that:

    (1) The specific drinks that LDS were in the habit of drinking hot at the time the revelation was given are not for the belly [even if we are no longer in the habit of drinking them hot anymore]

    (2) LDS should never be in the habit of drinking anything hot [for them it was tea and coffee, for us it might be something else]

    (3) Some manner of answer that includes both

    ?


Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Comments RSS