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?

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