Tuesday, January 12, 2010

What the federal judiciary can teach us about biblical hermeneutics


This week, a U.S. district court judge will hear arguments regarding the constitutionality of state-passed same-sex marriage bans, specifically Proposition 8, passed by the citizens of California in 2008.  The decision will have far-reaching consequences as it will create a precedent affecting similar bans in other states. 

The case is considered a first in litigation concerning same-sex marriage, in that both sides will be calling witnesses to testify before the court.  The challengers of the ban will call to the stand the two same-sex couples who filed the suit, as well as 10 or so experts who will testify about the history of discrimination against homosexuals and the history of marriage.  Supporters of the ban will also call witnesses who will testify about the history of marriage and argue that traditional marriage is more beneficial for children. 

What is striking to me is that of all the news reports I have read on this, none have mentioned witnesses being called to argue directly about the constitutionality of Proposition 8.  In other words, in a case tasked with determining the constitutionality of same-sex marriage bans, it appears that no one is going to appeal to or argue from the text of the United States Constitution.  The only witnesses mentioned in press coverage are those who will argue points of history and sociology.  It sounds as if constitutionality will be decided by arguing the reasonableness of Proposition 8 rather than whether or not it violates the Constitution. 

For me this kind of argumentation bears a strong resemblance to much of the biblical interpretation that can be found in not only the liberal denominations today, but also in the evangelical church.  As many of you know, biblical hermeneutics is the study of the principles of interpreting the biblical text.  One of the foundational principles of sound hermeneutics is that the key question in bible study is that of authorial intent.  What did the author mean by what he wrote?  We believe that the meaning of the text was imparted by the author.  However, there are those liberal theologians, and now many in the emergent movement, who believe that meaning is imparted by the reader.  That is, what the author wrote can mean any number of things depending on who is reading it.  For these folks, the key question is not “what did the author mean by what he wrote?” but rather “what does the text mean to me?”  By this unfounded hermeneutic, literally any interpretation is valid.

This is terribly dangerous because it results in a situation where my life shapes Scripture instead of Scripture shaping my life.  I’m reminded of the presidential campaign of 2000, when Al Gore argued that the U.S. Constitution is a “living document.”  What he meant by that is that the meaning of the words of that document should be allowed to change along with society.  In effect, that would mean that the intent of the framers of the Constitution should have little bearing on our interpretation of it today since the perceived sensibilities and needs of our society are different than they were 230 years ago.

Such a “hermeneutic” used to interpret the Constitution inevitably leads to the situation we now find in the Proposition 8 lawsuit in California.  When the authorial intent of a document is disregarded and the meaning of the words on the page can be molded to hold any meaning preferred by the interpreter, eventually the words themselves become meaningless and unnecessary.  Thus, we now have a judge in the Golden State preparing to rule on the constitutionality of a same-sex marriage ban based not on arguments drawn from the text of the Constitution, but rather on arguments drawn from the sociological sensibilities of those bringing the suit.

If interpreting a man-made document like the Constitution this way is dangerous, how much more dangerous is it to apply the same hermeneutic to God's Word?  It turns "thus saith the Lord" into "thus saith whoever is reading this."  God help the man or woman who denies words that God has said, or attribute to Him words that He did not.  Such a disregard for authorial intent in the Bible is what allows Rob Bell to say that when Jesus commands us to turn the other cheek (Matt 5:39) He is really encouraging us to stand up for ourselves.  (For a more thorough look at this particular exegetical atrocity, look here, here, and here.)  In other words, when the meaning of a passage of Scripture is infused by the reader instead of the author, a text can mean the exact opposite of what it says.  It can mean anything the reader wants.  And when we do that, we do not twist the words of a mere man, but of the eternal God.  This comes dangerously close to the scenario painted in Deut 18:20 of "the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak."  It is no small offense in the eyes of God.

Here is an extreme example to demonstrate how ridiculous it is to believe that the reader, or listener, determines meaning instead of the author or speaker.  Two men greet each other on a Sunday morning in the parking lot at church.  The first man says to the second, “Wow, that’s a nice car you have.”  The second man punches the first in the nose and yells, “How dare you call me a thief?”  The first replies, “That’s not at all what I meant!”  The second says, “Who cares what you meant.  I was offended.”

Absurd, I know, but you can see how such a method of interpretation renders communication completely meaningless.  Consider for a moment the chaos that would characterize our lives if we lived and made decisions based on “what I meant by what you said.”  It’s preposterous.  The fact is that we don’t live our lives that way, so neither should we interpret the Bible that way.

Just like a disregard for the authorial intent of the Constitution will lead to a country governed in a way that bears little resemblance to the desires of the framers, so also a disregard for the authorial intent of the Bible will lead to a church that bears little resemblance to the desires of the Author.  When interpreting the Scriptures, it is vital that we pursue the Author’s meaning, not our own.

How ironic that in an age when the separation of church and state is so highly valued, the federal judiciary provides us with a great lesson in Biblical hermeneutics: how not to interpret the Bible.

Posted by Greg Birdwell

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