Last week the news was filled with Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Confirmation Hearing. Undeterred by abhorrent behavior, unrelenting attacks, and political posturing by members of the committee, Judge Jackson provided calm and thoughtful responses to the questions that were asked. Underneath it all, the divide in our country – and the philosophical divide on how the Constitution is read — could not have been more clear. On the one hand are Originalists who focus on the text and the meaning of the text when it was written. These see the Constitution as set and unchanging. On the other hand are Loose Constructionists. These believe in a “Living Constitution” that has a dynamic meaning which is evolving and adapting to new circumstances. (An example of this would be the idea that married women and descendants of slaves are entitled to equal protection under the law, something not part of the 18th century practices of the ratifiers of the Constitution.)
The interesting thing for me about this is that the same exact divide becomes evident when you consider how to read the Bible. Is the Bible a literal, unchanging, “textbook for life,” that was set in stone when it was written down… or is it a living document with a dynamic meaning which needs to be continually renewed in the light of new circumstances? Is the Bible a book of set policies that must be followed or does it provide principles (for example love of neighbor, or justice for the poor), through which it must be read? Is the Bible the Word of God or is it the words of God which point to the Word of God who is Jesus? What about poetry, metaphor, or contextual references (and even humor) that we no longer understand? What about cultural norms or beliefs in Biblical days (such as the role of women, the understanding of marriage, of gender, of medicine, of mental illness, or even of the makeup of the universe) which we see very differently? What does all this mean when we try to apply the Bible to situations and a world or scientific world-view that the Biblical writers could not have imagined?
In seminary, I learned that the first step in understanding a text was exploring its “Sitz im Leben” – “setting in life” — of a text. The goal is trying to understand the meaning of text for those for whom it was written. If you have heard my sermons, you know that I love to dig deeply into a text and the culture and context in which it was written. That, however, isn’t the end of the process. The second step is to look at that text through the lens of the Gospel and through the lens of the life and love of Jesus himself. The third step is to ask what meaning that text might have for us, for our lives, and for things going on in our world today. This whole process is wrapped in prayer and openness to the Spirit, who Jesus tells us is leading us into truth (John 16:13) and making all things new.
How do you read the Bible? How do you read the Constitution? As you might be able to tell, I read both in the same way.
By Dean, Dr. Ben Shambaugh