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Originalism & the Bible

posted Feb 16, 2016, 10:47 AM by First Baptist

The death of Justice Antonin Scalia is a big blow to those who ascribe to the political philosophy of conservatism.


The dictionary defines conservatism as “a political philosophy based on tradition and social stability, stressing established institutions, and preferring gradual development to abrupt change.”


Justice Scalia was a leading spokesperson for such a philosophy.




Closely related to conservatism is the idea of originalism.


Originalism is the belief that the original intent of the constitutional authors, and/or the original meaning of the constitutional language, should determine how the Constitution is interpreted today. This is to be distinguished from modernism, which holds that the meaning of the Constitution can change over time as the legal and cultural context of the law changes.


What is really comes down to is this: Who determines the meaning of a text? Does the author, or the reader?


This is probably a simplification, but conservatives tend to ascribe to originalism, while liberals or progressives tend to ascribe to modernism.


Justice Scalia opposed last summer’s gay marriage ruling on the basis of originalism. He argued that the writers of the Constitutional never envisioned gay marriage as a fundamental right; thus, if society wanted to give homosexuals the right to marry, it needed to accomplish that through the peoples’ elected representatives, not through the opinion of 5 unelected judges.


The Bible


The originalism versus modernism debate also applies to our reading of Scripture. Again, the issue comes down to who determines its meaning: Does the author control the meaning of a text, or do we as the reader?


I suspect that virtually all of us would say that the author determines the meaning of a biblical text (the author being Paul, John, Moses, et al). However, I’m afraid that, as a practical matter, we often put ourselves in the role of deciding or determining meaning.


We do this by reading a text and then immediately asking: What does this say (or mean) to me?


What we should be asking is: What did the author intend to convey to his original audience? Once we get that nailed down, we can then reflect on how the author’s meaning might apply to us today.


An Example


Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:


Currently, I’m preparing to preach on Jesus’ miracle of changing the water into wine (John 2:1-11). A modernist might say, “This text means that Jesus is okay with drinking wine or alcohol.”


It’s true that the Bible doesn’t specifically prohibit drinking wine or alcohol, but the Apostle John wasn’t intending, in John 2, to instruct anyone on the advisability of drinking alcohol. He had an entirely different intent or purpose in mind when he included this miracle in his Gospel. (We’ll find out what it is on Sunday.)


Those who are modernists (non-originalists) with respect to biblical interpretation end up denying God as the ultimate author of the Scriptures and indeed puts man in the place of God.


Pastor Dan