I love political cartoons. They combine two of my favorite things: humor and free speech. One recently caught my attention depicting the Founding Fathers writing the Constitution. Someone (maybe Jefferson?) said something to the effect of: “OK, to sum it up, the first amendment deals with all speech including what might be said in the future on the internet, and the second amendment deals only with muskets.”
In a recent debate, one side argued for repeal of the Second Amendment…if not a full repeal then limiting the right to bear arms to muskets or flintlocks. Mark Alexander’s response: “Using your ‘logic,’ the First Amendment’s freedom of speech would only apply to the town crier, and freedom of the press would only apply to opinions written with a quill pen on parchment.”
The cartoon and the comment are funny because interpreting the Constitution is notoriously difficult. It wasn’t always, but as the years have passed and times have changed, its meaning isn’t always clear. What did the Founders mean? Does their intent even matter? What does it mean for 2018?
I would argue that one of the greatest factors leading to President Trump’s surprising election was his pledge to nominate a chief justice of the Supreme Court who was a “strict constructionist,” someone who interprets the founding documents of our nation based on their original intent (as much as can be discerned).
On the other side is the idea that the Constitution is a “living document,” an idea made famous by Justice Thurgood Marshall. Here, the founding documents of our nation demand interpretation based on current moral, political, and cultural trends.
Which is it? What it meant or what it means? This interests me because it is one of my fields of academic study: Hermeneutics (the Greek word for “interpretation”). In this field, one seeks to determine how to interpret a text and how to establish principles to make interpretation more accurate.
Hermeneutics matters to me not only as an American who values the Constitution, but also as a Christian who values the Bible. Is God’s Word, ancient though it may be, true at face value? Is its meaning as simple and plain as it seems? Or does the meaning “depend” on current mores.
Perhaps, as it was suggested in the DRC forum recently, when our modern cultures and values change, so too God’s Word. Maybe we prefer the black and white statements in the Bible because they are “safe” in a brave new world of multiplicity.
In other words, maybe God’s clear denunciation of divorce, homosexuality, transsexuality, adultery, abortion, etc. was true back then, but life is more complex now. That was then…this is now. That was them…this is us.
Hermeneutics revolves around four simple questions that aren’t necessarily easy to answer. First, “What did it mean?” Like a good beat reporter we ask all the “W” questions of the text (who, what, when, where, why). We observe. We look at the context, grammar, and conjunctions used all with the goal of discovering authorial intent. To paraphrase biblical scholar Gordon Fee, “The text can’t mean what it never meant.”
In one sense, once this question is answered the interpretation process is complete. What begins now is the process of making application of the text. So the next question is “What has changed?” What is the separation of time, space, and culture between then and now? The difference is sometimes subtle, other times glaring – like flintlocks and AR-15s.
Next, “What is the principle of the text?” Even though times have changed, some things, including human nature, do not. Does the text reflect a fundamental truth or proposition that is timeless and not tied to a specific situation or culture? Is the principle supported elsewhere within the document? Is it contradicted? Is the principle relevant then and now?
Finally, “How does this apply to my life?” This is the money question. I believe that the Bible is straightforward and easy to understand (for the most part). Like Occam’s razor, the easier reading – the plain and simple – is preferred. If you have to have a Ph.D. to grasp the meaning, or have to explain-away straightforward statements, the interpretation is probably wrong. The same is true with our Constitution. The question, really, is whether or not we want to submit to the principles they contain, or do we want to make our own rules.
If we value the text as a guideline for life or for governance, we must take the principle of the text and apply it to a specific situation we find ourselves in today. Don’t leave the meaning of the text stranded in history or some abstract proposition! Grapple with it. Discover how we should respond today, in our lives. How does it apply in real life?
Back to our current issues. The “right of the people to keep and bear arms,” the bold statement that this right is God-given and inalienable, and the promise that the right won’t be infringed by our government is about as straightforward a statement as you’ll find in a two-hundred-thirty-one year old document.
Similarly, the Bible speaks very plainly about divorce, homosexuality, transsexuality, adultery, abortion and the like, usually including multiple supporting statements made throughout the sixty-six books that make the canon.
Certainly things have changed over the years in our society. What hasn’t changed is the Scriptures…and the Constitution. The only question: Will we submit ourselves to their authority and will we abide by their wisdom?