Interpreting The Bible & The Constitution

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Both the Bible and the Constitution have the status of "Great Code," but each of these important texts is controversial as well as enigmatic. They are asked to speak to situations that their authors could not have anticipated on their own. In this book, one of our greatest religious historians brings his vast knowledge of the history of biblical interpretation to bear on the question of constitutional interpretation.
Jaroslav Pelikan compares the methods by which the official interpreters of the Bible and the Constitution-the Christian Church and the Supreme Court, respectively-have approached the necessity of interpreting, and reinterpreting, their important texts. In spite of obvious differences, both texts require close, word-by-word exegesis, an awareness of opinions that have gone before, and a willingness to ask new questions of old codes, Pelikan observes. He probes for answers to the question of what makes something authentically "constitutional" or "biblical," and he demonstrates how an understanding of either biblical interpretation or constitutional interpretation can illuminate the other in important ways.
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Editorial Reviews

Claremont Review of Books
. . .a characteristically brilliant and original conceptual overview, one that generations of scholars will need to read—and interpret.—Christopher Levenick, Claremont Review of Books

— Christopher Levenick

Claremont Review of Books - Christopher Levenick
“. . .a characteristically brilliant and original conceptual overview, one that generations of scholars will need to read—and interpret.”—Christopher Levenick, Claremont Review of Books
Library Journal
Pelikan, an internationally acclaimed scholar of the Christian tradition, has written a small but magisterial study of the two great codes that engage the attention and allegiance of American religionists: the Bible and the Constitution. Both codes, Pelikan states, are normative and apodictic. Both have also produced doctrine and heresy and are capable of being interpreted, even amended, by juridically structured agencies. Pelikan writes brilliantly and insightfully about the development of doctrine-both political and religious-and about how such development needs to be characterized by the vigorous and tenacious reverence for the defining authority of the original charters of Bible and Constitution. An outstanding contribution to the ongoing civic conversation in the United States, this work is recommended for all academic libraries as well as for public libraries with a strong religion or politics circulation.-David I. Fulton, Coll. of St. Elizabeth, Morristown, NJ Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300102673
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 4/1/2004
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 232
  • Sales rank: 1,013,691
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.69 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Interpreting the Bible & the Constitution

By Jaroslav Pelikan

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2004 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-10267-3

Chapter One

Normative Scripture-Christian and American

The law his meditation night and day (Ps 1.2 NEB)

A Personal Introduction

In spite of my own preferences and contrary to my long-standing wont, I have let myself be persuaded, by those who ought to know, that it would be appropriate to begin this seemingly unlikely (perhaps even presumptuous) investigation with a personal note of explanation of why it does not at all represent the attempt of a historian of Christian doctrine to retool himself into a constitutional lawyer, but a continuity of interest and even of methodology. For in an academic variant on the familiar come-on line, "So what's a nice person like you doing in a place like this?" students, colleagues, and friends have repeatedly asked me-sometimes "challenged" would probably be more accurate-to justify why a cultural and intellectual historian whose bibliography includes monographs on a broad range of literary and philosophical texts, from Plato's Timaeus to Goethe's Faust, should have devoted the greater part of a long scholarly career to the unfashionable enterprise of editing,translating, and interpreting the creeds, confessions, and biblical exegesis of the church. This began in 1946 with a dissertation that included the first English translation of The [First] Bohemian Confession of 1535 (although the translation itself was not printed until 2003). To those questioners who identify themselves with the mainstream of the Christian tradition, I have often responded with one of my favorite quotations from Cardinal John Henry Newman's Apologia pro vita sua (which may, for that matter, be more true of me than it was of him): "I have changed in many things: in this I have not. From the age of fifteen, dogma has been the fundamental principle of my religion: I know no other religion." But when others, who stand outside that tradition or who identify themselves as "secular humanists," have pressed me about the nature of "dogma" as the normative teaching of the church in relation to the doctrinal authority of the Bible, I have found that the most helpful analogy for it is the authority of the United States Constitution in American society and its complex relation to the standing of the Supreme Court of the United States as its official and decisive interpreter.

The parallel between the two is, of course, far from being my own discovery. For example, a well-known study published by the distinguished constitutional scholar Edward Corwin in 1959, The "Higher Law" Background of American Constitutional Law, opens with the sentence: "The Reformation superseded an infallible Pope with an infallible Bible; the American Revolution replaced the sway of a king with that of a document." But most considerations of this parallel have, for understandable and valid reasons, focused on the question of the authority of the two texts rather than on the question of the proper methods for interpreting them. This question of the analogy between the methods of interpreting the two Scriptures, Christian and American, was especially on my mind during the years when I was preparing, in collaboration with Valerie Hotchkiss, a critical edition, in four volumes (including as one volume my historical and theological introduction, entitled Credo), of Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition. The examination of the use of the Bible in these creeds and confessions, and then of the use of these creeds and confessions themselves in the life of the churches, made me reflect on the issues that in two chapters of Credo I called "Confessional Rules of Biblical Hermeneutics" and "Rules of Confessional Hermeneutics." There is a direct continuity between that inquiry and this one, which compares the several versions of official hermeneutics that the councils and confessions of the church over the centuries have applied to Christian Scripture with the several versions of official hermeneutics that the Supreme Court over the centuries has applied to American Scripture. For example, it was the application of the constitutional and legal categories of enactment, ratification, and enforcement to the functioning of the doctrinal authority of creeds and confessions of faith in the various churches that gave me the framework for a study of the authority of "Creed as Church Law," which puts into a larger context the clouded issues related to the requirement of "confessional subscription" as a test of orthodoxy and to the processes of conciliar, creedal, and confessional "reception."

Then, on 1 July 2002, the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands and the Oxford University Press appointed me the Scholarly Director of their joint "Institutions of Democracy" project. Although this appointment came as something of a surprise to some-including, I confess, to myself at first-my preparation for taking on this unusual assignment has in fact been both scholarly and administrative. On the scholarly side, the project has become an ideal vehicle for this long-standing interest of mine in the analogies between biblical and constitutional hermeneutics, which is acquiring a new relevance for me, and, I hope, new substance and depth as well. On the administrative side, I was the dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Yale (1973-1978), later the president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1994-1997), and then the president of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (2000-2001). Through these associations I had come to know the work of many of the scholars who are now participating in the Sunnylands Institutions of Democracy project, and I learned that providing scholarly leadership for a cooperative academic enterprise can be rewarding and productive. I have benefited enormously-as a person, as a citizen, and as a scholar-from the opportunity to carry on my private education in public by listening to and reading the distinguished colleagues, especially from political science, law, education, communication, and American history, who have been contributing to this large-scale project, and thus also, at least indirectly, to this modest essay.

Great Code There is a familiar and venerable text, centuries old by now, which is the product of multiple authorship (although even after generations of historical research and literary analysis we are not always in a position to determine with absolute precision just who wrote, or rewrote, which parts of it). The text was originally composed under very specific circumstances, which modern historical scholarship has done much to illumine. But far transcending the history of its original composition is its official standing ever since, for it has been adopted by a community as its normative Great Code, and therefore as occupying a position that in some profound sense stands beyond its own history: in Ralph Waldo Emerson's fighting words of 1838, "not spake but speaketh!" That normative status is based on the assumption that it can be applied to any and all of the radically changed situations of later times, many of which the writers who originally framed it could not themselves conceivably have foreseen. Every official action of the community thus has had the obligation of conforming to it, or any rate of not violating it, and of demonstrating that conformity when challenged to do so; and members of the community are under the strictest possible obligation to obey it. Therefore its words and phrases have for centuries called forth meticulous and sophisticated-and sometimes painfully convoluted-interpretation, as well as continual reinterpretation. By now, this interpretation has grown into a massive corpus of authoritative, if often controversial, commentary. Yet the text does not itself prescribe the method of such interpretation; nor does it specifically identify the authoritative agency that bears the ultimate responsibility for determining the binding interpretation, much less for revising it.

As it stands, that Ciceronian period would accurately describe both Christian Scripture and American Scripture, both the Bible of the Christian Church and the Constitution of the American Republic. Both of these texts are certainly "familiar." Indeed, their words and phrases have become so much a part of our vernacular speech that those who use them are often unaware of where they were said first. Although such sayings have become proverbial (and some of them may also have originated as proverbs), "a house divided against itself" appeared in the Gospels (Mk 3.25) and was being quoted from that source long before it was invoked in 1858 by Abraham Lincoln, to whom it is often attributed; and "by the skin of my teeth" is from the Book of Job (Jb 19.20). In the "ordinary language" of Americans, such phrases as "full faith and credit" (art. 4, sec. 1) and even "due process" (amend. 5) seem to have acquired a generalized meaning that is sometimes quite independent of their appearance in the Constitution. Conversely, words from everyday language have acquired a very specialized meaning from the way they are used in one or the other of these two texts. Chapters in a seventeenth-century confession of the Dutch Reformed Church bearing headings such as "A Single Decision of Election" or "Election Unchangeable" have nothing to do with political campaigns or vote counts, but with "election" understood as divine predestination, because of New Testament usage, including the admonition "Give diligence to make your ... election sure, for if ye do these things, ye shall never fail" (2 Pt 1.10 AV). Because of constitutional usage, the Fifth Amendment provision, "nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation" (amend. 5), has contributed to the vocabulary a special meaning for "taking," as in the epigram of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., "If regulation goes too far it will be recognized as taking," or even the plural "takings," as a name for the more specifically legal term "eminent domain," which goes back at least as far as Hugo Grotius. Such constitutional usage has made it possible for Thurston Greene and his colleagues in 1991 to compile a massive lexicon of the Constitution in a thousand pages, and for Albert P. Blaustein to prepare The Bicentennial Concordance, both of which bear a strong family resemblance to the basic reference works of biblical scholarship.

Both texts are centuries old by now, whether two or twenty, and both are "venerable" and even venerated and enshrined. As the fathers of the Second Vatican Council put it in their Decree on Ecumenism, "love and reverence, almost a cult, for Holy Scripture leads our [separated Protestant] brothers and sisters to a constant and expert study of the sacred text," which in the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation of that council Roman Catholics were urged to emulate. To attend the opening session of the Supreme Court is to witness a solemn ceremony, almost a kind of secular liturgy, complete with the symbols of ritual, incantations, and vestments. In a description that the Court itself provided in a decision regarding religious exercises in public schools, "The sessions of this Court are declared open by the crier in a short ceremony, the final phrase of which invokes the grace of God." Therefore, as Justice William O. Douglas once joked in another such case, "A fastidious atheist or agnostic could even object to the supplication with which the Court opens each session: 'God save the United States and this Honorable Court.'" With the reduction in the private authority of Christian Scripture, and especially in its public authority, American Scripture has been called upon to fill some of the gap. At least for some Americans, therefore, the Ten Amendments of the Bill of Rights now seem to provide a version of the function that used to be performed for their grandparents by the Ten Commandments of the Decalogue-with the arts often being called upon to provide them with a substitute for the mystical experience of divine transcendence. As Thomas C. Grey has put it, "America would have no national church ...; yet the worship of the Constitution would serve the unifying function of a national civil religion."

More functionally, the Bible was taken to be "profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work" (2 Tm 3.16-17); and the Constitution was likewise, in a description by Chief Justice John Marshall that was to become axiomatic for the Supreme Court ever after, "intended to endure for ages to come, and consequently, to be adapted to the various crises of human affairs." Although "source" and "norm" can sometimes stand in a coordinate position in the definition of the authority of Christian Scripture, it is helpful for the historical examination both of Christian Scripture and of American Scripture to distinguish between them. For although the historical sources of laws and of doctrines have been many and varied, each of these texts has been adopted by its community as its norm, in the expectation that in those "ages to come," with all their "various crises of human affairs," it would continue to be applicable to all kinds of crises and needs, many of which, in the words of Justice Holmes, "could not have been foreseen completely by the most gifted of its begetters." Consequently, as Justice Joseph McKenna summarized,

Time works changes, brings into existence new conditions and purposes. Therefore a principle to be vital must be capable of wider application than the mischief which gave it birth. This is peculiarly true of constitutions. They are not ephemeral enactments, designed to meet passing occasions.... In the application of a constitution, therefore, our contemplation cannot be only of what has been but of what may be. Under any other rule a constitution would indeed be as easy of application as it would be deficient in efficacy and power. Its general principles would have little value and be converted by precedent into impotent and lifeless formulas. Rights declared in words might be lost in reality.

It is probably supererogatory to point out that all of this, not least the danger of confusing "words" with "reality" and of reciting "impotent and lifeless formulas," is also "peculiarly true" of the Bible and its adherents.


Excerpted from Interpreting the Bible & the Constitution by Jaroslav Pelikan Copyright © 2004 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 Normative Scripture - Christian and American 1
2 Cruxes of interpretation in the Bible an the Constitution 38
3 The sensus literalis and the quest for original intent 76
4 Development of doctrine : patterns and criteria 115
Notes 151
Bibliography 185
Indexes 207
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