Originalism in Theology and Law: Venerating Authoritative Texts

 

Ever since Marvin Olasky quoted SCOTX Justice Nathan Hecht on Harriet Miers’ originalism, I’ve been aware that there are connections between originalism in law and religion. I’ve done a bit of writing on the subject, including a failed unpublished essay and a draft of a chapter in a book that isn’t published either. Unlike the essay, the book is not a failed project; it’s just new and unfinished.

Mark Eckel, and I have agreed to be co-editors. Inshallah, we’ll put together our own chapters, the introduction chapter, and a proposal and get things underway sometime next year with a call for proposals from other possible authors. My finished chapter uncovers an important insight: Originalism in biblical theology is a bit more of an intentionalism, and originalism in American Constitutional law is a textualism, and there’s a reason for that difference.

In other words, originalism in theology looks for the meaning of the Bible in the intentions of the authors of the Bible, and originalism in law looks for the meaning of law to the text of the Constitution, not the intentions of the authors. The reason is simple: The sources of authority are different.

In the case of the Bible, the authority comes from G-d but runs through the minds of the prophets and apostles who gave us the Bible. In the case of the Constitution, the legal authority of the text comes from the sovereign people of the United States.

Where the authority of the text is, there is a clue to the original meaning. For the Bible, the meaning is determined by the authoritative authors. For the Constitution, the authors determine nothing since the text derives its authority entirely from the sovereign people; the meaning is where they can get at it–in the text.

At least, that’s what it looks like to me after studying both originalisms. People have often compared the hermeneutics of those who venerate the Bible with legal originalism. Rarely if ever have they focused on originalism as such, got both originalisms right, and uncovered this insight.

And this shows an important point about the veneration of a text. No originalist has any business venerating the Constitution except as a matter of law. It’s a merely human document; here’s a great article on the subject. As American law, it is supreme, but that’s all. As American law, it cannot err. As political theory, ethics, philosophy, and everything else, it can easily be wrong. We don’t venerate the Constitution because we don’t worship the American people; we can even fix the old thing if we want to, and sometimes we really need to.

The Bible is different. According to Christian theology, the Bible actually is without error, because its authors were divinely inspired. We don’t worship it, but because we worship G-d we are called to honor and obey the text in all matters.

Well, that’s all for now. In the meantime, Eckel’s and my previous work together is cheap on Kindle!

There are 6 comments.

  1. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    A thought-provoking piece on originalism.
    —–
    This conversation is part of our Group Writing Series under December’s theme of Veneration. There are plenty of dates still available. Have you had an encounter with a saint, or someone who is truly venerable? Is there a sports figure who you believe is venerated, and what do you think of it? What is venerated in our society today? We have some wonderful photo essays on Ricochet; perhaps you have a story to tell about nature, art, or architecture that points to subjects worth venerating. Have we lost the musical, written, visual language of veneration? The possibilities are endless! Why not start a conversation? Our schedule and sign-up sheet awaits
     
    As a heads-up, our January theme will be RenovationI’ll post the sign-up sheet mid-month.
    • #1
    • December 12, 2018, at 6:08 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  2. Arahant Member

    That is an interesting insight.

    • #2
    • December 12, 2018, at 6:16 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  3. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine Post author

    You know, with one more like, this thing could go places.

    • #3
    • December 13, 2018, at 2:25 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  4. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine Post author

    Saint Augustine:

    Ever since Marvin Olasky quoted SCOTX Justice Nathan Hecht on Harriet Miers’ originalism, I’ve been aware that there are connections between originalism in law and religion.

    Oh, wait. It goes back farther than that. I remember thinking of this in an undergrad philosophy course one time.

    • #4
    • December 14, 2018, at 4:28 AM PDT
    • Like
  5. Hank Rhody, on the blockchain Contributor

    Saint Augustine: or the Constitution, the authors determine nothing since the text derives its authority entirely from the sovereign people; the meaning is where they can get at it–in the text.

    …and two hundred fifty years of obscure and self-contradictory supreme court rulings. If you don’t protect your law with gnosticism then the hoi polloi might understand it, and then where would you be?

    • #5
    • December 14, 2018, at 9:14 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  6. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine Post author

    Incidentally, significant portions on originalism in law were drawn from Ricochet posts.

    • #6
    • December 14, 2018, at 10:15 PM PDT
    • 3 likes