Scriptural originalism

Searching for the meaning of Scripture



The world has recently observed the brutal machinations surrounding the nomination of a new Supreme Court judge in the US. The criteria upon which the suitability of candidates is evaluated largely revolves around their approach to interpreting the founding documents of the United States, primarily the US Constitution. Broadly, judges fall into two categories; those who are originalists and textualists, and those who are not.

Originalism is “a legal philosophy that the words in documents and especially the U.S. Constitution should be interpreted as they were understood at the time they were written”1 by those that framed and ratified the Constitution and its various amendments. Textualism is closely aligned to Originalism and holds that when applying the law, the words of the Constitution itself are to be the final authority. In essence, originalists believe that when interpreting the Constitution, the purpose of the writers, the historical meaning of the words they used, and the words themselves should define the application of the Constitution in applying laws.

Judges who are non-originalists believe that interpretation of the Constitution should evolve in line with changing cultural, moral and social mores. It does not take much contemplation to realise the incredibly subjective nature of this approach. The late Supreme Court Judge Antonin Scalia argued that this approach meant that if judges, “are not bound by words and history, they will inevitably exceed the limits of their judicial authority and, like ’activists’ or ‘super-legislators,’ make the Constitution say whatever they want.”2

It was this latter approach that was used over the past generation to deny equal treatment before the law to persons to whom the Constitution guarantees this protection—that is, the unborn. Life and liberty were arbitrarily denied to developing babies merely by stripping them of their ‘constitutional personhood’. The Roe v. Wade decision expressly excluded human fetuses from definition as a person. Justice Blackmun’s conclusion was, “the word ‘person,’ as used in the 14th Amendment, does not include the unborn.”3 That would have been a shock to the Framers!

The same approach to the law has been used to undermine and destroy many other foundational values of western society. It is an approach that brings to mind Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass (1872) – “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that's all.” In other words, if you make yourself master over the meaning of words, you can make them mean anything you want.

In the recent Supreme Court nomination furor, Evangelicals were often named by the media as supporters of the originalist nominee. The reason for this is obvious as to hold on to biblical mores and values, a fidelity to the culturally Christian context within which the constitution was framed is essential. It is therefore a bitter irony that many of these same evangelicals do not take an originalist position on our own ‘founding document’ as Christians, the Bible—particularly the ‘preamble’ to the Bible, the opening chapters of Genesis. Many (in fact most) evangelical leaders today have abandoned the fundamental principle of a historical-grammatical approach to their interpretation of the scriptures when it comes to origins. This approach basically entails the idea that the original meaning of the words and the intentions of the authors are essential in rightly understanding and interpreting the Bible. The scriptures are divinely inspired and therefore stand on their own authority.

There can be no doubt as to the intent of the original writers of Genesis. In a well-known quote the Oxford Hebrew scholar James Barr, himself hostile to the Genesis account of creation a few thousand years ago, nevertheless asserts,

“… probably, so far as I know, there is no professor of Hebrew or Old Testament at any world-class university who does not believe that the writer(s) of Genesis 1–11 intended to convey to their readers the ideas that:

  • creation took place in a series of six days which were the same as the days of 24 hours we now experience
  • the figures contained in the Genesis genealogies provided by simple addition a chronology from the beginning of the world up to later stages in the biblical story
  • Noah’s flood was understood to be world-wide and extinguish all human and animal life except for those in the ark.”

More recently, the Christian philosopher and theologian William Lane Craig made the following statements:

“Amidst all the debate, one thing I am relatively certain of is that the traditional view of the church (not to mention Judaism) is that Adam and Eve are the sole progenitors of the entire human race …

I suspect that many of the outlandish interpretations of the opening chapters of Genesis (e.g., so-called “functional creation” or the day-age theory) are motivated by the dread fear that biblical theology pursued independently of modern science would reveal that the Young Earth Creationists are right and, hence, the task of the systematic theologian becomes hopeless. If the Young Earth biblical theology of creation is the correct interpretation, then we face two very difficult choices: either (1) try to defend the scientific viability of a 10-20,000 year old universe, which seems, as I said, hopeless, or else (2) revise one’s doctrine of biblical inspiration and authority so as to allow Scripture to teach error …

I’ve been reading this week the Genesis Commentary by the eminent Old Testament scholar Gerhard von Rad. Again and again von Rad seems to side with the Young Earther that Genesis is to be interpreted scientifically and factually rather than mythically or figuratively. Does he therefore agree with Young Earth Creationism? Of course not! "4 [Emphasis added]

Note the amazing admissions Craig made there! Craig understands that the longstanding traditional view in both Christianity and Judaism is that the writers of Genesis were recording historical events, people, places and chronologies. Elsewhere Craig also states, “The really hard part for that, though, is that Jesus and Paul seemed to take it [Genesis 1, 2 & 3] literally.”5 Barr and Craig admit that an originalist approach to the Bible seems to lead to a historical creation a few thousand years ago. A careful reading of Craig’s words leads one to suspect he is questioning this longstanding traditional interpretation, however. He seems to be open to the possibility that the church has been seriously misunderstanding the original intent of the opening chapter of the Bible for thousands of years. Apparently, what the church had been missing all along was the uniformitarian speculations of anti-biblical geologists like Charles Lyell!

Many evangelicals, Craig included, have been intimidated by the claims of scientists (working within the constraints of philosophical naturalism) into questioning that plain reading or believing that interpretation is wrong. Their authority has sadly become secular scientific consensus over against the clear testimony of Scripture. Craig continues to apply himself to the question, and so far is non-committal on the historicity of the creation account and Adam and Eve specifically, and by extension, the creation history of Genesis. We can certainly pray he winds up taking a strong stand for the Bible in the end.

And so, many Christian leaders and theologians have adopted one of the ‘outlandish interpretations’ that Craig alluded to and have embraced a non-originalist approach to Scripture. It is little wonder, then, that like the retreating morality of the Western world since becoming unglued from its biblical worldview, the church also finds itself on foundations of quicksand as it tries to defend Christian values. Like politics, Christianity also finds itself downstream from culture. There was a time when biblical values, founded upon the rock of inspired revelation from God, drove the cultures they permeated.

While individual churches may be numerically growing for various reasons, on a broad front the church is in retreat (at least in the West). The church increasingly does not ‘hear [the original meaning of] Moses and the prophets.’ We should therefore not be surprised when the unbelieving world will not be convinced, “even if someone should rise from the dead.” (Luke 16:31)

Jesus was clearly a scriptural originalist as were the Apostles, most of the early church Fathers and Reformers. All Christians should be as well.

Published: 20 November 2018

References and notes

  1. Merriam Webster online dictionary accessed 9 October 2018. Return to text.
  2. Levy, K. The Problems With Originalism, New York Times online editorial, March 22, 2017. Return to text.
  3. Weaver, Jr., W., High Court Rules Abortions Legal the First 3 Months, archive.nytimes.com, accessed 29 October 2018. Return to text.
  4. Craig, W., #588 The Historical Adam, reasonablefaith.org, 22 July 2018. Return to text.
  5. Craig, W., The Historical Adam and Eve, reasonablefaith.org, 1 February 2015. Return to text.

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