AuthorityTheology & Spirituality

Sola Scriptura and Interpretive Paradox

In most Christian circles, the simple statement that “Christians interpret the Bible in a different way than they interpret the Constitution” would probably be largely uncontroversial.

The intuitive objection to juxtaposing the documents in this way–that the Bible is the Word of God, while the Constitution is man’s words–does not directly address the interesting paradox: why do many political and theological conservatives use interpretively “liberal” language (“underlying purpose,” “culturally specific,” “not literal”) in their interpretation of certain normative words of the Bible, while denouncing such an interpretive methodology where the Constitution is concerned? And, from the perspective of a principled interpreter, why and how should the texts be treated differently?

Why does this matter?

Among those who favor biblical literalism, one niche theological perspective gaining ground in certain Reformed Protestant circles is “biblical theonomy,” a position that favors the construction of a society structured around the Mosaic civil law. From the theonomist perspective, taking Scriptural commands to their logical conclusion is a consistent and principled approach to interpretation that resolves the aforementioned paradox–even if it involves executing disobedient children and stoning the adulterous.

Though most who stumble onto theonomist arguments immediately write off their positions as extreme and unconscionable (and I at times have been guilty of this visceral response), those who identify as both theologically and politically conservative ought not ignore the theonomist intellectual position: it poses a legitimate challenge. Jesus’s words in Matthew 5:17–“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”–are admittedly ambiguous where this specific problem is concerned.

In the interests of sketching a coherent interpretive paradigm that supports both theological and legal conservatism without leading to theonomy, I suggest that theonomy ought to be rejected due to interpretive problems arising along two axes: empirical and theological.

As a prefatory note, constitutional conservatism is traditionally associated with originalism, a philosophy of approaching the text in such a way that its words are understood to reflect their original public meaning. Accordingly, when considering the legitimacy of a “search” or “seizure” under the Fourth Amendment, the conservative judge ought to ask “what constituted an unreasonable search or seizure at the time the Constitution was adopted” and rule accordingly. While sometimes decried by its critics as barbarically outdated, the traditional rejoinder is that originalism provides a conceptual grounding that prevents the Constitution from being twisted to mean anything an interpreter wishes.

The empirical problem of interpreting the Old Testament according to this model may be summed up as a “deficit of relevant information.” Whereas the interpreter of a constitutional text has access to other materials that shed light on the “original public meaning” of a text, the interpreter of Old Testament texts faces a far more difficult task. (Disclaimer: I am in no way a trained theologian, and am solely seeking here to illustrate, rather than resolve, the interpretive problem). First, there is a materially significant difference, where information availability is concerned, between 4000 B.C. and A.D. 1789; it is impossible to meaningfully answer the question of whether or not the Mosaic law was construed by the Hebrews as a set of organizing principles for all societies everywhere. Second, if one elects to adopt the proto-originalist position–that original intent of the author is what matters, rather than original public meaning–the informational-interpretive problem becomes worse still. The theonomist must assert that their interpretation of the Mosaic civil law’s persistent applicability is in line with God’s original intent–an audacious, and ultimately unverifiable, claim.

Given that the empirical argument does not clearly tip in favor of either side (theonomist or non-theonomist), my affirmative case for rejecting theonomy is theological in character. Simply put, the case against theonomy hinges on the meta-interpretive principle that the meaning of Scripture is not constrained to the words on the page as interpreted by individuals, but rather borne out in the witness of Church history. Note that this requires that the Church (understood to encompass the consensus of the seven ecumenical councils) be understood to possess a unique interpretive authority. Embracing the belief that the Church did (at least one point) possess this kind of interpretive authority is ultimately, an act of faith. Yet it is not truly a leap of faith for the orthodox (small-“o”) Christian: the Bible itself was not compiled in a vacuum, and embrace of the legitimacy of the current 66-book volume is a tacit embrace of the Church’s authority at this stage. Accepting the legitimacy of the Scriptural canon, while rejecting the authority of the Church to promulgate interpretations of the text, is inconsistent, yet this cognitive dissonance is present in the “extreme sola Scriptura” perspective that undergirds theonomic thought. Thus, if the Church did not adopt theonomic positions during its early centuries (which it did not), Scripture should not be interpreted as requiring such positions.

In summary, the theonomist position is not irrational if one hews to an exceedingly strong form (one might say Anabaptist form) of the sola Scriptura principle and interprets Matthew 5:17 as requiring continuity in the Mosaic civil law: I submit, however that a strong form of sola Scriptura is itself unjustified insofar as it presumes Church authority. That Church authority, in turn, cannot be reasonably restricted to the task of canonization and nothing else. Though it may appear easy to simply dismiss theonomy advocates as misguided or “dominionist” (a favorite pejorative of critics), those seeking to stand on fundamental principles must critically engage with such views in the course of developing an intellectually coherent interpretive approach.

(A particularly robust treatment of these issues may be found in Jaroslav Pelikan’s Interpreting the Bible & the Constitution).


Image courtesy of Kim Davies.

John Ehrett

John Ehrett

John currently resides in Arlington, Virginia, where he works as an attorney and writer. He holds an M.A.R. from the Institute of Lutheran Theology and a J.D. from Yale Law School.

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