Biblical and Constitutional Interpretation and the Role of Originalism in Sixteenth and Twentieth-Century Societies

By Bartholomew, Keith | Anglican Theological Review, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Biblical and Constitutional Interpretation and the Role of Originalism in Sixteenth and Twentieth-Century Societies


Bartholomew, Keith, Anglican Theological Review


word (word) n. Abbr. Wd. 1. A sound or a combination of sounds, or its representation in writing or printing, that symbolizes and communicates a meaning .... (American Heritage Dictionary)

Words are symbols, symbols that only represent meaning. They are, in and of themselves, of no value except to the extent that they communicate to their reader or hearer some associated understanding. But like other, nonverbal symbols, the meanings associated with words vary widely across cultures, classes, and times. The meanings given by one group may be quite at odds with those provided by another.

The significance of this variety increases with the importance of the symbol being interpreted. When it comes to words, no symbols are more important to Americans than the foundational canons of their religious and civic societies. In religion, the foundational source for most Americans is the Bible, of course. In a country founded by Puritans, but populated by peoples of a wide array of doctrines and beliefs, the variations on what the Bible means to Americans are nearly as broad and vast as the country's terrain. Equally divergent are the interpretations Americans give to their civic manifesto, the U.S. Constitution. Debates about the terms, conditions, and understandings of that document have provided backdrops against which much of American history has been played. From the Civil War to the War Powers Act, the interpretation of the Constitution has provided Americans with a key focal point regarding the structuring of society.

Many groups vie for recognition for having paramount interpretations of the Bible and the Constitution. Within and between different religious traditions, proponents of various biblical interpretations compete for an indication that their understanding is ultimately authoritative. Similarly, in legal and political circles, lawyers, historians, and political scientists promote their interpretative analyses of the Constitution in hopes that society will in some way acknowledge the validity of their claims.

The interpretation of either source, however, requires the application of hermeneutical principles. These principles, whether recognized or assumed, are shared in a number of ways between the Bible and the Constitution. Of interest here are the ways in which the methods used to interpret the two sources compare on the question of "originalism." By originalism, I refer to the hermeneutical approach used by both biblical and constitutional scholars (and followed by millions of lay persons) that accords binding authority to the strict text of the source document or to the intentions of its authors or adopters (Brest).

The claim that the original text of the Constitution, or the intentions of its framers and ratifiers, has authoritative value surfaced most recently in the 1980s during the Reagan Administration, and culminated in the events surrounding the nomination of Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court. This, however, was not the first time that originalism had surfaced on the American political scene. On numerous occasions, originalism has been promoted as the defining mode for resolution of public crisis, from the chartering of a national bank in McCulloch v. Maryland, to the extension of the Bill of Rights through the fourteenth amendment in Brown v. Board of Education, to the definition of "high crimes and misdemeanors" employed in the Nixon and Clinton impeachment processes (Rakove). In this light, the assertions provided by originalists come not as new theories or understandings, but as part of a quasi-cyclical fluctuation in political rhetoric.

So, too, are the promotions of biblical originalism that emerged from the sixteenth-century reformation in the Western church. From the writings of Puritan reformers such as Thomas Cartwright and Walter Travers, to the orations of William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes 11 monkey trial," to present religious sentiments expressed by such bumper stickers as "God wrote it, I believe it, end of discussion," biblical originalism has cycled regularly through religious societies. …

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