“We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (II Peter 1:19-21).”
It’s only about 7oo0 words long, but its impact on the world is enormous. I am talking about the Constitution of the United States of America.
George Washington, the first President of the United States, said of the document,” The Constitution is the guide which I never will abandon.” Thomas Paine said of it, “The American constitutions were to liberty what a grammar is to language: they define its parts of speech and practically construct them into syntax.”
The main issue with understanding the Constitution today is that it was written by men using English of the late 18th century in America. In addition, while the Constitution is said to be a paper which the common man of the time could grasp, it still contains some specialized legal vocabulary.
Indeed, the website USConstitution.net says,”The Constitution is often hailed as a marvel of brevity and of clarity. It was, however, written in the 18th century, and many of the ideas, concepts, words, phrases, and euphemisms seem odd to us today, if not down right foreign.”
Furthermore, the website USConstitution.org adds that the words of the Contitution are the ideas of people long dead. As a result, interpreters note that we must develop “mental models of their mental models” in order to come to a proper understanding of the document.
The website expands on the “foreign” nature of the language of the Constitution:
This leads to the admonition that the English used in the Constitution and other legal documents of the 18th century should be read as a foreign language, putting aside today’s meanings of what seem to be the same words we use today, and attempting to decode the meanings from various clues we can find. This is not only wise for 18th century English, but for almost any communications, even among people who communicate with one another daily, because no two people mean precisely the same thing by the same words on every occasion. When both speaker and listener are alive they are able to interrogate one another to arrive at a common meaning, but when the author is dead we have to find evidence in other things he or his correspondents wrote.
There are those today who want to interpret the Constitution as a “living, breathing document”. Proponents of this view believe that the Founders wrote the document in broad terms so that it could evolve in later generations.
Thus, the essence of those who see the Constitution as “living” is that its meanings can change over time. This allows for pragmatic interpretations consistent with the times.
Personally, I tend to come down on the side of the originalists, i.e., those people who rely on the original sources and intentions of the authors. I suppose this is because I hold to this view when I interpret an even larger and more important document: the Bible.
The same kind of debate concerning interpreting the Constitution is common today among believers in Jesus Christ. Thus, hermaneutics is an extremely important aspect of a student’s training in a Christian Bible college or seminary.
I was taught in a school which held the Bible to be inerrant and infallible. It saw the Bible as the Word of God. I still personally hold to this teaching.
One of the former presidents of my biblical seminary, Robertson McQuilkin, and one my former professors, Brad Mullen, have written: “Although Scripture is infallible, one’s intepretation of it is not infallible in every detail because understanding is limited by one’s preunderstanding, spiritual receptivity, level of intellectual acumen, mastery of and faithful adherence to the disciplines of hermaneutics (classically defined) and the amount of hard work invested in the effort.” Thus, as an individual Christian I have to be careful how I interpret the Bible and not lean to hard on my own personal understanding of it.
However, my former seminary professors, while noting the necessity of using valid hermaneutical principles to delve into hard to understand pasasges, also say,”But the major teachings of Scripture are so plain that Bible believers have uniformly recognized and affirmed them, as seen in the great catholic creeds of the Church.”
The authors add that there are at least 600 clear commandments in the New Testament alone. Here is the rub.
The real problem with my Christian life is not one of understanding, but one of obedience to what is clear in the Bible. Somehow, over the course of my life, I have gained some vague sense of questioning when I think of what the Scriptures clearly say. I sometimes question the validity of these truths somewhere in the recesses of my mind.
This questioning or perhaps lack of faith in the clear words of Scripture has lead to my personal disobedience. “Why, God doesn’t understand my situation”, I might say in such incidences where I succumb to temptation. This is only one example of an excuse I might use for sinning.
Yet, I agree with McQuilkin and Mullen when they write that the words of the Bible correspond to reality. They also add another aspect besides the truth of the text itself which should influence my obedience: my ability to receive it.
McQuilkin and Mullen note:
Any bilingual person knows how words lack precision, especially when referring to incorporeal or abstract concepts. But evangelicals have traditionally held that words can convey truth without error, can express accurately what is in the mind of the speaker. Merely because one can demonstrate that we are incapable of comprehending all truth, even about any given subject,does not prove that we cannot apprehend a portion of the truth with accuracy. Our contention is that God’s nature as the determined Communicator,and his deliberate plan to create us on his pattern so that we can receive that communication with saving efficacy, demands some correspondence theory of truth. But it is not merely that our theology demands this. The Bible views itself in this light.
Take for example the biblical exhortation for me to pray. I do pray, but part of me questions why I should do it. After all, God knows what I need.
However, when I read about godly men in the Bible, they don’t ponder such ideas as mine. They just pray because they believe God responds to prayer.
An Old Testament story illustrates what I mean. Samuel was a the chief justice of his day, and he called all of Israel together. He told them to gather in one town and he would intercede with God for them (I Samuel 7:5).
The Israelites were facing a tough enemy in the Philistines. When their enemy mobilized, they were afraid.
However, they had learned their lesson from Samuel. They told him,”Do not stop crying out to the LORD our God for us, that he may rescue us from the hand of the Philistines (I Samuel 7:8).”
I read nothing in this story of Samuel and the Israelites about a debate over the need for and the efficacy of prayer. It was obviously a part of Israelite tradition in their role as God’s people, and there were numerous earlier Scriptures testifying to its use and powerful results.
While the Constitution is a wonderful document, it is not the Word of God and I cannot necessarily apply biblical interpretation principle to understanding its meaning.. Still, I get a little nervous when I read such statements as those from the website USConstitution.net:
“The Constitution is many things to many people.”
” There is no one right way to interpret the Constitution, and people often do not always stick to one interpretation.”
I try to imagine believing these ideas in the realm of Scripture interpretation. Such thinking applied to approaching the Bible gets me extremely frustrated.
I also get shaky when modernists rely on their own opinions or the opinions of those they trust instead of on the written Constitution. The Founders made a provision for updating the Constitution. They’re called amendments.
I would rather trust in the words of the Constitution and the intent of those who wrote it. The document has served us well for over two hundred years.
The Constitutions as written is powerful today. One of the principles of constitutional construction (interpretation) is that its words have power.
One constitutional source notes:
None of the words are without force and effect, except those superseded by amendments, unless such amendments are repealed. Except for the statement of purpose in the preamble, every word was intended by the Framers to be legally normative, and not just advisory, declaratory, aspirational, or exhortatory. Verba intelligi ut aliquid operantur debent. Words should be interpreted to give them some effect. (www.constitution.org)
Furthermore, Abraham Lincoln said of the Constitution,”Don’t interfere with anything in the Constitution. That must be maintained, for it is the only safeguard of our liberties.”
The written Word of God similarlly protects my freedom in Christ. How much more should I put my trust in the words of the Bible. They are the supernaturally powerful words of the living and breathing God, whose Spirit is in my heart.
The Bible isn’t just advisory or a source of inspiration, although it can be both at times. It is authoritative.
Therefore, I ought to closely heed its words and obey them. What I think doesn’t matter.