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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

Interpretation in Law and Biblical Studies

Stephen C. Carlson over at Hypostesis has an interesting post about the relationship between conservative judicial philosophy, al la Justice Scalia and Judge Bork, and "Fundamentalist Christian biblical interpretation." Carlson thinks that "There is much in common between between Biblical interpretation and judicial interpretation, and I think that both fields will benefit greatly if the best insights in one field are applied to the other."

I have read Scalia's A Matter of Interpretation and Bork's The Tempting of America, as well as many opinions and articles by both. I have also had the pleasure of meeting them both on different occasions. While I respect their judicial philosophies and would be considered a "literalist" by some when it comes to biblical interpretation, I think a note of caution is in order. As I said in a comment on Carlson's site, the ultimate concern of conservative judicial philosophy and conservative biblican interpretation are very different:


It seems that the goal of judicial interpretation of laws is legitimacy. Which interpretation is legitimate, in that it restricts the rights of individuals or enhances the power of the government. On the other hand, the goal of biblical interpretation itself seems to be a more debatable proposition. Are we just trying to know what the author meant for his audience to understand? That seems the obvious historical question. But many Christians, literalists or not, may also look for meanings unanticipated by the (human) author and his immediate audience, though intended by the (Holy Spirit) author and a later audience given understanding. Further, the goal of biblical interpretation for the Christian is accuracy -- to learn what God has revealed because what God has revealed is true and just and right. Whereas, Bork and Scalia would not claim that their approach to judicial interpretation necessarily delivers what is true and just and right. It just delivers what is legitimate.

Still, I would not deny that certain tools or approaches might not be relevant to both pursuits. Carlson provides a link to a law review article that apparently discusses the topic to an extent. He also indicates he may pursue the matter more in the future. I look forward to reading both (once I can find the time).

1 comments:

As a Canadian criminal defense lawyer and a Senior Fellow at the Mortimer J. Adler Center for the Study of the Great Ideas, I would note a more incisive and productive method of constitutional and biblical interpretation. It is found in natural law not positivism.

Justice has been traditionally and properly defined as "rendering unto another that which is their right or due." Natural law asserts that rights flow from natural needs and a self-evident ethical principle. You have a right to what you need by nature. Positivism denies the existence of natural needs and any self-evident ethical principle. You have a right to only what the state grants. The legal constructionism of Scalia and others is merely a narrow form of positivism. You have a right to only what the founders of the constitution thought you had a right to as expressed in a literal construction of their words.

Here is my understanding of natural law and its biblical background. As an Anglican, I believe in the integration of God's general revelation in human nature, God's special revelation in the scriptures and God's on-going revelation in the religious experience of all believers. Natural law is God's general revelation in human nature.

The following extract has been taken from my book "Putting God on Trial: The Biblical Book of Job" (http://www.bookofjob.org)

Natural law is the ethical theory that moral rules, laws in the broadest sense of the term, are deduced or derived from an examination of the natural needs that constitute human nature. Natural law asserts that that single reason behind all the moral rules is human nature itself, specifically the natural needs that define human nature. There is a certain structure to how morals are deduced or derived from natural law. This three-fold structure is called a syllogism, meaning a way of rigorously reasoning things through. It begins with a major premise, an ethical principle. It proceeds with a minor premise, certain statements of fact. And it arrives at a conclusion which consists of certain moral rules. The logic is as simple as it is profound..

The following exposition of that framework is a tangential development out of those original texts so that modern readers can understand the basic parameters of natural law and the natural human need for truth. The ancient texts imply, support and sanction such a framework, even though the ancient Jews never fully articulated such a framework.

(1) The major premise of natural law is the basic ethical principle that “you ought to seek what’s really good for you.” This is a self-evident truth. Why? The opposite is unthinkable. It is unthinkable that “you ought to seek what’s really bad for you”. And, it is equally unthinkable that “you ought not to seek what’s really good for you”.

(2) The minor premise consists of a number of statements of fact about what’s really good.

Those statements are discovered through the insight that “what’s really good is what fulfills a natural human need”. All animals, including humankind, have a nature or essence. It is what separates one kind of animal from another kind of animal. It is what allows an observer to know that a particular individual is a member of one particular kind of animal as opposed to another. A nature consists of a set of species-specific characteristics or potentialities for development within a certain direction and within a certain range. Another name for these “dynamic dispositional tendencies” is natural needs or desires.

(a) These natural needs are universal within a species in the sense that all members, without exception, have them.

(b) They are eradicable within a species in the sense that all members, without exception, have them at all points in their life.

(c) And they are irresistible within a species in the sense that they are constantly seeking fulfillment.

Human nature consists of the set of species-specific potentialities or natural needs all human beings share which are universal, eradicable and irresistible. The natural needs are distinguishable from acquired wants or acquired needs.

The insight that “what’s really good is what fulfills a natural need” is a self-evident truth. Why? There is no such thing as a wrong natural need. The very idea of a wrong natural need is unthinkable.

(a) We can imagine wrong wants. We can imagine wanting something that is bad for us as human beings. We can even imagine wanting it so strongly that we try to deceive ourselves and call it something good. Addictions are very good examples of such acquired needs. They are not universal, eradicable or irresistible. These acquired needs are not natural needs. They are not rooted in human nature itself.

(b) We can imagine wanting more of a good thing than is really good for us.

(c) We can imagine wanting less of a good thing than is really good for us.

But we can never imagine a wrong natural need. If it were wrong, then we would not, by nature, need it.

Not many natural needs meet the three-fold criteria of universality, eradicability and irresistibility. Scholars agree that those natural needs or desires include:

(a) the desire to know the truth,

(b) the desire to enjoy beauty,

(c) the desire to seek goodness,

(d) the desire to be free,

(e) the desire for justice,

(f) the desire for pleasure,

(g) the desire to love and be loved,

(h) the desire to work and creatively express one's self,

(i) the desire for life, growth and health,

(j) the desire for food and drink,

(k) the desire for shelter and

(l) the desire for God.

Technically, the desire for God may be a separate desire or it may be included in the penumbra of the desires for truth, goodness and beauty. These are needs all human beings have. They possess them at all points in their lives. These desires demand fulfillment. They may be satisfied or denied for periods of time, but they never really go away. These needs are matters of objective fact and they constitute human nature.

Real goods fulfill natural needs or desires. These real goods are biological, economic, social, political, psychological and religious goods.

(a) The biological goods include life, health and vigor.

(b) The economic goods include a decent supply of the means of subsistence, living and working conditions that are conducive to health, medical care, opportunities for access to the pleasures of sense, the pleasures of play, aesthetic pleasures, opportunities for access to the goods of the mind through educational facilities in youth and adult life and enough free time from subsistence work, both in youth and adult life, to take full advantage of these opportunities.

(c) The political goods include liberty, peace, both civil and external, the political liberties of voting and holding office, together with the protection of individual freedom by the prevention of violence, aggression, coercion, or intimidation and justice.

(d) The social goods include equality of status, equality of opportunity and equality of treatment in all matters affecting the dignity of the human person.

(e) The psychological goods include the goods of personal association (family, friendship, and love), the goods of character (the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, courage and temperance, and the theological virtues of faith, hope and love), and the goods of the mind (creativity, knowledge, understanding and wisdom).

(f) The religious goods include awe and wonder, repentance and forgiveness, gratitude and worship and a personal relationship with God.

All of these real goods are matters of objective fact. Reasonable people reflecting on what it is to be human would agree that these are things people need for a good human life. The list may not be exhaustive, but it is very representative of the consensus that currently exists.

However, these real goods need ordering and proportioning so that they retain their overall goodness. That is the function of moral virtue. Moral virtue is the habit of rightly choosing the real goods that make for a good human life. The main virtues are the cardinal virtues: prudence, temperance, courage and justice.

(a) Prudence is the habit of rightly judging the means to obtaining those right ends.

(b) Temperance is the habit of resisting and limiting immediate pleasures for a future good.

(c) Courage is the habit of suffering pain or discomfort for a future good.

(d) Justice is the habit of concern for the good of others and community welfare.

While they may be analytically distinct, they are not existentially distinct. You cannot possess one without the others. These virtues are matters of objective fact.
(3) The conclusion is a basic and comprehensive moral rule derived or deduced from the combination of a single self-evidently true ethical principle and those objectively true matters of facts.

(a) “You should pursue and possess all the real goods that every human being needs by nature,

(b) properly ordered and proportioned so that each good is really good for you as a human being, and

(c) all the apparent goods that you yourself might want as an individual,

(d) provided your pursuit and possession of those apparent goods does not interfere with your or anyone else’s pursuit and possession of all the real goods every human being needs by nature.

This is what constitutes the total good of men and women. This is what constitutes the good life. This is what constitutes happiness, for it is the pursuit and possession of everything you might rightly need or want such that you are lacking in nothing. This is what God intends in making humankind what it is. It is God’s general revelation in creation. It is rationally discoverable by all men and women, regardless of time or place. (Romans 2:14-16) The author presents Job as one who has discovered that truth and made it his life.

The Bible itself is imbued with an ethic of natural law. Most often, natural law is implicit, but every so often, it is made explicit. One would expect to find such explicit statements of natural law in portions of The Bible dealing with moral rules, because such statements are the articulations of the reason behind the rules. And that indeed is where the two formulations of it are to be found.

(1) In the Holiness Code, Moses expresses his understanding of the basic ethical principle of natural law. “You shall be holy for I the LORD your God am holy.” (Leviticus 19:10) The key word here is “holy”. The Hebrew word behind it is “qodosh”. It is virtually synonymous with the Hebrew word “tam” used to describe Job. “Qodosh” means “holy”, “dedicated”, “devoted”, “separate”, “set apart for a special purpose”. It describes three things:

(a) the perfect fulfillment of

(b) the purpose

(c) for which something exists or is used.

That purpose is found in the natural needs that define human nature. To paraphrase, Moses is saying “you should perfectly fulfill the purpose for which you exist, just as the LORD your God perfectly fulfills the purpose for which he exists.” The focus is on purpose within nature. The central ethical obligation is to perfectly fulfill the natural needs of men and women and to make one’s self fully available to God for his purposes. This is the heart of Old Testament morality. All the rest is commentary on the real goods that make for a good human life.

(2) In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus expresses his understanding of the basic ethical principle of natural law. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:6) The key word here is “perfect”. The Greek word behind it is “teleios”. It is virtually identical with the Hebrew “tam” used to describe Job. “Teleios” means “perfect”, “well-rounded”, “whole”, “sound”, “mature”, “complete”. It describes three things:

(a) the complete actualization of

(b) the potentialities

(c) that define the nature of something.

Those potentialities are found in the natural desires that define human nature. “Teleios” is a word that has a long history in Greek ethical philosophy, especially in the natural law writings of Aristotle. The focus again is on potentialities within nature. Jesus is reworking and sharpening Moses’ formulation of the basic ethical principle of natural law.

(a) Complete actualization corresponds to perfect fulfillment.

(b) Potentialities correspond to purpose.

(c) The nature of something corresponds to that for which something exists or is used.

To paraphrase, Jesus is saying that “you should be fully actualized, just as your heavenly Father is fully actualized”. “You should be truly and fully human, just as your heavenly Father is truly and fully divine.” The central ethical obligation is to fulfill the natural needs of men and women. It is an obligation to be all that you can be and to be the very best you can be. This is the heart of New Testament morality. All the rest is commentary on the real goods that make for a good human life.

Within this framework of natural law, evil is the “privation” of goodness. The good is the “integrity or perfection of being in all its orders: material, moral and spiritual”. Evil “consists in a privation, in the fact that a certain being lacks a good it requires to enjoy the integrity of its nature.” To paraphrase Moses, evil is the frustration of the perfect fulfillment of the purpose for which something exists or is used. To paraphrase Jesus, evil is the frustration of the complete actualization of the potentialities that define the nature of something.

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