Discussions about the merits of Originalism and Living Constitutionalism have been making the rounds these last few days, showcasing a divide in legal philosophies within the political realm. Originalists believe that the documents in question should be interpreted as originally intended by the authors, whilst Living Constitutionalists believe that meanings and interpretations can change over time, according to the desires and perceived needs of the moment.
There is a similar sort of debate which occurs in Biblical interpretation.
On the one hand, you have those who feel that the Bible should be understood and interpreted according to current societal trends or perceived needs, with those parts that are antithetical to modern thought or personal self-interest being jettisoned and ignored. Individuals can practice this philosophy in varying degrees, but it is a fairly widespread sort of occurrence.
On the other hand you have those who assume that the Bible must mean what it has always meant and it should be understood as meaning what it was meant to mean by the authors, or Author. This philosophy of interpretation holds that the desires of the reader, and the societal mores of the moment, are immaterial to the actual meaning of the text – it says what it says and will always say the same thing.
One’s stance on these positions has more than a little to do with one’s perception of the authorship and purpose of the Bible. If you believe that the Bible is a book with human authorship, the purpose of which is to create a religious body of some sort, a social collective of individuals bound together by common practices and a shared history, then you are going to be okay with an evolving interpretation of the Bible: an interpretation that allows the Bible to be molded according to the needs and the desires of the community.
If, alternatively, you believe that the Bible is of Divine Origin, written by a living and all-wise God, who is still around and who is still watching and judging men, and if you believe that the purpose of the Bible is for God to communicate His unchanging will to man, then you are going to want to understand the Bible the way God wants you to understand it, changing yourself to conform to the Word of God rather than the other way around.
It should be noted that the Bible itself says in no uncertain terms that the latter interpretation is the one God favors.
The Bible says, for instance, “all scripture is breathed out by God (2 Timothy 3:16a),” and “no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:20-21; ESV)”
While the Bible had human writers, ultimately the message was from God, so much so that even those writing it had to examine and study their own writings in order to better understand God’s plan. Thus, “Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories (1 Peter 1:10-11; ESV).”
Likewise, the Bible states plainly that the Scriptures are as eternal and unchanging as their Divine source. We read: “you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for ‘All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.’ (1 Peter 1:23-25; ESV)”
Relatedly, the Bible describes spiritual maturity as no longer being, “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine (Ephesians 4:14b; ESV),” and we are encouraged, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:2; ESV).”
Obviously, if one feels that God is not the author of the Bible, or is tempted to think the Bible can be adjusted according to the desires of the world, then such verses may well do little to persuade one, for after all, by such a philosophy, they can be reinterpreted to suit. But if one believes the Bible truly is the word of God, then we might do well to heed His admonitions concerning the unchanging nature of the Bible, and rather than changing the Bible to suit us, work hard on letting God change us to suit Himself.
At the church of Christ, we believe that the Bible is the eternal word of the Living God, and we invite you to come worship with us and study the Bible with us, at 234 Chapel Drive, Gallipolis, Ohio. If you have any questions or comments please share them with us.
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author.