How Original?

During the confirmation hearings of judge Neil Gorsuch he was repeatedly questioned regarding his “originalist” approach to the interpretation of the Constitution. Some senators commend him for it while others are critical. The idea behind originalism is that you have to interpret the constitution in light of the authors’ original intent. In other words the goal is to find out what they meant when they wrote it and apply the laws accordingly. As a pastor I deal with this issue every week as I interpret the Bible. There are three steps to Bible study: observation, interpretation, application. So before you can apply the meaning to your life you have some work to do. One principle I have often told my congregation is that “you do not know what it means to you until you know what it meant to them”, speaking of the original audience.

The key to this is context. There is the grammatical context where you examine word usage and definitions as well as sentence structure. The Biblical context, where you recognize how the passage you are studying fits in with the rest of the book or Bible. An understanding of the cultural context in which it was written will help you see the meaning more clearly. The passage was also written within a historical context. The events that occurred around that time also lend clues to an accurate understanding. The more we know of these the more accurate is our understanding of what they meant when they wrote it. This is what we call “Exegesis”, it means to draw the meaning out of the text; as opposed to “Eisegesis” which inserts meaning into the text, which was not originally there.

It seems to me that it is the job of the court to find the original intent. Some, however, argue that the constitution was written to be adaptable. This is true but it was to be adapted, not through the opinion of a judge with a lifetime appointment, but through the amendment process, which is directed by officials we elect. In fact the constitution has been amended twenty seven times. Our constitution was written to hold our government accountable. This does not occur if the judicial branch reads meaning into the constitution rather than drawing it out.

We also must be careful with our understanding of the Bible. Otherwise we will be like the religious leaders of Jesus’s day about whom He said, “This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men”
(Matthew 15:8,9).

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