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Interpreting the Bible and the Constitution

Interpreting the Bible and the Constitution

Jaroslav Pelikan
Copyright Date: 2004
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Interpreting the Bible and the Constitution
    Book Description:

    Both the Bible and the Constitution have the status of "Great Code," but each of these important texts is controversial as well as enigmatic. They are asked to speak to situations that their authors could not have anticipated on their own. In this book, one of our greatest religious historians brings his vast knowledge of the history of biblical interpretation to bear on the question of constitutional interpretation.

    Jaroslav Pelikan compares the methods by which the official interpreters of the Bible and the Constitution-the Christian Church and the Supreme Court, respectively-have approached the necessity of interpreting, and reinterpreting, their important texts. In spite of obvious differences, both texts require close, word-by-word exegesis, an awareness of opinions that have gone before, and a willingness to ask new questions of old codes, Pelikan observes. He probes for answers to the question of what makes something authentically "constitutional" or "biblical," and he demonstrates how an understanding of either biblical interpretation or constitutional interpretation can illuminate the other in important ways.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13076-8
    Subjects: Law

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. 1 Normative Scripture—Christian and American
    (pp. 1-37)

    In spite of my own preferences and contrary to my long-standing wont, I have let myself be persuaded, by those who ought to know, that it would be appropriate to begin this seemingly unlikely (perhaps even presumptuous) investigation with a personal note of explanation of why it does not at all represent the attempt of a historian of Christian doctrine to retool himself into a constitutional lawyer, but a continuity of interest and even of methodology. For in an academic variant on the familiar come-on line, “So what’s a nice person like you doing in a place like this?” students,...

  5. 2 Cruxes of Interpretation in the Bible and in the Constitution
    (pp. 38-75)

    Christian exegetes of Holy Scripture have often spoken of a passage as acrux interpretum,a crux of the interpreters and of interpretation, defined as “a difficulty which it torments or troubles one greatly to interpret or explain.” It may be this because it contains words that are difficult or impossible to understand: even after so many centuries of New Testament scholarship, the Revised Standard Version, having rendered the statement of the Sermon on the Mount as “Whoeverinsultshis brother shall be liable to the council” (Mt 5.22), is obliged to explain the translation “insults” in a footnote: “Greek...

  6. 3 The Sensus Literalis and the Quest for Original Intent
    (pp. 76-114)

    The statement quoted earlier from Justice Holmes, about the interpretive problems involved in employing the Constitution to answer questions that “could not have been foreseen completely by the most gifted of its begetters,” finds a rather unexpected corroboration and parallel in a description by the New Testament of how, after they had written down their prophecies under divine inspiration, the Old Testament “prophets . . . inquired what person or time was indicated by the Spirit of Christ within them” (1 Pt 1.10–11), probing their own writings to find some deeper meaning, which they could not have completely foreseen...

  7. 4 Development of Doctrine: Patterns and Criteria
    (pp. 115-150)

    Both the history of the American Republic and the history of the Christian Church make it clear that, alongside the authority of their original charters and in continuous interaction with that authority, the ongoing and cumulative interpretations of the Great Code in the form of tradition and precedent have come to occupy a privileged position of authority in their own right. The polemic of a fifth-century Western confession by Pope Leo the Great affirms this relation between the two: “A man who has not the most elementary understanding even of the creed itself can have learned nothing from the sacred...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 151-184)
  9. Bibliography
    (pp. 185-206)
  10. Indexes
    (pp. 207-216)