Constitutional Fundamentalists and Biblical Originalists

Appropriate condolences and expressions of appreciation for an influential and provocative Supreme Court Justice have been offered at the unexpected death of Antonin Scalia yesterday. That is most appropriate, as would be delay in the immediate politicization of the process of approving his replacement. Let us at least observe an appropriate period for the grieving of his large family and many friends before switching on the judicial sausage-making machine.

I would like to focus instead on the many descriptions of Justice Scalia as “brilliant” and as possessing “a keen intellect.” He is universally acknowledged as a constitutional “originalist,” a method of constitutional interpretation that looks to the meaning of words and concepts as they were understood by the Founding Fathers. In other words, rather than seeing the Constitution as a “living, breathing document” he believed that it must be interpreted exactly as the 18th century framers would have understood it.

That is, it seems to me, exactly what biblical fundamentalists argue when they advocate expounding the “plain sense” of the Bible without need for interpretation, contextualization, or an understanding of progressive revelation even within the text itself. And while such Bible teachers may know the Scriptures backwards and forwards, chapter and verse, and while they may be experts in the Hebrew and Greek languages in which the original documents were written, they would not qualify as biblical “scholars” in my opinion.

Rather, they too deny that the text they study (in this case, the Bible) is a living,breathing document but rather seek to interpret it as it was originally written by its ancient authors, with their “scientific” knowledge and primitive world views. Perhaps these Bible teachers should be called “biblical originalists.” And, in that case, Justice Scalia might best be described as a “constitutional fundamentalist.”

As an African American commentator said this morning, “If the Constitution was not a living, breathing document, I would still be a slave and only worth what someone would pay for me.”


One Response to “Constitutional Fundamentalists and Biblical Originalists”

  1. Peder Berdahl Says:

    You hit it. I recall at a conference of the Biblical Archaeology Society James Charlesworth said the problem with Bart Ehrman was that he refused to see the Biblical record in its historical and social environment.

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