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The Battle Over Interpretation: The Supreme Court and Biblical Hermeneutics

Posted by Matt Postiff July 3, 2012 on Matt Postiff's Blog under Interpretation 

Last Thursday the United States Supreme Court narrowly upheld the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in its decision in NATIONAL FEDERATION OF INDEPENDENT BUSINESS ET AL. v. SEBELIUS, SECRETARY OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES, ET AL. (11-393c3a2.pdf).

Frankly, I was disappointed by the majority opinion in the case. Don't get me wrong--I believe that providing health care to those who need it is a good thing. My disagreement with ACA has to do primarily with how it accomplishes its goal. The act is contrary to the principles of liberty that underlie the founding of our constitutional republic.

I found the dissent by justices Kennedy, Alito, Thomas, and Scalia to be a very coherent, constitutionally rigorous, and convincing defense of their opinion that the entirety of the ACA should be struck down.

There were three portions of their dissent that particularly caught my attention regarding the issue of textual interpretation. The dissenting justices provided some helpful thoughts that we can profitably ponder in our own reading of the Bible.

I have believed for years that the disagreement in constitutional interpretation between the liberals and the conservatives is very closely paralleled by the disagreement between Christians over Biblical interpretation. To be sure, more conservatives and evangelicals are embracing what they call 'literal' interpretation, but they do not share the entire range of meaning of that term when they thus speak. The difference in interpretive approach is even more pronounced between conservatives and liberals.

The ACA case points out three areas that are critical when interpreting a text.

1. Double Meaning and Textualism

"What the Government would have us believe in these cases is that the very same textual indications that show this is not a tax under the Anti-Injunction Act show that it is a tax under the Constitution. That carries verbal wizardry too far, deep into the forbidden land of the sophists." (Dissent, pp. 27-28).

The dissent points out that the solicitor general, representing the Obama administration, seeks to benefit from both sides of a patent contradiction. Normal readers would understand that either the financial obligations laid on a non-insured person under the ACA are a tax or they are a penalty, but they cannot be both at the same time. The government argued on the one hand that the law was a penalty, so the case could be heard by the court, and on the other hand it argued that the law was a tax, so that the law could be upheld as constitutional. Apparently Justice Roberts and the liberal wing of the court were convinced.

The dissent correctly points out that we must look at the textual indications in the bill itself to see whether the financial obligation is a penalty or a tax. Along with that, they argue that it is 'verbal wizardry' to take the exact same text and make the bill mean two different things from the same text. Court precedent has a very plain understanding of the term 'tax' and another and different understanding of the term 'penalty.' The law, as written, uses the term 'penalty' and the penalty is in fact structured as such. The language and meaning are consistent that the bill imposes a penalty on someone who will not purchase an insurance policy.

For those of us busy interpreting the Bible for our churches in sermons or commentaries, we need to be keenly aware that a text has a single meaning. We have often heard that a text may have many implications or applications; but it has only one meaning. Some interpreters have opted for a double-meaning or multiple-referent approach that I cannot embrace. But what we must all agree on is that even if you believe in double meaning, you cannot take a text and make it mean, at one and the same time, two things that are opposites of one another! To do so would be nonsense.

2. Original Meaning, Authorial Intent, and the Larger Context

When discussing the issue of severability and whether some portions of the law could be struck down while others are upheld, the dissenters write:

"The question is whether the provisions will work as Congress intended. The 'relevant inquiry in evaluating severability is whether the statute will function in a manner consistent with the intent of Congress.'” (Dissent, p. 50).

Certain provisions of the ACA rely on other key provisions (namely the individual mandate and the Medicaid expansion). The question is this: if you strike down the two key provisions, can the remainder of the provisions make sense as intended by Congress? The dissent says 'no' because of the intertwining of the minor provisions with the major provisions. Even if some minor provisions could make some kind of sense without the major ones, the dissent suggests that their effect would be different than the effect intended by Congress. The court should not get into the business of upholding some parts of a law which now have a new meaning apart from the major provisions. That would have the effect of striking down one part of the law and rewriting the other part because the context of the other part has changed.

This is a helpful concept for us to consider in Biblical interpretation. We can easily fall into a compartmentalized view of the Bible in which we believe our interpretation of one part does not affect another part. Readers of this blog know that I have expressed major concerns over the doctrine of creation held by many evangelicals--a doctrine which, in their view, must be harmonized with science to be relevant and sensible. But, I ask, does such a harmonization agree with authorial intent? It doesn't seem to. And, does harmonizing with science affect our interpretation of other texts in the Bible? Absolutely it does. If the author's intent is overridden in one area, it can easily change the context in significant ways that affect the interpretation of other portions. When authorial intent is discarded in the interpretation of one portion of a text, there is no telling what happens to the interpretation of another portion of the text, even if authorial intent is supposedly upheld in that other portion.

3. Changing the Meaning

Toward the end of the dissent, the justices argue against what the majority has decided. They convincingly claim that Roberts, et al., deal not with the Law that Congress wrote, but rather with the law that Congress could have written. Their argument is that the text of the Law is before the court, and it is the court's job to decide on the law as written, not on a variation of the law that could have been written and could have been before the court had Congress written it differently.

"The Court’s disposition, invented and atextual as it is, does not even have the merit of avoiding constitutional difficulties. It creates them." (Dissent, p. 64).

The dissent thus says that the majority opinion has invented a meaning for the ACA that is not in the ACA itself. The ACA imposes a penalty for an individual who does not obey the individual insurance mandate. The majority has decided to construe that penalty as a tax in its desire to find some way in the constitution to uphold the law. The 'atextual' interpretation of the law has resulted in a messy decision that creates more problems than it solved.

Concluding Thoughts

There is a real battle in the area of interpretation today. People who are our leaders now (in government and in churches) grew up in a philosophical environment that allows multiple contradictory meanings without any apparent cognitive dissonance in the person holding those contradictory meanings; an environment that allows the reader to determine the meaning of a text rather than the author; and an environment that permits a person to change or dismiss an authoritative source if it conflicts with their own self-authority.

Given this kind of thinking, I wonder if we really know how to read. Sure, we can sound out the words or spit them out from memory if we learned the look-say method, but do we really read and understand them? Do we understand that we cannot find two contradictory propositions from the same words? Do we understand that God is not the author of contradiction and confusion? Do we understand that meaning does not reside in us, but in the text as intended by the author? Do we understand that we are not the authority, but an external authority is, whether the constitution or the Bible?

The Christian ought to understand that contradiction, reader-centrism, and modification of the plain meaning of the Bible are not consistent with godly interpretation. May God help us to approach His authoritative text very carefully so that we do not make the errors we have discussed above.

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