The Curious Connection Between Protestant Theology And Constitutional Law

From time to time I find and draw odd parallels between two phenomena that are considered to be widely disparate [1].  In listening to an audiobook from the Great Courses series about Martin Luther, I was struck by the professor’s discussion of the Protestant tendency to seek for the original meaning of passages.  This is not to say that such traditions always get the original meaning and apostolic practice correctly–questions of the proper relationship of believers to the law among them–but there is at least that goal in mind.  This reminded me of the struggles that go along with arguments about the Constitution and the question of original meaning.  So, what do these seemingly disparate areas–constitutional law and theology, have to do with each other?

Let us first note that these two fields are very similar.  In both cases there are similar issues.  We have authoritative texts that were written a long time ago, and there are questions about how to best interpret those texts in light of changed condition.  To what extent do we consider ourselves to be wiser than those who came before us, to what  extent do we consider ourselves bound by the covenants made by our ancestors, and to what extent do we feel it necessary to find timeless principles to apply to novel situations or disregard what we view as obsolete and archaic?  Even among those who have the same philosophies, there are likely to be different interpretations of the same passages–witness the difference between a Harry Jaffa and Roger Taney when it came to interpreting the Constitution when it comes to the civil rights of black citizens, while both claiming to be Originalists.  One finds similar differences between different strands of Protestant theologians in the same passages of the Bible.

Knowing that many different views come from the fact that both theology and constitutional law are heavily textual enterprises helps us recognize certain consistent approaches in both fields.  There are some people who engage in both tasks illegitimately by seeking proof texts that can be taken out of context in order to support pet theories and justify actions and decisions and interpretations that one wants to make.  For example, finding imaginary rights within the Constitution and finding imaginary justifications in the Bible in violence to what the text says are both done by the same sorts of people.  There is a big difference between sola scriptura and tota scriptura, and that is true whether we are looking at the authoritative texts of scripture or of constitutions.  Any interpretation that is undertaken contrary to the coherent position of the whole text is an illegitimate one, and ultimately lacking in validity.

When we look at authoritative texts we face a temptation to consider ourselves to be authorities on that text rather than subject to those texts.  That attitude accounts for a great deal of the variety that exists in how we view those texts or any others.  To the extent that we see ourselves as judges of the text, we will look at the imperfections of the people who wrote those texts and the societal evils of the past and we will see ourselves as their superiors, free to disregard whatever is not convenient to us.  However, to the extent that we see texts as authoritative and see ourselves as subject to them, we must at least deal with those passages that challenge our contemporary evils.  If we are subject to texts, then we have to address the fact that in some ways we may not have progressed from the past but rather regressed from it, and have fallen short of the standard of our fathers, as embarrassing as that reality is to accept.

The main benefit, I think, of looking at the connection between theology and constitutional law is to recognize that sometimes different problems can be easier to resolve and understand when we see the common threads that run through them.  Questions of theology and constitutional law as they relate to the interpretation of texts are fundamental problems in the areas of religion and politics, areas that are of the utmost importance in the quarrels and difficulties of our age or any other one.  Often differences of worldview cannot be compromised and knowledge of and awareness of them can increase the severity of conflicts because we realize what is at stake.  All the same, though, the importance of interpretation makes both theology and constitutional law areas where there is deep conflict over fundamental matters, and our attitude towards the texts involved makes a big difference in how we are able to get along with each other and how we live our lives, and how we believe our churches and governments should operate.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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7 Responses to The Curious Connection Between Protestant Theology And Constitutional Law

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