Friday, January 16, 2015

Living Document. . . Unchanging Word. . .

In United States constitutional interpretation, the idea that the Constitution is a living document (or loose constructionism) claims that the Constitution has a dynamic meaning, that it does not represent or say one thing but evolves.  It is, in this view somewhat of an animate being in the sense that it changes and the changes come not from formal amendment but from the idea that the document is read through the lens of the moment and that what it says is conditioned by what is happening in contemporary society.

You can trace this specific wording to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who wrote a hundred years ago: 'The provisions of the Constitution are not mathematical formulas....They are organic, living institutions.'"  In 1987, Justice Thurgood Marshall could expound on this idea that had become established opinion -- especially among academics and progressives.  It is still not without controversy and Justice William Rehnquist argued against it and, in our own day, Justice Antonin Scalia insists that only an idiot sees the Constitution as anything but a legal document that says what it says and does not say what it does not say .

You can argue it about these two opinions elsewhere.  My point here is to suggest that the idea that documents live or change is not new and it is not specific to constitutional law.  We have people who read the documents, creeds, confessions, and even the Scriptures of the Church in the same way.  They do not mean necessarily what they say but, as living documents, they change and evolve and say different things at different times to different situations.  Like Humpty Dumpty, we live in an age when words and their meanings are not set but change so that they mean what we want them to mean at the moment.  This is certainly the real problem in Biblical interpretation and it is a continuing problem for confessionalism among Lutherans.

The progressive side of all of this insists that the only way creeds, confessions, and Scripture is valid is if they change and evolve, if the words mean what we believe them to mean and not strictly what they do mean.  So, a group like the ELCA among Lutherans sees a principle in Scripture (the Gospel of love, acceptance, and tolerance) to be the lens through which all other words of Scripture are read.  In this way, it matters little if the Bible said something different than what we believe.  That is merely an example of how we read those passages through the lens of the Gospel so that they mean something different from what they once meant.  The most faithful you can be to the Scriptures is to follow this siren voice of the age, a voice they interpret to be the Spirit leading us beyond letter to spirit of the words in the Word.

The conservative side of all of this insists that no creed, confession, or even Scripture can have any meaning at all unless we take the words to mean the same thing for all people and throughout all times.  They would insist that there is nothing deader than the words of faith which must be constantly re-imagined against the backdrop of the moment and read through the lens of culture.  To be faithful is to preach the Word that endures forever, the full counsel of God's Word, that is yesterday, today, and forever the same.  The way we meet the moment and the way we faithfully address the culture of the day is through this unchanging Christ and His unchanging Word.  The most faithful you can be to the Scriptures is to ignore the siren voice of the age for the voice of the Spirit will always lead you back to the Word that endures forever and to the Scriptures that say the same thing at all times and to all people.

It would seem that the great divide between the progressives and the conservatives is one that is impossible to bridge.  One insists that to be faithful means ignoring what the words say and the other insists that the only faithfulness is to hold on to what the words say.  You could expand this polarity to the way we approach missions, liturgy, catechesis, music, etc...  In the end it means that the documents themselves are not the issue but the way we approach them.  For the society, the great gulf between a living document conditioned by what is going on around it and a legal document that says what it says and does not say what it does not say remains the political sticking point between and within both political parties.  For the Church, the great gulf between the Word that does not change and a faith that continually reappraises what the words of the Word mean has ended up being the major sticking point between denominations and within them.  Rome, Wittenberg, Geneva, and everything in between lives in tension to these view points.  In this way we continue to fight the age old battles over and over again and no one ends up satisfied.

It would seem to me that the Constitution works best not as a mechanism to enforce one point of view but as the locus of the aspirations of a people who hold certain things in common -- such as values, morality, work ethic, etc...  Once we no longer share a common identity, common values, a common morality, and a common work ethic, the document seems to us to be more imperfect.  The whole way the United States came into existence is because we the people held certain things to be self-evident and determined to govern ourselves without a king or legislature or judiciary to act as our focal point of unity.  Rather, this focal point of our unity was posited in what we shared in common and held to be self-evident.  The problems we have today proceed less from imperfections in our constitutional documents than from our lack of common identity, values,  morality, and work ethic.  Our struggle has been, from both sides, to transform our constitutional document into a mechanism to provide what we no longer share and it has not worked very well.

It is the same for creed and confession in the church.  These things work better to focus the aspirational desires of a people who wish to be God's people, to live under Him in His kingdom, and to be led by the living voice of His Word into the eternal future He has prepared for them by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Lacking this common identity, we pick apart the Scriptures, creed, and confession to suit our whims and spend our time continually redefining who God is, what He has said, and what it means instead of proceeding from this given.  Among Lutherans, for example, we no longer share a common aspiration to be the people of our confessions and so we either ignore them, reinterpret them, or attempt to use them as a tool to enforce what was born of common belief and teaching.  We spend our time more in proof texting how our opinion is legitimate than we do listening to the Concordia as a whole or aspiring to be what we confess.


James Kellerman said...

We do well to distinguish between the U.S. Constitution on the one hand and the Scriptures and our confessions on the other. The Scriptures and their doctrine are divinely inspired; our constitution is not. We are free to make all sorts of changes to the way that we are governed, as long as we do so by mutual consent and due process. We are NOT free to make changes to the creeds or the Scriptures.

I agree with your argument that a drastic change in reading the constitution or the Scriptures signals a drastic change in the identity of the country or the church, respectively. And while I think that one may do things to a constitution that one cannot do to Scripture, I would argue that it should be through a formal amendment process rather than through mere re-interpretation. Since the constitution is a legal document, it should not be interpreted loosely, any more than I would want my will or a contract to which I am a party to be ignore my express wishes. Yes, I acknowledge that every legal contract (including the constitution) has loopholes and unclear matters--and there one must do one's best to bring clarity to the document. But that legal wrangling doesn't entirely make it "a living document" or allow anyone to go against its express wishes.

James Kellerman said...

Oops. "To ignore" rather than "to be ignore" and "expressed" rather than "express."

Anonymous said...

Hey maybe we can have rental contracts that are "living documents" whose terms don't actually have fixed meaning. Wouldn't that be fun?

Calling the US Constitution a "living document" is just a dishonest attack on the rule of law.

We have procedure to change the document if there exists overwhelming support among the electorate. The "living document" nonsense allows the powerful or their agents to change the constitution without following the amendment procedure.

Janis Williams said...

More to the point is Scripture's acultural locus. Certainly the Scriptures have historical passages centered in the culture of the time. Here, we learn as much as we are able about the culture in order to understand. The Truths of Law and Gospel, however are not circumscribed by any one time or culture, but speak to all.

I think the takraway is the unity we have without uniformity. I can kneel at the altar rail with someone who doesn't agree with my political views. I can sit in the pew with a better educated person on one side, and a lesser educated one on the other. We are all there to receive God's good Gifts in Christ's Word and Sacrament. The Confessions and Creeds are statements (with which we agree and speak) of what Christ has done to make us all one in Him.

Scripture is a "living" document. It is in this sense: it is, "Living, powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword."