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Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and Bible Interpretation

The political life of the United States and the religious life of the Churches of Christ rarely parallel each other.  Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's recent death highlights an exception*.  Scalia was an "Originalist" in his approach to the U.S. Constitution, a champion of an interpretive approach that is very similar to the Conservative Christian approach to scripture.  This article uses Scalia's Originalism as a teaching tool.

Scalia and Originalism

Sounding as much like a Christian minister (he wasn't) as a Supreme Court Justice (he was since 1986), Scalia described Originalism as "a manner of interpreting...(that) begins with the text, and gives that text the meaning that it bore when it was (originally) adopted."  As an Originalist, Scalia "saw the language and meaning of the Constitution as an immovable object."  The Originalist approach is further defined as:

A principle of interpretation that views the Constitution's meaning as fixed as of the time of its enactment.  There is an identifiable original intent or original meaning...which should govern its subsequent interpretation.

Originalism Versus "Living Constitution"

In contrast with Scalia's belief that the Constitution is "a fixed document that does not change over time" is the "Living Constitution" approach.  This approach is "more flexible and responsive to changing circumstances," and views the Constitution as having,

Dynamic meaning (with) the properties of an animate being in the sense that it changes. The idea is associated with views that (changing trends in) contemporary society should be taken into account when interpreting key constitutional phrases.

Writing in his book, The Audacity of Hope, President Obama championed this approach, describing the Constitution as, "not a static but rather a living document, (it) must be read in the context of an ever-changing world."

Originalism, Living Document, and Scripture

Just as the U.S. Constitution is stretched between Originalist and Living interpretations, so too is the Bible stretched by alternate approaches.  Sounding like they take the Bible as a changeable document, religious Liberals and Progressives attempt to massage Christianity into harmony with our ever-changing world.  The famed Christian writer C. S. Lewis argued that "Theology of the liberal type amounts to a complete re-invention of Christianity and a rejection of Christianity as understood by its own founders." 

Conversely, our Conservatives, seek to conserve the teachings of the Bible with something like an Originalist approach.  As "a reaction to theological liberalism and cultural modernism," Christian Conservatism takes a hard-line book, chapter and verse approach to doctrine and practice.  In contrast with "human opinions and inventions," Alexander Campbell summarized this approach as accepting the New Testament as "the perfect constitution...of the New Testament Church."


Although enlightening, neither Originalism nor Living approaches to the Constitution should inform our approach to God's word.  Instead, we should allow the Bible to explain itself.  These passages describe a conserving approach and cannot accommodate any other. 

  • "Contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered unto the saints" (Jude 3).
  • "Every scripture inspired of God is also profitable for...instruction which is in righteousness That the man of God may be complete, furnished completely unto every good work" (II Tim. 3:16-17).
  • "Teach what accords with sound doctrine" (Tit. 2:10).
  • "Thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it" (Deut. 12:32, Rev. 22:18-19).


* Once before, in the 1790s, political life and religious life paralleled each other and provided another opportunity to use constitutional interpretation as insight into biblical interpretation.  When Alexander Hamilton proposed a Bank of the United States, he was opposed by Thomas Jefferson and the "Strict Constructionists" (Originalists) who found no authority for such an institution within the Constitution.  Hamilton was a "Loose Constructionist"  (Living Document), believing that what the Constitution did not forbid it permitted.  The distinction between Strict and Loose Constitutional Construction also highlights differences in Conservative and Liberal/Progressive approaches to the Bible.