by Robert C. Veil, Jr.
Back when I was in law school, we were always taught that judges should look to the original meaning of the statute before them. If the case involved a constitutional issue, the particular portion of the Constitution should be read as it was originally intended. The idea that the Constitution is a “living document”, which is to say that its meaning can be changed from generation to generation according to the current preferences of the majority, was never heard of in my experience at that time. Nowadays, my view is often referred to as “originalist” thinking. And there is a lively debate over whether or not Justices on the Supreme Court should be originalists.
When I was a law student, I was also preaching every Sunday for the Eastside congregation in Baltimore, Maryland. I was preparing and teaching Bible classes, and doing other church work, so the Scriptures were uppermost in my mind, and I saw the amazing parallels between our legal system and God’s laws. I came to see how our system is so fundamentally based upon God’s principles of justice. And, as a member of the Lord’s church, the concept of “original ism” came naturally to me, although I had probably not yet heard that term.
My law school professors spoke respectfully about the “original intent” of the framers of the constitution. It was a judge’s job to ascertain what that original intent of the constitution or the relevant statute was, and to follow it in resolving the dispute before the court.
In a similar way, every Christian is an originalist in that our task is to discover and apply the original intent of the gospel. Our job is not to change or adapt the gospel to our particular preferences, or to the will of the current majority. Our task is not to take a poll every time a Bible question comes up. Such a procedure, although increasingly more common in our legal system, is deadly and anti-scriptural when it comes to ascertaining God’s will. “I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto them, God shall add unto him the plagues which are written in this book: and if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the tree of life, and out of the holy city, which are written in this book,” (Rev. 22:18-019). This sounds unmistakably like God expects us to follow the original intent of the Scriptures, and not to modify them in any way.
Originalist judges must be content to simply research and discover what was intended by the lawmakers, rather than promoting their own policy. In the same way, Christians must humbly search for God’s will without imposing their own biases upon the Scriptures. And this is true no matter how well-intentioned our biases may be. God does not always stop and explain why particular directions are being given, he just expects us to humbly and faithfully follow them.
I know it is currently popular to question the wisdom of our forefathers. The vogue is to claim that they are out of touch with the current culture, and that their quaint views are sexist, racist, bigoted, narrow-mind, or otherwise outmoded, and that they should be rejected. But this is all the same thing as rejecting the Constitution and substituting our own wisdom for their’s. We must be careful we do not fall into the same trap in the church. The truth is, by rejecting the Scriptures, we are rejecting God. When we substitute our own judgment for the teaching of the Bible, we may think we are being politically correct, tolerant, broad-minded, or cute, but what we are really doing is forsaking God.
I would rather be an originalist with regard to the Scriptures than to have to stand before God and explain why I deviated from his instructions. Judging from how God has handled such situations, I do not believe he will be one bit impressed with some explanation of the “new hermeneutic” or the Bible as a “living document.” Words like those of the inspired Jude seem especially relevant here: “Contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered unto the saints,” (Jude 3). Or Peter: “If any man speaketh, speaking as it were oracles of God,” (1 Pet. 4:11). Or an “old-fashioned” proverb: “Add thou not unto his words, lest he reprove thee, and thou be found a liar,” (Prov. 30:6).
-by Robert C. Veil, Jr.