Thank you to Mike Cope for planting the seed of this post:
In Illusions of Innocence, restorationist theo-historians Leonard Allen and Richard Hughes write:
“The restoration perspective has worked in American life in two important ways. Some Americans have enshrined first times as an ideal to be approximated and even as a kind of transcendent norm that stands in judgment on the ambiguities of the present age. In this case, the myth of first times has been a beacon summoning Americans to perfection. On the other hand, some Americans have fully identified their religious denomination or even their nation itself with the purity of first times. The illusion thereby fostered in the minds of these Americans is that they are an innocent and fundamentally natural people who, in effect, have stepped outside of history, thereby escaping the powerful influences of history, culture, and tradition. These Americans therefore have often confused the historic particularities of their limited experience with universal norms that should be embraced, they have thought, by all people in all cultures and all times.”
The point they make is valid, if self-condemning. In essence, they find a strong correlation between how Americans view the Constitution with how they view Scripture. Is the Constitution a normative, rigid framework for government to be interpreted strictly and literally, right down to the punctuation marks? Or is the Constitution a living document, a product of its time and place to be interpreted based on what America needs it to be now? Is government free to act in unconstitutional ways when they decide they “need to,” or does doing so threaten the legitimacy or even the very existence of that government? Is the Constitution sufficient to govern America in any time under any circumstances, or do we live in a “post-Constitutional” culture that demands a new way of thinking and doing government? Ultimately, how a person answers these questions determines whether the person is conservative or liberal politically.
That same “strict constructionist” vs. “living document” debate has been raging in hermeneutical circles in churches of Christ for most of the last three decades, fueled in no small measure by Hughes and Allen among others. The issue at hand is about the nature of Scripture itself. What is the Bible, why is it here, and what do we do with it? Allen and Hughes argue that, like with the Constitution, those who advocate a “strict constructionist” view of Scripture are laboring under an illusion of innocence — that is, the rules of history and cultural change simply do not apply. Further, they argue that the norms of the “first times” cannot be replicated or even approximated. Too much time has gone by, and those who believe otherwise are ignorant, willfully or otherwise.
Now to be sure, the “strict constructionist” view of Scripture has its flaws, particularly when the Bible is seen as a sort of “Constitution of the Christian faith” as one of my college professors described it. Times have changed. Society’s needs are different in 21st century Kentucky than they were in 1st century Corinth. What we do as Christians is, like it or not, an expression of who we are. To pretend otherwise is to be dishonest with God.
But the “living document hermeneutic” is likewise rife with problems. For one, it completely misses the nature of divine revelation, particularly in the Old Testament. The Law of Moses lasted for 1500 years. During that time, Israel went from being a nomadic people wandering the desert to being a confederation of tribes, then a kingdom, then two kingdoms, then an oppressed minority within any number of world empires. Times changed. But for all their changing circumstances, God only gave Israel one Moses. Instead of sending prophets to give new laws for new circumstances, God sent Isaiah and company to show how the Law of Moses still applied. The prophets were the original Restoration Movement.
Likewise, in the New Testament, Jesus sent His apostles to “preach the gospel to every creature.” How that gospel inpacted a person’s life was different from individual to individual, from city to city, and from time to time. But the gospel itself is timeless. The principles that Jesus taught — that the apostles explained to Corinthians, Romans, and Colossians, that carry down to us today in Scripture — never change.
The “living document hermeneutic,” then, asks the wrong question. It wants to know “Does the principle in Scripture still apply today?” The answer is yes. Always. Without exception. “How does the principle apply” might vary from time to time and place to place, but the principle itself stands — always and forever.
The Constitution itself gives us a hint as to why that might be. Article V, section 1, says that whenever Cnogress deems necessary, it (or the states) can propose amendments to the Constitution. Those amendments, if ratified, become just as much a part of the Constitution as the rest of it. This process has been carried to completion 27 times in American history.
That’s the difference. The Constitution recognizes its own fallibility, while the Bible does not. The Bible does not have, nor has it ever had, an amendment process. We the people have no right to decide whether God’s decision should stand, or to change it once it is made. God asks us to trust that His Word is all we need no matter where we live, or when.
This calls from great hermeneutical care. We must never elevate the traditions of men to the level of principles of God. Likewise, we must never dismiss one of God’s principles based on which men stand in apporval of them.