Blackadder’s Lair

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Sola Scriptura and the Constitution

Conservatives who advocate originalism or textualism when in comes to interpreting the Constitution are sometimes accused of advocating a “sola scriptura” view of the Constitution. Since such charges are typically made by Catholics to Catholics, the allegation has a certain sting to it, as if holding a particular theory of constitutional interpretation someone made one a bad Catholic.

Yet there needn’t be anything inconsistent about interpreting the Constitution in one way and the Bible in another. The Bible is the inspired Word of God, given to us for the salvation of souls; the Constitution is a legal document. What’s sauce for the goose ain’t necessarily sauce for the gander in such a context.

In any event, it’s not clear to me exactly what it would mean to have a sola scriptura view of the Constitution (which for sake of flourish I shall call the sola constitutionola view), or what is supposed to be objectionable about it. Presumably the idea is that sola constitutionola is to the Constitution what sola scriptura is to the Bible. Okay, so what’s sola scriptura? According to the Missouri Synod, sola scriptura is the belief that:

The Bible is God’s inerrant and infallible Word, in which He reveals His Law and His Gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ. It is the sole rule and norm for Christian doctrine.

By parity of meaning, then, sola constitutionola would be the view that the Constitution is inerrant and infallible, and that it is the sole rule and norm for legal doctrine.

If this is what sola constitutionola means, then no originalist believes in it and it is silly to suggest otherwise. No one says that the Constitution is inerrant and infallible; nor do originalists think that the Constitution is the only legal authority. They are perfectly willing to recognize other sources of law, such as state and federal law, treaties, etc.

What view, then is sola constitutionola supposed to mimic? Is it the view that the meaning of the Scriptures does not change over time? If so, then I fail to see what is objectionable even from a Catholic perspective.

Originalism is the view that the Constitution ought to be interpreted according to its original public meaning, i.e., the way the text would have been understood at the time of ratification. So far as I know, no Protestant believes something analogous about Scripture. All Christians believe, for example, that many passages in the Old Testament refer to Christ, yet pretty clearly they would not have been understood by the general public to refer to him when originally written hundreds of years before his birth.

The Constitution is a public document ratified by a large number of people and subject to much debate before hand – that it could have a secret meaning is unthinkable. The Scriptures, by contrast, are inspired by God and everyone accepts that they contain many mysteries. The same goes for the view that Scriptures are to be interpreted according to their plain meaning. I highly doubt that the Constitution has a spiritual sense.

I admit I am not nearly as clear on this issue as I would like to be, but as far as I can tell, the doctrine of sola constitutionola is either plainly false or perfectly acceptable.


May 17, 2009 Posted by | Catholicism, Law | 1 Comment