Blackadder’s Lair

The home of many a cunning plan

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 »

  1. Dude, I never knew about this blog! You sneaky man of mystery.

    I think analogies from the debate about sola scriptura to the debate about constitutional interpretation focus not on the nature of the text but on the role of the interpreters in saying what the law is. Whether or not it’s correct, one view of the Catholic approach to “doctrine” is that both Scripture and the Church are authoritative, binding, and legitimate sources of law. The corollary of this analogy in the matter of constitutional interpretation is the view — not held by originalists or textualists — that the Constitution is certainly one source of law but judges are another source — and a legitimate source — of law insofar as they say what the law should be (i.e., make law). The opposite approach in terms of both doctrine and constitutional interpretation is that only the text is authoritative and the role of churchmen and judges is simply to ascertain what the text states to the best of their ability. Any extra-textual assumptions or sources are invalid.

    Along these lines, and related I think, is another interesting analogy, this one between the concept of the Catholic Magisterium as the authoritative source on what Scripture means, on the one hand, and the concept of judicial review — the idea that the Court has the “last,” and thus definitive, word on what the Constitution means — on the other hand.

    One important difference is that the Church claims to be safeguarded in its judgments by the action of the Holy Spirit whereas the only claim of the Supreme Court to authority is that it “comes last” and must, because of its place structurally in our system of laws, “say what the law is.”

    But I think the analogy raises several interesting questions that could be explored with interest if not fruitfully.

    Comment by T-Bone | May 25, 2009 | Reply

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