Judge Alito on Hermeneutics

In an article this morning a New York Times journalist defined Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito’s approach to Constitutional interpretation as “originalism.” This Constitutional hermeneutic is further defined by Alito himself, who was quoted as saying, “In interpreting the Constitution I think we should look to the text of the Constitution, and we should look to the meaning that someone would have taken from the text of the Constitution at the time of its adoption.”

First, this is a great principle in biblical interpretation. We would do well to be “originalists” in the pulpit.

Second, it sheds some interesting light on contemporary Baptist (particularly Southern Baptist) life. As Southern Baptist politics leans conservative Republican, many would offer their hearty approval of Judge Alito. In order to protect freedom of religion, speech, and life we demand that the Constitution be interpreted in light of the framers’ intent. We cannot endorse playing fast and loose with the meaning of the Constitution. What it meant then is what it should mean for us now. Unless there is one meaning there is no meaning.

Now, shouldn’t we expect that same hermeneutic with our own founding documents in Southern Baptist life? Many Southern Baptist pastors are alienated, disenfranchised and fired for attempting to apply the principle of “originalism” to our Baptist heritage. An “original” reading of the historic Baptist confessions (including the Baptist Faith and Message) clearly leads to at least a moderate “Calvinistic” understanding of Scripture. And the healthiest churches are those who remain tenaciously tethered to these biblically-based confessions.

Most Southern Baptists would rather die than be considered liberal Democrat. Yet, many are applying the same principle to our denominational documents that liberal Democrats apply to the U.S. Constitution. I pray we repent from our double standard and joyfully return to “the way we were.”

6 thoughts on “Judge Alito on Hermeneutics

  1. Splendid comparison, BJ. I’m curious, though, where you have seen “Southern Baptists…applying the same principle to our denominational documents that liberal Democrats apply to the U.S. Consitution”? From personal experience, what came to my mind was the BF&M, Article 4, Salvation, where it talks about regeneration coming before repentance and faith-This past fall, I couldn’t convince a denominational big-shot that this is a historically valid baptist understanding of the order of salvation, even as I pointed to the BF&M and referenced other confessions. His reasoning? “Those are open to interpretation,” i.e. ‘Read into it what you want, even if it doesn’t quite fit what was originally there, as long as it makes sense to you.’ At least, that was my ‘original reading’ of his comments, but the meaning has probably changed by now… Where have you seen this poor hermeneutic applied, specifically?


  2. Well, without “crying in my beer,” I saw it displayed when fired from our previous church. I’ll refrain from specific details. But, your example of the BFM, Article 4 was certainly one of them. It clearly states that we affirm that regeneration precedes conversion. Now, one does not have to affirm that, but you cannot say it is not a fundamental Baptist tenet.

    Also, BFM, Article 5 was and obvious point of contention (which most didn’t even know was part of the confession anyway). Southern Baptists clearly confess some appreciation for the doctrine of election. But, rather than reading it “originally” it was explained away (or Pelagianized).

    Further, the total depravity clearly confessed in BFM, Article 3, was explained away for a more Wesleyan understanding of prevenient grace.

    One doesn’t have to agree with the U.S. Constitution to understand what it says. Likewise, and as I stressed then, you don’t have to agree, but don’t say the doctrines of grace are not of Baptist tradition.

  3. Thanks for the response, brother. By the way, the denominational leader I referenced is a very kind man (forgive me for calling him a ‘big shot,’ please). Preach the Word tomorrow.

  4. Barry, I too was asked to leave our last pastorate because of this hermeneutic. I was amazed to hear responses to my teaching that included things like: “I’ve been a Southern Baptist for more years than you’ve been alive. I don’t care what you say… I don’t read it like that” or even “I don’t care what the Bible says.” These people heartily considered themselves conservative Baptists and yet they couldn’t see this hypocrisy.
    I hope that I don’t ever become blinded to the dangers of this form of wrong thinking!

  5. My heart just goes out to you guys. I’m a layman but I’ve been heartbroken, actually, by that type of comment (and hermeneutic) for years.

    I hope that all who love the truth will find a way to bravely teach and preach it, and yet maintain this spirit: “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness.” (2 Tim. 2.24-25a)

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