Reading Law and Reading the Bible

   Posted by: Rob Bowman   in Biblical studies

Scalia, Antonin, and Bryan A. Garner. Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts. St. Paul, MN: Thomson/West, 2012.

Antonin Scalia was appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States by Ronald Reagan in 1986, making him currently the longest-serving of the nine Justices. Theologically, Scalia is a devout Roman Catholic who prefers the ultra-traditionalist Tridentine Latin Mass to the mainstream post-Vatican II liturgy. Politically, he is conservative in his judicial philosophy and in his viewpoints on specific contentious issues in American law; for example, he considers Roe v. Wade unconstitutional. Opinions about Scalia are generally polarized, with American liberals often scathing in their criticisms of his views.

Scalia’s most recent book, Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts, is well worth reading simply within its own intended context of defending Scalia’s approach to interpreting legal texts, called textualism or originalism. He and his co-author Bryan Gardner, law professor at Southern Methodist University, explain textualism as follows: “We look for meaning in the governing text, ascribe to that text the meaning that it has borne from its inception, and reject judicial speculation about both the drafters’ extratextually derived purposes and the desirability of the fair reading’s anticipated consequences” (xxvii). The book is also worth reading for those who are interested in the interpretation of other texts, including the texts of the Bible. Of course, most of the biblical texts are not legal texts, though some of the Bible’s most controversial material is in the Mosaic Law. But Reading Law sets forth 57 “principles” or “canons” of interpretation, the first 37 of which the authors say apply to all texts. Those who are already familiar with biblical hermeneutics will recognize several of these principles as functioning also in the study of biblical interpretation. A few examples:

#6. “Ordinary-Meaning Canon. Words are to be understood in their ordinary, everyday meanings—unless the context indicates that they bear a technical sense.”
#17. “Grammar Canon. Words are to be given the meaning that proper grammar and usage would assign them.”
#24. “Whole-text Canon. The text must be construed as a whole.”
#27. “Harmonious-Reading Canon. The provisions of a text should be interpreted in a way that renders them compatible, not contradictory.”

Scalia and Gardner do not present these canons as inviolable, absolute rules. In fact, their third canon explicitly rejects such an understanding of interpretive principles:

#3. “Principle of Interrelating Canons. No canon of interpretation is absolute. Each may be overcome by the strength of differing principles that point in other directions.”

Uncounted hermeneutical blunders in the interpretation of the Bible might be avoided if this one principle were understood and applied. The assumption that a particular grammatical construct must be either irrelevant or absolute violates this canon.

Scalia and Gardner conclude their book with “Thirteen Falsities Exposed,” generally in rebuttal to common arguments against textualism. So for instance they criticize “the false notion that the spirit of a statute should prevail over its letter.” The issue this point raises is one that readers of the Bible also frequently find it necessary to address.

Scalia’s book, like Scalia’s viewpoints and arguments generally, is already controversial. Richard Posner, a legal scholar who has long been one of Scalia’s most vocal critics, published a lengthy review in the New Republic entitled “The Incoherence of Scalia.” Ed Whelan, a former law clerk for Scalia, wrote a multi-part response to Posner (originally on National Review Online). Stanley Fish is a notable scholar who recommends the book while taking issue with its advocacy of textualism. The debate will continue. Those of us who are interested in biblical interpretation can learn a lot from following the debate.


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