The Originalist

Today Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was memorialized in an elaborate funeral mass in Washington, D.C.  Having watched the majority of the event on television, including the sermon, I was struck by the Catholic Priest’s statements concerning the Justice’s eternal soul:  “He was not yet perfected, but we will join with his family in continuing to pray for his soul that he will be perfected, since we know that no one ascends to heaven unless they have been made perfect.”

Huh?  What did he say?

This was a seminal moment for me, in context, and illustrates a stark contrast between the teachings of the Catholic Church and the Protestant Church.  “Sola Gratia”, meaning: by grace alone, is one of the five core tenets of the Reformation.  Yet, when you survey Catholic doctrine, you learn that the Catholic Church also teaches salvation by grace, just as the Reformers do.  Contrary to what one may surmise from the words of the priest at Mr. Scalia’s funeral, the Catholic Church does not teach that one “deserves” eternal life through “earning” it.  However, they do teach that the grace of God is imparted in “stages”, resulting ultimately in the perfection of the individual, even if that person’s soul must spend time in purgation before this occurs.

This purification frees one from what is called the “temporal punishment” of sin.

– Catechism of the Catholic Church, article 1472

Most evangelicals would automatically and categorically refute this doctrine as heresy, however we must be cognizant of the fact that the concept of purgation also has roots in the religion of Judaism, where so many Catholic traditions trace their origin.  In a real sense, the idea of Purgatory is more humane than suggesting that an individual is eternally damned to hell if they fail to make a “decision” for Christ at an altar call. Further, it gets a little muddy, (this whole “sola gratia” concept) when you consider verses such as this one:

“Although he was a Son, he learned obedience from the things which he suffered. And having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey him the source of eternal salvation.” (Heb.5:8-9)

Purgatory is part of the faith expression that Justice Scalia embraced.  This was part of his understanding of Christianity.  There are many opinions as to what defines a Christian today.  Some say you must be “born-again”, which is easy to defend with scripture, but not so easy to define according to the Christians who claim it as a prerequisite.  Some say you must “Repent, and believe the gospel”, which is, again, easy to defend scripturaly, but perhaps even harder to define in real experience.  After all, how does one define “repent”?  More so, how does one define the “gospel”?

Theological questions related to the Constitution

These theological questions may be better answered by taking the same approach that Justice Scalia took to the Constitution of the United States.  By describing him as an “Originalist”, we are saying that he believed in interpreting the Constitution, and by extent the whole of the law of the land, in the context of what “was originally meant” by the authors, as opposed to what later generations would prefer to say about it.  He did not believe it was correct to define the Constitution as a “living document” which changes through the years according to the changes in our culture.  He believed, rather, that the original intent of the authors of the Constitution should be sought after and defended in light of any ideas which would combat against those ideas. He is considered a hero by many because of this, and a villain by others.  But, for our purposes, there is something valuable we can learn from him, in regards to our understanding of scripture.

It is important, first of all, to keep in mind that Justice Scalia was not a Fundamentalist, which Rabbi Jonathan Sacks defines as: “Trying to apply scripture without interpretation.”  A Fundamentalist is often also a “Literalist”, or to use modern vernacular, a “Biblicist”.  As an “Originalist”, Justice Scalia did engage in interpretation, but according to strict methodology and precedent; what we would call in theological circles a “good hermeneutic”.  Understanding that we are using theological terms to describe a Supreme Court Justice’s practice of American law, it is still appropriate to make such analogies.  After all, the Law of Moses is the Constitution of the Jewish people, as it were.

What if we were Originalists, too?

What if we approached theological questions the same way that Justice Scalia did during his tenure on the Supreme Court?  How would we rule on interpretive questions of the New Testament?  Well, for one thing, as Originalists, we would want to consider, first and foremost, the original intent of the writings.  This would involve considering them sociologically, culturally, and in other ways, such as: What was the theology of the apostles, and how did they come to this understanding of theology?  We cannot answer this question without understanding the Jewish roots of their faith, and this requires a study of both the Old Testament, but also the Oral Traditions, or Oral Law.

Many Christians consider it at best extraneous and at worst heretical to read and study Jewish texts, however without such background of understanding, it is truly difficult to discern many passages of the New Testament properly.  We must distance ourselves, as best as we can, from our dogmatic bias and Western mindset if we are to do so successfully.  The result is well worth the effort, however.

The Originalist is never thrown off, or “tossed about by every wind of doctrine” (Eph.4:14). He or she is armed with the truth of the original understanding of the apostles concerning the faith, trusting that their understanding of “original intent” will correctly guide their own efforts at applying the eternal word to their lives today.  Here at Oasis Fellowship, we strive to emulate the example of the great Justice Scalia, by holding to an original view of scripture, and not being unduly influenced by later interpretations which recontextualize the original intent to suit a current social or theological normality.

This will cause us to be heroes to some, and villains to others.

 

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