Comparing Literary and Biblical Hermeneutics to Constitutional and Statutory Interpretation

Comparing Literary and Biblical Hermeneutics to Constitutional and Statutory Interpretation

Essay By: Robert J. Pushaw, Jr.

47 PEPP. L. REV. 463 (2020)

Interpreters determine the meaning of language. To interpret literary and biblical texts, scholars have developed detailed rules, methods, and theories of human understanding. This branch of knowledge, “hermeneutics,” features three basic approaches. First, “textualists” treat words as directly conveying their ordinary meaning to a competent reader today. Second, “contextualists” maintain that verbal meaning depends on generally shared linguistic conventions in the particular historical and cultural environment of the author—and that therefore translations or commentaries are necessary to make the writing intelligible to a modern reader. Third, “hermeneutic circle” scholars argue that texts have no objective meaning. Rather, a person’s subjective perspectives and norms affect his or her understanding of a text, which then generates new meanings that in turn may influence future readers.

These three methodologies have parallels in the legal field. Most importantly, judges and scholars have interpreted the United States Constitution by employing (1) textualism, (2) originalism— discerning the meaning of constitutional provisions in historical context, or (3) subjective “living constitutionalism.” Similarly, federal statutes have been analyzed by applying textualism, contextbased pragmatism, or freewheeling “dynamic interpretation.”

In this Essay, I will begin by summarizing the three main approaches to literary and biblical hermeneutics. I will then explore their analogues in federal constitutional and statutory interpretation.

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