Amy Coney Barrett, the Bible, and the Constitution

Criticism of Amy Coney Barrett in the wake of her nomination to the Supreme Court last autumn has focused on her legal philosophy and on her devout Catholic faith.1 These separate lines of attack frequently dovetail, with her text-centered, “originalist” legal reasoning being likened to a species of biblical literalism out of touch with the realities of the modern world. The problem with this argument is that it misunderstands both the nature of “literalism” and the place of the courts and the Constitution in the American political system.

To be sure, as the historian Jaroslav Pelikan has noted, we often approach the Bible and the Constitution in similar ways.2 First, we expect both documents to speak to a host of issues that their authors never imagined. Second, both contain obscure statements and inconsistencies (real or apparent) that we attempt to reconcile, with mixed success. Third, we pursue various strategies for making sense of the texts, sometimes privileging authorial intent and sometimes treating them as “living and breathing” documents. Fourth, valid interpretation must, in some manner, take prior discussion into account. And fifth, a scholarly guild assumes the prerogative to arbitrate disputes about the meaning or significance of each text.

Nevertheless, the comparison of originalism to literalism is a shallow one. To read the Bible literally instead of, say, figuratively, is not the same as reading it “conservatively” or “liberally.”

When it comes to the Bible, reading “literally” can mean at least three different things. Consider the command from the Decalogue, “Thou shalt not kill.” Understanding its original meaning — the plain sense — as anything but literal is surely obtuse. It is not meant to prohibit “figurative” killing, whatever that might mean. Everyone is a literalist in this sense. But sometimes we’re asking if the command was written with “the finger of God” on stone tablets given to Moses, as it says in the Book of Exodus. In this sense, some readers believe this literally happened as a matter of historical fact while others do not. Further still, reading the Bible “literally” may refer to the appropriate response to or application of a text made by an individual or community: Should I obey this text, perhaps by refusing to kill anyone or anything, whether in self-defense or to put dinner on the table? Again, this is a different question, about which reasonable people disagree.

Understanding the plain meaning of the text, believing or agreeing with what it expresses, and judging that it is imperative to put it into practice — these are three distinct procedures. There are skeptics who read the Bible literally when that is the sensible approach, and by the same token there are times when traditionalists would never read it literally. When fundamentalists hear Jesus say, “I am the good shepherd,” they don’t reply, “But I thought you were a carpenter!” Characterizing various readings flatly as “literalist” or “non-literalist” confuses these discrete issues and oversimplifies what readers all along the ideological spectrum are doing when they read the Bible.

Coney Barrett’s originalist legal reasoning is commonly caricatured through fuzzy thinking of the sort that one sees in simplistic attacks on “literalism.” It is frequently asserted that her philosophy commits her to a retrograde outlook, affirming only what a small group of eighteenth-century white males explicitly affirmed. But the objective of discovering the intent of the framers as expressed in the Constitution is not to be limited to the same horizon of cultural values without any possibility for change. There are mechanisms for “updating” the law of the land that are perfectly consistent with originalism. To assert that an originalist approach is inconsistent with the freeing of the slaves, for example, or women’s suffrage on the grounds that the framers never would have countenanced these developments is to ignore Article V of the Constitution, which outlines the very process that gave us the Thirteenth and Nineteenth Amendments.

In any case, to anyone familiar with religious history, the attack on Coney Barrett for her purported biblical literalism is somewhat surprising in light of long-standing Protestant criticism of the Catholic Church for its alleged disregard of the Bible rather than for any sort of “literalist” tendencies. From the very beginning, Reformers adopted as one of their slogans Sola scriptura, “Scripture alone,” over against the “papist” insistence on placing “Scripture and Tradition” on an equal footing in deciding Church doctrine and discipline. (Other Reformation mottoes aimed at perceived Catholic errors include Sola fide, “by faith alone,” over against “faith and works,” and Sola gratia, “by grace alone,” over against any consideration of merit in securing an individual’s salvation.) Martin Luther at the Leipzig Disputation of 1519 levels this charge, as do fellow Reformers of the 1520s such as Philipp Melanchthon, Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt, Conrad Grebel, and Huldrych Zwingli no less passionately.3 Luther’s famous peroration at the Diet of Worms in 1521 highlights the scriptural issue at stake in his argument with Eck and the Church:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason, for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves, I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything. . . . Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. May God help me.4

The notion that a Catholic interpreter — whether of the law or of the Bible — would focus exclusively on the literal text and nothing but the text, without any consultation of precedent or other authoritative sources, would have been alien to these observers, who for all their animosity were nevertheless much more familiar with Catholic theology and practice than most of the Church’s modern antagonists.5

Reformation-era attacks on Catholic interpretation often centered on the decidedly “non-literalist” approaches to the Bible common among medieval theologians. That a passage might have not only a literal but also a spiritual meaning — the moral, the allegorical, and the anagogical senses — and that these were not mutually exclusive was a hallmark of the “multiple senses of Scripture” broadly recognized by interpreters in the Middle Ages.6 To be sure, such interpretations could on occasion appear arbitrary and unmoored from the plain meaning of the text. On the other hand, Lutheran and Reformed polemicists sometimes overreacted to Catholic excesses on this score. Be that as it may, they knew their opponents, and they knew they were anything but “literalists.”

More recently and closer to home, the anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party of the nineteenth century cast the Church as enemies of God’s Word when bishops and educators objected to plans to have the Bible read daily in the public schools, an initiative made possible when the American Bible Society in 1839 arranged to place Bibles in every classroom in New York City and elsewhere. Their principle objection was that the version to be read was the “Protestant” King James translation. Deadly riots erupted in Philadelphia in 1844 after the failure of a compromise that would have allowed Catholic students to read from the Douay-Rheims version instead.7 The ensuing Know-Nothing campaign to “save the Bible” included in its platform a requirement that only native-born Americans should be permitted to hold public office, a proposal transparently aimed at Irish Catholics.

It is progress of a sort, one may suppose, to see an acknowledgement of the Catholic appreciation for Scripture among Coney Barrett’s critics, only now it is invoked as grounds for disqualifying her from serving as a judge. To the proverbial visitor from Mars, this line of attack might resemble a game of “heads I win, tails you lose.”

People of good will disagree — sometimes quite vehemently — when seminal documents like the Bible and the Constitution are held up to scrutiny. The fact that I teach at Coney Barrett’s alma mater doesn’t give me special standing to opine on her fitness for the bench, but my hope is that my students will be able to tell a sound analogy from a clever-sounding but strained one. The passionate yet reasoned debate essential to democracy with a commitment to religious freedom depends on it.

  1. “The conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you,” remarked Senate Judiciary Chair Dianne Feinstein in Coney Barrett’s Court of Appeals confirmation hearing in 2017, after expressing deep concern about her views on abortion and the way in which her Catholicism might influence her legal decisions.
  2. Jaroslav Pelikan, Interpreting the Bible and the Constitution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004).
  3. The precise contours and parameters of a properly Protestant doctrine of Sola scriptura remains a matter of lively debate. See, e.g., Keith A. Mathison, The Shape of Sola Scriptura (Moscow, ID: Canon, 2001); Roger E. Olson, “The Tradition Temptation: Why We Should Still Give Scripture Pride of Place,” Christianity Today 47.11(November 2003): 52-55; John C. Peckham, Canonical Theology: The Biblical Canon, Sola Scriptura, and Theological Method (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016); and Hans Burger, Arnold Huijgen, and Eric Peels, eds., Sola Scriptura: Biblical and Theological Perspectives on Scripture, Authority, and Hermeneutics (Leiden: Brill, 2018). According to David C. Steinmetz, Luther in Context, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 129, “Sola scriptura generally meant prima Scriptura, Scripture as the final source and norm by which all theological sources and arguments were to be judged, not Scripture as the sole source of theological wisdom.” Catholic critiques include Robert A. Sungenis, Not by Scripture Alone: A Catholic Critique of the Protestant Doctrine of Sola Scriptura (Santa Barbara, CA: Queenship Publishing, 1997). The degree to which Sola scriptura still constitutes a stumbling block to relations between Catholics and Evangelicals is considered by Charles Colson and Richard John Neuhaus, eds., Your Word is Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 1-8.
  4. Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Nashville: Abingdon, 1978), 182. Luther and Calvin nevertheless continue to make appeals to patristic authors and creeds as valid expressions of the apostolic faith (Alister E. McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), 153-54.
  5. Additionally, the promulgation of Divino Afflante Spiritu in 1943 by Pius XII authorized Catholic biblical scholars to make use of historical-critical methods of interpretation; thus, the pursuit of the text’s “literal” meaning is not incompatible with a “modern” approach to study of the Bible.
  6. Henri de Lubac, Medieval Exegesis, vol. 1: The Four Senses of Scripture (trans. M. Sebanc; Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1998); and Frans van Liere, An Introduction to the Medieval Bible (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 110-39.
  7. See Amanda Beyer-Purvis, “The Philadelphia Bible Riots of 1844: Contest Over the Rights of Citizens,” Pennsylvania History 83 (Summer 2016): 366-93.
Avatar About Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray is Professor of Religious Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis (Amy Coney Barrett’s alma mater). He received his Ph.D. in religion from Emory University. His research focuses on the Greco-Roman context of early Christianity and the history of biblical interpretation; he is the author of The Routledge Guidebook to the New Testament (2017) as well as the editor of the upcoming Cambridge Companion to the New Testament (2021).

Comments

  1. Avatar Francis Etheredge says:

    I am glad to see that I am not the only one to discuss Amy Barrett’s method of interpreting the American Constitution. What do you think of my article?, although it is closed for comment: “Conception: A Contradiction?”: https://www.hprweb.com/2020/12/conception-a-contradiction/. The article ranges from interpreting the 14th Amendment of the American Constitution to the necessity for international bioethical law, taking into account the limits of judicial decisions, embryology, philosophy, theology, pastoral needs and the necessity for a clearer exposition of Catholic Teaching on conception. God bless, Francis.

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