In 25 years of ministry one of the most profound changes I’ve seen is the growing inability and/or unwillingness of Americans to read texts according to the intent of the author. One of the major reasons for this change was the mutation of the Modernism in North America from rationalism and empiricism to subjectivism. Mind you both forms of Modernism have much in common. In both cases the subject of the verb is always the autonomous “I.” For the rationalist “I get to decide what is reasonable and true on the basis of what I can know comprehensively.’ For the empiricist, “I decide what is true on the basis of sense experience.” The subjectivist says, “Truth is what is true for me.” In that sense, the starting point hasn’t changed but in other respects things have changed.
The argument with rationalists and empiricists was not whether there is such a thing as objective reality (that which is true regardless of my experience of it) but whether it is “reasonable” to believe a truth claim on the basis of an authority or source that transcended my intellect or sense experience. Now the discussion has devolved into the question whether there is anything that isn’t me or my imagination or my experience. Do “you” really exist?
The Rise of Subjectivism
All that to say subjectivism was washing over the American university just as I graduated. I heard rumblings but I didn’t pay attention. At seminary we were still largely fighting with the higher critics and old modernists (mostly rationalists) so I didn’t really see it there even though we had some brief discussions about the subjective turn in hermeneutics to “reader reception” and the like. It seemed like a fad. When I got to the UK in 1993, however, I discovered that it was not a fad and I had to catch up. The language of the university had changed while I wasn’t looking.
In the years since the consequences of this turn have become clearer. It is increasingly difficult to get readers to move beyond their subjective experience of the text to the text itself in its original context, to ask when did the author write it? To whom? Why and what did he intend to communicate? These questions, which my 9th-grade Journalism teacher, Mrs Chafee taught us were basic, are now regarded as quaint and outmoded. Are they really?
Consider this example: when a subjectivist author writes a document attempting to persuade us that the reader’s experience/reception of a text is as important or more important than the author’s intention, that subjectivist author necessarily expects us to read his document according to his intention. If we refuse and receive his words as communicating something about cosmic grasshoppers the entire communication process is frustrated. For the purposes of telling us to do to other authors what he does not want us to do to his words, our subjectivist author must rely on the old-fashioned idea of authorial intent. He must rely on the notion that the author had an intent, that words are signals of that intent, and that the intent can be inferred by understanding the words—that there is perspicuity in language, that it is a vehicle for meaning. Only after reading the subjectivist author are we to begin reading other texts as if the reader’s experience trumps all.
In that case then we’re just playing a game that defies the nature of creation, the nature of the created order and pattern. God gave us language not, first of all, to facilitate my subjective experience, to do with whatever I autonomously will, but in order to facilitate communication between the Creator and his image bearer and secondarily to facilitate communication between image bearers. Of course, the fall corrupted the process. Signs are not as easy to read because our perception is corrupted and because our wills, our affections, and our intellects are corrupted. Nevertheless, God has pledged to restrain the effects of the fall (Gen 9) so that life can continue, albeit brokenly, and communication can continue, albeit haltingly, until the end.
Please do not misunderstand. I understand that readers necessarily receive texts and that, in some way, their experience of the text is distinct from that of the author, that the reader may justifiably perceive messages in the text of which the author was not conscious. This is true in the case of the NT reception of the authors of the typological revelation (the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament in the broad sense of that term). John understood aspects of Isaiah that Isaiah himself probably did not understand. The NT interprets Psalms 110 repeatedly in ways that David probably did not understand fully.
This process occurs even with uninspired texts. Readers do decode messages of which the author was perhaps not aware but recognizing the power of creative reading is not quite the same thing as ignoring the author’s intent or denying that the author had an intent. Again, you might take this post to be a secret message from a cosmic grasshopper but I’m telling you that it is no such thing. In the nature of the created order, words bear a relation to the things they intend to signify. For the purposes of this discussion it doesn’t matter whether that relation is fixed by nature (realism) or fixed by convention (nominalism) so long as the intent of the sign is understood in a substantially similar way by author and reader.
Consider the lowly stop sign. S-T-O-P. In English we add those letters to make a word. According to the Oxford English Dictionary it’s an Old English word derived from Saxon and West Germanic words. It may be used as a noun to refer to a bucket or to something that plugs up something. In the case of a stop sign, however, it would not seem to be a noun. That would make the sign an announcement: “Here is something that plugs up something else.” That’s true in a way. A stop sign does momentarily impede cars but is that the intent of the author (in this case the city council) of the sign? Probably not. So, we move on to the the next possibility: a verb. Again, it’s an Old English word with relatives all across Europe. As a verb it may mean “To fill up, plug, close up.” If it’s a verb, what sort of verb it is? In what voice? If we take it as an indicative (what is) does that work? “Things stop.” Well, they do, yes but why would the city council post signs across town announcing that? It seems unlikely. If, however, we take it as an imperative (“do this!”) then it begins to make sense in context.
After all, these signs tend to occur at intersections where autos must negotiate a limited space at the same time but what sort of imperative? If the noun means “a plug” does that mean that the city council wants us all to congest intersections and impede traffic? Probably not. Why would the council want that? To what end? Why would we allow them to tax us in order to post signs to slow our way home from work? Thus, if it is an imperative it must mean something else. In context, it seems most likely that the intent is to require us to cease moving forward long enough to allow others to move or to make sure the way is clear before we continue. Imagine if we chose to ignore the intent of the city council in posting the signs? Chaos!
Most likely someone told us what STOP on a red sign means but this exercise shows that even if no one told us what the signs meant it is possible to decode messages according to original intent by considering the signal in its immediate and broader context. We are able to infer a likely meaning and confirm that inference by experience. In fact, we would probably make all of those decisions very quickly.
Do Not Eat This Text
Above we considered some of the difficulties we have interpreting texts in our late modern world by considering how to interpret a stop sign. In what follows we will consider a more complicated text because it is longer and its original context is farther away from us but I am confident that we can apply the same principles and arrive at a reasonable understanding of its original intent and sense. I understand that what we are about to discuss is a controversial topic but that is why it needs to be discussed because we have before us a living example of the necessity of reading texts in their original context, according to original intent. To be sure: The point I am making here is first of all about hermeneutics (the interpretation of texts). Whether we should decide to agree with the text in question is another matter.
Today’s text is the second amendment to the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution was ratified in 1788 and amended with the ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791. The second amendment says:
A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.
This amendment is usually analyzed to include two parts: a preface, “A well regulated militia, being necessary for the security of a free state” and an operative clause, “the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”
There was debate among the framers as to whether a Bill of Rights was needed. The Federalists opposed the Bill of Rights on the grounds that it was superfluous. The Anti-Federalist argument, however, that a statement of specific rights was necessary to keep the government at bay and to protect individual liberties won the day. The original intention of the framers was that ordinary civilians, who composed the state militias (something like the modern state National Guard units), had to be armed in order to form a regulated militia. For some time the preface more or less dominated the operative clause (“shall not be infringed”) in the interpretation of the amendment.
Interestingly, this leveraging of the operative clause by means of the preface has the appearance of reading the amendment in context while denying the substance of the operative clause. The reasoning has been to the effect that: “We’re not in the 18th century any longer and we don’t have the same sort of state militias any longer and therefore the second amendment can be re-contextualized and re-interpreted to allow civil governments to ban the ownership of weapons.”
Such a reading, however, ignores the intent of the preface and the operative clause. The intent was that the people should be able to defend themselves. If weapons are banned they are no longer able to defend themselves.
In recent case law, however, the situation has changed. There is a helpful, brief summary of the state of the law at FindLaw. Here are two salient paragraphs:
In Heller, the Court held that (1) the District of Columbia’s total ban on handgun possession in the home amounted to a prohibition on an entire class of “arms” that Americans overwhelmingly chose for the lawful purpose of self-defense, and thus violated the Second Amendment; and (2) the District’s requirement that any lawful firearm in the home be disassembled or bound by a trigger lock also violated the Second Amendment, because the law made it impossible for citizens to use arms for the core lawful purpose of self-defense.
The Court reasoned that the Amendment’s prefatory clause, i.e., “[a] well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State,” announced the Amendment’s purpose, but did not limit or expand the scope of the operative clause, i.e., “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Moreover, the prefatory clause’s history comported with the Court’s interpretation, because the prefatory clause stemmed from the Anti-Federalists’ concern that the federal government would disarm the people in order to disable the citizens’ militia, enabling a politicized standing army or a select militia to rule.
Private Individuals have a constitutional right to keep and carry firearms in order to prevent tyranny. As the founders looked at the world, according to their intention in framing the second amendment, to infringe upon that right is an act of tyranny. The constitution did not specify which weapons lawful citizens could keep and carry. It did not envision that law-abiding citizens should even have to apply for a permit to own or carry a firearm. The historical fact is that people kept and carried military-style weapons in the 18th century, when this amendment was adopted. Therefore, it cannot be unconstitutional to keep and carry military-style weapons. We know they did so because that’s what it takes to form a well-regulated militia.
One of the challenges we face in interpreting texts is that of de-contexualization. This is the removal of the text in question and setting it down in another context altogether. In university we did this by only discussing the second amendment in terms of whether people should be allowed to own firearms for the purposes of hunting. We never discussed the second amendment in its original context, according to its original intent. The great difficulty with such a procedure is that hunting has nothing to do with the language or original intent or original context of the second amendment. The only purpose stated in the amendment is the purpose of self-defense.
Reading the amendment against the backdrop of the original setting we can understand why this would be. The United States of America was formed out of a rebellion against a colonial power that was believed by the rebels to by tyrannical and contradictory to the nature of civil government. Were the colonialists unarmed there could have been no rebellion.
The other flaw in de-contextualizing the second amendment and re-contextualizing it in terms of hunting is that it creates a misleading picture of the nature of the weapons that were possessed by the colonists. They owned and carried military grade weapons. Their ownership of military grade weapons was essential to their liberation from British tyranny.
If “tyranny” seems like a strong word, consider just some of the complaints we Americans lodged against the British crown in the Declaration of Independence (1776):
- He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
- He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
- He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
- He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
- He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
- He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
- He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
- He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
- He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
- For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
- For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
- For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
- For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
- For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
- For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
- For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
- He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
- He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
- He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
“Tyranny” was the word used by the founders in the Declaration:
But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
It is against these complaints that we must understand the phrase, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” They were thinking of the instances in which British crown had denied the same to the colonists.
The third argument I used to hear in university was, “Society has changed. We’re a densely populated urban society and the constitution was adopted by an agrarian society.” One is hard pressed to see how the urbanization of the USA changes the intent or force of the constitution. Could not such an argument be used to obliterate more than just the second amendment? If so, how is this a valid argument? “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is not contingent upon whether we live in urban, suburban, or rural settings. Either we are free or we are not.
The fourth argument: “the founders never envisioned x type of weapon.” Let’s test the validity of this sort of argument by applying it to the first Amendment. When the Bill of Rights was ratified the main forms of mass media were newspapers and pamphlets. We’re now witnessing the extinction of print newspapers and pamphlets. On this argument should we suppose that the first amendment guarantee of the freedom of the press only applies to print newspapers?
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
My grandparents couldn’t have envisioned the internet and they were alive for the invention of the airplane and the moon landing. We can be sure that the founders, who rebelled more than 130 years before my grandparents were born never envisioned the internet but they did understand the propensity of government to encroach on the natural liberties granted by God to citizens.
This is why the founders wrote:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,—That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Is there any reasonable doubt that the rebels who wrote these words thought that the people, in whom they believed to reside original authority to form a government and even to rebel against the existing government, should not be allowed to arm themselves in order to preserve the liberty for which they were about to die?
The point is this: if we read the Bill of Rights in its original context, according to its original intent, neither the creation of the internet nor the development of firearms from muskets to semi-automatic firearms makes any difference. Their intent was that Americans would be free to publish dissent from the government and that they would be sufficiently well-armed to keep the government in check.
The second amendment, read in context, according to original intent, has nothing to do with sport or hunting. The founders never envisioned that the government would restrict hunting since, in the 18th century, that would have meant starvation. Sport shooting was simply a correlate to hunting. They didn’t have to stipulate these things. They were essential to existence and that had been established, for the purposes of the formation of the Republic, in the Declaration.
As a well-known pundit has been known to say, “words mean things.” Indeed they do. They are signals of intent. Readers of words may disagree with the intent and they may want to change the words or persuade others to use different words with different intent but before any of that can happen we must first recognize the intended sense of the words before us.