While the winter winds blew during January and February, I kept out of mischief by studying for (and passing, praise God!) the terrifying Virginia Bar examination. The object was not merely to be able to defend myself against libelous attacks from the Kin of Eutychus but more especially to gain additional expertise in integrating legal principle with theological truth. The interconnections between law and theology are particularly striking in the field of Wills & Estates, and we shall here offer some examples of the kind of cross-pollination that can aid the contemporary biblical interpreter.
The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews bases his entire theological argument on a foundational legal principle relating to the estates of decedents: “The blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, [shall] purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God. And for this cause he is the mediator of the New Testament, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance. For where a testament is, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator. For a testament is of force after men are dead: otherwise it is of no strength at all while the testator liveth” (Heb. 9:14–17).
From the days of Roman law to modern Anglo-American common law jurisprudence, the rule has been invariable: a testamentary expression “speaks”—becomes efficacious—not at execution but on the decease of the testator. American legal realist Joseph Walter Bingham might well have cited Hebrews when he declared: “The essential distinguishing characteristic of a will is that it has absolutely no effect as a legal instrument until the death of the testator, and is revocable until that time.” Christ’s death was not optional; his sacrifice of himself for men’s sins was the essential precondition for our receiving an eternal inheritance. Christians are first and foremost heirs—“heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17).
In a concrete sense the revelatory Scriptures, which offer us this eternal inheritance sealed with the blood of Christ, are the final testamentary expression of Christ himself. It is not accidental that the two grand divisions of the Bible are called the Old and New Testaments. Viewing the Bible in this light we may be able more adequately to interpret it and more readily to avoid errors so often attendant on its misinterpretation.
The fundamental perspective for the construction of wills has been well expressed by Albert Martin Kales: “In a will, which is wholly the act of the testator, the test is what did the particular individual mean by the words he used.… Within limits he may make his own standard.… In cases where the difficulty is in ascertaining the subject matter of a devise or the object which is to benefit by the devise, … outside evidence becomes extremely valuable.… [But] in endeavoring to ascertain what kind of an estate a testator intended to devise,.… the introduction of outside evidence does nothing more than furnish the ground for a cheap and easy speculation founded upon a most inadequate view of what went on in the testator’s mind.”
There is, to be sure, nothing unique about these rules: they apply to the entire range of legal documents—though with greatest force to wills, since wills are not the product of a meeting of minds, mutuality, or commonly established interpretation, but the unique expression of a person’s testamentary intent. Concerning the interpretation of legal documents in general Lord Bacon offered these telling aphorisms:
“Interpretation that departs from the letter of the text is not interpretation but divination.
“When the judge departs from the letter, he turns into a legislator.”
Sir Roland Burrows makes the point with admirable clarity: “The Court has to take care that evidence is not used to complete a document which the party has left incomplete or to contradict what he has said, or to substitute some other wording for that actually used, or to raise doubts, which otherwise would not exist, as to the intention. When evidence is admitted in connection with interpretation, it is always restricted to such as will assist the Court to arrive at the meaning of the words used, and thus to give effect to the intention so expressed.”
Why are we seemingly belaboring this point? Because of the tragic departure from such standards of literal, textual interpretation of the Bible in the church today. Modern theology has done perhaps its greatest harm to classical Christian faith through what has come to be known as the “new hermeneutic”—a radical approach (really, a potpourri of radical approaches) to the interpretation and treatment of the Bible. In general, modern interpreters refuse to be held to the fundamental rule of classical biblical hermeneutics that “Scripture must interpret itself.” Because the contemporary theologian does not regard the Bible as a qualitatively unique divine revelation, he constantly employs extrabiblical materials (such as, ancient nonbiblical Near Eastern documents, modern scientific and social theories) to structure and recast the scriptural data. Thus the Creation account in Genesis is construed—on the basis of extrinsic evolutionary considerations—not to intend to teach how the world came about (but only that God created it), in spite of its clear and repeated stress on the creation of each species “after its kind”; alleged scientific “impossibilities” transmute the account of Noah and the Flood—which could hardly teach more plainly a universal deluge—into a minor Near Eastern drizzle; ancient extra-biblical literary parallels are allowed (by fallacious post hoc, propter hoc reasoning) to contradict the veracity of Jesus’ own affirmations of the Mosaic and Davidic authorship of Old Testament books; and modern rationalistic antipathies to the supernatural provide hermeneutic justification for construing our Lord’s miraculous ministry as little more than a morality play.
Here indeed we have the “divination”—as opposed to interpretation—Lord Bacon warned against. Such an approach is the death of all meaningful understanding of Scripture—as it would be in reference to legal documents too were jurists to enter on the same suicidal hermeneutic course.
But as with wills, deeds, and statutes, the faithful interpreter of the Bible will construe the text “in manner to give it validity rather than invalidity”; will operate with a “presumption against absurdity”; and, once the clear meaning of the text has been determined, will accept its application and enforcement in his life “though the result may seem harsh or unfair or inconvenient” (C. E. Odgers, The Construction of Deeds and Statutes, fourth edition, 1956, pp. 186, 188). The believing Christian interpreter of the testamentary Scripture will assume that in reference to it also “every part of a will means something and must be given effect and harmonized, if possible, by construing it in connection with all other parts” (F. H. Childs); and he will interpret the Old Testament always in light of the New on the ground that “the last testamentary expression prevails.”
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