I want to follow up with a few thoughts related to my earlier post on King v. Burwell, the rule of law, and original sin. There, I dealt with certain legal nuances in the King v. Burwell case and extrapolated those into the broader culture. Eventually we ended up, like many times before, at the Garden of Eden. But there is more to this case—and the underlying principles—that warrants investigation.
First, let's start with a question. Why was King v. Burwell so highly politicized? Statutory construction isn't one of the hot-button wedge issues between the Left and Right. Yet this case made front-page news for days. What did the media focus on? Was it methods for determining the meaning of a sentence in a statute? "Republicans are strongly committed to the historical-grammatical approach, but Democrats have been calling to use the narrative context approach." No, that didn't happen. What happened was that the media—and the political narratives—focused on the results of both possible outcomes of the case. From there, they reasoned why the law should or should not be upheld, based upon the desirability of such results. I understand this approach, but I think it is misguided and devalues truth. I also see this approach deeply imbedded in the way society—and Christians—sometimes approach reasoning in general. Let's call it results-based reasoning.
Results-based reasoning has as its aim a particular desired result, and reasons from that point to arrive at a principle that supports the desired result. Usually people employ this method when there is a strong commitment to a particular result or policy in any given situation. This is commonly seen among lobbyists in Washington (even lobbyists for Christian causes). I have seen Christians engage in results-based reasoning in abortion cases, same-sex marriage cases, religious liberty issues, and many other related political topics. We see a (rightfully) desired result, and we justify shaping and shifting and hem-hawing on the law because the result is good. There is the right result, so we need to make the law say whatever it needs to say to fit that result.
We do this sometimes with the Bible: "if the Bible means X, then Y will result, and I don't like Y, so clearly the Bible doesn't mean Y." This method is enticing; however, in conservative, evangelical circles, I believe there is a healthy reticence to engage in this type of reasoning. We preach (or we ought to preach) "the Bible means X, therefore do Y." I realize that is a simplified scenario, but the principle is the same: The Bible is our authority, so we reason from it, not to it. In other words, we look at what the Bible says, and arrive at a result using the Bible as our foundation. We do not look at a desirable result and fit the Bible's meaning into that result. We are Christians, and so we stand in submission to God's word; the Bible does not submit to our desires.
But how should Christians engage with non-canonical texts that still hold authority over our lives? Should we use the same process of reasoning, or are the rules different? I submit that the process for interpretation and application of biblical texts should also apply to all other texts (or laws) to which we are submitted. We should do this precisely because we are Christians.
A common victim of results-based reasoning is the Constitution. But the Bible and the Constitution are similar in that they are both a textual authority that govern something or someone. So we should interpret the Constitution the same way we interpret the Bible because both are an authority in our lives.
A proper submission to biblical authority reasons from the text of the Bible. Similarly, a proper submission to constitutional authority (which is also required of us) reasons from the text itself to whatever results from that reasoning. This is not to say that there won't be disagreements about the results. There will be. But the "litmus test" is whether we shoe-horn the Constitution to fit our desired result, or whether we engage in an honest attempt to follow what the text says and apply it faithfully to each situation.
Here is a great example of results-based reasoning in King v. Burwell. The author takes a predicted result of an unfavorable decision—that many people would lose subsidies—and reasons backward to the principle that the President only has to obey the Supreme Court's orders for the parties involved in that lawsuit. Thus, he concludes, the administration could still offer subsidies to everyone else besides the four parties to the lawsuit.
Now, the notion that the rest of the country does not have to obey a Supreme Court ruling (i.e., only the litigants to that case must obey the order) is a debatable topic. But usually it is debated in theory among academics. In academic debate, however, the question is usually this: is this a legitimate and legal course of action a priori, as a first principle? In this article, the question is put differently: can we use this debated legal principle to justify our desired ends? The question is quite different, and it illuminates the underlying worldview of the askers: truth is not an end to be reached; rather, it is a tool to be shaped towards a desired end.
People who love truth—or at least understand the nature of it—must understand that results-based reasoning is a denial of the immutability of truth. And to deny the immutability of truth is to deny the existence of truth. An immutable truth is no truth at all. Intellectually, I do not know many Christians who would deny that truth exists. But functionally, many of us operate as if it doesn't—or, at least, we can construct our own truth. This is why we are ok with using an "alternate" interpretation of the Bible when it suits our desired outcome. Or it is how we can say "yea, but…" when discussing a host of other issues.
Christians should interact with other authoritative texts the same way we interact with the Bible. Its meaning is fixed and ascertainable. The "ascertaining" of that meaning may take time, effort, and debate, but it does not change, because the text itself has not changed.
In the end, as always, there is a deceiver lurking in our ear: "does the text really say…?" Let us learn from the mistakes of our first parents and put off this old way of thinking. Both for the Bible and the Constitution.
Kyle Bryant is an attorney (and urban design enthusiast) with Bryant Law in Houston, Texas. His practice focuses on civil litigation and family law issues. He is also an active member at Sojourn Heights Church in The Heights neighborhood of Houston. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org