Lessons Learned from the Practice of Law: Interpretative Aids
When interpreting a statute, courts adhere to general canons of construction to aid in the proper interpretation of that statute. The first and most important rule of statutory interpretation is that the resolution of a dispute over the meaning of a statute begins with the language of the statute itself (United States v. Ron Pair Enterprises, Inc., 1989). In other words, the cardinal rule of statutory construction is “that a legislature says in a statute what it means and means in a statute what it says there” (Connecticut National Bank v. Germain, 1992). As such, “[i]f statutory language is plain, permitting only one construction, there is no occasion to seek out congressional intent by reference to legislative history or other extrinsic aids” (Lapine v. Town of Wellesley, 2002). However, if the statute’s language is not plain, courts may rely on the legislative history of the statute to help interpret that statute (United States v. Fields, 2007). Legislative history is comprised of the comments and statements of senators and congressmen made while a bill is being debated.
Occasionally, a judge will cite a statement made by a legislator to help explain or support a particular interpretation of some statute. For example, when trying to determine the exact meaning of a less-than-clear statute, the judge may look to a record of statements made by various legislators while the bill is being discussed and ultimately passed into law. These statements may help clarify the meaning or purpose of a particular law.
Not all scholars think that legislative history is a proper tool in determining the interpretation of a statute. One of the most outspoken scholars on this subject is Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. He has clearly identified himself as one who does not favor the use of legislative history when interpreting a statute. In one of his more colorful explanations of this view, Justice Scalia recalled the statement of Judge Harold Leventhal who once compared arguments from legislative history to “entering a crowded cocktail party and looking over the heads of the guests for one’s friends” (Conroy v. Aniskoff, 1993). The point being, everyone can find a friend in that setting. Likewise, everyone can research and find some remote statement made by a legislator that supports his subjective interpretation of a statute. Accordingly, many scholars and judges believe that there may very well be a good reason why such language was left on the legislative floor and never made its way into the statute itself. Simply put, if it is not in the statute, it should not resolve the meaning of a statute. Accordingly, the law says what it means and it means what it says.
The same comparison can be made with God’s holy Word. We have many extrinsic aids: books, commentaries, research tools, historical statements, church fathers, and scholarly interpretations of God’s Word. These can be both a blessing and a curse, depending upon how we use them. However, we often turn to these aids not because we cannot understand what God has revealed through His Word. Rather, we often turn to these extra-biblical sources because we are either (1) lacking in diligence to study the Bible for ourselves, or because (2) our judgment is clouded by our preconceived ideas about what we think that passage should mean.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus addressed this problem. During the lifetime of Jesus, just like today, people were prone to listen to scholars, religious leaders, and other sources outside the Bible, and consider them just as important and binding as God’s word. Jesus says no less than six times in that sermon, “You have heard that it was said...” (Matthew 5:21,27,31,33,38,43). Jesus is contrasting the true word of God with what the people have heard their religious leaders teach over the years (see Lyons, 2009). Scholars and religious leaders may teach one thing, but of infinitely greater importance is the pure and simple Word of God. When Jesus continues in the Sermon on the Mount and says, “but I say to you,” he is turning our attention from scholars, commentators, and “legislative history,” and is directing our minds and hearts toward the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
I have heard the phrase before that the Bible is its own best interpreter (Miller, 2003). In other words, when we come to a passage that we do not clearly understand, rather than turning to non-inspired sources to help us understand the Bible, we should be turning to other passages in the Bible to help us understand more clearly.
For example, we can literally see the Bible interpreting itself through a literary style called Hebrew parallelism. This beautiful style of writing involves the repetition of a thought, but expressed in different terms. The author makes a point, and then emphasizes that point by repeating it, but in different language that adds further depth, meaning, and application to the first phrase. For example, Psalm 19:1 states, “The heavens declare the glory of God.” Then, that same verse goes on to repeat itself in Hebrew parallelism when it declares, “And the firmament shows His handiwork.” How do the heavens declare the glory of God? They demonstrate the fine work of God’s own hands. The last half of this verse helps us interpret the first half. A little later in this same psalm, the psalmist writes, “The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart” (Psalm 19:8). That same verse then interprets itself when it states, “The commandments of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes” (Psalm 19:8). These two phrases are not distinct and unrelated. This is parallelism; the Bible interpreting itself through thoughtful reiteration.
An understanding of the “whole counsel of God” will cause us to dig deeper into the Scriptures and less into what others have to say about the Bible. When Paul addressed the elders of Ephesus in Acts 20, Paul declared that he had not hesitated to declare unto them the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). No doubt, a person familiar with the whole counsel of God will spend more time in the Bible and less time studying other sources. But how do we become a person who is more inclined to turn to the Word of God rather than the words of men?
Paul gave some excellent advice to the young preacher Timothy describing the nature of how we become more familiar with the Bible, so that we can preach the “whole counsel of God.” Paul wrote, “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15, KJV). Other translations replace the word “study” with “be diligent” (NASB, NKJV), “make every effort” (NCV), and “do your best” (NIV, ESV). All these translations are accurate. Study is designed to be hard, arduous work by its very nature. To study God’s Word in such a way that we can rightly divide the word of truth, we must make great effort and work hard at familiarizing ourselves with the Word of God. Certainly devotional reading for the pure pleasure of God’s Word has its place, but we must also roll up our sleeves, work hard, and apply ourselves to the diligent study of God’s Word so we can answer those who question us about our faith and our hope (1 Peter 3:15).
We must be people of the Book—people who are drawn to and guided more and more by the word of God, and less and less by what others say about the Word of God. Commentaries, treatise, scholarly writings, and other uninspired works can be useful and have their place in a Christian’s life. But this “legislative history” can only be helpful after we have plumed the depths in ardent study of the way, the truth, and the life—God’s holy Word (John 1:1, 14: 14:6). You have heard that it was said, “I read a good book recently.” But I say unto you, “Read the good book.”
Connecticut National Bank v. Germain, 503 U.S. 249, 253-54 (1992).
Conroy v. Aniskoff, 507 U.S. 511, 519 (1993) (Scalia, J., concurring).
Lapine v. Town of Wellesley, 304 F.3d 90, 96 (1st Cir. 2002).
Lyons, Eric (2009), “This Is the Law and the Prophets,” Apologetics Press, http://apologeticspress.org/APContent.aspx?category=11&article=526.
Miller, Dave (2003), “The Bible Is Its Own Best Interpreter,” Apologetics Press, http://apologeticspress.org/APContent.aspx?category=11&article=1242.
United States v. Fields, 500 F.3d 1327, 1330 (11th Cir. 2007).
United States v. Ron Pair Enterprises, Inc., 489 U.S. 235, 242 (1989).