One of the most important classes that I had at the Seminary, and a class that was also helpful in my work in philosophy, was called “exegesis.” It was the study of the interpretation of biblical passages. The goal was to help one to come to as accurate an understanding of a passage as possible so that one is seeing what the passage is actually claiming rather than what someone might want it to claim. In our church body, sermons are based on a biblical text and its meaning for people today, so it is necessary to start with a solid reading of the text itself rather than just using someone else’s interpretation.
Among the key points in the exegesis course were to use the language in which the text was written, be aware of word meanings and nuances as well as grammatical rules in that language, check as far as possible on any variant readings in the earliest biblical manuscripts containing that passage, see how the passage fits in the context of the document, and be as aware as possible of the historical situation at the time.
All of this helps to guard against both reading into a text something that is not there and accepting a common opinion that is not faithful to the text. Are other writings on the text helpful? Yes, but they can’t be the final word if their views don’t match a direct study of the text. Indeed, they are dangerous if they promote a view that favors a special interest.
All of this can be applied to passages in other realms such as literature, history, philosophy, legal documents, and much more. And if we apply it to our nation’s own Bill of Rights, we get some important results. As an example, let’s consider the Second Amendment.
The 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.”
A common interpretation of this amendment is that it guarantees the right of every individual to have and use guns without restriction for personal defense and for enjoyment. This view, or one parallel to it, is espoused by the NRA and various gun lobbies.
One immediately notices, however, that the amendment is a single sentence, and that this common interpretation ignores the first half of that sentence. (It is also the case that the amendment does not use the term “individual” but rather “the people.”)
I want to encourage thinking closely about this amendment as a whole rather than just the second half. I find that the first half, the opening clause, should be taken as providing the reason or basis for the right — viz., the need to have a well-regulated militia. And I find that the purpose of such a militia is also stated — to protect the “free State.”
In my study then, the ultimate goal is the protection of a “free State” – a democracy of and by the people in which the people govern themselves and are protected from any force or nation seeking to control them.
Can the misuse or abuse of a right endanger the free society itself? If that is possible, a free State can and should protect itself from that danger. Since the ultimate goal is a strong, free society, open allowance of any form of speech, religious rite or weapon usage that clearly endangers the people in that society can be regulated by the people to protect their “free State.” We must do whatever we can to maintain our free state and that includes having the use of arms well-regulated.
Please think through as clearly as you can the second amendment in its entirety and take a good look at the rest of the Bill of Rights, as well. It is too precious a document not to be studied carefully by all of us.
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