Belief and Interpretation: Mediations on Pelikan's "Interpreting the Bible and the Constitution"

Francis J. Mootz III, University of Nevada, Las Vegas -- William S. Boyd School of Law


Jaroslav Pelikan's recently published collection of essays considers the similarities between biblical and legal hermeneutics. Although Pelikan offers an erudite and subtle account, I argue that he fails to consider a central question raised by the comparison: the extent to which belief is a prerequisite of interpretation. But the claim that we cannot genuinely interpret a document if we do not believe that it has something to say to us, if we do not anticipate that we can learn from the text, raises a difficulty. If belief is central to interpretation it would appear to consign interpretation to a wholly conventional practice immune from critical insight. Drawing on the work of Gianni Vattimo, I make the somewhat paradoxical argument that belief is not only central to interpretation, but also to critique. I conclude that hermeneutical responsiveness and rhetorical elaboration are entwined expressions of a faithful relation to the text; belief nourishes a critical exegesis, which in turn enriches our beliefs. This is true not only in religion and law, but in life as well.