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Jaroslav Pelikan to Deliver Lecture Series on "Interpreting the Great Code," April 1-10


Jaroslav Pelikan, Sterling Professor Emeritus of History, will deliver a series of four lectures co-sponsored by Yale Law School and Yale Divinity School, titled "Interpreting the Great Code: The Bible and the Constitution in the Church and in the Court." The first lecture, on April 1, will be in Room 127 of the Law School, starting at 7:00 p.m. The second and third lectures, April 3 and 8, also in Room 127, will start at 4:30p.m. The final lecture, April 10, will be in the H. Richard Niebuhr Lecture Hall at the Divinity School, also at 4:30 p.m. All lectures are free and open to the public.


Jaroslav Pelikan says that he is often asked why, having written books on secular topics, he devoted much of his career to studying the church's interpretation of the Bible. He responds to his interrogators by drawing a parallel between the two fields, "Secular humanists believe that a text that's 200 years old, written before jet planes or automobiles, nevertheless tells you how to educate your children. They believe that there is some agency, right across the street from the United States Capital, which has the authority to say, 'This is what that ancient text means and if you don't follow that you'll go to jail.' That's really all that the church has ever said."

Pelikan's talks at Yale Law School and Yale Divinity School will explore this congruence in secular and religious traditions. "I've been intrigued for a long time by the similarities and the differences between the methods by which the church in its official action interprets the Bible and by which the Supreme Court interprets the Constitution."

His evidence for similarities begins with language. Pelikan says, "I have a number of quotations scattered across the lectures from people of either one or the other community, which, with changing just a word or two . . . would fit just as well in the other community."

But Pelikan's argument goes deeper. In the case of both the Constitution and the Bible, he says, "You have a text that's hundreds of years old--two hundred or twenty hundred, as the case may be--which is assumed to be able to speak to situations and problems that its writers could not have foreseen. And that means that there's got to be some way to tease out of the text a meaning for these new situations." He points out that in the same way that the Lord's Prayer, when it says, "Give us this day our daily bread," could apply to a Hostess Twinkie, the protections of speech and the press in the First Amendment are extended to communication on the Internet.

In both cases, the text has gone through this re-evaluation almost since its composition. The bible had to apply to feudalism as well as to the industrial revolution; the Constitution was regularly stretched to cover an expanding nation. "It's not just the intoxicated idea that so many contemporary people have that we're different and everyone before us was the same," says Pelikan. "For a succession of generations, that need has been there."

Societies remain faithful to their anachronistic "Great Codes" by interpreting them--with some interpretations considered legitimate and some not--and by building "interpretive communities" of professionals, such as lawyers and clergy. But no matter how baroque these formations become, they always look back to the original text. Says Pelikan, "Interpretation must never be less than an effort to understand the text as well as possible, grammatically, in vocabulary, and in usage."

Pelikan's talks will also delineate distinctions between the cultural histories of these two foundational documents. For example, he points out, "A complicating factor is that the Bible was written in Hebrew and Greek. Therefore the authority of the Bible functionally in various cultures . . . has been the authority of a translation. . . . The democratic implications of every believer for himself are at least mitigated by this stubborn linguistic reality."

Pelikan's first lecture, "Normative Scripture--Christian and American," will describe the texts and their interpretive communities. The second lecture, "Issues of Interpretations in the Bible and in the Constitution," will look at why interpretation is necessary and why the text can't stand on its own. The third, "The Sensus Literalis and the Quest for Original Intent," will look at the pros and cons of the idea that interpretation should center on the intent of the documents' authors. Finally, Pelikan will consider criteria for distinguishing valid and invalid developments, in "Development of Doctrine: Patterns and Criteria."