Stage 4: Application

[This blog entry is the final installment of a four-part series summarizing a sound approach to Bible study.
If you haven't read the others, you can find them here: Where to Begin, Getting into Details, and Drawing Out Meaning.]

“What this passage means to me.” You have undoubtedly encountered these words before. They are some of the most repeated in small group Bible studies. Even after hearing a careful exposition of a text according to its original context, there’s often that person who, with a tone of both bewilderment and contention, speaks up and pushes a different meaning—one inextricably linked to the context of “me.

Certainly, there are some who use these words out of an established conviction in what we can call “hermeneutical perspectivism.” They operate from the belief that a reader’s own personal, cultural, or social perspective is essential for determining the meaning of the biblical text—at least the meaning that is authoritative for them. According to this approach, the process of Bible study begins not with a focus on the context of the biblical writer and his text,[1] but with a focus on one’s own self and the contribution it can make to the meaning of the biblical text.[2] This self-awareness—this personal perspective—then becomes the engine for driving the rest of the process of Bible study. Sadly, this hermeneutic is quickly becoming the mainstay of seminaries and is a chief cause of the growing enmity infecting segments of today’s church. When the cart is put before the horse, landing in the ditch is inevitable.[3]

There are others, however, who use these words out of a confusion in terminology—more specifically, a wrong use of the term “meaning.” Their desire is not to undermine the singular authority of the biblical writer—the only perspective that really matters in the effort to understand the text. They acknowledge that the biblical text is living and active, exercising as much authority over their own lives today as it exercised over the lives of the original audience thousands of years ago. Yet they use the term “meaning” when they really should use the term “application.” Rather than saying, “This is what the text means to me,” they should be saying, “This is how the text applies to me.”

As discussed previously, “meaning” refers to the content of a communication which a writer consciously willed to convey by the words and grammar he used.[4] The term “application,” however, refers to the consequential relationship of that text’s content to its reader. A text’s meaning never changes. It is singular. It is determined once-and-for-all by the writer the moment he expressed his intent in writing. It exists whether a reader recognizes it or not. Yet this meaning brings with it a necessary, consequential relationship to anyone under its authority. And since those under its authority vary in their personal, cultural, and social circumstances, the nuances of this relationship will vary as well.

The work of application thus becomes the exercise of identifying the proper relationship—of drawing the right connection between the unchanging meaning of the text and the changing life of the interpreter. Accomplishing this is not always easy. As Stanley Porter stated it,

The move from the original text of Scripture, with all of its time-bound character, to theological truths for life today is one of the most demanding intellectual tasks imaginable. ... Anyone who proclaims how easy it is to do this is probably prevaricating, or is very bad at the task, or is so very experienced at it as to have forgotten the intellectual and spiritual task that it is.[5]

To counter this difficulty, I give you five general principles to begin with:

1. Acknowledge Scripture’s unwavering authority.

God mediates His lordship through His word. Accordingly, the interpreter must recognize that the entire Bible relates to him personally (2 Tim. 3:16–17; Heb. 4:12). There are not parts that are “applicable” and parts that are not. Both Old and New Testaments possess an absolute jurisdiction over the reader’s intellect (beliefs), will (decision-making), and affections (desires). Nothing—not human reason, tradition, or intuition—can mitigate or annul this authority.

This is where it all beings. Authority is always the foundational issue. Failure to acknowledge this most important quality of Scripture will subject application to the whim and fancy of the reader. 

2. Take time for accurate interpretation.

In many contexts, including home Bible studies, the rush is to get to application. In the midst of hectic schedules, people don’t want to waste time on a process. They are much more interested in results. They want the three secrets to a happy marriage, or the five keys for successful relationships, or the four remedies to alleviate stress. The interpretation of the biblical text suffers as a result.

But the process matters. The correct identification of the relationship that exists between the text’s meaning and the text’s reader can only be made upon the foundation of a correct interpretation. A wrong interpretation will never lead to a right application. As J. I. Packer explains,

Scripture can rule us only so far as it is understood, and it is understood only so far as it is properly interpreted. A misinterpreted Bible is a misunderstood Bible, which will lead us out of God’s way rather than in it. Interpretation must be right if biblical authority is to be real in our lives and in our churches.[6] 

Readers who are rightly concerned with being doers of the word (Jas. 1:22–25) will take the time to handle the Scriptures accurately (2 Tim. 2:15).

3. Distinguish between prescriptive and descriptive texts. 

The nature of the relationship drawn between the biblical text’s meaning and its reader will be dependent, in part, on the role intended for that text. A distinction that is helpful to remember here is the difference between prescriptive and descriptive texts.

Prescriptive texts are those portions of Scripture which have the role of prescribing particular beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes. They directly confront the reader over things which exist in his life and should not, or over things which do not yet exist but should. These texts exercise authority by providing instructions, giving warnings, and promising blessings.

Descriptive texts are those portions of Scripture which have the role of describing realities. They narrate historical events, conversations, decisions, and consequences. They instruct the reader about God’s character and how He acts in creation, about sin and its consequences, and about faith and its fruits. They illustrate what happens when the prescriptions are obeyed or rejected (cf. 1 Cor. 10:11; Rom. 15:4).

Both categories of texts possess authority, but each mediates that authority to readers in its own way. A broad brush will not do. Each category requires its own kind of contemplation and effort in drawing the proper relationship.

4. Pay careful attention to the original audience.

It is always important to answer the question, About whom does this text speak, or to whom was this text addressed? In some situations, no limitations are made; the text describes something common to all, or prescribes a belief, behavior, or attitude to all without distinction. In other situations, however, the context limits the description or prescription to a unique group of people, and recognizing this limitation is vital.

For example, 1 Corinthians 7 contains Paul’s fundamental prescriptions related to marriage. He systematically addresses those who were already married, those who were single, those who were married to unbelievers, and those who were widowed. The meaning of his instructions was the same for everyone and possessed authority over them all. The married could not tune out when it came to Paul’s instruction to singles. Those who were single could not ignore Paul’s instruction to widows. Yet this meaning related to specific groups in specific ways.

The same applies to descriptive texts. What is described with respect to David as king of Israel and the recipient of a divine covenant will have a different application to the contemporary reader than what is described with respect to the people of Israel as a whole. What is described with respect to Paul as an apostle will have a different relationship to the contemporary reader than what is described with respect to the believers in Berea. In both prescriptive and descriptive texts, the nature of the audience will affect the nature of the application.

5. Survey subsequent revelation.

God has spoken in His word both “long ago ... in many portions and in many ways” and “in these last days ... in His Son” (Heb. 1:1–2). This progressive nature of revelation implies that while the meaning of biblical texts never changes, the manner in which that meaning is related to its readers can and does change.

It is important to remember that the process of interpretation required the reader to limit his focus to the historical context of the writer and the preceding revelation which impacted that writer. But now in the process of application, the reader shifts his focus to the revelation which follows the text he has studied. The key question he asks now is, Does subsequent revelation limit or change the application of this text?

A prime example of this change can be seen in the believer’s application of the Mosaic Law. The texts which describe this Law mean the same thing to today’s readers as they meant to Moses’s original recipients. But the application of this Law has changed with the outworking of God’s plan of redemption. As the apostle Paul states to the Gentile church in Galatia, “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law” (Gal. 5:18). This is not because the meaning or truthfulness of the Law has changed. Paul himself states that it continues to be “holy and righteous and good” (Rom. 7:12). But Paul also states that this Law today must be “used lawfully” (1 Tim. 1:8). Its relationship to the people of God has changed.

Ultimately, it is subsequent revelation alone—not scientific or social progress—that can change the nature of the relationship between a text’s meaning and its reader.

To move from being a hearer of the word to a doer of the word is an inescapable obligation. It is not just enough to say, “This is what the text means.” If we believe the text has authority over our lives, we must also endeavor to say, “And this is how the text applies to me.”

[1] See part one of this series, “Practical Bible Study: Where to Begin.”

[2] For example, see Elizabeth Mburu, African Hermeneutics (Carlisle, UK: Langham, 2019), 65.

[3] Stay tuned for a forthcoming blog article that will deal with hermeneutical perspectivalism in greater depth. See also Brian A. Shealy, “Redrawing the Line between Hermeneutics and Application,” Master’s Seminary Journal, 8, no. 1 (Spring 1997): 83–105.

[4] See “What Does This Verse Mean to You? Finding Meaning in Scripture.”

[5] Stanley E. Porter, “Hermeneutics, Biblical Interpretation, and Theology: Hunch, Holy Spirit, or Hard Work?,” in Beyond the Bible: Moving from Scripture to Theology, ed. I. Howard Marshall (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 121.

[6] J. I. Packer, “Give Me Understanding,” in Truth and Power Truth and Power: The Place of Scripture in the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw, 1996), 104.