Some Brief Thoughts on Application in Biblical Interpretation

By Dr. Thomas Howe,

Every hermeneutics book concludes with a section on Application. Everyone makes some observation like the following from Grant Osborne: “The static study of the original meaning of a text dare never be an end in itself but must at all times have as its goal the dynamic application of the text to one’s current needs and the sharing of that text with others via expository teaching and preaching.”[1] Or this one from Roy Zuck: “Neglecting to apply the Scriptures reduces Bible study to an academic exercise in which we are concerned only for interpretation with little or no regard for its relevance for and impact on our lives. It is wrong to think of the Scriptures as only a source book of information, as a book to be examined merely for the knowledge we can gain from it.”[2]

These observations are certainly true. However, although hermeneutics books discuss how to do application, few of them actually attempt to explain what application is. Perhaps the most fitting definition for application is found in 2 Tim. 3:16–17, “All Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; in order that the man of God may be adequate, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” These verses encapsulate the idea of application. It is certainly true that the truth of the Bible should be applied to our daily lives. However, we must not assume that the Bible is simply a “How-to” manual or a 12-step program. The Bible certainly instructs us in daily living, but it also imparts knowledge of things that are worth knowing apart from any practical application. Contemporary Christianity is hooked on the practical and has ignored the doctrinal. In fact, one popular thesaurus listed one antonym for the word ‘practical’ as ‘useless.’ This seems to be the attitude that many people have toward the Scriptures. They want to know “How does this apply to my life?” then they anticipate some set of steps, or procedures, or principles to follow so that they can “apply” the teaching to their lives. If a preacher stands before them and presents some theological material, it is viewed as useless unless he also includes something that instructs them on how to make it practical.

However, if we subscribe to the dictates of a good epistemology, then we must understand that the acquiring of knowledge is an imitation of God and, in a sense, makes us more like God. If all forms are in the mind of God, then by virtue of these forms God is all things—in a non- pantheistic sense, of course. The definition of knowledge is, when the knower and the known become one. This indicates that we acquire the form of the thing known, 23086408449_49c080d313_owhich means that its form comes to exist in our minds. This means that as we know, we become all things as God is all things. Consequently, we imitate God by the accumulation of knowledge. This indicates that there is some value to the acquiring of knowledge for its own sake. Some things are worth knowing because of their intrinsic value. For example, God is worth knowing because He is God—not because of the benefits He bestows. In fact, this was the Satan’s (hasâtân) accusation with reference to Job. The Satan claimed that the only reason Job worshiped God was because of the benefits that Job received. There is certainly nothing objectionable about enjoying the benefits God bestows, but God is worthy of knowing because of His nature, not simply because of His nurture. We say all of that to say this: it is not the chief task in application to discover some way to make a passage “practical.” Sometimes passages are going to be doctrinal, and we should not avoid these passages nor apologize for the nature of the truth contained in them. Doctrinal passages should be seen to be as important and necessary as how-to-do passages. There is a sense in which doctrinal passages can be thought of as how-to-think passages. If the 2 Timothy passage teaches us anything, it teaches us that doctrine is as profitable as instruction in righteousness. Of course that brings up the whole question of how we can know what can be applied to us and what is peculiar to the period of time in which the biblical statements were made.

Principles of Historical Interpretation 

Nature of Application

Grant Osborne argues, “All biblical statements (even theological assertions like ‘God is holy’) were written in cultural guise, that is, in human language, and attempts to distinguish some types from others are doomed to failure. Also, doing so leads to subjectivity, for the interpreter’s grid and current cultural fads all too often determine what is ‘cultural’ and no longer applies.”Application and Interpretiation.002[3] The problem with this claim is that it is self-defeating. Osborne assumes that his audience will accept his assertion as a prescriptive principle by which interpreters ought to function and not simply descriptive of a sitz em leben in which interpreters do act in their cultural settings. The author has assumed the proper application of his instruction by means of the very operative principle that he asserts cannot be employed. The very fact that authors make prescriptive assertions implies that they operate on the basis of a principle that assumes the possibility of making distinctions between that which is merely descriptive from that which they propose as prescriptive.

One approach to the problem of the relationship between the universal principles and particular applications that may be tied to a given culture is to attempt to identify what constitutes a culture. If it is possible to identify what constitutes a culture, then it may be easier to distinguish between that which is culturally bound and that which is universally applicable. One book on hermeneutics makes the following assertions about culture:

“Culture is not all that easy to define. In its broadest sense, it usually means the patterned way people do things together. Thus it implies some degree of homogeneity over a certain span of time. As Eugene Nida defined it, “Culture is all learned behavior which is socially acquired, that is, the material and nonmaterial traits which are passed on from one generation to another.” [Note the inference made by these conservative authors.] Thus culture designates the unique ways a given group of people view and do things in a particular period of time, including their values, manners, morals, expressions, and accomplishments.”[4]

The problem with this observation is that it places the determination of values and morals on a par with manners, expressions, and accomplishments. If it can be concluded from this quote—and the quote certainly allows this conclusion—that values and morals are unique to a culture in the same way that manners, expressions, and accomplishments are unique to a culture, then we are left with moral and ethical relativism. The example given in the following quote taken from the very next paragraph of the above quote supports the fact that the conclusion of relativism follows from the author’s assertions.

“While there are certain basic needs common to most groups of people, it is surprising how cultures vary and differ from each other. In the area of foods, for example, non-Westerners are often horrified to think that Westerners eat fermented milk (cheese), while some Westerners are scandalized when they realize that Koreans eat pickled cabbage, Eskimos eat pungent walrus meat, and the Chinese eat fermented duck eggs. One man’s meat, as they say, is another man’s poison—but that’s culture for you.”[5]

From this “example” we are directed to understand the nature of culture (“that’s culture for you”), from which we may infer that the same divergence and relativism would be applied to values and morals. As an attempt to identify the relationship between that which is normative for a particular culture and expressed in a cultural framework and that which is universally applicable though expressed in a cultural framework, Kaiser and Silva propose a three-horizon model as the hermeneutical approach for bringing the ancient text into the modern world. This three horizon approach is diagramed as follows:

  • First Horizon: The culture of the Bible
  • Second Horizon: The culture of the interpreter
  • Third Horizon: The culture of the receptor

The significance of these three horizons is that, according to Kaiser-Silva, “In each one of these horizons, a circle of cultural baggage and understandings had to be accounted for, lest any one of the cultures be made normative for the others. Thus far we can agree on the need for such a new program and readily endorse it.”[6] The diagram in [Figure 1] below illustrates the methodology that these scholars are advocating.

The diagram illustrates that the interpreter employs the lens of practical guidelines through which he is able to extract that which is universally applicable from each of the three horizons. The three horizons are kept on an equal plane so that no single horizon becomes normative for the others.

However, the question arises, “Why should an interpreter not allow any one culture or cultural horizon to become normative for the others?” Upon the basis of what normative principle do Kaiser and Silva disallow any one culture or cultural principle from becoming normative? It seems as though this principle of cultural equivalence—the principle that one culture should not become normative over another—has become normative over all cultures. But, is this principle of cultural equivalence merely a product of their culture (Second Horizon), and therefore are they not practicing precisely the method they warn against?

Figure 1: Traditional View of Application

Application Traditional 01

What they have done is to assume a universal from which they evaluate the relative applicability of the particulars. This is clear from the following statement: “The Bible was written within the confines of certain cultures and times. No interpreter has the right to make that text say whatever he or she wants it to say. The text must be allowed to say what it wants to say, but with due respect for the particular setting and culture in which it was based.”[7]On the basis of what hermeneutical principle do they disallow an interpreter from making “the text say whatever he or she wants it to say”? I certainly agree with their conclusions, but they haven’t justified their foundation. They make the assertions, but they do not substantiate the principles upon which these assertions are made. The following diagram (Figure 2 below) illustrates the missing foundation upon which their assertions are, or should be, based.

The truth illustrated in this diagram is evident from two theses articulated by Mortimer J. Adler in Truth and Religion.

  1. The human race is a single biological species, renewed generation after generation by the reproductive determinations of a single gene pool. Hence, man is one in nature—that is, in specific nature. All individual members of the species have the same species-specific properties or characteristics.

  2. The human race being one, the human mind is also one. The human mind is a species- specific property found in every individual member of the species, the same in all, being subject to variations in degree. This precludes the notion that there is, within the human species, a primitive mind that is characteristically different from a civilized one, or an Oriental mind that differs in kind from an Occidental one, or even a child mind that differs in kind, not just degree, from an adult mind.[8]

Figure 2: Revised View of Application

Application True 02

These two theses, along with a third, are set forth by Adler for the purpose of attempting to identify the necessary basis for a world community in the face of cultural diversity. That basis, as Adler articulates it, is the unity of truth.

To affirm the unity of truth is to deny that there can be two separate and irreconcilable truths which, while contradicting of one another and thought to be irreconcilably so, avoid the principle of noncontradiction by claim to belong to logic-tight compartments. Thus, for example, one approach to the conflicts between religion and philosophy, or between science and either philosophy or religion, is to claim that these are such separate spheres of thought or inquiry, employing such different methods or having such different means of access to the truth, that the principle of noncontradiction does not apply.[9]

The relevance of these theses and the definition of the unity of truth for application in hermeneutics is that the unity of truth not only applies cross-culturally in a synchronic sense, but also through time in a diachronic sense. It is a fact of space-time history that the revelation of God was given in certain periods of history, in certain historical situations, and in a cultural context quite different from our own. However, the principles of the unity of man and the unity of truth demonstrate that there was not a “Hebrew” mind or a “Greek” mind or an “ancient” mind such that truth among those cultures at those periods of time were somehow different than truth today. On the contrary, truth is the same for all ages and among all peoples. The issues relating to men and God were the same issues with which we struggle today, because man is one race and one mind. The differences, then, between these ancient cultures and our modern culture is not the nature of man, or of truth, but are the social and cultural expressions of the same truths.

In application, then, it is the task of the interpreter to distinguish between that which is a social or cultural expression of truth, and consequently does not necessarily apply directly to the reader today, and the universally applicable truth underlying this social or cultural expression, the truth that is applicable for all people at all times. For example, in John 13 Jesus washes the feet of the disciples, and in verses 12–17 we find,

“And so when He had washed their feet, and taken His garments, and reclined at the table again, He said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for I am. If I then, the Lord and Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master; neither is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”

Some questions arise from Jesus’ words: What is Jesus telling us to do? Does it mean that we should practice foot washing in the same way that we practice the Lord’s Supper? Many approaches have been proposed on how these questions can be answered. Application and Interpretiation.001If we believe that God’s Word is indeed applicable to us today, then we must address these questions on the foundation of reality that God has created; Moral Absolutes, the Unity of Truth, the Laws of Logic and Reason, and the nature of Objective Reality. Next I will submit some thoughts on some inadequate approaches to Application.

© 2016 Thomas A. Howe, Ph.D. Professor of Bible and Biblical Languages Southern Evangelical Seminary

[1] Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006), 318.

[2] Roy B. Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1991), 279.

[3] Osborne, Hermeneutical Spiral, 327.

[4] Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., and Moisés Silva, An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994), 174 (emphasis in original).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 179.

[7] Ibid., 189.

[8] Mortimer J. Adler, Truth in Religion. The Plurality of Religions and the Unity of Truth (New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1990), 113–14.

[9] Ibid., 118.

[10] Cover Photo Credit: Calvin Li





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