Interpretation and Application

I have written before on the issue on interpretation and application. However, as I continue to progress in my class, my understanding continues to become more refined. As stated before, I believe one of the biggest pastoral hermeneutical issues of contention is the mixing up of the science of interpretation and the art of application. Take this diagram for example:

The best way to summarize this diagram is to say that interpretation is a science and application is an art.

The science of interpretation deals with a text written by a specific author to a specific audience completely apart from us. The data itself is objective and our attempts to understand what the author was saying to his audience is objective. In interpretation the goal is to find out what the authors meant to say to his audience. This makes statements such as, “This is what this passage MEANS to me,” silly (in general), ignorant (in sharing) and dangerous (in teaching).

Most of our issues with interpretation, though, come from applying the art of application to the science of interpretation. This is an understandable mistake considering the fact that we read the Bible with the goal of application to our lives (note: I do not mean for this to take away from the fact that we read the Bible to interact with God. However, that interaction when done must find it’s way to application because any time we interact with God, our lives are changed).

In the art of application we seek to take the truth/principle we have resolved in the science of interpretation and apply it to our lives and the lives of others. A great example of this is how we take the principle that Jesus died for our sins and apply it to our lives and the lives of others. The ways that we do this surely can never be exhausted. In this case we should often hear, “This is how I apply this truth to my life.”

Perhaps the most common form of interpretation/application confusion is when a passage is used allegorically. Often we use the truths of a passage as an allegory for our lives or the world we live in. Sometimes we do this correctly (interpretation first, allegory second), often we do not.

David Martin Lloyd Jones once preached a sermon on the passage of Jesus and the three coming down from the Mount of Transfiguration. There was a father who had brought his son to the JV apostles and they could not get the demon out (side note: can you imagine how they felt. Left like the desperate girls on the bachelor while Jesus and the three go on a special date, only to fail at the one ministry opportunity while they were gone. My wife had a similar experience. When she was baptized, she was the only one of her friends who didn’t come out speaking in tounges. She felt spiritually inferior for years.). If you remember, Jesus said that this kind [of demon] could only come out through prayer. Jones summarized, “the demon is too deep, it can only come out through prayer.” Jones then went on to use that summarizing truth/principle and apply it allegorically to a city. Thus making the point that in certain cities, spiritually speaking, demons are so deep that only prayer can move God to pull them out.

Now, is that what the passage MEANS? Of course not. Jones gives us a wonderful example of the difference between the science of interpretation and the art of application. He did not say, “Well, I think the passage MEANS that demons are to deep within a city and they can only come out through prayer.” No, there really was a demon possessed boy, there really was a concerned father, there really were a bunch of confused disciples with low self-esteem and there really was a Savior willing both to heal and teach at the same time. Paul himself uses the story of Jacob and Esau in an allegorical teaching point in Galatians, but even he is clear to point out he is doing so to prove a different point. Therefore, we should not then have freedom for multiple interpretations of Jacob and Esau.

Now this brings us to a certain point of contention in regards to the clarity of scripture. If we believe that the Bible is both grammatically clear in general and aided by the Holy Spirit for believers, then this process (the diagram) seems a bit arduous and contradictory. I mean, consider all the time and work that goes in to the science of interpretation and the art of application. That would take some time studying and conversing with others, how is that necessary if we have the Holy Spirit.

I would argue that such reasoning puts more limitations on the Holy Spirit than does the process laid out in the diagram. Such reasoning is so culturally conditioned it’s quite laughable. As if the Holy Spirit is like a magic lamp that we simple need rub in order to reveal scripture instantaneously. Or he is a microwave we simple put our Bible passage in, and within minutes we have a warm and tasty interpretation. I see no evidence in scripture, however, in which we are led to believe that the Holy Spirit works in such a way. I do see plenty of examples, on the other hand, of meditating on the scripture day and night, waiting on God to speak and working long and hard to understand God clearly.

It is therefore my conclusion that the reason we often convolute the science of interpretation with the art of application is because we put the same instantaneous expectations we have for our culture, given to us by our culture, on the scriptures. If we would but humble ourselves and take the posture of interpreters we have as examples in our Bible, perhaps we would more clearly hear from God and not convolute his Word.



One Response

  1. I know I was “sent to the showers” until my next post but I have to comment here. First off awesome post Matt and thanks for taking the time to bless us all by writing it up. It is posts like this that I wish got more hits on our blog than “Joel Osteen Preaches at Mars Hill Church.”

    Your post is well thought out and reasoned, and I found myself nodding throughout.

    It also made me think of the verse in Joshua that says, “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do acording to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success” (Joshua 1:8).

    The context behind this verse is somewhat fasinating because the audience would have had connotations of an animal chewing on it for sometime, then regurgitating it again later to chew on it some more. That is what is meant by, “shall not depart from your mouth.”

    As Christians we ought to not let the Word depart from our mouths and be constantly chewing on it and letting it feed us and provide nourishment. With this picture I think it is almost more helpful to begin to think of transformation instead of application when we think of our “takeaway” from the Bible. Too often application has a mechanical, methodical feel to it that leaves us thinking there is a step by step process we can apply in order to reach our goal. Instead it is the power that resides in the Word, and its truths that transform us along with the Holy Spirit. We are in process being made holy new creations that are given new hearts and minds. How this all occurs is mystical to a certain level but we must be quick to see that the Bible is full of “teachings” that have “principles. These principles of course have off shoots in illumination, and sanctification, but they are not to be convoluted just because we desire to be original and new.

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