So you have followed the first two steps in interpretation, “Observation” and “Interpretation.” You have sought to determine what the text “meant” in its original context, to its original readers, as intended by the original author, exploring what some call the “first horizon” of biblical interpretation. You have studied difficult words, outlined your passage as part of your thought flow analysis, and looked at historical-cultural background issues.
You have approached the task of interpretation prayerfully and laid aside your own presuppositions (by an act some call “distancing”) in order to be able to perceive what is there in the biblical text (practicing what Schlatter termed a “hermeneutics of perception”) rather than imposing your own meaning onto the text. You’re almost done. Yet the most critical, and arguably the hardest, part of the interpretive task remains: the application of the text to yourself and your students or audience.
How do you apply the message of a given biblical text to today? Different answers have been given to this question. Perhaps one of the most common popular conceptions is that every text of Scripture applies to every person (and does so straightforwardly). But clearly, there are problems with this approach. When Paul tells Timothy to bring his coat and try to come to him before winter, how do you and I apply this command? Or how do we apply the passage in the Book of Acts narrating poor Eutychus’s fall from the window sill during one of Paul’s long preaching sessions? And what about passages that deal explicitly with Israel prior to, or during, one of their exiles, threatening them with divine punishment or promising restoration? Surely we are not in the same situation today, and so any possible application can be indirect at best. This may not ingratiate me with some of you reading this post, but in my opinion it is fairly evident that not every passage of Scripture applies equally to every person today (or at any time of church history), and this does not necessarily entail a low view of Scripture. It is simply an issue of the original context being important and making a difference in application.
Others have argued that while not every passage can be applied “literally” or “directly,” we can determine the underlying, timeless principle at stake by a process they call “principlization.” Apart from the verbal monstrosity created here (“principlization” is not recognized by my spellchecker and is not found in my dictionary, and I, for one, hope it’ll stay that way), I doubt that “principlization” can solve all our problems when it comes to interpretation. It is hardly the magic cure it is made out to be. To give but one or two examples, what is the principle underlying some of the examples given above? That we should help old men who are imprisoned for the faith, especially in the winter time? That we should eschew lengthy bouts of preaching, especially close to midnight when young people are in the audience? The list could go on.
Fortunately, of course, in many cases application is considerably more direct. Many commands in Scripture, such as the need to forgive one another, to love one another, and to show compassion toward others apply directly to us. (Though even there, I would argue, it matters to understand the original context and reason why the command was given and who it is to whom the command is applied today.) In short, I believe the epistles are easiest to apply because of the convergence, at least to a significant extent, between the original and the contemporary audience: in both cases, we are dealing with believers in the church age, those who have the Holy Spirit but who need to grow in Christ and learn to walk in a manner worthy of their calling. This, incidentally, makes the Gospels more difficult to apply, because there we are dealing with individuals—including even the twelve apostles—who were not yet regenerate and who did not possess the indwelling Holy Spirit. (Sorry, but you can no longer use Peter’s denials of Jesus or Thomas’s doubts as excuses that it is OK for you to engage in these kinds of things as well.)
Part of the difficulty in applying Scripture, then, is the fact that there may be, and often will be, a difference in the original context and audience and the contemporary one. To give but one example, how adequate is it to exhort one’s audience today when teaching from the Book of Hebrews that they must not turn back to their old ways but embrace Christ and live for him? No one in our audience will likely be tempted to go back to the old covenant system—most of them will not be Jews!—or practice animal sacrifices, and so on. I dare say that if that is our application, it will largely miss the mark (though by God’s mercy, his Word will still do its work, since it is living and active and sharper than a two-edged sword, Heb. 4:12). So what we must do, I submit, is recognize that there is a difference between the situation of the original and the contemporary audience and make allowance for this difference in fashioning our application in such a way that it is appropriate for our modern audience, even if that means that our application will be more indirect. In the present scenario, we may want to talk about the dangers of nominalism or presumption, or the like.
The purpose of this post is not to settle the issue of application once and for all, nor is it to provide specific guidelines for proper application. It is simply to sound a note of caution and to challenge all of us to recognize, first, that application is the most critical, albeit the hardest, part of the interpretive process, and, second, that application must proceed in a judicious and nuanced way. Only if we face some of the unique challenges faced by application will we be workers who need not be ashamed, rightly handling God’s word of truth (2 Tim. 3:16).
For Further Study: See Andreas J. Köstenberger and Richard D. Patterson, Invitation to Biblical Interpretation: Exploring the Hermeneutical Triad of History, Literature, and Theology (Kregel, 2011). See also R. Alan Fuhr and Andreas J. Köstenberger, Inductive Bible Study: Observation, Interpretation, and Application through the Lenses of History, Literature, and Theology (B&H Academic, 2016).