September 10, 2009

Applying the Bible – Part 1: What is application?

While the Bible has immense value as a piece of literature, and can give great insight into certain aspects of ancient history and culture, this is not the reason most Christians read it. Ultimately, most Christians read the Bible because we believe that it is God’s word, not only to a people in a time and culture far removed from our own, but that it is God’s word to us in our time and in our culture. We believe that through the Bible we may come to a true knowledge of God and of ourselves, and may come to discern His will, including what He would have us believe and how He would have us live.

The process by which we go from understanding the Bible in its literary and historical context to bringing the message of the Bible to bear on our contemporary situation is called application. It should the next to last step in Bible study, following the proper study of a text to determine its meaning, and it should result in the conforming of your life and thought to the word of God. After all, why would we go through the process of understanding and applying the Bible if we’re not going to obey it (see Matt 7:24-27, 1 John 2:3, etc)?

Before discussing how to apply the Bible, it will be helpful to understand what to expect from application, and some barriers that often hinder proper application.

What to Expect

1. How should I live? (or “Practical” Application) – Much of the Bible deals with the questions of what God expects from His people. Whether the command is to “make a parapet around your roof” (Deut. 22:8) or to “be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other” (Eph. 4:32), there is an expectation that living in obedience to God will involve conformity to His standards. For the original hearers, this would mean that not making a parapet or not forgiving each other would be an act of disobedience to God. When we seek to apply the passage today, our desire is for the same obedience to God, though proper application may result in quite different actions for us then it did for them (see Part 2 for examples). Beyond specific commands, application can give us the wisdom needed to make decisions in life.

2. How should I think? (or Theology/Worldview Formation) – Oftentimes, properly applying a passage will have a more direct result on the way you think and believe, rather than what you do (although your thoughts and beliefs will inevitably impact your actions). This is an underappreciated aspect of biblical application, but is quite important. While the Bible speaks directly to many areas of life, there are also many areas which the Bible does not directly address. Does this mean that the Bible has no relevance or that we cannot know the will of God in these areas? That’s not the case at all. By allowing the Bible to shape our view of life and reality, our values and actions will be less conformed to our surrounding culture, an instead transformed into that which is consistent with the revealed will of God. This type of application goes beyond a superficial application of a specific verse to complex social, economic, political, and scientific issues. Instead it allows you to use your renewed and biblically-informed mind to think through these issues in a faithful manner. Understanding what the Bible teaches about God, humanity, creation, fall, redemption, restoration, judgment, good, evil, suffering, etc., will form the lens with which you view reality and will help you see clearly as you think through the issues we face today. There are two topics under this category that deserve special attention:

a. Who is God? – Answering this question should be your primary goal when studying the Bible. Not just knowing who God is in name, but knowing Him. Knowing His character, His story, His works, His likes and His dislikes. As your knowledge of Him increases, so also will your love and fear of Him. This knowledge of God is the foundation of a biblical view of life. After all, this is eternal life (John 17:3) and the source of all true wisdom for living (Prov. 1:7; 9:10). The application of every passage of the Bible should begin with the question, “What does this tell me about God?”

b. Who am I? – Along with a proper understanding of God, the Bible will shed light on who we are (both individually and collectively). Throughout the Bible, we gain insight into the glory of a humanity which was created in the image of God, and the marring of that image through human sin. We come to understand ourselves in relation to God, and see the depths of our own sin exposed by the light of Scripture. Finally, in Jesus Christ, we see the true image of God, unmarred by sin, and the promise that by His grace we also will be restored to the true image God in Christ. So the second question to ask when applying every passage should be, “What does this tell me about sinful humanity?”

Barriers to Proper Application

1. Failure to pray – We must seek out God in prayer every time we engage His word. Our sin and prejudice leaves us prone to error, misunderstanding, and willful ignorance regarding what the Bible would teach us. Our prayer to God is that by His Spirit these barriers would be overcome and that we would be enlightened to see and acknowledge the truth, even when it is convicting or inconvenient.

2. Failure to study the context (both Historical and Literary) – It can sometimes be very tempting to jump from reading a passage to applying it, without taking the context into consideration. This is particularly true for certain parts of the New Testament. It may be true that certain passages will have a direct application for 21st-century Christians, but unless you study the context first, you can’t be sure that you’re not reading your own presuppositions back into the text.

3. Failure to acknowledge your presuppositions – No one reads the Bible in a vacuum. We all bring to the text a lifetime of experiences, beliefs, and assumptions. Additionally, each of our perspectives has been shaped by the various traditions with which we’ve been associated (whether Catholic, or Baptist, or Pentecostal, or Lutheran, or non-denominational, or Atheist, or Buddhist, etc). This is an unavoidable reality, and it’s impossible for anyone to come to a text from a completely neutral perspective. This is true not only for the Bible, but for all communication. The good news is that we are able to communicate and impart information to one another, and we can expect the same to be true with the Bible. The important thing is to recognize what those presuppositions are and to be willing to challenge them as we read, understand, and apply the Bible.

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