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Layers of Meaning

The medieval commentators on Scripture found three kinds of meaning in the literal level of the sacred text: one they called allegorical, in which one fact pointed to another; one they called tropological, or moral, which had to do with what should be done; and one they called analogical, which had to do with the Divine life and our participation in it. Although this was a method applied to biblical exegesis, it was also an attitude toward all of creation, and a way of reading nature which included most possibilities, and I think it is this enlarged view of the human scene that the fiction writer has to cultivate if he is ever going to write stories that have any chance of becoming a permanent pat of our literature. It seems to be a paradox that the larger and more complex the personal view, the easier it is to compress it into fiction.

-Flannery O’Connor, The Nature and Aim of Fiction, from Mystery and Manners, pp. 72-73

I don’t agree with medieval biblical interpretation for the most part. What a shocker.  But I never considered that such a method could be applied to nature and general experience. I knew that stories operated on a number of meaningful levels, but never thought of trying to quantify that in any way.

O’Connor is making the case that fiction-writing can contain layers of meaning. In this context, one story can have allegorical, moral, and spiritual dimensions; and they don’t necessarily have to be overt.

Wittgenstein: The Sign and the Thing Signified (Meaning and Application)

Frege ridiculed the formalist conception of mathematics by saying that the formalists confused the unimportant thing, the sign, with the important, the meaning…Without a sense, or without the thought, a proposition would become an utterly dead and trivial thing….And the conclusion which one draws from this is that what must be added to the dead signs in order to make a live proposition is something immaterial, with properties different from all mere signs.

But if we had to name anything which is the life of the sign, we should have to say that it was its use.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Blue and Brown Books, p. 4

I have rewritten this post several times. Philosophers tend to make me do that. They don’t necessarily communicate in such a way as to be understood. But anyhow, I’m convinced there’s something interesting, and probably important, here. I just don’t know that I can put my finger on it precisely as of yet.

I have written about meaning and application on the blog several times. For example, I did a three part series on the subject last Fall (HERE, HERE, and HERE). Why do I care? I care because I realize that we cannot claim to truly understand Scripture unless we are actually experiencing and living out its teachings. I discuss that in the other posts, so I won’t retread it here.

The life of the sign (call it meaning), Wittgenstein says, is the use of the sign (call it application). That is, if we are not correctly using the sign, applying the sign, then the sign is empty, meaningless, and, really, lifeless. This goes for a sentence on a page. The words I am writing have no power in them unless they are put to some sort of use. The same goes for all sentences written by all writers. They are dead letters: empty pixels. Without a spiritual meaning (I don’t know what else you could call it) behind the letters, words, sentences, etc. they are of no use. If you do not make use of your reading, then you either reject it or do not understand it. In the latter case, it is dead to you, or you are dead to it, depending on how one looks at such things.

Now you might apply this concept to a number of things. Say, for instance, the sacraments (confusing the sign and the thing signified, or failing to experience and live out the internal meaning), or the actual reading of Scripture (failing to make application, or use, of its teachings in your own soul). In general, this is a failure to draw out the immaterial from the material; or an inability to distinguish the difference. When you miss one, you miss both; when you confuse them, well, you are confused. You cannot separate them, but at the same time you must not confuse or conflate them.


“Doctrine is but the Drawing of the Bow”

Ver. 7. Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.

The connection is illative; he applieth the former promise, and by a just inference enforceth the duty therein specified: `Submit yourselves therefore to God., But you will say, Wherein doth the force of the reason lie?

I answer—1. It may be inferred out of the latter part of the sentence 357thus: `God giveth grace to the humble, therefore do you submit yourselves;, that is, do you come humbly, and seek the grace of God. The note thence is:—

Obs. That general hints of duty must be particularly and faithfully applied, or urged upon our own souls.

Doctrine is but the drawing of the bow, application is the hitting of the mark. How many are wise in generals, but vain ἐν διαλογίσμοις, in their practical inferences! Rom. i. 22. Generals remain in notion and speculation; particular things work. We are only to give you doctrine, and the necessary uses and inferences; you are to make application. Whenever you hear, let the light of every truth be reflected upon your own souls; never leave it till you have gained the heart to a sense of duty, and a resolution for duty. (1.) A sense of duty: `Know it for thy good, Job v. 27. If God hath required humble addresses, I must submit to God; if the happiness and quiet of the creature consisteth in a nearness to God, then `it is good for me to draw nigh to God, Ps. lxxiii. 28. Thus must you take your share out of every truth; I must live by this rule. When sinners are invited to believe in Christ, say, `I am chief, 1 Tim. i. 15. (2.) A resolution for duty, that your souls may conclude, not only I must, but I will: Ps. xxvii. 8, `When thou saidst, Seek ye my face, my heart said, Thy face, Lord, will I seek., The command is plural, Seek ye; the answer is singular, I will. The heart must echo thus to divine precepts.

-Thomas Manton, A Practical Commentary, or an Exposition, with Notes, on the Epistle of James, Chapter 4, emphasis mine (Read it online HERE).

I came across this quote totally by accident while I was reading an article written by one of my former teachers. This ties in very well to what I have been trying to say about meaning and application HERE, HERE, and HERE.

Notice that, in this analogy, both doctrine and application are necessary and connected. You cannot separate them any more than you can separate the process of drawing the bow to hitting your target with an arrow. It’s one fluid motion. If one part is missing, everything is deficient. Second, Manton makes the point that Christians need to work to become skilled at making application (which would seem obvious from the analogy). He calls upon us to ‘never leave [the truth, or a doctrine] till you have gained the heart to a sense of duty…’ ‘The heart must echo…divine precepts.’

So, we could say that those who know a good deal of doctrine but lack the ability to make application could be likened to someone with an expensive hunting bow who has never shot a deer in his life. The bow looks nice on the wall, but it’s not providing anything for him, or anyone else, to actually eat.

Law and Gospel and Application

This is the third and last entry in a series on ‘meaning and application.’ See Part 1 and Part 2.

William Perkins’ book, The Art of Prophesying, is a gem. It is written as a means of instruction for preachers, but Perkins’ principles of interpretation can be used by anyone. With that said, here is what Perkins writes about biblical application:

Application is the skill by which the doctrine which has been properly drawn from Scripture is handled in ways which are appropriate to the circumstances of the place and time and to the people in the congregation (p. 54).

For an individual who is not a preacher, we would simply say that application is drawing out the teaching of a passage in such a way that it is instructive (in any number of ways, both negative and positive) to himself and his world (including his family, church, culture, etc.).

Perkins then goes on to describe what he considered to be the most important element of the application of Scripture:

The basic principle in application is to know whether the passage is a statement of the law or of the gospel. For when the Word is preached, the law and the gospel operate differently. The law exposes the disease of sin, and as a side-effect stimulates and stirs it up. However the gospel not only teaches what is to be done, it also has the power of the Holy Spirit joined to it. When we are regenerated by him we receive the strength we need both to believe the gospel and to do what it commands. The law is, therefore, first in the order of teaching; then comes the gospel (p. 54).

He also notes that

…Many statements which seem to belong to the law are, in the light of Christ, to be understood not legally but as qualified by the gospel (p. 55).

This is how the Israelites should have understood the Law – as qualified by redemption. But, the Apostle Paul writes,

Brothers,my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them (Romans 10:1-5).

They did not properly qualify the Law by the Gospel. If you take “do this and live” to mean that you are actually capable of gaining life through obedience, then you’ve missed the qualification of the Gospel, which tells us that Christ obeyed the Law in our behalf that we might be counted blameless through him.

This is an aspect of what Perkins recognizes as ‘rightly dividing the Word of truth’ (2 Tim. 2:15). It has been widely observed that the Apostle Paul uses a Greek word (Ὀρθοτόμεω) relating to his ‘second job’ as a tent-maker when he speaks of the art of ‘rightly dividing.’ He wants Timothy to ‘cut straight the Word of Truth.’ Perkins relates the word to the Old Testament sacrifices:

Right cutting is the way in which the Word is enabled to edify the people of God…

The idea of cutting here is mataphorical language possibly derived from the activity of the Levites, who were required to cut the limbs of the animals they sacrificed with great care. It is of this skill that the Messiah speaks: ‘The Lord has given Me the tongue of the learned, That I shoul dknow how to speak a word in season to him who is weary’ (Isa. 50:4).

There are two elements in this [right cutting of the Word]: (i) resolution or partition, and (ii) application.

Resolution is the unfolding of the passage into its various doctrines, like the untwisting and loosening of a weaver’s web…Sometimes the doctrine is explicitly stated in the passage…On other occasions a doctrine not specifically stated is correctly drawn from the text because, in one sense or another, it is implied in what is written…Note, however, that doctrines ought to be deduced from passages only when it is proper and valid to do so. They must be derived from the genuine meaning of the Scripture. Otherwise we will end up drawing any doctrine from any place in the Bible (pp. 48-51).

Perkins will go on to make his argument that the key principle of application is discerning between Law and Gospel, and a proper qualifying of the Law by the Gospel – this is a part of ‘cutting straight the Word of truth.’

Let me summarize: If you are going to apply the Scriptures well, you need to know the difference between law and gospel and you need to be able to understand how the law is qualified (i.e. how our position in relation to the law is qualified) by the gospel. Once you understand the law as law, and your inability to gain righteousness through it, you are well on your way to a proper application of the law. But if you stay there, if you fix your eyes on the law as if you will be able to produce righteousness in your own power, then you have failed to properly distinguish law from gospel. The Holy Spirit (read Romans 8) works through the gospel and gospel principles. You must therefore take the law and qualify it according to the gospel. This can be as simple as: I have failed, I know that in my own power I will still fail, but Christ has succeeded and paid for my sins, therefore I will walk by faith in him. This is the attitude the Spirit promises to bless. This is the “mindset of the Spirit” (Rom. 8:6) – always looking to Christ as he is offered in the gospel. (Read more about that HERE).

The main point here, from Perkins, is that in order to apply a passage legitimately, which also implies a proper understanding of the meaning of the text, you must train yourself diligently in what Walter Marshall calls “the rare and excellent art of godliness.” That is, obedience motivated by gospel principles. And in order to seek holiness by gospel principles, you must be able to discern the Scriptures’ distinction between Law and Gospel, which includes the qualifying of the Law by the Gospel.

Meaning and Application 2: Timeless Truth?

I ended my previous post with these words:

In summary, sharp distinctions between meaning and application are difficult to make at best. I fear that the making of such distinctions comes out of a desire to seek ‘scientific objectivity’ in interpretation. Such objectivity is impossible. And even if it is possible (and I don’t think it is), it is still undesirable. My argument is that objective detachment in biblical interpretation is impossible and/or undesirable for at least two reasons: 1)Interpretation (even in determining the original context of portions of Scripture) necessarily involves asking questions of the text, and questions cannot be neutral and 2) the best biblical interpretation is also the most applicable and vice versa (the worst is the least applicable).

I will now pursue those two points.

First, interpretation necessarily involves asking questions of the text of Scripture, and questions cannot be neutral. Back when I was blogging through Technopoly, by Neil Postman, I wrote a post entitled Questions Cannot Be Neutral. I referenced this quote by Postman:

A question, even of the simplest kind, is not and can never be unbiased…My purpose is to say that the structure of any question is as devoid of neutrality as its content. The form of a question may ease our way or pose obstacles. Or, when even slightly altered, it may generate antithetical answers, as in the case of the two priests who, being unsure if it was permissible to smoke and pray at the same time wrote to the Pope for a definitive answer. One priest phrased the question ‘Is it permissible to smoke while praying?’ and was told it is not, since prayer should be the focus of one’s whole attention; the other priest asked if it is permissible to pray while smoking and was told that it is, since it is always appropriate to pray (pp. 125-126).

From there, I made this observation:

First, in my thinking, I applied this quote to the study of the Scriptures. As a student of the Bible, and as a preacher, I think this is sound wisdom for dealing with the Scriptures. Martyn Lloyd-Jones makes the point in Preaching and Preachers that a student of the Scriptures must constantly be asking questions of the text if he is to find answers; and the kind of questions we ask will largely determine the answers that we receive. John Frame makes much the same point in  The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (and in his general points about Perspectivalism; if you don’t know what it is then by all means click the link). He argues, and he is absolutely right, that we cannot come to the Scriptures, or any book for that matter, as blank slates. We come with all sorts of baggage, which leads us to ask certain kinds of questions and seek certain kinds of answers. What this means practically is that we have to train ourselves to ask the right sorts of questions.

Someone may contend that our goal is to make our questions as ‘objective’ as possible. This would lead back to the road of interpreter as historical exegete looking primarily for the illusive ‘original meaning’ of the text. But there’s a problem with this. Perfect objectivity is a myth of Scientism. As long as we are personal beings with personal histories, personal presuppositions, and personal beliefs, we will never achieve the gnostic idea of setting those things aside for detached objectivity. Michael Polanyi dealt with this question at great length in more than one book. For instance, in Personal Knowledge, he writes,

When we accept a certain set of pre-suppositions and use them as our interpretative framework, we may be said to dwell in them as we do in our body…They are not asserted and cannot be asserted, for assertion can be made only within a framework with which we have identified ourselves for the time being; as they are themselves our ultimate framework, they are essentially inarticulable (p. 60).

Postman says that questions cannot be neutral. Polanyi says that the reason questions cannot be neutral is that the people who ask them cannot be neutral – they have inarticulate presuppositions that they are likely not aware of, not to mention overt presuppositions that they are aware of. This means, for our discussion, that the idea of biblical interpreter as detached exegete is a myth. And that’s a good thing.

Let me share an anecdote. A few years ago I took several classes on homiletics (preaching). During a discussion on the subject of ‘application,’ one of the students made this point to our professor: ‘What if there is no application of the passage? I just don’t see any application in the passage I’ve been working on, so why should I worry about it?’ I raised my hand an responded, ‘But you are a person, and you are preaching to people! You are not preaching in a vacuum!’ What followed was the chirping of crickets for about 20 seconds. It seems obvious enough. We should not be afraid to ask our ‘modern’ questions of the sacred text. How does this affect me? How does it affect my church? How does it affect my society?

‘Rabbi’ John Duncan once wrote of Jonathan Edwards that his ‘doctrine is all application, and his application is all doctrine.’ This is an interesting quote for a couple of reasons. First, Edwards is famous for the habitual structure of his sermons. He nearly always follows the same pattern: exegesis, statement of the main doctrine, application. He studied a text to find a primary teaching. After demonstrating that teaching in the text, he would go on to apply it to his congregation. Thus his sermons were divided into two main parts: doctrine and application. But, says Duncan, his ‘doctrine is all application, and his application is all doctrine.’ If you’ve read much of Edwards, you likely understand what Duncan means. He was never interested in detached exegesis, exposition, or theology. He was always aiming the truth right at you.

Doctrine cannot be expounded in a vacuum. The incarnation of Christ is the ultimate proof that doctrine must touch the ground and get dirty. This is what separates theology from so much philosophy. Christians are not primarily concerned with theoretical questions. When we ask questions, we are looking for answers that apply to actual lives lived in this actual world. This is why a Puritan father like William Perkins defined theology as “the science of living blessedly forever,” and why his disciple Williams Ames called theology “the doctrine or teaching of living to God.” This is why, during the Reformation, John Calvin claimed, as the central thesis of Book I of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, that the knowledge of God and the knowledge of man are inseparable if we are to properly live the Christian life. He writes,

Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other.

And this is why, centuries before, Francis of Assisi (and Thomas Aquinas) were so concerned with the things of this world:

St. Francis was becoming more like Christ, and not merely more like Buddha, when he considered the lilies of the field or the fowls of the air; and St. Thomas was becoming more of a Christian, and not merely more of an Aristotelian, when he insisted that God and the image of God had come in contact through matter with a material world. These saints were, in the most exact sense of the term, Humanists; because they were insisting on the immense importance of the human being in the theological scheme of things. But they were not Humanists marching along a path of progress that leads to Modernism and general scepticism; for in their very Humanism they were affirming a dogma now often regarded as the most superstitious Superhumanism. They were strengthening that staggering doctrine of Incarnation, which sceptics find it hardest to believe (G.K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas, pp. 16-17).

All of these men (though Edwards was on the edge) lived before the days of the popularization of so-called Scientific-detachment. And all of these men, in many ways, were better exegetes and theologians than what the church is producing today.

Let me return for a moment to Calvin’s words (quoted above). What he says of knowledge in general is true of knowledge in particular. If we take his argument that knowledge of God and knowledge of self are intimately related, to the point that we can’t tell where one stops and the other starts, and apply it to the study of individual passages of the Bible, what we might get is this: I cannot try to take off my own skin as I study the Bible. I cannot be detached. To detach myself from me is to detach myself from God. This does not mean that I am God. But it does mean that I am a Christian, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, living in a particular place at a particular time. And this means that, not only can I not know God as though he or I were in a vacuum, I cannot know him as someone living in a different place or different time. True theology and exegesis is personal and timely.

I have a pet peeve about using the word ‘timeless.’ God’s truths are not timeless. They transcend time; they are for all time; but they are not timeless. Rather, they are always timely. The incarnation is always true, no matter the age. But that truth is timely. It has ramifications for us (in the Muddle Ages) that may not be the same as the ramifications for someone who lived in the Middle Ages. This does not mean that the truth has changed. It simply means that the truth reaches out and fills up the corners of whatever time it finds itself.

Let me lay out a few ramifications of this line of thought. First, if what we have said is true, then you must not be afraid to bring your whole self to your reading of the Scripture. You do not need to ‘get out of the way.’ I’ve heard this said of preachers: they need to get out of the way and let the Bible speak. If God wanted to get us out of the way he has means of accomplishing that. He calls particular men, with particular personalities, and particular strengths and weaknesses to speak to particular generations. Let them be faithful to the Scriptures, but let them speak. Bring your baggage to your Bible study. Don’t be afraid to let God’s Word speak to you as a particular person in a particular time. Do not be content to read Scripture as a textbook, or history book. Come to it expecting every word to shake up your world. Second, do not sit in authority over the Scriptures, but do allow the Scriptures to sit in authority over you. Let the Bible have its way with you – with you, in your present context. Don’t be so concerned with the context of a given book of the Bible that you do not allow it to speak to your context.

That is the great takeaway from this subject. If your Bible study does not touch down into your world, then you are not only missing applications, you are actually missing the very meaning of Scripture. And if your study is leading you to miss how the Scriptures apply to your given situation, then you are liable, in the future, to be asked, “Have you not read?…” Of course your read it, but you didn’t live it. Of course you knew the truth, but you didn’t allow it to touch down and get dirty, as it was always meant to be.

I will conclude this series with a post about the application of Law and Gospel.

Meaning and Application 1: The State of the Question

My history with the question of the relationship between meaning and application began, years ago, when a friend asked my opinion of this statement:

A particular statement [of Scripture] may have numerous possible personal applications, but it can have only one correct meaning (R.C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture, p. 39).

My initial take was that this seemed correct enough. The Bible can’t say that something is blue and red at the same time and in the same way, right? The Bible would never claim that 2+2=5. But after we discussed this question over the course of time, we were left asking the question of whether this sort of way of looking at the Bible actually turned the student of the Bible into a mathematician. Sure, the Bible cannot say 2+2=5, therefore all we need to do is be good mathematicians. In studying the Bible, we want to make sure that we are getting the correct answer every time.

So, how do we get the correct answer? By understanding the original context of the writing of the text. We must become historically-minded exegetes who can dig down beneath the layers of historical interpretation and discover the original historical context of the text. From there, we must unearth the original reason for the writing of a particular text to a particular people in that original context. From there, we discover the illusive ‘original intent.’

Once we have found that original intent, we follow the basic rule of hermeneutics. Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, in How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, set forth this proposition:

On this one thing, however, there must surely be agreement: A text cannot mean what it never meant. Or to put it in a positive way, the true meaning of the biblical text for us is what God originally intended it to mean when it was first spoken (p. 30).

And bingo! We’ve arrived at the meaning of a text. Now what? Now we can begin to make applications, based on that original meaning, to our present context. This all sounds rather scientific, does it not? And herein lies the problem.

Anyone who has wrestled with the Scriptures understands that the distinction between meaning and application is not so simple. For instance, let’s do some deconstruction on the idea that ‘a text cannot mean what it never meant.’ The idea here is that a text can only ‘mean’ what it could have ‘meant’ for its original audience. John Frame, in his book The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, uses the example of embezzling to deal with this idea. Does “You shall not steal” mean “You shall not embezzle” or is “You shall not embezzle” an application of “You shall not steal”? Perhaps it was possible for second generation Israelites of the wilderness years to embezzle. If it was, then “You shall not embezzle” could be included in the meaning of the text. ‘A text cannot mean what it never meant,’ but perhaps it could have meant that. But what about this: does “You shall not steal” mean “You shall not illegally download movies on the internet,” or is that simply an application of the commandment? The original human writer couldn’t have meant that. The original audience would never have understood it that way. But it seems logical to say that illegal downloading is a form of stealing and therefore “You shall not steal” does indeed mean “You shall not illegally download movies from the internet.” “You shall not steal” means more than that, but it would seem this is a part of the meaning of the words.

One could think of a thousand examples like this. ‘Coveting’ originally applied to your neighbor’s house, and wife, and donkey. God explains, to the original audience, what he means by adding particular applications of the principle. But what about your neighbor’s BMW? Is ‘not coveting your neighbor’s BMW’ a part of the meaning of the text or simply an application of the text? I am not making the case that all application of Scripture is necessarily included in the meaning, but I want to demonstrate that the distinction between meaning and application is not as simple as some would have us think.

Next, let’s briefly consider the notion of ‘good and necessary consequence.’ The Westminster Confession of Faith (1:6) uses this language, as did many of the Puritans. Here is an example of the idea from John Owen:

Moreover, whatever is so revealed in the Scripture is no less true and divine as to whatever necessarily followeth thereon, than it is unto that which is principally revealed and directly expressed. For how far soever the lines be drawn and extended, from truth nothing can follow and ensue but what is true also; and that in the same kind of truth with that which it is derived and deduced from. For if the principal assertion be a truth of divine revelation, so is also whatever is included therein, and which may be rightly from thence collected…(Works of John Owen, vol 2, p. 379).

Owen, in a discussion on the doctrine of the Trinity, is making the case that the ‘application’ (or, to put it another way, the implications) of Scripture carries the same divine authority as the very ‘words’ of Scripture. Therefore, in the context of our discussion, this means that “You shall not illegally download movies from the internet” carries the same divine authority as “You shall not steal.” If, Owen says, an idea “is included” in “divine revelation” and therefore may be “collected” from it, then it carries the same authority as the very words of Scripture. John Frame recognizes this same principle:

Unless applications are as authoritative as the explicit teachings of Scriptures…then scriptural authority becomes a dead letter (The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, p. 84).

From here, I want to share a number of helpful quotes that unpack this idea.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones, in the preface to his commentary on Romans 3:20-4:25, makes this statement about preaching:

Moreover, it is vital that we should understand that an epistle such as this is only a summary of what the Apostle Paul preached. He explains that in chapter 1, verses 11-15. He wrote the Epistle because he was not able to visit them in Rome. Had he been with them he would not merely have given them what he says in this Letter, for this is but a synopsis. He would have preached an endless series of sermons as he did daily in the school of Tyrannus (Acts 19:9) and probably have often gone on until midnight (Acts 20:7). The business of the preacher and teacher is to open out and expand what is given here by the Apostle in summary form.

This is quite a statement: ‘The business of the preacher and teacher is to open out and expand.’ That means, if we make sharp distinctions between meaning and application, then the preacher is mainly concerned with application. After all, you can’t really ‘open out’ or ‘expand’ the meaning of a text if the meaning is once and for all settled according to its original context. But, if we take Frame’s perspective, we don’t want to make such a distinction:

The meaning of a text is any use to which it may be legitimately be put. That means that in one sense the meaning of any text is indefinite. We do not know all the uses to which that text may be put in the future, nor can we rigidly define that meaning in one sentence or two (Frame, p. 198).

The applications we are making, if they are an opening outward of the text, that is, if we are (in Owen’s words) ‘deducing’ from Scripture and opening up what is ‘contained therein’ are actually implied in the text. We are merely expounding the meaning. This, again, shows that a clean distinction between meaning and application is hard to make. And it means, for the preacher, that it is quite alright to be ‘application-heavy,’ so long as the application is bringing out the meaning of the text (even if that meaning is latent or implied or is drawn out from necessary inference).

The major objection to this line of thinking is that it opens up the possibility of adding to Scripture. Fee and Stuart’s primary argument for the notion that ‘a text cannot mean what it could never have meant’ is that extending meaning to contemporary applications could lead to the possibility of ascribing words to God that he never said. I don’t doubt that the idea could be abused in that way, but there are answers to such objections:

Implication does not add anything new; it merely rearranges information contained in the premises. It takes what is implicit in the premises and states it explicitly. Thus when we learn logical implications of sentences, we are learning more and more of what those sentences mean. The conclusion represents part of the meaning of the premises.

So in theology, logical deductions set forth the meaning of Scripture. ‘Stealing is wrong; embezzling is stealing; therefore embezzling is wrong.’ That is a kind of ‘moral syllogism,’ common to ethical reasoning. Deriving this conclusion is a kind of ‘application,’ and we have argued that the applications of Scripture are its meaning. If someone says he believes stealing is wrong but he believes embezzlement is permitted, then he has not understood the meaning of the eighth commandment…

When it is used rightly, logical deduction adds nothing to Scripture. It merely sets forth what is there. Thus we need not fear any violation of sola scriptura as long as we use logic responsibly. Logic sets forth the meaning of Scripture (Frame, p. 247).

The clearest biblical illustration that sharp distinctions between meaning and application are problematic is our Lord’s Sabbath-encounter with the pharisees recorded in Matthew 12. Here are verses 1-7 from the ESV:

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”

The issue of Christ’ s discussion with the pharisees is whether or not it is permissible to pluck and eat heads of grain on the Sabbath. The pharisees say that the disciples are breaking the fourth commandment (Remember the Sabbath…) and Jesus contends that they are not breaking the fourth commandment. Jesus questions the pharisees’ interpretation by asking them whether or not they have read other portions of Scripture: ‘Have you not read…’ Indeed, there is little doubt that the pharisees had read all of the Old Testament Scriptures. Rather, it seems that Jesus’ main point is that they had misunderstood the Scriptures. They knew the words, but they were not able to make proper application of the words. In this case, their misapplication of the words of Scripture would have deprived Christ’s disciples of a Sabbath snack and therefore allowed them to remain hungry. Jesus says that the satisfying of their hunger is more important than extra-biblical laws about labor on the Sabbath.

Notice that this is a battle of applications. Jesus charges the pharisees with misapplying Scripture and he leads them down the interpretive road to true application. But is that all that is going on? The main point I want to make is that Jesus is essentially charging the pharisees with misunderstanding the Bible. In other words, their faulty application of Scripture meant that they had not understood Scripture. They had not only missed the application, they had missed the meaning. If you think that the fourth commandment means you can’t pick an apple and eat it on the Sabbath, then you do not understand the meaning of the fourth commandment. It is as if you have never really read it to begin with.

Charles Spurgeon has a wonderful sermon on this text HERE entitled How to Read the Bible. At one point, he says this:

I think that is in my text, because our Lord says, “Have ye not read?” Then, again, “Have ye not read?” and then he says, “If ye had known what this meaneth”—[that] the meaning is something very spiritual. The text he quoted was, “I will have mercy, and not sacrifice”—a text out of the prophet Hosea. Now, the scribes and Pharisees were all for the letter—the sacrifice, the killing of the bullock, and so on. They overlooked the spiritual meaning of the passage, “I will have mercy, and not sacrifice”—namely, that God prefers that we should care for our fellow-creatures rather than that we should observe any ceremonial of his law, so as to cause hunger or thirst and thereby death, to any of the creatures that his hands have made. They ought to have passed beyond the outward into the spiritual, and all our readings ought to do the same.

By ‘spiritual,’ I do not think he means that there is some ‘higher meaning’ of a text. Rather, he means that you must bring the text out and down – open it up and apply it in a personal way that is consistent with the rest of Scripture. To do this, I am arguing, is to open up the meaning of a text.

We now have a basic sketch of the argument I am making. From here, let me summarize, and then move on to a few implications of the argument.

In summary, sharp distinctions between meaning and application are difficult to make at best. I fear that the making of such distinctions comes out of a desire to seek ‘scientific objectivity’ in interpretation. Such objectivity is impossible. And even if it were possible (and I don’t think it is), it is still undesirable. My argument is that objective detachment in biblical interpretation is impossible and/or undesirable for at least two reasons: 1) Interpretation (even in determining the original context of portions of Scripture) necessarily involves asking questions of the text, and questions cannot be neutral and 2) the best biblical interpretation is also the most applicable and vice versa (the worst is the least applicable). I will pursue those points in the next post with a little help from Neil Postman and Michael Polanyi.