Tag Archives: Interpretation

Grace in the Word

I’ve not been posting much… but partly that’s because I’ve been reading a lot. I’m always tempted to just post a few quotes. I’m resisting, today. But here’s some of what’s on my plate right now, reading-wise:

The Gospel-Driven Life, by Michael Horton. Almost a must-read book, absolutely fantastic. Our men’s group at church is reading this, and the discussion has been insightful and helpful to my Christian walk.

Rescuing Ambition, by Dave Harvey. So far my favorite quote is “God’s glorious ambition for our lives begins with who we are.” Close behind: “We need to be saved by works – not ours, but Jesus Christ’s!” I’m only partway in… he’s doing a great job of not forgetting the gospel as he urges us to have the right kind of ambition.

The Evangelical Universalist. The author wants to at least raise the possibility biblically that there is room in orthodoxy for universal restoration. Not my position. So it is interesting to understand how someone can come to a very different conclusion than my understanding of the Bible.

Worship Matters. Bob Kauflin really has a marvelous tone and heart for truly worshiping God – not only in song, but certainly in what we are singing.

“Redrawing the Line Between Hermeneutics and Application,” by Brian Shealy, in Bob Thomas’ Evangelical Hermeneutics.

This last one is what I really want to share on today. I doubt any of my friends will read Shealy’s essay; it is a bit dry, and in a fairly technical book. But what he’s saying is deep, good, and true.

We live in a day when large theological words – words like ‘exegesis,’ ‘homiletics,’ ‘hermeneutics,’ ‘interpretation,’ ‘expository’ – are sometimes used but often not clearly understood. What so many well-meaning people say is that they want to ‘obey the Bible.’ And what that excellent phrase ends up meaning is a confusion of application and interpretation. Perhaps more accurately, well-meaning Christians can skip interpretation for the more ‘practical’ application piece. Finding an application becomes the interpretation.

This seems good but can quickly become deadly.

One can go to Leviticus 11:6-11 and find wonderful application (a Christian shouldn’t eat rabbits, pigs, or shellfish) that absolutely ignores the context and purpose of “clean” and “unclean.” That’s jumping right to application, without finding out what the text means.

Another example is Psalm 15. “O Lord, who shall sojourn in your tent? Who shall dwell on your holy hill? He who walks blamelessly and does what is right”… and the psalm goes on to describe four main areas: not slandering, despising the wicked, keeping vows, and not lending money at interest. An application-based jump goes right to “this is how you keep holy and right before God – do these four things.” Proper interpretation, in contrast, would actually lead to an examination of context to understand the basis of the Psalms, of messianic influences, and also in cross-reference to understand that Jesus Christ alone is blameless. From a right interpretation (read: understanding), application can then be made.

The difficulty of the Bible for the church is a primarily interpretive difficulty. The Bible is a message of truth from God. Understanding that truth is the basis for all else. If you do not get the truth, then you end up applying untruth. You end up saying things are from God when they are not. You end up with a thoroughly human message given in human power.

This skipping of interpretation is deadly because the actual original message of the Bible is what is powerful. The truth of the Bible is described as the “sword of the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:17). This word is living and active and piercing (Hebrews 4:12). And what we can do, if we are not careful, is substitute in our human message, our “application,” instead of the truth, the interpretation, that the Holy Spirit actually uses to pierce souls.

Shealy puts it this way: Preachers “cannot allow human self-centeredness or even enthusiasm for obedience to influence their use of hermeneutical principles. They must study God’s Word objectively to determine the original message that God intended.”

I’m convinced this emphasis is critical is because the original message is the Gospel. From Genesis to Revelation, the message is about Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God, the Son of Man, the Beginning and the End, about righteousness and sanctification and adoption and union and justification… all in and by and through Him.

In a rush to application there can be an abandonment of the actual truth of God’s message as stated in the passage the application is taken from. If there is a daily struggle for me as a pastor, it is here. Shealy rightly states that “only this goal [true interpretation] will exalt God’s Word to its proper place.”

Bernard Ramm, in Protestant Bible Interpretation, states this issue similarly in a rule: “What is not a matter of revelation cannot be made a matter of creed or faith.”

I suppose that some might disagree, but to my mind and heart the desperate need of our churches is in this area of interpretation. For those who are born of the Spirit, who know Jesus Christ, the desire for application rightly follows salvation. And then many are run into misguided activities based on poor interpretation of the powerful Word of God. My prayer and my hope is that our activity will be enlightened by and based on the truth that is from God, in the revelation He has given us in Jesus Christ.

May we treasure, and make effort to understand, the incredible riches given to us in the Word of God.