Applying the Bible, Part 1: Why It’s Important

This is Part 1 of a series:

The Bible can be studied as a historical product – a collection of writings produced over time by a people (predominantly Israelites) that chronicles their path through history through the eyes of their religious faith.  The Bible certainly is this, and I think there’s a lot of value to studying the Bible in this way – a way that is almost entirely overlooked by many modern expressions of Christianity.  It’s the one thing everyone can agree on in terms of what the Bible is.

Studying the Bible in this way helps us because we begin to see these Scriptures through the eyes of the community that birthed them.  What did these texts mean to them?  What did it remind them of when they read them hundreds of years later?  What were their questions, concerns, and big events and how did these Scriptures respond to and illuminate those issues?  When we do this, we move closer to understanding their Scriptures as they did.  We get closer to intent.  We hear less of the noise of what we create in our own heads and begin to hear these spirits speak for themselves.

For all the Abrahamic religions, some or all of the writings in the Bible are more than that, though.  Christians do not read the Bible the same way we might read the Baal Cycle or the Eddas.  “Isn’t that interesting what these people believed?”

There is a sense in which these Scriptures are meant to speak to us, today.  They are supposed to, in some way, help us understand our present circumstances, give us guidance in them, and encourage us as we live through them.  They are, in some way, meant to be communication to us meant for us from the same God who is depicted in them.

But how does that work?  Is it even important to talk about?

I think it is, and let me give you an example.

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking to a man who is a recovering addict.  I am his sponsor.  He is a Christian and, like many recovering addicts, is having a hard time as he tries to repair his relationship with his spouse.

As part of this project, he and his wife see a Christian counselor together, and recently, she (the counselor) shared with him Ezekiel 16.  Here is a portion:

Therefore, O whore, hear the word of the LordThus says the Lord God, Because your lust was poured out and your nakedness uncovered in your whoring with your lovers, and because of all your abominable idols, and because of the blood of your children that you gave to them, therefore, I will gather all your lovers, with whom you took pleasure, all those you loved and all those you hated; I will gather them against you from all around, and will uncover your nakedness to them, so that they may see all your nakedness. I will judge you as women who commit adultery and shed blood are judged, and bring blood upon you in wrath and jealousy. I will deliver you into their hands, and they shall throw down your platform and break down your lofty places; they shall strip you of your clothes and take your beautiful objects and leave you naked and bare. They shall bring up a mob against you, and they shall stone you and cut you to pieces with their swords. They shall burn your houses and execute judgments on you in the sight of many women; I will stop you from playing the whore, and you shall also make no more payments. So I will satisfy my fury on you, and my jealousy shall turn away from you; I will be calm, and will be angry no longer. Because you have not remembered the days of your youth, but have enraged me with all these things; therefore, I have returned your deeds upon your head, says the Lord God.

Ezekiel 16:35-43 (NRSV)

On this basis, the Christian counselor said, my friend’s problems with his wife were a reflection of God’s anger at his sins, so he should expect a period where God uses her to punish him, but eventually God will exhaust His anger toward my friend and peace and reconciliation will follow.

Yes, a therapist said this.  The reason things are difficult with your wife is because God is enraged at you and hasn’t gotten it out of His system, yet.

Not only would I say this is a tremendously irresponsible application of Ezekiel 16, it’s an actively destructive one.  Imagine the impact this would have on you if you were a repentant addict trying to put your life back together.  Imagine the impact it would have on your view of God and His disposition toward you, and what impact that might have on your spirituality.  Imagine the impact it would have on your spouse to hear that they are the dispensers of God’s wrath toward you in your life and the exhaustion of His wrath must take place before any reconciliation.

Of course, it doesn’t take a very in-depth reading of Ezekiel 16 to see that this understanding is way out of line.  God is talking about nations, one of which is in covenant with Him (Israel), and how they have forgotten their covenant with YHWH to make allies of pagan nations and their gods.  Therefore, they will experience in history betrayal by the very nations they are trying to earn favor with, and this is God’s wrath toward them.  However, there will come a time when their oppression by these other nations will end and they will be reconciled to God.

There is absolutely nothing in this text that even hints that this is how God reacts to an individual’s behavior or that this is God’s habitual pattern for dealing with anything.  It’s how God is dealing with a nation at a point in history.  The pronouncement by the prophet warns Israel of what will happen to her if she continues this course of action, and when it does happen, will help her understand what those events mean and give her hope that it won’t last forever.  This is not a textbook entry on How God Deals with Sinners.

This may be an egregious example, but only because of degree.  This type of applying the Scripture to our contemporary lives – this looking for abstract or superficial commonalities and dropping them into our present circumstances – is very common, and the results run the gamut from helpful to harmless to destructive.

So, I think it’s important to talk about how we might apply the Scriptures in ways that respect what the Scriptures are and what they meant.  It doesn’t mean that all our applications have to be positive ones any more than it was for the original authors and readers of those Scriptures.  But perhaps we can at least make sure we’re on surer ground when we derive contemporary meaning from the Bible, and at the very least, understanding that we are transposing texts that do not primarily have us or our circumstances in view will grant us some humility in our discourse when we talk with one another about what the Bible might be saying to us.

6 thoughts on “Applying the Bible, Part 1: Why It’s Important

  1. Pingback: Applying the Bible, Part 2: Common Methods | Letters to the Next Creation

  2. Pingback: Applying the Bible, Part 3: General Principles | Letters to the Next Creation

  3. Pingback: Applying the Bible, Part 4: How It Could Be Done | Letters to the Next Creation

  4. Hi Phil,
    I come to your blog through reading Andrew. Just want to say that I enjoy reading what you have here. Thank you for putting some practical applications to narrative-historical way of reading the Bible. I just discovered Andrew last year, and have since read several of his books and spend considerable time on his blog trying to learn from him. His way of reading the Bible makes lot of sense to me, but I am still uncomfortable that scholars seem to ignore his 2nd horizon, especially for Paul. Not that majority make interpretation right, but I still respect the consensus from the church body. I will need to study more on that. Do you have any suggestion?
    Thanks, Jo

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Jo,

      Great to hear from you! I do remember you from the comments on Andrew’s blog.

      I know what you mean about scholarship. Like, if you’re the only person who thinks the way you do, what are the odds that you’re right? I was also very resistant to his take on the Roman Empire as well, but I’ve warmed up to it after a lot of time and thought. I don’t think that agreeing with him on that point is necessary for the overall arch of his views to be helpful.

      On the other hand, I think biblical scholarship is starting to move more and more in that direction. People like E.P. Sanders and James Dunn are very close to Andrew in many ways, and if you consider more popular authors like N.T. Wright and Scot McKnight, you see them moving towards it as well. So, I think there’s greater and greater investment in the larger trajectory of Andrew’s views from scholars, and there’s a sense in which the people in the historical criticism school have always kind of been in the same boat.

      Another thing to consider is that many scholars are still beholden to evangelical or at least “traditional” theological paradigms of looking at the Bible. Even if a scholar rejects these paradigms, they often become the default. For instance, it’s such a longstanding and common theological view that Jesus was talking about an eternal, perfect kingdom at the end of history that this notion just sort of goes unchallenged. I was just talking with a friend about this earlier, today, with Bart Ehrman’s book on Heaven and Hell. Even though Ehrman brings up many of the points Andrew has brought up regarding Jesus’ apocalyptic views, he -still- hangs them on an eternal kingdom at the end of history even though all the points he brings up quite clearly point to something more “earthy.” Some scholars may be reluctant to push back on that because it’s their own tradition, while for others, it’s just an assumption they carry with them as they look at the data.

      But a final thing to keep in mind is that Andrew is still working through his views as well. I’ve seen some of his positions change over time. I doubt his view that the Roman Empire constituting that second horizon is going to change, but there’s a sense in which we’re all kind of experimenting with this way of looking at Scripture and dealing with the ramifications of it. The only way the Church as a whole makes progress in thought and doctrine is if people push the boundaries.

      I hope some of that helps! It’s good to e-meet you finally, and thanks for your comment!


      • Phil, thank you for your response. I am familiar with new perspectives on Paul through Wright and McKnight. They do help us read NT in context, but I don’t think they read eschatologically like Andrew. Jesus was apocalyptic toward Jerusalem, but Paul was teaching directly to the churches, so those teachings became universal to churches down the line. How Andrew frames Romans to its 1st century context is unique. McKnight frames it as the conflict between Jewish and gentile Christians, so chapters 1-4 are about Paul’s refutation of Jewish Christians demanding gentile Christians to follow the law, but the rest of the teachings are universal. Cruciform of believers is not about calling to be martyrs, but conforming to the character of Christ. It is about participating in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection and transforming believers to be like Christ. Those are important, but pretty quickly the context gets lost to the spiritual teachings. Most still frame Epistles to the final judgement. They were concerning afterlife existence instead of earthly life existence after the old age passing away. Maybe history is just up for interpretation. I probably need to go back to read NT with Andrew’s method, then ponder on it more. I think the most difficult thing is how to apply those teachings with their particularities to our situation. I can see you are trying to do that on some of your other posts, I can really learn from you. I think we usually fail to distinguish the 1st century particularities from our situation.

        Liked by 1 person

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