Applying the Bible, Part 2: Common Methods

This is Part 2 of a series:

Before taking a look at some recommendations for applying the Bible, I want to talk about how it commonly is done, today.  The main focus I’ll have is American evangelicalism, but I think you’ll find these methods in many Christian traditions and in many countries (perhaps partially due to the influence of American evangelicalism).

This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but just an overview of some common methods to get a feel for what we’re missing in these methods and what we might look for.

Personal Devotions

“What Does This Make Me Think Of?”

This method is actively promoted among Christians and, depending on your tradition, may have even been taught to you as an indispensable part of being a Christian or even an obligation that God expects of you.

The idea is that you read the Bible on your own, reflect on it, and think about what it means to you and any accompanying obligations or convictions that may come out of that.

Often, this looks like reading a short passage, praying about it, and writing in a journal or spending some time thinking about what this passage has to say to you.

I should start out by saying that this is a fairly recent luxury on the world stage of history.  Prior to the printing press, most people did not have a personal copy of the Bible.  Long prior to that, most people could not read.  There was also a time where there was no canonized collection of the Scriptures.  There was a time when believers only had copies of a few of the books of the Bible, but not all.  And of course, there was a time when there were no Scriptures at all.

So, we need to understand that personal Bible study is something that most Christians, historically speaking, literally could not do.  It’s something we can do, now, and we should take advantage of that, but nothing in the Bible is a command to have personal Bible study nor is it an indispensable part of the Christian experience.  Most Christians throughout history did not and could not have a personal Bible study time.

That’s just to get a sense of perspective.  I’m not discouraging people from personal Bible study.  In fact, I encourage it.  Just keep in mind that this is something of a new development in church history, especially as you consider the sufficiency or authority of what you’re doing when you have your personal devotions.

The other aspect to keep in mind is, when you ask, “What does this passage mean to me?” or really bring any question we have to the Bible, you’re almost guaranteed to get an answer to that question completely unintended by the author.  No matter what your doctrine of inspiration is, the fact remains that the Scriptures were written by people using their own brains, analogies, ways of speaking, style, and knowledge.  Whatever sense you might have of God being the author of Scripture, the writings sound like the people who wrote them; they do not sound like the same person.  And they were not thinking of you or modern society at all.  I doubt that many if any of the apostles even envisioned something like what Christianity looks like in the world today.

Depending on the passage you’re reading, “they” were Near East residents twenty to eighty centuries ago.  They are talking about “their” stuff, not yours.  So, “what this passage means to me” will be extremely different between the two of you.

I don’t believe this is a reason to stop doing this, though.

God communicates in various ways, and the spiritual encounter someone has through the exercise of praying and meditating on the Scriptures may very well accomplish that.  If someone reads the story of Zacchaeus and realizes they have been dishonest with their business practices, and they should make things right with the people they have wronged, who am I to say that isn’t the prompting of God using that Scripture to do it?

For me, the key is perspective.

If I read a Scripture and it suggests a meaning or an application to me just from the raw experience of reading it and what it makes me think of, I need to understand that is something I got from my experience.  It isn’t “what the Bible teaches,” it’s “what I got from the Bible when I was reading it the other day.”  While I may share that with friends or get a great deal of value from that experience, it isn’t a commentary on what the author of a passage intended, its purpose in the corpus, or something all other Christians need to recognize and obey.

The main problem for me with this method is that it is virtually guaranteed not to be “what the Bible teaches” while at the same time being the primary or even only way many evangelicals are taught to read their Bible.

An unfortunate side effect of this is many sermons are really just more sophisticated versions of this method.  A pastor proclaims “what the Bible teaches” and its “relevance to your life,” but it has no more connection to the actual intent of the text than a teenager writing in their devotional journal.  They have read the text, it makes them think of certain theological axioms or cultural issues or what have you, and they present that.

Like a personal devotion, these sermons may be helpful and they may even be a key part of an encounter God has with a listener.  But often these sermons are not perceived as “stuff the pastor thought of when he read these words and is sharing with us in case it helps,” but rather are seen as what the Bible teaches.  These personal connections become authoritative statements by nature of the office of pastors.

I actually have a very high view of the kerygma and the Word of God as it is encountered in the moment of preaching, but even with that, I want to make that distinction between what God might be doing with me or with the pastor in that moment and “what the Bible teaches.”

Moralism

“Be Like So and So.  Except For When They Did That Bad Thing.  In That Case, Stop Being Like So and So.”

My least favorite hymn is “Dare to be a Daniel.”

There are a few different reasons for that, but one of them is that it’s a hymn about how great Daniel is and how we should all be more like him, which seems like an odd thing to have in a Christian worship service.  Or a Jewish one, for that matter.

This is a method of applying the Bible that is mostly employed for the Old Testament (although it makes a strong comeback when reading the Gospels).  Unlike the New Testament, which is chock full of doctrine, the Old Testament is mostly narrative or quasi-narrative and that narrative tends to fluctuate between super weird and super mundane.  Divorced from the concerns of the people who produced the Bible, we have to figure out a way to make their stories relevant to us and it isn’t immediately clear.  We don’t know why anyone would care about some episode from this king’s life or this decree or some prophet going on about some nation that doesn’t even exist anymore.

In this method of application, the story is read to get a timeless moral or truth or moral example out of it.

You might remember Aesop’s Fables as a child.  These are weird, wonderful stories about talking animals with sophisticated motivations.  These stories are not meant to give us information about the events, which almost certainly didn’t literally happen, but rather to portray a timeless truth.  The story of “The Fox and the Grapes” isn’t about foxes or grapes but rather that we tend to disparage things we want but fail to attain.  Really, you could tell that same story with a bear and honey or your aunt and the stick of gum at the bottom of her purse.

This is tricky because there are specific stories in the Bible that do work like this.  The story is not really about the events in the story but a moral to be derived from them.  Many of Jesus’ parables function like this, for example.  The hearers are meant to take a “moral” from the story that usually entails a change they’re supposed to make.

But the moralism method does not really take genre into account; it takes a portion of the biblical narrative and asks, “Ok, what’s the moral of this story?” and usually the moral either is or implies some course of action.

I could tell you about some real howlers from my experience in this department, but there are some that are fairly common that you’ve probably heard before.

Like, the story of David and Goliath.  “No matter how big your problems are, if you trust God, He can take care of them.”  “No matter how small or humble you are, God can use you for great things.”  “Always go for the eyes.”

Ok, I made that last one up, but you get the idea.

Probably my favorite moralism target is the crossing of the Red Sea.  Oh, the things the Red Sea has been made to stand for in Christian sermons.  The Red Sea is problems in our life.  The Red Sea is fear.  In the case of the Israelites, the Red Sea was a body of water that made their escape difficult.

Yes, the best exponent of the moralism method is Steve Martin.

But the Bible as a whole is not meant to work like this, least of all the narrative portions of the Old Testament or the Gospels.

These stories are recorded because they were formative and significant for the original audience.  You might not care about a left-handed king using his southpaw tricks to assassinate another king, but Ehud outwitting the Moabites to remove their leader and allow a military victory that secured Israel’s peace for almost a century is VERY important to the Israelites of the time, and not only those people, but later Israelites who may be going through their own struggles with Moab or remember that Moab was a powerful enemy with a powerful god competing with YHWH.

Like the previous method, this method does have some things going for it.

As mentioned, some stories in the Bible are explicitly written for this purpose.  When Jesus tells parables about vineyards and tenants and prodigal sons and bridesmaids, we shouldn’t try to figure out who these people were or why they couldn’t keep a vineyard going.  The significance of the story is not in the history, but the moral of the story.

Also, a certain degree or kind of allegorical interpretation is part of the toolbox of how rabbis understand Scriptures and later authors will use earlier Scriptures.  When Gospel writers talk about Jesus fulfilling a Scripture, it’s almost never a 1 to 1 correspondence of the particulars.  It’s a correspondence of underlying meaning.  Probably one of the more flagrant examples of a kind of allegorization is given to us by Paul who uses the story of Abraham’s relationship to Sara and Hagar as a way to understand the new crop of converted Gentiles’ relationship to the Torah.

So, just because an interpretation or an application has a “moral of the story” aspect to it doesn’t make it automatically wrong, but often these morals are arrived at without any kind of regard for the actual meaning of the story or the circumstances that made the story meaningful in the first place and then applied indiscriminately.

When this happens, biblical passages get used for all kinds of “moral lessons” that may not have been the authors’ intent at all.

This Is Us

“We Are In The Same Boat As These People”

This outlook is enjoying a really big resurgence right now, especially among some missions organizations.

The idea, here, is that the people and circumstances described in a biblical text are essentially identical to our own or should be.  In other words, we and the people in the text are the same.

If Jesus says something to his disciples, then he’s saying it to us.  If Paul gives an instruction to a congregation in Asia Minor, he’s giving it to us.  If God gives Israel a warning through her prophets, He’s giving that warning to us.  If Acts describes an event that happened in the early church, it should be happening to us.

In this way of looking at the Bible, there is virtually no room for history or context.  The things that separate us from the original audience are trivial and have only minimal impact.  It doesn’t matter if Jesus said a thing to his disciples on a specific mountain or to a crowd at a specific festival.  It doesn’t matter that a city might be under the economic dominance of the Diana cult or that the early church was under an Empire or that the Spirit had (or hadn’t) been poured out.  Whatever the text commands or portrays, that’s what we’re supposed to do or be like.

This is basically the same interpretive flow as “What does this passage mean to me?” but applies it in the opposite direction.  Instead of taking an ancient text and making it talk about our present experience; it takes our present experience and seeks to conform it to what we think the text is talking about.

Most proponents of this method do make a distinction between the Old Testament and the New Testament when talking about what our experience and ethics should look like, although I have found a lot of selectivity, here.  But the basic idea is that, at least from Jesus on forward, everything in the Bible should define our present experience except now we have cars and airplanes instead of camels and ships.

Sometimes, proponents of this method are even very diligent to try to get to the original context and meaning of a text.  For instance, there is a growing awareness in evangelical authors that the “gospel” in the New Testament was a lot more about Jesus’ lordship than it was about personal conversion.  But again, this is about application.  The application is that, whatever that meaning was, that’s what it means for us, too, in a very direct way.

I think this is popular with missions organizations because the church described in the New Testament was really successful with their conversions, and since we do not often see these levels of success, the assumption is that it’s because we’re not doing what they were doing.  It’s not that the world has changed or the religious and secular landscapes look very different or that technology has impacted the world or the scientific method has arisen or that a decent chunk of the world is coming out from Christendom and colonialism or anything like that.  It’s that we’re not being “biblical” in our methods, and if we were, then we’d see the hundreds and thousands converting like Acts records and seeing people rise from the dead and so on.

This is, I think, a very tricky river to navigate.  On the one hand, this is getting us closer to a good way to link original meaning and application to today, especially in comparison to some of the other ways that gap is bridged.

But on the other hand, there is a key premise to this way of looking at things that I think prevents us from sound and healthy applications, and that premise is this: the New Testament writings form a comprehensive picture that is frozen in time of what God’s people look like in the world, and we are still living in it.

Beginning with either the ministry of Jesus or Pentecost, everything forward gives us the picture of what the church in the world looks like, and it’s our job to ensure we keep the integrity of this picture as close to the original as possible even as the particulars of the world change around us.  We might change elements that aren’t mentioned in this picture, like our styles of music for example, but everything mentioned in this picture: practices, beliefs, ethics, experiences, messaging – needs to look as much like that New Testament picture as we can possibly get it.

Like the other methodologies, there are some tendencies here that can be helpful, but if we don’t keep them in perspective, they can be fatal.  Because we don’t recognize the difference between the first century church (or churches) and the twenty-first century church, we maintain some things that are only hurting us and fail to pursue some things that help us.  In fact, some people are so committed to looking like that first century church that when we have obvious differences (e.g. a lack of casually raising people from the dead, thousands of conversions after speaking a couple of paragraphs), we develop theologies to explain those differences.  We actually invent new doctrine to allow us to be as unchanged as possible, which makes as much sense as it sounds.

But nothing in the Bible works this way.  It is not a record that presents a static picture from page to page.  It presents a people navigating lots of different circumstances and stages in history and they do not move through these stages unchanged.  Yes, there are some core constant principles.  They do not continually and radically revise everything about themselves.  But at the same time, there is almost no broader area of religious life or perspective that goes unchanged as the people encounter new circumstances in the world.

And that is the dynamic challenge that faces us as we look to apply the Scriptures.  What are the riverbanks, and what is the river?  What are the continuities that connect us with our spiritual ancestors, and what are the new twists and turns that we must reckon with that they never foresaw or would seem just as irrelevant to them as Ehud seems to us?  How do we stay in the trajectory of the biblical story without being frozen in it, only just as relevant to the world (and, I might say, useful to God and our fellow man) as anything else from the first century Near East?

And in all of that, how do we write our own story?  This never stopped happening, even in the New Testament.