Hermeneutics pt. III – Application

01 Jun

Welcome to the third and final installation in this series in the series on hermeneutics. Over the past two posts, we’ve looked at the process of exegesis — in other words, exploring a Biblical passage to draw out its true meaning. This is foundational to the historical-grammatical method of hermeneutics, the system of Biblical interpretation regarding the Bible to be the real, accurate, inspired Word of God.

Just catching up with us now? You can find part 1 here and part 2 here.

So the first step was observation, simply and carefully noting what is actually said in the biblical text. The second step was interpretation, letting the immediate context, and then the rest of the Bible, inform what we think about what we have read. The third step is application, weighing how the passage applies to our lives today.

For instance, the phrase we’ve been using as an example so far is Genesis 2:18, “It is not good for man to be alone.” From looking at Scripture to interpret this, we can see that we as humans were created in the image of the Triune God, that we are called as a corporate body of Christ, and that earthly marriage is a picture of Christ and the church. Our interpretation is that humanity was never designed to exist in the form of a single, solitary man chilling out in Eden by himself.

So that’s all well and good, but how does that apply to us today?

This is where prayer and meditation really comes into play. We ask God for wisdom on how to apply the truth to our lives, and we keep reading His Word to see other Scriptures which say the same thing and speak to our lives in the same sort of way.

For instance, here are some very valid applications of the above truth:

  • It’s not good to isolate yourself from other people (cp. Prov 18:1)
  • It’s good to get married (cp. Prov 18:22; 1Cor 7:36; all of Song of Solomon)
  • Marriage is not just a good idea, it’s God’s idea (cp. Mark 10:9)
  • We need other people (cp. 1Cor 12)
  • We should reach out to show love and kindness those who are alone (cp. Deu 10:19; Heb 13:9)

Are any of those what the passage actually means? No, not in the strictest sense. Biblical passages only have one interpretation — in other words, there is only one completely right answer to, “What does this mean?” But there are lots of potential valid answers to, “How does this truth impact my life, here and now?”

It’s important to keep the steps of interpretation and application separated in our minds. For instance, suppose a young man was wrestling with a desire to get married, and he was not sure if it was okay for him to want a wife. He could see Genesis 2:18, hear the Holy Spirit speaking to him, and come to the right conclusion that it is okay, and even good for him to pursue the heart of the young lady he likes so much. But what he can’t do is then go up to a friend who is prayerfully considering celibacy, and say, “You can’t do that. The Bible says you should get married.” A valid application does not become interpretation, just like a valid interpretation doesn’t work as an act of observation.

Application is a very important aspect of studying women’s roles in ministry. Remembering that the three steps of exegesis are:

  1. Observation – Looking simply at what the verse actually says.
  2. Interpretation – Determining, to the best of our ability by the grace of God, what it means. This is not always the same as simply saying what the verse says.
  3. Application – Discerning how that meaning plays out in our lives today. This is not always the same as simply understanding what it means.

So 1 leads to 2, which leads to 3, and what happens in 1 and 2 will be reflected in 3, but it is not correct to think that 1 = 2 = 3. This means that when we run into an interpretation we disagree with, and especially when we run into a particular application we disagree with, that we keep it at that — “I disagree with this interpretation/application.” That’s way different from going, “Oh my gosh, that person doesn’t care about the Bible at ALL and is in rebellion to the explicit Word of God.”

For instance, consider some of the divergences that happen just with 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, where everyone agrees on the main observation:

  • Observation: Paul told the Corinthian women to keep silent, and if they had something to say, to ask their questions of their husbands at home.
    • Interpretation 1: Paul was forbidding women from speaking in any authoritative way in church.
      • Application A: Women today may pray publicly, but may not directly address the congregation.
      • Application B: Women today may lead worship, but may not teach or preach.
      • Application C: Women today may teach and lead all they want to female-only groups, but never to mixed groups.
      • Application D: Women today should not even be on the platform in church.
      • Application E: This was speaking to first-century Corinth and thus has no bearing on modern life.
    • Interpretation 2: Paul was only forbidding women from teaching (the role of the elder) in church.
      • Application A: Women may pray publicly, prophesy publicly, and even occasionally teach publicly, providing they aren’t assuming the role of the elder/pastor.
      • Application B: Women may pray and prophesy publicly, but may not teach the mixed congregation.
      • Application C: Women may have any number of ministry, leadership, and even teaching roles, so far as they are not the main shepherd of the church.
      • Application D: This was speaking to first-century Corinth and thus has no bearing on modern life.
    • Interpretation 3: Paul was issuing an injunction to stop disruptive and distracting questions that had been coming from the women of Corinth.
      • Application A: This is easily applicable to today, as women should still submit to the order of service and not talk all the way through it. It has nothing to do with teaching or preaching.
      • Application B: This supports the idea that women for all time are clearly ill-equipped to understand theological concepts, and hence should not be teachers.
      • Application C: This was speaking to first-century Corinth, and thus has no bearing on modern life.

This is not an exhaustive list of what people might do (and have done) to try and understand this passage, but all the same, it helps us see where disagreement can come in, even amongst sincere believers. All of the above opinions sprouted from the same observation: a unified and clear understanding of what the verse says. But notice that from that observation, there are three ideas of what it means, and a total of ten unique ideas of what it means to us today.

Of course, we need to evaluate whether or not any given application is biblical. For instance, we can agree with the application of Gen 2:18 that it is good to get married. We cannot agree with the application that says that everyone must get married, because that does not stand the test of Scripture (see 1Cor 7, especially verse 7). I’m not advocating a live-and-let-live approach to exegesis where we unthinkingly accept everyone else’s application as correct, as if it were totally relative to them. But while I can strongly disagree with someone who uses Genesis 2:18 as grounds to view marriage as mandatory for everyone (which some preachers have done in times past), I can’t call them heathens who are denying the very Word of God.

Likewise, in the above breakdown of 1Cor 14:34-35, not all of those applications can be correct. Many of them are, in fact, explicitly contradictory. Since I subscribe to interpretation 3, application A., I will necessarily view those other applications as being in error. They will necessarily view me as being in error. But what we cannot do is accuse the other of being a Bible-hating heretic, simply because we diverged when it came to application.

As long as we agree on the basic points that 1) The Bible is true, 2) The Bible says [XYZ], and 3) We seek to find out what [XYZ] means by letting Scripture interpret Scripture, we are on the same team.

Sorting out proper hermeneutical methods gives us many benefits. Firstly, and by far the most importantly, it empowers and equips us to study the Word and seek God’s heart in it. Our foremost purpose in Bible study should always be to learn more about who God is, what He’s like, and what His will is for us, that we may love Him more and talk to Him more. But secondarily (though still importantly), it enables us to weigh any interpretations we hear with what we actually see set forth in the Word. And finally, it enables us to discuss, and even disagree over, certain topics with other believers in a kind and generous manner, keeping the authority of the Word at the forefront of our conversation, rather than hinging all our energy on proving our own point, as if our applications carry the same weight as the Scripture itself.

It takes some time, but it’s really simple. And the more committed we are to walking out the process in humility, with lots of prayer and a spirit of excellence, the better positioned we are to hear God’s heart and rightly understand what He would say to us in His Word.


Posted by on June 1, 2010 in Bible, Theology


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9 responses to “Hermeneutics pt. III – Application

  1. Dorean Beattie

    June 1, 2010 at 11:41 am

    Very clearly stated. It all seems so easy when you say it!

  2. Deborah

    June 3, 2010 at 7:14 pm

    Good job, Amanda!

  3. Don

    June 3, 2010 at 7:38 pm

    I would say there is only one correct interpretation, but it might include multiple meanings.

    Also, on 1 Cor 14:34-35, I think it is a quote from Corinthian Pharisaical legalists that Paul repudiates in v. 36.

    • Amanda Beattie

      June 5, 2010 at 5:19 am

      To your first point: I absolutely agree. OT Prophecy especially is full of near-far fulfillment–and I almost mentioned that as a qualifier, but for the sake of space and clarity, decided to let it go. πŸ™‚

      To your second point: Deborah pretty accurately represented my stance on that interpretation of 1Cor 14. I think it is highly plausible, but I prefer the angle that I do mainly because I’d rather risk erring on the side of caution. I don’t want to decide any parts of the Bible are “less Bible-y” than others unless there is very, very strong evidence to do so, with a good backing of scholarly consensus. I think the case for 1Cor 14:34-35 being a quote is a formidable one, but I just am not confident enough to put all my eggs in that basket. I feel much safer to assume it’s all straight from Paul, but then discover that even if it is, he can’t be talking about lady preachers.

      My $0.02–thanks for commenting!

  4. brianbeattie

    June 4, 2010 at 9:24 am

    Ok, so maybe someone who disagrees with you isn’t necessarily a Bible-hating heretic.

    But they’re still wrong. πŸ˜‰

    • Amanda Beattie

      June 5, 2010 at 5:45 am

      True. And it’s totally possible to tell another sincere believer, “I think you’re wrong”, in a spirit of gentleness and humility.

      I somehow don’t think it’s possible to do the same with the phrase, “Bible-hating heretic”. πŸ˜‰

      • brianbeattie

        June 8, 2010 at 1:00 pm

        I like “ding dong, you’re wrong!” followed by sticking out my tongue, displaying the old antler horns, and blowing a raspberry. I suppose that’s not very Sermon on the Mount, is it?

  5. Deborah

    June 4, 2010 at 11:15 am

    Hi, Don! Amanda addresses that possibility in her responses to the post “1 Corinthians 14 – ‘Let Your Women Keep Silent.'” While I would agree w/ the option she chooses (and w/ yours as a close second–I waffle as more evidence comes out), I think she is trying to be generous w/ those who are certain it means 1 or 2–a good reminder that they shouldn’t see us as heretics even as we extend the same grace. I.e., we can see their interpretations as “valid” attempts even if we are really convinced they are inferior responses to the text. Or perhaps Amanda will correct me on that; I just know she doesn’t get to chat very much back and forth here. Good to see you here, Don–Deb

  6. Don

    June 4, 2010 at 7:52 pm

    Right, I was just trying to add to her list of an option she might not know about.

    The main point is that there are options that faithful people can see differently on 1 Cor 14, so one thing I do is go up the latter to more basic principles, freedom, for example. How does this choice promote freedom for believers? If it does not, then I shy away from selecting it.

    I would only choose a non-egal interpretation if that was the ONLY one available. It turns out that this is the case in 1 Cor 11, but not in the way many think. There a man is prohibited from head covering/hair something while a woman has a choice. So it is clearly giving freedom to a woman that a man does not have, not fair!


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