I hiked a trail in the Smoky Mountains with some friends last spring. I was refreshed by the crisp air, mountain peaks, and conversation. All the fresh mountain air I’d inhaled came out in a single gasp, however, when we approached a 20-foot bridge that crosses a ravine.
The term bridge may overstate the reality—a park ranger, with a devilish grin in place, positioned what looked like a long railroad tie across the canyon, strung a couple of wires to function as handrails, and invited weekend hikers to test their mettle.
I prefer to leave my mettle untested, at least when it concerns heights. Nevertheless, I grasped the wires with trembling hands and shuffled my numb feet across the beam, crossing the bridge inch by inch. Then I turned to warn my friends to move carefully, worried their fear might paralyze them and we’d have to turn back. When I turned, however, I found them skipping, twirling, even tap dancing across the rugged plank.
Some hikers cross bridges with crippling trepidation, others with reckless disregard. The best approach lies between the extremes. Seasoned hikers cross bridges with careful confidence.
Bible interpreters cross a bridge they label application. They anchor their study in the ancient world—evaluating historical and cultural contexts, analyzing biblical languages, and discerning the original authors’ intentions. Then they cross the span of millennia to demonstrate the Bible’s relevance to the contemporary world, explaining how the ancient, Spirit-inspired Scriptures should influence our perspectives and behaviors today.
Some interpreters cross the application bridge with crippling trepidation, so fearful of leaving the ancient world that they arrive on the contemporary side sapped of power and focus, if they arrive at all. Others race recklessly across, disregarding biblical integrity along the way and, too often, falling into the ravine of application heresy.
How can Bible interpreters cross the application bridge in a manner that both maintains biblical integrity and demonstrates the Scriptures’ piercing relevance for today? Adhering to a few principles can enable believers to apply biblical passages with careful confidence.
We commit application heresy when we put words into God’s mouth that he neither said nor intended—when we attach a “thus saith the Lord” to a promise or requirement about which God hasn’t said “thus.”
We misapply when we promise more than Scripture promises. The Bible brims with assurances from our faithful God. Too often, though, we add to the list. A small group might study the narrative of Peter’s joining Jesus to walk on water. “If we’ll only get out of the boat and take big risks,” someone pronounces, “God will do miracles for us, too.” Meanwhile, another group member sits silently, contemplating a risky business venture. If we take risks, will God work miracles? Maybe. But the passage makes no such promise. Therefore, neither should we.
Furthermore, we misapply when we require more than Scripture requires. Some feel compelled to turn every Scripture into a list of do’s and don’ts. One teacher, for example, taught from Exodus 28 about Aaron’s priestly attire. He then closed his Bible and said, “This is how we know that God wants us to dress up when we come to church.” Believers might debate the pros and cons of dressing up for church. To issue that command based on Exodus 28, however, attaches a requirement to the text that God never sanctioned.
The application heresies described above usually find their roots in one of three faulty habits of Bible interpretation.
First, misapplication may grow from patternism—treating biblical descriptions as biblical commands. Though Scripture contains numerous principles and commands, it often simply describes events as they happened, with no indication God intends all believers to follow the patterns described.
For example, Gideon asked God to guide him in a difficult decision by drenching a fleece with dew one morning and then leaving it dry the next. Nowhere does the text indicate, however, that God intends believers today (or even that he intended believers then) to seek his guidance with such tests. To say God wants us to test him in this way—to “put out a fleece” of our own—constitutes patternism.
Second, misapplication may grow from proof-texting—beginning with an application we want to make, then rummaging through the Bible for passages that support our preconceived application. Rather than interpreting each text carefully, we rip them from their contexts and pile them on top of one another to support the promise or command we want to attribute to God.
If a person wanted to say, for example, “God promises to make you wealthy,” that person could string together a few assorted passages from Scripture—proof texts—to build an illegitimate argument.
Third, misapplication may grow from normalizing—failing to recognize differences in covenants, cultures, and circumstances. An interpreter might normalize by applying an old covenant promise to the contemporary world without recognizing the intervening new covenant (such as applying a promise God made to Old Testament Israel to today’s America).
Additionally, when working with a New Testament text, an interpreter might normalize by failing to recognize particular cultural or historical circumstances that gave rise to a command (perhaps requiring contemporary believers to wash one another’s feet, or prohibiting women from braiding their hair).
Finally, an interpreter might normalize by assuming every biblical truth will apply in the same way to all contemporary believers, despite their differing circumstances (such as stating that any believer who puts a parent in a nursing home sins against the command to “honor your father and mother,” regardless of circumstances).
Applying with Biblical Integrity
In light of these dangers, how can we apply biblical truth with integrity? How might we cross the application bridge without falling to heresy? We can navigate the bridge that once loomed long and frightening by taking three careful, confident steps.
1. What does the text teach?
Because correct application grows from careful interpretation, the faithful reader begins not by asking, “How does this text apply?” but by asking, “What does this text teach? What did God demonstrate about himself, his people, and his world through these verses?” A careful observation of the passage’s context and language will reveal a truth, concept, or idea that God taught first to the passage’s original audience and then to believers today.
For example, a study of Philippians 2:1-11 might reveal this truth: Jesus provided the definitive example of humility through his incarnation and crucifixion.
2. What is the text’s purpose?
God intends biblical texts to teach his truths. He also intends for these truths to accomplish some purpose in readers. After identifying what truth a passage teaches, therefore, interpreters should ask what God intends that truth to accomplish. Does he expect this text to send readers to their knees in repentance, or to the heights of worship? Does God intend this passage to equip believers to perform some ministry, or to instill in them a sense of hope? Stated as specifically as possible, for what purpose did God include this truth in the Bible?
To continue the previous example, an interpreter might conclude that God intends Philippians 2:1-11 to inspire believers to follow Christ’s example of humility by sacrificing their own ambitions and interests for the sake of others.
3. What might we think, feel, or do differently if the text accomplished its purpose in us?
A text’s application grows out of its purpose. Interpreters ask what believers today might think, feel, or do differently if the passage accomplished its purpose in them. The answer typically comes in the form of imagined possibilities rather than absolute lists—dreaming of various ways the passage might apply to contemporary believers.
If Philippians 2:1-11 accomplished its purpose in believers today, to complete the example, believers might relieve their spouses of more parenting duties at home, hold their tongues when they’re tempted to wag them about their own accomplishments, or sacrifice their vacation time—or perhaps their careers—to serve the poor.
The application bridge—though it offers exhilarating adventure—sways and creaks, tempting dangerous falls to heresy. Rather than cowering with trepidation, however, or racing recklessly across, the faithful Bible interpreter can use the principles described above to cross the bridge with careful confidence, allowing the Bible to penetrate believers’ hearts and lives.
Daniel Overdorf is professor of preaching at Johnson University, Knoxville, Tennessee. He is also author of Applying the Sermon: How to Balance Biblical Integrity and Cultural Relevance (Kregel, 2009).