Hermeneutics: A Well Built Car
We can think of hermeneutics in terms of a car. Observation is the frame, holding the entire thing together. Interpretation can be thought of as the engine because each nut and bolt must be precisely placed in order for the car to crank. And finally, Application can be thought of as the tires that allow it to move. All three things, the frame, the engine, and the tires must be present in order for it to be a fully functional, fully operational machine. Once it is all put together you can cruise, so to speak, up and down the highway. Without all of these parts working together in unison you might have a car, but not one that is able to get you very far.
For that reason, when I hear someone say, “What this verse means to me, is…” I kinda cringe.
Though I understand the meaning behind what is being said, it almost seems that the person is subjectively applying the Word of God. Whether we believe so or not, application does have boundaries. We cannot simply apply a verse any way we think or “feel” it should be applied. Misapplication has consequences, and the application process is just as important as the first two steps.
The Consequences of Misapplication
When I say that application has boundaries I mean that applying the text correctly must be done in similar fashion as the the previous two steps. The context of the passage will also guide us as to how to a particular text should be applied.
Take the ending of Mark 16, for example:
And [Jesus] said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
Should a person really try to handle poisonous snakes, or drink deadly poison? A friend of mine who used to live in Kentucky once told me that he knew a man that would venture out early on Sunday mornings to trap rattlesnakes. He would then sell those snakes to churches so that they could “apply” this verse during their worship services!
Is this what Jesus really had in mind? No. It is an example of misapplication, or as I like to call it, overstepping the boundaries of application.
The Boundaries of Application
Just like Observation and Interpretation, Application has steps. There things that must be in proper order before we can rightly apply a passage. Duvall and Hays gives us these three things in Grasping God’s Word (pp. 215-223).
- Understand how the Biblical audience would have understood the text. This is tied very closely to interpretation, Just like proper interpretation depends on how the audience would read and understand the author’s intent, so too, application hinges on this. You wouldn’t expect someone in the Ephesian church hearing Paul’s letter read to them and then thinking, “I wonder what he meant by, ‘Husbands, love your wives as Christ love the Church?'” When a husband heard that he knew exactly what Paul meant. There was no room or any other way to interpret or apply that meaning. In the same way, application must be bound by the original meaning.
- What are the similarities and differences between the Biblical audience/culture and us? This goes back to the Observation step as we recall any special nuances brought on by the culture of that era. It may be helpful to make a list of similarities and differences to ascertain how wide the river of culture is that we need to bridge in order to understand how to properly apply the text.
- What are the theological principles in the passage? Now we must find the theological principle(s) in the text. Several things should be present in order to find a true theological principle in the text:
• the theological principle should be timeless. In other words, it should transcend time and culture
• the theological principle should be derived from the text
• the theological principle must be the same as it was to the original audienceIf all these elements are present then you have found a true theological principle. If not, recheck you work and try again. Let’s find the theological principles in our text.
The first step is understanding how the biblical audience would have understood the message. Let’s use our text of 1Peter 1:1-9 to begin the application process.
Peter’s original audience would have understood the epistle in the context of affliction. Trials, rejoicing in trials, and persevering in faith are all major themes throughout the book. They would have understood Peter’s metaphor of being tried by fire and would have taken comfort knowing, that in the midst of the fire, the Father was the master Smith, purifying them of all impurities, making them ready for their final destination––Heaven.
The next step is finding similarities and differences between the biblical audience and us. Below is list of some things I have come up with. These are just examples and not necessarily set in stone.
- We are believers
- We will experience trials of varying types
- Our trials are only temporary
- God has ordained our trials for our purification
- We have a future hope
- We have not been driven from our homes (not yet)
- We are not under any major persecution
- We are not living in the 1st century (a given)
- We are not suffering for doing good (perhaps?)
The last step is finding the theological truths in the passage. Remember the guidelines: it must be timeless, it must be derived from the text, it must have the same meaning as it did to the original audience.
Okay, with that in mind let’s dig for some theology!
- We have been elected (or chosen) by God to be redeemed and sanctified.
- God is to be praised for granting us a new birth
- God has given believers an everlasting inheritance
- All believers will undergo trials of varying kinds
- Trials are given by God to test and purify our faith
- Trials are only temporary, but necessary for our sanctification
- Believers should trust in God and rejoice, though we do not yet see Jesus
- The final outcome of our belief will be eternal joy in the presence of Christ
Now, we must go through each of our principles and see if all of them meet the criteria from our previous list. If they are timeless, derived from the text itself, and have the same meaning as the original audience then we have truly found the theological principles. All of our listed principles do meet this criteria, and we can now move to the final step in application.
Our last step of application involves finding a contemporary situation and applying, as specifically as possible the principle(s) from our text.
A brief example may be something like:
I will praise God despite the current [named trial] I am undergoing. God is purifying me through this and I will allow Him to work it completely through to purify my faith as gold. I know it is only temporary because He has stated in this text that it will only be “for a little while.” I will choose to trust and continue believing even though I cannot physically see Him or His Son or His Spirit within me. Thank you, Lord for the assurance that you will not forsake me, but will end all of earth’s trials with the salvation of my soul.
You may think this sounds a little generic, but God’s Word is powerful and writing it down is a useful tool. Later, we can look back at the words we wrote and praise God all the more as we may be undergoing a new trial. These things can really strengthen our faith in God as we recall to mind through our written words how God was previously faithful in bringing us through our current situations. Of course, as we study other parts of the Bible we will apply different passages in different ways. I encourage you to begin to keep a journal of sorts as you apply God’s Word to your life, If not in written form at least in electronic form.
This concludes our journey through the hermeneutical process. I truly pray that you have been encouraged to study God’s Word on your own. After all, that is the goal of this site. Feel free to browse the rest of the site and take advantage of all the helps on here. God bless you as you walk in His ways and will.