The Problem with Application

One of the terms I really dislike in Bible studies is “application.” There are “Application Study Bibles” which goes to show this view of Scripture is certainly mainstream. I understand and admire the motivation behind the idea: believers simply want to live by God’s word. In fact it is perfectly biblical not to be a forgetful hearer but a doer of the word. So there is nothing wrong with such desire in itself. My problem with the idea of finding an “application” is the view and approach to scripture that it entails.

When people talk about the “application” they mean whatever portion of Scripture they read, they should be able to draw out a general principle for Christian living. The believer then goes away from his study of the Bible trying to apply this principle to their own lives. Finding the application is the ultimate goal of reading Scripture. It therefore means if an application is not found then that time spent reading Scripture is not fully productive. This approach is considered to be the way Scripture is made relevant in the believer’s life but I think it is flawed on several points. Again, I do not have a problem with the intent but with the method and the assumptions behind it.

First of all, an application-oriented reading of the Bible necessarily misjudges what the Bible is. It assumes the Bible is a book of principles or rules. However, it just isn’t. You can certainly find principles and rules in it but the overwhelming majority of the Bible does not consist of them. Even the rules and principles you do find, are not all universal, timeless or necessarily applicable to the Christian. In fact most of the Bible, about two-thirds of it, consists of narrative and poetry, types of writing that are not designed to give rules or principles. One could conceive of the narratives as moral tales with the purpose of teaching ethical principles. While this is certainly possible and there are stories like that, anyone who is conversant with the biblical stories knows very few biblical characters are true moral examples. The most well-known. important or even heroic characters in the Bible tend to be just as flawed as we are.

The Bible is generally not written in a way that you can infer general principals from. Everyone who has spent a significant amount of time reading the Bible knows this, even strong believers in finding the application. There are some texts that simple resist yielding a principle for Christian living. Leviticus, genealogies and the imprecatory psalms are all examples of stuff that is just not applicable. There are countless other examples that the applicatory model is not sufficient to handle the entire canon. This indicates that there is so much more to the Bible.

Secondly, since the goal of application runs on a wrong assumption of what the Bible is, it results in a misreading of the Bible. It is not a book of principles so an application-oriented reading of it will necessarily filter and distort what the Bible actually wants to say to achieve that goal, ignoring the contexts, styles and goals of the different biblical texts. In other words the person is tuned to hear only certain things from Scripture but is not ready to hear the full range of what it has to say. The applicatory model has a very narrow set of expectations of what the Scriptures can do.

So how should a person read the Bible? As believers there are certain expectations we have of the text which are legitimate because the Bible is the sacred text of the Faith. However, Old Testament scholar John Walton’s maxim still applies: the Bible is written for us but not to us. This means recognizing that you are not the original audience of the biblical texts, so they were written in different contexts from yours and therefore they address different issues and concerns from yours. In other words believers have to realise the Bible is a foreign and strange compilation of texts. If we try to domesticate it, we immediately lose what it is actually saying. So the best approach to the Bible is simply letting it speak on it’s own terms. It is therefore incumbent on us to be open and listen to what it has to say. We simply cannot determine beforehand what it is going to say. Hearing Scripture on its own terms is especially important for the Christian because for us it is not only a collection of human writings, together it is the word of God. It is therefore about fully hearing what God has to say. Certainly God calls his people to live a certain way but we cannot fully do God’s word if we first do not fully hear God’s word.

If a person should not read the Bible for the application because that is not something the Bible unambiguously provides most of the time, then how does the Bible inform Christian living. When you go to the New Testament epistles, there are lot of instructions and exhortations for how Christians ought to behave. Yet even there it does not provide an exhaustive list of rules to follow in every circumstance of life for all time. Instead, it was more concerned with forming a Christian mindset such that in every circumstance the believer will wisely know how to think and act Christianly. So Paul says,

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.Romans 12:2 ESV

Also,

…we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. – Colossians 1:9-10 ESV

In their own way each book in the New Testament is geared towards the goal of forming the Christian mindset in believers. In other words the aim of the New Testament is discipleship, an all encompassing way of being in the Lord. This goes far beyond extracting applicatory principles from every passage of Scripture. It means encountering the living word of God and letting it penetrate every facet of your being. We need to let it be and let it act on us, in all its mystery and power.

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