Three Answers to the Application Question

I am reading Putting the Truth to Work: The Theory and Practice of Biblical Application by Dan Doriani. After just the introduction and first chapter, I am impressed. He has put his finger on questions I have asked; he then asked and answered them better than I ever could.

Here’s a summary of one of his key sections. He outlines three views on whether a theory of application–the subject of his book–is truly necessary.

View 1. Application is Subjective, Expressing Our Spirituality

This view assumes that application comes immediately from the preacher’s heart. When he realizes that the text of Scripture applies to him or his congregation, he repeats it to others. He listens for the voice of the Spirit.

“This approach,” Doriani says, “rightly gives prominence to the Master’s voice in Bible interpretation. Too much technique can crowd God out of the study.” We don’t want to have a theory which removes the necessity for the illumination of the Spirit.

But this approach forgets that uncontrolled meditation has few safeguards. Those who meditate hear many voices, not all of them divine. Recent readings and events weigh heavily. Worse, our hearts deceive us. Sinful desires and petty grudges contaminate our meditations. We are too blind to our ego, too ignorant of others’ needs, too prone to legalism, too dedicated to our own agendas to justify trusting our subjective impulses. The prowling mind can find evidence in almost every passage that what it wants, God ordains. (p.28)

View 2. Application Is Problematic, Encouraging Legalism

This view opposes application on the grounds that sanctification is the Spirit’s work. Making application is making extrabiblical rules for people to follow. “To define rules and set priorities (can one lie to save a life?) is to enter the Pharisees’ world and to betray Christian freedom for a code.” Doriani is perceptive again:

This view rightly fingers the danger of legalistic uses of Scripture. It knows that application must lead to a relationship with God, not with a legal code. It knows that eloquent talk can persuade people to change their behavior, but no human can change the heart. But it suffers from an unnecessarily negative view of the law [Rom 7:12] and forgets that it takes work to apply biblical principles to new issues, such as technology-driven change or life in blended families. Further, few speakers truly leave application to God. If they spurn preparation, they will probably fall back on clichés and shirk the difficult questions. (p.29)

View 3. Application Is a Gift and an Art, yet It Encourages Theory

View 3 is always the best in any good book, avoiding the Scylla of view 1 and the Charybdis of that awful view 2. Doriani does not disappoint. He shows that views 1 and 2 aren’t awful; they’re included in the right view. Application is both an art and a science. We need to think it through even if some people do it well without being able to say why.

I starred the first paragraph in this section; this is the kind of wisdom that comes from someone who knows how to view Scripture as a theological whole:

Application is certainly a divine gift, but not all divine gifts are unmediated. We pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” yet we are also commanded to work for it (Matt. 6:11; Prov. 6:6-11; 28:19; 2 Thess.3:6-12). Similarly, we both pray for wisdom and search it out (Prov. 2:1-8; James 1:5; 3:13). So too with application. It is a gift when God makes words strike their targets, yet he takes our words for his arrows. (p.29)

The “compatibilism” which honors both God’s claims to control everything (Isa 46:8-11) and the importance of man’s responsibility to choose goes to the heart of all our theologizing and theorizing. God uses means, and our choices to cooperate (or not) with His plan are significant.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

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