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Pastor's Blog: Interpreting the Bible – Part 5

posted Apr 11, 2012, 10:30 AM by Matt Schmitz

In the 5th & final installment of this series, I would like to focus on Step 2 of the interpretive process, that being, discovering how a biblical text applies to us today.


There are two mistakes we commonly make in application:


1.      We neglect the historical & literary context of the passage. In other words, we attempt to apply a passage without first having discovered its original meaning.

2.      We attempt to apply a passage to situations that are not sufficiently analogous. Satan did this in his temptation of Christ. He (mis)used Psalm 91:11-12 to try to get Jesus to jump from the pinnacle of the temple. The two situations weren’t at all analogous.


Determine the original application(s) intended by the passage.


In this step, the interpreter asks questions such as: What did the biblical author of a given passage want his hearers or readers to do? What was the intended response to the text? Is there a command to obey, an example to follow or avoid, a promise to claim, a warning to head, a teaching to act on, or a truth to believe?


Occasionally, contemporary applications will be identical, or nearly-identical, to the originally intended responses. In such cases, application is fairly easy.


Evaluate the “timelessness” of the original application(s).


Admittedly, this can be difficult. Liberal interpreters often argue that unless something in the text specifically indicates that he passage teaches a timeless truth, we should assume it is “occasional,” that is, limited in its specific application to its original context. More conservative interpreters take the opposite view: unless specific textual data support a “culture bound” perspective, we should assume the originally intended application remains normative for all believers of all times.


Find appropriate applications that embody the broader principles.


Having found the principle(s) that led to the specific application “back then,” we seek to translate the principle(s) into appropriate and corresponding applications “now.” Thus, we may give a hearty handshake instead of a holy kiss; or we may set up inexpensive food banks instead of leaving our fields to be gleaned.


One last thing: Effective biblical interpretation must always be done in community. Whatever the passage, you are not the first person to wrestle with it and it’s important to know how the Church has generally interpreted the passage over its long history. New or novel interpretations are suspect.


Pastor Dan