Building a Bridge Between “Meaning” and “Application”
When I was a Moody student, I took two preaching courses. The first, basically an intro to the expository preaching philosophy via the NT epistles, was titled Communication of Biblical Truth. I recall the entire process that we had to go through in preparing our sermons for class. It included filling out an exegetical work sheet, a manuscript, and a preaching outline. I have found the organization of this process so helpful that I still utilize it to this day in preparing sermons and youth lessons (shout out to Pastor/Professor David Giese whose commitment to expository preaching was infectious).
In the outline, there are various abbreviations that help the preacher organize his thoughts and understand exactly where he is in the sermon (here is, as an example, one of my sermon outlines from the Moody course... go easy on me). Among these were EX for exegesis and ILL for illustration. Another of these was APP for application.
This made good sense to me. And yet, over the years I've become more and more uncomfortable with such a distinction between exegesis (the meaning) and application. Is such a distinction warranted?
A Brief Excursis on Redemptive-Historical Preaching
There is by no means a short list of hermeneutical systems. That is, philosophy and methodology of biblical interpretation. However, the exemplary hermeneutic is one method that has won the day of many pulpits in the modern evangelical world. In employing an exemplary hermeneutic, the reader sees characters of a pericope as exemplars (whether positively or negatively) for the reader.
This is a hermeneutic warranted by the biblical text as there are occasions where the reader is called to see and live in light of a person's example (Heb 11, Rom 15:3, 2 Thess 3:5). Yet it is often abused and used as a fast-lane route to pop out an imperative-oritented application. Case-in-point, the pericope of David and Goliath in 1 Sam 17. Using the exemplary hermeneutic, a preacher might say, "David was strong and courageous with his enemy... be strong and courageous with your enemies." Though that may not be an improper conclusion per se, it is most definitely on the periphery of the text's sense.
Rather, I would argue, the more central sense of such a text is seen within the redemptive-historical (henceforth R-H) hermeneutic. In other words, the first question is not "should I be like David?" but rather, "what does this tell me about God's redemptive plan and where does this text lie in the storyline of that plan?". This is not to say that the questions that exemplary hermeneutics asks are altogether bad. In fact, very often the text is being very straightforward for you to be/not be like an individual (see my post on Paul's imitation doctrine).
This is found emphasized (often to a fault) in exemplary hermeneutics because they want to apply God's word. In fact, there are some who pit R-H preaching against application. I have met some pastors who don't think it's their responsibility to include application in sermons which is a whole different matter for another post. I also don't want to use this post as a proof for R-H hermeneutics. Rather, I want to ask... what if we sense a problem because we are approaching biblical application incorrectly in the first place?
Removing "Application" From Our Vocabulary
Before I go any further, I need to set the record straight, I wholeheartedly agree with the importance of biblical application. However, as I mentioned at the beginning, I wonder if setting a distinction between meaning and application is improper. Naturally the question would be... what sort of hermeneutic does the Bible provide for us? As I mentioned, there are times where an exemplary hermeneutic is given but this is altogether subservient to the R-H hermeneutic. But in the matter of meaning vs application, do we have any guidance from Scripture itself?
It turns out we do... very many texts provide such guidance! A Pauline list of such instances would include texts like 1 Cor 5:13 wherein he considers church discipline leading to convenantal separation as part of the meaning of Deut 13:5. However, perhaps my favorite text that provides this guidance that what Paul's readers would have called application (assuming modern evangelical standards), Paul understood as meaning is 1 Tim 5:17-18.
Pastors Are Oxen?
Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.”
1 Tim 5:17-18 (ESV)
Paul's argument in 1 Tim 5:17-18 is that the elders who labor particularly in preaching and teaching (namely, pastors) should be honored and compensated according to their labor. However, the means by which he argues this case seem completely out of left field. He cites Deut 25:4 which in the most straightforward sense, means be nice to animals. And yet Paul, seeing no need to explain his hermeneutical connection, considers it to mean that the laboring pastor is due his compensation. Thus, as far as Paul is concerned, God had pastors in mind when he purposed and inspired the text of a Deut 25:4 and thus its meaning for pastors is not merely the application of the text... it's part of the meaning!
This diagram is adapted from Robert Cara’s Hermeneutics course at RTS. Click the image to view the online lectures.
He explains this straightforwardly in 1 Cor 10:11 wherein Paul, amid his reminding of the grumbling Israelite wanderers and the faithful Rock of Exodus, says that "these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on
whom the end of the ages has come". God had the Corinthians in mind when he purposed the text of Exodus. Therefore, their considering God as faithful (1 Cor 10:12) and fleeing from idolatry (1 Cor 10:14) is part of the meaning which God purposed. If the Corinthians were to properly read and understand the God-purposed original meaning of those Exodus texts, they needed to discern the modern meaning which God also purposed.
This is a Big Deal
It may sound like splitting hairs. On one hand I am very serious about applying the Bible and on the other hand I poke at the language of "application" altogether. But this is because there is no language of meaning vs application in the purposing of Scripure. Rather, there is original meaning and modern meaning. This radically changes how we approach our Bible reading and preaching. Just like the Corinthians weren't doing their due diligence by connecting to the modern meaning, so do preachers not do their due diligence by considering the modern meaning.
This does not mean we all get a free pass to determine what a text means. This is considered subjectivist hermeneutics. You have your modern meaning and I have mine and they're completely and utterly disconnected... not at all! There must necessarily be an organic connection between the original meaning and modern meaning. This is, as WCF 1.6 calls, the "good and necessary consequence". We must acknowledge with this, as Richard Pratt says in He Gave Us Stories, the only factor in Bible reading that changes is not God and it isn't the text... it's us. We change and yet God's unchanging Word penetrates us fresh and anew each day, each year, each generation.