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Parameters of Meaning – Rule 12: Never confuse application with hermeneutics and exegesis. It is always “explanation before application.” Making application a part of one’s interpretation is a subtle instance of putting an unrestrained ‘theological’ cart before an ‘exegetical’ horse.
Many modern hermeneutics writers tell us that we cannot omit application of a biblical text when we interpret it. I find that to be confusing. In fact, the more I think about it the more confusing it seems. Take the sentence “The NT is composed of 27 Books.” I know what it means, but am I applying it at the same time? When Jesus tells us to pray “Thy Kingdom come” how does He expect us to apply it? Mustn’t we first understand what “kingdom” means here? Again, when we are told to love our enemies, isn’t there a big difference between interpreting what that means and actually doing it?
Asking such questions alerts us to the meaming of application. It boils down to two things: the belief that “this text applies to me,” and the belief that “I need to act on this.” Since acting on something depends upon whether one believes a passage is directed at them the first belief is primary. That is to say, when we believe that a text of Scripture is aimed directly at us we are applying it to ourselves. So if we look again at the three sample sentences above it should be possible to show when application is happening.
- “The NT is composed of 26 Books.” – This sentence is an objective observation. It only applies to me to the extent that is describes a state of affairs, similar to “the cat sat on the mat” describes something that occurred. I believe both statements, yet neither one is directed at me. There is nothing to apply. I either believe it or disbelieve it.
- “Thy Kingdom come” – In this case I believe that Jesus was referring to the future Kingdom of God after He returns. That is something to pray for, therefore it applies to me. Yet such a kingdom applies to me in a certain way. I pray for it, but it is in my future. I do not participate in the kingdom now. So the type of kingdom to come is not decided by my application, it is decided by the interpretation of this along with other passages. Ergo, my hermeneutic should be separate from the application. If however, a person believes that the kingdom has come; that we in the church are the kingdom, then he believes in his present participation in it, because he has applied the kingdom in the present to himself. Why has he done this? Because the steps of hermenutics and exegesis have been fed by a theology which guides the interpretation and application.
- Finally, Jesus commands us to love our enemies. The application of Matthew 5:44 to ourselves is based on the universalistic tone of the Beatitudes and the fact that there are imperatives addressed to the Church that imply the same thing (e.g. Rom. 12:17-21; Gal. 6:10).
The reason why some readers of Scripture hold that application is part of interpretation is because they indulge in forms of theological hermeneutics. Theological hermeneutics is undergirded by the theory of preunderstanding and the postmodern critique of objectivity (e.g. a hermeneutics of suspicion). This appears to move the ground from under the interpreter’s feet. The question of which theology is to be granted a hermeneutical pass comes to the fore, and it is difficult to think of a way to resolve the issue without repairing to a non-theological, non-applicatory form of exegesis. If one is reading oneself into a passage (say in OT prophecy) while trying to understand it in context the exegesis will be skewed. This means that the interpreter should try to hold apart the application of a passage from the determination of what it is saying and to whom (it’s explanation).
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.