Most of the posts in this series have focused on what in the Bible needs to be applied to us but the last leg in the journey of application requires us to move beyond “what” to “how”. Will our obedience to a command look the same or different from the original audience? Will applying the Bible in this instance look the same in every culture at every time? At the most basic level we need to answer the question, what will this look like in my life? We call this process contextualization.
When we apply the Bible, the best place to begin in contextualization is in recognizing if a possible application or command in scripture is Completely Permanent, Completely Temporary, Culturally Permanent or Principally permanent. Here are some basic definitions for these four categories:
- A command, situation or principal is Completely Permanent when it is repeatable, continuous and/or not revoked. They are often closely connected to the moral and theological center of the Bible. They are repeated elsewhere in scripture. Completely permanent means that it is directly and permanently transferrable to us. These commands are required of all people in all cultures at all times and will generally look the same in all cultures. An example would be You Shall not Murder (Exodus 20:13).
- A command, situation or principal is Completely Temporary when it refers to an individuals specific not repeatable circumstances. They are not closely connected to the moral and theological center of the Bible. They are not repeated elsewhere in scripture or are revoked at a later time. Completely Temporary means that it completely non-transferrable to us and are not required to be done by anyone else than the original audience. An example would be “Come to me before Winter” (2 Timothy 4:21).
- A command situation or principle is Culturally Permanent when our setting overlaps with the original audience in such a way that the principles will manifest in a similar way in our culture. Where our culture does not overlap only the principle is permanent and the expression will need to be culturally determined. An example of this may be headcoverings in cultures where that expresses submission (1 Corinthians 11:2-16).
- A command situation or principle is Principally Permanent if they pertain to cultural settings that have no overlap with our own but the principles are transferable. An example would be Pauls instructions for modesty in 1 Timothy 2:9.
One of the most important things to watch for as you ask these questions are supracultural indicators and cultural indicators. If the author roots his command deeply in the character of God or theological reasons or if his command transcends his own cultural biases that is a supracultural indicator, a sign that the command is not just to a specific audience but has permanency for all times and cultures. Remember that it may still need to be contextualized.
If the author is dealing with a application that involves a local custom or institution, or a audiences specific situation these may be cultural indicators that would limit the application to other times and audiences. Ask yourself if the command would be an issue today if it weren’t mentioned in the Bible.
Another helpful question is to try and measure the distance between the supracultural (a big theological reason for the command) and the cultural (the command itself). If the distance is great and the command he gives takes a form specific to his audience he may just be giving the cultural expression of a principally permanent command. In other words, it helps to observe the way Paul contextualizes the Bible for his audience.
This series has not provided a process for applying the Bible. Because of the complexities of human culture, as well as the Bible, most attempts at a process will be oversimplified and limiting. Instead I have tried make you a map that sketches out the major features involved in applying the Bible. The journey is one you will have to walk yourself (with the Holy Spirit, and the community of the church of course).
*Note* The four categories above and their definition I found in a book somewhere and I cannot currently remember which one. They’re not my concepts nor have I modified their definition and thus take no credit for their helpfulness.
As we have seen in our previous posts, the road from text to application is a bit longer than, “The Bible says it, so I must do it”. To apply the Bible a helpful distinction to make in our journey is the difference between what in the Bible is Descriptive and what is Prescriptive. Descriptive passages tell us what was done. Prescriptive passages tell us what we must do. Both of them have direct relevance for the Christian life, both must be applied, but the road to application for each one is different.
With prescriptive passages, passages that tell us what to do, the leap to application is often very simple. There is however a filter we must apply. In the words of Martin Luther,
“One must deal cleanly with the Scriptures. From the very beginning the word has come to us in various ways. It is not enough simply to look and see whether this is God’s word, whether God has said it; rather we must look and see to whom it has been spoken, whether it fits us.”
There will be more about this in the next post, but for now the importance is to recognize that the Bible DOES contain passages of scripture that clearly require a response from us. They are God’s commands and are authoritative over our life.
Much of the Bible however is not prescriptive but descriptive. Instead speaking to us about what must be done, it speaks of what has been done. This is an important distinction. Some people are swift to criticize the Bible for what it endorses when in actuality it is just recording what was done. You don’t condemn the local newspaper as immoral for reporting a murder. There is a difference between an investigative report and an editorial. This is especially important with the Bible because it is brutally honest about the people it contains. Unlike many other religious texts that seem to have successfully sterilized its heroes, the Bible recognizes the full reality of human sin; that all have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God, that none are righteous.
More importantly, The descriptive passages of the Bible are not written to give us examples of how to (or even how not to) live. Genesis isn’t (just) about Abraham’s life but God’s promises. Exodus isn’t (just) about the Beginning of the Nation of Israel it is about God the Redeemer. Ruth isn’t (just) a love story its about God providing a King. Acts isn’t a manual for the church it is a record of the Gospel going forth to the ends of the earth. Once again, this doesn’t mean the descriptive passages are not to be applied, remember 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says that ALL scripture is profitable for instruction in righteousness. It does mean however, that we filter the examples of scripture through the author’s intentions.
The examples that carry the most authority in the descriptive passages of the Bible are the ones that can be shown to be close to the intentions of the author. The book of Acts will serve as a good example. How do we know when Luke is just recording what the early church did or if he is presenting a model that we should (or even must) follow? We need to look for evidence that Luke’s intention in the passage is to provide a model.
More often than not, the application of descriptive passages focuses on us rightly responding to whom it reveals God to be. Because the Bible is ultimately God’s story and revelation, our application is found in living in light of who God is and what he’s done. Sometimes the human characters of scripture provide good examples of this response (Abraham) and bad (Gideon). Really all of this is just another way of saying that you must begin with what a passage means before you can discern what it means to you. Begin with what the Author is saying and then you can clearly and safely move to the response required.
If you are from an older church denomination or tradition you may have heard reference to the normative principle of worship or the regulative principle of worship. The terms define two approaches to what can and should happen at a public service of worship. The regulative principle states that only what is commanded, exemplified or deduced from Scripture is appropriate in worship. If you can’t find it in the Bible it cannot be done. Opposed to that understanding is the normative principle of worship which states that anything not prohibited by the scriptures (or contrary to the peace and unity of the church) is allowable in the Bible. If you can’t find it condemned in the Bible it may be done. Although these two principles are usually limited to public worship, the underlying ideas reflect two common approaches to how we apply the bible. The one side says I can only do what the Bible condones. The other says I can do anything the Bible doesn’t condemn. Not only are both of them flawed as ultimate principles of interpretation, but no one consistently keeps either one.
Those who take a regulative approach are often too swift to condemn something as “unbiblical” just because the word or object doesn’t appear in the Bible. The mistake here is to be looking for specifics instead of deeper categories. I find the ladder of abstraction to be a helpful concept here. The ladder of abstraction recognizes that any word or concept is part of a larger group of words or concepts that belong together. You may remember from middle school science learning about the scientific classification system (Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species). The principle is the same here. A term or concept in the Bible sometimes needs to be bumped up a rung on the ladder of abstraction so we can talk honestly about “what’s in the Bible”. No, Paul did not use the internet to promote the gospel, but he did use technology. No, the church in Acts did not meet in a “church building” but it did gather corporately in public spaces (Acts 2:46, 19:9). The second problem with a regulative principle approach is that it assumes the Bible takes a “boundary set” approach to life instead of a “center set” approach. The regulative approach sees the Bible as shaping the confines of acceptable Christian life whereas the Bible (although it does present walls) tends to focus instead on the center or goal of Christian life. Take for example Paul’s emphasis that love fulfills the law (Romans 13:8, 10; Galatians 5:14).
Those who take a normative approach are often too swift to claim the Bible’s silence on an issue. The Bible doesn’t have to deal with each and every behavior specifically to condemn or condone it. This misconception usually stems from confusion about the “laws” in the Bible. Many of the the laws of Israel for example are casuistic. They are easy to spot because they give an “if” “then” formula. These commands tell israelites what to do in particular circumstances. Unlike modern law codes that seek to use language that speaks to all possible circumstances in which the law can be applied (closing all loopholes), casuistic law provides examples of the application of a law to demonstrate how it should be applied in similar circumstances. Just because Moses says, “do not muzzle an OX while he’s treading the grain” doesn’t mean that it is OK to muzzle a horse while he does the same work. In fact, Paul discerns in this same command an underlying principle and applies it even to preachers working in the church (1 Corinthians 4:10-11). This approach can also be seen in the New testament in the vice lists of the apostle Paul. They are clearly not exhaustive because he adds language such as, “and things like these” (Gal. 5:21) Another mistake in the normative approach is to not recognize how often a positive command telling us what to do implies a bunch of aberrant behavior we are not to do. If I give you directions to my house and say, “Turn right at the big tree” you cannot arrive at the tree and say, “well he didn’t tell me I couldn’t go left!” What the Bible says is right by nature defines what is wrong.
These two approaches may seem worlds apart but they suffer from the exact same problem. The Bible is not an exhaustive rule book for what Christians can and cannot do. It does present principles that we must apply. It does give us examples and explanations to help give shape to those principles. It does operate authoritatively in our life and we must respond with obedience and submission. However to reduce this reality down to a lazy and overly simple rule of application will simply not do. When you question what you should and should not do, watch out for the traps presented here. Don’t excuse your sin because you’ve found a loophole in the law. Don’t be self righteous in your superficial sense of “being biblical”. Instead do the hard work of really thinking through what the Bible is saying and how you must respond.
Do you have to apply the Bible? If we believe the Bible to be God’s revelation to us then we must view it as having authoritative significance. We may be able to glean lessons and morals from other books, but we must approach the Bible as containing not just recommendations but commands. You can read Shakespeare and walk away unchanged without much consequence, but the Bible demands a response. The process of application, however, is not as simple as just opening up the book, reading a sentence and doing what it says.
To begin with, the Bible is more than just a list of rules for life. Although the Bible does contain lists of commands, half of the Old Testament, and half of the New Testament is Narrative; telling us what happened. Even the epistles, prophets and other writings that make up the rest of our Bible focus much more on the truth of who God is and what he has done than what we must do. The letters of Paul for instance generally break into two halves, the first half laying a doctrinal foundation and only the second half focusing on application. In tension to that however, Paul himself says that ALL Scripture is profitable for instruction in righteousness. (2 Timothy 3:16-17) How then do we translate the majority of the Bible into how we should live?
On top of recognizing what the Bible is we also need to recognize where it came from. The Bible was written over the course of a long span of time (none of them now) in many different places (none of them here) across diverse cultures (none of them ours). The distance between us and the authors and original audience of the Bible is often described as a river. Time, culture and place (not to mention language) flow between us and them and the process of application is the process of building a bridge from shore to shore. We must avoid two oversimplifications. The first is saying that the culture recorded in the Bible is always right; that each and every command is for us without modification, that we should dress, talk and live like those in the Bible because that is “Biblical”. To live this way is to try and camp on their side of the river. The other oversimplification is to explain away all the commandments of the Bible as being cultural and therefore subjective, optional and unauthoritative. To live this way is to try and camp on our side of the river. Neither one builds the necessary bridge that application involves.
Lastly we must recognize the significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Martin Luther famously said that Jesus did not come as a law giver but a law keeper. The New Testament tells us that Jesus came and fulfilled the Old Testament Law completely and that action changed our relationship with the law. We have a New Covenant in Jesus Christ and therefore are not subject to the Old Covenant. To illustrate, whereas nine of the Ten Commandments are re-stated in the New Testament as commands for us, “honor the Sabbath” is absent. Instead we are told that Jesus is our Sabbath. Jesus also abolished the dietary laws of the Jews as not being necessary because of what he accomplished. Christians are often accused (and sometimes guilty) of “cherry picking” what in the Bible we must do, and what we need not. Often this downplays the significance of what Jesus has done for us.
Now we can properly see the complexity of the issue of application. The Bible is more than, and in fact primarily not a list of rules. The Bible must be viewed and understood in the culture it was written in/to and then transferred into our culture. Jesus’ death drastically changed our relationship with the Old Testament and the Old Covenant. For the next few weeks we will discover both WHEN and HOW to go about the process of application. Here’s a preview of parts 2-4:
Part 2: Normative or Regulative
Part 3: Descriptive or Prescriptive
Part 4 Permanent or Temporary