I ended my previous post with these words:
In summary, sharp distinctions between meaning and application are difficult to make at best. I fear that the making of such distinctions comes out of a desire to seek ‘scientific objectivity’ in interpretation. Such objectivity is impossible. And even if it is possible (and I don’t think it is), it is still undesirable. My argument is that objective detachment in biblical interpretation is impossible and/or undesirable for at least two reasons: 1)Interpretation (even in determining the original context of portions of Scripture) necessarily involves asking questions of the text, and questions cannot be neutral and 2) the best biblical interpretation is also the most applicable and vice versa (the worst is the least applicable).
I will now pursue those two points.
First, interpretation necessarily involves asking questions of the text of Scripture, and questions cannot be neutral. Back when I was blogging through Technopoly, by Neil Postman, I wrote a post entitled Questions Cannot Be Neutral. I referenced this quote by Postman:
A question, even of the simplest kind, is not and can never be unbiased…My purpose is to say that the structure of any question is as devoid of neutrality as its content. The form of a question may ease our way or pose obstacles. Or, when even slightly altered, it may generate antithetical answers, as in the case of the two priests who, being unsure if it was permissible to smoke and pray at the same time wrote to the Pope for a definitive answer. One priest phrased the question ‘Is it permissible to smoke while praying?’ and was told it is not, since prayer should be the focus of one’s whole attention; the other priest asked if it is permissible to pray while smoking and was told that it is, since it is always appropriate to pray (pp. 125-126).
From there, I made this observation:
First, in my thinking, I applied this quote to the study of the Scriptures. As a student of the Bible, and as a preacher, I think this is sound wisdom for dealing with the Scriptures. Martyn Lloyd-Jones makes the point in Preaching and Preachers that a student of the Scriptures must constantly be asking questions of the text if he is to find answers; and the kind of questions we ask will largely determine the answers that we receive. John Frame makes much the same point in The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (and in his general points about Perspectivalism; if you don’t know what it is then by all means click the link). He argues, and he is absolutely right, that we cannot come to the Scriptures, or any book for that matter, as blank slates. We come with all sorts of baggage, which leads us to ask certain kinds of questions and seek certain kinds of answers. What this means practically is that we have to train ourselves to ask the right sorts of questions.
Someone may contend that our goal is to make our questions as ‘objective’ as possible. This would lead back to the road of interpreter as historical exegete looking primarily for the illusive ‘original meaning’ of the text. But there’s a problem with this. Perfect objectivity is a myth of Scientism. As long as we are personal beings with personal histories, personal presuppositions, and personal beliefs, we will never achieve the gnostic idea of setting those things aside for detached objectivity. Michael Polanyi dealt with this question at great length in more than one book. For instance, in Personal Knowledge, he writes,
When we accept a certain set of pre-suppositions and use them as our interpretative framework, we may be said to dwell in them as we do in our body…They are not asserted and cannot be asserted, for assertion can be made only within a framework with which we have identified ourselves for the time being; as they are themselves our ultimate framework, they are essentially inarticulable (p. 60).
Postman says that questions cannot be neutral. Polanyi says that the reason questions cannot be neutral is that the people who ask them cannot be neutral – they have inarticulate presuppositions that they are likely not aware of, not to mention overt presuppositions that they are aware of. This means, for our discussion, that the idea of biblical interpreter as detached exegete is a myth. And that’s a good thing.
Let me share an anecdote. A few years ago I took several classes on homiletics (preaching). During a discussion on the subject of ‘application,’ one of the students made this point to our professor: ‘What if there is no application of the passage? I just don’t see any application in the passage I’ve been working on, so why should I worry about it?’ I raised my hand an responded, ‘But you are a person, and you are preaching to people! You are not preaching in a vacuum!’ What followed was the chirping of crickets for about 20 seconds. It seems obvious enough. We should not be afraid to ask our ‘modern’ questions of the sacred text. How does this affect me? How does it affect my church? How does it affect my society?
‘Rabbi’ John Duncan once wrote of Jonathan Edwards that his ‘doctrine is all application, and his application is all doctrine.’ This is an interesting quote for a couple of reasons. First, Edwards is famous for the habitual structure of his sermons. He nearly always follows the same pattern: exegesis, statement of the main doctrine, application. He studied a text to find a primary teaching. After demonstrating that teaching in the text, he would go on to apply it to his congregation. Thus his sermons were divided into two main parts: doctrine and application. But, says Duncan, his ‘doctrine is all application, and his application is all doctrine.’ If you’ve read much of Edwards, you likely understand what Duncan means. He was never interested in detached exegesis, exposition, or theology. He was always aiming the truth right at you.
Doctrine cannot be expounded in a vacuum. The incarnation of Christ is the ultimate proof that doctrine must touch the ground and get dirty. This is what separates theology from so much philosophy. Christians are not primarily concerned with theoretical questions. When we ask questions, we are looking for answers that apply to actual lives lived in this actual world. This is why a Puritan father like William Perkins defined theology as “the science of living blessedly forever,” and why his disciple Williams Ames called theology “the doctrine or teaching of living to God.” This is why, during the Reformation, John Calvin claimed, as the central thesis of Book I of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, that the knowledge of God and the knowledge of man are inseparable if we are to properly live the Christian life. He writes,
Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other.
And this is why, centuries before, Francis of Assisi (and Thomas Aquinas) were so concerned with the things of this world:
St. Francis was becoming more like Christ, and not merely more like Buddha, when he considered the lilies of the field or the fowls of the air; and St. Thomas was becoming more of a Christian, and not merely more of an Aristotelian, when he insisted that God and the image of God had come in contact through matter with a material world. These saints were, in the most exact sense of the term, Humanists; because they were insisting on the immense importance of the human being in the theological scheme of things. But they were not Humanists marching along a path of progress that leads to Modernism and general scepticism; for in their very Humanism they were affirming a dogma now often regarded as the most superstitious Superhumanism. They were strengthening that staggering doctrine of Incarnation, which sceptics find it hardest to believe (G.K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas, pp. 16-17).
All of these men (though Edwards was on the edge) lived before the days of the popularization of so-called Scientific-detachment. And all of these men, in many ways, were better exegetes and theologians than what the church is producing today.
Let me return for a moment to Calvin’s words (quoted above). What he says of knowledge in general is true of knowledge in particular. If we take his argument that knowledge of God and knowledge of self are intimately related, to the point that we can’t tell where one stops and the other starts, and apply it to the study of individual passages of the Bible, what we might get is this: I cannot try to take off my own skin as I study the Bible. I cannot be detached. To detach myself from me is to detach myself from God. This does not mean that I am God. But it does mean that I am a Christian, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, living in a particular place at a particular time. And this means that, not only can I not know God as though he or I were in a vacuum, I cannot know him as someone living in a different place or different time. True theology and exegesis is personal and timely.
I have a pet peeve about using the word ‘timeless.’ God’s truths are not timeless. They transcend time; they are for all time; but they are not timeless. Rather, they are always timely. The incarnation is always true, no matter the age. But that truth is timely. It has ramifications for us (in the Muddle Ages) that may not be the same as the ramifications for someone who lived in the Middle Ages. This does not mean that the truth has changed. It simply means that the truth reaches out and fills up the corners of whatever time it finds itself.
Let me lay out a few ramifications of this line of thought. First, if what we have said is true, then you must not be afraid to bring your whole self to your reading of the Scripture. You do not need to ‘get out of the way.’ I’ve heard this said of preachers: they need to get out of the way and let the Bible speak. If God wanted to get us out of the way he has means of accomplishing that. He calls particular men, with particular personalities, and particular strengths and weaknesses to speak to particular generations. Let them be faithful to the Scriptures, but let them speak. Bring your baggage to your Bible study. Don’t be afraid to let God’s Word speak to you as a particular person in a particular time. Do not be content to read Scripture as a textbook, or history book. Come to it expecting every word to shake up your world. Second, do not sit in authority over the Scriptures, but do allow the Scriptures to sit in authority over you. Let the Bible have its way with you – with you, in your present context. Don’t be so concerned with the context of a given book of the Bible that you do not allow it to speak to your context.
That is the great takeaway from this subject. If your Bible study does not touch down into your world, then you are not only missing applications, you are actually missing the very meaning of Scripture. And if your study is leading you to miss how the Scriptures apply to your given situation, then you are liable, in the future, to be asked, “Have you not read?…” Of course your read it, but you didn’t live it. Of course you knew the truth, but you didn’t allow it to touch down and get dirty, as it was always meant to be.
I will conclude this series with a post about the application of Law and Gospel.