Application and the Authority of Scripture

One of the areas of study that I find absolutely fascinating is what I call “hermeneutics of application.” Hermeneutics is the science of interpretation; it’s the discipline of study related to the methodology and principles of interpretation. So when I say, “hermeneutics of application” I mean the study of how one properly moves from interpretation of the text to application of the text.

Hence, when I read this quote many years ago, I’ve never been able to forget it:

Every time we derive an interpretation and application from a text that is not consistent with its contextual sense—no matter how biblical the truth itself may be–we rob that text of the meaning and application that God intended when He gave it. In the process, we rob ourselves and others of that text’s truth from God. … Worst of all, we rob God of His voice in that verse. – Layton Talbert, unknown source.

An Illustration

Let me begin with an illustration that will hopefully shed more light than confusion:

You will note that many creeds and doctrinal statements state that Scripture is inspired in its original autographs or its original writings. For example, the somewhat recent “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy” states,

WE AFFIRM  that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy.[1]

In other words, they rightly affirm that Scripture’s original text is inspired–the very Word of God through the use of human authors. Therefore, as a logical consequence they rightly conclude,

We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God [inspired] to the extent that they faithfully represent the original.

In other words, all translations and manuscripts are inspired in a derivative sense; they are inspired as much as they adhere to the original inspired writing. A medieval manuscript of John’s Gospel is not inspired. A given English translation is not inspired. In fact, these may be filled with human errors (and surely are). But the original text of Scripture is inspired; and as much as a manuscript or translation adheres to this original text of God’s Word, which is inspired, it can rightly be called inspired (in this derivative sense).

The Correlation

This derivative relationship between the inspiration of the original text and its manuscripts and translations parallels the derivative relationship between the authority of God’s Word and the authority of our application of God’s Word. Let me explain.

God’s Word is absolutely authoritative. Its author is divine, perfect, and all-knowing. Therefore, His word is absolutely true in every respect. It is authoritative as the standard of truth. But God is also the Creator, our Creator; He owns us. We all owe God our existence. And therefore, we are all responsible to Him; He is our judge. Therefore, in this additional sense, God’s word is authoritative in that it is binding upon us. It’s from the very mouth of the one to whom we are accountable. So, Scripture is absolutely authoritative.

Therefore, we might logically conclude that our applications of Scripture are authoritative in a derivative sense–they are as authoritative as much as they adhere to what God’s authoritative Word is commanding or implies practically (i.e., application). Therefore, if our applications are not grounded in the authoritative Word of God, than our applications themselves are not authoritative.

Application

Now, let me make it clear. I don’t think that this principle rules out topical sermons. I don’t think that just because a sermon is not working through a text as a whole and solely preaching the original authorial intent that it’s necessarily baseless regarding Scriptural authority.

I also don’t think that this principle rules out reading and preaching scripture canonically, through the lens of Biblical theology. I don’t think that just because this involves reading scripture in a way that may (it’s debated) go beyond the authorial intent of the original human authors (i.e., sensus plenior) that it is necessarily baseless regarding Scriptural authority. This is still interpreting in content, just an additional broader canonical context.

I think you can both preach topical messages and preach canonically and still show integrity to the authorial intent of Scripture passages.[2] These things are not mutually exclusive. (So, maybe this is where I think the original quote from Talbert needs to be qualified some.) But if our applications are not born out of God’s truth as revealed in His word (where the “locus of authority” lies), than our applications are not authoritative.

This means that when we preach books like 1 and 2 Samuel, we don’t simply preach “Be less like Saul” or “Be more like David.” That’s absolute moralism. Such applications are not rooted in the authorial intent of scripture. They don’t take into consideration why these books as a whole were written and how a specific passage fits into that whole (e.g., noting things like the literary structure of the book) so as to identify the author’s purpose in including a specific passage in the book. Further, this sort of moralistic application doesn’t take into consideration the ultimate divine purpose for including these passages and these books in the canon, which ultimately points to Christ.

In other words, one can by and large ignore the authorial (both divine and human) intent and purpose for including a passage in scripture at all, in a given book, or in the canon as a whole when I applying it in ways like, “Be less like Saul.” If so, what’s the difference between this and simply playing an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond and concluding at the end, “Be less like Raymond”? … I mean really, what’s the difference? Just because you’ve drawn it out of the Bible (e.g., “Be less like Saul”) does not mean it’s backed by God’s authoritative stamp–“Thus saith the Lord.”

Notes

[1] Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, Article X.

[2] In fact, reading Scripture canonically is essential to reading Scripture according the authorial intent of the divine author. See my post Are “Authorial Intent” and “Christ-Centered” Mutually Exclusive?

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