Across the Spectrum
From Gospel Translations
I was sitting in a small, non-denominational church in rural Mississippi. The pastor was speaking from Genesis 7, explaining the story of Noah’s ark. “Noah’s ark is symbolic of salvation,” he said. “It shows that God acts to sovereignly save men, but uses the means of human efforts to accomplish this.” Fine so far, I thought. “Notice that the design of the ark teaches us something critical about salvation. God leads people into it, He shuts the one door tightly, but you see that window in the top of the ark, the one that Noah let the dove fly out of? Well, those people could have, at any time, climbed out that window.” I shuddered. He continued, “The same is true with salvation. God leaves a window you can climb out if you want to.”
This pastor avoided serious error until it came to applying the meaning of the text to the original audience to modern man; he had no idea how to do that. He took the easy way by allegorizing the passage, giving arbitrary meaning to the incidental details of the narrative.
But are there any rules to applying the message of the Bible to modern man? Is application an arcane art, to be mastered only by a few? When we start asking these kinds of questions, we run smack into the thorniest problem in application, what some have called the challenge of epochal adjustment.
Time is Not on Our Side
The human authors of Scripture wrote as real people, to real people, in the midst of a real world. The study of what the author meant to communicate to his original audience is what we call interpretation. But after we have understood the writer, the contents of the book, and the audience, we must make epochal adjustments —move the essential, timeless truths from the past into our present. There are several factors to take into account as we do this, with one of the most significant being the genre of the passage.
A Matter of Genre
There are different kinds of literature in the Bible. Each type has special applicational demands. For instance, you cannot apply proverbs in the same way you do epistles and other straightforward didactic passages. This is seen clearly in Proverbs 26:4–5, which says, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.” If this is taken as a direct command, then we are left with a startling contradiction in the Bible. Seemingly knowing the questions that would be raised, verse 7 says, “Like the legs of the lame that hang limp is a proverb in the mouth of fools.” How should we apply these proverbs so we do not look like fools?
The answer lies in understanding the restrictions of the genre. Proverbs seem to have been used as a way of teaching the appropriate application of knowledge to young men in the courts of the kings. In applying wisdom to our own communication, there is a time to prove the truth of your position. There is also a time to demonstrate the internal inconsistencies in the ideas and person of your opponent, tearing his argument apart from the inside out. Though saying opposite things, both proverbs are true.
Not so in the direct commands or propositional truths of Paul’s writings. If Paul were to say, “Jesus is God, but then again, Jesus is not God,” we would be left with a blatant contradiction in a kind of literature that thrives on valid, logical arguments. Proverbs can and do work differently, providing a “whack on the head” to those who would foolishly read them like simple prose. So, prose, as opposed to poetic forms, is easy to interpret, yes?
Narrative is Not Normative
No. Mr. Lawrence and I sat next to each other on a plane flight recently. He had been a member of the Church of Christ since 1939, and proceeded to explain to me that the book of Acts demonstrates that I could not be a Christian unless I had been baptized in his church, and that was just the first of several reasons I was going to hell. One of us was completely wrong on how to read historical narratives such as the Gospels and Acts.
Old and New Testament narratives are designed by God to give us an inspired record of certain historical events. That record is divinely edited, with the details of the events compressed at certain points and enhanced at others. Acts 2 is a good example of this. More than 40 days are covered in the first verse, but as verse 2 begins, “And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind,” one moment of awesome power is stretched into three verses. And Peter’s sermon is recorded in only 24 verses — who ever heard of a preacher preaching that quickly? The final portion of his sermon is explicitly noted as a summary: “And with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying, ‘Be saved from this perverse generation’” (2:40–41). With this being the nature of historical narrative, can you see that narratives are not designed to give a cosmic blueprint, a divine command directing us to duplicate exactly what happened in the past? The entire Pentecostal and charismatic movement arose from a misuse of the book of Acts, as adherents attempted to duplicate the unique historical events that happened at Pentecost each and every Sunday morning in their churches. The effects of this error can be devastating.
We legitimately apply historical narratives by making epochal adjustments, which means taking into account the original intent of the author and then transferring over to our time and culture the principles and precepts that were not bound to that specific place and time.
Epochal adjustments need to be made to the Psalms and to the laws of Deuteronomy, Exodus and Leviticus so that the powerful, inspired truths can transcend the 3,500 years to us and impact our church and our world today. How many well-intentioned believers have burdened the consciences of others by saying that truly “conservative” or “Reformed” believers make few cultural adjustments? Those who love God’s law must love it enough to apply it accurately.
By remaining rooted in the original intent of the author, we can make authoritative applications instead of arbitrary allegories when we apply Scripture that is laden with culturally sensitive material.
Like Light Through a Prism
Each passage of Scripture has the one meaning the author intended to leave us; there are no hidden codes or “spiritual” meanings. However, there are multiple legitimate applications you can make from that one meaning. Like a light shining through a prism, the one meaning of each text can be summarized and appliedseveral different ways.
The story of the Tower of Babel can help us see this. It was written by Moses, to the first generation Israelites who were preparing to cross over into the Promised Land, as an encouragement that their God could overcome even the greatest efforts of man and that prideful monuments to man’s self-sufficiency would always end up as failures, because God will not bear having His glory challenged.
How would they have applied it, though? They could have made intellectual applications — God wished them to view Him as mighty and sovereign over all human effort. Or emotional applications — God wanted them to feel confident in the face of the impressive cities of the Canaanites, because He could laugh and push aside those who oppose His purposes. They could have studied the moral implications of the story, noting that the pride and arrogance of the people was what brought the judgment of God on thepeople, not the use of bricks or the building of a large tower.
All these applications for the ancient audience flow remarkably well to us. Though this story was told with the Canaanites in view as the enemy, the church also has its enemies today, and God is able to crush anyone and any organization that dares pridefully exalt itself against Him.
A Final Negative Example
Someone comes to your front door one day and tries to say that the aforementioned Genesis 11 passage proves that God hates cities, and since He destroyed this one and several more in the Bible, He wants us all to live in the country. How can you refute his application? First, point out that the rest of the law, written by the same author, gives rules for cities, for both their establishment and government (Num. 35:6). Before you close the door on him, you might also remind him that God seems to approve of cities, since the very city of God, the New Jerusalem, will come down out of heaven, where it has always existed, and will be the place of our dwelling forever (Rev. 21:2).
The study of application is the process by which we overcome the cultural hurdles that the Bible presents and apply the timeless truths of Scripture to the church today. May God give us the wisdom to do it courageously.