How to Apply the Bible to Your Life in Four Steps
One hallmark of biblical interpretation is the meant-means distinction: we need to determine what the Bible meant (to the original author and audience, in their context and culture) before understanding what it means (to us in our context and culture).
Authors William Klein, Craig Blomberg, and Robert Hubbard echo this hermeneutical rule in Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Third Edition, a fully updated resource to help students unravel the mysteries of interpreting Scripture.
One of those mysteries is the means side of the equation: how to apply the Bible. The authors explain that “all applications must be consistent with the meaning of passages arrived at by means of…sound hermeneutical principles” (609). But how can one make the connection between what a passage meant, as determined through sound hermeneutics, to what it means today?
Thankfully, the authors offer a sturdy four-step method for legitimate application—which we’ve briefly outlined below.
1.) Determine the Original Application(s)
Step One begins with the original audience: “How did the biblical authors of a given passage want his hearers or readers to respond? What did the author intend the readers to do?” (611) Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard offer several more questions:
- Is there a command to obey?
- Is there an example to follow or avoid?
- Is there a promise to claim?
- Is there a warning to heed or a teaching to act on?
This initial step in determining a legitimate application for a given passage recognizes that what it meant back then affects what it means right now. For instance, “obeying the command not to covet a neighbor's wife or house remains as timely today as it did when Moses received it on Mount Sinai (Exod 20:17)” (611).
Conversely, applying the marketplace evangelism found in Acts 17 as a model for all evangelism may not be appropriate. Given that the kinds of socially acceptable public arenas for considering new ideas simply don’t exist in Western cities, we may need to look for more suitable forms in our day. Step Two helps us here.
2.) Evaluate Level of Specificity
One major application dilemma is understanding whether a biblical principle is timeless or time-bound, transcultural or culture-specific.
To help make such a determination the authors offer 10 questions to ask of a given passage:
- Does it present a broad theological or moral principle or a specific one, which the Bible offers elsewhere?
- Does the larger context limit the application or promote a more universal application?
- Does subsequent revelation limit or qualify the application?
- Is its teaching contradicted elsewhere, showing it was limited to exceptional situations?
- Are cultural conditions identified or assumed by its authors, making its universal application inappropriate?
- Is the particular cultural form expressed by it present today, and with the same significance?
- Is the applicational rationale rooted in creation, in God’s character, or in part of his redemptive plan?
- Is the command or application at variance with standard cultural norms of its day?
- Is there an explicit or implicit condition that limits its application?
- Should we adopt a “redemptive movement” hermeneutic that suggests we move beyond NT teaching?
Working through these questions will help you evaluate the level of specificity of a passage’s original application.
3.) Identify Cross-Cultural Principles
In this third step we ask, “Can we deduce a broad principle that a specific biblical text promotes as timeless even if we cannot apply universally without alteration the particular command, example, promise, or warning of the text?” (629).
The authors continue with another important part to this step: “If we discern such a principle, we must then devise new illustrations or applications of that principle for new situations” (629).
For example, the authors suggest Paul’s teaching on food sacrificed to idols carries the broader principle “freedom for Christians on morally neutral practices while they weigh how their freedom might affect fellow believers” (629). Likewise, for the injunctions against tattoos, “the principle is not to imitate pagan religious practices that call one’s allegiance to Christ into question” (629).
4.) Find Applications That Embody Broader Principles
Finally, the authors emphasize that applying the Bible now is entirely concerned with translating principles that led to applications back then:
Knowing the practice back then that implemented the underlying principle enables us to discern the appropriate practice today that implements that same principle. (632)
For instance, giving hearty hugs are appropriate in place of holy kisses. And although we may not need to concern ourselves with meat sacrificed to idols, we should be concerned with drinking alcohol in front of recovering alcoholics.
What this requires is discernment. It also demands greater sensitivity to cross-cultural contexts. "We must learn not only to exegete the Scriptures but also to exegete cultures” (634).
“This readable and profound book,” says Tremper Longman, “covers all the important topics of interpretation with great skill.”
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