The Impracticality of Application

I have never heard anyone say that the Bible is impractical, but I have heard people, after an in depth exegesis of a passage, ask for the practical application. Offer a class on childrearing, marriage, finance and the church members flock to it; offer a course on Leviticus, the visions of Elijah, the importance of the periphrastic participle in the writings of St. John, and you get the weird guy and the retired couple. The church tacitly views great swaths of Scripture as tertial; what good does knowing the furniture of the temple have when the children are screaming, dinner needs fixing, and the job runneth overtime? Getting out in the tall grass of the Bible is fine if you’ve got the time, but who has the time? We need our Biblical tips and techniques in easy and digestible portions. At the heart of this complaint is the idea that the Word of God isn’t clear and that it requires esoteric skills and the free time of an eremitic monk in order to understand.

This was the view of the Bible prior to the Reformation. The Word is dangerous in the hands of the layperson and impenetrable even to the trained professional. The Bible was written to confound God’s people, to keep them meek and humble. Erasmus said, “Holy Scripture contains secrets into which God does not want us to penetrate too deeply, because if we attempt to do so, increasing darkness envelopes us, so that we might come to recognize in this manner both the unfathomable majesty of divine wisdom and the feebleness of the human mind.”1

In response, the Reformers recovered and further developed the Doctrine of Perspicuity; that is, the Clarity of Scripture. To say otherwise is to take the Bible from God’s people and confine it to so called experts. However, to say the Word of God is clear is not to say that it is dumbed down, spoonfed mashed banana. Wayne Grudem helpfully summarizes what this means: “Scripture affirms that it is able to be understood but (1) not all at once, (2) not without effort, (3) not without ordinary means, (4) not without the reader’s willingness to obey it, (5) not without the help of the Holy Spirit, (6) not without human misunderstanding, and (7) never completely.”2

Luther, following the ancient fathers, recognized that the interpretive key was Jesus. In his reply to Erasmus, he said: “The profoundest mysteries of the supreme Majesty are no more hidden away, but are now brought out of doors and displayed to public view. Christ has opened our understanding, that we might understand the Scriptures, and the Gospel is preached to every creature.”3

St. Augustine wrote:

“In all these books those who fear God and are of a meek and pious disposition seek the will of God. And in pursuing this search the first rule to be observed is, as I said, to know these books, if not yet with the understanding, still to read them so as to commit them to memory, or at least so as not to remain wholly ignorant of them. Next, those matters that are plainly laid down in them, whether rules of life or rules of faith, are to be searched into more carefully and more diligently; and the more of these a man discovers, the more capacious does his understanding become. For among the things that are plainly laid down in Scripture are to be found all matters that concern faith and the manner of life,—to wit, hope and love, of which I have spoken in the previous book. After this, when we have made ourselves to a certain extent familiar with the language of Scripture, we may proceed to open up and investigate the obscure passages, and in doing so draw examples from the plainer expressions to throw light upon the more obscure, and use the evidence of passages about which there is no doubt to remove all hesitation in regard to the doubtful passages. And in this matter memory counts for a great deal; but if the memory be defective, no rules can supply the want.”4

In this section Augustine makes four notable comments. The first is that God’s people seek His will “in all of these books.” Not only the red letters of the Gospels, but the Book of Numbers, the minor prophets, Chronicles and the obscure and esoteric found within; echoing II Timothy 3: 16,17: “Every Scripture is Godbreathed5 and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”

Next he gives the first of his three rules for searching the Scriptures, which is “know these books.” We are to read recognizing that value isn’t limited to what we understand. Having knowledge of the content is valuable in itself. I’ll return to this point later, but for now we’ll note that Scripture is food, efficacious more than we know. In light of this Augustine counsels us to read with such intensity so as to commit it to memory.

The second rule is to search diligently and carefully those passages that are most plain. But rather than this being reductive, as if Biblical Cliff Notes is sufficient, Augustine recognizes that plainness begets plainness. He says, “the more of these a man discovers, the more capacious does his understanding become.” What’s inscrutable to the neophyte, is commonplace to the seasoned pro. “Six four three doubleplay” is transparent to the baseball fan or “heave the lead, set the boat, mark twain!” to Samuel Clemens is a dreary bit of info. To one who has set his heart on the things of the Lord patterns come into focus, heptamerous and re-creative; events will echo previous events, women at wells and third day undoings. The Word, being Godbreathed, enlivens the audience and gives them new eyes to see.

Finally, as knowledge of the Word increases what is plain, what is plain is then used to illuminate what is obscure until “there is no doubt to remove all hesitation in regard to the doubtful passages.” Such a view stands confidently on the skills of a divine author in communicating to His children.

Put this way it may seem like understanding the Bible is an easy inevitability, so it bears repeating the above cautions: understanding the Bible requires 1) time, 2) effort, 3) scholarly assistance, 4) obedience, 5) the Holy Spirit and despite all that, none will understand it perfectly, nor completely. The doctrine of perspicuity rather than make things easy, makes them hard; it requires slow, communal, meditation which is a problem.

The problem of the Scriptures is that it doesn’t cater to our demands for fast, bite-sized and easily digested facts. Application, the drive to have the Scriptures “boiled down” and reduced to a “what does it mean to me”, drains it of beauty and mystery and its power to grow us up and break us out of fleshly thinking.

The Scripture, to our disappointment and often great dismay, isn’t a textbook full of illustrations and charts, but an act of narrative that drives the audience to deep reflection, lifelong preponderance, a day in and night out meditation. To the fallen mind the Word is a failure. God is ambiguous, misleading and untrustworthy; His method is shoddy and ineffectual. For us to profit from it we need it broken down by experts, processed and repackaged to make it palatable.

We have to ask what God’s method accomplishes that ours does not. If we translate God’s hard questions into easy answers, even if they are the right answers, do we lose something? What does the Bible demand that our Sola Scriptura commentaries and Papal Bulls do not?

To answer this briefly (and, regrettably, only partially), the difference between God’s spoken Word and the textbook versions we make for ourselves is the liturgical drive of narrative. A narrative takes time, demanding that we live through the account and then rehearse it, that we notice details and construct the picture around us, that we hear its echoes, how the previous events shape the current, and follow how it ripples outward, shaping future events. Seeing the narrative as liturgy reveals that the Bible can’t be boiled down to facts any more than your wedding ceremony can be captured by the formula: (I Do) x 2.

Liturgical investment in the Word requires a personal investment that a 10 Point Alliterative Chart does not. I liken it to a man, working on an assembly line, who supplies one component in the construction of a chair. At the end of the day he has added the armrest to three hundred chairs. His investment is miniscule in each chair. No individual chair means much and the loss of a chair is no real loss to him. But imagine a man who chops down a tree, planes the wood, saws each piece, nails it together and sands it all. To him this chair is more than just a chair, it carries within it his life, sweat and probably blood as well. Losing the chair in a fire is a great loss, because it is a work of his hands and he can take pride in it. No man takes pride in having attached an armrest to ten thousand chairs. It is when we read, reread, sing it, pray it, meditate upon it day and night, to apply to your life in this way and that, wax on, wax off, that the Scriptures shape us.

The Bible is built to be invested in, but the other benefit to a liturgical approach is that it cultivates patience. An application is instant, what it means for you is always put into words you can understand, but the Bible speaks in dark sayings so that we must live by faith and not by sight. There is a steep price to pay in working through a hard passage and the fruit is all the more valuable, both in the daily labor and in the hard won truths gathered. The Bible is a 7 course meal, a 70 times 70 course meal, but we want it in pill form; rather than dance with the King, we want to watch and tap a foot; rather than live in the kingdom, we want the postcard.

Application is necessary, for faith without application is dead, but we must understand that the method of the Scriptures is immanently practical. Give a man Bible and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to Bible and he is fed for life. So let us have confidence that the Word will not come back void, let us therefore wallpaper our minds with God’s perfect Word, let it ring in our ears, let it perfume our body, let it form calluses on our hands, let it dwell in us richly in all wisdom.

Remy Wilkins teaches at Geneva Academy in Monroe, Louisiana.

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References   [ + ]

1. Erasmus, Desiderius. Discourse on Free Will by Erasmus and Luther. Trans. and ed. by Ernst F. Winter. Frederick Ungar. New York, New York. 1961. Pg.8. http://www.yavanika.org/classes/reader/erasmus.pdf
2. Grudem, Wayne. The Doctrine of Perspicuity. Themelios, Volume 34, Issue 3. 2009. Available here: http://themelios.thegospelcoalition.org/article/the-perspicuity-of-scripture
3. Luther, Martin. Bondage of the Will. (Translated by J.I. Packer & O.R. Johnston) Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell, 1957, pp. 72.
4. On Christian Doctrine, Bk.2 Ch.9.14
5. Θεόπνευστος is frequently translated “by inspiration of God” but it is literally “God + blow”
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