The Difference Between Interpretation and Application

Posted Monday, July 31, 2006 by Brian Beers
Categories:   Bible  

How does application differ from interpretation? Or does it differ? I was certain that they did differ. I even came up with a term merging interpretation and application into “interprecation.” This clever term not only represent the blurring of the distinction between the two activities, it also reminds me of “imprecation,” something appropriately directed at one who doesn’t distinguish between application and interpretation. I enjoyed my own cleverness until I read the very helpful “Making Sense of the Old Testament, Three Crucial Questions” by Tremper Longman III. In it he states, “It may be possible to distinguish between meaning and application on a strictly theoretical level, but it is never possible to do so in practice.”

Well clever isn’t very satisfying if I’m just plain wrong so I decided to take a closer look at the differences that I thought I perceived.

To start with I wrote out my working definitions of the two activities. Interpretation is finding authorial intent. Application is whatever we do with the meaning once we leave the text. I have discussed interpretation in my earlier post on authorial intent, but I will address application more fully here.

I chose to make the break between application and interpretation when we move beyond the context of the passage that is being interpreted. For example go to John chapter 1. In verse 4, the idea of light is introduced, and the next six verses include many more statements that shed light on John’s intended meaning for the idea of light. When I come to chapters 3, 5, 8, 9, 11, and 12 I find more references to light. Though I could say that I am applying the meaning understood in chapter to one to understand the meaning in these other chapters, I am still interpreting the text. And since this is a single book, I am still within the context of the original passage, chapter one. But if I apply the meaning to my own life, I have stepped beyond the scope of the text. I can say that anyone who does not believe in Jesus as the Christ is walking in darkness, but this is an application of the text not an interpretation of the text.

Earlier this month, I visited another church in which a sermon was preached apparently without interpretation. The sermon was based on James 1:27, “This is pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father, to visit orphans and widows in their distress.” The main point of the sermon was that we should care for the poor. There were many anecdotes reminding us of how we don’t adequately care for the poor, and my favorite was “What is up with these people standing on the corners with signs begging for money? There are jobs holding signs on corners!” But this sermon was exposition on an application of the text.

Interpretation of the text would be finding out if James actually meant to say, “This is pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father, to care for the poor.” This question was not brought up during the sermon, but the answer was assumed to be, “yes.” This questioning of an interpretation that must take place before during the preparation of the sermon, and ought to be addressed during the sermon. The congregation needs to be tutored in accurate interpretation of the text. I do not believe that this is an accurate interpretation of James 1:27, and this misinterpretation of the passage  lead to a misapplication of the passage. To diagnose errors like this we need a clear delineation between interpretation and application.

In the passage that I quoted above, I believe that Tremper Longman III confused application with presupposition. Here is the context of his statement.

It may be possible to distinguish between meaning and application on a strictly theoretical level, but it is never possible to do so in practice. For one thing, such a separation would demand that we approach the text as an object out there to be dissected before it is appropriated into our lives. It would ask us to be scientists in the interpretive task and to study the Bible objectively. But such study of the Bible is neither possible nor desired. It is not possible because we cannot make ourselves blank slates. We cannot fully divest ourselves of our presuppositions and concerns, some of which are so embedded in us that we have no awareness of them. It is folly to think that we can approach the biblical text without some preunderstanding. But perhaps even more cogent is the fact that it would be undesirable, even sinful to try to read the Bible objectively. God desires us to come to his Word with our questions, our adoration, our struggles, our worship.[1]

Longman suggests that our interaction with the text is application. It is true that we bring prior knowledge to the act of interpreting the text, but this is not application. He is right that our presuppositions and concerns affect how we interpret the text. Good readers recognize that this is true and allow for it with humility when interpreting the text. But this is not application, it is an inseparable aspect of interpretation.

If Longman hasn’t misspoken he is in error to call it sinful to try to read the Bible objectively. Subjectively reading of the Bible has also been called “Reader Response.” Those who read the Bible this way (post-modern or deconstructionist readers) claim that the Bible (actually any literature) only has meaning when it is read, and that the meaning understood by the reader is the correct meaning. This kind of interpretation is characterized by statements that begin, “What this passage means to me is…” An objective reading of the Bible is one that doesn’t change based on the perspective of the reader. An objective reading of the Bible, therefore, is one which relies on authorial intent for the definitive meaning of a passage.

Ironically, my attack on Longman’s statement is based on a “reader response” interpretation of that statement. If there were additional context that had bearing on his intended meaning, we might find that I have misinterpreted his meaning. If there were additional relevant context, we would probably find that he does indeed condemn subjective readings of the Bible. His point may be that we can never be truly objective, and it is arrogant folly to claim objectivity. Nevertheless, authorial intent is an ideal that we should strive for while interpreting scripture.

And application is an activity which should also accompany interpretation. Scripture is unique in the literature of this world. The Apostle Paul wrote,

You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them;  15 and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.  16 All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness;  17 that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:14-17)

Scripture is supposed to affect us and change us. This happens when the meaning of the text is appropriated into our hearts and our lives. The meaning of the text is never affected by application, but our understanding is deepened, and we gain wisdom.

There are many ways of applying the meaning of scripture. The most obvious is a change of behavior. “Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church” may be applied by a man who sets aside his computer games to spend time with his wife. Another way of applying the meaning of scripture is in the formulation of systematic theologies. In both of these examples, we must be careful not to read back our application into our interpretation of the passage. Paul was not addressing video games, and he was not telling wives to let their husbands play video games without complaint out of fear of Christ. We all recognize that this would be an absurd reinterpretation of Ephesians 5. In the matter of systematic theology, however, we allow systematic theology to reinterpret any passage of scripture. Application must flow from interpretation and not the other way around.

[1] Longman , Tremper III. “Making Sense of the Old Testament, Three Crucial Questions.” Grand Rapids, MI Baker Book 1998


8/2/2006 4:55:00 PM

Creedence wrote:  Important Thoughts Very nicely done.  I really like the ideas expressed here.  Having witnessed so many times, the very mistake you address, I find myself wishing that this would become part of the preacher's catechism. 

8/6/2006 7:01:00 AM

Tony wrote:  Brian from Dubuque?

Brian, are you from Dubuque, IA originally, and moved to Indiana when you were around 11? I know there are a few different Brian Beers running about...

8/6/2006 8:02:00 AM

Brian wrote:  Good name, but... Sorry. That would have to be a different Brian. I did my growing up in Montana, Colorado, Wyoming, and Washington.

8/16/2006 8:29:00 PM

Charlie wrote:  Good post, Brian. I just read an interesting article in the area of the NT use of the OT. The author was arguing against Kaiser's view that there was one meaning to each text. He was saying that since the text had both a divine and human author, then God intended the various applications for us in the future, so therefore the application is part of the authorial intention of the text. Interesting argument, but I still go with Kaiser.

You must be logged in to make comments