Sundoulos - Spring 2010

Spirit-Intended Applications

by Walt Russell

When was the last time you heard the Bible taught and it penetrated to the core of your being? What about having this experience after thinking, “I could care less about this topic!”? Then, much to your surprise, the Spirit used the Bible, rightly-interpreted and rightly-applied, to cut through your lack of interest and the absence of a felt need. You stumbled out of the room enthralled with the God who speaks so clearly and powerfully through his Word. You left passionately asking the Lord of the Bible how you could align your life with this amazing truth that you cared nothing about the hour before!

Perhaps your answer is like mine: “I rarelyhave this experience when I hear the Bible taught.” Instead, like the Saturday Night Live Church Lady, I usually leave with the vague, generic thought, “My, isn’t that nice.” I was calmed, not inflamed; mellowed, not matured; dulled, not excited about the applicability of the Bible to my life.

There are probably lots of cultural reasons for our Laodicean response to God’s Word (see Rev 3:14-22). However, there is one reason for it that is of our own making: our troublesome view of applying the Bible. Specifically, we have subscribed to a faulty foundational assumption: Authors intend meanings; readers determine applications.

This maxim is grounded upon the assumption that significance = application. We correctly assume that readers have the right to determine significance (the relevance of the meaning to a life-situation). However, we also tacitly assume that determining the significance of the biblical passage satisfies God’s desired application of the passage. In our system, God’s Spirit superintends the meaning and God’s children superintend the application!

In this article I humbly beg to differ with this widely-believed blueprint for application. In its place I will assert that application is actually a part of the meaning that God and the human authors intended. In other words, applications are not totally free choices that readers make. Rather, applications are a part of authorial intention, which includes:
- what authors say (referring to an object and predicating something about it),
- how they encode their message (energy or illocutionary force), and
- what results they hope to achieve (purpose or perlocutionary effect).1

We may ask, “Are some applications bad or errant?” Of course the answer is “Yes, some applications can be totally wrong.” How do we judge the rightness or wrongness of applications? The only meaningful answer is that we must appeal to the author’s intention expressed in the passage’s type of meaning. If an application misunderstands or ignores the genre or type of meaning, it essentially negates the author’s intention. By appealing to what authors say, how they encode their message, and what results they desire, we can determine whether applications are good or bad. In this process we are appealing to authorial intention.

Therefore, we must move the applicational focus from the intention of the reader to that of the author.2 While there is validity in significance, this is ultimately a secondary pursuit after we have discerned the author’s desired response, i.e., the Spirit-intended application.  First, we must discern the application expressed as a part of the author’s intention. We must intuit whether its range is narrow or broader, depending on the biblical genre and the type of meaning of the passage.

To show that applications are a part of authorial intention, let me illustrate two points in a very brief exposition of Jesus’ visit in the home of Martha and Mary in Luke 10:38-42:

1. If authorial intention is roughly equivalent to the sense of the whole,3 then both our interpretations and applications must align more organically with the sense of the whole biblical book in deference to authorial intention.

2. We overly-privilege readers in the interpretive process when we leave applications up to their free choice, essentially inviting a disconnect from the biblical text.

Luke 10:38-42: Its Meaning, Interpretation, and Application

38Now as they were traveling along, He entered a village; and a woman named Martha welcomed Him into her home. 39She had a sister called Mary, who was seated at the Lord’s feet, listening to His word. 40But Martha was distracted with all her preparations; and she came up to Him and said, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone? Then tell her to help me.” 41But the Lord answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; 42but only one thing is necessary, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her.” (NASB)

Understanding a passage’s meaning, interpretation, and application involves determining the role or function of the passage within the overall argument of the biblical book. The overall argument of Luke’s Gospel is to present a beautiful picture of Jesus as the Messiah of Israel who lovingly offers the Kingdom of God without Judaistic attachments to all nationalities (Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles) and to all society’s outcasts (the sinners, the poor, lepers, the lame, the oppressed, etc.) who believe in him. Additionally, groups that have been traditionally viewed as outsiders or lesser-privileged (women and children) are deeded great dignity by Messiah Jesus in Luke’s account.

Luke 9:51-19:28 is Luke’s unique six-month long “Travel Narrative” where Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem to suffer, die, and ascend. These chapters contain some of the most challenging discipleship material in the Bible. Jesus’ visit with Mary and Martha occurs early in the Travel Narrative and should be read in light of both Luke’s broader emphasis on the universal kingdom and his narrower focus on the cost of discipleship for those who will be fellow-travelers with Jesus.

There is also an emphasis on dignifying women as disciples in Luke’s Gospel from the beginning (Elizabeth and Mary in Lk 1-2) to the end (e.g., Lk 7:11-15, 36-50; 8:1-3. 43-48; 11:27-28; 13:10-17; 15:8-9; 18:1-8; 21:1-4; 23:27-31; 24:1-12, 22-24). Such an authorial emphasis necessitates seeing Mary and Martha primarily as female disciples of Jesus, not just as types of individual believers. To underscore this view, Luke contextualizes this discussion about women being disciples of Jesus within women’s traditional hospitality roles. Specifically, he introduces the common cultural conception of women being in the background and serving the food, while men enjoy the guests. This contextualizing gives his language “inferences” and thereby brings non-linguistic contextual information to bear which enriches the words to help create full-orbed thoughts. This means that there were centuries of cultural tradition undergirding Martha’s appeal to Jesus for Mary’s help in serving the meal!

We Westerners usually interpret the Mary/Martha story as Jesus addressing the tension we feel between doing (Martha) versus being (Mary). This is our tension and false dichotomy, not the Bible’s (see the Epistle of James)!

However, Luke’s Gospel faithfully emphasizes Jesus’ priority for all of his disciples: following Jesus supersedes but does not negate the demands of both family and cultural traditions (e.g., Lk 5:1-11; “they left everything and followed Him” in 5:11b). For Jesus’ male disciples (Peter, James and John), following him superseded their continuing in the family fishing business. For his female disciples (Martha and Mary), following Jesus superseded fulfilling their traditional hospitality roles on this occasion. In other words, sitting at Jesus’ feet as a disciple (as Mary did in Lk 10:39) supersedes showing hospitality by preparing the food and missing Jesus’ teaching. Mary grasped her privilege as Jesus’ disciple and his superseding of cultural tradition and responded accordingly. Martha did not.

Conclusion

Let me briefly restate the two main points illustrating my thesis that applications are a part of authorial intention.

1. If authorial intention is roughly equivalent to the sense of the whole, then both our interpretations and applications must align more organically with the sense of the whole biblical book in deference to authorial intention.

Fragmenting the whole of a biblical book into small chunks raises the probability of distorting the author’s intention. Good applications that flow out of authorial intention therefore necessitate doing more synthetic work in the whole biblical book than we generally do. The absence of this synthetic work leaves a void regularly filled by our theological system or worldview as readers and preachers. The resulting applications may speak more of our systems rather than the biblical author’s intention.

2. We overly-privilege readers in the interpretive process when we leave applications up to their free choice, essentially inviting a disconnect from the biblical text.

Overly-privileging readers to generate the applications tacitly sets us up to assume that our life-setting is the primary context for the application process. In many ways this annuls authorial intention and fills the interpretive gap between the author and the interpreter with the reader’s cultural perspective, worldview, and theological system. Instead, this gap or space should be filled with appropriate author-generated inferences.

Of course, I am not denying the need for readers to contextualize applications within our cultural setting. However, we must first have a more sustained focus on the biblical text to determine the author-intended desired response/application. Once this aspect of authorial intention is determined, then as a second step, we contextualize the desired response into our cultural milieu. In this process it is necessary to remember that the text is the queen and our contextualizing is the handmaiden that appropriately expresses the queen’s desires. We have inverted this process with our assumption that readers generate applications. It is not difficult to understand why our handmaiden-crafted applications do not seem to have much spiritual punch to them! This is especially true if we are ignoring the desired Spirit-breathed responses to the biblical text, i.e., the Spirit-intended applications.

[For a complete version of this paper, email .]

Notes

1 These are the basic categories from Speech Act Theory that have been used since the 1970’s. The context reveals if the author’s illocutionary force uses conventional language rules to assert that a proposition is true or if it expresses questioning, commanding, promising, arguing, warning, praising, thanking, etc. The perlocutionary effect is the impact on the action or state of mind of the hearers which goes beyond merely understanding what has been said. Both aspects help us unpack the Bible’s dual focus upon informing and transforming us.

2 From this point on in the article, my use of the singular “author” includes both the Divine and human authors.

3 “Intention is to be identified with ‘the sense of the whole’ by which the author arranges and relates each particular meaning of his composition.” Elliott Johnson, “Author’s Intention and Biblical Interpretation,” in Hermeneutics, Inerrancy, and the Bible, ed. Earl D. Radmacher and Robert D. Preus (Zondervan, 1984) 414.

4 This leads to what Haddon Robinson calls “The Heresy of Application,” Leadership (Fall, 1997): 21-27. Additionally heightening the importance of the reader’s life-setting is the shift among American Christians from a generation ago. They now expect specific, how-to applications (24).


Walt Russell (ThM, Dallas Theological Seminary; PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary) is Professor of Bible Exposition. In addition to scholarly and popular articles, Walt has published three books, including Playing with Fire: How the Bible Ignites Change in Your Soul (NavPress, 2000). His passion is helping God's people rightly interpret and consistently apply God's word. Walt and his wife Marty live in Yorba Linda.

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