Q&A: Meaning and Application

Meaning and Application

Question

I am teaching hermeneutics in my church, and I am wondering if you could tell me a little bit about the interplay between meaning and application in our interpretation of the Bible.

Answer

The meaning/application argument is developed pretty fully in Doctrine of the Knowledge of God. Here's a summary: To "apply" the Bible, in general terms, is to use the Bible to answer our questions, govern our thoughts and actions. To "find the meaning" of the Bible is to use the text of the Bible to answer our questions about the Bible, using methods consistent with the teaching of the Bible itself. In general, then, "finding meaning" is a kind of "application."

All stages of hermeneutics fall under the label "application," such as textual criticism, translation, commentary, theology. At each of these points we are asking certain questions of the text and seeking to resolve them according to the text itself. So finding meaning is one kind of application.

If someone says they know the "meaning," say, of the eighth commandment, but they don't know to apply that commandment to any specific cases (embezzlement, cheating on taxes, etc.) they are speaking nonsense. You don't know the meaning of any piece of language unless you can DO something with it. So Jesus said to the current "experts" in the Bible that they not only failed to "apply" it right, they actually didn't "understand" it; they didn't know its "meaning."

My point is not to make theology "practical" rather than "theoretical." There is certainly a place for theory. My own books are much more theoretical than practical. I only want to insist that theoretical and practical theology are both theology. They are both applications. They both seek biblical answers to human questions, only the questions are different in the two cases.

So the net effect is to say that theory and practice are equals. Neither is more important than the other. Neither is the ground of the other. Practice influences theory as much as theory influences practice, and that's not a bad thing. But theory and practice must both be under the authority of the Word of God. They are both attempts to apply that Word.


Answer by Dr. John M. Frame

Dr. John M. Frame is Professor of Systematic Theology and Philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, FL.