For years I have been concerned with the way people approach the text of the Bible, not in order to merely read it, not in order to be immersed in its world, not to stay awhile and chew the cud, so to speak, not to observe the text and the context, but that great Golden Calf of many Bible study groups: Application.
Maybe you’ve had a conversation along these lines: “It’s all very well reading the text together and asking questions, but how do we apply it? Tell us what to do?” This is idolatrous short-hand for, “How can I systemise the text so that the Holy Spirit has no room to move or speak; how can I order my life so that there’s no mystery and disorder? How can I remain in control? How can you reaffirm my belief that I am the centre of all things and not Christ? TELL ME HOW TO APPLY THE TEXT!!” Maybe that’s one reason why Life Application Study Bibles are so popular, I’m sure people read the “applications” under the text and not the text!! These Bibles can be helpful, but their great danger is in treating the Bible like a one-level-only game of Pac-Man, once you’ve ‘done it’, you’ve done it! And where’s the fun in that? Where’s the life? Where’s the Holy Spirit?
Application, as is often understood, is a way to be in control of the text, to flatten it and to take out the colour. I actually believe in application. We all should, but when the clamour for application precedes exegesis and hermeneutics, when application is the code-word for control and order, when application is the buzz-word for mediocrity and sentimentality, when application is the starting point of our engagement with Scripture, preachers of this world need to stand up and be counted!
I was so grateful today to finally get my copy of Darrel W. Johnson’s book The Glory of Preaching – Participating in God’s Transformation of the World. In chapter 7, entitled Walking the Sermon into Everyday Life – Implication and Application, he begins by writing, “I want now to do what I can to lift a horrible burden off preachers. It is the burden of “applying the text” to the everyday life of the listeners. Yes, we can, and we should, try to help people understand the text’s radical implications. But applying the text is not the preachers responsibility” (p.158).
Even though this sounds contradictory, even to much teaching on homiletics, it isn’t. He suggests application is simply too mechanistic, too modernistic, too humanistic (i.e. anthropocentric). He says the pressure to apply is a modernist pressure not a biblical pressure. Quoting William Willimon, he suggests that the “subtext” of so much of this must-apply preaching is, “You are gods unto yourselves. Through this insight, this set of principles, this well applied idea, you can save yourselves by yourselves.” Rather than application then, he argues for the implication of the text. Implication is more relational, more empowering.
I think this is a very healthy distinction. It isn’t pedantic semantics. When we apply, we make something happen, we do it, we’re in charge. But under the Living Word of God, by the Holy Spirit who speaks through the text, we imply the text. To imply the text requires greater biblical literacy, it guards against entrenched views, it keeps the Word living and active. Implication requires trust. Application when used badly, requires no trust, just the satisfaction that now that verse has been applied, you can move on to other things.
God’s Word doesn’t just inform. God’s Word performs. From the preacher, through the text, to the listeners, in all manner of ways.