Our interpretation is the intended meaning of the text, but the application is its significance or what we should do about it. While a given text has only one interpretation, it can have many applications. If we do not understand the connection between interpretation and application, we can undo the hard work of hermeneutics at such a crucial step in the process. Thus a number of rules are in order to secure a proper application from a given text.
1. Any application must depend on the interpretation.
Consider Romans 14, where Paul argues that we shouldn’t stumble weaker believers by eating meat sacrificed to idols. Some Christians use this passage against cigarette smoking. For instance, Christians will often cite this passage by saying that someone should stop smoking, because it “stumbles” them. However, this wouldn’t follow from this passage. The weaker brother in Rome wouldn’t know that he is being stumbled, because he is unaware of the theological implications of eating meat sacrificed to idols. By contrast, the man who distains smoking is clearly aware of why it bothers him. Really, the man is saying that smoking offends him—not that it stumbles him. If we are going to admonish a cigarette smoker, we should make our admonishment about them—not about ourselves. We shouldn’t say, “Your smoking offends me.” Instead, we should say, “Your smoking is hurting you.”
2. Examples are not good enough for an application—without precepts or principles.
Precepts are universal imperatives which are morally binding for all times and places.
Principles are not as strong as precepts, but they are the personal examples of a NT author. Just because they operated in a certain way, this isn’t binding on us. But it is strongly implied that we should follow their pattern.
Examples are different. These are simply what we read in Scripture—without much commentary. For instance, the believers at Pentecost all spoke in tongues at conversion, but this isn’t necessarily binding for all believers throughout Christian history. Thus in order to get an application from an example of Scripture, this needs to be supported by either a precept of principle from outside of this passage. Consider a few examples:
Acts 14:23 states that Paul appointed “elders” (plural) in every church. Does this support the notion that we need plurality in leadership today?
Yes, this is the case, because it can be supported in other portions of Scripture. For instance, Peter writes, “I exhort the elders among you… shepherd the flock of God among you [plural], exercising oversight” (1 Pet. 5:1-2). Thus Peter is commanding plural elders to serve in plurality—not in isolation or autonomy (cf. Titus 1:5). Additionally, we could also make a case from the general fallen nature of humans.
Acts 20:7 & Revelation 1:10
Acts 20:7 states that the believers met “on the first day of the week” and John writes that he was “in the Spirit on the Lord’s day” (Rev. 1:10), which was no doubt on Sunday. Does this mean that Christians are mandated to meet for fellowship on Sundays?
This is not the case. We should point out that Acts 20:7 was a night meeting—not Sunday morning. Thus if this is mandated for all times, then most churches would be in violation of this command. Additionally, other NT examples demonstrate that we should meet “daily” (Acts 2:46), and the NT explicitly teaches that no days are specifically holy. Paul writes, “One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom. 14:5). In other words, these are negotiable issues—not morally objective ones. Elsewhere, Paul explicitly writes, “Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to… a Sabbath day” (Col. 2:16). Paul even admonishes the legalism of the Galatians, because they were observing “days and months and seasons and years” (Gal. 4:10). Finally, even Jesus himself taught that he was “Lord even of the Sabbath” (Mk. 2:28; c.f. Lk. 6:5).
3. To change or broaden the original application, the interpreter shoulders the burden of proof.
In other words, if you’re going to stretch the application, you need to give good reasons. For instance, you need to show that this is based on common sense, or the language indicates an alternate application.
Consider an example. Paul writes, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?” (1 Cor. 6:19) Could we use this passage to admonish a cigarette smoker?
Yes, we could. The original application here is sexual immorality. However, when we read the context of the passage, we find that Paul writes that we shouldn’t be “mastered by anything” (v.12). Here we see that the language broadens our application to other activities besides sexual immorality.
Consider another example. Paul writes, “Each one is to remain with God in that condition in which he was called” (1 Cor. 7:24). Can this passage be used to support the notion that we should stay in our local fellowship, rather than church shopping?
When we look at the context, we see that there is broad application in the passage (e.g. circumcision, slavery, marriage, etc.).