Monday, May 5, 2014

Application Versus Interpretation

Some time ago, I got in a discussion on Twitter regarding someone's twisting of a scriptural verse based on a dream they had. When I pointed out that they had misused it, someone from their staff came up and said, "To use in application is NOT to interpret. Big difference. Application is NOT deriving doctrine."

The biggest problem I can see with this argument is that application implies interpretation. That is, application comes from your method of interpretation. Let me try to explain with this example:

A long time ago, I discussed context by citing a college friend playing his character in the video game Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and saying, "I could kill the whole world if I wanted to." Now, there are various modes of application that can come from various modes of interpretation, and two big ones are (with their interpretations):

The Contextual Approach
"When he says 'whole world,' he's clearly referring to the in game world, meaning the world in the game. He's not saying he wants to kill literally everybody in the whole wide world in real life."

The Experiential Approach
"I had a dream that he was going to go to a planet on the far end of the universe and kill all the alien mutants he found on it. That's what he was talking about."

In the former approach, the context of the citation is looked at. What do the words mean? Under what settings were they said? Why were they said? What led to them being said? What were they trying to convey? This is how most serious students of the Bible attempt to read it.

In the latter approach, the individual's personal experiences trump the plain meaning. The context of how it was said - including who, what, when, where, why, and how - is thrown out the window. Instead, the individual's personal experiences, dreams, and revelations are used as the guide for interpreting the original words. That those words were said under certain circumstances and speaking on certain subjects is no longer important; those words are understood in a whole new way, with a whole new application derived from the method of interpretation.

The funny thing is I'm sure most people who heard someone interpret my college friend with the experiential approach would think the individual was crazy. They'd probably say, "Dude, that's not what the guy meant. Don't mess with the context of what he said." Yet when it comes to the words of scripture, that sort of common sense gets thrown out the window. Suddenly, scripture can mean anything we want it to, for whatever reasons. Whether you're spiritualizing a verse never meant to be allegory, or you're basing your interpretation off of dreams and so-called prophetic words you've experienced, you're no longer letting the context of the words guide your understanding. The words I've cited before are the words of mortal men. Scripture is not. Scripture consists of the very words of God. Shouldn't we be even more careful not to abuse their context?

The fact is, as I wrote before, our application comes from our method of interpretation. If our method of interpretation does not have the plain meaning of scripture as its primary authority, then we have another authority besides God's word.