Meaning, Application, Message

csFor those interested, I would really like to have more theology related discussions here. I have been learning that a robust and helpful understanding of the Bible is rooted in exegesis, hermeneutics and homiletics (i.e. meaning, application, message). So for today’s Sunday musing, I’d like to share some quotes from my new book and ask: How do you approach the Bible?

“It seems as if I’ve been transformed from a caterpillar into a butterfly! Specifically, one big change has been in the way I read Scripture. The way I understand how to interpret, how to apply and how to derive a message from Scripture is new and completely revamped due to my surrender to the grace of God. It is important to point out that my transformation, which was later spurred on by the gay debates, began with reading about the transformation of Charles H. Spurgeon, dubbed the Prince of Preachers by many. Reading about how he came to church one snowy day when the normal preacher was not able to preach was magnificent. Spurgeon’s sermon on grace is foundational in transforming my theology.

Since I began taking some pre-seminary cohort classes, I have begun to understand the value of exegesis, hermeneutics and homiletics. Exegesis is the process of deriving meaning of a text within the context in which it was written. Hermeneutics is the concept of applying the meaning of a text with a broader lens and applying teachings in our current context. Homiletics is the concept of putting together a message or exhortation based on the meaning and application of a text.

What is the meaning? How do we read the Bible? The word exegesis means to draw out. It is a process of finding a critical explanation of a text. Some have said that such a process is just as much of an art as it is a science, especially when we are not dealing with our native language. Often, we just don’t know what was in the author’s mind or what precise meaning was meant to be conveyed. At such a moment, it is better to say “I don’t know” than to introduce a concept foreign to the text. Portraying a foreign idea onto a text is called “eisegesis” and often leads to disastrous results.

When determining the meaning of a passage, we ask questions about grammar, terminology and literary constructs. Are we dealing with a historical text or poetry? Who are the characters in the text? What is the significance of the location or timing of the events? Most importantly, with the Bible in particular, we seek out other passages that give meaning or insight into the passage. In a text such as John 4, we might derive meaning by asking why was the woman drawing water at the well by herself? What does Isaiah say about the work the Messiah would be doing? How might John 4 be an example of that work of the Messiah?

What is the application? How is this meaning relevant in other situations? The word hermeneutics means interpretation. It refers to the method we use to take some meaning of a text and interpret that meaning in various other situations that may not be specifically mentioned in the text. It is hermeneutics that often causes so much discord in the church.

When interpreting the meaning of a text and applying that meaning to a situation, we ask questions about the underlying beliefs and theories at play. Do we believe the Bible is inerrant or inspired? What has the church traditionally said about this passage? How did church fathers such as Augustine interpret the text? In the John 4 text, we might seek to apply Jesus’ methods of interacting with the immoral woman to our present day interactions, and discover how to be more civil and charitable with each other.

What message does our meaning and application send? How is what we say going to be received by various audiences? Homiletics is the study of conversation, specifically the conversation that happens between a preacher and the audience. How is our message being delivered? It is said that when you give a speech, you must “know your audience”. This is valuable advice for every student and preacher of the Bible.

When considering the message or homily we are communicating, we ask questions about perception, clarity and tone. Who will be in our audience? Are we invoking unnecessary or excessive feelings of guilt and anxiety? What actions or behaviors do our words motivate people toward? Is our message consistent with the qualities we value most? In the case of John 4, we might try to see our message from the perspective of a divorced single mother and adjust if necessary.

I realize I often had my approach to the Bible completely backward. On my own, I tried to build a homiletic and then jumped into hermeneutics. I started with an idea I wanted to tell people, and then looked for Bible verses that seemed applicable to my idea. When I found such Bible verses, I then tried to find some meaning from them that was consistent with my idea. This approach often left me confused, but it did bolster my ego. I felt that my ideas were justified by the Bible text, and thus God was surely on my “side.” Now I am no longer on a “side;” I am on a journey.

(quoted from “The New Wine“, pg 9-11)

Thoughts? Reactions? Criticisms? Challenges? Ideas?


  1. Brian, this is a great topic and, in fact, it was essentially the theme of my talk at Hyde Park UBF. I touched on exegesis and hermeneutics but didn’t delve much into homiletics (although I did incorporate Lectio Divina into my talk which is a method of allowing the text to preach to you, in a sense). You said,

    I started with an idea I wanted to tell people, and then looked for Bible verses that seemed applicable to my idea. When I found such Bible verses, I then tried to find some meaning from them that was consistent with my idea. This approach often left me confused, but it did bolster my ego.

    This was largely my experience too which I think stems from human nature; we want something or someone to affirm or validate our ideas and sentiments which is amounts to self-actualization. Hence, we use the text to bolster our own hopes and desires. To be honest, to this day it’s still a challenge to not impose my own ideas onto the text or narcissistically read myself into it. I find that reading a multitude of viewpoints is helpful in this regard. For personal study, I combine the historical-grammatical method (which is aimed at understanding the author’s original intent) with a Christo-telic hermeneutic (the point of scripture is to reveal Christ) and cap it off with Lectio Divina, which is an experiential/subjective way of interacting with God through Scripture. In my mind this style covers both semi-objective analysis and mystical experience which hopefully leads to a fuller and more biblically-based interaction with the text. Through theologians like Enns, I’m also delving into the historical-critical method which is controversial in many conservative circles. My ubfriends article The OT and Inspiration touches on this subject.

    If you’re interested in the Hyde Park talk, take a listen to the audio or view the ppt:

    audio link
    ppt link

    • David, I read through that presentation and was thoroughly impressed! In fact I might dare to say this is a 5-star sermon using the Karcher Sermon Index :) Really well done, and love the Inigo Montoya meme.

      I learned my new favorite word: narcigesis (is this made up?)

      Oy, I was a master as narcigesis, to my shame. Pastor Bryan warned me rather sternly once to stop putting myself into the Bible stories. It is highly dangerous indeed to supposed I am the “David” or the “Pharisee”. If we want to put ourselves into the Bible narratives, it is far healthier to imagine we are an observer, documenting what we see and hear around us.

      I really want to pursue this further with your “OT and inspiration” article. Indeed, we need a multitude of viewpoints to see more clearly. Objective truth is only seen with many subjective viewpoints.

    • You hear that Spurgeon? Five stars, baby. I’m coming for your crown, homie.. Haha, jk. Thanks, Brian. I really enjoyed giving that talk and it gave me a lot of food for thought for more developments. When I get some time, I want to read more books on both Lectio Divina and the historical-critical method and incorporate these into practical ministry. I like Lectio Divina because instead of reading ourselves into the text we instead become, as you said, mere observers. But I find that this is much more powerful than narcigesis because we are focusing on Christ. The practice has its origin in the church father, Origen. He reasoned that since Scripture is inspired by God and Jesus is the Word of God which became flesh, then we can experience Christ speaking to us through Scripture.

      Btw, the narcigesis term came from a Christian apologist that I used to listen to. He would review sermons and determine whether they were gospel-centered or man-centered. His analysis was helpful in that it really sharpened my listening skills in terms of seeing whether or not the gospel was in a sermon.

  2. forestsfailyou

    I used to approach it from a (what I will call) “as is” point of view. This led me to believe somethings that are wrong, since it ignores context. It means pork is off the table. Many people take this literal approach. Then I went to other way, looking at the context a lot, but I discovered that I was viewing it more as literature and less as the living word of God. Now I take a more Jesuit approach, where I try to place myself in the story. I still look at context and cross reference, but I try to go farther in what it means to me, what it means for my life.

    • Forests, have you heard of James Martin, the Jesuit Priest? He’s been on the Colbert Report several times and is a great communicator. He is one that turned me onto the concept of Ignatian spirituality, which sounds similar to what you spoke of in your comment. My only problem with this is that it may possibly lead us to some erroneous conclusions due to the fact that we are asked to place ourselves into the text. But as you pointed out, it’s necessary to also grasp the context of a passage. But on the other hand, some have had life-changing and positive experiences by simply inserting themselves into the text. Btw, if you’re interested in hear a great interview with James Martin, check out this podcast:

  3. Thanks, Brian. I do not know how to articulate or explain my perspective as well as David or Forests, but I love what you wrote. I really do not have any kickback, reactions or criticism toward what you wrote.

  4. David, you mentioned Lectio Divina. I’ve not followed Lectio Divina precisely but it is very similar to some other practices. For example, in our VantagePoint3 cohort, we did a prayer walk. I’m not sure where prayer walking started or if it is related to Ignatian practices, but it was amazing. We did a prayer walk by a river using Psalm 23. It was an incredible way to learn how to listen to the voice of God. It is possible to hear God’s voice. At this point, I hear words impressed onto my soul and as I ponder their meaning I find ways to navigate life.

    • That sounds very similar to Lectio Divina as well as Ignatian bible reading. But in Lectio Divina, I believe that the sole focus on events where Christ is explicitly present, like he is in a given gospel narrative. Someone at Hyde Park asked a great question about how I personally apply the text. I replied that I don’t listen for explicit commands per se (although of course there are some obvious ones). These days, I’m allowing the Scripture and Christ to change and work in and through my heart. From this comes wisdom on how to respond in specific situations.

    • I find that I often don’t “apply the Bible personally” anymore. I am far more concerned with listening to the stories and learning from them. Many of them have nothing to do with my life and may not have anything to teach me at this moment in my journey.

      I am also very interested in the community applications, which seem to outweigh the personal teachings in the Bible. Many times the Bible is speaking of plural “you” and “they”, not speaking about individuals.

  5. MJ Peace

    Which book is this from? I like this excerpt very much. The Christian life is all about interpretation. Actually at West Loop we just had a lecture on Hermeneutics. We discussed multivocality as opposed to fundamental Biblicism (there is only one correct interpretation of the text). We discussed how from John 4 there are multitudes of different interpretations that are correct. We discussed the different valid modes of worship/polity/gender roles/ect. among perfectly orthodox churches that all read the same Bible. We also discussed the differences between systematic and biblical theology. They both have distinct purposes. But systematic theology is more of reading something in the text i.e. trinity or predestination/free will/etc. The thing with systematic theology is that sometimes people create constructs/puzzles from the Bible, but there are always certain verses that don’t agree with their puzzles and they just discard those pieces/verses. Biblical theology is about letting the Bible from our theology instead making the Bible support our constructs (or whatever view we decide to focus on. When you mentioned doing homiletics before hermeneutics it reminded me of an excerpt from Christian Smith’s “The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is not a truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture.” He basically explains how it is impossible for there to be only one interpretation of the Bible. His point is that there is more than one voice, hence multivocality. A huge problem in the church today is an emphasis on Biblical Studies, but a lack of intercultural studies. Christians can be the most narrow minded people of all and then they impose their interpretations on the whole church because Christians are not aware that there are other people who don’t think like them. Basically hermeneutics needs to be done communally with many voices and cultures being heard. As McKnight writes in “A fellowship of Differents” the invisibles need to be visible. We also have to be prepared for others to poke holes in our theologies because we are all finite and flawed. The concept of multivocality is also Trinitarian because it implies that numerally there are different views, but they are relationally one. In Christianity truth is a person Jesus Christ, not an objective list of propositions.

    • Really glad to hear about this kind of study at Westloop Church! I love this new word (for me) too: multivocality. Yes indeed, we need multiple perspectives to see the true nature of something.

      I like what Danaher says about truth being a person (the Person). To know a person we must dialogue. Where there is no mutual dialogue, truth disappears.

    • Which book? Not sure what you mean, but my quote in the article is from “The New Wine”, pg 9-11.

  6. MJ Peace

    Hermeneutics is a science. It includes syntax, historicity, grammar, textual criticism, anthropology, etc., but it is also an art. Just as math and science and arts. Nothing is done in a vacuum. In science one cannot simply state facts. There are certain areas and perspectives that are research, but other questions/areas are not. When a scientist simply states the facts, she creates an isolated picture of reality; she creates a narrative.
    For example, in the medical field preventative methods are not researched as much as the search for a “pill” because if you find the “pill” you can sell it and get rich. Our ethics and value systems color everything we do, every inquiry/statement we make, every product we consume. This is why art and the humanities are so vital. We need Biblical scholars who are have critical thinking skills and are in contact with the context in which they will apply the Bible into. We must be in touch with our humanity as Christ was. Hermeneutics is so complicated; it takes the Spirit, it takes humility, it takes diligence/perseverance and it takes the community.

    • Well said. Hermeneutics is both art and science. The massive pitfall Western Christianity has fallen into is that we’ve made hermeneutics mathmatical. We’ve deconstructed the Bible into equations and constructed systematic machines. We need to get back to an organic view of the Holy Text, as you say, it takes a community of people. Those who hold to a Cartesian mapping of Scripture will find they have only created glass menageries that shatter into pieces when taken out into the real world. To be “in the world but not of the world”, we need some sort of living hermeneutic that brings humanity to the Word instead of shattering the Word on humanity.