So, Eve… how does this apply?
The Bible equates sex with knowledge, as in “Adam knew Eve” (Gen. 4:1). Do you think Adam asked Eve afterward: So, Eve… how does this apply to our life? If this is how knowledge is gained, why do we talk about “applying principles to our life?” Could it be that our understanding of application is actually a banal platitude? The problem with banal platitudes is that they can have catastrophic consequences.
Understanding application becomes clear when we return to an earlier era. Most Christians today assume knowledge is the result of a three-step sequence: observation, interpretation, and application. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the Bible never speaks of application this way. It’s used in only two senses in scripture: applying the law to a particular situation or applying yourself to something. In the first sense, when a man suspected his wife of infidelity, “the priest is to have her stand before the Lord and is to apply this entire law to her” (Num. 5:30). In the second sense, the writer of Proverbs commands: “apply your heart—conscience—to what I teach” (22:17). Knowledge is never the result of applying principles and concepts to your life. Knowledge is applying your life to people and places in front of you. Jesus was not a “principle” applied to our sin problem. He was a person who applied himself to our predicament. The question is never: How do I this apply this principle? …but How do I apply myself to this situation? Big difference.
The Early Church knew this. Augustine of Hippo defined knowledge in his famous slogan credo ut intelligam (I believe in order to know). Believe is another word for faith, and faith is dead without works. Knowledge begins with works, incarnation, or what we do. The first move is touch, not talk. Experience shapes imagination and informs reason—getting all three things right. Adam experienced Eve, imagined sex as shazam, and then rightly reasoned that marital sex is good. His knowledge started in bed, not in a Bible study.
Over the last several centuries, the church developed a different model that “accepted a distinction between things that can be known by reason alone and things that could be known only by faith,” Lesslie Newbigin writes.1 This opened up a world where knowledge could be the result of observation alone, or merely talking about scripture. You didn’t have to start by doing anything other than studying since reason and faith had been pried apart. This knowledge started in your head and then tried to work its way to your heart and hands in “application.” Proper knowledge doesn’t work this way.
The consequences of this system have been catastrophic. First, it broke down knowledge into three independent steps. You observe a Bible verse and gain knowledge. You then interpret it and know more. But Adam didn’t observe and interpret Eve—he had intercourse with her. Their knowledge wasn’t a head-trip; it was a hands-on erotic experience. This is how the Bible introduces knowledge—not as disembodied concepts but as copulation. God was making a point—and we seem to be missing it today.
Second, this newer model made knowledge entirely self-referential. Faith communities ground their knowledge in faith. Science and business ground their knowledge in reason. When faith communities, thinking they have knowledge of science or business, try to “apply” their “biblical principles” into Google or NASA, oops. Sergei Brin at Google doesn’t imagine the church as working in the “real” world or having any meaningful knowledge that would enhance the odds of Google being innovative over the long haul.
But perhaps the most catastrophic consequence of this model is when serious people like David Foster Wallace search for reality. Wallace was a popular professor and writer whose 1996 novel Infinite Jest was included in Time Magazine’s All-Time 100 Greatest Novels. In his 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech, he spoke of his experiences.
A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here’s one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness, because it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default-setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth.
Wallace was asking the right question—what do my intuitions mean? But he made a tragic assumption: “None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head.”
This is why our modern idea of “applying” principles is a killer. It would have killed the mood if Adam asked Eve afterward: So, Eve… how does this apply to our life? He’d be kicked out of bed. That’s why the church is absent from the worlds of higher education. While we study the Word of God and talk of applying it, we forget “the word became flesh, incarnate, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). The solution to our sin wasn’t a principle but a person applying himself to a real problem. That’s why the disciples never asked Jesus: “How does this apply?” They did however often ask: “What does this mean?” That’s the question Wallace was asking, but the church wasn’t viewed as a resource for reality.
This leads to the second reason why “applying” principles is a killer. Christians talk in a world of abstractions and application. Serious people talk about embodying their beliefs. While the church is trying to “apply spiritual principles,” Wallace was trying to embody his assumptions. He was honest—his ideas might only be platitudes, and “banal platitudes can have life-or-death importance.” That is reality—and horribly right. The Capital-T Truth is about death before life—a grain of wheat must fall into the earth and die before it can live. As Wallace applied himself to living in a world with no God, the unreality was too much. He committed suicide in 2008.
Everybody’s going to the movies,
Everybody’s leavin’ for the show.
Seems as if we’ve lost the nerves for feelings,
And no one’s in the mood to want to know.
I’ve got news for you, this is not a game.
I got news for you, are you listening?
Lyrics from an old Randy Stonehill song. Are faith communities listening? The solution is not applying principles but people to a broken world. It’s not more information but more incarnation. It’s not entertainment but embodiment. It’ll be apparent when faith communities start listening. They’ll stop asking: “How does this apply?”
1 Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence: faith, doubt, and certainty in christian discipleship (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), p. 17.
Esther Meek’s “Longing to Know” is another work that is excellent on this subject.
I have worried about the observation, interpretation, application model, for a long time now! Bravo.
Mike- right on. I never thought of this way, people application va. application of xxx on people, very thought provoking and I want to KNOW.
But, Mike, I think that the intent behind application is actually consistent with the Biblical view of knowledge. After all, applying the Bible is acknowledging that we can’t know the truths of the Bible apart from letting them get worked out into our lives, into our relationships, into the way we think and how we act. When you are applying a text you are saying that you can’t really know it unless you do it.
We agree in general but I disagree with your assessment that “the intent” behind the modern view of “application” is consistent with what I’ve written here. It’s not. “Letting truths get worked into our lives” is passive and academic-speak. You learned how to ride a bike by actually getting on the bike. Wasn’t passive. There is no text that says we are to be “applying a text” unless you are talking about the judicial sense that I cite above – in the Jewish theocracy. That’s the same today – a court of law applies the law to determine misconduct. But that’s not how we speak of application in the wider world. The larger sense of application is embodiment, not osmosis, as is suggested in “letting them get worked out in our lives.” It’s far more active than that.
I often find that those who practice “applying principles” are really replacing principles for the law (as in under the law); they seek to sanctify themselves (and others) by the works of applying principles (law) rather than living by faith (intimacy with God; union with Christ).
Well intentioned brothers they may be; but it is surely one of the reasons why the church has little glory in our day.
Ps 119:97-100 NIV
Oh, how I love your law!
I meditate on it all day long.
98 Your commands make me wiser than my enemies,
for they are ever with me.
99 I have more insight than all my teachers,
for I meditate on your statutes.
100 I have more understanding than the elders,
for I obey your precepts.
I appreciate Mr. Moffet taking us to the Scriptures, because I think it illustrates Mike’s point so well. The word ‘meditation,’ of course, comes from the same root word that describes ruminates, animals that digest food slowly by chewing a cud. I am always fascinated whenever I watch the process. When a ruminate swallows, my immediate reaction is to think it’s gone, but then a few seconds later the cud returns to it’s mouth. That process is repeated over and over again. What a great picture of embodiment. True meditation is much more than contemplation. Meditation is really practice that turns into habit when the behavior is repeated consistently again and again. And habit eventually becomes embodied truth, like the cud that is finally digested.
I certainly share your frustration with the tendency (of many) to evaluate the strength of a sermon or article on the basis of application. The Gospel is certainly not a self-improvement plan (principles). But I’m not sure that the “Observation, Interpretation, Application” tool is all wrong. I would suggest that Adam did “observe” Eve. As a man, I’ll go out on a limb and suspect that his observation of her is what led him to want to “know” her. And your observation that the more important question is “What does this mean?” really is about “interpretation”. So I’m not inclined to jettison Observation and Interpretation as being unhelpful. And done well, I think they really can lead to a life lived in-line with the implications of the Gospel (One who had no sin applied Himself to my sin problem). Again, not “principles”; but life lived in light of meaning. Am I too entrenched with Bill Bright? 🙂
One niggling problem with your definition of knowledge – the Bible doesn’t describe Adam “seeing” Eve as knowledge. It was sex that brought forth knowledge. I recommend Lesslie Newbigin’s “Proper Confidence,” where he notes that to even question this basic assumption of the modern church is difficult, since it springs from, in part, Enlightenment thinkers. Newbigin concludes: “Christian missions were, in fact, among the main carriers of the ideas of the Enlightenment. The churches of Europe and their cultural offshoots in the Americas had largely come to a kind of comfortable cohabitation with the Enlightenment.” Our comfortable cohabitation makes it hard to imagine that we might not know what knowledge actually is.
Mike did you really say “shazam?”
good commentary! thanks.