Putting the Truth to Work: The Theory and Practice of Biblical Application

By Daniel M. Doriani
Phillipsburg, NJ : Presbyterian & Reformed (2001). 342 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. James Rosscup
13.1 (Spring 2002) : 119-121

 This book, having a back-cover endorsement from D. A. Carson and four others, follows up on Doriani’s earlier contribution, Getting the Message: A Plan for Interpreting and Applying the Bible. The author is Dean of Faculty and Professor of New Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary.

The Preface points out the paucity of solid writings on application, the extent of which is usually one chapter of general guidelines in a hermeneutics book. Doriani does a more thorough work in an area where few have addressed the need in entire books, e.g., David Veerman, How to Apply the Bible (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale, 1993) and Jack Kuhatschek, Taking the Guesswork Out of Applying the Bible (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1990).

Highly readable, the book usually helps with examples from specific passages. At times, the author seems to go along with recent interpreters who confuse the legitimate distinction between interpretation of a text and applications that flow from the interpretation (20-27). However, Doriani does recognize the difference, even though he is not always clear (cf. a plain statement of the problem and distinctions in Brian Shealy, “Redrawing the Line Between Hermeneutics and Application,” The Master’s Seminary Journal 8/1 [Spring 1997]:83-105).

One of Doriani’s many good points is that we m ay correctly grasp a text’s meaning, true to its own setting (such as not charging interest on loans to fellow Israelites), but may falter in perceiving relevant applications of the principles in different societies today (26). One needs to add here that a correct basic interpretation and a proper, consistent application that has pertinency today are distinct. The latter needs to flow validly from the reservoir of the former; otherwise, we apply our own ideas, fudged in, that do not have authentic support from God’s Word. To intrude our own subjective ideas of application as part of interpreting a text is to foist something that we think is better onto what we do not actually consider adequate and force a text to conform to our thoughts when the text’s meaning is quite different. In such a case, we have bypassed the patient task of first ascertaining the meaning of God’s Word and have impregnated it with our own foreign input, actually manipulating it and erring in calling this the interpretation.

Doriani at times cites statements that are not realistic, even misleading. Such a case is in his idea that if a reader really grasps the truth, for example, on stealing being self-destructive and an offense to God, he “will” renounce stealing and not practice it (26). That is not necessarily the case. How many see truth, such as the sinfulness of adultery, and yet decide to follow their own desires anyway, indulging in self-excusing rationalization? Doriani finally recognizes that interpretation and application are in some real sense distinct (26). But some of his statements show that he sees it in a blurry way. An impression he leaves, as opposed to realism, is that if people understand truth, they always will apply it (27). That requires denying the possibility that a person can understand that Christ will save him if he receives Christ, yet fail to follow through in taking Christ definitely as his own Savior.

A reader goes through quite a lot of preliminary theory en route to getting to application in the book. Then Chapter 3 presents principles in such a fashion that it provides clear guidance. One is told about the need and source for courage, character, and credibility to interpret, and arrives at Chapter 4 still waiting for concrete help on application. Once the author gets to direct discussion, he has much to offer. He holds up a high view of possibilities: “If we know where to look, there is an abundance in almost every text” (81). He advises driving home one chief application as the central idea and using sub-points in relation to this. His advice is good in answering questions a text provokes and also being perceptive in answering questions about living the text. He is also helpful in his suggestion that biblical texts show applications by mentioning rules (commands), ideals, doctrines, redemptive acts, images, songs, and prayers (82).

Sometimes Doriani could offer more help by pointing out essential steps by which to make applications today; at other places he is quite instructive. Some very good practical comments appear on how people of different ages can relevantly obey “Honor your father and your mother” (84). It would help to add biblical examples of honoring, such as Joseph going to check on the flocks or David delivering his father’s provisions to his brothers at the battlefront. Chapters 5–12 provide more direct assists on applications, the first of these chapters even giving four aspects that can help readers discover applications, namely finding a duty, point of character, goal to seek, or a discernment about living in line with God. An illustration of discernment is David’s perception in 1 Samuel 17 that Goliath’s challenge was against God and that God was sufficient to help meet the challenge. Various chapters show how to draw applications from narrative texts (stories, etc.), doctrine, and ethical issues. Chapter 12 contributes to relating application to God.

Indexes to Scripture, names, and subjects end a book that furnishes many assists for teachers, preachers, and lay people w ho are serious to be patiently diligent about discovering and sharpening application.