Discussing the difference between "meaning" and "application" in the context of Biblical interpretation, Jonathan Pennington asks:

[W]hat if two scholars or readers agreed that “Thou shall not steal” is a good translation or meaning of the Hebrew words [lō’ tîḡnōḇ], but then disagreed on its application— one scholar thought it applied to embezzling; the other thought it did not? Could we really say that they both got the meaning right even though they disagreed on the application?

Pennington, Jonathan T. (2012-07-01). Reading the Gospels Wisely: A Narrative and Theological Introduction (p. 134). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. (Emphasis original)

How do the application and meaning of a Biblical text relate to one another? Does application rest on the meaning of the text? Or is it impossible to make a distinction?

  • 1
    It sounds like what theft means to one doesn't mean to the other. Application is part of proper hermeneutic, if it can't be applied then it probably isn't understood. Take the example where Jesus says,"If your hand sins, then cut it off." Before you use your hacksaw, consider,"Where did the sin originate and what can I do to avoid it's occurance?" Then put away your hacksaw and avoid the occasions where 'that' sin may be committed. – Tau Nov 7 '13 at 7:26
  • From a meta perspective, the 'meaning' of texts is on topic on this site, but the application is not. This is a great question (and it is on topic since it is about application as a hermeneutic, not a use case of it) - I was just throwing that out there. – Dan Nov 7 '13 at 19:57

Your distinction between "meaning" and "application" seems more to be a distinction between "translation" and "meaning" - two scholars agree about the translation of a text, but disagree on what it means. They may agree that a certain English word best corresponds with a certain Hebrew word, but they may still disagree on the nuances of the term in its context - this seems more to be a question of interpretation.

The most common understanding of hermeneutics, whether or not one realizes it, is that it is composed of interpretation and application - as you say. This applies to all forms of communication, not just interpreting the Bible. Communication involves a "sender" and a "receiver". The sender speaks, while the receiver listens. Accordingly, interpretation is sender-focused, while application is receiver-focused.

If you say to me, "the sidewalk is icy", I must first understand what you mean. That is, what are you trying to communicate. I must get inside your head and try to understand the thought behind the words you chose to communicate the thought. Only after I understand what you are trying to communicate, can I apply it to myself. Only after understanding the idea that there is ice on the sidewalk, which implies that it is slippery and cold, can I apply it to my life: e.g. I can put on a thick jacket and walk carefully in order not to slip.

Oftentimes people are tempted to skip the interpretation and jump straight to the application. This is especially tempting when it comes to the Bible, because then we need to exercise time and energy to understand a different language, culture, and time, and get into the head of someone with a different understanding of the world. For instance, many read Lev 26:4, "I will give you rain in its season, the land shall yield its produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit." as a promise that God will bless their agricultural endeavors. However, the correct interpretation (if you read the context), is that God will bless Israel, and only if they obey God. An application of this verse is that since God's character is to reward obedience, our obedience will also be rewarded. Thus a right interpretation ensures a right application.

Take another example: this text. As you read through it, replace the word "the" with "poop". Depending on how childish you are, you might get a good laugh out of it. The entertainment value of such a reading of this text is an application of it without an interpretation of it - you would not be understanding what I meant with this text, and would therefore not be able to apply it to your hermeneutical approach.

  • @Niobius-I like your answer, as it gives a careful, methodical approach to the subject of interpretation. I would say, however, that many times the opposite is true, namely,"...beholding his natural face in a glass and beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightaway forgetting what manner of man that he was."(James 1:23-24)But you do say,"Thus a right interpretation ensures a right application."-Amen! – Tau Nov 8 '13 at 4:28
  • In your final example, wouldn't I have changed the meaning of your post with such a reading? If you are arguing that there is a difference between meaning and application, you would need to show that two readers who agree on the meaning can disagree on the application. – Soldarnal Nov 9 '13 at 18:18
  • Likewise, in your example of Leviticus 26:4, you arrive at the "correct" application by arriving at the "correct" meaning. I don't understand how you distinguish between the two. – Soldarnal Nov 9 '13 at 18:20
  • An application can be correct without the interpretation being correct. For instance, if I understand Jesus's commandment to "look at the birds" in Mt 6:26 as a commandment to lose my worries by focusing on things other than myself - for instance, birds: my interpretation would be wrong, but the application, "don't worry" or "stop focusing on yourself and you will stop worrying", would be correct. Moreover, each scripture has a single interpretation - that is, what the author meant by the words. (cont...) – Niobius Nov 9 '13 at 21:59
  • @Soldarnal - But a scripture may have several applications. For instance, Paul's "imitate me as I imitate Christ" has the interpretation - Paul commands the reader to think and act the way he does, the same way he tries to think and act the way Jesus did. However, this single interpretation may have multiple applications: e.g. 1) I should learn about how Paul thought and acted, and think and act the same way. 2) I should learn about how Jesus thought and acted, and think and act the same way. 3) I should, in my imitation of Christ and Paul, encourage others to imitate me. – Niobius Nov 9 '13 at 22:02

The eighth commandment, in the original Hebrew, is the verb לִגְנוֹב "lignôv", conjugated in the second person plural, in the future construction (binyan yqtol), where most of the commandments were constructed, so that the language was counseling in a cordial manner.

The Hebrew text reads:

לֹא תִּגְנֹב Thou shalt not steal. Exodus 20:15

And the verb לִגְנוֹב "lignôv" can be used to refer to various types of thefts. there are many meanings implicit in the eighth commandment.

source: https://brasilgospel.club/antigo/exodo/nao-furtaras-oitavo-mandamento/


The answer to the title is simply "yes" and "no" will depend on the context... Let us take the example: "You examine the Scriptures, because you care to have eternal life in them, and it is they which testify of me;" John 5:39. If we read this verse alone, we can understand that at that moment Jesus apparently teaches that we have to learn in the Scriptures to gain eternal life; but in fact He was teaching something else, at that moment the Jews were showing themselves to be wise and just, as if they had gained eternal life by reading only, the intention was to use the scriptures to attack Jesus. But Jesus shows that they are blind, for the Scriptures without Christ are mere words, and Jesus was right there in front of them the Author of the Scriptures himself, and they could not interpret it!

  • Welcome to BHSX. Thanks for this answer. Please take the tour (below) to better understand the type of reasoned answers preferred here. Are you able to supply any references for these ideas? – Dottard Jun 3 '20 at 22:44

No. As we can establish that the whole context of the word of God has every detail of what theft is. This would easily be established. They only understood one example from the word of God of what stealing is.! In this instance you have chosen a scripture that sums up all theft. For the one man to conclude that embezzlement is the only form of theft would be..wrong. The application in this verse is a broad statement of all types of theft although technically theft is theft, but to limit it to one instance, is maybe not the application here

They understood the application subjectively. Is that sufficient to judge that they understood it categorically or empirically in all its applications, or does the ones subjective view, encompass the whole of the meaning and extent of the act of theft. So in principle Yes all theft is the same, so in that sense they got the meaning right, they understood what theft was in their own context. But by disagreeing on the application, they would both show, that they did not understand the meaning of the verse, "Thou shalt not steal" . Do we need to understand a text categorically to fully and truly understand the meaning, yes! In order to show that they did they would both have to see each others acts as theft. To understand a part and not the whole, is not, to fully understand. If we do not fully understand the meaning, do we understand it, in the true sense of the word.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.