Michael Spencer, who blogs at Internet Monk, has interviewed Dr. David Powlison about his contribution to the ESV Study Bible. Dr. Powlison contributed the article "Reading the Bible for Personal Application," which is included in this pdf. I have posted Spencer's introduction to Powlison and interview below:
David Powlison, M.Div., Ph.D. is a counselor and faculty member at CCEF and is the editor of the Journal of Biblical Counseling. He holds a Ph.D. in History and Science of Medicine from the University of Pennsylvania, as well as a Master of Divinity degree from Westminster Theological Seminary.
Dr. Powlison has been counseling for over thirty years. He has written many books and articles on biblical counseling and the relationship between faith and psychology. Dr. Powlison is an adjunct professor at Westminster Theological Seminary and has taught across the world. David and his wife, Nan, have a son, two daughters, and one granddaughter.
I want to thank Dr. Powlison for answering a few questions about his outstanding essay in the ESV Study Bible, “Reading the Bible for Personal Application.”
1. You say “But nothing in the Bible was written directly to you or specifically about what you face…..Yet the Bible repeatedly affirms that these words are written for us…” Explain this important foundational irony about proper Biblical interpretation and application.
One marvelous characteristic of Scripture is that for the first recipients, these words were “immediately applicable personal and corporate application”. Scripture IS application to life, not an abstract treatise on topics. Sometimes actual names, circumstances, and locations appear in the body of what was written – even local weather, or what someone was wearing. At the same time, Scripture applies to us. Paul can reference the Exodus-Numbers stories about grumbling, and then leap over 1000 miles, more than a millennium, and vast cultural differences to tell believers in first-century Corinth that these words “were written down for our instruction” (1 Cor. 10:11). You and I are even further away in time, place, and culture, but we find that principle continues to bear fruit. Both the Exodus-Numbers stories and the 1 Corinthians exhortations speak to our temptations to grumble and complain.
There is a difference between “mere exposition” and sound interpretation of this Word. Scripture intends to “discern the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12), and is “able to make you wise for salvation” (2 Tim. 3:15). Application is a necessary part of true understanding. You always reckon with two things: the distance between your situation and the original, and the fusion of those “two horizons.”
In fact, wise application often reckons with multiple intervening horizons. For example, Exodus-Numbers on grumbling applies to you. But wisdom in rightly applying is influenced by numerous intermediate horizons, by numerous places where previous interpreters made their own timely application: e.g., Deuteronomy… Psalms 95 and 105… Jesus in 1 Corinthians 10… Hebrews 3-4… Augustine… the reformers… and the person who first taught you the Bible. This paragraph capture the feel for how Protestants have highly valued “tradition” and the wisdom of our forebears in faith, while not making church history traditions normative.
2. How would you explain the relationship between Jesus as the Word and the Word of God as scripture?
You ask a vast question, and I’ll give only the seed of an answer. The Word written is about the Word incarnate. The Word incarnate lives the Word written. He walks out the promises: of course, the overtly messianic prophecies, but also the forgiveness by blood in the sacrifices, the promise of blessing in Numbers 6:24-26, the hope that the Lord will come himself to save his people in the Psalms, the dwelling of the Lord in his tabernacle, etc., etc. He walks out the commands: e.g., Jesus loves God and neighbor; Jesus lives the wisdom of the Proverbs and so gains life and blessing. We can rightly say, no Scripture, no Jesus, and no Jesus, no Scripture. It is a serious misstep to separate Jesus (and the Spirit) from the Word, as if he were some sort of lively wildcard factor, while the written words are stodgy, stultifying and a-relational. It is an equally serious misstep to separate the Word from Jesus (and the Spirit), as if the written words are all that remains after he vacated the scene. Wildfire spiritualities and tied-up-with-a-bow religiosities both lose the living connection.
3. All of us know what it is like to encounter someone who develops some unique or unusual personal application of scripture because of mystical insight into the meaning of a verse. What are the safeguards for insuring good personal application?
I know a man who moved to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, because he flipped open his Bible to the words, “He sent them to Bethlehem” (Luke 2:6). His Bible served as a magic book, a sanctified set of Tarot cards for divining God’s will in the minutiae of life. The safeguards against such things? Always read a text in context. One truth that will take you far in avoiding nutty uses of the Bible is to learn the difference between God’s will of command (to be known from Scripture, and obeyed) and his will of control (applying to all of life, only known in retrospect, and simply to be trusted, neither figured out nor obeyed).
But there’s no magic answer to protect us from magical, over-personalized uses of Scripture. Hang out with wise friends and teachers. There’s no substitute for being in a community that pursues wisdom. He who walks with the wise becomes wise. That community will be in part literary – there are many wise, balanced, penetrating Christian books, and many foolish semi-Christian books. Seek wisdom from God – he gives it to us when we lack. Again I’ll say, always read texts in context. And remember that God is interested in raising grownups – kings and queens – not puppets. Grownups have to make hard decisions in difficult, ambiguous circumstances; they have to make judgment calls; they don’t read tea leaves.
4. How can Protestants balance the role of unified doctrine in the church and the role of the Holy Spirit as revealer of truth to the individual?
This question is equally penetrating when inverted: How can we balance the role of the Holy Spirit as revealer of truth in the church and the role of unified doctrine to the individual? Either way we ask it, we must hold in fruitful balance Truth-and-Spirit and individual-and-community. Tilt too far either way, and you lose something essential.
The Holy Spirit does not reveal “truths” that are not the teachings of Scripture, the revelation he inspired. And the teachings of Scripture include illumination on the person, role, and character of the Spirit.
I like your term “unified doctrine.” I assume you mean by it the attempt to grasp the relationship between truths, rather than simply collecting a grab bag of truths. My New Testament teacher, Dick Gaffin, used to say that “the greater part of wisdom consists in understanding the relationships between complementary truths.” The teaching of the Bible coheres, because God is coherent. He is always consistent with himself, in all that he does and says. But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t done and said different things in different times, places and circumstances. Nehemiah broke up marriages between Jews and Gentiles; 1 Corinthians and 1 Peter encouraged those in mixed marriages to love well in hopes of sustaining marital union.
The coherence in teaching comes in understanding different historical contexts and the ways in which the relative prominence of complementary truths will vary in applications from situation to situation. The coherence of biblical teaching is not always additive (e.g., Truth A + Truth B = a bigger pile of truths). It is usually dynamic (Truth A vis-à-vis Truth B = a wiser way of understanding the ways of God with his creatures).
5. How does the Bible speak to universal human experiences in a way that we can say scripture is speaking specifically to our own situation?
I’ll give several examples from countless ones that could be given. For example, James speaks about your response to “various trials.” That’s a wildcard, inviting you to fill in your own particulars. Throughout the letter he then gives several examples of trials to key your thinking: wealth and poverty, power and powerlessness, physical illness, interpersonal conflict and destructive speech. Those are such universal experiences that you may well find your “trial” described generically in his examples. But if you face a different trial, James will still apply.
Here’s another example. The psalms intentionally flatten out the individual particulars of the author, but retain the experience of seeking and finding God’s grace. Because we usually don’t know the exact sufferings or sins in view, we are actually encouraged to import our own particulars, and to walk out our response to both God and our need along the pathway the psalmist walked.
6. You warn about the tendency to make the Bible an “…omni-relevant magic book teeming with private messages and meanings.” What is lost in this all-too-common approach?
We lose many good things – including common sense! But more significantly, we lose our sense that the Bible is about God more than it is about me, and that one of God’s primary purposes in me is to free me from my all-consuming self-absorption. It is part of our redemption to read about God as God, and to read about long-ago brothers and sisters and enemies for who they actually were. You are enriched by being weaned off of yourself.
7. Can a verse taken completely out of context still yield a Spirit-revealed application?
Just read the sermons of Charles Spurgeon! His applications were often wise and biblical because he had such a refined sense for the unified teaching of Scripture and Spirit. But he rarely communicates what any passage means in context, and I think that is a liability as a role model. Readers and preachers less grounded than Spurgeon will have fewer checks on the temptation to make odd applications.
I’d probably pose your question in a slightly different way, saying “yield a wise application” rather than “yield a Spirit-revealed application.” The Spirit is the source of all wisdom, for believers and unbelievers alike. If a secular psychotherapist says to an angry, entitled, manipulative husband, “You are angry, entitled, and manipulative, and you need to learn how to love your wife and not be so self-centered,” I’d rather say that those words are wise, cohere with Scripture, and express a common grace goodness of the Spirit, instead of saying they were Spirit-revealed. That counselor is missing the saving grace of Christ that is Spirit-revealed in the Word, and that ought to find expression in counseling.
8. What would be your answer to someone who said that passages like the Old Testament histories or specific prophetic oracles have no application to the lives of believers today?
You don’t understand how the Old Testament works, though you do grasp a partial truth. You rightly see, for example, that Obadiah is fulfilled. Edom bit the dust. Case closed. But Obadiah was timely in the 580s B.C. exactly because he brought wide and deep truths to bear in his historical moment. God, whose words and actions Obadiah proclaims, speaks and acts in continuity to all that precedes this prophet and all that follows. The great reversals of God’s redemptions and judgments find expression throughout Scripture. Obadiah, like the rest of the Old Testament, points to and reveals Christ in the character, promises, and real-time workings of the Lord. The New Testament explicitly says that the Old makes us wise unto salvation, is given for our encouragement, reveals Jesus.
Obadiah is never going to be as significant as Romans or Luke for our doctrine, life, and ministry… but it’s no waste of time to read it once a year and to ponder what the Lord here reveals of himself and his ways. In fact, the seeds of Romans and Luke can be seen in Obadiah (e.g., mercy, judgment on evil, deliverance from enemies, the great reversal, the kingdom of God…). In the course of a long preaching ministry, you will benefit your hearers if you preach a time or two from Obadiah. It will help them to understand such connections, and will help their Bible come to life. Seeing such things actually brightens our understanding of Romans and Luke, and sharpens our love for God.
9. Thank you, Dr. Powlison, for your time. We all appreciate your answers to these questions. In closing, would you share the importance of scriptural application in teaching and preaching scripture?
The application of Scripture is what teaching, preaching, worship, missions, mercy ministry, counseling and all other ministry are about. That application is both spoken and lived. This doesn’t mean, by the way, that every third word is “Jesus,” or that ministry involves assembling a pastiche of Bible quotations. I like the example shown in Paul’s sermons and speeches throughout Acts. In Acts 13, Paul weaves together one Scripture after another. But in Acts 14, he talks about weather and crops. Then in Acts 17 he quotes several contemporary Greek poets and philosophers. But all three talks are biblical, and all three proclaim Christ, and all three have life-changing implications, precisely because all three apply Scripture to these particular hearers in language and examples they can understand.