The Heresy of Application: an Interview with Haddon Robinson

Article / Produced by Individual TOW Project member

This is an interview with Haddon Robinson originally printed in 1997 in Christianity Today / Leadership Journal.

Leadership assistant editor Ed Rowell was talking on the phone with Haddon Robinson recently when Haddon made the offhand comment, "More heresy is preached in application than in Bible exegesis." The phrase stuck in our minds. We editors had several, animated conversations about it, standing around the black file cabinets in the hall outside our offices.

We finally decided to visit Haddon in his office at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, near Boston, and press him on the implications of what he'd said.

There, amid at least three containers of jellybeans, numerous diplomas, and an academic gown still in plastic from the dry cleaners, we found the Harold John Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching. Haddon authored Biblical Preaching, a text used in 120 seminaries and Bible colleges. He teaches on the daily program "Radio Bible Class" and, in a 1996 poll conducted by Baylor University, was named one of the twelve most effective preachers in the English-speaking world.

Our conversation became a rich, Socratic dialogue on the delicate art of applying ancient truth to modern people.

You've said that more heresy is preached in application than in Bible exegesis. Why?

Haddon Robinson: Preachers want to be faithful to the Scriptures, and going through seminary, they have learned exegesis. But they may not have learned how to make the journey from the biblical text to the modern world. They get out of seminary and realize the preacher's question is application: How do you take this text and determine what it means for this audience?

Sometimes we apply the text in ways that might make the biblical writer say, "Wait a minute, that's the wrong use of what I said." This is the heresy of a good truth applied in the wrong way.

What does this heresy look like?

I heard someone preach a sermon from Ruth on how to deal with in-laws. Now, it's true that in Ruth you have in-laws. The problem is, Ruth was not given to solve in-law problems. The sermon had a lot of practical advice, but it didn't come from the Scriptures.

Someone might ask, "What's the problem with preaching something true and useful, even if it's not the central thrust of your text or not what the writer had in mind?"

When we preach the Bible, we preach with biblical authority. We agree with Augustine: What the Bible says, God says.

Therefore, we bring to bear on, say, this in-law problem, the full authority of God. The person hearing the sermon thinks, If I don't deal with my mother-in-law this way, I am disobedient to God. To me, that's a rape of the Bible. You're saying what God doesn't say.

How does such preaching affect a congregation?

One effect is that you undermine the Scriptures you say you are preaching. Ultimately, people come to believe that anything with a biblical flavor is what God says.

The long-term effect is that we preach a mythology. Myth has an element of truth along with a great deal of puff, and people tend to live in the puff. They live with the implications of implications, and then they discover that what they thought God promised, he didn't promise.

A week ago I talked with a young woman whose husband had left her. She said, "I have tried to be submissive. Doesn't the Bible say if a wife submits, she'll have a happy and successful marriage?"

"No," I said, "the Bible doesn't say that."

She said, "I've gone to seminars and heard that."

"What the Bible says is you have a responsibility as a wife. A husband also has a responsibility. But the best you may have is a C marriage. There is no guarantee you will have an A marriage."

What makes Bible application so prone to error?

In application we attempt to take what we believe is the truth of the eternal God, which was given in a particular time and place and situation, and apply it to people in the modern world who live in another time, another place, and a very different situation. That is harder than it appears.

The Bible is specific—Paul writes letters to particular churches; the stories are specific—but my audience is general. For example, a man listening to a sermon can identify with David committing adultery with Bathsheba, but he's not a king, and he doesn't command armies. We have to take this text that is historically specific and determine how the living God speaks from it to people today.

What's the best way to do that?

Preachers make that journey in different ways.

One is to take the biblical text straight over to the modern situation. In some cases, that works well. For example, Jesus says, "Love your enemies." I say to my listeners: "Do you have enemies? Love them."

But then I turn the page, and Jesus says, "Sell what you have, give to the poor, and follow me." I hesitate to bring this straight over because I think, If everybody does this, we'll have problems, big problems.

Some texts look as though they can come straight over to my contemporary audience, but not necessarily. I need to know something about the circumstances of both my text and of my audience.

The preacher's question is application.

For example?

Let's say I ask the question, as many Christians did in the last century, "Is slavery wrong?" I go to Paul, who does talk about slavery. But I discover when I get into his world that he's not necessarily answering my questions about the nineteenth century in America, because the slavery Paul talks about isn't the slavery we knew in the United States in the nineteenth century.

In the first century, people sold themselves into slavery because they were economically better off as slaves, protected by their owners, than they were free. Most slaves were freed by age 30, because in that day maintaining slaves was economically difficult. Roman law said an owner could not handle slaves any way he wanted to. And if you walked down the streets of Rome, you could not tell the slaves from the free men by the color of their skin.

If I don't realize that Paul's situation and mine are different, I may apply Paul's advice about slaves in a way it was never intended.

Another difficulty is that Paul talks to people I can't see or hear. It's like overhearing a telephone conversation. I listen to only half of the conversation, and I think I know what the other person is saying, but I can't be sure. I can only guess at what the full conversation is from what I hear one person saying. The questions the writer answers are not necessarily my questions.

What signals that we may be confusing the questions?

A text cannot mean what it has not meant. That is, when Paul wrote to people in his day, he expected them to understand what he meant.

For example, we have some thirty different explanations for what Paul meant when he wrote the Corinthians about the baptism for the dead. But the people who read that letter the first time didn't say, "I wonder what he meant by that." They may have had further questions, but the meaning of the subject was clear to them.

I cannot make that passage mean something today that it did not mean in principle in the ancient world. That's why I have to do exegesis. I have to be honest with the text before I can come over to the contemporary world.

I picture a "ladder of abstraction" that comes up from the biblical world and crosses over and down to the modern setting. I have to be conscious how I cross this "abstraction ladder." I want to make sure the biblical situation and the current situation are analogous at the points I am making them connect. I must be sure the center of the analogy connects, not the extremes.

Sometimes, as I work with a text, I have to climb the abstraction ladder until I reach the text's intent.

Give us an example

Leviticus says, "Don't boil a kid in its mother's milk." First, you have to ask, "What is this all about?" At face value, you might say, "If I have a young goat, and I want to cook it in its mother's milk for dinner tonight, I should think twice."

But we now know the pagans did that when they worshiped their idolatrous gods. Therefore, what you have here is not a prohibition against boiling a kid in its mother's milk, but against being involved in the idolatry that surrounded God's people or bringing its practices into their religion.

If that's the case, it does no good for the preacher to bring this text straight over. You must climb the ladder of abstraction a couple of levels until you reach the principle: You should not associate yourself with idolatrous worship, even in ways that do not seem to have direct association with physically going to the idol.

Let's say you know that a passage can't come straight across. How do you go about climbing the abstraction ladder?

One thing I always do with a passage is abstract up to God. Every passage has a vision of God, such as God as Creator or Sustainer.

Second I ask, "What is the depravity factor? What in humanity rebels against that vision of God?"

These two questions are a helpful clue in application because God remains the same, and human depravity remains the same. Our depravity may look different, but it's the same pride, obstinacy, disobedience.

Take 1 Corinthians 8, in which Paul addresses the subject of eating meat offered to idols.

The vision of God: He is our redeemer. Therefore, Paul argues, I will not eat meat, because if I wound my brother's weak conscience, I sin against Christ, who redeemed him.

The depravity factor: People want their rights, so they don't care that Christ died for their brother.

Application is harder than it appears.

How do you preach about situations not addressed directly in the biblical text? It doesn't really help listeners to say, "God doesn't speak to your situation."

Sometimes, though, I think a preacher would do a congregation well to say that. It's instructive that some things we spend time praying about have so little kingdom dimension to them.

A while ago, an acquaintance was trying to decide which of two or three cars to buy. He wanted me to pray that he would buy the car that would be most pleasing to God. I said to him, "It's conceivable that God doesn't want you to have a car at all. Maybe you ought to take the train."

I was teasing him, but we need to remember, a great mass of people in the world don't have a bike to ride.

Are preachers today more likely to apply a passage a certain way than would preachers of a generation ago?

Today, what's prevalent is specific application. In the past, the application would have been more general—to trust God and give him glory. Today, preaching deals with how to have a happy marriage, how to bring up your children, how to deal with stress.

That's challenging, because in any congregation sit people with incredibly varied backgrounds. How do you apply well to each one?

We tend to apply a passage to people like ourselves. If you're 35 and you associate with young professionals in the church, you'll tend to keep those people in mind.

It's helpful to make a grid of the people in your church in terms of things like age, marital status, housing situation, net worth, education. After you determine the principle in a passage, you look at the grid and ask, "What does this say to a single person in her fifties who works in a grocery store and lives with her parents?" It may not say anything, but you continue asking that question for each grouping.

When I prepare, I imagine about eight people standing around my desk. One is my wife's mother, who is a true believer. In my mind, I also picture a friend who is a cynic, and sometimes I can hear him saying, "Oh, yeah, sure." I picture a business executive who thinks bottom line. I have in my mind a teenager, whom I can occasionally hear saying, "This is boring." I look at these folks in my mind and think, What does this have to say to them?

After preaching a sermon have you ever said, "I wish I hadn't applied it quite like that"?

That's the story of my life. In my twenties I preached some things I believed deeply then, but now I wonder, How in the world did I come up with that?

I remember believing that headship meant the husband ought to take care of the finances. Worse, my wife insists that in a sermon on marriage, one of my main points was that a wife ought not serve her husband instant coffee!

Obviously that application came out of the culture of that day more than anything else. It preached well. In those days I used anything that popped into my head that looked like it applied. The awful thing was I said in the name of God what God was not saying. Is it disobedience against God for the wife to keep the checkbook? Of course not. Asking the question, "Does this rank at the level of obedience?" is a good test of sermon application.

What do you say when you can't say, "This is a matter of obedience to God"?

We want to have a "Thus saith the Lord" about specific things in people's lives, but we can't always have that. So we need to distinguish between various types of implications from the text. Implications may be necessary, probable, possible, improbable, or impossible.

For example, a necessary implication of "You shall not commit adultery" is you cannot have a sexual relationship with a person who is not your spouse. A probable implication is you ought to be very careful of strong bonding friendships with a person who is not your spouse. A possible implication is you ought not travel regularly to conventions or other places with a person who is not your spouse. An improbable conclusion is you should not at any time have lunch with someone who is not your spouse. An impossible implication is you ought not have dinner with another couple because you are at the same table with a person who is not your spouse.

Too often preachers give to a possible implication all the authority of a necessary implication, which is at the level of obedience. Only with necessary implications can you preach, "Thus saith the Lord."

How would you phrase such distinctions in the pulpit?

One way is to say, "This is the principle, and the principle is clear. How this principle applies in our lives may differ with different people in different situations."

For example, the principle of honoring one's parents is not negotiable. But do you keep an elderly parent at home, or do you put the parent in a nursing home? You may want to say, "To honor your parent you ought to keep him at home." But someone may say, "I have three children, and my parent wanders the house in the middle of the night, waking the kids and disrupting the household, and it's hurting the kids." Now we have principles in tension.

That application may disappoint many congregations because they like to be told exactly what to do.

Doesn't it eviscerate your sense of authority to say, "Think about it"?

At times that may be the most effective thing I can do for a congregation because the world that people live in often has conflicting principles. By generalizing, we often miss the contradictions and tensions in the Bible.

For example, the Book of Job balances the theology of the Book of Proverbs. Proverbs teaches cause and effect. Job's friends basically recite Proverbs to Job, but there is an ingredient they don't know about—what's going on in heaven.

The Wisdom Literature says, "In general, this is the way God's world works, but we cannot say if a person is hurting and seemingly punished he must have been disobedient. Disobedience brings punishment; not all apparent punishment is for disobedience."

The Bible does that kind of thing all the time. Call it "the balance of harmonious opposites." We all live with that sort of tension. Therefore, when applying the text, it's more important to get people to think Christianly than to act religiously.

I said in the name of God what God was not saying.

How do the different genres of Scripture affect our application?

The most extensive Bible genre is story, people doing things. We have to ask, Why does the Bible give us so much narrative? Why didn't God just come right out and say what he meant and not beat around the bush with stories? If I were God and were going to give something that would last until the end of time, I would have said, "Here are five principles about my will." But he doesn't do that.

Therefore it's dangerous to go into a narrative and say, "Here are three things we learn about the providence of God." That's not the way the biblical writers chose to handle it. If we believe the Bible to be the inspired Word of God, we have to consider the methods used to proclaim God's message.

What is the harm in using a three-point structure or five-principles structure? It may have been foreign to the writer, but it may be helpful to today's listener.

It is not a deadly sin. But what I need to bring out when I preach from stories are the tensions. Here are real people being directed by God and responding to God. The purpose of these stories is not to say at the end, "You must, you should." The purpose is to give insight into how men and women relate to the eternal God and how God relates to them.

In a sermon on Joseph's life, for example, I might say, "A lot of life doesn't seem to make sense. You make plans, but they don't come about. You're true to God, but you aren't rewarded for it. If that's where you are, here's a man who experienced that."

I'm not going to tell people that Joseph's experience will be like their experience. Rather I will say, "The great tension in the life of Joseph is a tension we all feel." I will apply what is a universal experience.

You can deal abstractly with a great principle—God is sovereign—in a way that gets boring. Such a sermon reminds me of a hovercraft that floats eight feet above the ground but never lands into life. Without the human element, you lose the specific, the historical narrative, the emotional interaction.

If you as a preacher could increase your sermon preparation time from eight hours to ten, what would you do with those two hours to most improve your application?

I would invest those hours in whatever I tend not to focus on.

People who are good at exegesis tend to spend a lot of time in that and may not know when to quit. Those folks would be well served to spend extra time on how to communicate the fruit of their research.

Others are into the communication side. They're always relevant, but they desperately need to spend more time in the biblical text to let it speak to them.

How do you view the Holy Spirit's role in the process of applying the text to the listener's life?

The Spirit answers to the Word. If I am faithful to the Scriptures, I give the Spirit of God something to work on that he doesn't have if I'm preaching Reader's Digest.

I have a formula: Pain + time + insight = change.

Sometimes people go through pain over a period of time, but that doesn't change them. But pain and time plus insight will, and that's where the preacher comes in.

This explains why on a given Sunday the sermon is a wide yawn for many. Even with the greatest preachers, not every sermon stirs everybody. But then people will say to you, "You can't imagine how that spoke to me." They didn't come to church neutral; they came with pain suffered over a period of time. They received insight from the sermon, it clicked, and change occurred in their life.

When did you sense the Spirit applying a sermon to you?

Several years ago I was out of sorts with God. I came to church one Sunday, and the preacher was not particularly good, but he dealt with the biblical text. I did not want to read that biblical text, but I couldn't get away from it. The preacher did not apply the text to my situation, but the Word itself got through to me in such a way that after the service I had to go for a long drive. It was one of those moments when you say, "God has confronted me, and it's going to be dangerous business if I don't listen." It was as though that passage and that preacher and the Spirit had picked me out of the crowd. The sermon was not eloquent, but that passage and his sticking with it drove home the truth to my life.

That's the greatness of preaching. Something can always happen when a preacher takes God's Word seriously.