Absorbing and Applying God’s Word

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In The Horse and His Boy, C.S. Lewis, there is a certain refrain: “In the presence of the Tisroc (may he live forever), the only acceptable response was the enforced litany, ‘To hear is to obey.’” Lewis repeats this refrain to convince his readers that the culture of Calormene, and in particular the capital city of Tashbaan, was one of unquestioned obedience.

Tashbaan is reminiscent of all that we envision of a premodern tenth-century Arabian kingdom. Immediate and full obedience to the bidding of the Tisroc (may he live forever), whether feigned, fearful, or willing, was the expected cultural norm.

Change the genre from children’s fantasy to adult fantasy literature, and Lewis sets The Screwtape Letters in the modernity of the 1940s. In his opening epistle, Screwtape advises his young charge Wormwood that times are now different.

That might have been so if he had lived a few centuries earlier. At that time the humans still knew pretty well when a thing was proved and when it was not; and if it was proved they really believed it. They still connected thinking with doing and were prepared to alter their way of life as the result of a chain of reasoning.

What was axiomatic in a former era (“to hear is to obey”) has become suspect, disconnected, and optional. Such is the prevailing curse of modernity that continues to inform our practice today. Modern and progressivist education has successfully driven a wedge between knowing and doing, and hearing and applying. Screwtape’s strategic agenda has succeeded to great and devastating effects even in the church. Thanks to modernity, believers will not, and perhaps can not, faithfully apply Scripture to their lives.

A conclusion might be drawn that there is no true understanding of the Scriptures without the necessity of “doing.” In order to encourage the loving obedience duly mandated in Scripture, the following considerations are offered. As moderns, we are tempted to see this problem in one of two ways: as a problem of theory, wherein people really don’t understand the Scriptures, or else they would apply them to their lives; or, as a problem of application. The latter suggests that people need a method or technique in order to reconnect their thinking with their doing. In reality, however, it is the whole theory-application model that is flawed.

If we hope to reconnect our thinking with our doing, we are going to have to change the model. Rather than seeing the Scriptures as primarily an object to understand, which we must in turn seek to apply by means of a technique or program, we must adopt something more akin to the posture of a subject of the Tisroc, albeit out of loving service rather than servile fear.

As a Christian classical educator, I propose that we are going to need a new grammar—a new way of speaking, a new way of reading, a new sense of authority, and a renewed anthropology.

A NEW WAY OF SPEAKING

We require a new vocabulary whose images do not conjure up application as a method, program, or technique. We are prone to understand the application of Scripture to life in mechanical terms where passages are “applied” as fixes for broken and sinful aspects of life. The Bible becomes objectified and treated as a resource for enhancing life in a fallen world. Sanctification often suffers from reductionistic efforts to change first this, and then that, particular aspect of one’s life. Inadequate understanding of our holistic and integrated complexity as beings made in the image of God reinforces this truncated approach to application. The Scriptures are treated as a manual to repair our brokenness, with much of the application being devoted only to our theology and worldview.

A NEW WAY OF READING

John Calvin, in his treatment of Holy Scripture, proposes a new method of reading when he writes, “All right knowledge of God is born of obedience.” While this phrase is often quoted, the most common error in understanding Calvin results from our propensity to invert his clauses. Where he says right knowledge is born of obedience, we say that obedience is born of right knowledge. We must learn to see the Scriptures not primarily as texts to be interpreted in order to form our doctrinal understanding, however necessary that is, but as words addressed to the Lord’s disciples, words that to hear are to obey, and in the obeying of which comes true understanding and right knowledge. Like our first parents, our problem is not what we know or don’t know, but that we are disobedient.

A RENEWED SENSE OF AUTHORITY

Rightly did the angels begin their announcements, “Fear not!” We, however, no longer fear our Sovereign. No one disobeyed the Tisroc, but Jesus is dismissed with impunity. Our theology concludes with forgiveness on the cross, neglectful that Jesus rose, ascended, and is enthroned at the right hand of the Father from whence He judges the quick and the dead.

A RENEWED ANTHROPOLOGY

A thoroughly biblical understanding of our humanity, one that refuses the theory-application model and the lure of technique, must be reasserted. We are a union of body and soul, mind, will, and affections, made in the image of God. We are able to hear and to obey, not from servile fear but from loving obedience. It is then that we may say with Calvin, “All right knowledge of God is born of obedience.”

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