Point-to-Point Application: Abstraction

Application

If we truly hold to the sufficiency of Scripture, then we must discover the legitimate applicatory relationships, correspondences, or common elements between the biblical text and the contemporary setting. We shall look at three (of the few) men who have probed these matters: Jay E. Adams, Ramesh Richard, and Walt Kaiser. They have similar processes, but each has its own nuances and terminology: Adams calls it abstraction;1Jay E. Adams, Truth Applied: Application in Preaching (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 33-55; Adams, Preaching with Purpose, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), 16-33, 131-45. Richard calls it extrapolation;2Ramesh Richard’s thoughtful 4-part series titled, “Methadological Proposals for Scripture Relevance” in BSac 143 (1986). and, Kaiser calls it principlization.3Walter Kaiser, Toward an Exegetical Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981), 149-60; and “Inner Biblical Exegesis as a Model for Bridging the ‘Then’ and ‘Now’ Gap: Hosea … Continue reading Grasping these concepts will aid in discovering legitimate, author-driven applications grounded in strong, biblical authority. 

Tether the Verbal Meaning to the Telos

Let’s start with Adams. Adams is concerned, first, with finding the single purpose of the preaching-text, which he calls the telos. The telos, he says, is the primary “purpose” of the text and corresponds with what we call the “timeless principle.” He rightly observes: 

[Much] preaching has failed because God’s telos (or purpose) in the preaching passage has been ignored by preachers who, instead, use it for their own purposes, thereby misusing it and losing the force of the passage.4Adams, Truth Applied, 36

It is in our application that we often, inadvertently, deny the sufficiency of Scripture. This is cause for concern. Merely attaching vague similarities between the text’s telos (purpose) and the modern audience is insufficient.5Adams, Preaching with Purpose, 136, articulates, “Discovering similarities is not enough; the similarities that count are those which are basic, not those which are secondary. To find a … Continue reading Rather, the primary thrust of the preaching passage must match the primary thrust of the application. 

It is in our application that we often, inadvertently, deny the sufficiency of Scripture. This is cause for concern.

For example, consider how Adams applies this concept to Philippians 1:27-2:13:

The Philippian church was split by two quarreling women, Euodious and Syntyche (cf. 4:2-3). Before confronting this division head-on, Paul laid a groundwork for such a discussion by writing about unity and how to attain it. . . . Paul taught that concern for others would bring unity. Then he gives us the prime example of One who did just that: Jesus Christ. . . . Certainly this section, containing some of the highest doctrinal teaching regarding the deity and incarnation of Christ presents truth (doctrine) applied. Paul’s concern is not to teach doctrine as such. But he does teach it—for a purpose.  He wants believers to adopt the same attitude (‘mind’) that Christ had.6Adams, Truth Applied, 36

Many may identify the deity and incarnation of Christ as the purpose of this passage, but Adams correctly ascertains: Paul set forth Christ (and his embodiment of these doctrinal truths) as an illustration of the larger point he was making regarding unity within the church. Adams’ point is well-taken: We must tether the verbal meaning to the telos.

Tether the Telos to the Specific Application

Adams traces the legitimate applicational correspondences through a method he calls “abstraction.” Abstraction lifts the telos (or, “timeless principle,” as we call it) from the biblical passage. Then, he applies it to a contemporary context. The preacher must do two things: (1) abstract the timeless principle from the preaching-text and (2) abstract the elements in the preaching-text that approximate the contemporary situation. 7Adams, Truth Applied, 47-48 Regarding the latter, Adams advises, “When the elements in both the biblical and the contemporary situations match, the abstracted principle may be reapplied.”8Ibid., 48 The following questions (introduced in our earlier article) help connect the dots between the timeless principle and the present-day context. A healthy exercise is to write-out the answer to these questions as you prepare each sermon/lesson:

  1. What is the telos of the preaching portion? Is that also the telos of your sermon?
  2. In what sort of situation does the telos occur? What was going on? To what is it addressed?
  3. In the passage who is doing what about the situation?
    • to understand it?
    • to change it?
    • to complicate it?
  4. How does God view the situation? 
    • Is He pleased with it?
    • Is He displeased with it?
  5. What response does He require?9Ibid., 54

This tethers the telos to the specific application. The value of this exercise is this: It begins eliminating illegitimate applicatory relationships that might deny the sufficiency of the biblical author’s intent. It preserves the biblical author’s prerogative to “reach from the grave” into present-day life. Since Scripture is breathed-out by God (2 Tim. 3:16), God took this into account when He brought the written text into existence through His human author.

Concluding Thought

Two key points to glean from Adams:

  1. The telos of the text and the telos of the message must match.
  2. The application of a passage must establish legitimate common elements—not mere similarities—between the original setting and the contemporary one. 

Adams’ controls are beneficial, albeit broad. Therefore, we shall tighten the screws further by examining Ramesh Richard’s work next.

References

References
1 Jay E. Adams, Truth Applied: Application in Preaching (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 33-55; Adams, Preaching with Purpose, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), 16-33, 131-45.
2 Ramesh Richard’s thoughtful 4-part series titled, “Methadological Proposals for Scripture Relevance” in BSac 143 (1986).
3 Walter Kaiser, Toward an Exegetical Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981), 149-60; and “Inner Biblical Exegesis as a Model for Bridging the ‘Then’ and ‘Now’ Gap: Hosea 12:1-6,” JETS 28 (Mar 1985): 33-36, 43-46.
4, 6 Adams, Truth Applied, 36
5 Adams, Preaching with Purpose, 136, articulates, “Discovering similarities is not enough; the similarities that count are those which are basic, not those which are secondary. To find a correlation between superficial factors is to allow one’s self to be deflected from the telic thrust of a preaching portion to something that was not intended at all. . . . The task, then, is to find the constant, or basic thrust in each circumstance to which God’s authoritative Word speaks.”
7 Adams, Truth Applied, 47-48
8 Ibid., 48
9 Ibid., 54
Author Application

Chip Thornton

Pastor of FBC Springville, Alabama. Chip is a graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he earned his Ph.D. in expository preaching. He enjoys spending time with his family, has a passion for discipleship, and is committed to biblical exposition.