The majority of Christians lay claim to the Holy Bible, Old and New Testaments, as the only perfect rule for faith, doctrine and conduct. We read and re-read the text for reasons both intellectual and emotional; doctrinal and devotional. The art, philosophy, struggle and journey of biblical interpretation remains as one of the major hallmarks of the Christian faith; and it is often our hermeneutical differences that mark the distinguishing factors between various Christian churches, families, traditions and denominations.
I’ve long used a basic hermeneutical tool for small group preparation which I’d learned from a Youth Specialties conference years ago. I’ve trained both adult volunteers and students to use the three simple steps of Observation (What does it say?), Interpretation (What does it mean?) and Application (What do we do with it?).
I still think this is a good conversational methodology and fully appreciate the intent of each step; even the application step. However, my observation has often been that when the pastor/leader drives the application conversation, it not only seems contrived, but often goes without any real action. The intentions of our conversations do not necessarily produce the desired fruit of obedience. This has stirred in me a pragmatic theological question: Can we truly understand the Word without responding to its truth with some sort of obedience?
The book of James makes a pretty interesting claim about the relationship between reading the word and doing what it says.
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.
When we don’t respond to the Word of God with action, we are like someone who has looked into a mirror and forgotten their image. This person walks away without an understanding of what they’ve seen. Thus if we neglect the hermeneutical step of action, we too may be in danger of walking away from the Word having not truly understood what we’ve seen.
To internalize truth without living it out does not make us Christians, it makes us theorists. Action then becomes a indispensable step in the process, both helping us to understand and driving us right back to the text where we can observe and interpret from the vantage point of experience. Obedience to the Word is in this sense a spiritual discipline with a supernatural quality. As we repeat this process throughout our lives, the Spirit leads us deeper and deeper into the Word. While the greater culture may continue to place an unfortunately high value on the ability of individuals to regurgitate information; genuine discipleship must respect those who are practicing and experiencing truth in real life.
In verse 25, James repeats both ideas and language that he most likely got from Jesus. Not only does Jesus close the sermon on the mount with the charge to put his words into practice, but in John 13:17 he tells his disciples, “Now that you know these things you will be blessed if you do them.” Something tells me that this is not the usual “American-dream” that we usually associate with the word blessing. Something tells me that the blessing here entails a deeper understanding of the Word and a security in Christ that cannot be shaken. It only makes me curious as to how the church would look if we could incorporate this more explicitly in our process of biblical interpretation.