Both interpretation and application of Scripture are vitally important.
Interpretation is the process of determining what a passage of Scripture means, or, more precisely, what it would have meant to the original audience. To interpret properly, one must consider the cultural, historical, and literary context as well as the grammatical structures and the meaning of the words in their original language (using commentaries and language tools if one is not proficient in Hebrew or Greek).
Interpretation must come first. One cannot know how to apply a passage of Scripture before determining what it means. “What does it mean to me?” is not a good question to ask in the interpretation stage, but it might be appropriate for application. Too often, Bible readers will skip to application without determining the actual meaning of a text.
Application is the process of putting the meaning of Scripture into action in the reader’s specific context.
The following is an example of the difference between interpretation and application:
In Mark 12:31, Jesus affirmed the principle “you should love your neighbor as yourself.”
In the interpretive stage, the Bible reader would need to determine who a neighbor is. By doing a little study, the interpreter could determine that a neighbor is essentially anyone whom he or she may encounter along life’s journey. If the interpreter simply assumes a modern American definition of neighbor—“someone who lives on my street”—then Jesus’ principle cannot be applied as the Lord intended.
To continue interpreting Mark 12:31, the Bible student would also need to determine what love is. In the modern American context, love is often thought of in romantic or erotic terms. If the Bible student tries to apply this understanding to “love your neighbor,” there might be some unfavorable repercussions. However, further study would lead the interpreter to the characteristics of love found in 1 Corinthians 13. The interpreter might eventually come to a biblical definition of love, which would be something like “looking out for the best interests of others even if it is not in your best interest.”
Putting it all together, the proper interpretation of “love your neighbor as yourself” is that we are to look to the best interests of anyone we encounter. That is a far cry from hugging and kissing the person who lives next door.
Application is putting into action the truth of a passage in a specific context. Using the example of loving one’s neighbor, suppose there is an elderly lady next door who struggles every week to get her trash can to the curb and then back into her garage on trash day. To show love, one person might start taking the can to the curb on garbage day and taking it back to her garage at the end of the day. Another person might decide that he will hire a neighbor kid to do that task each week or ask one of his own kids to do it. The interpretation of the passage has nothing to do with trash cans, curbs, garages, or garbage days, but the application might. No passage in the Bible can interpreted to mean something that the original author or the original readers could not have understood, but it can be applied in situations the original human authors could never have imagined.
Application requires discernment. A motorist who passes another motorist stranded on the highway needs to decide how to apply the passage about loving one’s neighbors. He may stop to help the stranded motorist or offer to provide a ride. But what if the person with the working vehicle is a mother with three children in the car and the stranded car has two or more men in it? She will need to balance concern for the stranded men with concern for her three children, who, biblically speaking, are also her neighbors. Instead of stopping and approaching them on the road, she may from a safe distance offer to make a call for them. These are questions of application, not interpretation. The way one person shows love to a neighbor may be completely different from the way another person does it, but both of them may be interpreting the passage in the same way. There is one correct interpretation of a passage but many possible applications.
Interpretation without application is simply dead Bible study. The Word of God is not intended to be approached on a purely academic level, with no thought of putting it into practice. The Word must change us. Jesus spoke of the scribes who studied the Scriptures but did not put them into practice (John 5:39). James admonished, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22).
Attempts at application without interpretation are equally imprudent. Applying a passage of Scripture without ever taking the time to determine what it means would be like starting out on a cross-country road trip without ever consulting a map. There may be a lot of excitement and activity, but the car may be headed in the wrong direction.