What Is Practical?

2 Timothy 3:16 says this: “All Scripture is breathed out by God, and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness.” Most people focus on the meaning of the first part of the verse, and expound in very helpful and true ways the Warfieldian sense of “breathe out.” However, what I want to focus on in this post is the whole last part of the verse, which gives us various categories (not necessarily exhaustive!) for answering the question of what is practical.

The reason I want to address this issue is that most people’s views on what is practical are much too narrow. They want to know only what is going to help them right that moment, or the next day at the latest. They want to know what is going to help them at Monday morning at 9 AM. What is practical in Scripture is so much broader than this narrow view. The problem is that those with overly narrow views will tend to “practically” cut out of Scripture any passage that doesn’t meet their definition of what is practical. That is, they won’t read that text, meditate upon it, or talk about it. As a result, they cut themselves off from well over half the Bible’s message. Furthermore, it shows that such people are, in fact, rejecting 2 Timothy 3:16. They don’t believe that all Scripture is profitable. They only believe that some Scripture is profitable. We have to expand our categories of practicality if we are going to appreciate all of Scripture and what the entirety of Scripture can do. If we do not do this, then we are omitting Scripture from our walk with God. This is very dangerous territory!

“Profitable” is another way of saying “useful.” The four words that follow (teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training) are four sub-categories of “profitable.” Teaching is profitable. Let that sink in for a moment. Simply teaching the truth is in itself profitable, even if its immediate practical value is not immediately apparent. Let’s contemplate an example of this: teaching the truth about the Trinity may not seem immediately practical in dealing with real-life crises. However, teaching the truth about the Trinity leads to worship, when done and received properly. Since worship is what we were made to do, that should surely count as practical, should it not? Rebuking is more easily seen as practical, though in individual cases, people often reject it, since they do not like to be told they are wrong about anything they do (rebuke is about incorrect behavior, and correcting is about incorrect doctrine). We need to be rebuked when we are straying off the path. Here, simple arrogance is often what gets in the way. We can’t possibly be wrong in anything we do, can we? Well, maybe we’re wrong about that. And maybe one of the reasons we’re wrong about that is that we have cut off over half of Scripture from actually applying itself to us. Training is a word that has as its analogy the world of sports. One doesn’t just try to run a marathon after being a desk jockey for years. That’s a recipe for heart failure and other serious medical problems. One trains. One gradually increases one’s endurance to the point where a marathon is possible. This is similar to the way we are supposed to ingest Scripture. We train. We are patient. We recognize that Scripture is for the long haul, not just for isolated helps here and there.

In addition to the four categories Paul mentions here, there are other ways in which Scripture can be practical. Here is a list: 1. changing our overall perspective on life and the world (this causes us to react better to life’s circumstances instead of being overwhelmed by them). This may not seem like something practical, at first, since it is not usually immediately applicable to immediate circumstances. However, our overall worldview determines how we react to anything, and our reactions most definitely are within the realm of the practical; 2. a delayed reaction application. Again, this can seem like something impractical, since it doesn’t refer to something happening right then and there. However, haven’t almost all Christians found that something they learned many years ago comes back at exactly the right time to help them? Hiding God’s Word in one’s heart does this kind of thing all the time. This is very practical, though it may not seem like it at the time when that Scripture is learned or memorized. 3. an intermittent application. This is a sort of “on again, off again” idea, wherein something may recur with irregularity (and sometimes with regularity!) and the Scriptures may address this recurring-but-not-always-active type of situation. 4. reference to others. This kind of situation occurs often with the marriage texts in Scripture seen by those who are single. The temptation is for the single person to think that such a text does not apply to them. On the contrary! Ephesians 5 tells us that the church’s relationship with Christ is intimately (!) bound up with the marriage relationship of a man to a woman. All the marriage texts have applications for the church and Christ, and hence, also for the single person. In addition, how are single people supposed to know what to pray for, in terms of their married friends, if they don’t know what the Scripture says about marriage? Another example is of believers and unbelievers. If a text of Scripture addresses unbelievers, the believer can be tempted to think it doesn’t apply to them. Usually, however, there is an altered version of the same idea that does apply to the believer. In the parable of the four soils, for example, three of them are of unbelievers. However, a modified version of those soils can be true of the believer’s heart, too.

So, let’s take the hardest kind of literature in the Bible imaginable, in terms of its practicality, the genealogy. How in the world does one read 1 Chronicles 1-9, for example? It is chock full of names, many of which we don’t see in Scripture in other places. Genealogies do several things. Firstly, they provide continuity in the narrative of Scripture. The same God is at work, and He is doing the same types of things. Genealogies point to the faithfulness of God. Secondly, the people of God in the Old Testament are the people of God, our own spiritual ancestors. This is a list of names connected to our story, not detached from us. Thirdly, any time you see a name you recognize, you’re supposed to remember that person’s story. It is a way of reminding us of many, many stories all at once. Given that genealogies are reminders, that fact in itself shows us the practicality of bringing things to our mind that we already know. We are prone to forget, and genealogies help us remember, when read properly. Fourthly, they point us, through that genealogical continuity, to the line of the seed of the woman, which is Christ Jesus, our Lord. That is where the narrative heads. Fifthly, genealogies remind us that there are no unimportant people in God’s eyes. Everyone is important, even the person who is only mentioned once in the Bible. Surely that means for us that we are not so small that God will not listen to us when we pray. Is that not a great encouragement to prayer?

So we must greatly broaden our view of what is practical. It must fit the entire content of the Bible, or it is too narrow. It must fit the entire content of the Bible, or else we are living in denial of 2 Timothy 3:16. It is amazing to me, frankly, how often I have heard, even from ministers who ought to know better, that such and such passage from the Bible just isn’t practical to preach. What nonsense! Every passage from the Scriptures is practical, as long as that practicality is 1. grounded in the meaning of the text first (if it is not, then we are probably mis-applying Scripture); 2. flows out of our understanding of Jesus Christ being the ultimate content of Scripture, via Luke 24 and John 5; and 3. sees the church as the bride of Christ such that application flows from the meaning of the text to the meta meaning of the text (Jesus Christ) to His bride, the church, and to us as members of that church.

11 Comments

  1. April 14, 2020 at 2:19 pm

    Great stuff, especially about the genealogies! I think I’m more in the historical-grammatical group than the redemptive-historical group, now. I really do see God the Father as more prominent in the OT, God the Son as more prominent in the Gospels and Revelation, and God the Holy Spirit as more prominent in Acts through Jude.

  2. greenbaggins said,

    April 14, 2020 at 2:21 pm

    Bro, there shouldn’t be any bifurcation whatsoever between historical-grammatical and redemptive-historical. The latter is simply a more fulsome way of doing the former. I won’t quibble with the last part of your statement, though I’m not sure what is gained by the observation.

  3. rfwhite said,

    April 15, 2020 at 12:02 pm

    greenbaggins: I have a question. I do not ask it to criticize the hard work of homiletics profs or their books. My question is, did your homiletics training include any in-depth consideration on the answer to your question, “what is practical”? Your post caused me to think back on my own training. I think it’s fair to say that it was (and is?) commonly accepted that the practical payoff of a text was a “to-do list” (up to and including “how to breastfeed and potty-train for Jesus”). Don’t get me wrong: sometimes, a to-do list is the text’s practical payoff. But, from your post, I take it that “practical” can be so much more than a to-do list.

  4. greenbaggins said,

    April 15, 2020 at 12:38 pm

    Fowler, I would say that my profs mostly gave examples of how to apply the text. They were good examples, as I recall. They didn’t flesh out an entire theory of practicality, which would have been nice. Neither did they limit everything to a “to-do” list. At least, that’s not what I remember. But yes, I think that “practical” encompasses an enormously larger field than we usually think.

  5. April 15, 2020 at 1:19 pm

    greenbaggins @2: Well, I understood from Irfon Hughes and Al Baker, two of my former pastors, that the redemptive-historical exegesis tends to see Christ as the central figure for the entire Bible, whereas the historical-grammatical exegesis sees the biblical focus as what I mentioned in my comment @1.

  6. greenbaggins said,

    April 15, 2020 at 1:51 pm

    Historical-grammatical exegesis is a method for doing exegesis. It is not a description of the conclusions of that method. In this way, it is similar to scholasticism: a method for teaching theology in a school, not a description of the content of that teaching. Aquinas and Piscator were both scholastic in their methodology, though teaching VERY different things. HG exegesis can be done by liberals and conservatives. It can see the Trinity everywhere, or in the manner you suggest, or it can deny that the Bible even speaks of a Trinity. Of course, there are better and worse versions of this method, just as there are better and worse conclusions to which practitioners of the HG method can arrive. However, normal definitions of the HG exegesis refer to examining the Scripture in its literary and historical context to determine the meaning of the text. That is what HG exegesis is.

    According to Luke 24 and John 5, Jesus Himself says that the Bible is about Him. So, any understanding of Scripture that fails to do justice to Jesus’ own claims will wind up calling Him a liar. Not saying that you would ever agree to call Jesus a liar, mind you. ;-) But that is a post we cannot move.

    Furthermore, there is no need to set “Jesus is the central figure for the entire Bible” over against “This passage, set of passages, or even large sections of the canon seems to have an emphasis on a different person of the Trinity.” The external actions of the Trinity (as opposed to the internal personal relations) are all actions in which every person of the Trinity participates. I would never want to set Trinitarian understandings of Scripture over against Christological ones. What is more, when I do HG exegesis in the fulsome way described above, I see the Trinity active everywhere precisely in establishing Jesus Christ as the Lord of all history.

  7. April 24, 2020 at 11:03 pm

    […] Read More […]

  8. Ron said,

    May 13, 2020 at 7:23 am

    GB: “Bro, there shouldn’t be any bifurcation whatsoever between historical-grammatical and redemptive-historical. The latter is simply a more fulsome way of doing the former.”

    AK: “greenbaggins @2: Well, I understood from Irfon Hughes and Al Baker, two of my former pastors, that the redemptive-historical exegesis tends to see Christ as the central figure for the entire Bible, whereas the historical-grammatical exegesis sees the biblical focus as what I mentioned in my comment @1.”

    GB “Historical-grammatical exegesis is a method for doing exegesis. It is not a description of the conclusions of that method.”

    I’ve decided to offer some observations.

    Indeed. As GB points out, liberals and conservatives employ HG. HG guarantees no conclusion from the method. However, it seems to me that RH types (not all and certainly not the better ones) tend to guarantee a “description of the conclusions of [their] method.” RH types are more apt to try to find the work of the incarnate Son in the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4). Whereas GH types needn’t be so ambitious. So, if there is a conclusion from the RH method that is not essential to a GH approach, then perhaps bifurcation is a better descriptor than fulsome as it relates to GH.

    GB. “According to Luke 24 and John 5, Jesus Himself says that the Bible is about Him. So, any understanding of Scripture that fails to do justice to Jesus’ own claims will wind up calling Him a liar. Not saying that you would ever agree to call Jesus a liar, mind you. ;-) But that is a post we cannot move.”

    I take that as, “Not saying that you would ever agree to call Jesus a liar (but if you didn’t, you just came close”). Ouch.

    At the very least, RH types can tend to process passages like Luke 24 according to pre-commitment to a method. Although it’s true that the drama of redemption “is about Him”, the OT isn’t only about Him. (The implications I try to flesh out below.)

    GB: “I would never want to set Trinitarian understandings of Scripture over against Christological ones.”

    Of course, such a sentiment must be contextualized. As we all realize, distinctions and contextual emphasis don’t imply a denial of the external operations of the Trinity. Although the external acts of God are inseparable or indivisible, the persons are not indistinguishable. That would not seem to be a point of disagreement. But that is also why I don’t see Adrian as having said anything that in any way would “call Jesus a liar” or even come close to moving a post. To acknowledge the Father in effectual calling and the Holy Spirit in regeneration is not a slight against the indivisible operations of God.

    GB: “What is more, when I do HG exegesis in the fulsome way described above, I see the Trinity active everywhere precisely in establishing Jesus Christ as the Lord of all history.”

    As I read this, I infer that HG done “in the fulsome way described above” reduces to a species of RH. If we allow for at least one non-fulsome way of doing GH, then we needn’t find and explicate the cross or a plurality of persons in the Shema. And if we needn’t, then it’s not to call Jesus a liar if we don’t.

  9. rfwhite said,

    May 13, 2020 at 11:32 am

    Y’all, perhaps another way to get at the distinction between HG and RH is to recognize that there is a difference in the referent of the word historical and its cognates in the two phrases.

  10. Ron said,

    May 14, 2020 at 4:15 am

    Hi Fowler,

    Not sure what that means or what you’re driving toward. At this point we can probably just leave H out of it and just call the two positions x and y. At the end of the day, one position (x) seems to entail a view of Luke 24 that would seek to emphasize Christ and by extension the Trinity in every passage of Scripture. I find that standard impossible to meet and impractical if we could. (I happily suspect such ideals are toned down a bit in practice.)

    Although it’s true that the drama of redemption “is about Him”, the OT isn’t only about Him. For instance, there are subplots that need development in order to understand the plot better. We will have a difficult time inferring from Scripture alone that the Father or the Holy Spirit cannot be the emphasis of a particular sermon, or that we must try to tease out from every passage of Scripture some Christological nugget.

    Although this was offered as a paraphrase, I find the sentiment somewhat legitimate:

    “This passage, set of passages, or even large sections of the canon seems to have an emphasis on a different person of the Trinity.”

    However, I find the response either unclear or not particularly germane to the observation:

    “What is more, when I do HG exegesis in the fulsome way described above, I see the Trinity active everywhere precisely in establishing Jesus Christ as the Lord of all history.”

    The phrase, “I see the Trinity active everywhere” seems a bit overstated. In what sense do we see the Trinity active everywhere, either exegetically or theologically? If I’m not to take “active everywhere” literally, well then fine. But what then happens to the critique of y? It would be a bit odd not to take it literally given that the criticism of y is that y does not see Christ as prominent (and by extension the Trinity) everywhere. Rather y entails seeing other divine persons as prominent at times, which was met with some pretty strong objection.

    Lastly, “the things pertaining to himself” from Luke 24 relates to those things Christ was to fulfill from the Law, Prophets and Psalms. In particular, “that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” That is most but not all of Scripture. Yes, the balance relates to the “most” but I’m detecting a requirement of how that must play out.

    I’m not afraid of not putting hedges around walls. Scripture alone is what should bind our consciences. Indeed, moralism from the pulpit is a cancer. Most of what is offered from many pulpits is not Christ centered preaching. Too many churches have no regard for the Christ of the covenants. Some churches would sooner “unhitch” themselves from any redemptive historical understanding of the Bible whatsoever. No doubt, I don’t see all that as acutely as I ought, which in one sense is a mercy, for who can suffer under such constant pain? Notwithstanding, I must resist the proffered panacea when it comes as a sort of one size fits all. This way or bust. I get no pleasure in saying such things. The reason being, most need to move heavily toward x. As a general rule, the x guys are the good guys.* But just the same, there are limits.

    *I think both GB and AK are good guys.

  11. rfwhite said,

    May 14, 2020 at 12:27 pm

    Hey, Ron. My comment was too brief to be clarifying of much of anything, and it may well continue to be here too! I was trying to highlight a difference between “historical” in the phrases “historical-grammatical interpretation” and “redemptive-historical interpretation.” In the first, an interpretation is “historical” in that it fits the facts related to the original setting of a text, its (human) author, and its recipients. In the second, an interpretation is “redemptive-historical” in that it fits the facts related to God’s acts of redemption and revelation, their organic, yet periodized (phased) progression, and their relationship to His purpose. The two modes of interpretation are incomplete without each other. So, for what it’s worth, I believe you’re right to highlight the need to acknowledge the breadth and depth of OT revelation even though its chief and redemptive end was determined from the beginning.


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