Let's suppose we're preparing the lesson plan for a weekly Bible study that we lead. The passage for this week's study is the section of Romans 1 that includes verse 16. We want to make sure that we include practical application, so we're trying to come up with an example that best illustrates what "I am not ashamed of the gospel" means today. What's the best illustration we could use?
The members of the Bible study are university students. Three illustrations come to mind. The first has to do with not being ashamed to bow our heads and give thanks for our food in the cafeteria or a restaurant. If we're not ashamed of the gospel, there's no need to use the "rub the forehead" or "scratch the eyebrow" prayer camouflage techniques! The second illustration involves standing on a street corner or in the university commons with a group of Christians and publicly sharing our Christian faith. If we're not ashamed of the gospel, we won't always try to excuse ourselves from these events. And the third illustration describes an opportunity to share the Christian world view in a philosophy class on a secular university campus. Because we know that the Christian world view will "hold its own," we don't have to be ashamed of the gospel. Now which example shall we use to best illustrate how Romans 1:16 can be applied today? Let's say that because of time consideration, we can only give one illustration in the Bible study.
The Best Illustration
You might think that it would be OK to use any one of the three illustrations above. That's true--to a certain extent! But the third illustration is by far the best example of a practical application for Romans 1:16. Why? Because it's the most hermeneutically sound application! Now don't let that big word scare you! Simply defined, "hermeneutics" is the science of interpretation, or determining the meaning of an author's words and phrases in their
original setting. Selecting a "hermeneutically sound application" involves studying the text to determine what the author meant "then"--at the time it was written, and then deciding which is the closest, most direct application for the "now"--that is, today's situations.
When we interpret Romans 1:16 carefully and in context, it naturally follows that we'll find a particular application for today that is "closer" to what Paul was seeking to communicate then, to his first century audience. We'll see that the third illustration as an application for "now" is a closer parallel to the situation "then", when Paul was writing to the Romans. While it wouldn't be "wrong" to use the other two illustrations, the third illustration is more hermeneutically sound because it flows more evenly from the "then" to the "now."
Determine the "Then"
Safe and prudent biblical interpretation always proceeds "from then to now." We shouldn't just jump into a text of Scripture and make our own arbitrary decision on an application for the "now" before first examining the text to see what was specifically meant for the "then," when it was written. Who were the original readers to whom that Scripture was written? What was the occasion and purpose for which that Scripture--the book as well as the text--was written? How is the situation today different from the situation when that Scripture was written? What do the surrounding verses have to say that might bear on the author's meaning to his audience then? Only after we've done our homework and, to the best of our ability, determined what the text meant "then," can we really proceed to draw out the best application of the text for "now."
The purpose of "always proceed from then to now" as a principle of interpretation is not meant to limit the Holy Spirit. No way! In fact, its
purpose is to limit us! Remembering this principle will help to guard us from what is known as "eisegesis," which occurs when we read into Scripture what the Holy Spirit did not intend! When the Holy Spirit inspired the biblical authors, He certainly superintended their writings so that the Bible would be applicable to all kinds of situations today. It stands to reason, however, that if we are not careful we could apply the wrong Scripture to the wrong situation. Unfortunately this happens far too often today, primarily because people just don't take the time to interpret the Word of God carefully. The hermeneutical principle of "always proceed from then to now" guards and preserves us from wrongly forcing a particular "now" application out of Scripture that was addressing a completely different "then" situation!
A Superior World View
Now let's go back to the text of Romans 1:16 and see why the example of not being ashamed to share the Christian world view in a philosophy class is a better illustration than either the example of being ashamed to pray in a restaurant or preaching in a public place. We start with asking ourselves the question, "What was the occasion and purpose then, when Paul wrote to the Roman believers in the 1st century AD?" In Romans 1:11-15 we read that Paul wanted to visit the Christians at Rome, but he was prevented for various reasons. (See also Romans 15:20-22.) Although the church at Rome was well-known, and its faith was "being reported all over the world" (1:8), Paul still had not been able to minister the Word to these believers. He wrote in 1:15 that he was "eager to preach the gospel to you who are in Rome." When Paul used the phrase "preach the gospel" he had more in mind than just doing some evangelism in Rome. He wanted the Roman Christians to grow even stronger in their faith (1:11) as they learned more of the "good news" of God. It is in God's gospel that the righteousness of God is revealed and the truth of justification by faith alone is made known (1:17). Although Paul still intended to get to Rome (15:23-24), he decided, in the meantime, to communicate these great truths about God's gospel by writing to the Roman believers. Thus the theme of the epistle to the Romans is "The Righteousness of God." The book of Romans, therefore, sets out the doctrine of justification by faith, with all its implications, in a clear and systematic way.
The apostle Paul was anxious that the Roman believers be firmly established in the Christian faith and Christian world view because they were surrounded by the pagan world views of Greek and Roman philosophies. He wanted to make sure that the believers in Rome understood that there were no loose ends or intellectual weaknesses in the Christian world view--that it answered all the hard questions and could hold its own against any of the pagan world views. In fact, the Christian faith and world view was overwhelmingly superior to any other world view, not only because it was the truth, but because it worked--universally! It was the power of God! It could save and transform the life of anyone--Jew or Gentile. Because of its truth and power, Paul was not ashamed of the gospel. It could go up against any of the world views of the day and prevail. Paul wanted his Roman readers to know that they did not have to be ashamed of the gospel. The Christian world view, when compared to the philosophies and supposedly sophisticated world views of the day, was superior.
So, by proceeding "from then to now," we see that Paul's primary thought in "not being ashamed of the gospel" was not a matter of being fearless or having the "guts" to present the gospel to unbelievers. There was no need to be ashamed of the gospel in the sense of thinking that the Christian faith required a "blind leap" of faith into an intellectually unsound and inferior philosophical system of thought. There was no need to shrink back from the gospel, thinking that it could not hold its own in the academic arena. Far from it! Paul, the scholarly intellectual, was absolutely confident that the Christian world view intrinsic to the gospel of God was philosophically superior to any other world view!
Applying It "Now"
By now it should be obvious why the example of not being ashamed to present the Christian world view in a philosophy class at a secular university is the best of the three contemporary illustrations for Romans 1:16. Having the "guts" to pray in a restaurant or the courage to preach on a street corner is not exactly parallel to what Paul had in mind when he penned the phrase, "I am not ashamed of the gospel..." However, knowing that we don't need to be ashamed of the gospel because the Christian world view is philosophically superior to any contemporary world view is an application that more closely parallels the situation Paul was addressing in his letter to the Romans. Whether that opposing world view be naturalism, existentialism or New Age philosophy, we do not have to be ashamed because the Christian world view--God's good news--is not a "kiss-your-brains-goodbye" religious belief. Because it's a world view that can go head-to-head with any other system of philosophical thought, Christians never have to hang their heads in shame, thinking that the Christian faith is somehow intellectually inferior or doesn't have the answers.
A Biblical Principle
"Always proceed from then to now" is a hermeneutical principle that is not only logical--it's biblical. It wasn't dreamed up by early Christians or Protestant reformers or 20th century seminary professors! It's a principle of biblical interpretation that is taught in the Bible itself. When a New Testament author quoted Scripture from the Old Testament and applied it to his contemporary audience, he always proceeded "from then to now." His "now" application to the New Testament audience always in some way paralleled the "then" situation of the Old Testament passage. The New Testament author didn't just jump in and force an application from an Old Testament text without first doing the homework of thoroughly examining the Old Testament context. The "now" application always flows in a smooth transition from the "then" situation.
To see how the apostle Paul proceeded "from then to now" with an Old Testament Scripture, let's look at another text in Romans. In Romans 10:15 Paul made an application of the Old Testament text of Isaiah 52:7, "How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, and brings good news of happiness, who announces salvation and says to Zion, 'Your God reigns!'" The context of Isaiah 52:7 is the return of the Jewish captives to Jerusalem from Babylon. Isaiah predicted that although the people of Judah would be taken away into captivity because of their sins, God in His grace would bring them back to their homeland. That is the "good news" of Isaiah's message. In Romans 10:15 Paul applied Isaiah's text to the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. At first glance it might seem that this was a forced application of Isaiah's prophecy, but upon closer examination we see that there is a smooth transition from the situation "then" to the application "now" because of the parallel conditions. In Isaiah the people were captives in Babylon because of their sins. In Romans the people are captives in Satan's world system because of their sins. In Isaiah, freedom was to come because of God's grace. In Romans, salvation is available because of God's grace alone. In Isaiah, a blessing is pronounced on the one who would bring the message of liberty and peace to the captives. In Romans a blessing was pronounced upon the preacher of the good news of liberty and peace in Jesus Christ.
Clearly, Paul followed the "from then to now" hermeneutical principle when he made application of this Scripture to his readers. We find that Paul consistently followed this principle whenever he applied Old Testament texts to his New Testament audience. The other New Testament writers did the same. Whether it is a precept or a principle that was drawn from the "then" and applied to the "now," there is always a smooth and parallel transition and application. Thus the Bible itself teaches the hermeneutical principle of "always proceed from then to now." In order to make proper application of the Scripture today, let us remember to carefully follow this important principle of interpretation. As we study and proclaim the Word of God, let us always proceed From Then to Now.