Book Review: Putting the Truth to Work by Daniel M. Doriani
Doriani, Daniel M. Putting the Truth to Work: The Theory and Practice of Biblical Application. Phillipsburg, P & R Publishing, 2001.
Putting the Truth to Work is a helpful book which presents practical approaches and theoretical methods for developing faithful biblical applications in sermon preparation and delivery. The author provides an introduction to hermeneutics with an eye toward developing sermon applications. Once the groundwork has been laid, he then develops distinct plans for applying unique genres of Scripture in a Christocentric fashion.
Dr. Daniel M. Doriani was a professor of New Testament, Dean of the Faculty, and Vice President of Academics at Covenant Theological Seminary in Missouri from 1991 to 2003. He transitioned into the senior pastor role at Central Presbyterian Church (PCA), a 1700-member church in Clayton, Missouri. Last year, he returned to Covenant Theological Seminary as Vice President of Strategic Academic Projects and professor of theology. He has authored many books on a variety of subjects, including hermeneutics, homiletics, and some New Testament commentaries.
“If a teacher’s ultimate crime is to propound heresy, the penultimate crime is to make biblical truth sound boring” (121). This book is strong medicine for an epidemic of boring preaching. Putting the Truth to Work is written in two sections, divided by a brief interlude. The first section of the book focuses on the nature, sources, and methods of discerning biblical applications. The second section gives plans for applying narrative, doctrinal, and ethical texts, considers issues with applying these texts Christocentrically, and concludes with a method for selecting a sermon text.
The initial chapter dialectically considers three proposed theories for interpretation and application. The thesis is the traditional view that exegesis precedes application in a two-step process, so that application rests upon exegesis. The antithesis theory proposes to erase the distinction between meaning and application, since “Scripture itself links interpretation with relevance” (20). On this view, exegesis is inextricably linked to application, such that meaning is application. Finally, the author proposes a synthesis of these two theories as “a permeable barrier between exegesis and application” (22). This “fuzzy boundary” maintains the primacy of exegesis in the applicative task, but also acknowledges the interdependent relationship between meaning and application. The author then argues that a theory of application is both necessary and desirable, and that a consideration of the communicative context is also essential to the nature of sermon application.
The second chapter develops a God-centered theology of application, using Scripture’s own use of Scripture, particularly Jesus’ use of Scripture in the Gospels, as an exemplar. Jesus’ example gives us insight into the proper use and the misuse of the Bible in application. Christ demonstrates what Paul later asserts in 2 Tim 3:16-17, that all Scripture is profitable.
The following chapter is dedicated to a discussion of the role of the interpreter in the interpretive and applicative tasks. The author outlines a general model for application which displays the various interrelations between the text, the interpreter, and the audience. Doriani then examines the different perspectives on reading a text, the relationship between knowledge and action, and the hermeneutical spiral—all within a discussion of the courage, character, and credibility necessary to faithful biblical application. This chapter is simply brilliant.
The fourth chapter discusses the seven biblical sources of application: rules, ideals, doctrine, redemptive acts in narrative, exemplary acts in narrative, biblical images or symbols, and, finally, songs and prayers. The author highlights that this list is not co-extensive with the genres of literature found in Scripture, though there is significant overlap. A rubric is also provided for discerning twenty-eight options for the relevance of a text.
Then the next chapter gives four aspects of application for consideration. These are four categories of questions which should be highlighted for the audience in the development of applications. The preacher should consider questions about duty, character, goals, and discernment for the audience. These four categories of questions combined with the seven sources from the previous chapter form the rubric of twenty-eight relevant applications for a given text. The tendency of many evangelical preachers is to ask duty-related questions, to the detriment or disuse of character, goal, and discernment-related questions. The author suggests “going beyond law” (98) is crucial to faithful biblical application.
The final chapter of the first section further considers the use of the four categories from the preceding chapter. The author considers the misuse and the proper use of each of the categories of questions, and also provides a two-page critique of utilitarianism in preaching.
After an interlude which briefly reminds the reader about the importance of proper interpretation and understanding contexts (biblical and homiletical), the second section of the book begins with a plan for applying narrative texts. The types of narrative (drama, reports, speech stories) are surveyed and the components of dramatic analysis are rehearsed. The remainder of the chapter gives specific examples of narrative analysis from the Old Testament, the Gospels, and Acts. The following chapter gives six theses to correct certain misbegotten theories on interpreting and applying narrative texts.
Chapter nine gives a plan for the application of doctrinal passages by proposing “a check list for preachers” (225-6) and surveying several case studies in doctrinal sermon application.
The next chapter presents a plan for applying ethical texts. Biblical law can be applied identically, analogously, and typologically (241). Seven questions for “harder cases” are considered and then applied to two test cases from the Mosaic law. The subsequent chapter considers issues faced in applying ethical texts. The author suggests that the three uses of the law and the tripartite view of OT law are useful pedagogical and interpretive tools for the preacher, with some noteworthy caveats.
The twelfth chapter provides a review of the preceding chapters inasmuch as they were pertinent to a consideration of Christocentric preaching. The author presents Christocentric application as a way of bridging redemptive-historical and needs-sensitive preaching. The final chapter of the book concludes with general principles for sermon text selection.
In evaluating Putting the Truth to Work two strengths and one weakness will be surveyed and discussed, respectively. This evaluation will be followed by some concluding remarks which discuss the usefulness of this book.
This book will provide many readers with valuable insights for developing biblically-faithful sermon applications. Two strengths of this book are: the “how-to” chapters in the book (7, 9, 10, 12) give useful questions, case studies, and action steps for improving sermon application, and the third chapter weaves together the intellect and character of the interpreter in a brilliant, biblically holistic fashion.
The “how-to” chapters in the book give useful questions, case studies, and action steps for improving sermon application. In the preface, the author highlights the “how-to” chapters as the “capstone” of the book, because they review the theoretical chapters while exemplifying how to compellingly present Christ to the audience (9). These chapters are the result of over two decades of academic ministry and nearly a decade-and-a-half of pastoral preaching ministry. It is difficult to overstate the significance of these chapters for a young, inexperienced preacher like this reviewer.
For example, Chapters Ten and Eleven function together as a strong corrective for moralistic/legalistic preaching, for merely redemptive-historical application, as well as the often oversimplified relationship between law and grace. One on side are preachers who struggle to find applications which are anything more than an injunction to “do better,” and on the other side are preachers who struggle to present applications which are anything more than an encouragement to “believe more.”
Doriani tells the former, “Not all Christians who want to obey know how to do it,” and the latter, “…however, sophisticated we are, there is a time to tell people what to do.” He continues, “If a theologian thinks people need metaphors and not mandates, he ought to get out more often” (263-4). These two chapters contain principles which can help set pastors free to preach the gospel as spiritually transformative in specific ways.
The third chapter weaves together the intellect and character of the interpreter in a brilliant, biblically holistic fashion. The third chapter of the book highlights several major theoretical issues in hermeneutics by considering the character and virtue needed to rightly resolve these issues and faithfully apply those resolutions. Many readers will find the practical chapters of the second section of the book to be worth their weight in gold; however, this theoretical chapter would be worth the price of the book, even if its cost was its weight in gold!
Theoretical texts on hermeneutics will often discuss the distinctions between a critical, dialogical, and submissive view of reading Scripture or present a particular perspective on the nature of the hermeneutical spiral. Homiletical texts will often discuss the importance of the biblical qualifications of eldership or the role of a preacher’s character in ministry. Doriani manages to weave theory and virtue together in a holistic manner that demonstrates how fluidly he is able to move between the ivory tower of academics and the concrete jungle of pastoral ministry. Readers will benefit greatly from his insights.
Despite providing a host of insights on the nature and task of biblical application, this book also had some weaknesses. One weakness in this book was the inclusion of a critical analysis of Christopher Wright’s view of biblical law.
The inclusion of a critical analysis of Christopher Wright’s view of biblical law. As the author is concluding his evaluation of the relative merits and demerits of the classical tripartite view of the OT law as moral, civil, and ceremonial, he takes an aside to briefly discuss Christopher J. H. Wright’s five-part view of the OT law (273-5).
Wright seeks to situate his taxonomy of OT law (civil, family, cultic, criminal, and charitable) within its redemptive-historical epoch (creation, fall, redemption, new creation) in order to emphasize the unity of divine revelation while putting a finer point on the distinctions between various biblical laws. While this gives an interesting scholarly brief on a way of potentially improving upon the classical tripartite division of the OT law, there is very little payoff for the reader with regard to the thesis of the book and chapter—namely, the application of ethical texts.
The point of the analysis is that “all laws retain some form of authority,” (275) but this point is almost lost in the tangential discussion of Wright’s view after the lengthy pedagogical and apologetic discussion of the tripartite view. In the opinion of this reviewer, the point could be made more clearly and directly by foregoing the analysis of Wright’s view. Admittedly, this is a relatively minor editorial criticism.
Putting the Truth to Work is a book which this reviewer will return to in the future as a resource for developing biblical applications in a variety of creative but faithful ways. This book stands as a testimony to the reality that all Scripture is profitable and applicable. It also functions as a guide for how to discern those applications in practice. Faithful application of this book will result in faithful application of Scripture, to the glory of God.