John Frame defines theology as “the application of the Word of God by persons to all areas of life.”

He defines application as “teaching” in the biblical sense of “the use of God’s revelation to meet the spiritual needs of people, to promote godliness and spiritual health.”

He sees five advantages to defining theology in this way:

  1. “It gives a clear justification for the work of theology. . . . to remedy defects in ourselves, the hearers and readers of Scripture.”
  2. “Theology in this sense . . . has a clear scriptural warrant: Scripture commands us to ‘teach’ in this way [Matt. 28:19f, etc.].”
  3. “Despite its focus on human need, this definition does full justice to the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. Sola scriptura does not require that human needs be ignored in theology, only that Scripture have the final say about the answers to those needs (and about the propriety of the questions presented.)”
  4. “Theology is thus freed from any false intellectualism or academicism. It is able to use scientific methods and academic knowledge where they are helpful, but it can also speak in nonacademic ways, as Scripture itself does—exhorting, questioning, telling parables, fashioning allegories and poems and proverbs and songs, expressing love, joy, patience . . . the list is without limit.”
  5. “This definition enables us to make use of data from natural revelation and from man himself, not artificially separating the three ‘perspectives’ [normative, situational, existential].”

But if application basically means “teaching,” why doesn’t Frame just use that word? He admits there is nothing sacrosanct about the term application, but he wants “to discourage a certain false distinction between ‘meaning’ and ‘application'” that he believes “has resulted in much damage to God’s people.” He explains:

Every request for “meaning” is a request for an application because whenever we ask for the “meaning” of a passage we are expressing a lack in ourselves, an ignorance, an inability to use the passage.

Asking for “meaning” is asking for an application of Scripture to a need; we are asking Scripture to remedy  that lack, that ignorance, that inability.

Similarly, every request for an “application” is a request for meaning; the one who asks doesn’t understand the passage well enough to use it himself.

Frame also writes that “the work of theology is not to discover some truth-in-itself in abstraction from all that is human; it is to take the truth of Scripture and humbly to serve God’s people by teaching and preaching it and by counseling and evangelizing.”

He is not seeking to disparage theoretical work done by professional theology, but he is “seeking to discourage the notion that theology is ‘properly’ something theoretical, something academic, as opposed to the practical teaching that goes on in preaching, counselling, and Christian friendship.”

For his full discussion and defense, see The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1987), pp. 81-85.

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Justin Taylor


Justin Taylor is senior vice president and publisher for books at Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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