The Problem with Principlizing: How Do We Move From Biblical Text to Application?

When you read the Bible, how do you connect what you read to practical life? When you preach or teach from the Bible, how do you move from a historically-rooted text to application in the present day?

The most common modern approach is “principlizing.” Modern Christians frequently try to discover a “principle” in whatever biblical text they are reading and then apply that principle to life. I’d like to suggest that searching for biblical patterns and themes might be a better approach to bridging into application than principlizing. It’s not that principlizing is really bad, though it does reminds me of trying to identify a piece of classical music when the twenty persons in an “orchestra” are playing kazoos! You may still be able to identify the music correctly, but something gets lost in transmission.

I can think of four problems with principlizing that could be alleviated if we were to search for biblical patterns and themes instead.

  1. Principles tend to float high above the text, almost like platonic truths that are separate from the physical world. Patterns and themes, on the other hand, are historically-rooted and textually-linked both to the author and to each other.
  2. Principles are difficult to connect to the redemptive-historical storyline of the Bible, a story that centers on the person and work of Jesus. Showing how the text connects to Jesus is usually easier when you’re looking for biblical patterns and themes.
  3. Principles are far easier to “discover” than are patterns and themes (and this is a problem). Interestingly, this means that in practice principlizers will normally “find” more principles than they would if they were seeking out biblical patterns and themes. But this observation should serve as a warning that we might have a tendency to read more of our own ideas in than are actually there in the text.
  4. Principlizing was not the method employed by the New Testament apostles in their applications of the Old Testament text to first-century new covenant life. New Testament authors paid special attention to historical patterns and theological themes, and drew their applications from them.

This last point may turn out to be decisive in helping us move from text to application. We are happy to draw from the examples of the apostles in other areas; perhaps we should do the same in trying to figure out how to move from Scripture into application. New Testament authors noticed that there were recurring patterns in what God did, especially in his dealings with the nation of Israel, and concluded that God had placed those patterns into history to show us how all of history centers around Christ. New Testament authors also noticed that recurring theological themes peppered the Old Testament, and concluded that, similar to the patterns, such themes were placed there by God to bring unity to the Old Testament and orient everything toward Christ.

Now it just so happens that pattern-and-theme questing will sometimes yield the same results as searching for principles does, but just not in every case. Regardless, looking for patterns and themes will keep you rooted in the text, compel you to consider God’s broader purposes in history, and force you to keep connecting Scripture with Scripture in a way that principlizing will not.

8 thoughts on “The Problem with Principlizing: How Do We Move From Biblical Text to Application?

  1. Good thoughts, Ken. I agree with your assessment of the principlizing method, though I still use it when I preach. So often, though, that method produces principles that seem not to be a central point of the passage in its original context. What is your favorite resource/book/article for teaching the thematic/redemptive-historical approach you are endorsing? My only complaint about your post is, what on earth did you get that analogy about an orchestra playing kazoos?!?

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    1. Thanks for posting, John. I don’t have a good go-to resource on this; these are just personal reflections on trying to get closer to the text than we often do with mere principlizing. And sorry you didn’t like my orchestra playing kazoos analogy! The point is that you could still recognize, say, Beethoven’s 5th if the various parts were played by good singers on kazoos. But some of the depth, texture, and power of the music would be lost.

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    1. Hi Kitty. Good question. How about the Samson story in Judges? An example of a theological theme might be that God is the true God–rather than the gods of the surrounding nations. An example of a historical pattern might be that those who fail to adhere to God’s covenant (such as Samson) can expect to reap the consequences of their sin. Now, a principlizer could come up with such “principles” as well, but a principlizer might also try to draw from the Samson story principles for child-rearing, governmental over-reach, miracle-working, or diet, none of which connect with the author’s intention or can be easily connected thematically with the rest of the Bible. I hope this was helpful.

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  2. Good thoughts brother! In teaching inductive Bible study, I’ve always felt a bit iffy about the process of principlizing. It seems that the thing we’re after is some kind of “bridge” that connects text to context. But a principle may or may not bridge this gap (or worse, a principle might serve as a bridge to some other far-off land that takes us away from the text!) I like your suggestion of connecting the passage with boarder themes, images, and motifs. I also wonder if focusing on “generic conception” or “the big idea” of a text is a clearer path to application. I’ve found that once I do the work of clarifying the “gist” of the text, applications become much clearer, and there really isn’t a need to principlize. You could argue that the big idea is a principle, but at least it’s clear that we’re trying to apply the author’s intent, instead of any or every principle we can find in the text.

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    1. This all sounds, good, Jeff, as long as you seek to stay clearly connected to the human author’s (literary context) and divine Author’s (broader canonical context) intentions, keeping genre and historical backgrounds also in clear focus. Thanks for posting!

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  3. This makes a lot of sense! I think that principlization methods can be overused on certain texts for the sake of relevancy. What I thought of when you explained the patterns and themes approach was biblical theology. Would it be fair to say that you are proposing a biblical theological approach to application?

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    1. Thanks for your comment, AJ. Yes, looking for historical patterns (typology) and theological themes is almost definitionally biblical-theological. That’s a primary point of the post: if you want to apply the Bible, keep your applications tethered to Scripture. Thanks for commenting!

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