A Book Review from Books At a Glance
By Cory M. Marsh
Ken Casillas (Ph.D., Old Testament Interpretation, Bob Jones University) is Professor of Old Testament Interpretation at Bob Jones University Seminary in South Carolina where he also serves as coordinator for the school’s Ph.D. program. In addition to teaching various Old Testament and Hebrew courses at BJU since 2001, Casillas serves as senior pastor of Cleveland Park Bible Church in Spartanburg, South Carolina. A native of Puerto Rico and self-described “missionary kid,” Casillas has published curriculum for both Sunday School and Bible institute programs, as well as authored Law and the Christian: God’s Light within God’s Limits published by BJU Press in 2008.
A common methodology for basic Bible study consists of three sequential steps: observation, interpretation, and application. While mountains of tomes have been written on the first two steps negotiating their exegetical nature, the final one—application—has generally suffered from a lack of attention in the scholarly community. It is here where the current work makes a noteworthy contribution and does so with a view toward both the church and the academy as its audience.
Traversing the field of biblical hermeneutics, Beyond Chapter and Verse was written from the author’s conviction that a proper approach to application must reflect the Scripture’s own approach. Specifically, this involves “cases where Scripture applies earlier Scripture [to] illustrate how to apply a text in a way that grows out of its intended meaning” (197). As such, Casillas believes the Bible not only addresses its own interpretive method in order to discover the author’s intended meaning but also demands its own method for personal application—the latter being a key thesis of the book (3). Of course, this belief assumes the authority of Scripture over the lives of believers, and, as a result, yields what Casillas describes as the book’s overall goal: “A coherent theology of and method for biblical application” (3).
Fueled by these core assumptions, the entire book presupposes the validity of a passage’s historically-intended meaning as well as the legitimacy of application beyond the original audience, something the author dubs: “transhistorical meaning” (208–9). It is this latter notion of application that is often critiqued by those appealing to sola Scriptura and its corollary of omni-sufficiency (141–45). To this, Casillas ironically points out: “Application is the only way the Bible can exercise its authority over our lives. Similarly, application is the only way the Bible can be sufficient for our lives” (152).
As for its organization, the book is structured around five main parts, all centered on various aspects of biblical application. Part I (5–52) sets up the crucial background material informing readers as to why they should care about applying the Bible. Three chapters are included that provide theological context relating biblical application to both the gospel and sanctification. Here, Casillas address the apparent tension between what Christ accomplished for the believer, and what is now the believer’s responsibility in light of such truth. For instance, while framing the discussion around several Pauline gospel-oriented passages, Casillas extols the facts of the gospel of Christ being sure to clarify: “We cannot allow our applications of Scripture to take precedence over that message” (11). However, he goes on to point out the irony of the statement, demonstrating the inevitability of application: “Even our prioritizing of the gospel constitutes an application” (12).
Parts II and III (53–138) are what really comprises the book’s DNA or, as Casillas puts it, “form the heart of the book” (4). Here, the “necessity of” and “patterns for” biblical application are discussed demonstrating that the very nature of Scripture necessitates application which then overlaps with the believer’s sanctification. It is in this section, particularly chapters six and seven, where Casillas adds his perspective on the thorniest of hermeneutical issues—the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament. However, it is the concept of progressive sanctification on which Casillas focuses most of his efforts throughout Parts II and III, aptly demonstrating that applying Scripture is truly the only way a Christian can exercise the Bible’s authority in their life (77). “The comprehensiveness of Scripture,” contends Casillas, “requires moving beyond the biblical text and engaging in application. Without application we simply won’t be able to display the image of God that we were created and redeemed to display” (79).
Part IV of the book (139–188) answers what Casillas believes to be “objections” to biblical application. This he does by addressing themes centered on Scripture’s sufficiency, the problem of legalism, and Christian liberty. Responding to those who fear that personal application of Scripture can lead to legalistic moralism, this section exposits key portions of the New Testament to prove that all of Scripture was written for our instruction “with relevance beyond its original setting” (184). For those who appeal to a flat notion of sola Scriptura and claim that the sufficiency of Scripture bars any modern-day personal application, Casillas solicits help from both past and modern theologians, various confessional creeds, and even several demonstrations of logic to define and measure out the standard evangelical position concerning the Bible’s sufficiency. A relevant conclusion drawn in this section is that because God progressively revealed what was sufficient for each generation to apply, by extension, believers today can safely assume the same is valid for them (144). Casillas concludes: “The Bible is enough, but we need to make sure that we are doing enough with the Bible” (156).
Finally, Part V (189–296) is where the theology of application most pointedly meets its practice as it is here where actual procedures for biblical application are explored. How to bridge the Bible’s various historical contexts to modern day life, especially as it relates to the concepts of work and church, are discussed in this section. It is here that best highlights and concludes the topic of the entire book which is the application of Scripture to contemporary life. While this section explores different application-models proffered by various scholars, Casillas highlights the “redemptive-historical approach” as what he believes to be the most consistent with Scripture’s emphasis on salvation throughout history (195). Yet, he is quick to humbly point out, “The reality that no method can guarantee our applications will be correct every time” (192).
It is also in this final section where Casillas examines different “meanings of meaning” before offering his own definition underscoring authorial intent as a text’s meaning. This understanding, of course, is in line with the traditional evangelical method of “grammatical-historical interpretation” (199), the hermeneutical paradigm Casillas assumes throughout the all five parts of the book. Moreover, it is specifically in chapter 12 where this interpretive method is directly related to personal application.
Finally, Casillas closes the book with a touching epilogue where he discloses his personal background including his Puerto-Rican heritage, missionary upbringing, and commitment to fundamentalist-separatist doctrines. Wrapping up his concluding thoughts, Casillas offers a personal insight gaining the reader access into the heart and motivation for the book, namely that Beyond Chapter and Verse was originally written as an outlet for Casillas to think through how he might disciple his children more effectively in the Word of God (294).
A book guiding Christians in responsible biblical application is a perpetually-needed resource, both for academics and the average church member. It is unfortunate that while Christian libraries, bookstores, and online options are replete with volumes dedicated to technical hermeneutical theory, they generally fall short of a true theology and practice of biblical application. Helping fill this void, Ken Casillas’s Beyond Chapter and Verse offers a substantial contribution to the field of applicational theory that should be taken seriously by all Christians, whatever their tradition.
Several features of the book stand out that deserve recognition. Perhaps, the first and most easily glossed-over would be the impressive variety of endorsements the book received. While the number of blurbs commending the book is not particularly noteworthy, the theological diversity represented in them are. That is to say, for a book to be applauded by both covenantal/Reformed as well as dispensational scholars is a unique element, especially when the book addresses various aspects of hermeneutics. To this, Beyond Chapter and Verse enjoys the commendation of a broad array of professors representing various traditions—scholars who would normally take issue with one another concerning interpretive approaches, the use of the Old Testament in the New, or even (presumably) over the author’s own stated fundamentalists convictions. Moreover, the book is replete with well-documented footnotes and a Bibliography that is likewise theologically inclusive of various evangelical persuasions, yet not shy in offering critiques when deemed necessary (e.g., 196, n. 10).
Further, and more importantly, the book leaves an indelible impression that one’s view of the Bible’s authority is directly tied to their own view and practice of application. Here the book’s subtitle gives a clue as to what can be expected if Christians craft an actual theology resulting in a practice of biblical application. To this helpful idea, the author devotes much space throughout the book correctly demonstrating the inseparable link between personal sanctification and personal application (e.g., 27–38; 79 –92; 139–56; 191–98, et al.). Indeed, as the book makes clear, it is only through the actual applying of Scripture that a believer demonstrates his estimation of the authority of Scripture (James 1:22; cf. Luke 6:46).
Finally, the book’s greatest strength may lie in its relaxed, yet well-researched presentation. This underlying dual feature allows for the book to be enjoyed in casual readings when a moment or two presents itself as well as when desiring to dedicate to it long periods of study with a Bible, pen, and notebook in hand. The book having its birth in Casillas’s own experiences of disciplining his family in proper Bible study methods, yields the warm tone of a tender father who is both wise with years of academic study and fueled by passion to honor the Lord of Scripture. It is perhaps this element, more than any other, that made Beyond Chapter and Verse an overall pleasant read for this reviewer.
While the book enjoys these positives, with more that could be listed if space allowed, there are a few critiques worth mentioning. The first negative ironically ties in to the first positive above: theological diversity. Casillas draws on such a broad spectrum of scholars who not only disagree on other matters, but ironically enough disagree on hermeneutical matters. For example, while Casillas seems to promote a consistently applied, grammatical-historical interpretive method, many of the sources to which he positively appeals do not (e.g., in chapter 11). At times it seems as if the author just piles on a variety of footnotes for validation’s sake regardless of how much they differ amongst themselves in their published works.
In reality, the average reader may never notice or even care, but those with at least an intermediate familiarity with hermeneutical theory are sure to notice when scholars as diverse as Elliot Johnson are mentioned alongside Vern Poythress who is then compared positively to Kevin Vanhoozer (197, n. 11). Other examples abound. For instance, Pauline commentators James Dunn and Christopher Ash are elsewhere effortlessly joined together without a hint that one is noted for his New Perspectives theology (Dunn) while the other is traditionally Reformed (Ash)—and both represent opposing views concerning Paul’s letter to the Romans (116). Without any knowledge of the vast differences between these two commentators, a reader can easily get the impression from Casillas they are equal in their views and value.
To his credit, Casillas does at one place address this equating of such diversity in a footnote stating simply that he chose to “incorporate[ed] the strengths of the various views in an accessible format” (197). However, two unfavorable results can result nonetheless from a typically unqualified, overabundant use of diverse scholars: (1) the unknowing reader may assume every scholar and their work appearing in Casillas’s footnotes carry equal weight; and (2) the observant reader may then be inclined to read the entire book with a suspicious eye searching for other important distinctions the author may be neglecting.
An additional critique that may not seem so strange to the average Christian, but is worth mentioning here nonetheless, is Casillas’s firm conviction that all Christians today are “new Covenant believers.” For those unfamiliar with the debates within normative dispensationalism, of which Casillas appears to be associated, the Church’s relation to the New Covenant of Jeremiah 31:31–34 is hotly debated. In fact, an argument can be made that if one were to read the Jeremiah passage in a literal, straightforward manner as Casillas promotes throughout his book, the church—and therefore Christians—has nothing to do with the covenant given to “the house of Israel and the house of Judah” (v. 31). Yet, Casillas assumes all Christians today share in the new covenant—a presupposition permeating the entire book that conveniently provides the base for conclusions drawn, yet is itself never proven (e.g., 137). Of course, someone may respond to this critique by asking, What does this have to do with the topic of the book, biblical application? To this, an answer could be given that because the book is about biblical application, one must question if it is legitimate to apply a covenant given to national Israel to the modern-day church. And, if it is legitimate, how could that be justified utilizing the very principles of application Casillas promotes throughout the book? While certainly not detrimental to Casillas’s thesis, it is worth pondering nonetheless.
A final critique would be to call attention to the odd inclusion of certain chapters toward the end of the book. For instance, chapter 17 “Ending in Song,” while containing insightful gems regarding a theology of music, quite frankly does not belong. Indeed, it escapes this reader as to why it was even included in a book on biblical application. Perhaps the answer lies in Casillas’s own fundamentalist background where “music wars” have been known to wreak havoc in traditional church settings. One can only guess, however, and perhaps find a clue somewhere in the book’s epilogue where the author’s fundamentalism is disclosed and defended. Whatever the reason, the reader is never told why a case study on music at the end of the book is germane to everything that precedes it.
These critiques notwithstanding, the book’s positives far outweigh its negatives. In Beyond Chapter and Verse Ken Casillas has given the church and academy a bold study on a much-needed topic that has gone largely neglected by scholars. Sadly, many Christians have never considered developing a biblical theology and responsible method of application, a problem Casillas nobly seeks to rectify with this volume. As November 2018 rounds out the 40 year anniversary of the horrific Jonestown-cult mass suicide in Guyana, South America led by Jim Jones—a narcissistic, demonically guided leader who reveled in titles like “pastor” and “reverend”—this reviewer found it hard not to imagine what a different legacy may have been left if just one of his 900-plus followers had the knowledge and courage to study Scripture on their own and question their leader’s horrendous applications.
A book such as Casillas’s Beyond Chapter and Verse that teaches its readers how to develop a true theology of biblical application—based on examples and paradigms within the very Word of God itself—could thwart untold amounts of damage if given to sincere and impressionable people attempting to “feel their way toward God” (Acts 17:27). Thus, Casillas is to be commended for producing this textbook; and Christians, whatever their educational pedigree, are sure to benefit from his research into this crucial topic.
Cory M. Marsh is a Ph.D. student at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Kansas City, MO. He also serves as Bible and Theology Programs Coordinator and Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at Southern California Seminary, El Cajon, CA.
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Beyond Chapter and Verse: The Theology and Practice of Biblical Application