Which Way The Arrow Points

In the conservative evangelical world, especially the seminary-educated part of it, we take for granted that there is a particular order to living the Christian life: sound theology drives sound living.

This accommodates our grasp of Christianity to one of our great cultural myths, the notion that theory precedes, and drives, practice. Applying that myth to Christian living, we come to believe that intellectual comprehension precedes and drives action. We give this idea a patina of respectability by linking it to passages like Romans 12:2, which talk of transformation through the renewing of the mind.

But reality is far more complicated than that.

In terms of the general myth that theory drives practice, Nassim Taleb ably takes that on in Antifragile, arguing successfully that most innovation is actually driven by practitioners tinkering, improving things by trial and error, and the theory comes afterwards. In other words, the arrow runs the other way: practice ->theory, not theory->practice. There are noteworthy exceptions, but they are noteworthy precisely because of their rarity. In the real world, trial-and-error practice drives theory far more than the other way around. (If you’d like it stated epigrammatically: “The difference between theory and practice is that in theory, there is no difference….”)

If we’d read Romans more closely, none of this would surprise us. Sure, the renewing of your mind transforms you. But the verse before that, you offer your body as a living sacrifice, which is only possible because the Spirit gives life to your mortal body. Not your mind, note. Your body, directly. God does not only deal with your mind, which then straightens out your body. We could believe that if Romans ended after chapter 6, but it doesn’t.

The Holy Spirit is not some positive thinking guru; He doesn’t just give you holy thoughts. He deals directly with your body, not just with your mind.


As a practical matter, we often find that practice precedes theory. God will call us into obedience in an area long before we understand the benefits and ramifications of that obedience. This is how Psalm-singing was for me. I was confronted with three NT passages that said Christians should sing psalms, so I started doing it. It really was that simple.

I had no theory; I had no idea what would happen if I did it. I wasn’t very good at it either, to be perfectly honest. But over time I got better, by God’s grace, and I began to reap the benefits of obedience. I could give you a long speech now about the benefits of singing the Psalms, but that knowledge came long after the practice.

Which is to say that obedience is often necessary in order to acquire eyes to see. The  world is a complex place, and there are limits to how much we can discern about the world by sitting around thinking about it. Going out and trying things is much more productive.

Would that we were obedient more often, instead of just demanding more explanations.


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: