Which Way The Arrow Points

24 September 2019

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.


Dust and Breath

3 May 2019

What is a human?

It has been fashionable in the West to affirm that a human is simply the matter that makes up the body, and all else — psyche, mind, spirit, whatever words we use to describe the invisible part — is an epiphenomenon of the body, or else an illusion altogether. The East tended toward the opposite move, the contention that nothing but spirit is real, and all else is illusion. A popular variant of the spirit-only view concedes the reality of the ‘coarse’ body, as a stepped-down manifestation of the ‘finer’ energies of the spirit, or an unfortunate prison, an “earth suit” from which the real person (i.e., the spirit) will ultimately be liberated.

Christians know that neither of these simplistic answers is true. Like the Christian answer to the classic problem of the one and the many, so here: Christians affirm the difficulty of the dilemma, and then affirm the equal ultimacy of both. As the problem of the one and the many finds its only possible solution in the being of the Triune God Himself, so the problem of the spirit and the body finds its only possible solution in the being of humans as we really are. God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul. We are equally dust of the earth and breath of God. Separating the two is the very definition of death; when we “separate” the two in our inquiries, something dies there as well. The best answer to the separationists is from the mouth of Jesus: “What God has joined together, let not man put asunder.”

Someone will object that I have taken the quote out of context. I say I have noted a principle in one circumstance of united and equally ultimate opposites, and applied it to another such circumstance. Neither man nor woman is the ‘original’ in marriage; they are equally ultimate. The first woman was taken out of man; every man thereafter is taken out of woman, and no marriage is possible without the combination of the two.
Same with human spirit and body. What makes a living soul is the combination of the two.

If we seriously intend to address the whole person, we have no choice but to take both seriously.