As Christians, it is important for us to understand the culture and world in which we find ourselves, discerning it’s strengths and weaknesses, and helping our fellow Christians to overcome these weaknesses and anti-Christian biases that are present. In this post, I want to look at one area where I believe that a weakness of current post-modern thought has silently entered into some of our congregations.
Jean-Francois Lyotard argues in the opening chapter of his famous “The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge” that the status of knowledge changes as societies enter the postindustrial age and cultures enter the postmodern age. Most of the leading fields of science have to do with language, or the ability to communicate your ideas in quantitative forms through conjectures, hypotheses, theorems, equations, and data. This change has not left the role of knowledge unaltered.
The change I will focus on is that knowledge “can fit into the new channels, and become operational, only if learning is translated into quantities of information…. Knowledge is and will be produced in order to be sold, it is and will be consumed in order to be valorized in a new production: in both cases, the goal is exchange. Knowledge ceases to be an end in itself, it loses its ‘use-value.'”
The idea is that knowledge is a consumable good, it is produced only to be consumed and therefore knowledge that cannot be put to use is knowledge that is not worth pursuing. Lyotard states that “The old principle that the acquisition of knowledge is indissociable from the training of minds, or even of individuals, is becoming obsolete and will become even more so.” If knowledge is simply a collection of facts that can be practically applied, then you do not need any special training, a computer can simply collect facts. Having a well-trained mind and a correct thought process is not a priority. What is valued is correct and usable conclusions and that is all.
Unfortunately, as Lyotard alludes to, having a well-trained mind that is able to think correctly is becoming less and less valuable compared to simply having usable knowledge. The life of the mind is becoming more and more neglected in favor of practical knowledge. Hence, the classical fields of study of mathematics and philosophy are starting to become looked down upon since “pure” mathematics and most fields of philosophy are not seen to be usable (marketable?). These fields focus on training their students how to think and in our (post)modern culture they are legitimized only if some practical use for them can be found.
The great tragedy is that this mindset is filtering into the Church, particularly in many evangelical churches. What is valued above all is whether or not you live correctly and can practically apply what you read in Scripture. Thinking correctly about God and rightly dividing the Word of Truth is not seen as a priority unless it can be practically applied. Unless your knowledge of God and His Word directly translates into practical living, it is not worth studying except in exceptional cases.
This is a destructive mindset for the Church. Thinking rightly about God should be pursued as an end in and of itself, what greater joy can there be than knowing our Creator and Lord? Do you only try to learn things about your spouse, children, or friends if it will practically effect you? Do you not try to learn more about them simply because you love them and knowing them better is an end worth pursuing in and of itself? Does not a deeper knowledge lead into a deeper love? Should this not be the case even more so for our Creator?
However, if you are committed to “knowledge as practice” then here are two considerations worth taking into account:
Theology Gives Rise to Practice
To understand this, we will look at the book of Romans as a whole, understanding it’s structure and specifically the transition around the start of chapter 12 from the deep theological section to the practical application section.
All the way from Romans 1:16 through Romans 11:32 Paul focuses on and elaborates God’s work through Christ for salvation, starting with the depravity of man in the first few chapters, up through God’s work in Abraham, detailing that salvation is by faith and not works, and ends with a very deep excursus on election and the place of Israel in relation to the new covenant and the offer of salvation to the Gentiles. This entire section is deep theology with little “practical application.”
However, note what Paul does at the end of all this:
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
“For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counselor?”
“Or who has given a gift to him
that he might be repaid?”
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.
His discussion on theology has led directly into a deeper worship of God. This is not some cold intellectualism, this is some of the purest worship of God which arises necessarily from a greater understanding of Him. In fact, the way in which Paul worships God and the words which he has chosen would not have been possible had Paul not understood the theology that prefaced it.
Continuing on to Romans 12 we read:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Note Paul’s use of the word “therefore” in the first verse. This theology that Paul thought was worth spending 11 chapters explaining has led not only into a deeper worship of God, but also into a greater understanding of how we as Christians should live. In fact, all of the application that Paul spends the rest of the book detailing is application that is informed by theology. It cannot be otherwise.
Any theology that is both worth studying and true will necessarily lead into both a greater worship of God and a life more devoted to following Him. There is no either/or between theology, worship, and practice. If your theology does not lead you to a greater appreciation and worship of God and is not lived out in your life, then you are doing theology wrong.
This right here is the great mistake that the church is making. It wants all of the worship and application but without the underlying theology. This stands in direct contrast to Paul’s example in Romans. And not just Romans either. Every single epistle grounds practical living in theology. This is not some novel idea that I have or something that is unfounded in Scripture.
The Long-Term Effects
The long term effects of a de-emphasis on the life of the mind is already being seen and will continue to advance with momentum. When the life of the mind is not built on the rock of Christ and His Word, it cannot stand against even the slightest wind of the world and will be tossed to and fro.
If someone is already a Christian and all that the church seems to worry about is “practical living,” then there is no need to teach them why Christianity is or how to think as a Christian. What becomes necessary is training merely in how to live as a Christian. The biggest issue with this can be seen in the youth of the church today.
I believe that it can justifiably be said most evangelical churches today do a very poor job of teaching their youth apologetics and theology, and instead focus much more on “practical theology” and how to navigate their teen years while living as a Christian. The problem is that when these kids go off to high school or college, they are assaulted from all sides by every manner of non-Christian and anti-Christian worldviews.
When their practical living gets challenged by these false worldviews, they are left with nothing to say. The church never trained them for this. They are living right, but now the question arises, “Why should I do this? Why am I a Christian? Am I wrong about this?” Unfortunately, practical living never answers these questions. At this point they need not more practical advise, but rather doctrine and apologetics.
It’s even worse when they meet people who are by all accounts moral and good people, yet explicitly deny Christ. There are many people in the world today who are “good” people, who are even more “moral” than your average Christian. When they can achieve this without being a Christian, it takes away the necessity of Christ if all you have been taught is how to practically live.
Ironically, when these people fall away, the “practical living” guys have completely undermined themselves. Because of the overemphasis on practical living, the youth now live in a very, very non-Christian way. The practical living has lead directly into a denial of Christian practice.
This is very nearly what happened to me. The church I grew up in never taught me theology or apologetics and it caused me to struggle very intensely with doubt for several years, nearly becoming an atheist. If it weren’t for my one friend who knew apologetics, I would probably be an atheist today.
There is much more that can be said against a focus on practical living at the expense of theology. For example, it leads to a hermeneutical approach that places the reader in the Bible, Scripture now becomes about you rather than about God. But I won’t continue down every path we could take. Rather, what can we learn from the the ideas expounded on above?
As Christians we should adamantly oppose the idea that knowledge must be practical in order to be worth pursuing. Not only is it inconsistent with the fact that knowledge of God is an end in and of itself, but it undermines itself due to the fact that Scripture itself grounds practice in doctrine and mere practical living tends to produce apostates.
That is not to say that we should study theology and doctrine with no practice. That is absolutely wrong and is the same error that I have been arguing against, but in reverse. We should therefore strive for a balance between doctrine and practice, a balance that leads Christians into a fulfilling life of following Christ and having a deeper knowledge of Him.
So how do we do this? How do we prevent ourselves from becoming either too practical or too heady? The answer is simple: read through entire books of the Bible at a time. Do not jump around from passage to passage. Do not read half a book here and half a book there. Do not approach the Bible topically. Rather, read each book of the Bible like you would read an actual book.
Scripture contains within it exactly what God wants us to learn and so the natural thing to do is to read all of it, and read it book by book. It contains the optimal balance of both theology and practice, because it contains exactly what God wants us to know and do. Going book by book helps assure that we do not skip over relevant topics or very difficult passages but rather helps us do our best to expose the congregation to the entire council of God.
As we go book by book, how do we try to understand it? In my experience, if you want a simple way to try to understand a passage, these four questions are very useful:
- Based on this passage, what should we believe?
- What should we do?
- For what should we give thanks?
- Of what should we repent?
These questions are applicable to almost any passage of Scripture and have a good balance between theology, practice, and doxology and I highly recommend them.