push back

I have been a bad blogger this week, distracted by the real life demands of teaching and preparation for teaching.  This weekend I get to speak on vocation to about 200 participants at The Chapel in Akron.  Next week I get to grade student confessions and papers!

In the meantime, Doug Phillips emailed me this blog post which argues that belief is actually more important than practice.  What do you think?  Is it too strong?  Does it make a worthwhile point? 

Read it here:  http://www.reclaimingthemind.org/blog/2009/03/belief-is-no-good-without-practice-and-other-stupid-statements/.







21 responses to “push back”

  1. He definitely states it in a strong way, but I think he is right. I have been teaching women’s Bible studies that give a survey overview of the Old Testament for 2 years now. We have very, very little “direct application” for today. It is a course based on understanding more about God and His plan – and guess what? It’s changing these women’s lives. Women who have been in the church for years and years as well as those newer to the faith keep raving about how God is changing their lives through understanding the message of His Word. TRUE understanding and TRUE belief change our behavior – the Holy Spirit is much more adept at applying His Word to our lives exactly where we need it than any human could ever be! I’m all about living out our faith – it drives me nuts when our lives don’t match up to what we’re saying; pastors and teachers should definitely give application when it is appopriate and led by the Spirit to do so. But nothing can transform a life in the grip of the Holy Spirit like exposure to pure, unadulterated Truth. Then they will know the TRUTH and the TRUTH will set them free!

  2. mikewittmer

    These are encouraging comments, Kristi. Thanks for stopping by. Teaching the Old Testament with little application and it’s still life changing?! Must be the Word of God.

  3. Yes, he is too strong. He is right when he says that actions must be grounded in beliefs and thus beliefs must come first. But he comes across as if to say, “If all you ever do is believe the right things and you never really act on it, that’s okay.” I think he tries to cover for that in the conclusion, but it’s too little too late.

    I just don’t think he adequately lives in the tension between belief and practice. Yes, some have held too strongly in favor of practice, but do we counter that by holding too strongly on the side of belief?

  4. I agree with the writers concern, but agree with Steve the wording was on the strong side, and perhaps the thesis could have been worded and argued in a better, more careful and irenic manner.

    That said, there are some things that need to be said about how “practical” applications are made from a given passage of Scripture that bear on this discussion.

    I once went to a church that prided itself on its applications, which would take up the bulk of the 1 hour plus sermons. The problem was way to many of the applications made had little connection to the main intent and purpose of the passage discussed. As a result a careful exegetical and contextual exposition of the passage ended up being thrown to the wind as way to often the preacher would grab a hold of any faint allusion, or possible interpretation to go off on their latest “trolley car issue”.

    Any application from a given passage of Scripture needs to flow from the context and meaning and intent of the passage. To press applications beyond that is to turn the Bible into a book of morality instead of the Redemptive Story it is. (It’s at this point that I found Walter Kaiser’s “Toward an Exegetical Theology” particularly helpful.)

    The general discussion of “belief/practice”, inevitably leads to this issue of application. When anyone on either side of the issue talk about “practical” application, what do they mean? The kind of miss-application I spoke of above, or the more careful application that comes from within the bounds of context, exegesis and intent?

    One other point the writer of the post made needs to be recognized. There will be times when we come across things God wants us to know about Himself and His work in historical redemption where the application is not that apparant or clear. That does not make that doctrine data any less valuable. It still remains someting God wants us to know even if His reason for wanting us to know it is not clear or apparant to us.


  5. One more thing…

    How much of the desire for something “practical” out of the sermon or worship service is a subtle way of making the worship about me instead of about God?

  6. The article is pathetic. Too strong? It doesn’t even get the point Mike. The point of Jewish belief was that mental belief and physical acting out of the belief were one on the same.

    You again seperate them. You can’t seperate mental thoughts from physical actions. One doesn’t necessarily lead to the other.

    Jesus calls his disciples to follow, and they have very little idea who they are following. Still, they follow. Read thru Mark; it wasn’t until long after Jesus has left this earth that they start getting who he really was.

    To suggest that one lead to the other and not visa versa as well means we forget the reality of the biblical text.

    To suggest that being right in our heads is more important than how we live and breathe and have our being means we totally disregard Jesus telling us that a new reality has taken hold with the arrival of the kingdom.

    In order to believe that it’s primarily in our heads, we bow to Sunday worship and Sunday school and Wednesday catechism as the means of knowing God.

    What if feeding the poor and clothing the naked and building homes for those without shelter leads to God? Is that less righteous than knowing God in my head?

    Was the Son of God dieing on the cross and rising from the dead something that took place in the mind of God or was it God’s reality among us?

  7. The post is too strong. Has he ever read James? Romans 12-16? Ephesians 4-6? Galatians 5-6?

    One problem is that his “belief” is too generic. He says God is glorified in correct belief, but a lot of people have a great number of correct beliefs. All theists believe in God as a Creator, right? It seems that most Americans believe that Jesus was a real person – and very moral at that?

    God’s primary concern is faith, faith in Jesus Christ. Yes faith involves believing in some objective truth, we’ve gone down this road. But isn’t it possible to hold to some objective truth but not believe/trust it? Jesus criticizes the religious of his day for knowing (believing!) the Scriptures but failing to have faith in him (John 5:39).

    I will give him this: it seems that faith is logically prior to works. It is through our faith in Christ that God gives us His Spirit, who enables us for good works. So faith (which involves some belief) first that will and must lead to good works.

    Thats it for now…I have to go preach and apply God’s Word!

  8. DREW

    My frustration is similar to his in that the whole Bible is not simply written for us to know how to live a certain way. If guide wanted us to have a driver’s manual for life, then why didn’t he write the whole Bible that way?

    Isn’t this basic Bible study principles? Not every passage of scripture is prescriptive and therefore does not have an application. Why isn’t this okay? Some passages are simply descriptive. They are telling us about what happened. I mean, I love Veggie Tales and all, but I am pretty sure God didn’t intend the story of David and Goliath to mainly be about how “little guys can do big things too.” Maybe the story if more about David’s God.

    True “belief” will produce right behavior. We need to preach belief. If people aren’t living right, then they aren’t really believing what they say they do. To use James; their faith is dead (not really true faith) unless it produces works. And we know that faith comes from hearing, and hearing from the Word of God. Preach THE faith and let God’s Word change the people’s hearts. If the passage is prescriptive… prescribe. If it is descriptive… describe.

  9. Drew – You are correct about misapplication, just as the original post is correct about an overfocus on application. However, the Bible is about more than belief. Consider Paul’s letters,: every single one in its original context is a letter about how to live (Jews and Gentiles together, all the stuff in Corinth, Philemon and his slave, etc, etc). I agree that we need to preach belief. It begins there. But isn’t it interesting that Paul was always writing about living and any belief was secondary to his original intent?

  10. I do not think it’s too strong. As I said in my comment there (#31), “we cannot apply what we do not know or understand.
    We live from the inside out.”

    Moreover, it seems to me that every response here proves my very point, viz., all comments are reflections of beliefs and values. Also, it seems to me that the structure of most Pauline literature begins with belief first, then moves to behavior (e.g., Eph. 1-3 [belief]; 4-6 [behavior]; Romans 1-11 [belief], 12-16 [behavior]). Our beliefs inform our behavior, not vice versa. Disagreeing simply demonstrates my point.

  11. Our works DO compel us to think differently just as our thoughts compel us to DO differently.

    When Jesus says, “Come follow me,” it is usually followed by action rather than a direct teaching.

    “Come follow me” is heard as he walks up to several fishermen on the beach, and they respond.

    It’s only as we progress down the road of following that the disciples start to ‘get’ who Jesus really is! The gospel of Mark makes them look like complete fools, but in reality they are only beginning to understand the man whom they chose to follow. Even after he leaves them for the final time, they more fully understand.

    YET, we have the audacity to think it is necessary to comprehend Jesus Christ (fairly well) in our minds in order to be a follower. We are so entrenched with the protestant idea that ‘works’ are not necessary for salvation that we refust to believe that the actions of physically following could have equal value to mental ascent of Jesus Christ as Lord.

    While this is the story of the disciiples, why can it not also be our story? Has the means by which Jesus calls his disciples to follow changed since Christ walked this earth?

  12. Paul. We live both from the ‘inside out’ & the ‘outside in.’

    Our physcial body does well with food and water & it does well with clean air and sunshine. Nature & nurture shape our being. Our parents genes & the way they raised us make us who we are today.

    The Spirit of God dwelling within us & the way in which we choose to respond to God’s leading both are significant to the kind of followers we become.

  13. Brian McLaughlin

    Paul – I think I agree with you for the most part. However, you are missing one important ingredient to Paul. Yes he always begins with belief. That is foundational. On that we agree.

    However, the original post said this: “Friends, if people believe correctly—and I mean truly believe—they will act correctly when the situation calls for it. Not only this, but their good works will be done for the right reasons, based on a motivation of truth. Knowing and understanding God will change lives by bringing people in a right orientation with the way things actually are.”

    Is this always true? It seems to me that even believing people need help applying and living the truth. This is why Paul says “I urge you to live your life worthy…” (Eph. 4:1), “conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel…” (Phil. 1:27), “Since you have been raised with Christ…put to death…” (Col. 3:1, 5), “we instructed you how to live in order to please God as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord to do this more and more” (1 Thess 4:1).

    Yes action is based upon belief. But for the original post to claim that all we need is belief and action will simply fall-out is not the biblical pattern. Paul preached belief, but he also preached how to live belief (see 1 Thess quote above) and had to remind them again and again of both.

    So the original post is too strong. Yes belief is foundational, but even Paul needed to remind believers how to live. And so did Peter, James, John….

  14. Brian:
    Thanks for the clarifications. I agree that knowledge is not sufficient. My main point is that it is necessary unto change. James indeed tells us that knowing the right thing, but not doing it is sin. Thus, knowledge is necessary, but not sufficient.

    Perhaps the original post was a bit Greek unto Socrates’ “knowledge is power” dictum. Yet, there is some truth to it, I suppose. I tend toward Aristotle’s notion of habituation and the fact that we must practice our beliefs to become virtuous people, albeit with God’s matchless grace under it all!

    Thanks for your comments and pointing out the possibility that I was suggesting a false dichotomy. True we live from both directions. However, I would not say that the way we were raised and our genes “make us who we are today.” Indeed they clearly “influence” us but I refuse to belief that my actions are a mere product of my biology or environment. You rightly concluded that our response to God’s prompting does shape the kind of followers we become, but “who I am” is solely determined by “where I am,” which for me is “in Christ.” Okay…enough of my Reformed thinking (wink).

  15. Yooper

    I wonder what input Ananias and Sapphira would have to offer with regards to this ongoing beliefs/practice debate?

  16. Bam, Yooper!

  17. I think Randy really hits on the head for me. If you say one thing (let’s say mentally assent for arguments sake) and do the opposite, then what do you believe?

    It seems that an ancient Jew would say would say what you practiced, because it is a reflection of what you believe in your head.

    So, maybe it’s true that action comes from belief in your head, but I agree with Paul, I think there’s a false dichotomy setup here. Wouldn’t it be true that what you do is what you believe (in your head) deep down, even if you say the exact opposite?

    I think the tension I feel with Randy is that (and I’m speaking for myself from my experience) that for so long the churches I was a part of emphasized believing the “right concepts” with no care for right practice. I constantly asked what practicing these concepts we were assenting to looked like in the world and how it brought hope. I received only answers that were less than hopeful.

    This experience brought up all sorts of tension for me, because I thought the gospel was good news! All I ever heard was despair when I questioned these “right beliefs.”

    So, I am very interested in the history of orthodoxy in the church, AND I’m interested in how these beliefs are displayed in a broken world. I don’t think Mike would disagree with this. In fact, I would say that’s what he always says and that he is always misunderstood. I think his concern is that there are certain paths theologically that “postmodern innovators” are walking down that seem to cast off historic Christian orthodoxy. For example, from what I remember from class, if one does not believe in original sin (forget how pollution and guilt are transferred, I’m just talking about original sin in and of itself), then eventually it will lead down a road of not needing Jesus for salvation, and just doing all the right “Jesus things.” These are the kinds of conversations I’m curious about as well.

    The problem becomes when we stress one with an elimination of the other, hence, the false dichotomy thing again. I pray that we continue to seek how the historic orthodox Christian faith can bring hope to our current world. That is what is so beautiful about the gospel, that no matter what culture one finds herself in, that the hope of Jesus always breaks through.

    I think those in Emergent Village have helped me reimagine what it looks like to display Christ in our current culture. Of course there are some things that are said or discussed that I don’t agree with, but I appreciate the effort on recapturing practice when intellectual assent seems to have been stressed for so long. I know Wittmer appreciates this as well.

    Wittmer’s concern in his book, DSB, is the issue of the pendulum swinging too far in the other direction. I appreciate the effort on his part to try to find a center, to find the both/and.

    Okay, enough thinking out loud. Hope it makes sense.

  18. Mike L.
    Thanks for your thoughtful and sincere comment. Seems to me that we are more integrated beings than we’d like to admit. Doing reflects my knowing and my knowing reflects my doing.

    All things being equal, we tend to live out what we understand. Granted there’s rote habituation and mindless activity we all engage in (driving comes to mind or watching TV), but primarily we will something to be so, then make it so. The direction is from the inside to the outside, from the belief to the behavior. This is demonstrated time and again in my philosophy classes when every student who shows up to class values attendance more than sitting at Starbucks watching Oprah re-runs on their iPod. The choice to come to class or not is ever-present and their values and beliefs will inform and give birth to their decision. Whenever behavior opposes beliefs, then cognitive dissonance rules and can eventually stave off emotional and intellectual maturity. The goal is to integrate the internal with the external such that we live consistent, integrous lives. Add to the mix the influence of and submission to God’s Spirit for the believer and “voila!” God is glorified and we achieve a measure of eudaimonia or optimal living.

    Just thinking….er um…I mean behaving ;-}

    Enough psychology! I’m a philosopher!!

  19. mikewittmer


    Despite your claim to be the humble one, I think that I am more humble and charitable towards the extremes on your side than you are on mine. Whereas I say that McLaren and friends helpfully remind us of the need for right practice but are lacking in what we need to believe, you did not say that this writer misses the need for practice but at least reminds us of the importance of right belief.

    Instead, you called it “pathetic” and then pushed its claims upon me, saying that “You again seperate [sic] them.” For the record, I have never separated belief from practice, so I don’t know what to make of your “again.”

    Can you help me understand these two sentences? You write: “You can’t seperate [sic] mental thoughts from physical actions. One doesn’t necessarily lead to the other.” Your second sentence seems to do what the first sentence says is impossible, namely it separates thoughts from actions. What do you mean here?

    Good words on the need for both belief and practice and for instruction on how to live out our beliefs. I wonder though, about this statement in post #9: “But isn’t it interesting that Paul was always writing about living and any belief was secondary to his original intent?” Are you saying that right beliefs were not as important to Paul as right living? Wouldn’t you say that both are essential?

  20. Yes both are essential. I’ve said several times on this thread that beliefs are the foundation for our lives/living. But I don’t think my statement contradicts that.

    My point is this: Paul’s primary reason for writing his letters is rarely, if ever, primarily belief. For example, Romans is not a summary of Paul’s theology nor his attempt at systematic theology. The issue in Romans is a Jew-Gentile issue within the Christian community and how the two live together. So to address this issue of living the Christian life, Paul grounds his thoughts in appropriate belief and then goes on to show them how this belief leads them to a certain way of living. The same is true for Philemon, Pastorals, Corinthians, etc, etc.

    So right beliefs are foundational for Paul. But every single letter Paul writes applies Christian beliefs to how they live. This is why the original post is too strong at rejecting application. Paul was always applying his theology at every turn in his letters. I think that point is undebatable.

  21. mikewittmer

    Thanks for the clarification, Brian. I completely agree with you now (I did before, I just didn’t know it!).

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