Is There an Application in this Text?


Or at least, if what we mean by “application” is “something practical,” then the answer is often, “no, not immediately so.”

I was listening to the radio this morning and there was an ad for some kind of art foundation. The tag line was “art works.”

No it doesn’t. Art isn’t supposed to “work.” It’s not supposed to be immediately practical. Neither is theology or the Bible many times, for that matter. That’s because the arts are not supposed to be “practical.” They’re of a higher order, one that’s job (yes I’m using that ironically) is to point us to the true, good, and beautiful or how we’ve rebelled against it.

Of course, the Bible is transformational. Scripture’s purpose is to point us to the Son by the illumining power of the Spirit so that we might know the Father, and in seeing the Son we are transformed into his image (see 2 Cor. 3:17-18). In this sense every text is applicable, because every text calls us to respond to Christ in faith, whether for the first time or for our continued sanctification. But this is not the same thing as “practical.”

I’m afraid in our thinking on preaching, theology, art, and a whole host of other issues we have been taken in by that distinctly American philosophy, pragmatism. The truth of something is known through its usefulness and the results it engenders. This just isn’t the same as contemplating God for who he is and being transformed into his image.

None of this is an excuse for theologians to keep their heads in the clouds and ignore their ecclesial-rooted calling and audience. But it is to say that I think that many calls for theology to be made “practical” are many times influenced more by pragmatism than by a proper understanding of the role of theology (and the rest of the arts).

Pietism, Anti-Intellectualism, and Doctrinal Disputes

Over the last 2 weeks – has it really been that long?? – the Trinity discussion/debate/deathmatch has raged like a wildfire through certain corners of the blogosphere. I’ve been heavily invested, as have others. One trend that I do not think has been adequately addressed but that I have repeatedly taken note of is a critique of this entire discussion as unimportant, distracting from our love for God in Christ, “a tempest in a teapot,” etc.

I should say first that, given the tone of the discussion’s beginning, I can understand why some would be put off. When you start throwing heresy bombs, calling people names, using derisive language to describe others’ positions, and the like, it’s difficult for many, including myself, to hear anything except that (IMO poorly chosen) tone. But I am not talking about tone here, I am talking about substance.

Understanding rightly who God is and in light of his revelation to us in his Word is no small matter. In fact, nothing could be more important. There is a strain of pietistic anti-intellectualism within evangelicalism that sees much doctrinal debate as just an academic exercise, divorced from real life and as important as arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin (actually an important question, btw!). If you are a Christian, though, this is not the attitude the Bible prescribes with respect to knowing God. Yes, God calls for us to love him, but “loving God” is not some emotional enterprise divorced from our intellect. We are whole people, body and spirit, and our minds matter as much as our emotions and our senses and our spirit.

Further, this debate, as with most (all?) doctrinal debates, has application for believers, even if it is in a trickle down manner. But let’s say it doesn’t have any “application,” for the sake of argument – that does not make it unimportant to the life of the average believer. Knowing God is the reason you and I are redeemed through the blood of Christ, and “knowing” doesn’t just mean in an emotional or spiritual sense but also in an intellectual sense, in that we are called to know him rightly. Obviously some have different cognitive abilities, and so we do not want to put the onus on intellect to the neglect of other means of knowing, as Jamie Smith has rightly noted. But each of us are called, to the best of our intellectual abilities, to love God with our minds (Matt. 22:37).

Don’t eschew doctrinal rigor as unimportant, unable to produce love for God in Christ, or without a point. The Bible doesn’t; in fact, it commands the opposite.

Jason Hood on Michael Bird (Luke Wisley)

At the beginning of June, Jason Hood posted some reflections on what he learned from Michael Bird as his doctoral supervisor. Jason’s post really resonated with me, so I thought I would repost two of his thoughts with my own reflections.

* MASTER your content; being a GENERALIST, a category I learned about from Michael and something to which I still aspire, does not mean slagging off, nor does it mean ignoring one’s responsibility to become a specialist (a requirement for entering the guild). Michael, like Howard Marshall, put stress on “making the primary sources your mistress” (IHM’s phrase).

Besides the incredible phrase ‘make the primary sources your mistress’ this thought really hits home for me. It is incredibly important as a pastor, scholar, or layperson to really know the primary sources. From the pastoral and scholarly side, a lack of knowledge of the primary sources is reflected in preaching and research that is guided by secondary literature rather than the text. Theological education must stress mastering the text (which inevitably means being comfortable with Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) and letting secondary literature expand your exegetical horizons rather than letting it be the ultimate guide.

* KNOW YOUR PERSONALITY, primarily so that you can be comfortable in your own skin with your own limits and tendencies. Not everyone will take a fancy to you, but you’ll probably enjoy life and work more.

I enjoyed this little note from Jason. It’s one that I need to learn. There is a huge temptation to allow the work you are producing to dictate your worth and value. This is followed by the endless temptation of measuring yourself against all the other research students you meet. I’ve found that giving into these temptations makes one miserable. Know yourself, your gifts, and be as faithful as you can to work hard and develop further. That’s all you can do. So I think Jason is right, if you know yourself you’ll enjoy both life and work more.

I encourage you to read the whole post.

C.S. Lewis as a ‘Man of Letters’ rather than Scholar

downloadAs many are quite aware, this year marks the 50th anniversary of C.S. Lewis’ death and there have been various functions in Cambridge to commemorate his life and work since moving here in October. In whatever time has alloted this term, I have been trying to read more Lewis and books about him.

Recently I read Jacqueline Glenny’s short booklet, “C.S. Lewis’s Cambridge” and I came across a quote from John Stevens, one of Lewis’ Magdalene College colleagues at Cambridge. Stevens’ description of Lewis is a healthy reminder to those of us engaged in biblical research.

“…if talk was his play, books were his love. The enthusiasm and relish which C.S.L. brought to his reading, and that not only in the fields where he was acknowledged master, were infectious. He did not regard himself as a scholar, but as a man of letters. The backgrounds of academic controversy, research and criticism were kept rigorously in their place. He spent his time reading texts rather than reading about them.”


Jacqueline Glenny, “C.S. Lewis’s Camridge”, Cambridge: Christian Heritage Press, 2003.

John E. Stevens, ‘In Memoriam: Professor C.S. Lewis’, Magdalene College Magazine and Record, 8, (1963-1964), p.13.

Old Testament Law and Living Biblically

Christopher Wright has an article over at Christianity Today on reading Old Testament law and the Christian life. The starting place for his article are two recent books: A.J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible and Rachel Held Evans’ A Year of Biblical Womanhood which show how clueless many of us can be when thinking about how Scripture speaks today. In his article, Wright provides some helpful ways for us to think about how law still functions as Christian Scripture. My favourite line from the article:

The idea that all the imperative statements in the Bible should be taken literally, as if they all apply to me, is a nonsensical way of handling Scripture.

You can read the whole article here.

Maundy Thursday Prayer

Almighty Father, whose dear Son, on the night before
he suffered, instituted the Sacrament of his Body and Blood: Mercifully grant that we may receive it thankfully in remembrance of Jesus Christ our Lord, who in these holy mysteries gives us a pledge of eternal life; and who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

-Book of Common Prayer (1979 Edition)

Morning Prayer

DSC_0765DEARLY beloved brethren, the Scripture moveth us in sundry places to acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness; and that we should not dissemble nor cloke them before the face of Almighty God our heavenly Father; but confess them with an humble, lowly, penitent, and obedient heart; to the end that we may obtain forgiveness of the fame, by his infinite goodness and mercy. And although we ought at all times humbly to acknowledge our sins before God; yet ought we most chiefly so to do, when we assemble and meet together, render thanks for the great benefits that we have received at his hands, to set forth his most worthy praise, to hear his most holy Word, and to ask those things which are requisite and necessary as well for the body as the foul. Wherefore I pray and beseech you, as many as are here present, to accompany me with a pure heart, and humble voice, unto the throne of me heavenly grace, saying after me:

ALMIGHTY and most merciful Father, We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep: We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts: We have offended against thy holy laws: We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders: Spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults: Restore thou them that are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake, That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.

-Book of Common Prayer (1662 edition)

The Intersection of Long Walks and Deep Thinking

Bruce Ashford, Provost of Southeastern Seminary, has a nice post on the benefits of long walks and deep thinking. Living in Scotland means you walk everywhere. I for one can testify to the connection between these activities. Here is Bruce’s concluding paragraph:

I’ll limit myself to one concluding reflection. Our 21st century urban context pushes us to live lives that are dizzyingly busy, crammed full of many things and devoid of time to contemplate. Perhaps the best thing we can do is set aside some time to be “unbusy,” so that can partake in such a deeply humane activity as walking and thinking. As Eugene Peterson points out, our busy-ness sometimes stems from arrogance—we are busy because we are building our own kingdoms. Other times, it stems from laziness—we let society write our agenda rather than writing our own. Either way, we rob ourselves of the time needed to immerse ourselves in deep thought about. Healthy spiritual and intellectual formation requires a certain amount of unhurried leisure, the sort that is often provided by a long stroll.

You can read the whole post here.