Unfinished Thoughts for Your Improvement

Franz Schubert wrote a beautiful piece of music that we call the Unfinished Symphony. It is called unfinished because it only contains two movements, rather than the four that were typical in his day. Whatever the true story (was it really unfinished in Schubert’s mind?), I’m glad this symphony didn’t get trashed or forgotten simply because it is shorter than some. It’s a work of beauty and power! (Listen and watch here.)

In the same spirit, but with far less grand hopes, I decided I’d release some of my own unfinished thoughts from the past week. I’ve been too busy to write a blog post lately—partly because I’ve been working on that promised essay on ordinances—but I have commented various places online. So I’ll repost some of those unfinished comments here for your reflection and improvement. (I meant that you can improve the thoughts by your insights, but if you can be improved by my unfinished thoughts, well, go right ahead!)

Implications Versus Applications

I suggest that when thinking about how Scripture should form our lives today, it is usually more helpful to think in terms of implications than applications. That is, ask “What implications does this Bible passage carry for us today?” rather than “How can we make an application of this biblical principle?” I think this choice of questions can help remind us that authority ultimately lies in God’s Word, not in our word.

There’s a chance I’m exaggerating the difference between the two, but I know I’m not the only person to think the difference might be significant. I’ll try to give an example. For instance, take the instruction “If any would not work, neither should he eat” (2 Thess. 3:10). We could ask ourselves, “How could we apply that verse? What’s an application we could make for today?” Then we could make some applications like this: Any able-bodied adult over 18 must work at least 40 hours a week, or else they have no right to eat at church fellowship meals. Or youth 15 to 18 must put in at least 15 hours of labor or they have no right to eat the food their parents prepare. Those examples might be a bit corny, but perhaps you get the idea.

If we ask instead, “What implications does this passage have for us today?” we will probably end up with a different approach. We would still be working with the same underlying principle, but we would be more likely to focus on the spirit of the teaching and ask how it speaks into each individual case we face.

In sum, I think the “make an application” approach is much more likely to produce a list of human rules that generally support the principle but all too often end up overshadowing the principle they are supposed to support. I think it tends to produce a situation like in Matthew 15 where rules about washing hands distracted people from truly honoring God’s word, where we confuse the authority of our words (our applications) with God’s word (the teachings of Scripture).

I’ll leave it to you to work it out in other examples that might be more relevant for us Mennonites.

 Should We Imitate Jesus or Paul?

Asher Witmer was asking how we should think about our “Mennonite distinctives.” I responded, in part, with the following:

One question I ask myself when pondering the questions you’re asking is, “What would Paul do?” I think prolonged Scriptural meditation on that question can help produce churches that emphasize both holiness and a love that welcomes all the members of Christ’s body.

Which led to someone asking this: “Should we be more Pauline than Christine [Christ-ine]?”

So I responded as follows:

That’s an interesting question! On the one hand I certainly say no. Paul made mistakes at times, (although I hasten to add that Scripture is surprisingly slow to clearly demonstrate this). Christ is our only perfect model and we want to be conformed to his image.

On the other hand…

  • Paul claimed that Christ lived in him (Gal. 2:20) and that he was filled with the Spirit to equip him for his specially-designated role as apostle to the Gentiles. That means it’s pretty important, especially for us Gentiles, to listen to what Paul has to say, for Christ was speaking and living through his chosen apostle.
  • Paul often told people to imitate him in his whole way of living, as in, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1; cf. 1 Cor. 4:16; Phil. 3:17; 4:9; 2Thess. 3:7; 2Tim. 1:13). That means we should not imagine an either-or situation where following one means you aren’t following the other.
  • Perhaps most significantly, and this is related to my first point, Jesus lived as a faithful Torah-observant Jew. He lived before believers were freed from the Law of Moses, before resurrection power had been unleashed, before the pouring out of the Spirit, and before the doors were fully opened to the Gentiles. Paul lived after each of these, and so do we.

Thus, if we are asking what kind of an approach we should take to the relationship between culture and religion, I think, yes, we should live and act more like Paul than like Jesus! That is how Jesus lived in Paul, and how he wants to live in us.

Faith’s Relationship to Evidence: A Biblical Perspective

Faith, as understood biblically, is not a perspective that contradicts empirical evidence. Rather, it looks at the evidence that God has revealed and draws reasonable deductions from those facts for other things which cannot yet be established on their own by empirical evidence.

I saw this again just now while stumbling through a bit of Paul’s Acts 17 sermon in Greek. Verse 31 reads like this in the ESV:

“…He [God] has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31)

The word “assurance” is a translation of the Greek word “pistin/pistis.” This is the most common word for “faith” in the NT. Now, I realize that words have ranges of meaning, and the word “pistis” can mean somewhat different things in different contexts. But what I see here fits the pattern elsewhere of how the NT speaks of “faith,” so I’ll continue with my observation.

Notice that Paul says God has given “pistis” to us about an unprovable future event (the final judgment) by means of an empirically-proven past event, the resurrection. Some other translations use an even stronger word than “assurance.” The NASB and NIV both translate “pistis” as “proof.”

I am reminded of a courtroom, with a lawyer laying out evidence for his case. He wants to prove that there will be a final resurrection at which Jesus will be the judge. To convince the jury, he displays artifact one: the empirical fact that Jesus rose from the dead. Based on this fact, it is a very logical deduction to conclude that we, too, will rise someday and that Jesus truly possesses the authority to judge that he claimed he had.

We might ask a person today, “Do you have faith in Jesus?” It is reasonable, biblically speaking, to rephrase this question like this: “Based on the historical proof, do you trust in Jesus?” The Christian walk involves plenty of mystery. Its is not walking by sight. But neither is it walking contrary to the visual evidence God has provided in his revelation of Christ.

Thinking more: I see in some commentaries that the word “pistis” was sometimes used by biblical and nonbiblical writers alike at the time in a somewhat specialized way to refer to specific points of evidence in a rhetorical argument. In other words, here is one pistis/proof, here is another pistis/proof, etc. In this sense, the word means “reason to believe” rather than “belief.” But I still think that this suggests that in the NT world “belief” wasn’t opposed to reason or evidence. Rather, if “pistis” sometimes meant “reason to believe,” at other times it meant “belief based on reasons.”

At other times the reasons for faith may be few to none, as when Abraham believed God enough to leave Ur, prior to any actions of God on his behalf. But even there it was not “belief contrary to reason,” as the word “faith” is so often accused of being in our public discourse today.

There, I better stop at three or you might get the mistaken impression I’m trying to compose an integrated four-movement symphony. Do you have any insights to help finish these thoughts? Share them in the comments below!

PS: Kevin Brendler added some important historical nuance and correction to one of my statements in my recent post about the Schleitheim Confession. (My main theological point still stands.)

PPS: If any of you have been using my Beginner’s Bible Reading Plan and have a story to tell or improvements to suggest, I’d like to hear from you!

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14 thoughts on “Unfinished Thoughts for Your Improvement”

  1. ‘Implication or Application’
    The very first thing I thought of was the John 13 passage on foot-washing.

  2. Dwight:

    regarding “Faith’s Relationship to Evidence:”

    While you describe your position as “viewed biblically,” you should also be aware that it is identical to an early 19th century philosophy/hermeneutics known as “common sense realism,” aka Scottish/naive realism aka Baconianism. This was the reigning philosophy of evangelical theology for most of the 19th century.

    I don’t know what resources you have at hand, but the Wikipedia articles are a good start, as well as the

    Common sense realism held that just as truth primarily consisted of empirical facts, transparent to human reason, even so the Bible was a text, the content of which could be transparently known and inductively synthesized into a system (of which Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology was the most formidable example.

    Fulfilled prophecies and accounts of miracles externally confirmed the Bible’s trustworthiness (external, that is, to the supernatural content of the Bible itself).

    There is an alternative model: the Bible verifies its own truth, in and through the risen Lord revealed to the community of believers. But this requires a thoroughgoing supernatural understanding of sacraments and the proclamation of the Word.

    1. Interesting thoughts, David. Different philosophical systems at different periods in history seem to have caught different aspects of truth, often mixing it with some error in the process. Your alternative model, for example, reminds me somewhat of Bultmann’s solution to the problem: Since we have no way of reliably finding the Jesus of history, we will focus instead on the Christ of faith. Or perhaps of neo-orthodoxy’s concept of inspiration happening at the moment when the biblical text is read, rather than when it is written.

      By “biblical,” I was simply thinking of the repeated NT emphasis on eye-witness testimony. The apostles did not seem to think that people should have reason to believe in Jesus or the gospel word apart from empirical observation or reliable testimonies of such. I’m thinking, of course, of the beginning of Luke, the beginning of 1 John, the end of the Gospel of John, 1 Corinthians 15, etc. The NT does talk about the inner witness of the Spirit, but does not seem to use that as apologetic evidence to convince the unbeliever.

  3. Two thoughts. First I think the “Jesus vs. Paul” question creates an unspoken assumption of contradiction, as if Paul taught one thing and Jesus quite another. That is not what you saying but it is a critical issue in broader church conversations. As I look at the NT I see Paul as an exemplar of how human followers of Christ ought to live, which is what I think you are saying. On the implications vs application question, there are some places where application is unavoidable (lke head-covering for example) while other areas are less specific and we would be better off in seeking the implication rather than trying to rigidly create an application where none exists.

    I like the idea of posting unfinished thoughts, I have almost 400 draft posts that will likely never get posted!

    1. Arthur, I think we’re in agreement that pitting Jesus against Paul certainly isn’t accurate or helpful. (For example, pitting Jesus’ nonresistant teachings against Paul’s purported approval of Christians bearing the sword in Romans 13—a misreading, in my mind.) If you’ve read my Red Letter Reductionism essay, then you will know where I stand on that question.

      On the implication versus application front, I was thinking a little differently regarding how it would affect head coverings. It seems to me that the passage has an implication for today that Christian women should wear a veil when praying or prophesying. If our exegesis of the passage leads us to conclude that Paul is drawing on creation and divine headship order to teach a timeless practice, then this implication is clearly present. In other words, I am assuming that implications do actually call us to action, if we have a spirit to heed God’s word. Some who ask “how can we make an application of this?”, however, chose one particular veiling style that matches (more or less) the requirements of 1 Corinthians 11, and then mandate that specific “application.”

      On the unfinished thoughts bit, let me just say that you are a prolific blogger. 🙂 You have more unfinished posts than I have finished ones!

      1. The headcovering issue is an example of both I guess. There is a direct application (the wearing of the covering) and there are also implications (the creation order and submission). I have seen a lot of women who wear a “cover” of sorts but also dress in expensive, fairly immodest clothing with jewelry, done up hair and make-up. So yes they have a “cover” on, one designed to be as unobtrusive as possible, but they seem to miss the broader implications of the commandment.

  4. >I suggest that when thinking about how Scripture should form >our lives today, it is usually more helpful to think in terms of >implications than applications.

    That is a profoundly important observation! The Beachy-Amish and other conservative Mennonites, I think it is clear, have raised their peculiar traditions to the level of NT church standards. Their justification, in my experience, goes like this: “Those standards are only applications and we must apply the Word.” Indeed, we must apply the Word, but we cannot go beyond what is Written in establishing those applications as criteria for church membership. This problem represents, in sum, the undoing of the conservative Mennonite world.

    Now, brothers, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, “Do not go beyond what is written.” – 1 Corinthians 4:6

  5. >Perhaps most significantly, and this is related to my first point, >Jesus lived as a faithful Torah-observant Jew. He lived before >believers were freed from the Law of Moses, before resurrection >power had been unleashed, before the pouring out of the Spirit, >and before the doors were fully opened to the Gentiles. Paul lived >after each of these, and so do we.

    Wow! My heart began to race as I read that! A more crucial insight into Biblical theology and Christian practice, *especially* for conservative Mennonites, can scarcely be stated. I am breathless with the thought that someone else actually believes that!

  6. >At other times the reasons for faith may be few to none, as when >Abraham believed God enough to leave Ur, prior to any actions of >God on his behalf.

    I’m sure you will agree with this: There is nothing, absolutely nothing, more reasonable than believing God’s word. He who doubts the raw Word of God exercises irrationality. The man who trusts God’s Word the most is the man of soundest mind, the one who is thinking the clearest, the one who is utterly rational.

  7. Arthur writes:

    >I have seen a lot of women who wear a “cover” of sorts but
    >also dress in expensive, fairly immodest clothing with jewelry,
    >done up hair and make-up. So yes they have a “cover” on, one >designed to be as unobtrusive as possible, but they seem to miss
    >the broader implications of the commandment.

    This very important insight marks the necessity of regular teaching on the meaning and significance of the headcovering. Many Mennonite women, if not most, could not adequately explain why they wear a headcovering. And that fault resides, in the first place, with their husbands, fathers and church leaders.

    As Arthur summarizes, the *implications* of the headcovering are profound indeed; not least for gender distinctions, which Western culture races to blur at breakneck speed.

    Of course, 1 Corinthians 11 requires women to cover their heads specifically in prayer. The women in my household wear a covering in public as an expression of feminine modesty, a womanly virtue accented elsewhere in the NT.

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