Discerning and Discipleship

As Christians, we embody our particular historical situation as people who serve the past, present, and future.  As we seek to embody Christ faithfully, we find helps and hindrances in the social groupings to which we belong.  These social groupings may include a number of different communities such as the local congregation to which we belong, the families in which we grew up, the academic communities whose methods and mindset shape our perspective, and the broader society that seeks to remake us in our own image.  

Each of these influences can help and hinder us from embodying Christ faithfully within the context of our lives.  We should be cautious in identifying certain instances as positive and others as negative.  Our local congregation, for instance, can just as easily pressure us to conform to a it’s image rather than conforming to the image of Christ.  Broader society can alert us to truths of which we might be unaware within the Christian community.  Our commitment to an academic discipline can be a bane and a blessing as the boundaries of our deep expertise can create the illusion that we know more than we actually do.  

Such influences may be added to our own biological and psychosocial limitations.  Our brains are naturally given to certain biases.  The physiological and neurological structures of our minds are not easily overcome.  Our bodies and minds are not limitless, but limited.  The way we look at the world is conditioned by our own biological and psychological states.  Such conditioning is not necessarily positive or negative, but guides us toward a right reckoning of what we can do alone and what we might do with God’s empowerment.

God’s empowerment brings us to an additional influence on biblical and theological discernment: the Holy Spirit.  God does not save us only to abandon us to navigate a fallen world on our own. The Holy Spirit prompts us and, as we meditate on and learn to delight in God’s instruction, sanctifies our minds and guides us into all truth.  The Spirit’s influence is never a hindrance.  He is always and only a help convicting us to resist temptation which “consists not so much in the titanic desire to be as God, but in weakness, timidity, weariness, not wanting to be what God requires of us.”

Given that we recognize our propensity to be helped and hindered by a variety of influences, we would be wise to adopt a posture of that walks the line between curiosity and suspicion.  We should be curious about all that we do not know recognizing that our fellow members of the body of Christ can contribute their gifts to our (Rom 1:11-12; Eph 3:10).  At the same time, we cannot naively assume that the people who seek to influence us are doing so to conform us more closely to the image of Christ even if they intend to do so.  Our posture cannot be one of defensiveness.  We do not seek out conspiracy theories.  Instead, we must adopt a posture “that is compelling and attractive, embodying not simply the cunning of reason but the power of love that constantly gestures toward joining, toward the desire to hear, to know, and to embrace.”

Ways of Knowing and Biblical and Theological Discernment

Given that we live out our Christian faith within the concrete contexts of history, we also make biblical and theological discernment within those spaces.  While we might find it ideal to begin with the interpretation of Scripture and proceed to application, we are creatures of history. It is appropriate for us to do what we can to let the text speak on its own terms, but we should not fool ourselves by adopting the illusion that we can empty ourselves as we approach the text.  There is a difference between making the biblical text say what we would like and bringing ourselves to the text in the hopes and with the expectation that God will transform us.  We must avoid becoming “more fond of our own thoughts than of the thoughts of the Bible” so that “we no longer read the Bible seriously, we no longer read it against ourselves, but for ourselves.”

Privileging the thoughts of the Bible does not involve an escape from the world.  Rather, it demands that we acknowledge and make relevant the presence of God within it because if God exists, we have the potential to live in new and different ways.  We can reflect the glory of God in a world darkened by sin.  

Any method of biblical and theological discernment, then, will necessarily take into consideration the Christian social imaginary whereby we imagine our social existence with God and others, which entails the expectations set set forth in God’s word and learned through discipleship, as well as “the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations” found in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ.  Biblical and theological discernment does not simply quote chapter and verse, but considers how our judgments and subsequent actions will contribute to the building up of Christ’s body and the practice of “religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father” which is “to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (Jam 1:27).  

To move beyond proof-texting, it may be helpful to consider the four ways of knowing drawn from cognitive psychology and particularly from the work of John Vervaeke.  Vervaeke identifies four ways of knowing: (1) propositional, (2) procedural, (3) perspectival, and (4) participatory.  Propositional knowing is likely most familiar to us.  This sort of knowing involves “knowing that.”  It is a recognition of some particular truth claim.  For instance, the phrase “Bikes are a form of transportation” is a truth claim.  We know that bikes are a form of transportation and could offer some additional explanations to support the claim.  

Procedural knowing is a different sort of knowing.  Whereas we may know that “bikes are a form of transportation,” we may not be able to utilize them as such.  Riding a bike is a skill that belongs to the procedural domain.  Knowing how to ride a bike is not a proposition.  It is a procedure.  We either know how or not.  

Perspectival knowing refers to knowing from a particular point of view at a particular moment in time.  It involves the sifting and sorting of information to realize relevance.  Assume, for instance, that you need to get to a store about a mile away from your current location.  As you consider your transportation options, you notice a bike.  Assuming favorable weather conditions, the bike could be a viable transportation option; however, if you don’t know how to ride a bike, you will not see it as such.  You will still know that (propositional) “bikes are a form of transportation,” but because you don’t know how (procedural) to ride it, it won’t be particularly relevant (perspectival) to you situation.  This sort of knowing involves knowing how elements within a particular arena come together.

Finally, participatory knowing draws connections between ourselves and the world that inform our ongoing, ever-changing interactions with the world in a process of co-creation.  Participatory knowing involves our embodied experience in the world in which our environment conditions the way we participate with and “know” the various elements within our environment.  Departing from the bike example for the moment, let’s consider baptism.  Baptism, as a sacrament, includes water.  While we could debate the merits of baptism by immersion or sprinkling, baptism is virtually unintelligible without water (or at least, perhaps, some sort of liquid).  Yet, we somehow recognize that certain actions involving water (e.g. taking a shower, spraying kids in the yard with a hose on a hot summer day, or having a frustrated conversation partner throw water in our face) do not qualify as baptism.  Baptism requires some minimum standard of ritual and procedure in which a combination of elements qualify as baptism. The coming together of the various elements combined with the communication of the event’s significance “create” the baptism.  

This last form of knowing is relatively simple to illustrate through religious ritual, but also occurs in various ways in our everyday lives.  To return to our bike example, let’s assume that you learn to ride a bike.  Now, in the scenario noted above in which you need to travel to a store a mile away, you not only know that (propositional) the bike is a mode of transportation, you also know how (procedural) to ride it.  Because of your newly acquired skill, the bike becomes relevant (perspectival) to your situation.  In this situation, you and the bike co-create (participatory) a state of affairs in which you now have an expedient, viable mode of transportation. 

Applied to biblical and theological discernment, these ways of knowing can be quite helpful.  Note the following analysis of Malachi 3:10-12, which reads, “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house.  And thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is not more need.  I will rebuke the devourer for you, so that it will not destroy the fruits of your soil, and your vine in the field shall not fail to bear, says the Lord of hosts.  Then all nations will call you blessed, for you will be a land of delight, says the Lord of hosts.”

Propositional

We know that Israel has been holding back offerings from the Lord.  We also know that God challenges the Israelites to test him by bringing in the full tithe so that he can bless his people in the eyes of the nations.  

Procedural

In reading this text we bring some mix of skills necessary to engage God’s word.  Basic literacy, for instance, is required for us to read the text.  Beyond being able to read, we might also draw on research skills to examine secondary sources or commentaries.  If we have been trained to do so, we might also be able to examine the text in its original languages.  Beyond these more technical skills, we might also engage in the practice of prayer asking God to guide our interpretive efforts.  The procedural aspect of knowing will remain relatively constant as we approach the biblical text though we can certainly add additional skills such as the ability to integrate multiple disciplines in our consideration of biblical texts, the use of various tools to access additional information regarding the texts we study, or specialization in interpreting a particular biblical genre.

Perspectival

All of God’s word is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17), yet not all scriptures may be relevant to the concrete situations in which we find ourselves. 

For example, 1 Chronicles 1:1-9:44 is likely to be less relevant to the everyday lives of Christians than certain other verses.  Such a claim does not mean that 1 Chonicles 1:1-9:44 is somehow deficient or irrelevant to any and all situations.  Rather, it highlights that certain texts are likely to be more relevant to the concrete, historical environments we inhabit.  

Jesus, for instance, doesn’t quote Genesis 1:1 when tempted by Satan.  Instead, he turns to Deuteronomy (Matt 4:4, 7, 10).  In doing so, Jesus is not somehow negating the rest of scripture.  He is recognizing the relevance of Deuteronomy 6:13,16, and 8:3 to the situation in which he finds himself.  

We also must learn to recognize relevance in the activation of God’s word.  When and how a particular passage is relevant lies close to the core of what it means to do biblical and theological discernment.  With regard to Malachi 3:10-12, we might find a more narrow relevance in relation to financial support for one’s local church.  We might also find a more general relevance associated with the logic of obedience.  In other words, we obey God not because what he commands always makes sense to us, but because by obeying God, we express our trust in him.  

We would likely want to consider just how vv. 11-12 relate to us.  Should we expect a monetary blessing when we tithe at church?  Is God obligating Himself to distribute material blessings when we bring our offerings?  These questions may lead us to other passages that demonstrate the different sorts of blessings that God offers his people to further discern what we might expect from God as we put him to the test through our obedience.  

Participatory

Participatory knowing is a site of transformation.  Here, we adopt a particular role we play in a given scenario.  It is an identity we take on in collaboration with the various elements of the environment we inhabit.  Our environment opens up certain opportunities for us to act and, as we take those opportunities (while simultaneously denying others), we participate within our environment as someone.  

The opportunities an environment provides are, at times referred to as “affordances.”  The theory of affordances was initially posited by James Gibson in 1979 who suggests, “The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill.”  He goes on to note, “It [the term affordance] implies the complementarian of the animal and the environment.” What we realize in reading a text like Malachi 3:10-12 is that God is part of our environment.  He is the preeminent member and Creator of that environment who opens up possibilities for those who have “eyes to see and ears to hear.”  Perception, according to Gibson, is one of the crucial aspects of a theory of affordances since “the central question for the theory of affordances is not whether they exist and are real but whether information is available in ambient light for perceiving them.”

As we participate in the world God has made and over which God reigns, we may recognize that (1) God’s creations, however marred by sin, was designed for human flourishing and continues to afford humanity possibilities to thrive as individuals and in communities, (2) God is active within creation in general and specific ways to draw together the various affordances of the world to serve his purposes and his people, and (3) God often works beyond the limits of what creation affords to accomplish all that he desires.  God’s presence affords us opportunities to act that would be sure to fail without God’s empowerment.  As theologian Jonathan Tran notes, 

“Chrisitans charged with nothing but obedience are freed for obedience. . .Since duty does not name faithfulness and effectiveness does not drive discipleship—since the slaughtered Lamb is called worthy to open the scroll and interpret an otherwise meaningless history, since the Lion of Judah rules as a lamb that still bears the marks of our transgressions—Christians fear not time and its various markers like death.  Rather obedience emancipates one to live into the ordinary goodness of time.”

In terms of participatory knowledge, the biblical texts open up opportunities for us to be people who walk by faith, not by sight.  We are, through God and his various gifts, afforded the opportunity to be an obedient people who reflect the glory of God in a broken world. 

These four ways of knowing along with the associated concept of relevance realization can also be used in evaluating circumstances and environments.  What we find, then, is the necessity of understanding what it is that we are doing as we engage in biblical and theological discernment.  We are considering the varied ways in which God’s word, in whole and/or in part, may afford us opportunities for obedience within contexts in which we face specific problems and challenges.  Beyond these specific problems and challenges, we consider how God’s word affords us the opportunity to be disciples, or people who learn, teach, and observe all of God’s commandments.

JAMES SPENCER, PHD is President the D.L. Moody Center, an independent non-profit organization based in Northfield, MA, and author of Useful to God: Eight Lessons from the Life of D. L. Moody and Thinking Christian: Essays on Testimony, Accountability, and the Christian Mind.