Principles and Practicals

Principles and Practicals

There are two kinds of people. Those who favor principles, theories and thought. And those who favor practice, conduct and action. Christians can either see their faith in terms of what they believe or in terms of how they live.

Those who favor thought will often point to Paul. Paul spent much of his letters talking about what to believe and seemed to favor principles over practice. Consider Paul’s letter to the Philippians. This is the part that is usually quoted:

Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.

It seems that Paul wants to stress that principle reigns; we must dwell, think, meditate first. But Paul goes on: “The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things.” What things should Christians practice? The same things that Paul has just listed to think about! He has taught them and they have seen them. They have seen them because they are things you can practice, things you can do. And the people know what they are because they have not only head Paul talk about them, but seen them exhibited in Paul’s life.

If it is not the case that Paul favors thought over practice perhaps Paul sees thought as the means to practice, that if one dwells on what is lovely, one will do something lovely. There are two ways to take such an idea. First, one could mean that the goal is lovely action. This might mean that lovely action is produced by lovely thought. However, because lovely action may well be produced by a person devoid of lovely thought we leave open the possibility that lovely thought is only justified by its producing lovely action. But that does not appear to be what Paul is saying. Rather, Paul seems to believe that there is some intrinsic good to be found in thinking about loveliness. For it to have intrinsic worth it must be justifiable on its own whatever the outcome.

A second way to take it is to think that Paul is saying that lovely thought has intrinsic value, but that lovely thought produces or causes lovely action. One could bolster the point by positing that the cause works both ways. Lovely action produces lovely thought as much as lovely thought produces lovely action. Perhaps the relationship between thought and action is integral. We do not know how it relates, but we know that it does relate. Consequently even if we cannot spell out how the two relate we can confidently engage in both knowing that the other will be produced by it.

To some extent, the latter point seems to be how Paul sees the relationship. There is a certain connection between thought and action such that the relationship between the two is integral in certain conditions. However, scripture is also clear that it is possible to be hypocritical, to fake one’s life. One can act or think in one way yet deny reality in another (2 Tim 2-3). It seems the conditions are important.

Paul stresses the equality of principle and practice. He does not give one primacy. However, the relationship only operates rightly under certain conditions. First, theory and praxis are integrally related when they are under the authority of God. And, second, that authority is found in God’s inspired word. “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). Teaching and reproof are issues of creed while correction and training in righteousness are issues of conduct and scripture is applied to both. The Bible assumes the integral relationship between theory and practice only as both come under the authority of scripture and under the authority of God. As another self confessed theory-favorer writes:

“…theological propositions are useful only in the context of teaching that leads to spiritual health. In that sense, theology is a practical discipline, not merely a theoretical one. I do not disparage theory; indeed, my own books are more theoretical than practical. But, in my definition, theory is not the only kind of theology there is, nor is it theology par excellence…Theology is the application of the Word to all areas of life. Academic or theoretical theology is one kind of theology, not the only kind. And I shall argue later that theory is not more ultimate than practice, nor is it the basis of practice; rather, theory and practice are both applications of God’s Word, and they enrich one another one another when they are biblical. For that matter, the line between theory and practice is not sharp. Theory is one kind of practice, and theoretical and practical are relative terms that admit of degrees” (John Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life Page 9-10).

It seems, then, that thinking and practice are really not so different. They are both applications of God’s word to us. 

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.