Looking at the beam and seeing by the beam
It is only by participating wholly in the mind of Christ, doing and living truth, beauty and goodness, that we can truly understand and appreciate these things.
Drawing on C.S. Lewis’ Meditation in a Toolshed, I find a fitting analogy here. Frequently, contemporary preaching and exegesis align more with what Lewis terms “looking at the beam” rather than “seeing by the beam.” It’s likely that both perspectives are essential. Initially, we must “look at the beam” to comprehend its true nature. However, it’s crucial to bear in mind that we undertake this observation with the ultimate aim of “seeing by the beam” and aiding others in doing so. It necessitates stepping into the beam, so that we can go further up and further in, together.
I have been recently reflecting on a similar thing. It seems to me that what is broadly called “the project of re-enchantment” is fundamentally a hermeneutical project. Hermeneutics is (are? English is great) the rules and methods of interpretation. The desire for re-enchantment finds it root in a recognition:
Reduction, dissection, and theorizing are inadequate—frequently inappropriate—means of attaining to a full understanding of either scripture or creation.
This is a trap that is especially common among evangelicals today. They see that the Christian life is about renewing the mind. And because it is our minds that are being transformed, they fall into the trap of thinking that it is intellectual. That it is really done by becoming more knowledgeable. They know that the scriptures are given for our instruction, that the word is a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path, and that man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord. And so they think, What we need to attain to a mature Christian wisdom is knowledge of the word.
And that is true. But there are two very serious errors that stifle and strangle the effectiveness of the word for evangelicals.
Under-intellectualizing the word
The first is, when they think about knowledge of the word, what they are really thinking about is information. That is the mental model they have picked up from our technological world, perhaps. They think of scripture as a receptacle for information about godliness, and that information must then be transferred to their own memories, like a thumb-drive to a hard drive. What matters, they think, is the information contained in the words of the Bible. And obviously that does matter. But what about the words themselves, the form they come in? Are they just a container? Like, you have to have a container to hold the information, and that’s all the words are? Incidental—even accidental? That seems to be the modern approach to the word: to think of it like just another format to store data. That data then needs to be transferred into our memories.
It is alien to the modern worldview to see scripture rather as a pattern to imprint on our minds.
Do you see the difference between data to transfer to our memories, and a pattern to imprint on our minds? In the former, the information is what is important; the word is just a delivery mechanism, a format; it isn’t part of the information. To make this more concrete, say God wanted to send us a picture, and he sent it as a jpeg. We wouldn’t think, Now what is the significance of jpeg? We would just open the picture. He could have used png. It wouldn’t have made any difference—the format doesn’t matter, as long as we get the picture, because it’s just a delivery mechanism.
Or, to use a more physical metaphor, suppose God wanted to send us some gifts, so he delivered them by van. But he could have used a station wagon, or a truck, or even a boat. It wouldn’t have made a difference as long as we got the gifts.
This is how modern Christians are tempted to think about the words of scripture: as just a delivery mechanism for the information that God wants us to remember.
But this is absolutely wrong. Our minds are not well-formed data-storage devices that only need to be filled with the right information. They are souls—malformed, disfigured, crooked images of God himself, that must be reshaped and transformed until they resemble him.
How is that achieved? Through the renewal of our minds by the mind of Christ in us (1 Co 2:16). But this is not a one-time event. Regeneration starts the process; it does not complete it. David says, “a clean spirit prepare for me, O God, and a right spirit renew within me” (Ps 51:10). Certainly David was regenerate when he wrote that. So certainly, while regeneration is indeed a one-time event that definitively changes our nature, it is not a complete event; it does not perfect our nature, it does not leave nothing more for us to do. It is the beginning of our sanctification, not the end of it. This is why the Reformers referred to regeneration sometimes as initial sanctification; it is the punctiliar act by which we become completely different creatures. But after that point, as completely different creatures, we must grow and mature in that new nature we have received. We must, indeed, continue to receive it. We must be transformed by the renewing of our minds, and this is something that happens over time, by study of God’s word, which is the exact representation of his own mind, “breathed out” to make us wise unto salvation, and to completely equip us for every good work (2 Ti 3:14–17).
This means that both the content and the form of scripture’s words are fundamental to shaping our minds. To read scripture, looking only for information, would be like listening to a song and asking only what the lyrics mean—rather than what the music did to you. Jesus tells us in John that his sheep hear his voice. This doesn’t just mean that they listen, but that they recognize. They know the sound of his voice. They know how he speaks. They know his cadence and his timbre, and ultimately they come to know the way he thinks. Knowing the content of God’s thoughts, what they are about, what they require is essential, of course. But it is only one half of what it means to hear him. If we only receive what the text is straightforwardly saying, and see no meaning or import in how it speaks, in its form, we are only receiving one half of its blessing.
To put it as simply as I can, scripture teaches us not only what to think, but also how to think. It forms our minds just as much as it fills our minds. It is a holistic, complete mind-change that God wants—this is what the word repentance literally means—until we ourselves become a letter of Christ, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone, or on pages of paper, but in fleshy tablets of the heart (2 Co 3:3).
So this is the first error: under-intellectualizing scripture by treating it as a storage device for information to transfer to our memories—rather than as the pattern of God’s own thoughts, to be imprinted onto our minds. It is not format and data; it is form and content. How to think, as well as what.
Over-intellectualizing the word
The second error seems paradoxically opposite, but works along exactly the same lines. It is to think that, because it is the mind that is renewed, a life of transformation into the image of Christ is really about the intellect, about the internal things, about thoughts.
This again is absolutely wrong. The transformation that God works in us comes not just by reading his word, but by doing it. Not just by theorizing, but by practicing. James warns us that we must be doers of the word, and not hearers only. Faith must be seen in its works, in obedience (Jas 2:18). What does faith look like? You cannot see it; it is in the heart. But you can see it; it is in the body. What does God look like? You cannot see him; he is invisible. But you can see him; for we are like him. This is why elders are to be mature in the faith; they must actually look enough like Christ to reflect him to their people.
Remember them that have the rule over you, men that spoke unto you the word of God; and considering the issue of their life, imitate their faith. (He 13:7)
The word of God issues in a certain kind of life. When we see that life, we are seeing faith. This understanding of faith is anathema (literally) to vast swathes of modern Reformed thinkers, who have done whatever the opposite of reification is, and turned faith into a purely internal affair of the heart and mind, entirely invisible, abstract, theoretical. But we cannot imitate what we cannot see, and Hebrews says, “imitate their faith.” So faith is something we can see.
What does it look like?
Put to death, then, your members that are upon the earth—whoredom, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and the covetousness, which is idolatry—because of which things cometh the anger of God upon the sons of the disobedience, in which also ye—ye did walk once, when ye lived in them. But now put off, even ye, the whole—anger, wrath, malice, evil-speaking, filthy talking out of your mouth. Lie not one to another, having put off the old man with his practices, and having put on the new, which is renewed in regard to knowledge, after the image of him who did create him; where there is not Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, foreigner, Scythian, slave, free—but he who is all, and in all, Christ. (Col 3:5–11)
Notice the language Paul uses of the new man, being renewed in regard to knowledge after the image of him who did create him. And notice also the sequence in which he places this. To be so renewed, to put on the new man, requires us not to read the law, but to walk in it; not to think, but to do. In Romans 12:1–2, he instructs us in a very similar thing, and gives us very similar advice about how to accomplish this renewal, this transformation, saying that we are first to present our bodies as a living sacrifice to God—in other words, to embody God’s law, to deny our fleshly desires, to give up the sin nature in us, and instead walk in the ways of Christ. And then, he says, we will be fashioned by doing this, and transformed by the renewing of our minds, that we may become able to test and discern what God’s will is.
I call upon you, therefore, brothers, through the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God—your spiritual service; and be not fashioned unto this age, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is the will of God—the good, and acceptable, and perfect.
The word prove here carries many connotations, from interpretation (Lk 12:56) to testing (1 Th 5:21) to approval (Phil 1:10). So for Paul, we do not come to an intellectual appreciation of God’s law and then live it out. Our minds aren’t renewed by intellectual investigation of God’s word, which we then (maybe) embody. It is actually the other way around: we embody God’s word, and in doing so, our minds are renewed so that we are able to test and decipher and appreciate the will of God, to grasp what it is we are doing and why it is good, so that we slowly mature in wisdom and become holy and complete.
Obviously this doesn’t mean that there is no intellectual grasp of God’s word before we live it out. But the point is that intellectual understanding is insufficient. We over-intellectualize the scriptures when we assume that understanding them comes merely by study, rather than by practice; dissection, rather than consumption. The transformation of the mind does not consist in head-knowledge. Exercising ourselves in the patterns of scripture is what actually reshapes our minds—and it is only when our minds are reshaped by those patterns that we are able to truly grasp them, to attain to a full, mature, complete, perfect understanding of the thing we are doing. Only by doing truth, beauty and goodness can we receive the mind of Christ that is necessary to wholly understand it; only by participating wholly in Christ can we truly be renewed and transformed into his image.