Theology 101

Knowing, Feeling, & Doing: Application to the Church

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Ed. Note: This paper has been adapted from its original form. Read the full paper here.

These last few weeks we’ve been exploring knowing, feeling, and doing as they relate to Christian faith. Today, I’ll tackle the big question: what do these practices mean for the church?

If we look at today’s church we can discern three schools of thought, each centered around knowing or feeling or doing. We also see what the distortion of each of these areas looks like:

1) Doctrine (knowing) – Distortion: dogmatism

  • This school is rightly critical of the lack of truth in the church, its superficial piety, and the flurry of activity that is often uninformed by Biblical priorities.

2) Piety (feeling) – Distortion: Pietism

  • This school is rightly critical of ivory tower scholars who lack a passion for God.

3) Reform (doing) – Distortion: Activism

  • This school points to society’s great needs, and rightly criticizes those who want to only study theology or pray but fail to act in culturally-redeeming ways.

Each of these schools, by defending only their particular stance, falls prey to one-sided excess:

  • Doctrine, rather than enriching and motivating our lives, can become dogmatism.
  • Piety, instead of producing passionate action, can isolate one from other people.
  • Reform can gradually become weary, bitter, and cynical, leading to activism lacking love and joy.

Each orientation needs the other two. If you leave out one, you will lose all three.

In a speech given to the Presbyterian Church of American (PCA) General Assembly, Tim Keller develops what he and George Marsden call the doctrinalist, pietist, and culturalist impulses. These categories correspond to the knowing/doctrine, feeling/pietist, doing/reform motifs above.

Although Keller develops his argument with respect to different movements within the PCA, we can see representatives of these schools in other denominations and para-church ministries in evangelicalism. Keller discusses the tension between these branches:

The doctrinalists are always worried there are ‘stealth liberals’ in our midst and the social engagement emphasis of some churches will inevitably lead to doctrinal compromise.  Those in the social justice branch are afraid that others in the denomination are becoming culturally reactionary, and many in their phobia against social involvement become as blind to injustice as the Old School has been in the past (e.g. slavery).  Those in the pietist branch feel that a lack of evangelistic fervor is a serious sin, and they doubt the spiritual vitality of the other branches.  Then along comes an issue and the pent-up energy (the fear and frustration) is released.

Even though each branch puts forth important Biblical insight, they all have their unique weaknesses. Keller observes,

The doctrinalist branch can breed smugness and self-righteousness over its purity… the pietist branch is very pragmatic and results-minded, and is resistant to enter into processes of discipline or theological debate… the culturalist branch becomes too enamored with modern scholarship [with a corresponding] erosion of orthodox theology.

Keller argues that when a church tries to purge one of these branches, it finds that in a generation or two, its younger leaders are drawn to the lost branches. Each branch needs the other to counter its own tendencies. Keller further writes,

Richard Lovelace used to say doctrinalists are like white corpuscles that are better at defending the faith (against heretical ‘infections’) than propagating the faith.  The pietists and reformists are like red corpuscles that in their pragmatism do a better job of propagating the faith and yet often lay it open to doctrinal indifference or decline. 

It is difficult to maintain the proper proportion of each orientation for long. We need to keep studying the Scriptures and learning from each other. Keller makes several suggestions for balancing all three schools in our lives:

  • Read each other’s reading lists.
  • Hold regular discussions in our communities.
  • Set aside time to work through our differences before they become raging controversies or judicial complaints.

The unity between knowing, feeling, and doing is simpler to lay down in Biblical terms than it is to live out in real life. We all tend to lean towards one of these schools and need nudging towards a more balanced emphasis on all three areas.

Above all, we need to preserve in this generation the importance of truth (knowing), a passion for God (feeling), and a view of life that leads to cultural transformation (doing).

What do you think? What are the implications of knowing, feeling, and doing for the church? For your own life? Leave your comments here.

Read and print the full article, “Knowing, Feeling, and Doing.”

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Further readings on Theology 101

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