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Spring 2022 · Vol. 51 No. 1 · pp. 109–117 

That I May Know Him: A Meditation on Philippians 3

Delbert Wiens

Introduction to “That I May Know Him: A Meditation on Philippians 3” by Delbert Wiens

Vic Froese

Delbert Wiens was born in 1931 in Corn, Oklahoma, a small town established by German-speaking Russian Mennonites in 1892. He attended Tabor College (Hillsboro, Kansas) and California State University (Fresno, California), after which he served with Mennonite Central Committee as a conscientious objector and as a volunteer in Vietnam. When he returned to the US in 1958, he earned a graduate degree from Yale Divinity School. After working at Tabor College and Bethel College for a few years, 1 he enrolled in the doctoral program at the University of Chicago, completing his PhD in 1969. He was given a part-time position at Fresno Pacific College in the same year, which soon led to a full-time position. Wiens spent the rest of his academic life at Pacific College (later, Fresno Pacific University) in California. He retired in 1997 and still makes his home in Fresno today.

Wiens first gained the attention of North American Mennonite Brethren (MBs) with an essay titled, “New Wineskins for Old Wine: A Study of the Mennonite Brethren Church.” It appeared in the October 12, 1965, issue of Christian Leader, the US MB Church periodical. 2 The long essay was in part a probing analysis and in part a stinging critique of the Mennonite Brethren Church in North America in the tumultuous 1960s. Not all MB readers responded positively. 3

Wiens wrote “That I May Know Him,” in 1971, a year before he became the first general editor of the soon-to-be-launched journal, Direction. The article appeared in a jointly produced issue of The Voice and The Journal of Church and Society, which tested the receptivity of {110} US and Canadian Mennonite Brethren (MB) readers to a merger of those MB journals. Its theme was Christian education, a topic on which Wiens held strong opinions. He identifies the piece as a “meditation,” a label he likely chose carefully for its homiletic overtones and its remoteness from the academic article genre.

The focus of the meditation is on what “knowing Christ” might mean in an age besotted with scientific rationalism and convinced it was the only way to truly know the world, the human beings that inhabit it, and (for those still using the word) God. Wiens argues in effect that modernity’s infatuation with empirical truth has infected the MB Church to its serious detriment. “We have not yet faced seriously what it means to be trained in godliness,” he says. “We are so modern that we do not even know where to start.” Elsewhere he says that MBs have become modern to the point that their educational programs employ a pedagogy more appropriate to secular universities. For such institutions, “truth” means academically vetted information that students can memorize, possess, and reproduce in essays and knowledge tests.

Wiens finds a very different understanding of truth in the letter to the Philippians. “[T]ruth is something that happens within when lives are conformed to the life of Christ.” As he explains, “Christianity is not a knowing that. It is an intimate acquaintance with.” More precisely, “The Christian life is a process of being shaped, of being conformed to the shape of the life of Christ.” This involves hearing the stories of those who are farther down the path of being thus conformed and then imitating those saints.

To the extent that Sunday schools, Bible schools, church colleges, and seminaries offer a type of learning that privileges abstractions and firm belief in doctrinal propositions, they are “rubbish” that obstruct the path to a truly salvific knowledge of Christ. 4

Readers previously unfamiliar with Wiens’s work will be impressed by his intensity and his gift for unsettling problematical assumptions. They might also notice, between the lines, his love for the MB Church, to which he belonged for most of his life. “That I May Know Him” will serve well as an introduction to the “dangerous mind” of Delbert Wiens, whose contributions to the MB Church were imbued with those essential qualities. 5


  1. In the autobiographical “My Saga: ‘In’ and ‘Out,’ ” published in 2015, Wiens recounts and ponders events in his early life up to 1965. The essay {111} appears in W. Marshall Johnston and Daniel J. Crosby, eds., A Dangerous Mind: The Ideas and Influence of Delbert L. Wiens (Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2015), 247–63.
  2. It was also published as an off-print: Delbert Wiens, New Wineskins for Old Wine: A Study of the Mennonite Brethren Church (Hillsboro, KS: Mennonite Brethren Publishing House, 1965).
  3. For a description of the positive and critical responses generated by the essay, see Paul Toews, “ ‘New Wineskins for Old Wine’: A Fifty-Year Retrospective,” in Johnston and Crosby, A Dangerous Mind, 36–59. (Harold Jantz reviewed A Dangerous Mind in Direction 45, no. 1 [Spring 2016]: 101–4,
  4. Wiens later wrote a more nuanced critique of specifically Christian higher education in “The ‘Christian College’ as Heresy,” in Mennonite Idealism and Higher Education: The Story of the Fresno Pacific College Idea, ed. Paul Toews (Fresno, CA: Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies, 1995), 43–65.
  5. A bibliography of Wiens’s writings up to 1999 can be found in Johnston and Crosby, A Dangerous Mind, 265–67.

That I May Know Him: A Meditation on Philippians 3*

Delbert Wiens

The philosopher Socrates, who lived more than 400 years before Christ, was informed one day that the god Apollo had acclaimed him the wisest man on earth. Socrates did not believe it, and to prove that the god was wrong he set out to find a man wiser than he. And so he went about questioning the citizens of Athens. He found many men who thought that they were wise. But whenever Socrates questioned them, it became apparent that they were really ignorant. None of them knew the answers to the most important questions. Nor did they live up to the little that they knew.

Finally Socrates had to agree with the god. For others thought that they were wise when really they were not. But Socrates knew that he was not wise; by this much he was wiser than they. And so he said, “God alone is wise . . . and he merely uses my name by way of example, as if he were to say, ‘This one of you, O human beings, is wisest, who, like Socrates, recognizes that he knows nothing.’ ”

Socrates did not have the advantage of Sunday schools, academies, Bible schools, and church colleges. Surely if he had attended these he would have known something that counted as real knowledge! At least, we do not support a large church education program in the expectation that we who go through the programs will end up knowing nothing.

True, we learn many things. But do we learn the most important things? And do we learn how to live up to what we know? That is what {113} the churches want, and yet, no curriculum can promise to teach that. Indeed, it seems that the most important kind of knowledge cannot be taught at all.

Well, it ought to be possible! Why not make up a list of all the right doctrines and of all the right actions and have it drummed into us? Why not draw up a series of statements, all carefully defined? It will have to be complete, so that in every situation we will have an answer and a rule. Such a systematic outline can be believed. It can even be believed passionately. And still we go on living as we always lived, as if we did not believe it at all. That is one of the problems with ideologies, with fixed systems. Another is that conditions change and make many “once for all” truths suddenly seem quite beside the point. More and more of those who believe in a fixed ideology will nevertheless ignore it in their actions.

There is another possibility. We can believe the ideology and live it. It does happen, however rarely. The Apostle Paul has been such a man.

If any other man thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law blameless. (vv. 4-6)

He had all the answers. He believed in them. He zealously lived by them. But he was tragically in error.

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith. (vv. 7-9)

Well, how about us? What about me? “Brought up in a good home, converted in the eighth year, of the tribe of the Low-German Mennonite Brethren, a Protestant of the Protestants, as touching the faith an evangelical. Yes, verily, so ‘good’ that mothers held me up as a model for their children. And concerning the Bible I knew more than my Sunday school teachers.”

I too must go on with Paul. For even these, these good things, I had to count as loss. For those things on which I was banking were becoming an ideology which could strangle the life God wanted me to have. Indeed, it sometimes seems to be easier to be converted to Christ from the world than to be converted to him from Christianity. {114}

It is certain that the saving “knowledge” of Christ is nothing that we can “have” as a possession which guarantees our righteousness. It is nothing, therefore, that can be taught. What then is it?

. . . that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (v. 10)

This knowledge is not something Paul possesses as information. It is the knowledge of personal experience, the kind of experience that can be defined in terms of resurrection power and of fellowship. The fellowship is that of sharing in his crucifixion, in the suffering of Christ. We want life to be all resurrection power. We agree that dying is the shape of our conversion, but we have interpreted that moment as something so final that life from then on is (or should be) constant victory. We assume that it gives us a something we now securely possess, the way we possess a series of answers once they have been understood and memorized.

We assume that what we have is a content that can be fitted to a more comfortable, a more manageable, shape. We abstract out of experience, and the experience of the church, a set of propositions and a list of rules. We then pour this content into whatever forms the world holds out as useful. We even call it Christian education. And we do not realize that these things may have become—rubbish.

We apply the methods of business to the church. We carry over the techniques of salesmanship to evangelism. We blindly adopt secular methods of education. We even have something we call Sunday school. Once upon a time the pastor of the flock came from a place set aside for prayer and meditation. Now he comes from a seminary, a place which takes its essential shape from the university. And so even “worship,” which was the celebration of the shape of Christ, tends to become the hearing of a sermon which is more or less modeled on the form of the lecture.

We have accepted the shapes of the world for our “Christian” content. Why shouldn’t the worldly man feel at home in the church? We offer him little change in the shape of his life. We ask only that he verbalize a different ideology and substitute certain actions for certain other actions. We move him from a secular rat-race to a Christian rat-race. But a rat-race is still a rat-race, even when done in the name of God.

It should say something to us that those of our children who learned it best, those who were most sincere and most able, are often those who most vehemently rejected what we have taught. We have so closely identified Christianity with our rat-race that those who reject the rat-race assume that they must thereby be rejecting Christ. They simply do not {115} know that monks meditating in monasteries have been more central to what Christianity is all about than are our modern “Christian Education” programs.

The Christian life is a process of being shaped, of being conformed to the shape of the life of Christ. The Gospel is like a seed that is sown, and must lie dormant, and must die before it can bear fruit. All who really love the soil can understand this. The Gospel emphatically does not have the shape of an assembly line—plug in the Four Laws (or whatever the latest gimmick)–stamp–stamp–eject one prepackaged Christian.

Christianity is not a knowing that. It is an intimate acquaintance with. It is a suffering. But it is a suffering with one who also triumphed. And we do, in part, already share in the power of that triumph. But only in part. Like Socrates, Paul knows that he does not know. He sees, but only through a mirror darkly.

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (vv. 1–14)

He has not yet arrived but he is on the way. His experiences with Christ have been such that he is farther along than are most of those to whom he is writing. “Let those of us who are mature be thus minded . . .” (v. 15). The word “mature” is the same word that was translated “perfect” in v. 12. It was borrowed from the mystery religions in which one could work up to higher degrees, as in Freemasonry, until one arrived at the highest degree of “perfection.”

Paul’s life had more perfectly taken on the Christ shape. But he too was still being shaped. Therefore even he had to be humble. He did not force his insights on the Christians at Philippi. There are levels of Christ-likeness and there are differences of insight. “And if in anything you are otherwise minded, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained” (vv. 15-16). In other words, “don’t accept this just because I say it, not even if it is true. Just wait; God will show it to you when you are ready. Meanwhile hold to the admittedly less adequate insight you have so far been given.”

Yes, hold to what we have. God has given it. But remember that we must continue to be crucified. Even what God has given must be taken away from us so that He can give us something better. And so God patiently destroys all our contents and our shapes until in despair, suffering—and hope—our lives more and more take on the pattern of {116} the life of Christ, until, after a final death, we are prepared for that final resurrection when Christ “will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself” (v. 21).

But before Paul could end on the glorious note of verse 21, he had to guard against a possible misinterpretation of what he has said. Even the truest possible teaching can become “rubbish.” But that does not mean that all teachings are equally right—or wrong. There are “dogs” who teach falsely (v. 2), and there are many who think that they are Christians but who live as enemies of the cross of Christ (vv. 18–19).

What more can he say? Words are only relatively helpful. And he has used many words. Ultimately, truth is something that happens within when lives are conformed to the life of Christ. What Paul needed was a more profound mode for teaching.

And he found one. “Brethren, join in imitating me, and mark those who so live as you have an example in us” (v. 17). What? Imitate—a man! Yes, for Paul was more mature than the Philippians. They, like all of us, needed something more than abstractions. They needed a mode of teaching that united content with shape—as only a life and, in a secondary sense, a story can do.

To find a Christian ethic, look at what the Christian man does, not at a set of rules. Observe how a truly Christian man shapes his life to apprehend the deeper teachings. But especially, imitate in Paul his willingness to let his life take on the shape of Christ. Jesus Christ is the ultimate model of the Christian life, and he is also the power to live it.

The ancients understood the impact of stories better than we do. When the Israelite son asked the meaning of the law, or of the stones piled up in the Jordan, the father was not to answer with doctrines. “Then you shall say to your son, ‘we were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt’ . . . !” They were to tell a story. When a Jewish boy memorized Scripture, he memorized whole passages. For the shape of what was told was an essential part of the meaning.

One must tell a child many stories that unite content with its appropriate form. Then the true shape will predispose the child to the shape of truth. And one must surround him with saints whose lives have been conformed to the shape of Christ. Perhaps nothing so betrays our failure to be biblical as our habit of memorizing isolated verses. Equal to that may be our penchant for shaping stories (even Bible stories) for the sake of some moral lesson which is tagged on at the end. What we all too often “teach” is that content can be divorced from form and that as long as we believe our abstractions it does not matter that our way of saying them flatly contradicts what they purport to tell. {117}

To put it bluntly, we have not yet faced seriously what it means to be trained in godliness. We are so modern that we do not even know where to start. Perhaps we will only begin to address ourselves to Christian education when we have cleared away old “rubbish”: Sunday schools, Bible schools, church colleges, seminaries. No. That is too severe a judgment. No doubt, for the present, we must hold fast to that level of insight we have attained.

But my conscience is uneasy. We have abstracted learning from life. And we marvel that youth are rejecting the abstractions. We enact the role of teacher and they, whether dutifully or cynically, play the role of students. What if it is beside the point that we are sincere and capable? What if the structures we work within (shapes borrowed from the world) make us, despite our prayers, into “enemies of the cross of Christ”? What if the shape of the teacher has helped to subvert the shape of the natural models—and the fathers?

For though you have countless guides in Christ (teachers), you do not have many fathers, for I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me. (1 Cor. 4:15–16)

* This article first appeared in The Voice 20, no. 2 (April 1971): 46–51, and simultaneously in The Journal of Church and Society 7, no. 1 (April 1971): 46–51.

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