There are few laments more frequently raised in the evangelical academy than the divorce between the academy and the church, or between the life of piety and that of theological scholarship. Indeed, it is not uncommon for pastors to admit that seminary was one of the most spiritually difficult times in their lives, precisely because the pursuit of academic rigor in theology, by its very nature, seemed to choke out the spiritual life. Moreover, the relevance of the theological task seems distant from the life of faith for the average congregant.
Drawing on years teaching theology to undergraduates, in Theology as Discipleship, Wheaton College professor Keith L. Johnson attempts to articulate a vision for the theological task as “integrally related” to the life of discipleship to Jesus Christ (p. 12). Aimed at introductory theology courses, pastors, and interested lay-people, the result is an elegant, biblically-attuned, classically-oriented, yet uncluttered text inviting the novice (as well as the seasoned initiate) to view theology in the sweep of God’s saving economy to renew all things through Christ and the Spirit.
Johnson’s argument proceeds in seven chapters. In the first chapter (“Recovering Theology”), Johnson sets the scene for the rest of his argument, telling a story about “what went wrong” as the work of theology shifted from the church to the academy (pp. 24–33). This shift brought along with it new assumptions as to what constituted properly scientific scholarship (universality, etc.), a new sense of the dual responsibility of theology to the church and academy, as well as a shift in the spirituality surrounding the practice of theology. Not all of these shifts were salutary, and so Johnson sets himself the task of resituating theology’s presuppositions, responsibilities, and spirituality.
Chapter 2 (“Being in Christ”) begins Johnson’s positive case for reconceiving theology as an act of discipleship by suggesting it must start with God’s self-revelation in Christ, avoiding idolatry by taking its cues from God’s eternal plan to redeem us in Christ (outlined from Eph 1). We know God properly only as adopted children in the power of the Spirit who allows us to view reality and history through the incarnate life of Christ. “To know reality in light of Christ is finally to know the way things are, and to interpret history within the context of his eternal life is to see the meaning and significance of every event from the perspective God’s wisdom rather than our own” (pp. 59–60).
From there, in chapter 3 (“Partnership with Christ”) Johnson outlines a theology of the created, fallen, and redeemed imago dei suggesting there is an intended “pattern of partnership” to our life in God. Indeed, the history of God’s covenant dealings from Abraham to Christ is the narrative of his restoration of our partnership with God (p. 70). This partnership involves communion and conformity to the image of Christ as part of our restoration, taking on the family likeness in the power of the Spirit. Theologians are called to contribute to this by “bringing order to the church’s language” in order that it might be conformed to the being and character of God and avoid deforming idolatry (pp. 77–78).
Chapter 4 (“The Word of God”) explores the place the Bible plays as Holy Scripture in God’s plan to adopt us and conform us as his children. Here we find a nuanced theology of Scripture as human words inspired and set apart by God to be his Word to us about his Son. Johnson deftly threads some important needles here regarding the complexities of divine and human agency, as well as the ordered role Scripture plays in the economy of redemption. What’s more, he stakes a strong, evangelical emphasis on the Christological content and intent of all of Scripture through a careful test-case in Jesus’ debate with the Pharisees in John 8 (pp. 98–103). For Johnson, “The Bible does not just tell us true historical things; it proclaims the true history, and it does so by directing us to Jesus, the one by whom all history is defined” (p. 106).
Chapter 5 (“Hearing the Word of God”) is Johnson’s account of interpreting Scripture in the community of Christians, as well as the Holy Spirit’s work of illumination, which takes cues from Augustine’s two-commandment hermeneutic offered in On Christian Doctrine. He also treats the issue of doctrinal disagreement with another, similar test-case, that of circumcision in the early church, in which the Judaizers in Galatians failed to interpret Israel’s covenant history in light of Christ (p. 128). Johnson suggests the church today imitate the same process of reading all of Scripture in light of Christ as well as the work the Spirit is currently doing in the life of the community of God (p. 129).
With this framework set forth, Johnson turns in chapter 6 (“The Mind of Christ”) to expound theological practice as an exercise of participating in the mind of Christ. The chief pattern he appeals to is the cruciform humility of Christ as set forth in the hymn in Philippians 2, seeing it as the pattern of activity that “corresponds to the divine being and character” (p. 138). By the Spirit we are conformed to this pattern when we make our theological efforts in the context of a life given over to “humble service of others” (p. 147). Theology, undertaken in this way, is dependent on Christ, and is itself a practice of humble service to the church (p. 149).
In his concluding chapter (“Theology in Christ”) Johnson outlines nine characteristics that will mark theologians whose practice is in line with a life of discipleship to Christ. These range from a connection to the life of the church, attitudes of humility and service, as well as our approach to interdisciplinary work. As a young, graduate student myself, I must say I found this chapter the most valuable and a fitting capstone to the work as a whole.
I have little more than a couple of brief comments by way of criticism of Johnson’s work. First, while I deeply appreciate Johnson’s carefully-worked, evangelically Barthian, revelation-centered theological method, a small section on the proper place (or impropriety) of both apologetics and natural theology might have been appropriate in an introductory volume of this nature.
Second, I worry that while his exegetical test-case focused on the Judaizers gives us a good pattern for discerning positive theological advances in the Spirit’s work in the history of redemption, it might have been helpful to contrast it with a pattern of false “discernment” of the sort found in the Corinthian church’s antinomianism. This sort of balance in positive and negative parallels is particularly relevant given the church’s current crisis in sexual ethics.
These criticisms aside, though, Johnson has given us a gift with this work. I highly commend it both to theological educators looking to introduce their students to the theological task, as well as those looking to be reminded of their own call to discipleship.