Book Review: Theology as Discipleship by Keith L. Johnson

For many people, the word theology evokes something dry, academic, irrelevant and disconnected from everyday concerns of life. We surely would not say that about God, so why is our talk about God any different?

This quote is taken off the back cover of Dr. Keith L Johnson’s Theology as Discipleship. I want to say this as clearly as possible, every Christian should read this book. I often don’t make statements like that. I read a lot of books, many I appreciate, many I don’t. Very few books that I read should be recommended to every Christian. Sometimes books are inaccessible because of the writing style, many of my favorite books from past ages and eras—Religious Affections, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, On Christian Doctrine—are in not accessible to the average reader because they are not used to reading old books (a tragedy in my opinion, but true nonetheless). Some are inaccessible because of content, many of the books I think are important philosophical works require a certain base knowledge that many don’t have. Some books shouldn’t be recommended because they are irrelevant or potentially burdensome—I think a book like David Platt’s Radical, its point is deeply necessary in contemporary evangelicalism generally speaking, but some evangelicals are living radically already which means it is irrelevant to them, or if they struggle with doubt, such a book could lay unnecessary burden upon their faith. Very few books should be recommended to everyone, but this book—Theology as Discipleship—should be and here is why. No matter what your perspective is on theology, this book will be helpful corrective.

To the stereotypical dry theologian, they need to hear Dr. Johnson when he writes:

Most early theologians, for example, were bishops and priests responsible for leading the church in its worship, teaching, and ministry. Their formal theological study often stemmed from their desire to help their congregants avoid errors, understand Scripture and grow in their devotion to God. (24)

And

Theological learning is pursued rightly when it occurs within the context of a life of discipleship. because the practices of discipleship enable and enrich our pursuit of theological knowledge. (26)

A clear theme throughout the text is that the study of theology is a discipline intended to enliven the passions for God. As we study theology, we are studying who God is, and when we study God and see his actions in salvation history, we should be driven to worship—this is why Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem ends every chapter with a hymn on the subject covered. If you do not sing that hymn when you finish the chapter there is a sense that, to quote the old memes, you’re doing it wrong. Properly done theology should engage the soul as well as the mind.

To the seminary drop out who thought theology was ruining his spiritual life, they need to hear:

Our potential for error explains why we need the kind of formal theological instruction that makes up the discipline of theology. The discipline of theology is the name for the organized practice of theological reasoning that directs our thoughts and speech about God so that stye correspond to who God is and what God is like. This discipline came into existence in response to the fact that out functional theology does not always match the reality of God. Its goal is to shape our ideas and words about God so that our functional theology corresponds to the truth about his divine being and character. (19)

The Gospels repeatedly show that even though the disciples lived and worked closely with Jesus during his life, they did not grasp the truth about his identity or mission. Their misunderstanding did not stem from a simple mistake, as if they were merely confused or needed more information. Rather, they failed to grasp the truth about Jesus because they repeatedly misinterpreted his words and actions in light of their own expectations. (42)

imagesWe need to realize that, as C.S. Lewis said, there is no such thing as having no theology. We all have thoughts about God, they will either be true or false thoughts, as such our theology will either be quality or poor theology. In fact, we (people) have shown such a propensity to develop poor theology throughout the ages that it became necessary to gather faithful scholar together to formalize theological language so that we might honor God with our minds by thinking rightly about him. To reject theology is to make a number of errors, among which is the pride of believing you do not need tradition and community in order to correctly guide your thinking about God.

There is much ground in between these positions and those people will be served by Johnson as well. Here are a few instructive take aways I got from Theology as Discipleship:

  1. Starting Points Are Crucial

Johnson writes, “We have to make sure that the framework of meaning by which we decide what it means to be rational and moral corresponds to who God is and what God intends for our lives” (43). Much theological error is produced by a failure to grasp the proper starting point of theology. And the proper starting point of theology is God, which considering theology is the study of God that should probably be obvious. Yet a surprising amount of error takes place because we begin with ourselves. Consider the distain that some theologians, usually those of the “liberal” classification, discuss the biblical story of Noah and his ark. It is often rejected on the premise that the actions are inconceivable or inconsistent with the God portrayed in the rest of the Bible. One formerly popular pastor declared in print that he could not worship the God displayed in Genesis 6-9. I contend, as many others have, that these squeamish theologians are considering the actions from a merely human perspective, furthermore from a western, postmodernist, perspective engendered in a relativistic upper and upper-middle class democratic society.

It is interesting to me that pastors in primarily white and wealthy geographic regions would back off of divine judgement and preach instead on income inequality and the greed of capitalism when according to at least one prominent thinker judgement is critical to living a robustly Christian life in the much of the non-first-world. Consider philosopher Mirsolv Volf’s words:


Short aside prior to the Volf quote: Mirsolv teaches at Yale University, well situated in the first-world, and holds a prestigious professorship there. However before he came to the United States he living in Croatia, a country ravaged by civil war. Mirsolv witnessed the horrors of war and geneocide. Even when he came to the United States he studied under theologian Jurgen Moltmann, who had been a prisoner of War before his theological appointment. Mirsolv is not as unfamiliar with suffering as his current status might suggest.


Deep within the heart of every victim, anger swells up against the perpetrator, rage inflamed by unredeemed suffering. The imprecatory Psalms seem to come upon victims’ lips much more easily than the prayer of Jesus on the cross. If anything, they would rather pray, “Forgive them not, Father, for they knew what they did!”…If perpetrators were repentant, forgiveness would come more easily. But too often they are not. And so both victim and perpetrator are imprisoned in the automatism of mutual exclusion, unable to forgive or repent and united in a perverse communion of mutual hate. (Exclusion and Embrace, 120)

How, does Volf say, is one able to escape this “spiral of vengeance”? Volf gives one answer belief in a God who is the final judge and the understanding that Jesus had to die for my sins. If God will ultimately judge the unrighteous then I have no need of vengeance for I cannot extract perfect justice, I will go too far or not far enough. But if I entrust to God the justice for the wrongs done to me then it will be done rightly. Furthermore, I cannot be arrogant about my pious act of forgiveness, for I know that I too would be a subject of God’s just wrath if not for the slaughter of Jesus as my substitute.

I have spent too much time on another book, so let me remind you the point. When we approach theology from a western mindset we often see God as too harsh and want to skip over the passages dealing with justice and wrath, but it is just those passages that set free our brothers who have been the victims of unimaginable evil. Instead of starting with ourselves, our culture, and our existing framework, let us start with God. What can we see in the story of Noah, so readily rejected by some, if we begin with belief in a good and loving God who flooded the world? Why would he do such a thing? How does it fit with his whole character?

2. Begin with Jesus

Continuing from the last point, we might wonder how to start with Jesus. Johnson writes:

Human thinking about has missed the mark because it has proceeded on the basis of presuppositions about the nature of God and reality derived primarily from reflection created realities rather than the knowledge of God that comes through Jesus Christ. What would our thinking about God look like if we started with Christ instead? (44)

The challenge is presented. You entered the Christian life and came to the Father by uniting yourself to Jesus Christ, you confessed that he is Lord, alive and seated at God’s right hand. You were baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity, a symbol of being buried and risen with Christ. The Holy Spirit or the Spirit of Christ dwells in you to guide and direct you as he did with Christ. Why, then, not start our theology by understanding our place in Christ as our starting point, and Jesus as God’s final revelation of himself. In Christ the fullness of God was pleased to dwell (Colossians 1:19). God has spoke to us finally in Christ (Hebrews 1:4)

3. Finally, to Trust Christ Is to Trust the Word of God

Johnson writes, “We proceed rightly in theology when we believe both that Scripture leader us to the knowledge of Christ and that Christ is the key to understanding the meaning of scripture” (105). Johnson rightly notes that Jesus trusted, submitted to, and drew upon the scriptures. Jesus quotes scripture regularly. Jesus does theology from scripture. Jesus never contradict scripture, though he often explains that his opponents misinterpret scripture or are unaware of how the scriptures function as a whole. In sum, Jesus drew authority from his divine identity and scripture.

there is much more in Johnson’s book, but these are three big take aways that I left Theology as Discipleship with. I hope you get it and enjoy it. I give it a 4/5 (-1 for writing style, bit boring at times).

Thanks for reading,

t.d.h.

 

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