Review of Theology as Discipleship by Keith L. Johnson

September 13, 2016

theology as discipleshipJohnson, Keith L. Theology as Discipleship. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015, pp. 192, $20, softcover.

Theological dialogue is standard practice among scholars engaged in the halls of academia. These conversations are necessary and helpful, and it benefits the church greatly for scholars to remain steadfast in their specific academic pursuits; however, the church is not served fully if theology is restricted to the solitary confines of scholarly engagement. Theology must be applicable to the whole of life, and the church needs scholars to speak in this important conversational space as well. Keith Johnson (Ph.D., Princeton Theological Seminary), associate professor of theology at Wheaton College, addresses the need for theology to be recognized as far more than an academic discipline. Johnson helpfully shows that theology is central to discipleship for believers. Theology as Discipleship is an excellent work that will help thoughtful students beginning theological studies.

Johnson’s book was born out of questions and conversations Johnson encountered from students in his introductory theology courses at Wheaton College. His students questioned the relevance of theology to daily Christian living, and they also expressed legitimate concerns that theology might stifle one’s daily walk with Christ due to the tendency of quarrels and divisions that all too often arise out of theological inquiry. Johnson rightly notes that these questions are common as students grapple with the various nuances of theological reflection. These questions are a direct consequence of the theological ignorance which exists in the church. Johnson notes that “It is possible for a Christian to participate in the church for years and never engage in disciplined theological thinking about core Christian doctrines or the history of the church’s debates about them. It is also possible for academic theologians to devote their entire careers to the discipline and never be asked to translate or apply the content of their scholarship to the concrete realities that shape the daily life of the church” (p.12). These possibilities reveal an unnecessary bifurcation between theology and life. Thus, Johnson’s approach in this volume is to offer a corrective solution.

Johnson’s thesis is clear: “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” (p. 26). The negative press that is all too often associated with theology occurs when theology is approached as a discipline and not a form of discipleship. When viewed rightly, Christians will view discipleship as a natural extension of theology, and theology as a godly manifestation of discipleship. The relationship between discipleship and theology cannot be overstated, according to Johnson. He argues, “The act of learning how to think and speak rightly about God is an act of faith and obedience that involves our participation in the mind of Christ and our partnership with Christ by the power of his Spirit. In this sense, the practice of theology takes place as an act of discipleship to Christ” (p. 37). Throughout the rest of the book, Johnson builds a case for the close relationship between theology and discipleship. The book consists of seven chapters: Recovering Theology, Being in Christ, Partnership with Christ, The Word of God, Hearing the Word of God, The Mind of Christ, and Theology in Christ. The chapters are organized so that they stand alone. One could read a chapter of this volume independently and not be hindered by the lack of knowledge of the rest of the book. In each chapter, Johnson introduces the subject, engages various theologians, and provides substantive interaction with relevant biblical texts.

This book has a number of positive features. First, Johnson knows his subject matter well, and readers will benefit greatly from his interactions with other noteworthy theologians. Johnson interacts heavily with Calvin, Barth, and Bonhoeffer, and readers will also benefit from interactions with other theologians old and new: Gregory of Nazianzus, Aquinas, Augustine, Basil the Great, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Robert Jenson, Herman Bavinck, J. Todd Billings, N.T Wright, and John Webster to name a few. For the intended audience, these conversations are helpful in modeling how Christians can approach a text and/or issue and engage the issues with precision and charity to others. Second, Johnson engages theological arguments biblically. Readers are often taken to Scripture to wrestle with the text and its implications. Students will benefit greatly from this approach because it forces students to build theology out of the Bible. Third, Theology as Discipleship reminds readers of all theological levels of the necessity of theology’s application to walking by faith in daily union with Christ. Johnson helpfully illustrates the dangers of theology in the abstract which tends to have little effect on human emotion and ethics. Fourth, Johnson helps to recover a healthy and more robust understanding of discipleship. Too often in contemporary settings, discipleship is reduced to superficial anecdotes, which lack any corresponding biblical foundation. Fifth, Johnson’s final chapter should be required reading for students pursuing ministry. In this chapter, Johnson describes nine characteristics of what theology as discipleship entails. For example, the ninth and final characteristic is “We practice theology as disciples when we pursue our theological work with joy” (187). This joy is part ecclesial because it emerges from our desire to use theology as a means for the church to know and love Christ more. These positive features are just a few of the reasons why Johnson’s book should be required reading for students pursuing ministry.

There a few valid criticisms that emerge. First, at times, Johnson seems to assume that his readers have a working knowledge of the theologians with whom he interacts. It is in these sections that Johnson’s audience appears to be much broader than students new to theology. Johnson seeks to engage academic theologians to reorient their view of theology as an aspect of discipleship. In these instances, beginners may get lost in the verbiage and not grasp Johnson’s purpose. Second, Johnson seems to grant most of his effort rehearsing and teaching theology more than working out its implications for discipleship. To be fair, Johnson’s final chapter addresses these issues, but there is not consistent development throughout the book.

In addition to this book, I recommend students to read Alister McGrath’s short volume (256 pages) Theology: The Basics (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), or his larger volume (536 pages) Christian Theology: An Introduction (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). Additionally, students will benefit by reading Johnson’s colleague at Wheaton, Beth Felker Jones, who recently published Practicing Christian Doctrine: An Introduction to Thinking and Living Theologically (Baker, 2014). Each of these volumes are well suited for undergraduate and seminary students beginning theological studies. Johnson’s work admirably connects theology to discipleship, and for this reason, students should read this helpful work.

Justin L. McLendon

Grand Canyon University

Phoenix, AZ

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