Theology as Discipleship" by Keith L. Johnson. A Review

Theology as DiscipleshipTheology as Discipleship by Keith L. Johnson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Somewhere, somehow, doctrine and deportment, creed and conduct had a falling out and then took different routes. Though they will occasionally cross paths at a fellowship meal or in the church foyer, their meeting is often tense and strained. Onlookers will notice the forced smiles between the two parties as they try to play nice, but it’s clear to all that the relationship has significant stress-fractures. Yet, just as obvious is that the two belong together like a key and a lock. Keith L. Johnson, associate professor of theology at Wheaton College, has recently published a new 192 page paperback showing how the two belong together and never should have been separated. “Theology as Discipleship” is written with young undergraduates and non-technical readers in mind, demonstrating how “the discipline of theology and a life of discipleship” are “integrally related” in our “participation in the life of God” (12).

Johnson recounts the historical backdrop that brought about the separation of the two, and then moves forward, chapter by chapter, showing the various ways they dovetail. On the one hand, anytime we speak about God, we are doing theology, even when “we pray, worship, read Scripture, teach others about the faith and make decisions about how to live in a right relationship to God” (17). On the other hand, theological learning is rightly pursued in the context “of a life of discipleship, because the practices of discipleship enable and enrich our pursuit of theological knowledge” (26). To state it succinctly, faithful Christian discipleship is theological, and the way to rightly study theology is as a disciple of Christ.

The rest of “Theology as discipleship” exhibits the two dancing together, fast and slow, swing and ballet, through several of the standard theological categories. Johnson walks the reader round the doctrine of God, the Trinity, who Christ is as God and human, union with Christ, the Scriptures, pursuing the mind of Christ and more. Though the material can be, at places, pedantic, nevertheless there is a shimmering glow, a heart-felt-flame flickering under every subject, and then blazes out in the final two paragraphs of the book. The reader will walk away with Wesley’s words escaping their lips, “I felt my heart strangely warmed.”

The author calls to his side several theologians to assist him in his endeavors; Gregory of Nazianzus, Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, Basil the Great, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Robert Jenson, Herman Bavinck, J. Todd Billings, N.T Wright, Michael Gormon, and John Webster to name a few. And quite noticeably, he draws most from Barth, Bonhoeffer, and Calvin. Yet, the footnotes are unobtrusive and undistracting, allowing the reader to stay with the book’s content.

Were there items that I found disappointing or disagreeable? There were little things here and there, as with reading most any author. The one that stands out has to do with the Law, and the way Johnson handles it, setting Paul and the Law at odds with each other, “God’s original purpose for the law was for his people to live righteously, and so the true members of his people are not those who still keep the law but those who have their righteousness in Christ by the Spirit. So, once again, Paul thinks that God’s original intentions have been accomplished: (. . . )” (127).The subtle sounds of tense conflict between Law and Gospel, Moses and Paul, briefly surface without further discussion or explanation. I find the author’s statement mildly perplexing, since Paul often rehearses the ongoing value of the law for the Christian, reciting it and expounding it, so that can be said, as it has been said somewhere, the law is not contrary to the grace of the Gospel, but does sweetly comply with it (The Westminster Confession of Faith, 19.7). All said, this was not a show stopper, but simply caught my attention.

Johnson’s therapeutic regimen to reconcile the partnership of belief and behavior, the life of discipleship and the discipline of theology, is solid, simple and sturdy. This fine, little book would be ideal for undergrad theology courses, as well as congregational adult classes and book-study groups. It would also be quite fitting and beneficial to hand a copy of “Theology as Discipleship” to the ministerial candidates in your church, your favorite seminarian, and your pastor. And while you’re handing out copies, snag one for yourself. You’ll be glad you did!

Thanks to IVP Academic for the free copy of “Theology as Discipleship” used for this review.

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