I’m pleased to publish this review by Joshua S. Hill of Keith L. Johnson’s new book Theology as Discipleship.
Following the release of The Pastor Theologian by Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson, and The Pastor as Public Theologian by Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan, both published in 2015, one would naturally expect the next book to frame theology in such a manner to follow neatly in the preceding footsteps. (Ed. Note: We interviewed Hiestand and Vanhoozer about their books on Mere Fidelity.)
However, Theology as Discipleship by Keith L. Johnson proves why we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Pastor Theologian and Public Theologian are both written to the church at large. They are not written to lowest common denominators, but rather in such a way that both sides of the proposed theologian/pastor divide and their relevant supporters and detractors can read and both understand the situation, and learn how a remedy can possibly be achieved.
Theology as Discipleship by Keith L. Johnson is not.
This does not make the book a failure or in any way less than its cousins, but rather, simply requires the reader to appropriate the right frame of mind, with the correct expectations, before reading. I wish I had had such a frame of mind, because it took me several chapters before I realized that this book was not for everyone. Rather, Theology as Discipleship is written for theologians, new and old, in an attempt to speak to them in their language and show why discipleship is a vital and the natural extension of theology, and that theology is a Godly expression of discipleship.
Keith L. Johnson is the Associate Professor of Theology at Wheaton College, and as the numerous pull-quotes suggest, he knows his theology. This is maybe the book’s biggest selling point for theologians, and the biggest barrier for those who are not. This barrier is not insurmountable, mind you, but a little more time and care is required for those of us who are not so rigidly trained in theology and aware of the wealth of assumed knowledge the author so obviously has at the ready. Often, when an author has all the context in their mind, they fail to account for those who don’t. Johnson is marginally guilty of this, and is repeatedly found wandering off on a tangent that is mostly applicable, but is still difficult to follow for those of us not “in the know”.
In some ways this book struck me like a flight from New York to London—by way of Melbourne, Australia. Sure, the journey was fun, if a little lengthier than expected, and the sights and experiences along the way were rewarding and worthwhile, but in the end, one is left wondering why such a distant stopover was required.
For the theologian, however, and those within religious academia, I suspect that journey is the point. As I said, Johnson is only marginally guilty of assumed knowledge, because I believe his audience has much of that same assumed knowledge.
Johnson not only shows the way for the theologian to discipleship, but also shows the necessary tandem relationship theology and discipleship have. “The way of discipleship leads to eternal life with God because Jesus Christ is the incarnate Son of God,” Johnson writes in the introduction to chapter 2, adding that God wants to make us participants in His wisdom and partners in his plan:
“The practice of theology is one form of this participation and partnership. 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)
Johnson then embarks on a journey to “build a framework from which we can understand how and why the practice of theology can be an act of discipleship”. (p. 37) This involves making “the case that our lives take place within the context of God’s plan to adopt us as his children” (p. 85) before the author begins to illustrate the specific way in which theology should be done.
I don’t dismiss the rigorous praise this book has received from its numerous fans. The praise that has been heaped on this book is well earned, and one hopes that there is a movement which places this book in just such a place that Christians in churches around the world are able to introduce it into the workings of their particular church. Johnson’s passion for the subject is obvious, and overflows on every page.
However, I still feel as if this book read as if seven individual lectures were transcribed and printed as individual chapters. The through-line is difficult to follow at times, and I was utterly reliant upon the summary sentences that peppered the beginning and end of each chapter to clearly understand each chapter’s premise. I’ll freely admit that, while I am classified as an “intellectual” learner and am relatively smart, the style in which this book is written may not be for me. I am not a huge fan of tangents in books, and my own quirks may have come into play when the author began to overly elaborate on a particular topic.
Conversely, however, in chapters 4 and 5 the author includes two test cases which were supremely helpful in understanding difficult topics. The first, a test case looking at the debate between Jesus and the Pharisees recorded in John 8, went a long way to explaining exactly how the author understood the role of Jesus Christ: “We proceed rightly in theology when we believe both that Scripture leads us to the knowledge of Christ and that Christ is the key to understanding the meaning of Scripture.” (p.105) Additionally, Johnson adds that if Jesus’ words in John 8 are true, “then every word in Scripture serves Christ’s saving mission because he is one and the same as the God who speaks these words.” Therefore, “we will read and interpret Scripture rightly only when we do so together with Christ himself.” (p. 103) This sums up chapter 4, which “offers an account of how God uses the Bible” to remove the veil of ignorance that comes from our life before Jesus, and directs us “in our partnership with Christ.” (p.85) The second test case, revolving around how Paul countered the teaching of the Judaizers’ view on circumcision and following the Law, showed “how a theological disagreement can help us learn how to read and interpret Scripture faithfully.” (p. 122)
These test cases are a summary of Johnson’s method of teaching—by exegeting a passage, or several passages as they relate to one another, to show (for example) how the Bible reveals the importance of Christ’s centrality, how to understand Scripture in light of Christ, the role of the Holy Spirit in revealing Scripture, following the mind of Christ, etc. All of these, in turn, are central to Johnson’s thesis that theologians must practice their work in partnership with Christ. Each chapter has an individual thesis, which builds the author’s overall thesis. Subsequently, each chapter follows a similar pattern: Introduction (including purpose statement), expository teaching of the Biblical practice in question, and a conclusion which weaves the exposition into the overall whole.
In the end, Johnson doesn’t appear to be advocating that all Christians should partake in theology as an act of discipleship, but that all theologians should understand theology as an aspect of discipleship.
The author repeatedly speaks only to the theologian. This doesn’t detract from the book, it simply shapes its audience. But, conversely, this then is not a book for the church, despite the rave pull-quotes found on the back of this book and in accompanying publicity. Rather, this is a book for theologians to better understand discipleship, theology’s role therein, and the theologian’s role within the wider church. The fact that all those quoted in publicity for this book are theologians, and that the lions-share are within the religious academia, underscores the importance of this book for theologians and budding theologians alike, but undermines their calls for the church to heed this book. Rather, upon finishing the book, the many quotes used to publicize this book read more like desperate attempts by theologians to prove their relevance and justify their work.
To be clear, they shouldn’t need to, and Theology as Discipleship will go a long way to reminding readers that theologians are a vital member of the body of Christ. But let’s not pretend this is a book for everyone.