I recently received a review copy from IVP Academic of one of their November releases: Theology as Discipleship by Keith L. Johnson. The book is Johnson’s attempt at explaining how the discipline of theology should function as an integral part of discipleship, the Christian call to follow Jesus in worship and obedience. Theology of Discipleship deftly achieves this goal by clearly articulating the need for theology as a vital practice for faithful discipleship. At the same time, Johnson offers a solid and accessible work of theology himself as he explores concepts such as Christology, the Trinity, and participation in the Triune life while setting the foundation, context, and content of Christian theology.
As he mentions at the beginning of the book, the book is largely the result of Johnson’s numerous experiences teaching introductory theology classes at Wheaton college. I currently teach similar courses at Houston Baptist University and can easily relate to and affirm the problems that Johnson acknowledges: students often are at a loss for why theology is relevant to their lives as Christians and are also fearful that it will distract them from actually following Christ. The book responds to these concerns in the format of seven chapters: 1) Recovering Theology, 2) Being in Christ, 3) Partnership with Christ, 4) The Word of God, 5) Hearing the Word of God, 6) The Mind of Christ, and 7) Theology in Christ.
The heart of Johnson’s thesis is that theology is vital to discipleship because it trains us to rightly hear, understand, and use words about God which inevitably influence our religious practices. This emphasis, a key note that Johnson plays throughout the book, reminds me of John Howard Yoder’s statement that, “The task of theology is working with words in the light of faith.” He rightly notes that without theological training, Christians use an assumed “functional theology” that is often riddled with logical and biblical problems. The choice for Christians is not between theology or no theology, but between good theology or bad theology.
After giving a well-reasoned historical explanation for the current divide between the academy (read: theology) and the church (read: discipleship), Johnson situates a proper Christian theology around the revelation of Christ: “The discipline of theology proceeds rightly when it begins from the presupposition that all right thinking and speaking about God, reality, and history takes its bearings from the life of the incarnate Jesus Christ.” I think Johnson could not be more right at this crucial point- all theology must be Christologically founded. Taking his cue from Barth, and others, he emphasizes this point repeatedly throughout the work. This leads him into a explanation of how Christians participate in and with Christ. He then addresses the place of Scripture and the church community (both dead and living) in the discipline of theology. He closes by discussing the scriptural calls to have to have the “mind of Christ” and argues that the art of theology is uniquely equipped to develop this mind inside of us and thus allow us to follow Christ faithfully. In this way, theology serves as discipleship. He closes the book with a gem: a list of nine ways that theology must be practiced in order to serve the church and act as a practice of discipleship. If I were the dean or chair of a confessional school, I would have this list framed in the office of every theologian I employed.
While Johnson’s writing is accessible, I suspect that some readers not familiar with theology might find themselves struggling to keep up with some of his more nuanced theological arguments. Theologians might also be surprised (perhaps positively or negatively) with the amount of Scriptural engagement that guides the book. Those two comments aside, Theology as Discipleship is a refreshing and needed work as it convincingly sets forth theology as an act of discipleship because of its function to clarify speech and thought and to enable a more truthful and faithful understanding of Jesus (and thus, God).
Note: I received this book from IVP Academic in exchange for an unbiased review.