Book Review: Theology as Discipleship by Keith L. Johnson

9780830840342I 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.

Book Review: Rediscovering Jesus by David B. Capes, Rodney Reeves, & E. Randolph Richards

I recently read a new book from IVP Academic entitled “Rediscovering Jesus: An Introduction to Biblical, Religious, and Cultural Perspectives on Christ” by David B. Capes, Rodney Reeves, & E. Randolph Richards. 9780830824724Let me begin this review by putting my cards on the table: I am a fan of David B. Capes. He was my professor at Houston Baptist University and was also part of my master’s thesis defense panel. Thus, my original interest in reading the book was due simply to his participation in the project (plus, it’s hard to pass on a book with positive reviews from Michael Gorman, Nijay Gupta, and Scot McKnight). However, as I read the book I quickly forgot about my personal connection to one of the authors and found myself deeply engaged in a beautifully written, biblically sound, and theologically informed book on the person of Jesus.

The premise of the book is that we all have an idea of Jesus’ identity that is partially formed by many factors: different parts of Scripture, certain traditional teachings, and even our own personal biases. As the subtitle suggests, the authors attempt to introduce the reader to the various unique biblical, religious, and cultural perspectives of Jesus of Nazareth. The genius of this book is found in its three-fold structure for each perspective. First, they look at each book, religious, or cultural perspective as an individual work and ask “What does this picture of Jesus look like?” The explicit goal is to not let other texts or theological commitments influence the observation of the image of Jesus presented in these unique perspectives. Second, they expand on how each particular portrait of Jesus is different than other images of Jesus. Third, and perhaps most interestingly, they ask “Who would we say that Jesus is if this were the only picture of Jesus that we had?”

I found this third task to be the most illuminating part of the book. While I am committed to understanding Jesus both canonically and theologically, I have always believed that there is so much more to learn about Jesus if we would just let certain texts stand by themselves first, before we try to make a composite image of the person and work of Jesus.

The book is divided into two parts: Jesus in the Bible (Mark’s Jesus, Matthew’s Jesus, Luke’s Jesus, John’s Jesus, Paul’s Jesus, The Priestly Jesus, The Jesus of Exiles, and The Apocalyptic Jesus) and Jesus outside the Bible (The Gnostic Jesus, The Muslim Jesus, the Historical Jesus, the Mormon Jesus, The American Jesus. and the Cinematic Jesus). Each chapter ends with a bibliography for further reading and a handful of discussion questions. The bibliographies are typically top-notch, but I found some of the discussion questions to be lacking.

Bottom line: there is a lot to like about this book. The treatment of the four Gospels is a fine example of excellent scholarship communicated at a popular level. However, as the authors got into the other New Testament literature, I sometimes felt as if they let a surface-level reading of the text overly emphasize differences between pictures of Jesus in the Gospels and other books. For Paul, I couldn’t avoid feeling that the authors sometimes let a simple reading of the text highlight differences that perhaps are not as significant as they first seem. (I would recommend Daniel Kirk’s “Jesus Have I Loved, But Paul?” as a resource that reconciles the apparent “differences” between the Pauline literature and the Gospels). I had the same feeling for their treatment of Jesus in Revelation, again thinking that they sometimes overplayed the difference between the Jesus of the Gospels and the Jesus of Revelation. To be fair, this is an explicit part of their project (highlighting certain differences), but I think the differences between the pictures of Jesus are still significant enough even with recognizing scholarship that undercuts some of the “apparent” different pictures of Jesus throughout the New Testament. Let me be clear, these criticisms are the result of an intentional attempt to find something lacking in this excellent work. The book is consistently engaging and always well-informed. I found the second part of the book just as fascinating and imagine that for many lay-people these would be the most impactful chapters. It is easy to disregard how much our view of Jesus has been influenced by American values and various forms of art.

I highly recommend this book for audiences of all sorts. I can see myself using it as a supplementary textbook to a course on Jesus or the Gospels. I can also see this material being implemented in a local ministry setting at a book study or Bible study. Do yourself a favor and go order a copy while I leave you with a short video of the three authors discussing their work:

Note: I received this book from IVP Academic in exchange for an unbiased review. 

Confessing Christ for Church and World by Kimlyn J. Bender

IVP Academic provided a copy of this book for review.


Confessing Christ for Church and World by Kimlyn J. Bender is a collection of essays that “are really ‘looking along’ with Schleiermacher and Barth to the reality they were trying to describe, which for both of them meant (though in radically different ways) the reality of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ” (16). The essays are divided into three sections:

  1. Church and Conversation (Chs. 1-4) focuses on ecclesiology and ecumenity.
  2. Canon and Confession (Chs. 5-9) focuses on scripture, biblical authority and tradition.
  3. Christ and Creation (Chs. 10-12) focuses on Christology, creation and covenant.

I am just starting to read the book, and as a Baptist I decided to start with Ch. 8 “Barth and Baptists: A Fellowship of Kindred Minds.” In this chapter, Bender focuses on Barth challenge to Baptists’ reluctance to acknowledge the importance of creeds or traditions. Bender begins by pointing out some key thoughts shared by Barth and Baptists, such as baptism, ethics of discipleship, the importance of the local congregation, and the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. Yet, the shared space he builds from in challenging Baptists is found in this quote:

In Barth we see a truly unparalled focus on Jesus Christ, a truly christocentric theology at work, with a firm commitment to Holy Scripture as the unparalleled authority for the church’s faith and confession, and with an emphasis on proclamation and preaching as central to the church’s worship and practice, all within a theology dedicated to service to the church that focuses on themes of witness and discipleship (249).

From this foundation, Bender builds a case for challenging Baptists tendency to make “statements of opposition and mutual exclusion, for example, pitting the Bible and tradition against one another” (250). Bender, first, explains that while Barth realizes that scripture and tradition have a relationship it is not on equal grounds. Scripture, as the unique revelation of God, is unquestionably superior to tradition. He writes, “All church proclamation, as well as church tradition, comprised of doctrine, creeds and confessions, must be based on Scripture which stands over them” (250). But, Barth does not go so far as to empty confessions, or tradition, of all meaning. Rather, Barth insists that for the church to confess its faith in the present it must pay attention to the church’s past confessions. Thus, tradition is important because in tradition the church reads scripture together.

It is this idea, that the church, past and present, is needed for understanding scripture that Bender challenges Baptists tendency to have a “me and my Bible” approach to reading scripture. He even repeats a phrase I have heard often as a Baptist, “Ain’t nobody but Jesus going to tell me what to believe” (263). Bender argues that Barth challenges us at this point by reflecting on the importance of reading scripture together in the present by using the past. Bender writes, “Barth sees a real authority in confessions but does not see them as absolute, nor does he espouse forced subscription. He upholds the uniqueness of scripture against all creeds and confessions, but does recognize a real authority in them and refuses to ground Christian faith in subjective personal experience” (264).

As a Baptist, I appreciate this challenge from Bender to take the past seriously. Baptists can sometimes fall into the trap of thinking Christianity began on the day they were saved. Faith begins when we “walk the aisle” and so why should we go back. But this idea is not only misguided it is dangerous as it leads us to prioritize our feelings and leads us to towards a “me and my Bible” approach to reading scripture. In Barth, Bender finds a voice that challenges this tendency by asking us to reconsider this approach and instead come to understand reading scripture as “we and our Bible.” While there is much we might want to argue with in Barth, surely this is a place we can find some humility and acknowledge he might just be right.

Or as Bender writes, maybe we can ask and answer with Barth, “How does Jesus tell us what to do? Jesus’ voice is found in Scripture, and Scripture is read in a community of persons that, like us, he has called to be one people” (263-4).


Book Review: Why Church History Matters by Robert F. Rea

Robert F. Rea’s new work, Why Church History Matters: An Invitation to Love and Learn from Our Past, is a well-needed clarion call to all Christian traditions that have largely ignored the history of their faith. I have considered church history a vital part of Christian discipleship for many years and in this book Rea clearly spells out many reasons why this is so. In fact, I believe that both Christian churches and Christian schools should be careful to form their children in Church history as much as (if not more) than national history. Thus, I enjoyed Rea’s book and firmly believe that his message is an extremely important one for the Protestant church to hear.

The book is divided into three parts: 1 – How We Understand Tradition, 2 – Expanding Circles of Inquiry, and 3 – Tradition Serving the Church. Part one of Fea’s work explores the meaning of history and tradition and takes a special look at how various groups have understood and related to Christian tradition throughout Christian history. This serves as a helpful background to his discussion on how various Christians understand tradition today. Part two of the book serves to explore the many ways that our Christian identity is necessarily connected to the brothers and sisters who have come before us. He discusses how Christian tradition is actually a vibrant part of the Christian community, how historical Christians can serve as accountability partners, and how they can helpfully broaden our views and correct misunderstandings in our faith. Part three of Rea’s work explores how a proper understanding of Christian history helps the church both understand Scripture and minister more faithfully. Rea helpfully walks through the various strategies of exegesis that have been characteristic of different time periods in church history and gives practical examples of how these historical truths might inform responsible exegesis today.

For the most part, Rea’s book is plenty accessible to students and lay readers. There are times where he condenses a lot of information/names/theories in a few pages (such as when surveying the history of “tradition” from the early Church to the modern period or when detailing the history of exegesis from the early church to the modern period). This may seem overwhelming to novices or, alternatively, over-simplified to those with further education. Rea’s book reads as an apologetic for Christians to know their history and integrate it into their lives, faiths, and ministries appropriately. With this goal in mind, I found Part Two of his work to be the most engaging and practical portion of his book. Ultimately, I believe that an actual primary study of church history is the best way to open one’s eyes up to its incredible importance for today’s church. Thankfully, Rea ends his book with a list of recommended resources – personally, I recommend starting with Justo Gonzalez’ The Story of Christianity.

I’d Recommend This Book For:
– Those wanting to know “why” they should care about Church History
– Those looking for a brief overview of Church History
– Perhaps as a textbook for an introductory undergraduate class on Church History
– Perhaps a church small group unfamiliar with church history yet wishing to dig into it.

Why Church History MattersNote: I received this book from IVP Academic in exchange for an unbiased review. 

Book Review: Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology by Andrew Louth

Andrew Louth’s latest book, Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology (from IVP Academic), is a rewarding exploration of the faith of our Fathers. I pastor a Protestant church, yet have always found that the Eastern Orthodox theological tradition contains an almost endless amount of fresh insights into the Christian faith. Andrew Louth, a professor at Durham University and an Orthodox priest, is the perfect guide to these treasures of thought as he writes from the perspective of one caught up in admiration and respect for his tradition.

The book serves as an excellent introduction to the faith of the Eastern Orthodox. Those unfamiliar with the unique perspectives of this stream of the Christian faith will find Louth’s writing to be both accessible and thought-provoking. Personally, I read the book already familiar with the rich theology of the Eastern Orthodox church and still came away with a new depth of knowledge and appreciation. A reader with little or no theological foundation may find some passages or references challenging, but will be rewarded with the small amount of effort it might take to follow the discussion.

Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology is divided into an exposition of 9 theological topics (including an excellent introduction on the label “Eastern Orthodox”). Many unique aspects of Orthodox theology are nicely demonstrated. For instance, chapter 5 (“Sin, death and repentance”) wonderfully highlights the Eastern emphasis on death as the primary problem of creation: “the resurrection is seen as the conquest of Christ over death, and so it is death, rather than sin, that is central to the Orthodox understanding of the consequences of Adam’s disobedience.” [70] Likewise, chapter 7 (“Sacraments and icons: the place of matter in the divine economy”) artfully unpacks the place of matter in the theology of the Orthodox, concluding: “It is to that reality – the reality of the tender care of God for human kind, made palpable in the Incarnation, and effective through the prayers and intercessions of the saints, above all the Mother of God herself – that the icons of the Orthodox Church bear witness.” [121]

Three features stand out throughout the book. First, Louth continually references and quotes prayers from the Orthodox liturgy. Not only do these serve as outstanding illustrations of his points, they also serve to emphasize the importance of the liturgy for the Eastern Orthodox faith. Theirs is a lived faith and their corporate confessions function as the ultimate source of doctrine. Second, “mystery” is often given an impressive place in Louth’s discussions of paradoxical theological issues. This is no anti-intellectualism, but a rightful reminder of the necessary apophatic nature that characterizes the faith. Third, Louth helpfully references church fathers (such as Gregory Palamas, Basil the Great, Maximos the Confessor, Clement of Alexandria, Athanasius, Cyril of Alexandria, and many more) throughout the book. This has the effect of rooting the theology of the Eastern Orthodox with the Fathers which all Christians share in common.

This shared heritage is the ultimate reason why all Christians, including Protestants and Catholics, will find it beneficial to further familiarize themselves with the theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Louth’s book serves as an excellent introduction to this theology and would be useful for personal reading, small-group settings, and introductory theology courses.


I received a copy of this book from IVP Academic in exchange for an unbiased review.