Keith Johnson - "Theology as Discipleship"
9:17PM Jun 26, 2020
Jonathan J. Armstrong
We're very pleased today to be speaking with Dr. Keith Johnson. Dr. Keith Johnson is associate professor of theology at Wheaton College and the author of Karl Barth and Vienna likea entus, a revision of his dissertation, and also the author of the text that we'll be discussing today, Theology as Discipleship, available from IVP academic. Dr. Johnson, thank you so much for being with us today. Thank you. It's a pleasure. Dr. Johnson, if we could begin, you inform us that this book is written from your experience as a teacher first year theology courses at Wheaton College, a common prayer that I hear when I ask students to pray before class at Moody Bible Institute, the institution where I teach, run something like this. God, we pray that this lecture may not be merely an academic exercise, but that we may find deeper Knowledge of you in this time, in your view, where did this profound rift that exists? Probably also at Wheaton, between academic and theology, academic theology in the pursuit of God, where does this rift come from?
That's a good question. And it's really the starting place my book because every classroom I walk into, I often find that students have a perceived rift between the discipline of theology, as it's taught in a college setting like Wheaton or like moody. And the practice of their Christian life, they see those as in competition with each other or intention with one another. And they often struggle to see how the material they're learning in the classroom connects with their, with their Christian faith on a daily basis. And there's this perceived rift there that has a history behind it and has some legitimate worries that are associated with it. Some of my students, they come in and they worry that if they study academic theology, it's going to distract them from the most important things. In matters of the Christian life, so they worry that it's going to distract them from witnessing from the practices of their spirituality from worship, they see it as something other than those things. And so to study academically, is to distract themselves from the most important activities that they should be engaged in. Others just see it as a direct conflict or something that inhibits their discipleship if it conflicts with their Christian faith, and that this often comes from an experience that they've had with people who study theology. They worry that theology either undermines your faith. So the deeper you go into it, and the more you study, you lose competence, you feel like you don't know what you should know you've lost some that kind of that childlike faith that you're called to have. And so they worry that the deeper you go, the more detracts from that kind of faithfulness. Some people have encountered people who studied theology and lost their face and so they're often a little worried about that a little cautious. Other students encounter Those who say theology will become arrogant, prideful, who always are correcting others. And so they see theology as inherently argumentative or something that makes you prideful. And so they're worried about studying for those reasons. And they often come into my classroom worried that it's going to divide us they see theology as a, almost like a partisan activity, that you have a school of thought that you engage in. theological thinking that in that causes you to start to identify yourself not as a Christian, but as a certain type of Christian, you know, Thomas, or Calvinist, or many or something like that. And so you start playing for your own theological team rather than the church and they would rather just play for the church. And so they're often worried about this partisanship. Now, there's a history behind that because for most it's interesting that for most of your for a good part of it. theology was not considered to be in opposition to the Christian life, in fact, study of theology at its highest and most rigorous school In what's considered to be an activity of discipleship, that's certainly how the early church saw it. And that's how most Christians read history. I've seen it. And there's a history behind them how that's what happened, I think. And there are lots of ways of telling that story I tell tell a story about my book. But one way to look at it is to see the different occupations that theologians have had throughout history for yourself, telecon makes this point system for most of Christian history, at least for the early parts. Most theologians were priests or bishops, which meant that that the practicing theologians were, we're working directly in the life of the church and they were doing their theological work as part of a larger service to the church. And they were encountering people that you know, that everyday Christians in the context of the church for different periods of history, a lot of theologians were monks and so they were living in monasteries, they were living a life order by worship, and so they were pursuing theology at a very high level. But they were doing it within the context of a spiritual life. And so they may not it might not have been as connected to the people as the priests and the bishops, but they were still focused on the activities of discipleship. Now, for most of modern times, most theologians who are working at the highest levels are professors like you and I. And so we teach our theology in a classroom.
And while this, I mean, this has great benefits, we
can we can talk about some of the benefits that working in the university has for a theologian, but one of the things that it does is that we, we are no longer strictly beholden to the church as in practice our discipline. We are also governed by the intellectual status standards of the Academy of the university. And the university standards and the way we govern and what counts as academic in a place like, like Wheaton or Moody, is often set by paradigmatic disciplines. And the paradigmatic discipline of the modern age is science. And so we often proceed under the assumption that we need to defend or explain the integrity of our discipline on the basis of this scientific approach to knowledge which, for example, in the sciences, you can't take something off, you have to demonstrate It and Prove it objectively in a rigorous manner that's testable. You can't can't simply just accept that some sources authoritative you don't say, Oh, this is what someone tells you. This is what's true. You don't just accept that you have to be able to prove that it's true and verify it and test it by critically assessing whether those claims that are being made can be trusted. And so theology in the university maintains its integrity, it can govern itself by those standards. Which are, you look at it for into the way that theology was practiced, especially early on the ology proceeds on the basis of faith. It accepts the authority of trust. It sources. And while that doesn't mean you turn off your brain, it does mean that you you're starting at a different place than many other disciplines in the university. And so theologians today, as faithful as we might try to be, we are often torn between the need to defend our discipline academically, to show that it's academically credible, and also relate what we're doing to the life of the church. And so that that's attention for many theologians, and it's often hard to do you perform your work, according to the standards of critical reason with a high level of academic integrity. And then the task is often to apply it to the church. And so the application becomes a second step, rather than the first step of the Theologian. And anytime you have a second step, it becomes optional. And so there are a lot of theologians who spend their theological lives, never really drawing connections between what they're doing in the classroom and what they and then their scholarship and what they want that everyday Christian lives. On the ground, and so applying their theological work to the church, and vice versa. A lot of Christians in the church who often see little relevance in what the theologians and the Bible scholars are doing at the most technical levels. And so that's part of the history behind the riff, there seems to be a disconnect for some with the way theology is practiced as a discipline, academically, and the everyday experience of most Christians, and so a lot of Christians in the church just never connect with theology. A lot of theologians struggle to connect their work with, with everyday people in the church. And so the challenge is to figure out how to make high level academic theology relatable and important to the life of faith and discipleship without undermining its academic integrity. And so my book is one of its missions is to show how this might be possible, how we might have a very rigorous, academically credible theology, because I think that's important, while also showing that theology itself. Discipline relates to the life of thing, the life of discipleship.
Dr. Johnson, thank you for that remarkably succinct and helpful answer. You write this on page 15 of your text. One of the key tasks of a disciple is to seek to understand everything from the nature of God's eternal being to the entire created order to our own lives, in light of Jesus, while organized theological study is not the only way this that we can see this kind of understanding it can and does make substantive contributions to this process. In what ways is academic theology uniquely, a uniquely privileged avenue for understanding God?
Your question, I am not sure I myself would put it that it's uniquely privileged avenue for knowing God. I see it as, as one form of a more general call that every Christian experiences, to know God and to love God with their mind. We're called to love God not only with our hearts on strength, but with our mothers. Without brains. And when you love God, it always goes together with the call to love your neighbor as yourself. Which means engaging with them, loving them concrete ways and sharing the gospel witnessing with them. And so the ology fits into that general call that every Christian has to love God and then love their neighbor, in light of their love for God. And to know God and to to love him, you have to know Him and to know him. You need to think about him, and to speak about him rightly. And so our knowledge is mediated through words, and we want to make sure our words are correct. We want to make sure that when we think about God, we're thinking about the true God and not a false god. When we're saying things about God, we want to make sure that our words actually correspond to who God is. And so the discipline theology is one way of helping us do that better. It helps us and trains us to think and speak about God rightly so that we know that our words and our ideas actually correspond Who is the LG has a special role I think in this general call that every Christian has because every Christian functions theologically even they're not. They're not there they are officially are call themselves a theologian. In the book, I borrow a term from Jay Todd villains I say that every Christian has a functional theology. Which means it's kind of the presupposed theology that that we use whenever we say anything about God. And the book I talk about the phrase God is love. The most basic claim that anyone can make about God and straight from Scripture. We might think, well, that's straight from the Bible. God is love first, john four. I know what that means. But do you know what that means? We all have a functional theology. So when we think about the words in that short phrase, God is love. We all presuppose meanings to those words. So take the word love. All of us grow up feeling, love experiencing Love, we use the word love. I have a 44 year old and a one year old. My four year old can talk about love. He loves his toys. He loves his mom. He loves me. He loves his baby brother. he'll grow up using that word love. And then one day he'll read first john four when he learns how to read and he'll say, oh, God is love. Now, that's the challenge, he might take the meanings he's grown up with of love, which some of which reflect God's love, but some which are not his love for his toys is not the same as the love we're saying when we talk about God's love. So he's got a functional meaning of the word love. And when he reads that scriptural phrase, God is love. He has to bring that together with what the Bible is actually trying to communicate. And while there may be a relationship between those two things, they're not identical. And so we have to figure out how we speak in such a way that the meaning of our words which we functionally have, such as the word love, actually corresponds to the true reality of God's love. And so there going to be similarities and differences. Between that meaning. theology is the training ground where we learn the nature of those similarities and disciplines. In many ways, it's it functions like a grammar, or like an English teacher teaching us how to use our words rightly helping us to figure out what, for example, the word love means, so that we don't import creaturely ideas into that phrase, we might read the difficult phrase, God is love, and important, my love for pizza into that or my love for my son's love for my toys, or even my love for my son. And all of a sudden, God, who is love becomes a lot like me as a human being because the content of that word love reflects my life rather than God's own reality. And so, multiply that example with the word love by every word we use for God. We've got to test every word every claim we make, by the reality of God in order to know what we're saying and make sure it's right. And we're doing this into the context. We have fallen minds, and that we're limited in our capacities. Which leads us to the tendency towards idolatry. I think the great temptation of every Christian is idolatry. Want to make God in our own image, and use God to serve our own ends. And so it happens in subtle ways just in the way we speak. We often even in the way we define our words, use, use words in such a way that God becomes what we want him to be. And so, theology helps us be greatly. It helps us learn how to speak in ways that are disciplined, so that we don't import false ideas into a picture of God.
So the discipline is oriented. If it has a purpose position, it's oriented in that role. It's designed. It's designed to teach us how to speak and think rightly. It's the GRE Marian theologians are the grammarians of the church. They help the church learn how to use proper theological grammar so that we don't fall into false thinking or speaking. In that way, sir. The life of discipleship it helps us to understand God better, and in that sense serves this general call of Christians to know God to love God and to know and love our neighbors as well.
Excellent, thank you, Dr. Johnson.
Dr. Johnson, you are clearly a promoter of the study of academic theology. And in this text, you clearly present a positive position for the role of academic theology in the life of the church. You also acknowledge legitimate concerns with the way that academic theology is done today. In your view, what are the strengths and what are the weaknesses of doing theology in this university model academic context?
Yeah, I think it's really important that we
don't denigrate the strengths of the Academy. While we want to correct some tendencies and to heal the rift between the academic study theology and the church or at least the perceived risk is there for many of our students and for many people in the church and in the academy. I think there are great strengths to reforming and practicing theology within the context of a university or college. For example, to become a scholar, you have to be trained in the highest standards of critical reasoning. Your judgment is home, they're given skills that enable you to do your jobs, your job as a theologian better. For example, you learn as a scholar to evaluate deposition, you learn to engage arguments charitably, critically with precision, you learn to examine the coherence of your claims and make sure that what you're saying actually makes sense and that it holds together. All of these are good skills to have and so the training that you undergo university to become a scholar enables you to be a better theologian, and I think it's important when you're working as a professor, I think it's in many ways an ideal place for in which to do theology. It's not the only place you can do ology I think the frontline, location or the occupation of a theologian is always the pastor. But in many ways to work as a scholar and a teacher, you're freed from the burdens of being an administrator, pastors, as we all know, they're busy, they're often working, taking care of the needs of their congregation as they should be. As a professor, I have my students, but I often have a lot more time to engage in in depth study. I'm freed from that hands on burden of dealing with the Ministry of the church, for example, that gives me a lot more space and time to really go into subject matter more deeply than I would otherwise. I think that's an advantage at the same time. Unlike some of the monastery For example, I am connected to the like, everyday people. I teach students, I go to church, I relate to people on a daily basis. I live in the same community as the people who go to my church and so I am able to prove To the needs of society, unlike some of us, drawing society, so many ways have the best of both worlds I can withdraw like a monastery and have time to study but I'm also engaged people
have time to study and think but I'm also connected to the life of the church.
Another advantage, I'm able to engage other disciplines. For example, teaching you in college, I have friends who are scientists and art Virtus apologists and sociologists, and psychologists and political scientists do pretty much everything under the sun and engaging with them, being in dialogue with them and having friendships with them that enriches my theological work. I learn new things, I'm challenged by their questions. I have a lot of ideas that come from outside sources and I think that's a benefit. There are challenges or weaknesses. I think as a as a scholar, it's easy to practice the discipline of theology in such a way and to actually be a good theologian as a as a academic theologian and never strictly or specifically connect your work to the life of the church. I can spend my entire theological career writing books and articles and thinking about my discipline, and never make that connection. It's an optional step for me. No, I want to and that's part of my column, but not everyone has to. So I think you as a scholar, you don't have the requirement as part of your discipline, to necessarily call these connections in ways that are out for the church. And that's part of the riff that's existed, received. And you don't have to be a faithful Christian to be a good academic theologian, you can know your stuff and you can know your material. You can be a good student of theological history, you can talk about religions very well and not necessarily have a rich life of faith. But I think that's a potential weakness of the model. That wasn't always the case. Think about that. The early church fathers they were great theologians but they their theology was bound together with their life of spirituality with their life with disciples. And so there's a lack of accountability sometimes in the way we perform theology within the Academy, we don't have the accountability of the Christian life that we think we should have. In my vision, the proper posture of a theologian is to live his or her life on his or her knees before God put the Bible in front of them with the voice of the church in their ears. The voice of other scholars in their ears is their reading text to trying to think and speak about God rightly having these other voices, call them into question, raise questions about what they're saying. And all of that helps us do our work better. But it starts with being on the knees before God thinking critically but also trying to think faithfully about what God has called us to be able to do in the world. And in as much as the academy concerned that it really enriches theological work. It is It distracts us from that takes us off our knees makes us just go into our study and do our own thing. I think it inhibits the connection between theology and discipleship.
Dr. Johnson, I'm intrigued with your statement there, that one today doesn't need to be a faithful Christian in order to be a good academic theologian, and I understand what you're saying. I understand your point, excellently stated, but if we could open these walls somehow and let the church fathers and theologians from the Middle Ages and reformation etc, if we could let them into this conversation, I think one of them at least would raise their hand and say, wait a minute, if you can't, if you don't need to be a faithful Christian in order to do this discipline of academic theology properly, then the academic discipline of theology must not be real theology. I know you sense that strain as well. Any advice to Christians? And what do you what advice do you give to your students as they're coming through this life of academic theology in preparation for A true service of the church.
Yeah, I think when I when I say that you don't have to be a faithful Christian to be a good academic theologian, I'm speaking from experience. There are a lot of really well known very prominent theologians who are very good at their craft, may or may not have a vibrant life of faith. And you look through the history of the church, you can see figures like that. I think that is not the way certainly the fathers or most Hitler's throughout history would see. See the matter that for most Christians throughout history, and certainly, it's one of the goals in my book is to show that to be a faithful theologian and be a good dealers requires a life of needs, if you understand theology, rightly, in today's world, that that connection isn't often made quite as strictly and it's possible to be a good academic, and to practice theology, or religious studies and not have a life of faith as part of your theological I think one of the ways to find accountability. As a theologian, I don't think that means shrinking from the Academy. I think it means having structuring your life in your work in such a way that you're aiming it towards the surface of the church. To practice the discipline of theology in such a way that it's aimed to the hand of helping the church, think and speak about God, right. And so theology is never an end in itself. It's one of the tools that God has given us to serve the church and enrich the life of the church. And so for a theologian, if you're practicing theology in the academic setting, I think you you want to be the best academic McCain. But you also want to be a faithful Christian and that means doing Christian things and being connected to a church, having a life of faith, worship, having accountability. So having people in your life who speak into you and hold you accountable to your beat to Christ. We call you into account and raise questions about Your life. Having a time where you are listening to God, I think one of the themes of my book is that Christ is the living board. He speaks to us. Yes, there's so few scripture yes through through through this. And so you want to be listening to Christ and following where he's leading you theological. And so connecting very strictly to and strongly to a life of faith and you want to as an academic, stay connected to the life of Christ, your life, the church, people who will hold you accountable.
Dr. Johnson, thank you for entertaining that question. In chapter four of your text theology as discipleship chapter entitled, The Word of God. You argue that john chapter eight teaches us that we read scripture properly, only when we read it in communion with Jesus Christ. Would you be willing to elucidate this argument for us please?
Sure. I am
What I was doing in that chapter and in general is I was trying to help us see and understand how we approach scripture. And I think one of the things that we need to do when we think about scripture is we have to remember why scripture exists. The Bible is not an end in itself, but exists for a purpose. And that purpose corresponds to God's purpose, or all of history, and what is God's purpose for our lives. I think God uses scripture and gave the Bible to us to serve His purpose. And I make the case throughout the book that Jesus Christ Himself stands right at the center of God's purpose for history and for our lives. He is the one in all things on Heaven, in heaven and on earth are drawn together. He's the one in through and for whom all things are made. And he also stands in the center of our relationship with God, He is the mediator between God. I think we as Christians were people of the gospel. And the gospel shows us that God has decided not to spend his own eternal life. Without us, he has decided to be a God who is in relationship with us. He wants to live with us eternally. He wants us to be with his family. The Bible uses the language of adoption. he adopts us as His children, to bring us into relationship with Him. And this happens through Christ and happens through the Spirit. One of the verses that I use to set the stage for much of the argument of the book is Ephesians 115. You got chosen Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ. And so I think we are God's purpose for our life is to in our destiny is to become his children through Christ and through the Spirit. And the Bible fits into that story. It gets into that plane. So when we think about scripture, we think about it in terms of its relationship to this purpose and to Christ who stands right at the center of Christ is not dead. He's alive. Living Lori's it's the right hand of the Father, He intercedes for us. He works in our lives through His Spirit. And so we need to approach scripture and think about reading scripture in light of that reality. The living Christ speaks to us through His Word. He speaks to all of the texts. So both the Old and New Testament, when Christ Christ Himself approach scripture as if everything in it, including the Old Testament spoke about him you talk to john ply, for example, is that if you believe Moses was leave me for he wrote about me. He said about the Torah that he's saying, Moses himself wrote about me, Paul, All scripture is God breathed useful for teaching for proof for correction for training in righteousness. Scripture, Paul is talking about it, the Old Testament, and certainly the New Testament relates to Christ and he's talking about him and pointing to him. So I think every word of Scripture speaks about God's plan for us in Christ, to be read in light of that plan, which means reading it in light of its relationship with Christ. living Christ is using scripture to bring us into conformity with him to reuse the life of the church to reform it, and to challenge us to follow him as disciples every day.
Dr. Johnson, if I may close with a final question that we've been asking all of our interviewees on this program, and that is this, what would it mean for the church to be united today? How would Christians recognize this unity? And what is it that we can do to pursue practical Christian unity? Yeah.
I think the unity of the church is our destiny. We will stand up for the throne of God as one people, one family. And as we think about the divisions in the church that are present today, we have to approach it in light of that future. And so we think about the fact that the divisions are temporary, one day they will be healed. And so as theologians we work towards that future, and that future, the one who stands at the center of it is Jesus Christ Himself. He is the key to the unity of the church. And so when I think about healing the rifts between the divided parts of the church and seeking Christian unity, I think of following Christ, the one in whom we are united, he stands at the center of our relationship. But even if we can't quite bring ourselves together, he is the one between us. So the key criteria we need to think about when we think about pursuing unity as theologians is whether or not we're listening to the voice of Christ is are we following him? beatings? are we listening to how he is speaking to us through His Word? Are there roadblocks in our own theology, in our churches in our own lives that are preventing us from hearing Christ and following up he is, as I believe, going to lead us together. The key to that for everybody is to follow after him. And so part of my argument in the book and put them out argument mental life is to measure everything you do in your life, in your theology, in your practices, by the person of deeds. By the words he spoke by the pattern he gave us were called to walk just as he walked. And so we look at Christ and we measure our lives. We measure our practices or activities, our churches, by example, we are the body of Christ. I think that's where it begins. Now. There's a lot of work to be done to bringing the unity of the church together, very concrete ways as far as our doctrines and our practices and differences and various obstacles were in the way. I think there's centuries of work to be done. I think we proceed knowing that it will happen that there will be a United Church. It may happen right before the end. It may happen at the very end, but that's where we're headed and so in ways large and small and keep our eyes fixed on Jesus can we work towards the Unity by removing roadblocks After a roadblock by trying to bring the church together while remaining faithful to Christ, who stands at the center of
that are delighted today to be speaking with Dr. Keith Johnson, associate professor of theology at Wheaton College and author of the texts that we've been discussing today theology as discipleship. Dr. Johnson, thank you for being with us today.
Thank you very much appreciated