Theology As Discipleship: A Review

In my last post I began reviewing Keith L. Johnson’s Theology As Discipleship (Downers Grove: IVP, 2015). While initially excited about the book, my anticipation was quickly quelled by the first chapter, in which Johnson appears to contrast discipleship with critical thinking. I reserved full judgment until I had read more of the book, but now that I have I’m still not entirely sure what I think about it.

Johnson seems to spend most of his book rehearsing theology rather than working out its implications for the work of theology as a form or element of discipleship. Scripture is reprinted in full, or in very long paraphrases, and theological arguments are delivered in similarly long form. This is no doubt because he wrote the book for beginners, though he explicitly hopes that it is useful for more seasoned theologians as well. I’m not sure that I can count myself as seasoned, but I’m familiar enough with the passages and theological statements that it was either a long slog or a very light skim. That said, if I were a beginner I would appreciate his thoroughness.

Because of the first chapter’s contrast between the university and the church, I found myself looking for something to explain the apparent anti-critical stance of the first chapter, either to confirm or deny it. I found neither. Johnson is clearly not anti-intellectual – he’s arguing for the intellectual work of theology to take a central role in Christian discipleship, a project I fully and heartily agree with – and he clearly uses a hermeneutic (and apparently decent hermeneutics – he seems to interpret well). As such, I can’t say that he’s arguing for indoctrination. At the same time, his emphasis is on finding an alternative measure by which to judge theology other than critical reasoning. He uses the Augustinian approach of seeing whether an interpretation increases our love for God and neighbour as a measure of its truth, with truth defined by its correspondence to God’s eternal plan: God’s plan is for us to love God and our neighbours, so there’s some logic there, but applying critical thinking for just a moment should blow a huge hole in that argument.

Take, for example, John Piper’s view of God. By Piper’s view, everything that happens is willed by God and for the specific purpose of God’s glory. Somehow, according to Piper, the most awful things that happen in the world bring greater glory to God than even good things do – God is glorified more in, say, genocide, than in peace. Piper believes this because it’s the only thing that justifies the existence of genocide in a world that exists for God’s glory; if the world existed for any other reason, and/or if God did not have complete control over the world, then horrible things would be just horrible. Here’s the thing: Piper’s bizarre reasoning actually increases his love for God, because he can praise God for genocide. He can also be thankful for his neighbour’s cancer, which also increases the glory of God somehow. So his interpretation, according to Johnson and Augustine, is true – but so would an opposite interpretation that had similar effects. Meanwhile, critical thinking would tell us very quickly that two completely opposite interpretations, regardless of their effects, cannot simultaneously be true except in some form of paradox. Critical thinking would suggest that we should examine Piper’s premises and assumptions, and decide that perhaps it’s not true that God obsessively controls reality for the sake of his own glorification.

I can’t tell at this point (I still haven’t read the entire book, but enough to know I don’t particularly want to), but I think that Johnson is a determinist. He talks quite a bit about God’s master plan, to the point that all reality must be interpreted according to God’s master plan. This is a pretty big flaw, considering that the Church has varying views about what God’s master plan really is, aside from the redemption of humanity – and even there, Johnson pits the redemption of humanity over and against creation as the centrally defining aspect of the world. I’m not sure those things can be separated, much less contrasted. These and a few other underlying theological assumptions are evidence that his views are very theologically rooted, which is excellent – but they’re rooted in theology that I personally disagree with.

It seems, then, that Johnson is not arguing for anti-intellectualism, he’s arguing for pre-critical intellectualism. I’m not sure that he realizes that in so doing he’s arguing for a biblicist crapshoot, in which everyone feels affirmed in the eternal truth of their own uncritical interpretations of Scripture because doing so enhances their discipleship. Sometimes the best discipleship happens with the worst theology (cults enjoy great support from their followers), and Johnson seems to be suggesting that rooting theology in its function as discipleship will ensure the quality of that theology.

Ten years ago, I would have given this book an A+. It would have fit right in with my pentecostal experience-driven hermeneutic, and it serves up a lot of theology as a basis for its arguments. I’m opinionated enough about theology now to say that I think he has an excellent target, but he’s shooting in the wrong direction. There are no grades for that. I’ll keep picking away at it, but I have enough other books on my to-read list that I won’t be writing about this one again. If you know someone who thinks theology is a bad thing, I recommend it – they probably won’t be theologically picky enough to question the underlying theology here, and it will get them in the door of thinking theologically. That in itself is well worth it, and the method can be refined from there.

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2 thoughts on “Theology As Discipleship: A Review

  1. Just finished this book. I pretty much concur with much of this review. I bought the book on a flyer based on the simple hope, having read the title, that the author would explicate the role and relationship of theology within discipleship. Rather than that, I read theology. Perhaps it’s simply a matter of different strokes for different folks. 3 stars.

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