Tag Archives: Theological Method

Theology as Discipleship 1

Keith Johnson’s Theology as Discipleship arose from his work in the classroom in which students sometimes asked concerning the value and relevance of theological study. His response is to “argue that the discipline of theology and a life of discipleship to Jesus Christ are integrally related because the practice of theology is one of the ways we participate in the life of the triune God” (12). His argument unfolds over seven chapters, beginning in the first with a historical narrative to explain how Christian theology became separated from Christian faith and the life of the church and discipleship; that is, it became subject to canons of thought and presuppositions alien to its own confession. In the early centuries of Christianity the context of theology was the church, and its practice was related to pastoral and devotional concerns, and faithful life in the world. The presupposed connection between theology and discipleship began slowly to change, however, during the medieval period when the discipline of theology became part of the university curriculum. This change accelerated in the modern era as the role of the university and what counted as academic learning evolved.

Theologians felt pressure to justify their conclusions according to the academic criteria that governed the university. This meant that rather than starting with faith—which might distort their ability to assess evidence rationally—they had to begin with universally accepted premises and employ the methods of critical reason. No longer could they appeal to the authority of the Bible or the church’s tradition to defend their claims (29).

This pressure intensified as modernity progressed, and Johnson notes a further shift that occurred with Schleiermacher, who argued that theologians should “demonstrate that the church’s practices are a ‘necessary element for the development of the human spirit,’” and that they should employ a genuinely deliberative character in their work (30, citing Schleiermacher, Brief Outline of Theology as a Field of Study, 10-11, 97). Theologians must now be scholars in addition to saints, and their work was not simply for the church but for the welfare of the modern state, and so they were accountable not only to the church but also to the university. The best theologians had always engaged other disciplines, seeking to draw them into the intellectual framework of Christian faith. Now the direction of engagement shifted: “Theologians interacted with these same disciplines not in order to reframe them in light of their faith but to secure theology’s place in the academy alongside every other discipline” (31).

Formerly, theologians had pursued theological training in order to acquire knowledge, habits and skills that would shape them into the pattern of Jesus Christ for the sake of their service to the church. … Now, with the discipline of theology housed primarily in the university, the primary goal of theological education was to provide students with the technical skills they needed to perform responsible critical enquiry so that the church’s faith and practice could be brought in line with the standards of critical reason (31-32).

Thus Johnson proposes that theology begin with its own distinctive confession—the lordship of Jesus Christ according to Romans 10:9—and work itself out from there in accordance with its own rationality and in dialogue with other disciplines. In Johnson’s view theology must be both faithful and academic; to require a division between these is to misunderstand the nature and practice of theological inquiry. The remainder of the book is his attempt to view the discipline in this light.

The Word & Work of God

As Barth considers the eternal will of God in the election of Jesus Christ, he notes in passing that,

The very best of the older theologians have taught us that in the word which calls and justifies and sanctifies us, the word which forms the content of the biblical witness, we must recognise in all seriousness the Word of God. Beside and above and behind this Word there is none other. To this Word then we have good cause to hold fast both for time and eternity. This Word binds us to itself both for time and eternity, and in it all our confidence must be placed. This Word does not allow us to go beyond it. It allows us no other view of God or man than that which it reveals itself. It focusses all our thoughts upon this view and keeps them focussed there. It warns us against any distraction. This Word alone must satisfy all our questioning because it alone can do so. The work of God is revealed in this Word in its totality, being there revealed in such a way that there can be no depth of the knowledge of the divine work except in God’s Word, and the knowledge of the divine work cannot lead us to any depth which is not that of God’s Word (Church Dogmatics II/2, 150).

Barth is here arguing against speculative doctrines of divine election that begin elsewhere than with the revelation of God given in Jesus Christ. How can we truly understand the divine work if we turn from the place where God has made himself known: Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in holy scripture. When Barth says, “Word of God” we do well to keep in mind that he refers to both the Living and the Written Word in their mutual relation.

Of interest to me was the last sentence in the above citation, which provides a hermeneutical and methodological principle: The work of God is revealed in this Word in its totality, being there revealed in such a way that there can be no depth of the knowledge of the divine work except in God’s Word, and the knowledge of the divine work cannot lead us to any depth which is not that of God’s Word.

It is not uncommon to speak with Christians who adhere, for example, to the word of Jesus but who do so in a way at odds with the life and work of Jesus. Nor is it uncommon to speak with Christians who seek to follow in some aspect of the way and ethos of Jesus but do so in a way at odds with his teaching. For Barth, Jesus Christ is the criterion of all knowledge of God, but Jesus Christ as both the word and the work of God. No separation is permissible here, nor any division on the one side or the other. It may be that the emphasis falls now at this point, and then at another. It is likely that theological reflection leading to faith and work will alternate back and forth between the two, allowing both the Word of God and the work of God to mutually inform one another, but always with a precedence given to the Word which binds us to itself, and to and by which we also are bound.