Spiritual Formation and Theology: A Review of Keith L. Johnson’s “Theology as Discipleship”

theology as discipleship

Academic theology is dry, irrelevant to the rhythms of everyday life, and even potentially detrimental for those seeking to pursue a life of deep discipleship. These kinds of charges might strike some as strange, but in the first chapter of Theology as Discipleship, Keith L. Johnson notes that, unfortunately, they are surprisingly common in the contemporary Church. “In fact, many smart and faithful Christians cringe when they hear the word theology due to the negative connotations the discipline carries” (p.20).

For Johnson, the fact that these charges are plausible in the eyes of so many suggests that, sadly, a perceived divide has developed between the world of academic theology and the everyday practices of Christian life (p.11). He acknowledges that:

It is possible for a Christian to participate in the church for years and never engage in disciplined theological thinking about core Christian doctrines or the history of the church’s debates about them. It is also possible for academic theologians to devote their entire careers to the discipline and never be asked to translate or apply the content of their scholarship to the concrete realities that shape the daily life of the church. (p.12)

Why has theology garnered such a negative reputation? Johnson brings up a number of possible reasons. For example, he notes that “many Christians believe that the formal study of theology distances us from the most important activities of the Christian life” (p.20). After all, most of us can usually think of someone who lived a faithful life full of kindness and love without ever formally studying theology. Conversely, “many of us also know or have heard about people who know a lot of theology but live hypocritically or without faith” (p.20).

Beginning students of theology can also feel intellectually shaken as they start reading more deeply and widely, considering difficult questions and examining their own long-held assumptions about faith. Johnson notes that rather than feeling empowered and equipped to more fully work and serve within the church, “the new theologian often is embarrassed by all that he or she does not know and paralyzed by the prospect of looking foolish when he or she speaks” (p.21). Unfortunately, this leads some people to avoid formally studying theology at all.

Finally, Johnson notes that even for those of us who do study theology, we sometimes fail to adequately think through how and why we do so. Hence, part of the goal of the book is to enable people to think more deeply about the aim of pursuing theological knowledge and to more robustly integrate formal theological study with spiritual formation. Why is it so harmful for theology to occupy a marginalized place in the lives of churches? Johnson argues that it is precisely because doing theology is unavoidable (pp.17-18).

The phrase, “God is good” is used all the time in church-related contexts like prayer, worship, and scriptural discussions (p.17). No matter the setting in which the phrase is used, though, Johnson points out that every one of these instances involves (implicitly or explicitly) doing theology. He explains:

The word God does not sit as an empty concept in our minds. It has a meaning that has been acquired over the course of our lives, some of it by personal experience with God and some through the instruction of others… The same thing is happening with our use of the word “good”… What is the difference between our use of the word good when we apply it to God as opposed to our puppy? The task of answering this question—even implicitly and instinctively—requires the practice of theology (pp.17-18).

For Johnson, this shows that, whether one is aware of it or not, a person is always already operating with a “functional theology” in daily life, which is made up of “our default assumptions about who God is, what God is like and how God relates to us” (p.18). One’s functional theology works as a kind of pre-understanding that impacts how one interprets the words of Scripture as they are encountered in the text. Johnson actually takes this line of argument one step further, claiming that one cannot really avoid using functional theology when reading the Bible at all since everyone comes to the text with a pre-understanding of one kind or another. Hence, the unavoidable nature of doing theology. The issue, though, is that our functional theology is inevitably imperfect. As Paul put it in his letter to the Corinthian believers, we “see in a mirror, dimly” (1 Cor. 13:12, NRSV).This helps explain the need for the discipline of theology:

This discipline came into existence in response to the fact that our functional theology does not always match the reality of God. Its goal is to shape our ideas and words about God so that our functional theology corresponds to the truth about his divine being and character. (p.19)

Having set out both the reasons for why theology is regarded by many Christians with suspicion, and why he believes the task of theology to nevertheless be unavoidable, Johnson spends the rest of Theology as Discipleship attempting to build a framework for understanding the practice of theology as being an important part of growing up in Christ (hence the book’s title). He begins by turning to Galatians 4, where Paul explains that believers are adopted as children of the Father through “the Son’s redeeming work and the Spirit’s transforming power” (p.56).

Johnson explains that this trinitarian pattern of activity can tell readers a few important things. First, “God’s saving actions in Christ and the Spirit show us that God’s plan is to make us participants in his own divine life” (pp.56-57). Furthermore, he suggests that it also means that “our participation in God through Christ serves as the basis of our knowledge of God” (p.57). One of the major themes that comes up again and again in this book is the significance of “union with Christ.” It is only because Christ has united Himself to us that we are able to participate in the life of God (p.74).

How does this directly relate to the practice of theology? Johnson makes the connection when he states that, “As theologians, we pay special attention to the fact that our partnership with Christ includes our act of taking ‘every though captive to obey Christ’ (2 Cor 10:5)” (p.133). When we consider the practice of theology as being grounded in our participation in Christ and worked out in the midst of a life of discipleship, Johnson argues that we will discover that “the practice of theology is one of the ways we obey Paul’s command to be ‘transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God’ (Rom 12:2)” (p.134).

In the final section of the book, he gives a more extended description of what practicing theology within the context of discipleship should look like. It’s a starkly different portrait than the kind envisioned by those who charge theology with being dry, arrogant, and irrelevant:

A Spirit-filled life of humble, self-sacrificial love in the pattern of Jesus is the defining mark of a theologian who shares the mind of Christ. Our practice of theology does not merely complement our lives of discipleship to Jesus. This practice is itself a form of discipleship… We do not use our theological knowledge to build ourselves up, exercise power over others or take advantage of our status by utilizing the rights and privileges that come with such knowledge. We use it to build up other people, enrich the church and serve the world in Christ’s name. (p.149)

Those studying theology are called to become increasingly humble (rather than brash and arrogant) as they go along (p.161). He also highlights the need for patience and kindness in dealing with others, especially those of differing theological opinions and traditions. According to Johnson, theology is something done for the sake of others, and for him one of the biggest consequences of this is that today it should be oriented towards serving and building up the church (p.172). He comments that, “We will not be able to instruct the church faithfully if we remain isolated from the church’s daily life and practices” (p.172). This ecclesiological orientation also means that both truth and unity are important goals. Finally, and importantly, Johnson ends the book by pointing out that theology should be pursued with joy (p.186). He writes:

We find joy because God uses our work to enrich the church so that people might know him better… We reflect this joy in the way that we approach others, not as fault-finders seeking to correct them but as fellow pilgrims seeking to obey God together with them…. There is [also] joy in the process, because we know that the God to whom our words are directed is a God who will receive them, despite all our faults, as an offering that fills him with joy (p.187)

Theology as Discipleship is a great reminder for those of us who are fond of academic theology. I would like to delve into the theological groundings of his framework a bit more, so I hope that he publishes a larger, more in-depth study of the subject in the future. Regardless of that, this little book is is well suited for classrooms and theological non-specialists, so in this case its size is probably an advantage. It’s easy to forget that doing theology can be, and should be, intimately connected to spiritual formation. It’s also easy to forget that Christian theology should be done in order both to know God better and to help others flourish. Johnson’s work should help make these things a bit harder to forget, and for that those of us who love practicing theology in the midst of the Christian life should be thankful.

*Disclosure: I received this book free from IVP Academic for review purposes. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. 

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4 thoughts on “Spiritual Formation and Theology: A Review of Keith L. Johnson’s “Theology as Discipleship”

  1. if you must year something down in order to praise something else, then it is propped up.

    your opening sentence is arrogant and rude and simply an expression of your own taste.

    academic theology is nothing you purport it to be.

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    • Thanks for taking time to read this review and comment on it, Steven. Could you help me understand something? Are you thinking that I am claiming that “academic theology is dry, irrelevant to the rhythms of everyday life..etc”? If so, I’m sorry. Let me try and clarify.

      That is the perception of academic theology that Keith Johnson is trying to counter and critique in this book. He strongly argues that it really isn’t dry/arrogant etc.

      Maybe a better way to open this review could have been, “some people think that academic theology is dry, irrelevant etc.” I myself think that academic theology is far from irrelevant. I agree wholeheartedly with Keith Johnson’s argument that its actually an integral part of discipleship. Does that clarify things any?

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      • it does, and as i read on, i tried to get the impression you’re talking about now, for benefit of the doubt. i was able to.

        cafeteria christianity, laziness, and the evangelical mistaken conflation of pistis with episteme related to creeds and the resulting “i got mine…i believe!” is why theology is often discarded. i probably would agree with much Johnson has to say.

        thanks for clearing things up.

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