Sunday, July 27, 2008

Book # 3, Scripture and Discernment, Luke Timothy Johnson

I read this book under its original title, Decision Making in the Church (the current title is more descriptive of the focus of the book), at a time when I was searching for vocational clarity. Who was I in relation to the call of God in my life, and what did that calling require of me in relation to the people of God?

Three pages in that book gave me great clarity and still serve to orient my understanding of ministry. Johnson locates faith in the narrative structure of experience. We are always interpreting our life in relation to God and others. All of us, in this sense, are theologians. The church’s capacity to respond to God depends to a great extent on the recognition of every member of his or her role as a theologian.

While all have the responsibility of interpreting their life before God, some in the community of faith have the capacity to articulate more formally the theological implications being made by all in the community. These persons, Johnson describes, as practicing theologians. The practicing theologian is not simply someone doing theology in the privacy of an office and then working that theology out on the congregation. Rather, the practicing theologian is bringing to formal articulation what God is doing in the midst of the congregation.

This understanding of a practicing theologian has framed my understanding of ministry ever since. It removed from me the temptation of seeing the church as my own little theological chemistry kit, a place where I work out all my ideas, and with them all my neurotic little fantasies. It puts God’s leading back into play, and honors the experience of God among the people of God. It says, also, that theology is done within and for the sake of the congregation.
As is often the case, one good book leads to another by the same author. Scripture and Discernment led me to Faith’s Freedom. While I return to 3-5 pages over and over again in Scripture, there are whole chapters I read periodically in Faith’s Freedom. Johnson’s definitions of faith, grace, sin, and idolatry are so rich an practical.

I had heard that Johnson wrote Faith’s Freedom in a weekend in a hotel room. These people make me sick. A few years ago, I hosted Johnson at a conference and had the chance to ask him if this was true. He confirmed that it was, so I shot him in the leg. No, not really. The great thing, however, about meeting Johnson was how gracious and full of life he was. So, I decided not to hate him and continue to live out of the great pages he has given his readers.

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