Month: November 2014

the theological significance of discipleship – a proposal

So I submitted this PhD proposal last week. If I’m accepted as a candidate and the Government decides to give me a scholarship, then I guess you can expect to hear more about it in the next little while…

I propose to examine the extent to which the concept and language of ‘discipleship’ may provide a resource for systematic theology—with specific reference to the Reformed tradition.

Prominent in the Gospels, discipleship has been extensively examined in New Testament studies. And its significance for Christian ethics, missiology and practical theology is recognised with increasing enthusiasm. Early church and Orthodox accounts of ‘theosis’, medieval spiritualities of imitation, the interest in spiritual formation in Roman Catholic moral theology, and the Anabaptist attention to Jesus’ summons to a distinctive polity all reflect the prominence of discipleship in the foundational Christian documents.

In contrast, the churches of the Magisterial Reformation are alleged to have a ‘discipleship-shaped hole’ in their theology and spirituality—so emphasising God’s unilateral action in salvation, and the response of ‘faith alone’, that they tend towards the ‘cheap grace’ attacked by Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship (1959). John Calvin, for example, hesitated to explicitly deploy discipleship language in his account of the Christian life. Although, Karl Barth (Church Dogmatics IV/2: 506) has argued that the context in which Calvin set this account prevented his paradigmatic Reformed emphasis on ‘faith alone’ from becoming “a comfortable kiss of peace”, issuing no summons to a distinctive life and community.

John Webster (‘Discipleship and Calling’, Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 23.2 [2005]: 133–47) proposes that the language of discipleship connects Jesus’ formation of a new humanity to God’s character. I intend to assess, then, how this language might assist theologians to approach God practically, in response to Jesus Christ rather than ‘behind his back’. Beginning with Calvin and moving to some modern heirs of the Reformed tradition, I will probe its reticence towards the language of discipleship in order to establish (in conversation with Karl Barth and John Howard Yoder) the extent to which it is theologically, politically and/or polemically motivated. These lines of inquiry will enable me to determine the opportunities for and limitations of a Reformed contribution to the contemporary conversation about discipleship.