My research on the theological significance of discipleship in the Reformed tradition has begun!
One of the big questions I’m faced with right off the bat is how to understand ‘discipleship’.
Is it coextensive with being Christian? Is it real Christianity — the genuine article (as opposed to, say, nominalism or ‘carnal’ Christianity)? Or something else?
Some are outspoken about this. Famously, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said (The Cost of Discipleship):
Christianity without the living Christ is inevitably Christianity without discipleship, and Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ. It remains an abstract idea, a myth which has a place for the Fatherhood of God, but omits Christ as the living Son. And a Christianity of that kind is nothing more nor less than the end of discipleship. In such a religion there is trust in God, but no following of Christ. Because the Son of God became Man, because he is the Mediator, for that reason alone the only true relation we can have with him is to follow him.
In saying this, Bonhoeffer is making common cause with what has been described as the ‘Anabaptist vision’. That is, the vision of faith and life expressed by the equation: Christianity = discipleship.
And there is something clearly right about this. Again and again, Jesus summoned people to discipleship — to follow him rather than merely associating themselves with him from a distance, to embrace him on his terms rather than their own (after burying their dead or saying good-bye to their families, for example), to publicly ‘own’ him rather than secretly nursing some private conviction or experience.
More, there is something deeply appealing. I love Bonhoeffer’s Christocentrism. For him (as for Barth), Jesus has to define and shape our allegiance to him — not some system, principle or idea … even an idea about Jesus.
But things are just a little more complicated… (Obviously, right? Or I’d hardly think I could get a PhD out of it!)
For one thing, Jesus seems to not just call people to follow him — as many had done before and many would do after him — but also to rework, expand and give new content to what such following means.
I’m also not 100% sure that the simple equation of Christianity with discipleship can be made without some important remainder.
In the end, what I’m seeking is a more thoroughly Jesus-shaped vision of the Christian life.
And I’m happy to look almost anywhere for it. Whether to the Anabaptists and their heirs or the Magisterial Reformers (like Calvin) and their heirs — even if it means displacing discipleship as the central organising image for being Christian.