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“We do not serve two masters” John Webster on Discipleship

I've just listened to these words by John Webster.  They are part of his preamble to two lectures on discipleship which can be downloaded here.  They have been like cool water in a dry and weary land:

When the perception of the abstractness of theology becomes widespread, "Practical Theology" tries to deal with the dissatisfaction generated by academic theology by presenting itself as a kind of corrective move.  As a way of directing theology back to its proper concern with Christian action in the church.  But whenever Practical Theology detaches itself from exegesis and dogmatics it ends up very quickly losing its own theological rationale.  That is, it can turn into a proposal that theology becomes engaged by placing itself, as it were, between the church and the world, listening earnestly to what the world says about itself and then shaping Christian practice in response to that.  And that move, I think, is little short of disastrous.

It's disastrous because it does what the church and its theology have no mandate to do, namely it takes the world seriously on the world's terms.  On the assumption that the world knows, of itself, where it is and what it is.  But taking the world seriously really means not taking it seriously on its own terms.  That is, not accepting the supposed self-evidentness of the culture's reading of itself.  Taking the world seriously means interpreting the world from the conviction that it is only in the light of the gospel that the world becomes intelligible.  And if it's the task of practical theology to reflect on Christian practice it mustn't do so as if it served two masters: the gospel and the world.  And it mustn't do so for the simple reason that the gospel either determines everything or it determines nothing.  There are not two masters to be served.  The gospel bears to us the universal and exclusive Lordship of Jesus Christ and He admits no rivals.

Forget the phrase "Practical Theology".  How much of what passes for "evangelical theology" is really the service of two masters?  More than this, how much service of two masters is championed precisely as the evangelical way of doing theology?

5 thoughts on ““We do not serve two masters” John Webster on Discipleship

  1. Pingback: “We do not serve two masters” John Webster on Discipleship … | Gospel Feeds

  2. Dave K

    It was interesting how much resistance there was in the audience to what Webster was saying judging by the questions he got.

    I was also very struck by his comment that systematic theology and biblical theology didn't used to be separate, but the reason they are separate is because systematic theology is theology according to the philosophical method and biblical theology is theology according to the historical method. I appreciated how he said we should let the theological method be determined by the subject. So there is no 'practical theology', 'systematic theology' etc... bit like what you were arguing with the Atheists (ala TF Torrance)

  3. woldeyesus

    As a disciple, Simon Peter wished to serve three Masters, viz.: Jesus Christ, Moses and Elijah (Matt. 17: 1-5).

    We have, on the other hand, gone overboard with a multiplicity of teachers whose number defies counting but definitely excludes Jesus Christ.

  4. David

    I was just reading something very similar to this issue in Barth's 'Evangelical Theology in the 19th Century' (1957), in which he points out how theologians started to present Christianity in human terms by aligning it with various fashionable philosophies. The almost desperate need to show that Christianity was a rational religion from a human perspective meant that theologians shaped theology according to human concepts. He writes:

    'Man in the 19th Century might have taken the theologians more seriously if they themselves had not taken him [man] so seriously.'

    This had the opposite of the desired effect, he says, making theology seem more like an optional supplement in agreement with radical theories in fashion at the time. Where they went wrong he thinks is in defining themselves more by what they disagreed with than by the One in whom they believed; essentially, in not being Christocentric enough. I know it's not exactly the same as Glen's post, but it seems quite similar to me.

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