Keith Johnson: “Bonhoeffer and the End of the Christian Academy”

Keith Johnson, assistant professor of theology at Wheaton College, followed Ziegler’s presentation last Thursday with a discussion on the Christian academy (a network of professors, students, and staff dedicated to Christian higher education) through the lens of Bonhoeffer. While Bonhoeffer never participated in the Christian academy as Johnson defines it, his essay still sought to “translate” Bonhoeffer’s writings and experiences in order to see how he would answer the following question: what is the purpose or goal of the Christian academy. Johnson provided three answers (the first two points are foundational for the third, but all three, Johnson stated, are to be understood cumulatively):

(1)  The Christian academy must begin from the presupposition that the person and work of Jesus Christ intrinsically defines all created reality and human history.

In short, this means that reality and history are not the context in which we see Christ, but are both drawn into and held together by him. Anything that is real or knowable can only find its meaning in relation to Jesus. Therefore, reality and history cannot be defined prior to our consideration of Christ. The Christian academy must be Christ-centered in this way as it goes about studying the liberal arts and sciences.

(2) The Christian academy must see its own life and work as intrinsically connected to the life and work of the church.

How is the Christian academy related to the church? The church is the community that witnesses and proclaims Jesus as the foundation and center of all things, and the Christian academy confesses this as well. Both live for the sake of the world and view it through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

(3) The Christian academy exists in and for the church in order to help the church exist in and for the world. 

Here, the Christian academy must seek to encourage the church and hold it accountable to live for the sake of others rather than itself. Likewise, the Christian academy must live beyond itself and engage the ideas and views of the broader world of scholarship. This model of engaging the world is itself a model of the church’s proper relation to the world. The Christian academy, therefore, acts as a  double witness to both the world and the church. Both church and (Christian) academy will check itself to one another to ensure that each are emptying itself after the pattern of Christ and not seeking to be self-sufficient.

Johnson concluded that, in practice, this means that those in the Christian academy bring “the questions and experiences of their lives in the world back to the church to ask questions of the church.”  The church listens, accepting the challenges, and turns to Scripture and prayer to discern how to respond and engage the world. The Christian academy and the church, together, see and act in the world through the vision of Christ and his work. This, Johnson argues, is how Bonhoeffer would see the relationship between the two.

Johnson’s essay, including the others, will be published with IVP Academic. Keep an eye out.


About Jordan P. Barrett

PhD, Systematic Theology, Wheaton College
This entry was posted in Conferences, Wheaton College and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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