Discerning God’s Will

Author: Ben Campbell Johnson
Publisher: Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1990
View: Miscellaneous

The author appears to be less than evangelical, but has a strong appreciation of Scripture. Often his summary of biblical content is very helpful and accurate and “provide[s] criteria for us to discern the shape of God’s will for our lives” (44). On the other hand, Genesis 1-3 is still important whether it is history, legend or a story about the rise of consciousness (26-27). He leaves Scripture with the thought that sometimes we need to break one command to better fulfill another (118-120).

Scripture is one important source for Johnson, but he is gleaning from many authors, Jung, Maslow, etc. is idea that we sometimes should break God’s law to fulfill another command seems to come from a play, “The Rainmaker”. It gives the statement, “Noah, you’re so full of what’s right you can’t see what’s good.” (119). This is described as “a grace given that enables a person to break one commandment in order to keep another” (119). These examples are not the rule, but give an indication of his perspective.

For Johnson, God’s will seems to include wider terrain than guidance, and so we have an interesting chapter on the problem of evil (123-135). The dominating perspective is that of psychology. The will of God is the answer to our “search for meaning”. The most interesting chapters are very psychological in nature. From man’s creation in God’s image (53), he concludes that God’s will is written on our “souls”. So he takes chapters 4-7 to discuss the soul under the categories of intuition, imagination, and memory. For example, “Is it not becoming clear to us that the creative imagination has amazing power to construct meaning in our lives: that is, to provide concrete choices to actualize the will of God?” (92). The reader may find these chapters to be fascinating and/or psycho-babble with a theological twist.

The further he goes the more one senses that psychology has formed his ideas and he finds confirmation from Scripture. His interpretations are often solid, but at other times seem to read meaning into the text. I was troubled by his claim that Jesus is the will of God manifest. In one sense I can agree. But from this platform he concludes that anything true of Jesus, is also true of God’s will. Jesus goes to the woman at the well so the will of God is not found it comes to us. I suspect he could have come to the opposite conclusion from the chapter before when Nicodemus comes to Jesus. Then it would be that you must go by night and find the will of God.

Other examples include Jesus as the door to the sheepfold. When applied to God’s will, he says “When it opens the way into the future, it also provides closure on the past” (39). This sounds more like a modern counselor than Jesus. Jesus came to serve (Luke 22:27) so God’s will comes to us as a servant (40). This is mixing categories and picking and choosing from the mixture. He should have stuck to passages that claim to be speaking on the topic of God’s will. When he does this, he gives a very helpful summary (152-155).

At times the book seemed to be theology by anecdote/metaphor. And the metaphor might come from anywhere. He tells the “legend of the vanished temple” and seems to exegete it like a biblical parable (51-56). His stories make him a most engaging author and he has a Socratic flair. This later practice seemed to result in theology by leading questions. He would ask “Don’t you think that…?” “Is it possible that God has…?” Can we not dream that maybe our soul…?” Then several pages later we learn that this question is now an accepted premise on which to proceed.

Johnson draws from Scripture, but his inspiration seems to be psychology that draws from many sources. He will not fit my earlier categories given to books. He can sound like the traditional view on one page with his reading of inward impressions. On the next page, he can sound like the wisdom view with his concept of freedom in and need for discernment. But these similarities are superficial. Johnson is really outside of the mainstream of these evangelical models. He is a religious counselor trying to develop a theology of guidance with psychological categories. The result is very interesting and engaging, but not that helpful of a biblical guide for evangelicals.