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A Conversation with Hans Bayer

Interview by Matthew Claridge–

Discipleship continues to be a benchmark concept for a variety of ministry philosophies. However, where many studies of discipleship approach the topic from either contemporary sociological models or diachronic studies across the New Testament corpus, Dr. Hans Bayer of Covenant Theological Seminary has dug down deep into one book of the New Testament and unfolded its distinctive contribution to the practice of Christian Discipleship. Dr. Bayer’s A Theology of Mark is a notable contribution to doing Biblical Theology for the sake of the Church. He recently sat down with us to answer a few questions about his book.

Discipleship has been a faddish word within church ministry literature for decades. What’s distinctive about your approach to discipleship in the context of Mark’s theology?

In an attempt to characterize discipleship in the Gospel of Mark, I argue that Jesus’ radical call to discipleship must be viewed in the context of God’s unfolding and eternal rule (heralding, e.g., the reversal of the fall and the culminating manifestation of redemptive history). Second, discipleship is not a set of rules but addresses the core of who we are as human beings.

An interesting aspect of your book is a dual focus on “truth questions” and “relevance questions.” That is, you first establish the historical credibility (i.e., genre and authorship) of Mark’s Gospel before considering its “relevance” to a 21st century audience. Why is this an important step in the development of your book’s thesis?

Having grown up and become a Christian in what now has turned out to be the last major period of modernism with its focus on truth-questions, I have slowly realized through engagement with Mark’s gospel, my family, and students, that contemporary questions of relevancy are equally important. I believe that we must carefully face both issues if we seek to be faithful witnesses of the gospel. Without addressing its truth claim, the message is, in the end, reduced to wishful thinking. Without addressing its relevancy, the truth claim may not sufficiently impact human life. I am indirectly challenging those who only advocate one or the other facet of Mark. I now consider that a false dichotomy.

You pose two questions that dominate the development of the theme of discipleship in Mark’s Gospel: “Who do you perceive yourself to be? Who do you perceive God to be?” Explain for us why these two questions are so crucial for your understanding of discipleship in Mark’s Gospel.

For many years I understood Jesus’ call to discipleship in Mark as a call to “be with him” and to “become like him.” Gradually it dawned on me that Jesus goes much deeper, in order to uncover the autonomous self-reliance of his disciples, both in term of their view of – and approach to – God and their view of themselves. According to Jesus, true discipleship builds on this deeper deconstruction. If we read Mark’s chapters four to eight carefully, we can trace this radical and unfolding deconstruction. Without it, discipleship is in danger of becoming formulaic.

You are careful to dissociate discipleship from being essentially a work of human effort and will-power in response to Jesus’ demands on the Christian life. How would you say the Gospel of Mark correctly links grace and responsibility in the area of Christian discipleship?

I believe the net result of the above-mentioned deconstruction of the disciples both in terms of their view of God and their assessment of themselves provides the foundation for the answer to your good question. If the disciples are indeed exposed to their master’s radical diagnosis of who they really are in God’s eyes, what merit do they have in their redemptive reconstruction? In other words, if they are so dependent on Jesus to discover who they really are and who God really is, how can they boast in anything but the merciful and reconciling work of their Lord as the only therapy for that radical diagnosis?

In the wake of the atoning and transformative impact of Jesus on our lives, a wonderful responsibility arises: we must come to a growing agreement with Jesus’ radical assessment of ourselves (repentance from self-reliance), and increasingly embrace the atonement and lordship of Christ as absolutely life-necessary. As we experience such unmerited love and mercy despite our profound alienation from God, a deep longing is unleashed in our hearts towards godliness, which Christ, mediated through the Holy Spirit, exemplifies, teaches, and facilitates in – and among – his disciples. It has all been provided and needs only to be appropriated in humble prayer, issuing in obedience.

A perennial debate in certain sectors of evangelicalism is whether “discipleship” is optional for the Christian who wants to go the extra mile in his spiritual walk with Christ. What’s your perspective on this issue in light of your research on the theology of Mark?

As far as I understand the message of Mark in the context of the Old and New Testament, discipleship is THE way of living and growing as Christians. We are called to become and to make disciples, rather than to be mere converts. In the context of redemptive history, this makes eminent sense: the triune God always seeks and pursues a real, covenant people according to his own heart; a people of thoughtful and heartfelt worship, of increasingly purified hearts, of growing godliness in all areas of personal and public life; a people which progressively reflects the astounding reversal of the fall through his redemptive work, culminating in Christ.

In a central chapter of your book, you develop what you call the “eight core characteristics for all disciples.” Could you explain how these characteristics fit into your overall thesis of Markan discipleship and briefly summarize them for us?

The eight core characteristics of discipleship in Mark organically arise from the deconstruction and reconstruction of the disciples under the influence of Jesus. Christ exemplifies, teaches, and facilitates these Kingdom characteristics. At one point in my research I asked a very simple question: where, in Mark, do we find general discipleship statements, which apply not only to Christ’s original disciples but to “anyone” or “everyone”? Eight characteristics arose. They include: 1. Surrender, namely that disposition of heart and mind which yields unconditionally and radically all autonomy and self-centeredness to the triune God. 2. Obedient trust, namely that disposition of heart and mind which puts “full weight” on God as known through his Word, in word and deed. 3. Prayer, namely that disposition of heart and mind which turns to God in spoken and unspoken worship, intercession, and the childlike cry for help.  4. Watching over our hearts, namely a focus on Christ with a peripheral watch over that which stirs in our hearts in terms of idolatry and impurity. A constant prayer-repentance-and-surrender cycle ensues. 5. Humility, namely that disposition of the heart and mind, whereby we seek to serve others “from below.” 6. Forgiveness, namely that undeserved gift of God which we pass on to others. 7. Perseverance in temptation and persecution, namely that God-given disposition, whereby we are so filled with the love of God in Christ that we can stand faithful in trial and temptation. 8. Courageous confession of Christ, namely that holistic, life-and-word witness which allows us to live as “living letters” of Christ, individually and corporately.

While these characteristics do not exhaust the fruit of Christ’s impact in our lives, they constitute foundational characteristics of Christ’s eternal kingdom and the people of God.

In discussing what discipleship-making looks like today, you use the term, “discipleship reciprocity.” Could you unpack that term for us?

Gradually, I noticed that discipleship in Mark and in the rest of the New Testament contains a built in “give-and-take” characteristic. That characteristic arises in any community of faith where the individual is growing in relationship with others. This is the sociological setting of Jesus and the twelve. Rather than view discipleship as a unilateral process of “I teach and lead, while you learn and follow,” I found that Peter, e.g., learns as much about the extent of the reach of the gospel in Acts 10 as Cornelius finds faith in Christ.

In a section on “surrender to God’s will” and your interesting appendix interacting with Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship, you draw a contrast between “self-denial” and “self-abasement.” What’s the issue you are trying to expose here?

Jesus’ call to “deny yourself” has often been misunderstood as a call to self-rejection or self-abasement. The problem with self-rejection and self-abasement is, however, that the well-meaning follower of Christ is still in full control of him- or herself, a notion directly challenged by Jesus. In Christ’s teaching, “self-denial” means surrender of autonomy and control, a yielding to Christ, his ways, his impact, his will. This is biblically responsible, spiritually true, and psychologically healthy. I suggest that Jesus’ call to “deny ourselves” even includes an aspect of treating ourselves as God-loved image bearers without ever (re-)lapsing into narcissism, from which Christ saves us in his substitutionary atonement.

Hans F. Bayer (Ph.D., the University of Aberdeen) is Professor of New Testament and Chair of the New Testament Department of Covenant Theological Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri.


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