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Jon Ruthven

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Jon Ruthven is a Professor of Systematic Theology at Regent University School of Divinity, Virginia Beach, Virginia.

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Articles > Charismatic Theology > The "Imitation of Christ" in Christian Tradition

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The "Imitation of Christ" in Christian Tradition: Its Missing Charismatic Emphasis

Jon Ruthven, PhD


While traditional theology and piety has long promoted an "imitation of Christ" motif among the faithful, the "imitation" seems restricted to piety and ethics. Interest in the imitation of Christ's miracles appears as a threat to traditional Christology, since Christ was understood to perform miracles as an expression or proof of his deity. The recent trend toward a more biblical "Spirit Christology" facilitates our thesis that a central NT theme in Jesus' ministry was that he presented himself not only as a unique sacrifice for sin and as an example of piety and ethics, but, quite centrally, as a normative exemplar of charismatic ministry for others to replicate. After Part I, a survey of traditional theology and developments in this area, Part II of this paper examines the NT and its contemporary traditions of mimesis and its semantic field, while Part III shows that the NT content of mimesis requires a remarkably detailed replication of Jesus' life and ministry, specifically including his ministry of "signs and wonders."

Part I

    Popular American culture, with its increasing focus on the spiritual,[1] has generated a minor fad among teenagers: a "WWJD?" ("What would Jesus Do?") bracelet, which, while bouncing on the wrists of video game players and entangling the TV remote, clicking in the Spice Girls on MTV, seeks to draw its wearers toward an "imitation of Christ."

The WWJD bracelet expresses this more or less continuous tradition throughout church history to replicate the life of Christ, the impulse having deep but somewhat selectively attended roots in the New Testament itself. The devotional classics ranging from St. Thomas à Kempis' Imitatio Christi to Charles Sheldon's In His Steps easily spring to mind as examples. But this notion of "following Jesus," "discipleship," or "spirituality" calls up a historically conditioned set of restrictions on how far that "imitation" may be applied. Traditionally, aside from minor movements in the radical reformation or from certain restorationist groups, we understand that a replication of Jesus' life is properly restricted to piety and ethics.

    Progress in biblical scholarship over two millennia has produced little movement on this front. A recent academic collection of essays, Patterns of Discipleship in the New Testament[2] continues this tradition without any serious consideration of extending "discipleship" to any other areas of emulating Jesus, particularly to the miraculous. "Discipleship remains limited to "piety and ethics," very much as is our present notion of "spiritual formation."

    Because, in traditional theology, Jesus' uniqueness as divine was accredited by miracles, few Christians seriously attempted to replicate that performance in Jesus' ministry. Within this framework, to attempt to perform miracles would represent an attempt to promote oneself as divine-an effort virtually as blasphemous as to claim one's own suffering and death to be redemptive for sin.

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