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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."
Popular American culture, with its increasing focus on the
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 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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