Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Ernest Best on What It Means to Be a Disciple


Last week, while perusing the blog of Nijay K. Gupta, I was reminded once again of the groundbreaking work by the late Ernest "Paddy" Best (d. 2004) on Mark and discipleship that I had first discovered in my own doctoral studies back in the 1980s. Best, a native of Belfast, was one of a number of British New Testament scholars of a previous generation (along with C. F. D. Moule, F. F. Bruce, C. K. Barrett, and George Bradford Caird, among others) who brought vast, almost unimaginable knowledge of ancient Greek language, history, and literature to bear on their interpretation of the New Testament, bringing a much-needed moderating influence to a discipline then dominated by the German heirs of Rudolf Bultmann. Best also was the original Doktorvater for my own thesis adviser, John Grassmick, when he pursued his own Ph.D. at Glasgow in the late 1970s.

I met Best just once, in January of 1988, when he gave a lecture at Dallas Seminary where I was then a Greek instructor. At the time he was working on his magisterial ICC volume on Ephesians, which remains, along with the volume by my own teacher Harold Hoehner, my go-to text when studying that most fascinating of letters. But it was his work on Mark's Gospel that has made its greatest impact. Particularly significant was an article, "Discipleship in Mark: Mark 8.22-10.52," that first appeared in the 1970 volume of the Scottish Journal of Theology, and was subsequently published in 1986 by T. & T. Clark in a collection of essays entitled Disciples and Discipleship: Studies in the Gospel of Mark.

In the strict dispensationalist circles in which I was raised, Mark's Gospel, though almost certainly the first to have been written, took a back seat—some might say the rumble seat—to the later Matthew, whose teachings lent themselves more easily to the movement's theological predilections. Even more significantly, however, classic dispensationalism, by assigning Jesus' teaching to "Israel" and not the church, thereby marginalized the ongoing significance of the Gospels for the life of the church outside, of course, of apologetic concerns vis-à-vis Christ's person and work. [This was brought forcefully to my developing theological attention when, in my Masters degree studies, my teacher John Martin's view that the Sermon on the Mount's "ethic" was directly applicable to the church was considered by some to be "controversial" (!)] 

Best, as a good (though moderately liberal) Scots-Irish Presbyterian, would of course have nothing to do with such ideas. The Gospel was, after all, written by a churchman for the church, and colored his presentation of the life of Jesus accordingly. And nowhere does this become more significant than in the highly artistic central section of Mark's Gospel, which Best rightly sees as beginning, not at 8:27, but at 8:22, with the symbolically-significant ("metaphorical") two stage healing of the blind man at Bethsaida. "Everything" in this section,  Best correctly avers, "relates either to the meaning of the Christ or to discipleship" (Disciples and Discipleship, 2). Indeed, discipleship is intimately connected with the pattern of service manifested by the Christ who would attain his kingship through suffering and consequent exaltation. And being a "disciple" of such a Messiah is to be a person who is called actively to follow Jesus in the very "way" he went in his inexorable path to the cross.

I encourage you to find this article if you can, for it is a model of literarily- and theologically-sensitive analysis and spot-on in its definition of what discipleshipand hence being a "Christian"entails. Jesus himself said, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it" (Mark 8:34-35). The stakes, as one can see, are very serious. Jesus' call, as Best rightly points out, to the dismay of certain evangelical circles, "is not one to accept a certain system of teaching (and) live by it" (7). Moreover, the call to "deny oneself" "is not a call to deny things to oneself, which is the popular meaning of self-denial and which leads to asceticism and self-mortification; it is the call to the denial of the self itself. The opposite is for a man to affirm himself, to put a value on himself or on his position before God or his fellows, to claim his rights, not just as someone with special rights, but the very right of being a human being" (8). 

What, then, does it mean to be a disciple of the Jesus who went to the cross to be a ransom for many (Mark 10:45)? Best's conclusion cannot be bettered:
It means to drop in behind him, to be ready to go to the cross as he did, to write oneself off in terms of any kind of importance, privilege or right, and to spend one's time only in the service of the needs of others (13).

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