The “imitation of Christ” is an ancient and honorable goal in Christian literature and piety. Yet it can hardly be said to command allegiance in contemporary church life. This seems to result not so much from a willful intention of today’s churchman to abandon his heritage as from his membership in a generation whose theology has little or no place for imitating Christ.

This is true, despite appearances to the contrary, of the folk theology by which many are nurtured. On the surface, folk theology cordially endorses the imitation. But its endorsement carries neither conviction nor power, because it substitutes sentiment for understanding. And worse yet, even the sentimental power of the imitation is severely limited, since according to folk theology imitating Christ appeals or applies only to “saints”—a word that in this view refers not to all believers, as in the New Testament, but to especially religious persons. So the popular shrine of devotion to the imitation has upon closer inspection a sandy foundation and a hollow center.

Nor do matters stand otherwise in professional theology. To be sure, “in the steps of the Master” expressed a popular sentiment in the era of liberalism. But liberals were inclined to see in Jesus merely a model for proper gentlemen. Not surprisingly, therefore, when theologians reacted against this parody they over-reacted. Neo-orthodoxy exalted transcendence and the hiddenness of revelation. Complementing these themes, literary critics decried the search for knowledge of “the historical Jesus.” Finally, the form critics decreed such knowledge neither possible nor desirable, thus reducing the imitation to incomprehensible insignificance. ...

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