The second piece in our series on Remembering John Webster is by my friend Matt Crutchmer.
One of the more treasured bits of inheritance I’ve received is my mother’s old Book of Common Prayer, given and inscribed to her “Whitsunday, 1964” at age 12. A prayer for “Visitation of the Sick”:
O LORD, look down from heaven, behold, visit, and relieve this thy servant. Look upon him with the eyes of thy mercy, give him comfort and sure confidence in thee, defend him from the danger of the enemy, and keep him in perpetual peace and safety; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The density, clarity, peace, and even rhythm of this prayer from Archbishop Cranmer combine to teach and comfort both hearer and speaker. It is these same traits that the theology of John Webster exhibited, and is why you should read his work.
I came to Webster’s theology accidentally in 2009, by searching for .mp3 lectures and sermons to fill the hours of summertime driving. What I providentially discovered were his 2007 Kantzer Lectures in Revealed Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, entitled “Perfection and Presence.” To say that I was immediately blown away would be overstatement (and a measure of pride); it took multiple listens through those six lectures to begin to understand what he was saying. One big thing clicked and stuck: that if God is who the Bible says He is, everything in our theological thinking has to account for that.
Through those lectures, and the books and essays of Webster’s I’ve read since, God has reordered the major elements of my theological thinking. And that verb “re-ordered” is key. Webster’s patient exposition of any doctrine happens materially according to the “order of being”: that since the only uncaused, independent, from-Himself being in existence is God, then everything else is logically consequent to Him. Thus, to talk about (say) discipleship requires us to first talk about the Triune perfections of the God who bids us repent and believe in the Gospel. There simply is no other world in which we think about God than this one. It is the world that God needlessly willed by His loving good pleasure, the world made as the realm for our joyous fellowship with God, the world in which we come to know the God who gives life and New Life by His Son and Spirit to us obstinate, fallen creatures.
His writing is dense and difficult, but clear and majestic once you get it. From “Love is also a lover of life”:
Knowledge of God the creator and his act of creation, and of the constitutive significance of God and his act for created things, arises not by the spontaneous exercise of intelligence but by the operation of ‘the Holy Spirit, handing down the discipline of truth.’ This being so, consideration of the topic of creation out of nothing carries with it the requirement that we be in the process of becoming certain kinds of persons. This is because being caught up in the Spirit’s pedagogy is an aspect of sanctification.… The core of Christian teaching about creation out of nothing is not cosmology or philosophy of nature or anthropology, but the Holy Trinity’s perfection and benevolence.
Or, more poetically, from an essay on justification:
What we are, we are in God; and what we are in God, we are. (emphasis original)
It is this characteristic depth and insight that Webster consistently brought to us readers.
It is not only what he thinks that makes Webster great, it is how he works as a theologian that makes him great.
Webster noted in his introductory essay to the Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth that with the publication of the first part-volume of his Church Dogmatics, there was a change in Barth’s writing, a new “calm and unapologetic confidence” and “absence of crisis” that his study of Anselm lent him. Webster seems to have experienced a similar shift: toward a confident serenity, away from polemics, concern with the glory of God and the heart of the theologian. He showed the confidence of a craftsman who knows he’s working wisely, despite others’ opinions, in his introduction to Holy Scripture. Fittingly, this is also what John Webster’s work has done for me.
He displayed a joy in his work that wasn’t accompanied by pompous self-importance. For Webster, and because of this, now for me, “dogmatics is that delightful activity in which the Church praises God by ordering its thinking towards the gospel of Christ.” Systematic theology is a delight because it is one of the many ways—but my own favorite way!—God’s people worship and praise Father, Son, and Spirit.
What you will read this week in the many remembrances of Webster will consistently highlight his humility. Since I did not know him personally, I can only add that this fruit was evident in his writing and speaking, of course, but also in the few bits of correspondence I had with him. He always replied promptly, thoughtfully, and respectfully, as if he had time and energy to help a silly (but hopeful) American missionary-/professor-/PhD-student-to-be with some pressing question. He even did the same for my students who felt free to contact him. No one who is busy building a reputation, a ministry, or (God help us) a brand would do such a thing. To Webster, as he said in an interview, “There are no ordinary Christians, there are saints…”
It seems that a large measure of the grief we feel at a loved one’s death is loss, regret: because she is no longer here to share, to be shared, because we are now less than we were before with many possibilities cut off before their end. We think: What of his commentary on Ephesians? What of his promised five-volume systematics? What might have been? For us, today we have a sense of great loss. For John Webster, however, today was gain.
God, in his providential goodness, has acted thus. We do not understand why, exactly. But by His grace, we trust Him. “Without knowing our future course, faith in providence confesses that God orders our time.” And this “belief is learned, not given all at once. No small part of the office of dogma is to assist in that learning of the promises of God, describing them well and letting their goodness fill our sails.” May he rest in peace, the peace which God himself is, to which he repeatedly pointed us.
Matt Crutchmer is an Instructor of Christian Theology at Bethlehem College and Seminary.