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Divine Attentiveness and Self Forgetfulness

May 27th, 2016 | 4 min read

By Guest Writer

The first memorial piece for Dr. John Webster comes from Joshua Malone, a former student of his.

Upon recollection, two qualities of the man, John Webster, stand out in my mind: a passion for our triune God and a forgetfulness of self. Before now, the co-inherence of these twin virtues in John never struck me (apologies to another John, John Calvin… they probably should have). In light of his passing, the connection now seems painfully obvious.

I came to Aberdeen to study with John Webster in 2008. Initially, things were rather tentative. I had been admitted to a one-year Master’s program, no doubt to see if I could cut it in postgraduate research (a wise move on the school’s part to be sure!). At the end of that year I was to be paired with a Master’s supervisor. That first year’s program was very fruitful (thanks to the patience and wisdom of Phil Ziegler, Don Wood, and Francesca Murphy), but the end game for me was to work with Professor Webster. We had talked about this as I arrived, and John informed me that when the time came either he would supervise me or they would find “another qualified supervisor.”  I bluntly told him I was there for him—such admiration clearly made him uncomfortable. Looking back, it was the beginning of what would become a wonderfully long pattern of foolishness, on my part, in search of wisdom (or, as it were, Wisdom).

John was largely characterized by such self-forgetfulness. At academic conferences students and scholars alike made a bee-line for him, yet he typically shrunk away as quickly as he could – sometimes not attending at all. Accolades came and he shrugged them off. He was genuinely taken aback when people expressed personal appreciation for him. One humorous anecdote of this involved a fellow student creating a Wiki page for him on his birthday.

After explaining to John what a Wiki page was, he responded with awkward thanks and genuine bewilderment. Initially I believed this to merely be an extreme introversion (which it certainly was), but now I realize there was hidden virtue. In John, there was a willful avoidance of reading his own press; a humility flowing from the gospel; a practiced forgetfulness of self.

During the end of my Master’s year, I was exploring topics for research and had produced some painfully bad ideas about the divine life. I offered them to John with blissful confidence. Thankfully, he had a knack for pinpointing the good in pile of rubbish. In his typical fashion, he suggested: “I wonder if the doctrine of eternal generation is a way to get at what you are interested in?” (Note: I had not mentioned this doctrine anywhere.) And to this he added: “Perhaps you could read Aquinas who has a great deal to say about this?” (Aquinas, too, was absent from my thought.) So, that was that. My Master’s, and eventually my doctoral, research trajectory was now set exploring the triune life – John’s great passion.

As I began to investigate, I started to read more of John’s own work – unsurprisingly, something he never encouraged. There was a delightful sameness to much of what he’d recently been writing: insisting one must explicate the ground of the matter at hand from God’s life in se, next positively describing each matter with reference to God’s being and action, and only then tracing a set of pathologies (most of which had substantially weakened in the light of the divine life) – rinse, repeat. Within this exploration, imagine my joy upon finding an unpublished essay he’d written on eternal generation (now published as “Eternal Generation” in God Without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology vol. 1: God and the Works of God)—my topic!

Immediately I was drawn into a candid moment—an experience I imagine many of us have had, particularly if we come from smaller places where we were pretty good at what we did (sports, or music, or school). It was that moment of coming face-to-face with someone else pursuing the same thing you are, and discovering they are inaccessibly better than you. Hubris aside, of course I knew John Webster was a brilliant theologian; I simply had not discovered how inadequate I was. It was in part crushing, because of my previous denial of my own mediocrity, and in part inspiring, because of the newfound recognition that so much more was possible. What’s more, when I talked to John about that essay he completely downplayed what he’d written, but he was clearly enamored by its object—God himself.

Encapsulated in those few memories are two qualities of the great man, John Webster, most transformative for me in our friendship. He was a man at once so riveted and moved by the God of the gospel that he was constantly taken aback and reformed anew. It dominated his thought and work. It shaped him in his research and writing. And it likely has guided a vast multitude of students and scholars, far beyond me. And from that unwavering divine attentiveness sprung forth a sanctified life of winsome self-forgetfulness: a Dokotorvater who modeled the divine generosity he’d received from Our Father, a servant of Christ the Son who considered others more important than himself, a Spirit-born man of peace that was magisterially calm in both description and disputation, and a deep sense that the theological vocation was a continual outworking of John the Baptist’s admonition: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30)  I’ll never forget what John taught me: Theology begins by forgetting yourself and beholding the God of the gospel.

Joshua Malone is an assistant professor of theology at Moody Bible Institute.