For a Christian it is enough to believe that the cause of created things, whether in heaven or on earth, visible or invisible, is nothing other than the goodness of the creator who is the one true God, and that there is nothing that is not either himself or from him, and that he is a Trinity…
—St. Augustine, Enchiridion on Faith, Hope, and Love
The chief aim of sacred doctrine is to teach the knowledge of God, not only as he is in himself, but also as he is the beginning of things and their last end…
—St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica
God is. This is the simple statement which we have to develop and explain… In so doing we confront the hardest and at the same time the most extensive task of church dogmatics…
—Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics
When John Webster passed away suddenly a little over two years ago, much of the world failed to notice. On the one hand, this is a reflection of the low esteem in which intellectual work in general and theological thought in particular are held today. On the other hand, it is supremely fitting to the man. As John Calvin asked to be buried in an unmarked grave, John Webster sought throughout his career to keep a low profile; to make his personality and biography as invisible as possible, the better to approximate transparency to his subject matter. To be remembered means—sometimes—for someone or something else to be forgotten. Following the Baptist, Webster desired instead to decrease, that another might increase.
That other, that someone or something else, that subject matter that so consumed the life and mind of John Webster is at once simple and impossible to say: God. Webster devoted all that he was and had, the entirety of his mental energies (and then some), to seeking, contemplating, and articulating the one true and living God of Christian confession. There is not one word in his prolific writings untouched by the undimmed majesty of the Holy Trinity. His high calling was theology, which, as he reminded his readers time and again, treats of that most comprehensive of topics: God and all things in God. That this task bears little of the worldly pomp it once did meant nothing to him. One does not endeavor to understand divine things for the sake of earthly recognition. Theology may be the one intellectual practice that actually is its own reward: the one inquiry whose object provides satisfaction to the mind that undertakes it. The knowledge of God repays study without end.
When Webster died, much of the world may have failed to notice, but some of it did. Those of us who knew and followed his work learned the news with heavy hearts. At the time of his passing, Webster was one of a small number of Anglophone theologians with towering international reputations: Sarah Coakley, James Cone, Stanley Hauerwas, Robert Jenson, John Milbank, Oliver O’Donovan, Kathryn Tanner, Miroslav Volf, Rowan Williams. Jenson and Cone have since passed, and Hauerwas and O’Donovan are both retired. The rest are under 70 years old, and had Webster lived, he would now be only 63. While these other thinkers have either already written their master works or are in process of doing so, Webster was at the outset of a planned 5-volume systematic theology. Those of us who mourn him, mourn the loss of that too, which it is not unreasonable to suppose would have shaped the field in powerful and unexpected ways.
Fortunately, Webster left us with what still amounts to a treasure trove of brilliant theological writings: more than a dozen books, plus essays, articles, and reviews in the hundreds. Many theological scholars from the last generation or two talk about the work of Hauerwas as a kind of gateway drug into the world of Christian ethics. I have heard similar stories from peers about Webster; reading him meant being introduced to systematic theology for the first time, even if one had read theology before. For contemporary theology simply is not written the way Webster wrote. It is almost as if the subject is more than an academic discipline; almost as if it is alive…
In what follows I would like to introduce the theology of John Webster to those who have not yet had the pleasure. It is but the proverbial tip of the iceberg, naturally. Not only is there much more where it came from; as Webster would want to insist, what you catch merely a glimpse of here can be had in full far beyond his relatively manageable oeuvre: in the liturgy, in the Great Tradition, in Holy Scripture. The knowledge of God repays study, but the knowledge of God is not like knowledge of Wittgenstein or ancient Rome or quantum mechanics. It is not dead or inert or at one’s disposal; it is nothing without the real article.
Before turning to the real article, though, let me begin with Webster’s biography (after all, we still study Calvin’s life even if he meant us not to). I will then take up some paired themes in his work: Trinity and creation, Christ and salvation, Scripture and church. My aim will be to exposit and explain for clarity’s sake, while relying on Webster’s own words as much as possible, so as to give a sense of his style and voice as well as to let him speak for himself, lest I misrepresent his thought. It is the unvarying condition of theological commentary to stack up unachieved transparencies, one layer upon another.
An Accidental Theologian
The first thing to say of Webster’s biography is that it is found in almost nothing that he wrote. For those of us who did not know him personally, then, his background and personal life were almost entirely unknown. This remained true in the 35-odd years of his career, one marked, at least from the outside, by no controversies and few polemics or irritable replies in journal exchanges. Perhaps the most paradoxical feature of Webster’s work was the way in which it was simultaneously deeply antagonistic to any number of prominent modern and postmodern trends without, as it were, raising a ruckus. At different points in Webster’s career one could sense the deep Barthian Nein! animating his arguments, all the while avoiding the rhetoric, aggression, and enemy-making so typical of Barth and those of similar temperament. At its best, Webster’s work bears the mark of a serene cheerfulness, marked neither by defensiveness nor by despair about a world (and at times a church) heading in the wrong direction; such a posture was for Webster possible as well as rational for one reason and one reason alone: the head of the church is Lord over history. If God is for us, who can be against us?
Thus, as I said above, Webster sought to be as unnoticeable and unshowy a witness as possible to the self-revealing God. But like all thinkers he belonged to a context, one that showed in his writings, and so one worth attending to. Webster was born on June 20, 1955, in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire. He describes the faith of his teens as a “conversion from watery suburban Methodism into a tough version of Calvinistic Christianity.” Ordained to the priesthood one year before his 30th birthday, he remained in the Church of England for the rest of his life. But that came later: First he studied language and literature and went to Cambridge in the late 1970s to pursue English, though he was quickly disabused of his interest. He turned, to his own surprise, to dogmatics: “Humanly speaking, I became a theologian largely by accident.”
His training was largely devoid of dogmatics but focused on methodological matters wedded to doctrinal criticism, that is, undertaking the theological task as the treatment of problems raised in light of normative modern concerns. He looked back on this training and on his own early work as “lack[ing] the right sort of clarity, focus and coherence that can only be derived from a sense of the vocation of theological work.” Clarity came after a move from a theological college in England to the Toronto School of Theology in 1986, where Webster “began to find my way out of doctrinal criticism, to realize that its scruples were in large measure misplaced, and so to rediscover that positive Christian dogmatics is a wise, edifying and joyful science.” The clinching factor in this rediscovery was the “remarkably emancipating decision to teach confessionally,” a decision that informed his subsequent writing as well. “I resolved to work on the assumption of the truthfulness and helpfulness of the Christian confession, and not to devote too much time and energy developing arguments in its favor or responses to its critical denials.” Indeed, that statement encapsulates the mood and mode of Webster’s theology from the early 1990s up through his final works.
Webster’s oeuvre can be divided into four periods, marked by three noteworthy shifts. The first period was the one just discussed, following his doctoral studies; though he later felt this time to be marked by unclarity and lack of focus, he nevertheless did a good deal of work introducing the English-speaking theological world to Eberhard Jüngel, including a book-length treatment of his theology.
The second period was his time in Toronto; there, with help from his Jesuit colleague George Schner, he overcame what he felt to be the constrictions of his training and seized upon the positive dogmatic task. Part of what led him out of his dogmatic slumber (to repurpose a phrase) was study of Karl Barth, “the grand old man of Basel.” During the 1990s Webster established himself as a major interpreter of Barth, mentioned alongside such scholars as George Hunsinger and Bruce McCormack. Webster brought attention to a number of overlooked features of Barth’s theology, particularly its Reformed character, its ethical focus, and its emphasis on human action and creaturely agency. He also insisted on reading Barth as a whole (not just the Römerbrief, not just the doctrine of revelation), as consistent thematically and consistently biblical, and most of all as the church theologian he was—not, that is, as a critic of liberalism or cultural polemicist or harbinger of postmodernism or whatever. These labors bore fruit in a number of significant essays and books as well as The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, which he edited. As recently as 1998 Webster wrote that reception of Barth was still in its infancy; he saw his work as ground-clearing and generative, making possible fuller, more comprehensive, and more sophisticated reception in the future. In that, it is already clear he succeeded.
In 1996 Webster succeeded Rowan Williams as Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Oxford. Around this time, alongside his continued interest in Barth, Webster began to publish substantial constructive articles and essays on a handful of classical doctrinal topics: Scripture, Christ, and church, most of all. The authorial voice of these texts—eventually collected in 2001’s Word and Church and 2005’s Confessing God—is confident, confessional, and compelling. The content is Reformed in a Barthian vein, with a command of contemporary and modern thought, theological and otherwise. Here was Webster the dogmatician, addressing himself to the major issues of Christian theology with 15 years behind him of learning at the feet of the masters.
In one sense this period continued till the end, but an important shift in his thought occurred sometime in the two decades following (during which time he moved from Oxford to Aberdeen, where he taught from 2003 to 2013, then moved again to St. Andrews, where he taught till his death). In his 2012 collection, The Domain of the Word, he describes it this way:
Readers of earlier volumes of essays (if such there be) may notice some changes of emphasis and idiom in the present collection: more consideration is paid to patristic and medieval authors and to their heirs in post-Reformation scholastic theology, and more is expected of the theology of the creation and of the Spirit. Perhaps most of all, I have found my attention arrested by the preponderance of God’s infinitely deep, fully realized life in giving an account of the substance of Christian faith, particularly as it touches upon the relations of God and creatures: God is altissima causa totius universi.
The Latin comes from the Summa Theologica, nicely symbolizing the change in view. This is marked visibly in Webster’s writings over the last decade by the decreasing presence of Barth—by citation and by material influence—and the increasing presence of St. Thomas Aquinas, along with other representatives of the catholic and scholastic traditions. As Tyler Wittman observes:
This was a conscious undertaking, since [Webster] was trying to find his way out from under Barth’s shadow as well as find resources to address what he found wanting in Barth: an unwarranted nervousness about creaturely mediation that manifested itself in an insufficient doctrine of baptism and biblical inspiration, a lack of specificity about moral instruction, and, above all, the underdeveloped doctrine of creation that he thought was the source of these shortcomings (among other things). What he thought Barth lacked, [Webster] found in rich supply in the patristic and scholastic traditions: a doctrine of creation, some ministerial metaphysics, a robust account of the divine names and attributes, and the Christology these elements enabled.
It is notable that Webster rarely criticized Barth in print; this was no dogmatic patricide, throwing off the yoke of the outgrown teacher. It was the modest but real recognition that Barth’s theology was not spotless; that some of his innovations were unnecessary, some of his rejections too speedy; that, perhaps most damningly for the Barthian to admit, Barth was not the means of theology’s deliverance from modernity’s strait-jacket.
That Webster died with his systematic theology yet unwritten, not to mention other manuscripts and book contracts (including a commentary on Ephesians, the work I had personally been anticipating most), means we will not see the fruition of this post-Barthian turn to St. Thomas, St. Augustine, and the Protestant scholastics. It may have proved to be epochal: to chart a new path, to reshape the field in some way. We will never know. Likely it would have come and gone more quietly than many of us would have wished, with less fanfare than it deserved. What he left us is more than enough, in any case.
Trinity and Creation
Although Webster devoted himself to a number of major doctrinal topics, the one overriding locus was the doctrine of God, or theology proper. (For that reason I have elsewhere termed Webster “a theologian proper.”) This intensity of focus was both positive and polemical: positive, because God is the principal matter (theos) of this particular discourse (logos); polemical, because God has all too often been exchanged in modern theology for more manageable items of interest, usually of a social-historical character: people, events, texts, institutions—phenomena apparently being more patient of analysis than noumena. Such diverted attention is only one of modern theology’s many pathologies, per Webster. More to the point, God must take priority within the dogmatic system because the various doctrines, as objects of thought, ought to reflect their source in reality: creation, church, Scripture, sacraments, and so on have their being and end in God, and without specification of the latter, there can be no theologically substantive discussion of the former.
As Webster writes:
Christian theology is a work of regenerate intelligence, awakened and illuminated by divine instruction to consider a twofold object. This object is, first, God in himself in the unsurpassable perfection of his inner being and work as Father, Son and Spirit and in his outer operations, and, second and by derivation, all other things relative to him. Christian divinity is characterized both by the scope of its matter—it aims at a comprehensive treatment of God and creatures—and by the material order of that treatment, in which theology proper precedes and governs economy. All things have their origin in a single transcendent animating source; a system of theology is so to be arranged that the source, the process of derivation and the derivatives may in due order become objects of contemplative and practical attention.
There is much to unpack here. Theology, far from an ostensibly neutral intellectual activity like geology or chemistry or even academic philosophy, is a work of the baptized mind: it is what human beings do after God has remade them by Christ’s Spirit. As he writes elsewhere, theology is “that delightful activity in which the church praises God by ordering its thinking towards the gospel of Christ.” Indeed, as “the scientia of what faith knows and desires,” theology is a work of and for faith, which is God’s gift; it is joyful, moreover, because it is an act of praise to the gift’s giver; and it is intellectual, because it is an exercise of reason brought up short by the ineffable reality of the living God. Reason—created, fallen, redeemed—is unable of itself to say one intelligible word about God, had God not deigned, in love, to reveal himself, providing words sufficient to go on.
In the work of theology itself, then, God is first and last. God initiates, accompanies, and concludes the undertaking. Theology is not bold, assertive, curious, creative—at least not in this sense. It consists in listening. It falls under the divine pedagogy. God is the teacher, the theologian a lifelong learner. With good reason does the church not designate someone a doctor until after her death. In this life there is no graduating the school of Christ.
Theologians are not speculative philosophers, probing possible gods in possible universes: “Christian dogmatics is not concerned with deity but with God.” This has a number of implications. The first is but a conceptual expansion upon the Psalmist’s question: “who is God but the Lord?” (18:31). The only God in question for theology is the particular Lord attested by Scripture and confessed by the church: God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, revealed in Exodus and Sinai, Golgotha and Pentecost; of all things the creator, sustainer, reconciler, and redeemer. From nothing this God, the undivided and omnipotent Trinity, made everything that is, has been, or will be. So that, in turn, anything at all that exists is not God but is good; which is to say, it has God as its infinitely beneficent source and end at every moment of its existence.
Why should God make what is not God? Does the existence of what is other than God make up some lack in God? Not at all. God, uniquely, is a se: God has neither arche nor telos other than himself. He is “the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Rev 22:13). This aseity is the supreme perfection of God’s triune life, an eternal plenitude of bliss from which nothing can be taken and to which nothing can be added. “The triune God is one simple indivisible essence in an irreducible threefold personal modification”; “the Holy Trinity is perfect blessedness in himself in the absence of creatures.” Unlike us, God does not create out of need or codependency. God creates out of sheer gratuity. God is love, and God’s love makes creatures be that did not have to be, that have no reason to be other than God’s good pleasure that they be. This generosity is beyond reciprocity, being pure grace. Which means that “God’s impassibility in relation to creation, far from being indifference, is an affirmation that the world has value in itself, not as a necessary counterpart to an otherwise deficient being.”
We know this from God’s works, revealed to us in the economy of salvation. Theology’s chief task is to trace these works to the source; rather than remaining at the level of the historical, Webster appeals to the premodern tradition to argue that if we do not move to God’s life in se, to the immanent Trinity, we risk building our house on sand, as it were. That is why theology—unfashionable in modern academic environs as ever—is properly understood as contemplative: “because it attends to divine instruction, freeing itself from distraction in order to be absorbed by the limitless depth of that by which intelligence is met.” For contemplation “requires the mind to move through created things to the divine reality of whose self-communication they are signs and bearers. Contemplation is rapt attention to God the cause of all things rather than to the things of which he is the cause.”
This is also why even exegesis of Holy Scripture must attend to more than the text, to what Barth calls the text’s Sache, the reality signified by the words rather than the words alone, lest reading the Bible be reduced to a merely natural endeavor (as it has been in too many seminaries and schools of theology). And that is why, too, although theology “is a comprehensive science, a science of everything…it is not a science of everything about everything, but rather a science of God and all other things under the aspect of createdness.” As for what “createdness” might mean, Webster offers what he calls “a fundamental rule in theological anthropology,” namely that “creaturely being is and is available to be known and lived out only within the grace of God’s relation to us.” The dignity of creatures, human and otherwise, is a function of this relation, and this relation alone.
So far the material order of systematic theology, and its attention to the identity of the creator and the nature of creatures. What of God’s other works and similar derivative loci?
Christ and Salvation
Christology is the heart of modern theology. From Schleiermacher and Ritschl to Barth and Bultmann to Moltmann and Jenson, systematic theology in the last two centuries has been, or has made it an ideal to be, “christocentric.” And there are times, in Webster’s earlier work, when he seems to follow his erstwhile master in this. In his mature thought, however, christology, while crucial to the theological task, neither absorbs nor exhausts it.
In Webster’s view, as we have seen, another doctrine dominates dogmatics: “The ruler and judge over all other Christian doctrines is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.” Why? Answer: “The doctrine of the Trinity is not one doctrine among others; it is foundational and pervasive. To expound any Christian doctrine is to expound with varying degrees of directness the doctrine of the Trinity; to expound the doctrine of the Trinity in its full scope is to expound the entirety of Christian dogmatics.” More succinctly: “All other Christian doctrines are applications or corollaries of the one doctrine, the doctrine of the Trinity.” Most succinct of all: “In one sense, there is only one Christian doctrine, the doctrine of the triune God.”
This is not to deny “that each element of Christian teaching bears some relation to Christology.” A well-ordered systematics, however, “considers Christology, not as in and of itself the basis, center or starting-point of everything else, but rather as a principal part of Christian teaching having wide dispersal across the doctrinal corpus by virtue of the fact that it is an integral element of the doctrine of the Trinity.” So that “it is not Christology per se but a doctrine of God’s triune being and his inner and outer works (including the godhead of the Son and his works in time) which occupies the preeminent and commanding place in Christian teaching.” Yet because of modern theology’s disproportionate preoccupation with the economic and historical—phenomena whose supposed density outweighs that of the invisible, immaterial God—“systematic theology must specify with some scruple the sense in which God is the formal object of each Christian doctrine, Christology included.” In other words, the principle that created signs should be traced back to their uncreated source applies even, or perhaps especially, with reference to the person and work of Jesus Christ. As Webster writes:
Far from abstracting from the history of the economy, theological talk of relations of origin [within the triune Godhead] is a way of articulating the infinite depth within the being of God, that ocean whose tide is the missions of the Son and Spirit by which lost creatures are redeemed and perfected. …The only historical Jesus there is is the one who has his being in union with the Son of God who is eternally begotten of the Father. Those who pore over the gospels searching for another Jesus (whether their motives be apologetic or critical) pierce their hearts with many pangs, for they study a matter which does not exist.”
As he says elsewhere, “There is no human history of Jesus in se, in abstraction from its enhypostatic relation to the divine Word; the only history of Jesus which there is is the history of the God-man. Jesus’s history is the Son’s mission in the world…[There is no Jesus apart from the eternal Son]; there is only the human Jesus whose coming is the descent to us of the ‘very majesty of God.’ ”
The advent of Jesus is the fulcrum of the cosmos, time’s hinge and unexpected twist, and therefore it is unique and absolutely disanalogous with other human affairs tout court. Yet it is not a sheer novum, a bolt of lightning in an otherwise clear sky, divine visitation without precedent or anticipation. Jesus came to Israel, God’s chosen people, as its servant and Messiah, the consummation of the story begun centuries prior with Abraham and Moses. God did not begin working in Jesus; or better put, God’s work in Jesus began long before the Annunciation. Jesus is the climax, but neither the commencement nor the conclusion, of God’s work in the world.
For Webster, accordingly, the history of Jesus is an episode in the larger history of God’s fellowship with human beings. Webster summarizes and narrates this history repeatedly, often in conceptually abstract form, such as the following:
This history is the long, complex, yet unified movement of God’s giving, sustaining, and consummating created life. Created reality is as it participates in this history with God. It is a history with three principal moments, which correspond to the three great external divine works. There is, first, the moment of creation; God the Father, maker of heaven and earth, brings creatures into being out of nothing and bestows on them their several natures. To human creatures he gives a nature which is not fully formed, one which unfolds over time, which is enacted. There is, second, the moment of reconciliation. Human creatures reject the vocation that their given nature entails, and seek to be what they are not: self-originating, self-sustaining, self-perfecting. Yet such is the goodness of the creator that creatures are not permitted to ruin themselves. God destines the creature for perfection, and God is not hindered. In the history of covenant grace, at whose center lies the incarnation of the Word and which embraces creatures now in the Spirit’s quickening power, God arrests the creature’s plunge into destruction and turns the creature back to himself. And so there is, third, the moment of consummation, inaugurated but awaiting completion, in which the creator ensures that creatures attain their perfection. All created reality is caught up in and determined by this history.
Webster’s account of Christ’s work to save lost creatures is quite traditional, located as it is in the Reformed tradition (with nods to patristic and Thomistic sources as well). “The end of the Son’s temporal mission is to restore righteous fellowship between God and lost creatures. Reconciliation is effected and righteous relations are restored in his person and work, that is, in what he does as the one he is.” Webster follows the biblical narrative and idiom with calm confidence. Christ is the sovereign eternal Word of God become flesh to save sinners: to reconcile them to God; to restore fellowship with himself and one another; to forgive their sins; to set them right before divine justice; to satisfy divine wrath; to incorporate them into God’s people; to impart to them eternal life; to make them holy; to purify them of all faults through a true and perfect sacrifice; to triumph over the devil and all his works; to put death to death; to chart a path to heaven at God’s right hand; to make them children of God the Father through the gift of the Holy Spirit: all this and more, Christ came to do and did, as the one work of his person, the incarnate Son.
In short, “Christ is the sum and substance of God’s dealings with humankind.” In him, the Living One, we see the Father; we come to know God; we hear the Lord. Indeed, “he is and is present”; he “is not simply past. …He is our contemporary,” for “he is with us.” How is that true, and how do we hear his voice today?
Scripture and Church
Too often modern theology, especially Protestant theology, imagines the ascension of Christ as entailing his absence. As the book of Acts narrates, however, Christ ascends to heaven in order to enact his rule on earth through the church. The ascension is a condition, not of Christ’s absence, but of his presence. From heaven, Christ is present to the world and, in particular, to the church in the power of his Spirit.
Present in the Spirit to his body, Christ speaks principally and most clearly through the prophets and apostles, that is, Holy Scripture. “The particular relation of prophetic and apostolic words to God’s own Word is ambassadorial; they are an embassy of God’s eloquence.” On the one hand, divine speech is christological: “God speaks as in the Spirit Jesus Christ speaks.” On the other hand, Christ’s speech is bibliological: “God speaks as inspired Scripture speaks.” As Webster puts it in a sermon preached at Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford:
When we listen to the Bible…we are placed in the presence of Jesus Christ. As we hear Scripture read, we are in the presence of one who speaks to us by his Hoy Spirit. These ancient texts are not curios, little windows on an antique religious culture into which we peer from afar. They’re the speech of Christ to us. He, the living Christ, present among us in the Spirit’s power as we assemble in this place, is the one who speaks. He is not distant, and he is not mute. He comes to us and addresses us by this creaturely servant, the ancient texts of Scripture through which he speaks his living word of judgment, forgiveness and consolation that is new every morning. We listen to Scripture as the living voice of the living Christ.
Webster is perhaps best known for his work on Scripture. His first book that was neither an exposition of another theologian nor a collection of essays was the slim volume Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, published in 2003. It is a tour de force, condensing a magisterial vision into four chapters, which together amount to a battle cry or call to arms for those unsatisfied with the dominant literary, historical, and sociological approaches to biblical interpretation, but unsure of where to turn. In proposing “a dogmatic ontology of Holy Scripture,” that is, an account of the Christian Bible “for the depiction of which we must deploy language of the triune God’s saving and revelatory action,” Webster in effect declares war on reigning academic discourse on the church’s sacred text.
Part of the polemic’s bite undoubtedly stems from his inhabiting the theological subculture at Oxford, and England more broadly, for close to a decade. In his view, contemporary theologians are so eager to regain a seat at the table of academic and cultural respectability that they willingly substitute functionally secular concepts and arguments for their native language. If the world judges appeals to the Bible or trinitarian doctrine as moribund, irrelevant, or akin to alchemy, so be it. Such language—along with the convictions on which it draws and depends—is the theologian’s birthright, for which no mess of pottage is worth trading.
Webster’s theology of Scripture is just that: a theology of Scripture. It is a description of the Christian Bible with necessary and irreducible reference to the triune God’s being and works. For instance:
Holy Scripture is the sign and instrument of God’s loving address of intelligent creatures. Its human words, formed and preserved by God, who moves their creaturely movement without violence to the integrity of its created nature, attest the divine Word, and give a share in God’s knowledge of himself and of all things. By the illumination of the Holy Spirit, created intelligence is enlivened to apprehend and receive Scripture’s testimony, and to answer divine revelation by coming to know and desire God.
Scripture has its being in the prevenient will of the Trinity. It is what it is and says what it says because God desires it so. It is the means of God’s speech to God’s people, and through it God rules, guides, and teaches them; it is thus a means of communion as well. Its human authors and tradents were moved by the Holy Spirit to write what would become, in God’s good pleasure, the living word of the risen Jesus to his church. The meaning of their human words, far from being exhausted in their original intention, has its origin and fulfillment in the eternal Word of God who became flesh; what they mean, in briefest scope, is Christ: they mean him, the One born of Mary and nailed to a cross, and whatever he means to say through them concerning himself and his body.
Exegesis, therefore, is an essentially spiritual act. Just as bibliology follows from theology proper, hermeneutics follows from bibliology. One cannot know how to read the Bible without first knowing what it is. Knowing what it is, one cannot limit one’s interpretive procedures to the ordinary ways of reading other texts. For Scripture is unlike any other book: it is sui generis. Indeed, “the activity of interpreting Scripture is an aspect of our fellowship with Christ; interpretation is an episode in the history of reconciliation.”God has sanctified, set apart, this book for the people he has sanctified in Christ, setting them apart from the world. For the saints to read Holy Scripture well, then, they need the illumination of the Holy Spirit. “The historical, literary and speculative virtues of exegetes and dogmaticians are therefore subordinate to spiritual graces,” for “[f]aithful reading of Holy Scripture in the economy of grace is not the work of masters but of pupils in the school of Christ.”
The name of that school, as we have seen, is church, the community gathered around the Word, assembled before the lectern (beneath which stands the pulpit). The church, in fact, is best understood as creatura verbi divini, the creature of the divine Word, for “the church is that human assembly generated and kept in life by the continuing, outgoing self-presentation (‘Word’) of Jesus Christ.” Or as Webster puts it in another sermon: “To be the church is to be spoken to by Jesus in the Spirit.”
Furthermore, in Reformed vein, the church is fundamentally passive. Its being lies wholly beyond itself; all that it is, has, and does is both eccentric and ostensive, sourced without and directing all that look to it elsewhere, to God. It is a living reference, and God in Christ is its singular referent. It has no natural visibility, only spiritual visibility. What makes it unique, what gives the church its identity, is unavailable to the ethnographer’s tools. It is a polity unlike any other, yet this is invisible to the naked eye. That is to say, “The church is known as God is known”: through faith. Truly to see the church as what it is—God’s people, Christ’s body—requires the illumination of the Holy Spirit, no less than the identity of Christ or the nature of Scripture.
What is the church? It is the community called into being by the risen Christ, which in his Spirit hearkens to the word of God addressed to it. It is a creature of grace, receiving with astonishment and gratitude the good news that slays and makes alive again. Assembling, hearing, obeying, the members of this body go forth into the world with humility (as sinners) and confidence (as God’s children) that nothing can separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
Theology Speaks a Name
The foregoing only scratches the surface of John Webster’s theology. His late forays into moral theology, for example, are some of the richest reflections on the virtues offered in recent decades. I imagine, too, that readers might be eager to learn of his politics or engagements with political theology. That is probably the thinnest area in his thought, and probably on purpose. If modern theology has been seduced by other disciplines, political theory has usually been first among them. Webster only rarely ventured that way, overcorrecting the tendency by remaining in his sphere of interest almost exclusively.
Yet he knew of theology’s outward charge. In the same short editorial in which he calls theology contemplative, he notes as well that it is apostolic. This means that theology “is summoned to extend divine instruction to others, indicating, repeating and commending what it has heard.” How does that apostolic task work in practice?
One answer comes in a late essay on mercy. There Webster writes that “Christian theology speaks about mercy by speaking about Jesus Christ: in order to speak of a virtue, theology is required to speak a name. What it has to say about both the mercies of God and creaturely mercy retains Christian specificity only in the closest proximity to this name and to the sphere of reality which this name indicates, and, further, only in such proximity can theology be genuinely helpful and interesting to its neighbors in the human community.” He goes on to note that, though this calling is a matter of great joy, there is pathos involved for those in the late modern West, where the name of Jesus no longer commands authority or respect. The temptation to avoid mention of this name arises. Perhaps appeal to “common principles” would be less embarrassing; or perhaps it would be best to “retreat into a confessional or ecclesial enclave.” He concludes, however, that “neither stance is necessary.” Why? His response is worth quoting in full:
If theology is truly authorized by its object and so truly a joyful exercise, it will face affliction simply by saying what it has to say—whether about mercy or about anything else—without adopting either a concessive or a defensive posture. It will give itself to the task of seeking to attend to the gospel and to speak about what it has heard. Theology’s task is biblical reasoning; public theology is biblical reasoning in public. Theology’s public responsibilities are best discharged by explicating the Christian faith and its understanding of reality out of the canon of texts in which the church receives the gospel. This is what we have heard, the theologian says, this is the good which has been given to us and which we seek to commend. What the church says to itself and what the church says to its neighbors outside the church will be the same thing; in both contexts, theology has to describe the gospel well, and to persuade by description. In terms of its speech before the world, therefore, theology simply speaks the gospel and leaves the gospel to look after itself. Theology shares the condition of all Christian speech in time, namely that it cannot expect perfect assent and often generates reproach, because it must so often cut across prevailing discursive norms. Like Wisdom at the opening of Proverbs (1:20f.), theology cries aloud, accosting what seems often to be a rather reluctant audience. Yet, again like Wisdom, its place is not only in the temple precincts but in the streets and markets, at the top of the city walls and in the entrance of the city gates.
Theology cries aloud the name of Jesus, to the church and to the world. What comes of it, God knows. The gospel, as its faithful servant here reminds us, will look after itself.
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- W. Travis McMaken has gathered more than two dozen links to online tributes at his blog. See further, e.g., “Editorial Announcement” and Ivor J. Davidson, “In Memoriam: John Webster (1955–2016),” International Journal of Systematic Theology 18 (2016): 359, 360–375, as well as Michael Allen, “Toward Theological Theology: Tracing the Methodological Principles of John Webster,” Themelios 41.2 (2016): 217–237. ↑
- For what follows, I will be drawing primarily on Webster’s three final publications, which form a kind of trilogy: The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (New York: T&T Clark, 2012); God Without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology, Volume I: God and the Works of God (New York: T&T Clark, 2016); God Without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology, Volume II: Virtue and Intellect (New York: T&T Clark, 2016). Where would I suggest a reader new to Webster begin? For readers with little experience reading formal theology, I would suggest one of three volumes: Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Holiness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003); or The Grace of Truth, ed. Daniel Bush and Brannon Ellis (Farmington Hills, MI: Oil Lamps Books, 2011). The first is a brief theology of the Bible; the second a short series of lectures on holiness originally delivered at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, in February 2002; the third a collection of Webster’s sermons. For theologically experienced readers, I would suggest the first volume of God Without Measure; Domain of the Word; or Confessing God: Essays in Christian Dogmatics II (New York: T&T Clark, 2005). The preceding collection of essays is Word and Church: Essays in Christian Dogmatics (New York: T&T Clark, 2001). ↑
- I was not a student of Webster’s and I did not know him personally. Writing on his theology for my dissertation, I did correspond with him. He was unfailingly gracious, encouraging my studies, commenting on a potential article, and sharing unpublished material. I regret that I was not able to share with him what I wrote about his work. ↑
- In a rare exception to this rule, Webster indirectly but programmatically describes his own approach to theology in the conclusion to a review of a book that he finds wanting in its method: “this kind of theology would require of the theologian a kind of ascesis, a laying aside, an inattention to all sorts of stimuli, and a dogged persistence in attending to a set of given problems which at first sight are not very attractive or interesting or fruitful, but will in the end break our wills and so teach us true joy. Might it not be that such a theology—a bit stiff, a bit formal at times, clumsy and gauche to the cultural élite—will turn out to be not just edifying for the church but also for the church’s conversation partners?” (“David F. Ford: Self and Salvation,” Scottish Journal of Theology 54 (2001): 548-559, at 559). Another similar disagreement in print appeared a year earlier, between Webster and Thomas Weinandy. The language here is possibly the most rhetorically charged of Webster’s career. Webster and Weinandy (“John and Tom”) were friends, however, and remained so following their exchange of views in print. See Webster, “ ‘Fides et Ratio,’ articles 64-79,” New Blackfriars 81 (2000): 66-76; Weinandy, “Fides et Ratio: A Response to John Webster,” New Blackfriars 81 (2000): 225-235; Webster, “A Reply to Tom Weinandy,” New Blackfriars 81 (2000): 236-237. ↑
- Webster closes a mostly appreciative essay review in this way: “But most of all I could wish for a gentler book. So far as I’m aware, we are all ‘theologians not yet canonized’ (p. 31), and none of us is likely to be. We should be patient with one another in theological debate, especially when we fear another has transgressed a boundary; the apostle commands us that we restore in a spirit of gentleness and look to ourselves, lest we, too, be tempted (Gal. 6:1)” (“Webster’s Response to Alyssa Lyra Pitstick, Light in Darkness,” Scottish Journal of Theology 62 (2009), 202-210, at 210). ↑
- “Breaking the spell of [ecclesial] anxiety is not easy. To do so, we need to cease giving an account of ourselves as somehow located at a point in the history of human affairs where the usual rules of providence do not apply” (Domain of the Word, 30-31). ↑
- The primary source for biographical information from Webster’s own hand is “Discovering Dogmatics,” in Shaping a Theological Mind: Theological Context and Methodology, ed. Darren C. Marks (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2002), 129-136. See also the lovely essay by Ivor J. Davidson, “John,” in Theological Theology: Essays in Honour of John B. Webster, ed. R. David Nelson, Darren Sarisky, and Justin Stratis (New York: T&T Clark, 2015), 17-36. ↑
- “Discovering Dogmatics,” 129. ↑
- “Discovering Dogmatics,” 130. See also Word and Church, 10-11: “The account which follows is frankly dogmatic. It assumes the truth of the church’s confession of the gospel, regarding that confession as a point from which we move rather than a point towards which we proceed. Readers disposed to anxiety about the viability of such an exercise will find little here to still their hearts. Theologia non est habitus demonstrativus, sed exhibitivus.” ↑
- Eberhard Jüngel: An Introduction to his Theology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986, 1991). See also, e.g., “Eberhard Jüngel on the Language of Faith,” Modern Theology 1 (1985): 253-276; “Eberhard Jüngel,” in The Modern Theologians: An Introduction to Christian Theology in the Twentieth Century, vol. 1, ed. David F. Ford (New York: Blackwell, 1989), 90-106; “Justification, Analogy and Action: Passivity and Activity in Jüngel’s Anthropology,” in The Possibilities of Theology: Essays on the Theology of Eberhard Jüngel in his Sixtieth Year, ed. John Webster (New York: T&T Clark, 1994), 106-42. ↑
- Webster and Schner later collaborated as co-editors for Theology after Liberalism: A Reader (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000). ↑
- “Discovering Dogmatics,” 130. ↑
- See, e.g., Barth’s Ethics of Reconciliation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Barth’s Moral Theology: Human Action in Barth’s Thought (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998); Barth, 2nd ed. (New York: Continuum, 2000, 2004); Barth’s Earlier Theology: Four Studies (New York: T&T Clark, 2005); ed., The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000). See also “The Christian in Revolt: Some Reflections on The Christian Life,” in Reckoning With Barth: Essays in Commemoration of the Centenary of Karl Barth’s Birth, ed. Nigel Biggar (London: Mowbray, 1988), 119-144; “Barth and Postmodern Theology: A Fruitful Confrontation?” in Karl Barth: A Future for Postmodern Theology?, ed. Geoff Thompson and Christiaan Mostert (Hindmarsh: Australian Theological Forum, 2000), 1-69; “Balthasar and Karl Barth,” in The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar, ed. Edward T. Oakes and David Moss (New York: Cambridge: 2004), 241-255; “Gunton and Barth,” in The Theology of Colin Gunton, ed. Lincoln Harvey (New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 17-31. ↑
- Barth’s Moral Theology, 1. ↑
- See his justly famous inaugural lecture, “Theological Theology,” in Confessing God, 11-31, along with his essay written 18 years later, “What Makes Theology Theological?” in God Without Measure: Vol. I, 213-224. It was at Oxford that Webster co-founded the International Journal of Systematic Theology with Colin Gunton, which immediately became a premier venue for theological scholarship. ↑
- He also served as co-editor, alongside Kathryn Tanner and Iain Torrance, for The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007). ↑
- Domain of the Word, ix-x. ↑
- Tyler Wittman, “John Webster (1955–2016): Reflections from One of His Students,” The Gospel Coalition, June 1, 2016. Webster’s new prefaces to the second editions of Word and Church and Confessing God contain brief critical retrospectives on those earlier constructive essays, thus confirming the reading offered here of the shifts in his thought. ↑
- See, e.g., God Without Measure: Vol. I, 56-57, which discusses Barth’s christocentrism; or the brief comment that Barth’s “worry is . . . misplaced” regarding the doctrine of inspiration, in “ὑπὸ πνεύματος ἁγίου φερόμενοι ἐλάλησαν ἀπὸ θεοῦ ἄνθρωποι: On the Inspiration of Holy Scripture” (a paper shared in private correspondence). ↑
- Hence the irony of D. A. Carson’s line, in a review of Holy Scripture, that “Webster is more Barthian than biblical” (“Three More Books on the Bible: A Critical Review,” Trinity Journal 27 (2006): 1-62, at 11). Davidson shares a relevant anecdote: “ ‘That’s the Barthian view, I guess,’ I once heard a speaker comment in reply to John’s case about something; unsurprisingly when the ‘B-’ adjective is so deployed, the assessment was not meant as a compliment. ‘I’m not interested in whether it’s Barthian or not,’ fired back John. ‘The question is: Is it biblical?’ ” (“John,” 32). ↑
- Apart from the systematics and the commentary on Ephesians (for the Brazos Theological Commentary series), other manuscripts or contracts included, so far as I can tell, a third edition of his short volume Barth; Perfection and Presence (based on his 2007 Kantzer lectures at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School); Creation and Providence (based on his 2009 Hayward lectures at Acadia Divinity College); a book based on his 2008 Reformation Day lectures at Covenant College; and possibly also a book based on his series of posts on the fruit of the Holy Spirit for the website reformation21.org. One hopes that at least some of these will be published posthumously, along with further collections of his previously ungathered essays and articles. ↑
- See Brad East, “John Webster, Theologian Proper,” Anglican Theological Review 99:2 (2017): 333-351. See the final section (345-350) for my criticism of Webster’s thought. ↑
- God Without Measure: Vol. I, 3. ↑
- Word and Church, 1. ↑
- Domain of the Word, vii. ↑
- The trope of human reason as at once created, fallen, and redeemed in Christ appears throughout Webster’s writings. See, e.g., Domain of the Word, 115-132; God Without Measure: Vol. I, 213-224; God Without Measure: Vol. II, 141-156. Cf. Holy Scripture, 134: “Baptism is the origin and permanent condition of theological reason.” ↑
- Confessing God, 110. ↑
- God Without Measure: Vol. I, 87, 89. ↑
- God Without Measure: Vol. I, 90. ↑
- God Without Measure: Vol. I, 92. ↑
- “The coherence of God himself and God in his revelatory acts is…best articulated, not by making the economy id quo maius cogitari nequit, but by indicating the continuous identity of the acting subject in God’s inner and outer works. That, in turn, can best be accomplished by first contemplating the infinite depth of God in himself, out of which his temporal acts arise. The divine agent of revelatory acts is not fully understood if the phenomenality of those acts is treated as something primordial, a wholly sufficient presentation of the agent. God’s outer works bear a surplus within themselves; they refer back to the divine agent who exceeds them” (God Without Measure: Vol. I, 8). ↑
- “Editorial,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 13:2 (2011): 128-129, at 128. ↑
- God Without Measure: Vol. I, 220. ↑
- God Without Measure: Vol. I, 214-215. ↑
- God Without Measure: Vol. II, 33. ↑
- God Without Measure: Vol. I, 159. This is a riff on Martin Luther’s famous claim that the doctrine of justification by faith is magister et princeps, dominus, rector et iudex super omnia genera doctrinarum, as well as the articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae. ↑
- Holy Scripture, 43. ↑
- God Without Measure: Vol. I, 161. ↑
- God Without Measure: Vol. I, 43. ↑
- God Without Measure: Vol. I, 57. ↑
- God Without Measure: Vol. I, 41. ↑
- God Without Measure: Vol. I, 156, 157. ↑
- God Without Measure: Vol. II, 143. ↑
- God Without Measure: Vol. I, 172. ↑
- Grace of Truth, 80. Cf. the lovely précis that opens Webster’s essay “What is the Gospel?,” Grace and Truth in the Secular Age, ed. Timothy Bradshaw (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 109-118, at 109: “The gospel is the good news of Jesus Christ, who is its sum and substance. In Jesus, God intervenes in human history, putting an end to the disorder of sin and reconciling all things to himself. The gospel is good news because it is God’s action of disorienting goodness. It is good news because it is God’s act of eschatological deliverance. And it is good news because in its particularity it is comprehensively true and meaningful. The church is what it is because of the gospel. The church is assembly around the gospel, a spiritual event and not only a structure of human society. As assembly around the gospel, the church’s most characteristic activities are praise, prayer, hearing the Word of God, celebrating the sacraments, proclamation and service. The church’s vocation is to hear, and then live and proclaim, this good news.” ↑
- Confessing God, 131, 132. ↑
- Domain of the Word, 120. ↑
- Domain of the Word, 8. ↑
- Domain of the Word, 16. ↑
- Grace of Truth, 77. ↑
- Holy Scripture, 2, 1. ↑
- Cf. Webster’s comments at the end of an essay on theology and the humanities: “Theological enthusiasm for ‘interdisciplinarity’ is a poor substitute for a theology of the life of the mind. Not only does it tend to generate material which is theologically jejune, and often mannered, opaque and artificial; it also assumes the very thing which ought to be in question, namely, that theology is a discipline. A sounder approach would be to subsume ‘interdisciplinary’ engagements under theology’s apostolic vocation” (Domain of the Word, 191n.38). ↑
- Domain of the Word, vii. ↑
- Domain of the Word, 48. ↑
- God Without Measure: Vol. I, 80. ↑
- Holy Scripture, 101. ↑
- See Grace of Truth, 159: “the primacy of hearing the words of the living Jesus in the Spirit is expressed as the primacy in church of the reading of Holy Scripture. It’s the lectern which is the primary home of the Word of God in church, not the pulpit. It’s Scripture read, not Scripture proclaimed, which is the first great act of speech in church.” ↑
- Word and Church, 196. ↑
- Grace of Truth, 159. ↑
- Cf. God Without Measure: Vol. II, 45: “What distinguishes this fellowship [the community of saints] is that it is marked by externality and provisionality. Its externality consists in the fact that it derives its life from the will and act of God, and so it is not in any univocal sense a society, assembly, culture—it is a gathering around a mystery, not a self-perpetuating social project. Its provisionality consists in the fact that it is not a settled realization of human society, but an anticipation of the kingdom of heaven. Because of this, the church is not the social terminus of the divine economy, but rather the interim common life which awaits the consummation.” See also God Without Measure: Vol. I, 177: “the church is the human assembly which is the creaturely social co-efficient of the outer work in which God restores creatures to fellowship with himself. The natural and historical properties of that society only become objects of intelligence (rather than simply of phenomenal regard) when they are understood as elements in the saving transit of creatures from their origin to their end in God’s society.” ↑
- Confessing God, 182. ↑
- “Scripture can no more be read in isolation from the divine Word than the history of Jesus can be grasped apart from or prior to its relation to the eternal divine Logos” (God Without Measure: Vol. I, 60). ↑
- Many of these are collected in God Without Measure: Vol. II. ↑
- “Editorial,” 128. ↑
- God Without Measure: Vol. II, 49. ↑
- God Without Measure: Vol. II, 50. ↑
- God Without Measure: Vol. II, 50-51. ↑
Thank you, Brad, for your thorough summation of John’s theological work. The essay is exceptional in its attentiveness to his major moves and his more subtle nuances — though, as you are right to suggest, all of us still have yet to reckon fully with his late work on the virtues.
As one of his former students permit me to register a slight demurral with respect to efforts I have seen (more overtly “out there” in the wild than in this essay) to periodize John’s work. Many speak casually about his Jüngel days, his Barthian period, his shift to Thomas and from there to the post-Reformation scholastics. But for John these simply cannot be closed off from another another; it was never the case that he left one of these behind in order to turn to something new. When he opened a new book he always left the others open on his desk, as well — because in humility he never lost sight of what he could learn from them (despite his clear-headed disagreements).
So too he never committed himself to any of these “schools.” He was a world-class Barth scholar; but likely never thought of himself as a “Barthian.” So too I think he would acknowledge that his later work bore “scholastic” or even “Thomistic” influences, but he himself was no Thomist. Because he saw theology as a calm and joyful practice, he had little sense of even being in a “school” of thought, let alone of being loyal to one.
The development of John’s thought thus has to be recognized not in terms of periodic shifts, but as accumulative. He added new insights, new emphases, and new forms to his work. It was only his interests that shifted, and with them his reading list, as he endeavored to learn here and there from the best that the tradition has to offer. He registered not insignificant objections to Jüngel, to Barth, etc.; but we ought not take these criticisms as signals that he put them behind him, as if his work amounted merely to a quest to discover who in the history of Christian thought had it most right, so that he could finally know with whom to throw in his lot.
I certainly don’t mean to accuse you of this sort of reductive periodization. But your fine essay seems as good an occasion as any to register publicly my concern with how we have — still in these early days — begun to reckon with John’s towering legacy. Thank you again.
[…] one I’ve read the least of so far but who I find (so far) irresistible as a thinker–is John Webster, the great English theologian who died a few years ago at age 60. Webster does all the same things […]
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