Earlier this week Dr. John Webster, professor of divinity at St. Andrews University, died. For the next few days, we will be publishing pieces by friends, former students, and appreciative readers of Webster explaining what they learned about God from this marvelous theologian. I posted this on Facebook last night, but I’m going to say it here as well: It likely says something about Webster that after asking two separate people for pieces on him, I had both pieces in my inbox within a few hours. I’m going to pin this post to the top of the page for the next week or so because this is where I will keep track of the tribute pieces posted here and elsewhere as they go live and where I will share links to various lectures and books by Dr. Webster.
I suspect, from what I have read by and about him, that this would likely embarrass him. I hope that the work, however, has the effect of compelling people to reflect on the majesty and grandeur of the God that Webster loved through his study and writing. From what I know of him, that is the eulogy he would want: Do not look at Dr. Webster; look at God. I hope that the resources shared in this post and the tributes we publish will help people to look more closely and faithfully at God while being aided by this eminent doctor of the church. (NOTE: Please leave links to other resources in the comments and I will add them to this post.)
Also, I will be re-reading his marvelous (and cheap!) book Holinessover the next few weeks. If you would like to join me, I would be delighted to set up a small virtual reading group on the book. We could do the discussion via a Google Hangout or Slack chatroom. If you are interested in doing this, let me know in the comments below or by emailing me at jakemeador at gmail dot com.
Steve Holmes: “I had known John for a couple of years only when the Society for the Study of Theology met in his then home university of Oxford in 2000. In one plenary session, I found myself seated between him and Tony Thistleton, as the speaker started telling us of the ‘pastoral need’ to ‘forgive God’. Tony turned across me to John and said ‘forgiving God is rather a difficult concept theologically, is it not?’. John’s response was straightforward: ‘It’s not difficult at all; it’s blasphemy. Come on, we’re going for a pint.’”
Fred Sanders: In the front of my copy of one of his books (2000’s Webster-edited Cambridge Companion to Barth), I scrawled excitedly the words “teach theology as if John Webster is right about what theology is.” I can’t recall exactly which Webster sentences prompted this response from me in my first year as a professor. There are dozens of candidates, even though the Webster essay in that volume is not ostensibly about how do to theology. But many of the things Webster lauded in Barth were transparently things that Webster himself had learned (partly from Barth) to value and to put into practice, at least aspirationally.
W. Travis McMacken: I also remember that one day a largish box appeared in Mark’s office. He had found a great deal on remainder copies of Webster’s book on Barth’s Moral Theology, and proceeded to give copies to his advisees and other interested students. If this wasn’t the first secondary source on Barth that I owned, it was very close, and my copy is worthless for resale because of all the markings. At some point Mark also assigned Webster’s little introduction to Barth in a class, and my copy of that one is in a similar condition. And then there was Word and Church, the hardcover with the bright red dust-jacket. Mark assigned that one in an upper-level ecclesiology class that I took from him. A fellow student in that class—now a doctoral student in theology and a pastor—used to carry that book around everywhere with him, even on late-night burrito runs.
Mark Gignilliat: I do have two memories worth sharing about Professor Webster. His humility could catch you off guard, but it was not affected. At a theological roundtable in St. Andrews, back in my student days, a presenter was speaking of the relationship between exegesis and the imagination. It was a good paper, but I noticed Professor Webster playing with a paper clip during the entire presentation. Afterward in the discussion, the fellow sitting next to Webster said, I think John has something to say. He had called Webster out, even though it was obvious he did not want to say anything. Sheepishly, Professor Webster said, “I think Calvin would call that use of the imagination idolatry.” Well, that changed the tenor of the conversation.
Michael Horton: I could enumerate his accomplishments, including the founding of the International Journal of Systematic Theology, holding a string of prestigious posts such as Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Oxford and professorships at Aberdeen and, until his death, at St. Andrews. Along with others, such as the late Colin Gunton, John Webster elevated and enriched theological discourse. But what struck me equally was John’s character. I was already impressed with his scholarship. He was equally at ease in explaining the fine points of Jüngel’s complex thought, the Trinity, the holiness of God and prayer. Whether forgetting the time as we discussed theology in the pub or speaking at one of his famous seminars and meeting his doctoral students from all over the world, I was struck first of all by John’s generosity and humility. Each interaction left me with an example to imitate.
Mark Thompson: I first met John Webster in 1996 when he began as Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity in the University of Oxford. He was, as a friend of mine and I observed at the time, ‘quite frankly the most impressive theological voice in Oxford today’. We went together to every one of his lectures that was advertised. His very first lecture series on Christology was full of insights that have served me well ever since. It was from John that I first heard the common sense observation ‘we can never talk about God behind his back: our thinking and speaking of God is always done in his presence’. Theology suddenly becomes an intensely serious matter when that simple truth is remembered. It must never be a guise for intellectual self-assertion or ecclesiastical control. In that same series of lectures he helped me to see the importance of ‘dogmatic location’ and gave me my preference for ‘attentive reading’ over ‘interpretation’. He was generous in his dealings with others, seriously theological in his approach to theology, attentive to Scripture, elegant in his writing style, and immensely, immensely stimulating.
Michael Allen: In a number of ways, Webster stood out from the wider guild: in some of his principles, such as his focus upon the life of God in se, his concern that we never elide the distinction between God and creation or Christ and the church, or even his advocacy of the verbal, plenary inspiration of Scripture; in some of his sources, such as his delight in the patristic ascetical tradition, the medieval schoolmen, and the post-Reformation scholastic texts of Reformed Orthodoxy; and even in his tone, reminding us that divine revelation is the context as well as the content of theology and that “God is not summoned into the presence of reason; reason is summoned before the presence of God” (a line from what remains my favorite Webster essay, the chapter “The Holiness of Theology” in Holiness). In his own gentle way, John stood out and kept to his task, dutifully and delightfully savoring the work of having his mind and confession recalibrated by Christ the Teacher.
Dale Coulter: There is still one more lesson I gleaned from Webster during those early days at Oxford, and this was the role of grace in the theological task. At the conclusion of his introduction to Jüngel’s theology, Webster noted that Jüngel had focused on the role of grace as divine gift, to the exclusion of grace as elicitation and call. The indicative of the gift elicits the imperative of the call because the person is caught up into something greater that makes possible what was impossible. One can see how grace as elicitation began to permeate Webster’s work as he sought to redress the imbalance he found in Jüngel. The reconstruction of human identity in and through the sanctified life makes possible the task of theology, because theological reason just is “the exercise of redeemed intelligence within the economy of God’s revelatory grace.” Teasing out this notion of grace took Webster into the domain of pneumatology and the work of John Owen. But I learned the lesson through the deeply pastoral way in which Webster guided his students, even to the point of inviting us to continue dialoging in his house at Christ Church long after the lectures in the examination schools had ended.
Tyler Wittman: He had a keen sense for what were matters of first importance, and how to distinguish genuine theology from its distractions. It’s not that theology has nothing to say to culture or other disciplines; it does, given its scope. “But,” John wrote, “for all its scope, Christian theology is an exercise in concentration, required to fix its eyes not on everything but on the ways of God (Ps. 119:15); only in assent to this restriction will theology find itself having something to say about everything” (God Without Measure: Vol. 1, 223). One of the biggest problems John saw was that too many theologians were embarrassed about being theologians, and so turned their attention to secondary matters—culture, critical theory, sociology, have your pick.He thus sought to rehabilitate an older theological framework of seeing things in relation to God as their beginning and end, and to do that one would first have to be proficient in God’s Word, the great texts of the tradition, and the whole scope of Christian doctrine. He knew the work of a theologian was vital, but not because it was the work of a theologian much less that of a credentialed “professional.” Theology is important because the church always has need of giving its attention—reflectively, systematically—to the gospel as announced in Scripture. For this reason, John warned us that responsible theological work was unlikely to gain praise from presiding cultural establishments. Hence the importance he attached to the integrity of theology as a discipline and the pressing need for theologians to remember their responsibilities.
Why should ordinary Christians care about such seemingly recondite matters as how to articulate the immanent being of the Trinity?
There aren’t any “ordinary” Christians; there are saints, a few of whom are appointed to the task of thinking hard about and trying to articulate the common faith of the church. We don’t usually need to use formal theological language and concepts in the everyday life of the church in prayer, preaching and service.
But like any other important human activity, faith has to achieve a measure of conceptual clarity if it is to understand and express itself, and part of that process is the development of abstract concepts like Trinity, incarnation and substance. What’s important is that we don’t treat such concepts as if they were improvements on the ordinary ways in which the saints express the faith; they are simply shorthand terms, a tool kit which helps us keep certain crucial aspects of the gospel alive in the mind and worship of the church. Theology and theological abstractions matter because the gospel matters, because the gospel concerns truth, and because living in and from the truth involves the discipleship of reason.
“God himself intervenes. In the person of his own Son, he shatters sin from within its stronghold in human life and establishes the final rule of salvation. He ‘shall sprinkle many nations’ (Isa. 52:15). If this isn’t so—if Holy Week isn’t the Lord God himself facing his and our enemies and overthrowing them—then all is an empty show, whether it evokes our sorrow and compassion or not. If that’s all God has for us, then there is no mercy, no grace, no forgiveness, no rebirth. We’re left to ourselves to try and unmake our own ruin. Yet the word of the gospel is that we’re not left to ourselves. With God there is mercy; with the Suffering Servant there is grace. This is the good news proclaimed to those who have never heard anything like it before (52:15). And mercy and grace are simply summary terms for what happens in the rest of this Servant Song: God’s Servant is afflicted and taken away; yet in that affliction he bears our iniquities and sorrows. And thus God’s Servant is high and lifted up.”
“We must reach that comfort at the right pace – not too fast, lest we treat it lightly, not too slowly, lest we be overtaken by melancholy. We are instructed by the doctrine of providence to look to God for comfort; to cast ourselves in a tragic role, to allow ourselves to think that there is no comfort, is to fall prey to unbelief. But 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.”
Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).