In the first essay, I attempted to summarize John Webster’s essay where he locates evangelical ecclesiology under the perfection of God. His moves, of course, raise questions about the nature of the visibility of the Church, as it is the visibility of the Church that evangelicals have often struggled to incorporate into their dogmatic systems.

The danger Webster faces in emphasizing that Christ and the Church are united through “spiritual bond,” rather than “essential indwelling” is that he is “spiritualizing” the Church in such a way that it has no bearing on here and now. Webster points out that nothing he has written rejects the visibility of the Church. However, it is not enough to assert its visibility–we must ask what kind of visibility the Church has? While the Church is a human assembly and engaged in human activities, it is the Church only when it is animated by the Holy Spirit in these activities. “The Holy Spirit is the Church’s God….The reality out of which the church emerges, and in which alone it stands, is: You he made alive.” The visibility of the Church, then, is a special visibility–a “spiritual visibility.” One more: “The church becomes what it is as the Spirit animates the forms so that they indicate the presence of God.”

As Webster has still not clarified exactly what that visibility looks like, he turns to that question next. He returns to the doctrine of election as the grounding of the Church, arguing that it cannot take its forms from social or ethical or cultural theory–they must be grounded theologically, that is, in the calling of God to man. The Church’s function is to attest to the “prevenient perfection of the triune God.” That is, like John the Baptist, the church must point beyond itself to God. It does this through the proclomation of the Word and the celebration of the sacraments. Yet Webster is careful here–Word and sacraments “are not “realizations” of Jesus Christ’s work, for in the Holy Spirit he is self-realizing.” They are visible acts that “let God act.”

From this point, Webster passes on articulating a theology of the sacraments (due to space considerations). Like ecclesiology, he eschews minimalist interpretations of the sacramental events. Instead, he focuses on the ministry of the Word in ecclesiastical communities. Webster contends that it is in the canon of Scripture that we hear Jesus Christ, the one who is alive and who proclaims his own identity to the Church. Jesus has not handed over his office of self-communication to a book–rather, the book is that in which He communicates himself. In one of my favorite lines in the book, Webster writes: “For this reason, Scripture is a transcendent moment in the life of the church. Scripture is not the church’s book, something internal to the community’s discursive practices; what the church hears in Scripture is not its own voice…Consecrated by God for the purpose of Christ’s self-manifestation, Holy Scripture is alwyas intrusive, in a deep sense alien to the life of the church.”

Interpretation of Scripture, then, “is not clarification or completion, but recognition, assent to the inherent clarity and adequacy of the prophetic and apostolic witness which bears to us the voice of the church’s Lord.” The job of the interpreter is to proclaim, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” This makes the primary act of the Church hearing the Word of God–it is only after hearing the Word of God that the Church is summoned to speech.

Such are Webster’s two essays. I have attempted here to explain them, if only for my own benefit and ability to remember and summarize some of the most profound, most stirring, and most uplifting theology I have read in some years. Critical opinions are forthcoming. In the meantime, I wish to invite readers to respond with comments and questions, as my own thoughts are only in their early stages.

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

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  • Barth would be proud of Webster’s analysis. I particularly like your comment, Matt, that “This makes the primary act of the Church hearing the Word of God–it is only after hearing the Word of God that the Church is summoned to speech.” Great comment! I might also comment on your comment that that position does not in any way take away from the integrity of the Written Word, in my humble opinion.

  • Jim,

    You’re exactly right about Barth. Webster is one of Barth’s best english-speaking interpreters. Kevin VanHoozer has described Webster as the theologian theologians read when they want to read for fun.