‘Theological Theology’: Reflections on the work of John Webster

News has been circling around social media that my favorite living theologian, John Webster, has passed away (1955-2016). I was deeply saddened by this news, and thought to reflect on his work that has meant so much in my life as a Christian and training to be a theologian. It will probably end up being mostly quotes from Webster.

“…dogmatics is that delightful activity in which the Church praises God by ordering its thinking towards the gospel of Christ.” -John Webster, Holiness

Revelation and Scripture

One of the most influential books for me in my time doing theology is Webster’s ‘Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch‘. This book alone has shaped a major part of my views on the way Scripture functions in God’s economy of salvation. The first chapter and the third are by far my favorites in the book, in them you find a deeply rich Trinitarian exposition of revelation and Scripture’s place in the economy of salvation.

The problem for the Christian doctrine of revelation for Webster is that it “suffers from the distortions of its shape introduced by attempts to formulate and expound it in relation to and, in some measure, in dependence upon, dominant modern intellectual and spiritual conventions”. (p. 11) Even more troubling, the language of revelation became “a way of talking, not about the life giving presence of God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Spirit’s power among the worshipping and witnessing assembly, but instead of an arcane process of causality whereby persons acquire knowledge through opaque, non-natural operations.” (p. 12) This is an important point, theology (doctrine especially) abstracted from the context of worship and participation within the Church, it becomes something else entirely.

Revelation is an act of sovereign mercy:

“Revelation is the self-presentation of the triune God, the free work of sovereign mercy in which God wills, establishes and perfects saving fellowship with himself in which humankind comes to know, love and fear him above all things.” (p. 13)

Revelation must be seen in this light, not mere propositions, but the life giving presence of the Lord. Here Webster gives a trinitarian account:

“Revelation, therefore is identical with God’s triune being in it’s active self-presence. As Father, God is the personal will or origin of this self presence; as Son, God actualizes his self-presence, upholding it and establishing it against all opposition; as Holy Spirit, God perfects that self-presence by making it real and effective to and in the history of humankind. To speak of ‘revelation’ is to say that God is one whose being is directed towards his creatures, and the goal of whose free self-movement presence with us.” (pg. 14)

Holiness and Theology

In the first chapter of his book ‘Holiness‘, Webster offers a proposition to shape the thinking of his account of the holiness of theology:

“A Christian theology of holiness is an exercise of holy reason; it has its context and its content in the revelatory presence of the Holy Trinity which is set forth in Holy Scripture; it is a venture undertaken in prayerful dependence upon the Holy Spirit; it is an exercise in the fellowship of the saints; serving the confession of the holy people of God; it is a work in which holiness is perfected in the fear of God; and its end is the sanctifying of God’s holy name.” (p. 10)

From there he works out through the various points made, and shows how the gospel may (and should) order our thinking.

There is much more to be said on the work of John Webster, and those of us doing theology should take pause and reflect on not only his work but his character, and the way he pursued theological work. He really cared about doing a ‘theological’ theology; that is a theology that dares to say something about God. Let us dare to let God speak for Himself, and let us order our thinking around the Gospel.

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