Theological Theology: Remembering John Webster

I just learned that theologian John Webster died yesterday, and am saddened.

Webster was one of the wisest theologians of our day, and he taught me a lot about the nature, method, and task of theology through his writings. I wrote him two weeks ago to express my gratitude for his work, as well as my surprise that he studied literature as an undergraduate (like I did) instead of philosophy—the de facto subject of undergraduate study for theologians. He replied with a kind note, wishing me the best in my upcoming studies in seminary and telling me that he was currently rereading Camus.

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John Bainbridge Webster (1955-2016)

Camus once wrote, “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” In a way, Webster had such an existence in theological circles, carrying out his task with a clear sense of the freedom (and responsibility) he had to follow the revelation that God has given in Jesus Christ. In his chapter in Shaping a Theological Mind (ed. Darren Marks), Webster writes,

[When I began my theological studies,] Christian doctrine was chiefly taught through an analysis of problems, particularly the problems faced by those who felt acutely responsible to do their theology under the bleak searchlights of what were taken to be normative modern intellectual developments…What I had stumbled into was something which I could have learned from Barth or many other theologians at the very beginning: the need to do dogmatics, and to do so with good humor, diligently and a determination not to be troubled about having to swim against the stream, but rather to work away steadily at the given task as responsibly as possible. (“Discovering Dogmatics,” 129-132, italics original)

In his book Holiness, he expounds upon this idea, writing,

Theology is an office in the Church…The particular task of theology is to attest to the truth of the gospel in the wake of Christ’s own self-revelation…[T]he proper end of theology…is the edification of the saints. (2-4)

He continues,

Such an understanding of theology enjoys rather little contemporary prestige, and is commonly judged to be naive, assertive, authoritarian, above all, closed. A good deal of contemporary systematic or dogmatic theology tends, by contrast, to be conversational or comparativist in approach…Both [approaches] believe that only by resisting the confessional and the positive can Christian theology secure opportunities to make a contribution to the public realm. By contrast, the kind of theology attempted here is less sanguine about the prospects for such exchanges…its work is focused upon a quite restricted range of texts (the biblical canon) as they have been read and struggled with in the complex though unified reality which we call the tradition of the Church…The intensity of this kind of theology is not the internally directed energy of an achieved, separated world of ideas, but that of a way of thinking which might be called eschatological—always, that is, emerging from its own dissolution and reconstitution by the presence of the holy God. (4-5)

Webster’s attempt to do “theological theology”—theology that is an exercise of holy reason carried out coram Deo for the edification of the saints and the sanctification of God’s name—was almost unimaginable in academic theology when he began his career, and is now, thanks in part to him, both imaginable and attempted by a number of younger theologians. Through his work, he undoubtedly will continue to inspire those who follow in his wake.

I was reading Athanasius’s On the Incarnation before I learned of Webster’s death, and I read this passage:

For one who sees a snake trampled down, especially if he knows its former ferocity, no longer doubts that it is dead and completely weakened, unless he is perverted in mind and does not have even his bodily senses sound. For who, seeing a lion being played with by children, does not know that it is either dead or has lost all its power? Just as it is possible for the eye to see that these things are true, so when death is played with and despised by those believing in Christ, let no one any longer doubt, nor be unbelieving, that death has been destroyed by Christ and its corruption dissolved and brought to an end. (80)

His death is a shock to me, but I, with the apostle Paul, ask, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:55). The death of death in the death of Christ was the victory of God. And this death was a victory because of the resurrection. The one whom Webster did his theology in the presence of is the same one before whom Webster now stands—the one who says, “Well done, good and faithful servant….Enter into the joy of your master”—and waits with for the resurrection that is to come (Matt. 25:21).

Requiescat in pace, John Webster.

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