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.

Can These Bones Live?

I just finished reading Robert Jenson’s new book, A Theology in Outline: Can These Bones Live? (Oxford University Press, 2016). The book has its origins in a series of lectures that Jenson gave in the spring of 2008 to undergraduate students at Princeton University in a religious studies course.jenson

Jenson follows a standard sequence of topics in Christian theology: God, Trinity, creation, humanity, sin, salvation, and church. As Adam Eitel—the one who transcribed and edited Jenson’s lectures—writes in the introduction, “The course’s leitmotiv and organizing principle was somewhat less traditional. As the title suggests, the course framed the whole of Christian theology as a response to to the question posed to Ezekiel: ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’ (Ezekiel 37:3)” (2).

The metaphor refers to two matters: First, can “the story the God lives with his people…continue?…[Second,] is the Christian faith itself a pile of dead and dried up bones? Is Christian theology dead?” (2). Jenson doesn’t answer these questions directly until the last chapter, but, as to be expected, the answer is yes. He writes,

Christian theology and the practices of the church must relearn how to display the church’s or the faith’s own interior plausibility—not drawing on anything outside of itself—as was done in the centuries before Constantine…In my judgment, theology responds best [to the challenge of Modernity] by trusting in the gospel’s own interior rationality [as Karl Barth did]…One point guard in the endeavor might be Wolfhart Pannenberg, who has elaborated an entire system of metaphysics…on the principle that traditional metaphysics draws its vision of what is from what has been, whereas a distinctly Christian metaphysics must draw its vision from what will be. (113-115, italics original)

Jenson’s book in short (115 pages), making it a good introduction to his theology, but it’s not just bones; there’s meat. He presents other provocative ideas like the one above: three, triune dramatic personae in the Old Testament (49-50); personal identity before essential identity (67);  Edwardsian view of original sin vs. Augustinian view (76-77); and Hans Urs von Balthasar’s view of atonement (85-87). Most significantly, it’s an edifying read. Jenson reminds one of God’s promise to make bones live, which he has done and continues to do through the Word made flesh—Jesus Christ.

Holiness by John Webster, Pt. 1

In his book Holiness, John Webster offers a “trinitarian dogmatics of holiness” from a Reformed-Barthian perspective (1). His piece of Christian theology is dogmatic because it begins with the self-revelation of God in Christ as attested to in the Holy Scripture. It is trinitarian because the self-revealing Holy One exists as Father, Son, and Spirit in our midst, making holiness a relational concept. We encounter the triune God in his works or not at all (9). A trinitarian dogmatic account “does not think of divine holiness in abstraction from the sanctifying acts of God pro nobis, nor of human sanctity in isolation from election, salvation and the work of the sanctifying Spirit” (5).

Webster organizes his discussion of holiness into four parts: the holiness of theology, the holiness of God, the holiness of the Church, and the holiness of the Christian.

In this post, I want to consider his first part. Speaking of the holiness of theology, Webster urges readers to remember two requirements for thinking Christianly. First, “theological thinking about holiness is itself an exercise of holiness” (8). The task of theology can only be carried out properly within the process of sanctification. Our intellectual faculty of reason must be “put to death and made alive by the terrifying and merciful presence of the holy God” (9). Second, if we are to speak truly about God’s holiness we must follow the true God, who has revealed himself to us as Father, Son, and Spirit. The object of theology establishes the method of theology.

Keeping these requirements in mind, Webster begins to speak of God’s holiness by noting that it is a relational concept. The three primary themes of his book—God, Church, and Christian—cannot be is0lated from each other because “the holiness of God is a holiness which directs itself to God’s creatures as fellowship-creating holiness. God the thrice Holy One is the Holy One in our midst” (9). Webster attempt to offer a positive definition of holiness, as opposed to a negative one, e.g., holiness as being set apart from.

He begins to think on the holiness of theology by making a lengthy proposition:

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. (9-10)

Good theology is always an exercise of holy reason because “good Christian theology can only happen if it is rooted in the reconciliation of reason by the sanctifying presence of God” (10). Naked reason—a neutral place from which to begin theological work—does not exist.

What struck me was the second part of Webster’s proposition: Using Barth’s formula, he claims that “revelation is reconciliation” (13). He quotes Barth, who says, “Reconciliation is not a truth which revelation makes known to us; reconciliation is the truth of God Himself who grants Himself freely to us in His revelation” (13). “[K]nowledge of God in his revelation,” writes Webster, “is no mere cognitive affair: it is to know God and therefore to love and fear the God who appoints us to fellowship with himself. Revelation is thus not simply the bridging of a noetic divide (though it includes that), but is reconciliation, salvation, and fellowship” (14, italics original). The takeaway is that “Christian theology is enclosed by, and does its work within, the sphere of the revelatory presence of the holy God” (14). Theology does not summon God; God summons theology, placing it under both judgment and sanctification. “As holy reason at work, Christian theology can never escape from the sober realization that we talk in the terrifying presence of the God from whom we cannot flee (Ps. 139.7)” (15). The revelatory presence of the holy God is the context of all theological reasoning.

His presence is also forms the content of our discourse. “Because it is bound to its object—to God as holy, self-revealing subject—theological reason does not produce its content from its own resources. Holy reason is not a poetic but a receptive enterprise” (16, italics original). Theology is not a nominal enterprise, an attempt to shape or figure “the divine reality by the names which it gives to that reality” (16). It is “nothing other than an attempt to repeat the name which God gives to himself as he manifests himself with sovereign mercy: ‘I am the Lord, your Holy One’ (Isa. 43.15)” (16-17).

Holy reason avoids nominalism by encountering the revelatory presence of God as he proclaims himself through Holy Scripture. Webster writes, “God’s communicative presence is encountered through Scripture as the Holy One speaks his Word, for Holy Scripture is that creaturely instrument inspired and appointed by God to serve God’s self-presentation” (17-18). The implication for theology, which complements biblical exegesis, is that it is subordinate to exegesis; “holy reason is exegetical reason” (18). A phenomenology of “the holy,” such as Tillich’s, will contribute little to constructive Christian dogmatics. The proper starting place of theology is the concrete realization of God in Jesus Christ. God expounds his being to us in his history of creation and reconciliation (19). The authoritative canon provides the norm for holy reason, as well as the limit. “Truthful though and speech follow the given order of reality” (19); Scripture forms reason’s act and, being sufficient, limits reason’s knowledge.

Having given an account of holy reason, Webster then depicts its operation. First, “the primary act of holy reason is prayer for the assistance of the Holy Spirit” (21, italics original). He quotes Barth at length:

The first and basic act of theological work is prayer…[T]heological work does not merely begin with prayer and is not merely accompanied by it; in its totality it is peculiar and characteristic of theology that it can be performed only in the act of prayer.” (Barth, Evangelical Theology, p. 160)

Proper dogmatics are, to use Helmut Thielicke’s phrase, “prayed dogmatics.”

Next, “the setting of holy reason is the fellowship of the saints” (21, italics original). The true theologian stands within the holy catholic church, and his or her “particular ministry is to help in the edification of the Church, building up the Church’s common life and so serving the confession of the gospel. Theology does this, very simply, by giving an account of the substance of the gospel as that to which all speech, thought and action in the Church must conform” (26).

Like every other ministry, theology hears from and stands under the Word of God. It is carried out coram Deo and is perfected in the fear of God. The self-revealing God cannot be approached by a neutral observer and cannot be mastered as an object of study. As Webster writes, “God’s holiness means that theology stands under the prohibition: ‘Do not come near’ (Ex. 3.5)” (28). Yet theology also stands under the promise: “Who has made man’s mouth…Is it not I, the Lord? Now therefore go, and I will be your mouth and teach you what you shall speak” (Ex. 4.11-12 qtd. Webster 28). The task of theology is not to be silent before “the holy.” The task of theology is to speak in the fear of the Holy One after Deus dixit.

Last, the telos of holy reason is the “sanctifying of God’s holy name” (29). Following Jonathan Edwards, Webster writes, “The sanctifying or hallowing of the holy name of God is…the basic end of all the works of the fellowship of the saints” (29). Even as a frail, fallible, and human science, theology “can serve the Holy One and the congregation which gathers around him” (30). With fear and trembling, the theologian carries out his or her task with the hopeful resolve of the psalmist, who writes, “My mouth will speak the praise of the Lord, and let all flesh bless his holy name for ever and ever” (Ps. 145.21).