Essay / Theology

Gentle Correction

On at least two occasions, John Webster reviewed combative books with which he largely agreed, but slipped in some gentle reprimands along the way. I think of these reviews often, as instructive instances of how a theologian can be constructive and peaceable even while entering into a charged debate; even, in fact, taking sides. Even, in fact, taking sides by commending the work of writers who, in his judgement, made great points but made them too polemically.

The first example is Webster’s review of Pitstick’s Light in Darkness (Scottish Journal of Theology 62/2 (2009): 202–210). This book was enormously controversial, especially in Roman Catholic circles; a Protestant observer might be loathe to weigh in. But Webster leads off with a solid statement of the difficult doctrinal content the book succeeds in expounding: “Though rarely addressed in a direct way, the theology of God’s perfection is a central point at issue in contemporary Christian dogmatics. A good many debates of the moment turn on how the perfection of God’s life is to be conceived.”

One of the many ways of profiting from Dr Pitstick’s book is to read it as, in part at least, an essay in defence of a certain construal of divine perfection. Indeed, one of my hopes for the book is that, once the noise of battle has subsided and the wounded have been dressed and taken to shelter, we may be able to engage peaceably and constructively with some of the material dogmatic issues to which it has drawn our attention.

There’s a hint in that opening phrase that certain ways of reading the book might not be profitable: but here’s a way of reading it that is. The hint becomes stronger when Webster says that “the noise of battle” will need to subside, and “the wounded…dressed and taken to shelter” before readers will be able to focus on the material dogmatic issues. After suggesting a few things he wishes the author had handled differently, Webster concludes:

But most of all I could wish for a gentler book. So far as I’m aware, we are all ‘theologians not yet canonized’ (p. 31), and none of us is likely to be. We should be patient with one another in theological debate, especially when we fear another has transgressed a boundary; the apostle commands us that we restore in a spirit of gentleness and look to ourselves, lest we, too, be tempted (Gal. 6:1).

The second example is Webster’s review of Paul Monlar’s book Divine Freedom and the Doctrine of the Immanent Trinity (Journal of Theological Studies 56/1 (2005), 288–291.) Here was a book with which Webster was very greatly in agreement, making an argument about God’s freedom that aligned very closely with the things that mattered most to Webster. And (as I pointed out in my own review of Molnar’s book in Cultural Encounters), Molnar’s book actually changed minds by intercepting a theological trend that needed intercepting. So Webster’s review of Molnar is overwhelmingly positive.

And yet… there is some good-humored poking going on here as well. Webster identifies it as a book with good guys on one side and bad guys on the other. The villains, he notes, are mostly “those North American systematicians at the tail end of the correlationist tradition for whom doctrines are symbolic expressions of human aspirations or ways of seeing the world religiously.” And the heroes are consistently Karl Barth and Thomas F. Torrance; perhaps it is by them that

Molnar has been schooled in a certain single-minded and urgent intellectual style, with its distinctive features: a fondness for contrasts (revelation vs. experience; creativity vs. receptivity); a concern to point out how adherence to certain theological principles can have destructive consequences; a ‘maximal’ presentation of positions.”

That is a very gentle way of pointing out that Molnar tends to categorize his opponents not quite by calling them heretics, but by using the labels of heresies to highlight the kind of errors they are making. This is such a prominent stylistic feature of the book that Webster admits, “It would be easy enough to dismiss the book as a syllabus errorum.” But in fact the book is significantly constructive, arguing for “for a shift away from a doctrine of the Trinity organized around an abstract principle of relationality or the primacy of historical experience towards a doctrine focused on the sovereignty and perfection of the triune God as the ground of his works.” Again, note how firmly Webster steers the reader away from the dynamics of conflict, back toward the theological issue of God’s perfection.

And again, advice about how to read it profitably: “The book is to be read as a ground-clearing exercise: part protest, part alarm signal, part dismantling of the shaky edifice of modern economic trinitarianism.” To read it as a list of baddies would be to miss its real contribution; even if it sort of invites the reader to read it that way, such an invitation should be rejected.

“There are a few friendly-fire incidents in the book;” Webster warns. That is, Molnar polemicizes unnecessarily against Colin Gunton, Alan Torrance, and Eberhard Jungel, who are probably more on Molnar’s side on most methodological and substantive issues than they are on the side of the critical reconstructionists of revisionist trinitarianism. Might a gentler book have made common cause with such authors, rather than making enemies where they didn’t need to be made?

Webster doesn’t linger over these considerations; he is determined to bring his own readers back to the thing itself, where Molnar is a valuable guide: “Molnar does not simply belabour his opponents, but out-thinks them by making his appeal to some of the primary principles of trinitarian doctrine and demonstrating that those principles can solve problems more commonly solved by appeal to non-dogmatic materials.” Definitely makes you want to read the book and take it to heart!

“Yet this being the case,” Webster admits, “it would have been good to give greater space to positive exposition of the doctrine of the immanent Trinity, showing its superiority by graceful, patient, and probing description, and not only by polemic. A more leisurely treatment of such matters as the nature of the trinitarian persons and their unity, differentiation, and modes of relation would enrich the text.” Two things to note here: First, Molnar published an expanded second edition of Divine Freedom, which, while it may not dial back the polemics, does provide more ample positive exposition of trinitarian theology. And second, Webster was obliquely correcting himself here as well, recognizing that he also needed to offer more by way of “graceful, patient, and probing description” of the doctrine of the immanent Trinity.

This is the way to do it. Webster wasn’t infallible when it came to controversy; I can think of a couple of theologians who he thrashed in print a bit unfairly, apparently having decided that a public example had to be made of them. But I think of these two reviews often, and hope to learn their lessons thoroughly.

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