Essay / Theology

John Webster, 1955-2016: “There is Nothing that the Gospel Does Not Explicate”

Webster shotSome of us will now have to break the habit of calling John Webster the greatest living theologian. In due course we’ll have to find a way to estimate where he ranks, and how well he fits in, among the great list of teachers who have doctored the church.

In the front of my copy of one of his books (2000’s Webster-edited Cambridge Companion to Barth), I scrawled excitedly the words “teach theology as if John Webster is right about what theology is.” I can’t recall exactly which Webster sentences prompted this response from me in my first year as a professor. There are dozens of candidates, even though the Webster essay in that volume is not ostensibly about how do to theology. But many of the things Webster lauded in Barth were transparently things that Webster himself had learned (partly from Barth) to value and to put into practice, at least aspirationally. See for yourself:

his personal identity was strongly defined in vocational categories…critique is usually subordinate to description… capable of finely drawn and generous readings of those from whom he is theologically distant… theology was not, for him, simply one more academic discipline, but an aspect of the holiness of the church, the sanctification of its speech and thought… he seems remarkably assured where many others  have not even begun to establish their certainties; he is is immersed in the culture of Christian faith, intimately familiar with its great texts, themes, and episodes…he persistently goes against the grain of some of the most settled intellectual habits of modernity… whatever else absorbed his attention, the decisive impulse was always theological…

Barth or Webster? Yes.

It was right around 2000 that Webster publications began to catch wider attention as more than just Barth studies. That year he and George Schner edited the Theology after Liberalism anthology, and there again an alert reader could tell he wasn’t so much saying what was most promising about postliberal theology as saying what he intended to do in his own work:

postliberal theology has shown considerable interest in constructive rather than critical dogmatics… postliberals have undertaken a good deal of descriptive doctrinal work. giving renewed attention to the internal structures of Christian doctrine… offering expositions of doctrine which are not directed by apologetic concerns but by a sense of responsibility towards (and, one might say, delight in) the grand ideas of the Christian tradition… a return to ‘positive’ theology –theology which sees itself as reflection upon a positum, a given… postliberal theology has both emerged from and sponsored a re-reading of some of the great texts of the Christian tradition… gives priority to description over critical inquiry… matters of theological method are distinctly secondary… viewing theology as an aspect of the practice of Christianity…

Even here describing a movement he was in the process of more or less outgrowing, Webster’s writing had a kind of electrifying effect on a lot of theologians. We felt implicated in what he wrote, or at least that we could be so implicated if we took our task seriously. “Teach theology as if John Webster is right about what theology is.”

In 2002 Webster published a short chapter of theological autobiography, “Discovering Dogmatics,”  in Darren Marks’  volume Shaping a Theological Mind. Here, at last, he was talking directly about his own (not Barth’s, not Frei’s) formation and reformation as a theologian. He did not give a rosy view of the theological culture he was educated in. He reports that

doctrine was chiefly taught through 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. Dominating the curriculum as it did, this approach –roughly speaking, it can be called ‘doctrinal criticism’– had a suppressive effect on constructive theology.

One of the chief problems with this style of theologizing was the way it isolated  individual doctrines from the others, practically dividing to conquer and never attending to the systemic connections of the whole.

I remember this doctrinal-criticism style of academic theology very well. For me it was symbolized by the 1994 Hodgson & King book Christian Theology: An Introduction to Its Traditions and Tasks, in which every essay subjected an isolated doctrine to a three-step procedure:

1. Statement of traditional doctrine,
2. Modern criticisms that show why the doctrine can no longer be maintained in its traditional form,
3. Clever reconstruction move using the latest whatever.

That theological style had such a grip on academic theology in the late twentieth century that I very nearly went into New Testament scholarship instead of systematics. I was well aware that academic biblical studies labored under constraints of its own, being forced to masquerade as a merely descriptive, historical science and avoid making truth claims. But at least neutestamentlichers got to keep up close contact with the Bible. I couldn’t tell what in the world the doctrinal-critical culture of systematic theology was up to, or frankly why they bothered. That’s not quite fair to some of the responsible and interesting work that happened under that banner, but it was almost enough to keep me out of the field.

The only reasons I stuck to systematic theology was that I wanted to study the Trinity (still not something that’s exactly encouraged in biblical studies proper), and that I knew enough to know I didn’t know enough about the whole field of theology and its practitioners. Maybe there was somebody out there doing theology by better lights, and maybe I’d run into them. Eventually I did. Thank God John Webster had worked his way out of the constraints and was beginning to create the space for better theological undertakings.

As Webster tells the story in “Discovering Dogmatics,” several factors helped “to extract me from the inhibitions of my theological formation.” First, he decided to teach confessionally: “to work on the assumptions of the truthfulness and helpfulness of the Christian confession, and not to devote too much time and energy to developing arguments in its favour or responses to its critical denials.” And secondly,

I resolved to structure the content of my teaching in accordance with the intellectual and spiritual logic of the Christian confession as it finds expression int eh classical creeds, to allow that structure to stand and to explicate itself, and not to press the material into some other format. Thus my survey of Christian doctrine was (and remains) simply a conceptual expansion of the Apostles’ Creed as a guide to the Gospel that is set out in Holy Scripture. Once I resolved to work in this way, I quite quickly found that the substance and order of Christian doctrine displayed itself as much more grand, and much more comprehensible, than when I had approached it as a series of critical problems.

Teaching in this way, and taking lessons from Barth and postliberalism, Webster testifies that he learned “the need to do dogmatics, and to do so with good humour, diligently and with 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.” And that given task, for Webster, took place in two spheres of work:

One is that of becoming acquainted with the history of Christian theology, and coming to understand it as the history of the church: as spiritual history, as a history of attempts to articulate the Gospel, and not just as a lumber room full of opinions to be submitted to the critical scrutiny of ‘valuers’ and then auctioned off or discarded.

The other task is that of trying to understand and think through the categories of classical dogmatics in their totality and their interrelations –to acquire a proper grasp of the architecture of dogmatics and to see its shape as the science of the Church’s confession.

The freedom to work this way came from his growing ability to be critical of the critical move. But the main motive, he wrote, was “because I have gradually come to see that the Gospel itself must explicate the task of theological reason, since there is nothing that the Gospel does not explicate. Theological reason is as much a sphere of reconciliation, sanctification, and prayer as any other human undertaking.”

Webster was just trying to work his way out of the limitations of his own theological education, but it will always seem to me that his early-career course correction was a major event in modern systematic theology. It seems clear to me that his positive joy in doing theology was the dominant note in his work. I could be wrong, though, because his critical jabs were so incisive and educational that they likely predominate in some readers’ minds. Surveying the theological scene in 2002, the best he could say about its center of gravity was, “It’s not yet Ritschl.” Not exactly a rave review. And when he started throwing elbows (“social and cultural immanentism…soft revisionism chastened by bits of Barth…over-clever Angl0-Catholicism with precious little Christology, soteriology, or pneumatology… not much by way of positive dogmatics…”), he could be sharp.

It was a major event for the work of systematic theology when John Webster found his theological voice. It feels like a major event that his voice is now silenced.

All I can say is, “Teach theology as if John Webster is right about what theology is.”

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