Ordering Our Thinking Towards the Gospel of Christ

John Webster

John Webster is quickly becoming one of my favorite contemporary theologians. I became aware of him through Kevin Vanhoozer, a pretty sure sign that a dude is legit. Webster is an Anglican minister and the Chair of Divinity at St. Mary’s College, University of St. Andrew’s. St. Andrew’s is in Scotland, by the way, so that automatically makes him cooler than most human beings. Prior to this post he was professor of systematic theology at King’s College, University of Aberdeen (still in Scotland!), which is only sort of a big deal.

I appreciate Webster for several reasons, first among them the rich devotional character of his theological work. Theology for Webster isn’t some sarcophagal encapsulation of dead data, cut off from the life and practice of the church. Theology is an intellectual activity insofar as it consists in the organization of the church’s knowledge of God, not as an end in itself, but towards the goal of deeper fellowship with the living God. “The matter of Christian faith,” he insists, is “the fellowship between God and creatures… a fellowship which stretches from the formation of creatures from the dust to the New Jerusalem, and which has its temporal center in the history of the incarnate Son of God.” [1] The teaching ministry and the life of the disciple both demand focused thought in order to discern what is and isn’t consonant with the gospel that has claimed them. At bottom, theology is necessary if we (corporately and individually) are to wisely inhabit God’s narrative of redemption through Christ; right action can only follow right belief, so we must labor to pray and praise and evangelize on the basis of who this God discloses Himself to be.

So yes, theology demands thought, but not of the ivory tower variety, nor is it the work of a few eggheads in isolation; “[t]heology is the work of reason in the society of the saints,” [2] Webster insists. Nor is it a speculative matter generating its conclusions through autonomous Reason or subjecting Scripture to its criticism; no, theology sits under the mastery of the Word, not we in mastery over it. “Theological reason is the exercise of redeemed intelligence within the economy of God’s revelatory grace,” he counters; in the work of reconciliation “God judges and heals the ignorance of creatures, and makes them fit subjects of knowledge by his Word and Spirit. As God reconciles, he makes created intellect come newly alive by his instruction and enlightenment.” [3] Reason must be redeemed by God’s gracious activity in Christ and must subordinate itself to God’s address in Scripture if it is to function towards its proper, creaturely end.

The irreplaceable importance of fellowship with God and the saints for theology manifests itself in a canon sense (to use Vanhoozer’s phrase) which prizes the development of the theological tradition. Being solidly Reformed, he insists, is a way to faithfully inhabit the church’s catholic tradition, meaning he’s at home quoting Calvin just as much as he is Thomas Aquinas, Henri de Lubac, and Jonathan Edwards. He also recognizes how much there is to appreciate and appropriate from Karl Barth but his canon, catholic sense means he has plenty of constructive, evangelical course corrections to make to the Swiss doctor’s dogmatic project.

In light of all this, Webster understands the church’s theological task to be diametrically opposed to the Enlightenment project. Besides its deification of so-called “autonomous” Reason, the Enlightenment’s preference for analysis by elements rather than analysis by principles divorced epistemology from metaphysics, a disastrous move for man’s knowledge as a whole. Webster accordingly rejects the arbitrary fragmentation of knowledge and experience that characterizes modernity and asserts the necessity of the church’s confession as the only legitimate starting point for the task of understanding God, the world, and ourselves. One instance of this is his lament that so much theologizing of the last forty years has been consumed with the turn towards hermeneutics. Hermeneutics of itself cannot identify Scripture as God’s Word, it can only ask, “What do we do with this?”; it tries to explain what texts are but cannot identify what this text is. As such, a prioritization of hermeneutics can only miss the point of theology. Scripture’s ontological status as revelation from and of God can only be recognized by that “redeemed intelligence within the economy of God’s revelatory grace” mentioned above. The doctrine of Scripture must be anchored to the doctrine of God and confessed as a preliminary to hermeneutics.

“Confession,” he notes, “does not take its rise in natural perception; its origins lie in the conversion of reason through divine instruction. Confession is the articulation of knowledge which comes to us in the course of the great work of reconciliation which is purposed by God the Father, accomplished by God the Son, and brought to full effect by God the Holy Spirit.” [4] As such, confession undergirds biblical exegesis and not the other way around. Apart from faith (in the sense of both the conversion of fallen reason and as active fellowship with the living God) and the cultivation of certain habits of thought and interpretation (both of which are to be nurtured in the church) exegesis will not fuel theology in any meaningful way.

First, a prudent theology will treat questions concerning the nature and interpretation of Scripture indirectly, that is, as corollaries of more primary theological teaching about the relation of God and creatures: this, because Scripture is (for example) part of God’s providential supplying of the life of the church, and we will remain unclear about Scripture as long as we are unclear about God, providence and church. Indeed, part of the strain evident in some modern conceptions of Scripture and hermeneutics originates in their unhappy alienation from their proper doctrinal habitat: uprooted, they find themselves exposed, lacking the resources afforded by a larger theological and spiritual environment, and so unable to flourish. This fate they share, of course, with the doctrine of revelation which has suffered similar dislocation; in both cases, disarray is overcome in part by restoring them to their proper subordinate place.

Second, the order in which the two divisions of the topic are treated is of some consequence: bibliology is prior to hermeneutics. Theology talks of what the biblical text is and what the text does before talking of who we are and what we do with the text, and it talks about what the text is and does by talking about God as Scripture’s author and illuminator. [5]

Recognizing the ontological tether between Scripture and the triune God elevates the theologian’s task and makes it a service to the church rather than a dry, academic exercise. It’s no surprise then that he deliberately prefers the word “dogmatics” (dogma = a belief, from dokeo, “to think or suppose”; i.e. an article to be believed) to the more typical “systematic theology”, in part, I think, to emphasize this vital connection between fellowship, doxology, and creedal faith. Accordingly, Webster offers a vision of dogmatics as “that delightful activity in which the church praises God by ordering its thinking towards the gospel of Christ.” [6] Dogmatic theology opens the church “to the scope of the life and the truth of the gospel” [7] by elaborating upon Scripture’s narrative with extrabiblical language and concepts:

Conceptual reconstruction is the basic task of Christian dogmatics. In undertaking this task, dogmatics stands beneath the canon of prophetic and apostolic texts and the order of reality set forth therein, which we can call the works of God. Deferrence to the canon is crucial to dogmatic theology even though dogmatics’ idiom is conceptual and even though its organization is often topical rather than dramatic. The question of the relation between canonical and dogmatic idiom and canonical and dogmatic order is of course a fine matter, and I think it’s one of art, rather than one of rules determinable in advance. Dogmatic theology, in other words, has to tread cautiously here because topical treatment musn’t overwhelm the canonical norm; it has to serve it as commentary. This, I’ve come to think, is usually best achieved in dogmatics by retaining a basic canonical and creedal outline (essentially the economy of creation to the last things) into which conceptual and topical discussion is interpolated as a set of substantial, explanatory glosses but not, note, as a speculative improvement upon the canonical, kerygmatic presentation; this has to retain its primacy. [8]

Finally, Webster credits the contemporary resurgence in constructive systematic theology in part to more and more people recognizing that, contrary to modernist propaganda, “the Enlightenment is only one episode in the history of one (Western) culture and not a turning point in the history of humankind” [9]. The poor theology the Enlightenment presupposed can and should be dismantled and bypassed to make way for a rejuvenated and robust Christian confessionalism. A firm tug at its many sloppy threads unravels the entire thing, supplying the theologian and the lay believer alike with the cheerful confidence to dismiss its astonishing arrogance and move on:

The “new atheism” looks to me pretty much like old atheism, but it is more aggressive, less historically informed and woefully ignorant of what Christians (and other religious practitioners) actually say and think. Compared with serious critiques from the past, much new atheism reads more like a tantrum than an argument. [10]

All of these traits and convictions mark Webster out as an important contributor to 21st century theology. I’m uber pumped about his forthcoming Systematic Theology and think it will signal an important development in theology in (and not of) the postmodern age. His dogmatic work, I think, will help drive that wooden stake a little further through the blackened heart of modernity, for God’s greater glory and the good of the world both. Do yourself a favor and check him out!

[1] John Webster, “Perfection and Presence: God With Us, According to the Christian Confession,” Kantzer Lectures in Revealed Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Available at http://henrycenter.tiu.edu/resource/perfection-and-presence-god-with-us-according-to-the-christian-confession/

[2] ibid.

[3] John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (London: T&T Clark, 2012), p. ix

[4] John Webster, Confessing God: Essays in Church Dogmatics II (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2005), p. 38

[5] Webster, The Domain of the Word, pp. 3-4

[6] John Webster, Word and Church: Essays in Church Dogmatics (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001), p. 1

[7] Webster, “Perfection and Presence: God With Us, According to the Christian Confession”

[8] ibid.

[9] “An Interview With John Webster”, The Christian Century, June 3, 2008, pp. 32-34. Available at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3553

[10] ibid.


One thought on “Ordering Our Thinking Towards the Gospel of Christ

  1. Pingback: Nature Precedes Interpretation- Another Dose of John Webster | Glimpses Elsewhere

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