Nature Precedes Interpretation- Another Dose of John Webster

It may have posted nearly a year ago, but better late than never, right? I stumbled upon Ashish Varma’s review of my boy John Webster’s The Domain of the Word over at Wheaton College’s blog yesterday and it doth abound in awesome. The entire thing’s well worth reading in full, both to get a feel for Webster’s most recent work and as a further introduction to this thought as a whole. Varma focuses most of the review on the first and tenth chapters (“The Domain of the Word” and “Curiosity”, respectively) since they are new material exclusive to the book. Here’s a snippet to expand on some of the points I raised a couple weeks ago:

For Webster, while “the order of being precedes and is actively present to the order of knowing” (i.e., the triune God precedes the Scripture by which we know him, and he is the one doing the revealing in Scripture—135), “Scripture is the cognitive principle of theology in the sense that Scripture is the place to which theology is directed to find its subject matter and the norm by which its representations are evaluated” (128–29). The interplay of these orders of being and knowing ultimately set the agenda for all that Webster does in the present volume, for the former shapes the metaphysical (or formal) contours of his thought while the latter provides the material revelation of the object of his study (namely, the triune God)…

For those familiar with Webster’s previous work or simply with the analysis above, it should come as no surprise that Webster treats “nature” prior to “interpretation.” On the matter of the nature of Scripture, Webster wastes no time identifying the actual heart of the issue: “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” (3). In other words, to understand the nature and content of Scripture, it must be rightly situated within an ontology and “metaphysics of nature” as subservient to the person of God and his creative and redemptive purposes (see p. 7).

In this light, without denying the historicity of the biblical texts and the (limited) helpfulness of historical and literary research for our understanding of the text, Webster disavows the “dominant trajectory in the modern development of study of the Bible” (5), namely the treatment (and sometimes identification) of Scripture in purely historical ways as merely the historical fruit of human authors. For sure the Bible is a collection of historical texts with human authors, but for Webster, these are derivative truths of the biblical text in light of divine accommodation (see pp. 95ff.): “[w]ithin the divine economy, the value of the natural properties of texts, and of the skills and operations of readers, does not consist in their self-sufficiency but in their appointment as creaturely auxiliaries through which God administers healing to wasted and ignorant sinners” (6; emphasis mine). Thus, he uses an entire gamut of descriptors to better situate the nature of the text[2]: it is “commissioned” and “sanctified” (8, 15); “human speech . . . sustained by a movement of the Holy Spirit” (i.e., “mystery”—9); “signa mediating divine instruction,” not “simply signifying” (6, 10); “biblical signs [that] bear the divine Word to their hearers” (10); the product of “verbal inspiration” of God (10; “God speaks as inspired Scripture speaks”—16); “human words . . . caught up in God’s providential ordering” (14); and “a unified attestation of Jesus Christ” (17). Webster is emphatic that all of this is true of Scripture because of its ongoing position within its ontology, not “in isolation from God’s continuous relation to it” (17).

The second part of the essay, the interpretation of Scripture, follows closely upon Webster’s reflections on its nature. He is adamant that hermeneutics, while important, is secondary to ontology. It is the latter that guarantees Scripture’s clarity even if the church does not always apprehend with clarity (23). Furthermore, it is the latter that properly situates the church as readers and especially as hearers (24–5). In other words, it is the ontology of the text that guarantees the place of the church as receiver of the Word; hearing more clearly demonstrates our posture as primarily one of reception, which precedes “one of teaching and proclamation” (25). (On this point, Webster’s affinity with Martin Luther is astounding, for Luther, too, argued for hearing before reading for similar reasons.) The preacher sits comfortably in this ontology as an “ambassador of the Word” (26), again showing God’s active accommodation as we move from Word to Scripture to church. The church’s reception of the Word through hearing and reading also constitutes the transformation and reorientation of the church by the Spirit. Webster astutely writes of the church that seeks to understand Scripture, “We must become certain kinds of persons”; indeed, “[t]he Spirit produces readers” (26­–7). Ultimately, it is only in this divinely initiated and fulfilled process that one may move beyond the signa of Scripture. Historical and literary analysis may aid in understanding (Webster calls them necessary but not sufficient causes), but neither these nor any other “interpretative procedures” will lead to understanding of the text apart from the ministry of the Spirit and the (Spirit-enabled) willingness of the church to be a hearing body open to “exegetical surprise” and “spiritual astonishment” in receiving Scripture (28–9).

Fittingly, the other new essay (ch. 10—“Curiosity”) seems to pick up where the initial chapter leaves off. Webster’s concern here is faithful theological reasoning, and his avenue of exploration is the interchange or “conflict between the virtue of studiousness and the vice of curiosity” (193; emphasis mine). For the sake of avoiding equivocation, it is worth pointing out that Webster’s actual objects of examination are most certainly the Latin studiositas and curiositas; that these are the more central terms are evident in his heavy appeal to Aquinas and his defining of his English terms along the lines of traditional technical usage of the Latin terms in virtue treatises. Clarification aside, Webster explains that curiosity is fixated on the signa (196), knowing for the sake of knowing rather than out of love of God (199). Webster describes this kind of knowing as “intellectual promiscuity” (198). It is this undisciplined, rogue desire to know that Webster sees as rampant in academic theology in its obsession with novelty and its concession to the “authority of the convention” (202). Conversely, “studious dedication of mental powers must so relate to the object of study that the integrity of the object is respected as it comes to be known” (194). The studious person loves the object of his/her study and strives to know this object without violating it/him/her or its/his/her terms. The object of theology is God, which makes the concern all the more important. Knowing God means knowing God as he reveals himself, moving beyond the signa of Scripture, and not reaching beyond God’s own initiated boundaries.

I don’t know about you, but reading this gets me so pumped to learn more from Webster and apply it to the task of reasoning and embodying theology here and now! The scope, rigor, and ardor of his thought are so energizing, so well-suited for the church’s task in our era. Check out the rest of Varma’s review and then consider purchasing The Domain of the Word– it’s been rereleased in paperback for the rest of us commoners (poverty-stricken theologians of the world, unite!). Most of all, be encouraged that God is gifting the church with such exceptional teachers to indicate our way forward!

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