Abstract:This essay introduces John Webster’s approach to the work of theology by considering its formal principles and their relation to the material claims of the Christian faith. We pay particular attention to his inaugural lectures given at Wycliffe College in 1995, at Oxford University in 1997, and the University of St. Andrews in 2014, filling out the picture by considering a few other significant essays. In so doing we will sketch three phases of his methodological development, which are meant heuristically to note ways in which his principled approach has been further extended and elaborated over the last twenty years and to note ways in which there have been shifts or developments within his prolegomena (e.g., regarding the nature of Scripture and its properties). Hopefully such a critical introduction then makes possible thoughtful, contextual engagement with and conversation about various elements of his work.
For thirty years, John Webster established himself as a leading theologian and shaped a variety of conversations regarding topics as diverse as the doctrine of God, Holy Scripture, ecclesiology, and creation.1 Having previously held significant positions at Wycliffe College in Toronto, the University of Oxford, and the University of Aberdeen, he held a chair at the University of St. Andrews until his death in May 2016. He supervised dozens of doctoral students, many of whom now play key roles in a variety of theological faculties around the globe. With Colin Gunton, he founded the International Journal of Systematic Theology and remained at the helm as editor nearly twenty years later, even as that publication has established itself at the front rank of its kind. With Kathryn Tanner and Iain Torrance, he edited The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology.2 He served in a variety of other capacities in major book series and journals of repute: as series editor for Studies in Systematic Theology (T&T Clark) and for Great Theologians and Barth Studies (Ashgate), and as a member of the editorial board for Scottish Journal of Theology, Current Issues in Theology (Cambridge), Journal of Reformed Theology, Studies in Theological Interpretation (Baker Academic) and New Studies in Dogmatics (Zondervan Academic). His influence has been recently noted by his peers with the publication of a festschrift upon his 60th birthday.3
Professor Webster’s work began with reception of modern Protestant theology. He introduced the English-speaking world to the Lutheran systematic theologian and philosopher of religion, Eberhard Jüngel. This first phase of his published work took the form of a published doctoral dissertation that remains the standard account of Jüngel’s work as well as two volumes of edited essays by Jüngel and another edited collection of essays responding to his theology.4 Years later, he also put together a new translation of Jüngel’s work on Karl Barth’s doctrine of the theology, God’s Being Is in Becoming, and introduced his polemical treatise on justification for its release in English.5
His second sustained work of reception focused on the theologian whom Jüngel drew upon most, the Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth. Webster offered the first significant analysis of the final fragments of the Church Dogmatics and their ethical bearing on the Christian life in his Barth’s Ethics of Reconciliation.6 He then followed this work a few years later with a collection of essays surveying more widely on Barth’s Moral Theology.7 Whereas the first book focused tightly upon one relatively small section of Barth’s voluminous text, the latter volume showed a sense of the whole and an ability to appreciate its dogmatic and moral architecture. Webster also offered two volumes that have proven significant in drawing new readers to Barth, releasing an introduction to his theology entitled Barth and editing the Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth.8 A few years later, he continued his own work in offering close readings of particular texts by Barth as he examined some of his earliest lecture cycles in Göttingen and explored their formative role for his own theology as an exegetical and Reformed theologian; these essays were published as Barth’s Earlier Theology.9
The last twenty years have seen Webster establish himself as a dogmatic theologian, however, supplementing that prior reputation as a leading analyst of historical texts. A number of essay collections have been produced over the last 15 years, gathering journal articles and essay contributions to various volumes for interested readers. First, Word and Church offered essays focused upon Holy Scripture, Christ, and ecclesiology in 2001.10 Second, his small book Holiness offered four lectures in 2003, previously delivered as the Day Higginbotham lectures at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, regarding the holiness of theology, God, the church, and the Christian.11 Third, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch offered his Scottish Journal of Theology lectures at the University of Aberdeen to a wider audience in 2003 and provided what has been one of the most significant doctrinal elaborations of a Protestant theology of Scripture’s nature and interpretation in the last generation.12 Fourth, another collection of essays, Confessing God, appeared in 2005 and addressed theology, God, ecclesiology, and ethics.13 Fifth, The Domain of the Word appeared in 2012 and gathered together ten essays on scripture and theological reason.14 Sixth, two volumes appeared in 2015 under the title God without Measure, with the first addressing “God and the works of God” and the second “virtue and intellect.”15
In many ways much of Webster’s work remained ongoing at the time of his death. He continued to supervise numerous doctoral students at St. Andrews. He was completing work on a volume of essays regarding creation and providence, and he was finalizing a volume entitled Perfection and Presence: God with Us according to the Christian Confession, previously delivered as the first Kantzer Lectures in Revealed Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in 2007. He intended to write a theological commentary on Ephesians for the well-known Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. And his magnum opus would surely have been his projected five volume systematic theology, which he had begun in earnest.
The time is ripe for an assessment of Webster’s theology (and its development). Admittedly, his lengthier and more detailed work in presenting an entire dogmatics was expected only to come——in future years and would surely have allowed for more pointed assessment in various ways. Yet his output touched on virtually every topic (with but a few major exceptions, as atonement, the ordo salutis, and the sacraments are the areas least touched by his writings thus far) to some degree and upon major tent-posts of a theological system at particularly great length. We can then observe something of the structures, principles, and main emphases of his thought..
This essay will seek to unfold and introduce his approach to the work of theology by considering its formal principles and their relation to the various material claims of the Christian faith. To do so, we will pay particular attention to his inaugural lectures given at Wycliffe College in 1995, at Oxford University in 1997, and the University of St. Andrews in 2014. Given the significance of such lectures for laying out one’s intellectual project, they serve as helpful touchpoints for assessing continuities and developments within Webster’s theology. We will fill out the picture by considering a few significant essays that further the picture. In so doing we will sketch three phases of his methodological development, which are meant heuristically to note ways in which his principled approach has been further extended and elaborated over the last twenty years and to note areas of genuine development (e.g., regarding the nature of Scripture and its properties). Hopefully such a critical introduction then makes possible thoughtful, contextual engagement with various elements of his work.
2. Reading Theological Theology
In 1995 Webster delivered a lecture entitled “Reading Theology” upon his installation as Ramsay Armitage Professor of Systematic Theology at Wycliffe College in Toronto. Several of his abiding concerns are evident already in this lecture.16 The lecture begins by noting the significance of the “textual deposit” which Christian theologians read, as well as the modern biases against such a notion and practice (in particular, looking at excerpts from Descartes’s Discourse on Method and Hegel’s Lectures on the History of Philosophy).17 Webster notes that Hegel’s concern for traditioned inquiry runs against the grain of Cartesian intellectual pursuit, which tends toward the ahistorical. “It is not simply that when they browse in the library Descartes is skeptical and Hegel is fascinated, but rather that texts and the conventions of schooling with which they are associated are for Hegel a shape for the mind, whereas for Descartes they are an obstacle.”18 Webster argues that modern theology has struggled with competing visions for the reflective self’s nature, then, and he suggests that Hegel offers a better way forward. Over against Descartes, Hegel might help us realize we never begin, much less beginning anew, for we always receive a gift prior to any action or work, intellectual or otherwise.
Yet Webster suggests a need not simply to find the right philosophical approach and apply its parameters to the pursuit of divinity, but to offer what he calls here “a theological account of theology” which necessarily “describes its nature and functions by invoking language about God, describing the human actions of creating and reading theology in relation to divine agency.”19 Webster’s first proposal addresses theology, church, gospel, Scripture, and their relations: “Theology serves the Word of God by assisting the Church to remain faithful to the gospel as it is manifest in Holy Scripture.”20 Here the issue of faithfulness is highlighted, and he notes the primacy of “hearing the gospel and the Bible” over any intellectual act of construction or response. The most apt term, then, for theological work is exegesis, in as much as it honors our receptive posture and the specifically textual character of that reception. In so doing he commends the reformational concern for catechetical practices in theological training, highlighting not only Calvin’s famous purposes for preparing his Institutes of the Christian Religion but the lesser known program of Zwingli laid out in his On the Education of the Youth.
He extends his argument, however, with a second proposal that follows with many parallels and one distinctive difference from the first proposal. “Theology serves the Word of God by assisting the Church to remain alert to the challenge of the gospel as it is manifest in Holy Scripture.”21 Webster points to the role of theology here as challenge, the single word that differs from the preceding point. He elaborates: “Theology is the tradition discriminating between itself and the Word of God, acknowledging the contingency and, therefore, openness to revision of the ways in which it has sought to represent the gospel.”22 Because the Word always comes before and remains distinct from even our most honored affirmations, it always challenges any sense of finality shy of glory. Webster grounds this discriminating or challenging role of God’s Word not in human sin, finitude, linguistic indeterminacy, or any other common argument, but ultimately in the reality that “it is the living voice of God, who, as it were, stands on the far side of all our attempts to convert God’s Word into a mere intensification of our natural existence.”23
These two ways of theology’s operation are summed up by Webster as encompassing “a descriptive or ‘locative’ mode, in which theology serves the Church’s need to state its identity, and a critical or ‘utopian’ mode, in which theology serves the Church’s need to resist cultural sclerosis.” Further, he immediately argues that “reading will be near the centre of the theological school’s mission,” specifically, reading “Scripture and the classics of Christian response to Scripture.”24 While he notes that some would see such an educational program as restrictively and impracticably intellectualist, he argues that just the opposite is true, for engagement of texts enables cultures to “articulate, reflect on, and criticize themselves” and to enable them to thoughtfully inhabit ministerial functions.25
Webster draws significant implications for theological schools and their relation to the broader university culture, though he returns to this theme at greater length in Oxford inaugural lecture upon assumption to the Lady Margaret Professorship in Divinity in 1997. That lecture was entitled “Theological Theology” and offered a much more direct comparative assessment of his earlier proposals with the reigning intellectual culture of university theology and religious studies programs.26
Beginning broadly, Webster there noted that “Christian theology is not a serious factor to contend with in thinking about the university’s intellectual agenda and its modes of enquiry.”27 Why? First, the modern university has marginalized moral and religious concerns. Second, religious and theological work has taken upon itself the normative models and practices of university life. In other words, the discipline has been threatened from the outside and, in so doing, has assumed the form of that which is outside. The result? “[T]he more theology invokes theological doctrine to articulate its nature and procedures, the more precarious has been its tenure in the dominant institutions of intellectual enquiry.”28
“Theological Theology” then presented that “anthropology of enquiry” operative in the modern university culture, one where “learning is a generic human enterprise” and that the “most basic act as a reflective self is that act in which I summon the world into my presence, as it were commanding it to appear before me by making a representation of it.”29 This anthropology has encouraged the decline of Bildung (formation) and the rise of Wissenschaft (science), a turn from the pursuit of the good viewed in a particular shape and toward good intellectual practice according to universal protocols. The newly minted Lady Margaret chair of divinity suggested that this retrogression was not owing solely to forces external to the discipline of divinity but also largely (chiefly?) to the internal development of the discipline itself which he depicts as “its steady alienation from its own subject matter and procedures.”30 He sketched the genealogies of Michael Buckley and Eberhard Jüngel to give some shape to this broad judgment of disciplinary decline, what can only be depicted as an analysis that the salt of theological inquiry had lost its saltiness (see Matt 5:13).31
Not content simply to gesture toward other genealogies, the lecture then offered two case studies wherein particular doctrines had become sites of “disorder within Christian dogmatics” and instances for observing the “hesitancy of theology to field theological claims.”32 First, the migration and expansion of the doctrine of revelation was highlighted. He argued that “the shift . . . in post-Reformation dogmatics—a shift described by Ronald Thiemann as one ‘from assumption to argument’—is not simply a matter of making explicit basic principles of Reformation thought. Quite the opposite: it often takes the form of the replacement of a doctrine of God by epistemology.”33 Second, he describes how “the resurrection shifts from being an object of belief to being a ground of belief.”34 In both instances, apologetic concerns based on the wider anthropological assumptions that knowledge can be discerned by any objective observer has led to re-situating and re-scaling these doctrines for new purposes.
The earlier focus upon texts and “reading theology” are not lost, for Webster then turned to contrasting two modes of theological inquiry. He speaks of a turn from what he here calls “citation” to scientific, universal enquiry as the “dominant mode” of argument.35 Citation worked by way of constant reference to fundamental texts. Indeed, “theology’s literary forms and intellectual architecture, its rhetoric and its modes of argument, are controlled by proximity to these sources.”36 A shift to universal enquiry, however, “involves retiring the rhetoric of commentary, paraphrase and reiteration, for those ways of doing theological work cannot serve the goal of enquiry, which is proof underived from the terms of the tradition itself.”37
A complex decline narrative is presented: “It is not simply that theology has failed to keep pace with modernity (in one sense, it has kept pace all too well); nor simply that theology was turfed out by rationalism (for theology itself contributed a great deal to its own decline.” Such external threats are matched by internal malformations as well, for “internal disarray incapacitated theology all the more because it left theologians with such a reduced intellectual capital to draw upon as they sought to make judgments about the ideals, academic and spiritual, which presented themselves for their attention with such institutional force.”38
And a broad future is envisioned or called for, not simply one in which theology is allowed or tolerated within the panoply of intellectual disciplines. Such would be to abandon the notion of the university as indeed unified in any sense, if one discipline were tolerated in spite of its supposed failure to meet intellectual standards. Rather, Webster argues that theology, by being more theological, might actually provoke challenge to the regnant understanding of human inquiry. Here Webster speaks of the “distinctiveness” of theology and locates it “not simply in its persistence in raising questions of ultimacy, but rather in its invocation of God as agent in the intellectual practice of theology.”39 Theology not only keeps values on the table, as it were, but it reminds us that God serves the whole meal.
The lecture concludes with brief attention to the project of Johannes Wollebius. Webster noted that Wollebius identified God himself as the “principle of the being of theology,” that is, its material principle, and the Word of God as the “principle by which it is known,” that is, its formal principle.40 A realist theological approach must be upheld, but this commitment must be matched by a rigor to focus as a discipline upon identity description of God himself, not growing bored with such concern and seeking solace elsewhere. And God’s agency must be acknowledged through the auxiliary of his Word, wherein theological inquiry is given fresh legs as its object is also shown to be its subject.
This first phase of principled exposition regarding the nature and practice of theology, then, has identified major concerns: God, Scripture, church, culture, and reading. Webster engaged with classic texts marking the modern tradition of rational inquiry as well as sought to identify ways in which such intellectual habits had infiltrated and permeated much modern divinity. By way of response, he pointed first to a need to fix upon divine agency not only as the object of our inquiry but as the context for such intellectual pursuit and second upon the need to challenge the supposedly universal and objective truths sought by science and to pursue distinctive and competing truths and visions by fixing upon the particular texts of the Christian theological tradition.
3. Principled, Biblical Reasoning
We can observe a second phase in Webster’s methodological development, as we consider two texts published during his tenure at the University of Aberdeen. We will first look at his presentation of “Biblical Reasoning” wherein he returns to concerns about the anthropology underneath any theological method but also presses on to speak more fully of the economy of God’s grace as well as the specific modes of reason undertaken in dogmatics and exegesis. We will then consider his essay on the “Principles of Systematic Theology,” wherein he returned to those basic points drawn from Wollebius in “Theological Theology” regarding the material and noetic principles of theology. We will see that his basic concerns are sustained here, though new resources are brought to bear upon his argument and new wrinkles or details are added to the picture.
First, Webster published an essay entitled “Biblical Reasoning” in 2008. Here he expanded his methodological program by defining the nature of the discipline:
Christian theology is biblical reasoning. It is an activity of the created intellect, judged, reconciled, redeemed and sanctified through the works of the Son and the Spirit. More closely, Christian theology is part of reason’s answer to the divine Word which addresses creatures through the intelligible service of the prophets and apostles. It has its origin in the Spirit-sustained hearing of the divine Word; it is rational contemplation and articulation of God’s communicative presence.41
He quickly observes that this approach demands reflection upon the nature and end of Scripture and of reason and, furthermore, that the nature and teleology of Scripture and of reason, that is, the “ontology and teleology should derive from the material content of the Christian confession and, accordingly, should demonstrate a free relation to other considerations of the nature of texts and rationality.”42 Here he further develops his program of “Theological Theology,” whereby theology derives its own rules from its particular object and, further, where theology looks askance at the centripetal force of scientific inquiry (Wissenschaft), to which Webster counters by characterizing theology’s relation to any such extra-theological values, principles, or protocols as “free” and thus ad hoc.43
“Theological Theology” finds material expansion here, however, as Webster supplements his cultural provocation with a new focus upon the shape of the divine economy, in which he argues we must locate the theological task. He is no longer satisfied only to state formally that theology begins with a different anthropology than the intellectual programs of the modern university; no, he tells the story of Christian anthropology by speaking of the divine economy. He addresses the shape of the economy in four movements: (1) its ground in the internal perfection of the triune Godhead; (2) its unfolding “as the history of fellowship in which creatures are summoned to know and love God”; (3) its inclusion, more specifically, of “the history of redemption” following the inbreaking of sin and the disruption it brings to that knowing, loving fellowship between God and his creatures; and (4) its revelatory character, such that these works of the triune God do manifest his own character.44
Then Scripture and reason are, each in their own way, located within that divine economy.45 For “God’s work in the economy is eloquent, speaking out of itself. Its relation to creatures is not only causal but self-expressive, producing a cognitive relation. The possibility of this cognitive relation resides with God alone.”46 Scripture receives discussion first. God not only makes possible, but renders actual cognitive fellowship by providing an external Word (verbum externum) as well as an internal word (verbum internum) by the indwelling of the illumining Holy Spirit. God makes use of instruments in this self-revelatory eloquence for the Word “is mediated through creaturely auxiliaries.”47 The economy shapes our understanding of Scripture’s nature, then, which in turn directs our calling to its proper use or reception. We must consider Holy Scripture under the signs of “prophetic” and “apostolic” speech, which serve an “ambassadorial” role “as an embassy of God’s eloquence.”48 In so doing their particularity, historicity, and tangible character are affirmed, even as their metaphysical roots in not only contingent human circumstance but in an eternally-rooted divine economy are acknowledged.
Without leaving the structure of the divine economy behind, Webster then turns to locate reason within that framework as well. Here the counter-cultural nature of Christian accounts of reason is brought out explicitly, wherein the notions of human nature (of a non-plastic sort), human teleology (as received from God), and divine law are shown to fly in the face of either critical or post-critical philosophy in the (late) modern era.49 The Christian account distinctively defines reason as (1) contingent and, further, given by God; (2) defined by a metaphysical nature given by God rather than sheer human will (as in voluntarism); and (3) darkened by sin and reinvigorated by the reconciling work of the Son.50 A small print excursus then distinguishes Webster’s dogmatic account of reason from other recent iterations, namely, the semiotic approach of Oliver Davies, which is impressive for its constant reference to divine presence but too restrictively invested in the doctrine of creation apart from needful attention to divine transcendence, on the one hand, and the economy of sin and redemption, on the other hand, and the incarnational or advent-oriented approach of Paul Janz, which fails to affirm the freedom and aseity of God in its attempt to honor the immanence of the divine.51
Finally, then, the essay returns to its beginning: “Christian theology is biblical reasoning. It is the redeemed intellect’s reflective apprehension of God’s gospel address through the embassy of Scripture, enabled and corrected by God’s presence, and having fellowship with him as its end.”52 Reflecting on the same statement about ontological and noetic principles drawn from Wollebius in “Theological Theology,” three statements are offered by way of analysis here: (1) “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”; (2) “the ontological principle of theology is God himself—not some proposed entity but the Lord who out of the unfathomable plenitude of his triune being lovingly extends towards creatures in Word and Spirit”; and (3) “the cognitive principle is grounded in the ontological principle,” namely, the “cognitive and revelatory force [of Holy Scripture] is not that of a textual deposit but of a loving voice and act of rule.”53 Thus, theology has to be characterized as a determinate sort of inquiry, what he will elsewhere call a positive science that is governed by its specific object.
The determinacy of theology’s inquiry shapes its exercise in two ways. “Exegetical reasoning is, most simply, reading the Bible, the intelligent (and therefore spiritual) act of following the words of the text.” Following here takes the form of “intellectual repetition” and paraphrase, honoring that positive character of this science, for theology is not exercised a priori (“from the earlier”) but a posteriori (“from the latter”).54 As in both “Reading Theology and “Theological Theology,” so here the primary mode of theology in this vein is arguably commentary, that exercise of carefully tracing and teasing out the significance of determinate texts which predate the intelligent agent. “Dogmatic reasoning produces a conceptual representation of what reason has learned from its exegetical following of the scriptural text.”55 Dogmatics does not do away with scripture but offers a new idiom for mapping it: “seeing Scripture in its full scope as an unfolding of the one divine economy; seeing its interrelations and canonical unity; seeing its proportions.”56 The essay concludes by speaking to a commonality between exegetical and dogmatic reasoning, namely, that they are both “indirectly ascetical disciplines” such that in their exercise, “the intellect is drawn away from idols.”57
“Biblical Reasoning” brings to bear two complements to Webster’s earlier focus on a counter-cultural approach to a distinctively Christian understanding of the nature, ends, and practices of theology. First, it focuses upon the divine economy and specifically locates Holy Scripture within that orbit; this bespeaks a move made at length in his earlier Scottish Journal of Theology lectures that were then published as Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch. Secondly, it also locates the work of reason—more specifically, the very practice of theology itself—within the realm of sanctification, such that theology is not merely about sanctification but is itself a part of God’s sanctifying work. Grace, then, is not only the content of theology but also the context for its actual exercise. Webster had unfolded these ideas earlier in “The Holiness of Theology.”58 Without shirking the earlier confrontational approach vis à vis modern intellectual culture, then, “Biblical Reasoning” has focused even more specifically upon Scripture and reason as historical, human, creaturely realities and simultaneously noted the need to locate them ontologically and teleologically within a deeper divine economy.
Second, the following year saw the publication of “Principles of Systematic Theology” in an issue of the International Journal of Systematic Theology that included a number of programmatic essays.59 Webster’s essay traces theology back from human thought of God to human teleology and eventually to the very nature of God.60
Webster expands on earlier comments to note here that
the Holy Trinity is the ontological principle (principium essendi) of Christian theology; its external or objective cognitive principle (principium cognoscendi externum) is the Word of God presented through the embassy of the prophets and apostles; its internal or subjective cognitive principle (principium cognoscendi internum) is the redeemed intelligence of the saints.61
He observes that speech about principles depends on the notion that being precedes knowing; further, the order and relation of being(s) shapes the order and sequence of knowing. We do not make knowledge, but knowledge is given unto us. Thus,
the idiom of the principles of theology simply schematizes the history of God with creatures in its communicative aspects. Far from lifting theological work out of temporal processes of knowledge, it aims to identify the agents and acts (infinite and finite) which together constitute those processes as they are suspended from God’s self-knowledge and shaped by his self-manifestation.62
First, we must attend to divine knowledge of the divine, that is, to the wisdom and knowledge possessed by the triune Godhead. “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son” (Matt 11:27); “The Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God” (1 Cor 2:10). As Webster summarizes, “God’s knowledge is an aspect of the perfect fellowship of his triune life, in which each knows and is wholly known by each.”63 But God’s knowledge is not solely God’s knowledge, even if it is only God’s own, for this unique God is communicative (a term which most plainly can be rendered as “making common certain goods with others”). “The possibility of Christian theology thus lies in what God alone knows about himself and yet communicates by disclosure—in God and the Word of God.”64
While human capacity must be denied, divine communication is the glorious affirmation of the gospel. “God so tempers his knowledge that it assumes fitting created form. This accommodated form is Holy Scripture, and, by derivation, its reception and contemplation by the saints.”65 Decrying modern naturalistic accounts of the Bible, Webster insists that we return these texts to their place in the divine economy.66 Here Webster brings in the classic distinction made between archetypal and ectypal theology in the Protestant scholastics, wherein God’s theology and human theology are related as a source and its stream.67 He then depicts three sorts of ectypal theology: before the fall (ante lapsum), after the fall (viatorum), and in paradise to come (beatorum).68 As in “Biblical Reasoning,” he offers a sketch of spiritual history to trace these distinctions across the terrain of the ages as depicted through the lens of the canonical scriptures.
What of systematic theology, in particular, if it is located amidst that broader account of theology in the economy of sin and grace? Webster addresses its object, arrangement, and relation to Holy Scripture in turn. First, “the matter of systematic theology is primarily God and secondarily all things in God, the latter being a derivative though no less necessary object of systematic reflection.”69 Admittedly, in this phase of the economy, the primary object of theology (God) is “only indirectly accessible” and, thus, consideration of other things in relation to God is not mere addition but needful contemplation for the sake of actually learning of God himself.70 Second, “because the matter of systematic theology is the ineffable God and the movement of goodness in which he extends towards creatures, an account of Christian doctrine can be only provisionally systematic.”71 The order ought to merge the “dramatic and the synthetic, in order to present to best effect the acts which make up the outer movement of that history, the agents by whom they are enacted, and the origin and telos of the whole.”72
Third, “the divine Word—that is, the ascended Son of God speaking to creatures in the Spirit’s power through the biblical testimonies—is the external cognitive principle of systematic theology. Systematic theology must at every point return to this principle as a commentary returns to its text.”73 Webster responds to Geerhardus Vos’s essay, “The Idea of Biblical Theology as a Science and as a Theological Discipline,” pointing out that Vos severed systematic theology from the historical shape and sweep of the canon (assigning such texts only to biblical theology, a newly distinguished discipline in its own right).74 Webster finds such errors to flow from treating scriptural writings as “raw material” rather than an interim step in human illumination (in the long journey unto beatitude), from treating theological concepts as “improvements upon Scripture,” and, ultimately, from neglecting the ineffability of theology’s object.75 By way of repair, Webster calls for “immersion in the texts and thought patterns of the Christian tradition” which are “best expressed by the substantial presence of exegesis.” Indeed, he presses further to say that “Scripture must be the terminus ad quem of systematic theological analysis, not merely its terminus a quo.”76 In other words, theology does not merely go from Bible to concepts, but those concepts—themselves biblically derived in judgment, if not in specific terminology—are meant to return us to the Bible anew.
This middle phase of Webster’s methodological expression continues to share the abiding concerns of his earlier work: the distinctiveness of theology amongst the other academic disciplines, the awareness of divergent anthropologies and their effects for self-understanding in intellectual projects of one sort or another, and the need to think of theology in light of God and God’s works. To those earlier commitments, however, new concerns have been added. The most apparent shift relates to the principles of theology. Whereas the lectures from the 1990s highlight an ontological and an epistemological or cognitive principle, Webster has now extended his analysis of the epistemological or cognitive principle in two directions: the external and the internal.77 It is safe to say that this expansion betokens a wider appreciation for matters not only Christological and bibliological but also for similar concerns regarding pneumatology and regenerative. Webster has always insisted that we speak of divine action, and he has majored on the force of divine communication through the scriptural embassies of prophets and apostles (now beginning to make use of post-Reformation Reformed orthodoxy as a resource for describing its nature and properties, diverging from some of the criticisms of those divines by Barth and Torrance). He has now also emphasized the need to locate our reception—rational and spiritual—within an economy not only of speech but of regenerated intelligence. Both “Biblical Reasoning” and “Principles of Systematic Theology,” then, develop and anthropology of created, fallen, and regenerated reason to match their schematic description of divine speech.78 Before seeking to draw synthetic conclusions regarding his methodological development thus far, we ought to attend to a third phase in his writing.
4. Theological Theology Again
In his last phase, Webster both returned to earlier concerns—theological theology again—as well as further developed areas of inquiry that were relatively underdeveloped in his methodological oeuvre, specifically, the virtues and vices of human theological inquiry. We can observe both continuity and discontinuity, then, by attending to two recent lectures. First, we will consider his inaugural lecture upon assumption of a Chair of Divinity at the University of St. Andrews in May 2014, at which time he spoke on “Intellectual Patience.” Second, we will attend to his recent lecture on “What Makes Theology Theological?” which expands upon his “Theological Theology” lecture almost twenty years prior. We can see that the emphasis upon the material order and, thus, divine provenience remains unabated; we can also see a continued concern to think about cognitive order in both its external and internal registers and, thus, to attend to the economy as the field of both Word and Spirit’s work. But we see more attention given to the resultant work of those divine persons by greater focus upon the persons, natures, ends, and virtues/vices of the humans in this economy of grace.
First, “Intellectual Patience” offers “an anatomy and commendation of an intellectual virtue” precisely because “one of the chief parts of divinity’s apostolic office in the university is the articulation of a metaphysics and morals of intellectual inquiry, presenting and enacting a version of the good intellectual life.”79 Webster observes that the faculty of divinity, alone among the four medieval faculties, has struggled for legitimacy in the modern university, and it has oftentimes found acceptance only by absorbing a “naturalist metaphysics of inquiry” or by “reinventing itself as the historical and literary science of religious phenomena,” which has brought a remarkable “scholarly harvest” and yet has also brought a “heavy cost.”80 Such themes are familiar to anyone who has read “Reading Theology” and “Theological Theology” from his first phase. Here Webster proposes another posture toward the modern university: “Precisely in its unconventionality, a theological metaphysics and morals of inquiry will try to illuminate the life of the mind and provide intelligibility to natural experience and action . . . by tracing intellectual life to its source in divine benevolence, by which alone its nature and duties are disclosed.”81
As in his prior phases, Webster notes the anthropology underlying different approaches to intellectual inquiry. Here he insists that “the life of the mind is natural, that is, inherent in our nature and faculties as the kind of beings that we are.” Mental activity accords with our make-up and experience, precisely because we are made to be thinking creatures. Yet he notes that inquiry’s natural-ness cannot be equated to it being an “instinctive” posture; rather, it must be intentionally cultivated so as to activate the “potentiality of our nature.”82 To address such intentional cultivation he draws on the language of virtue, that is, of a “stable property of character which disposes its possessor to operate well in some realm of human activity.”83 While he notes the existence of moral virtues, he focuses specifically upon intellectual virtues in this essay. Those “intellectual virtues underlie intellectual faculties, powers, skills and practices, and animate excellent intellectual performance,” that is, “intellectual performance which moves in estimable ways to worthy intellectual ends.”84 He offers a schematic description of four types of intellectual virtues: (1) those “which dispose us to labour to acquire intellectual goods,” such as studiousness; (2) those “which dispose us to receive the intellectual goods,” for example, humility; (3) those “which fit us to contribute to and profit from common intellectual life,” like impartiality; and (4) those “which ready us to deal with difficulty in the pursuit of intellectual goods.”85 Intellectual patience fits into this final category of virtues.
Webster beings with a consideration of patience more broadly and a definition generally: “Patience is that excellence of character by which, for the sake of some good end, we tolerate difficulties, and encounter obstacles to present happiness with equanimity, collectedness and steadiness of purpose.”86 He notes the regular appearance of patience in biblical paraenesis (citing Jas 5:7; Col 1:11; 1 Thess 5:14) and in the literature of early Christian moral teaching (noting discussions in the works of Tertullian, Cyprian, Augustine, Gregory the Great, Thomas, John Owen, and Thomas Goodwin). He finds a focus upon the distinctiveness of patience in the Christian matrix (what Revelation will refer to as the “patience of the saints,” in Rev 13:10; 14:12), over against its pagan iterations in late antiquity, in such texts.
Why is patience distinctive amongst Christians? Webster notes that it is “an excellence of reconciled creatures.”87 First, it is an excellence for creatures, those of us who receive life and blessing from another at his behest. Second, it is an excellence of those who have been lost to sin and found by the righteous and holy God who has intervened by Word and Spirit to reconcile us unto himself. As with the essays in his second phase, so here he locates a reality as requiring consideration within the full history of creation, fall, and redemption. Such consideration reminds us that “human patience is an effect of a divine cause.”88 That broad statement merits at least a brief unpacking, which Webster offers:
Patience Christianly understood has distinct causes and acting subjects. It is not a straightforward effect of human nature. This is because, on the one hand we are creatures and so only live and move through another’s love, and, on the other hand our created nature has suffered such depredation that, though some aptitude for patience remains as a residue of our integral state, its completion is out of our reach.89
Again, notice that it is a creaturely excellence and natural: we are patient, and such patience accords with our nature. But it is “not a straightforward effect” of our nature; it is not “instinctual” or obvious, but it must be elicited by God. Why? Both our given nature and, more so, our “depredation” through sin leave its reality to the action of God.
Patience, a human virtue, must be traced back or reduced to divine action. Webster here is highlighting its gracious character. And it is not merely an impersonal gift, for he specifically comments upon its Christological and pneumatological derivation. It is the cultivation of human habits and character traits, of a very manner of being morally speaking, which flows from triune engagement of the human self. Webster’s Augustinian and Reformed heritage finds expression here in the way in which he insists upon reducing even a human excellency and moral quality ultimately to divine enactment.
And yet, “in patience, as in all things, God so moves us so that we live and move.”90 He refines the language of causality here to speak of God’s enactment being an internal work rather than merely an extrinsic imposition. He does admit, of course, that God works extrinsically; for example, he speaks of the “exemplary” work of God in calling us toward patience through the example of God, of Christ, and of the saints.91 But God’s gracious work toward our being made patient does not find its completion in such didactic or even exemplary work. God works within us as well, and he does so in such a way that we are not stifled but elicited to genuine human action befitting our given nature. This dynamic has marked any number of essays by Webster in recent years; he draws here upon patristic teaching (notably Augustine), its medieval development (especially in Thomas and Bonaventure), and its Reformed elaboration (especially as found in Calvin, Owen, Bavinck, and Barth). Elsewhere he has made much of the language found in Ephesians 1 to this point, highlighting the appearance of the phrase “in him you also” (Eph 1:13; Col 1:21) as well as its elaboration throughout the first chapter.92
The lecture proceeds to address the objects, ends, operations, opposed vices of patience, and injunctions to its exercise. Noting that his focus upon distinguishing features of specifically Christian patience may seem “isolationist,” he nonetheless observes that this is both unavoidable but also not simply to divide Christian and pagan patience. It is unavoidable, because one must “indicate a whole anterior realm of moral nature and culture, of goods and intentions, to which the moral act gives practical assent and expression.”93 But it is not the whole story, for “the moral worlds of believer and unbeliever . . . exist at different stages in the history of human renovation.”94 The lecture concludes by reflecting upon the “temporal character of our created intellect,” which requires the exercise of patience over the journey; upon our “insufficiency” and “dependence” as creatures, requiring our “acknowledgement and embrace of this condition” in patience; and, finally, upon the social character of our intellectual action which demands certain postures in our exercise of intellectual agency. Notably, “patience involves deference to traditions of inquiry, the remains and echoes of companions long gone.”95
Second, Webster spoke at a day conference in St. Andrews on the question “What Makes Theology Theological?”96 In providing his answer, he both elaborated upon and furthered his earlier advocacy of purportedly “Theological Theology.” In this brief essay, Webster only adduces cultural observations regarding modernity in his concluding remarks. The bulk of the argument focuses instead on identifying the nature of Christian theology by tending to its object, principles, ends, and requisite virtues.
As to the object of theology, Webster returns to his earlier emphasis upon “God the Holy Trinity and all other things relative to God.” First, he addresses God in and of himself and then God in his works as the primary object of theological study. This twofold identification had occurred earlier in the second phase of Webster’s work, where he emphasized the need to say rather more than is commonplace about the inner life of God. He has argued that such is needful lest we wind up talking of divine works (particularly external works of the Godhead) without any depth, that is, eternally speaking. So he argues for the need to do some speculative theology in this regard, directed at knowing God in himself, though he never suggests that we reach that speculative end by idolatrous means, that is, from any conduit other than God’s own self-revelation through the works of his gospel economy. While he affirms a speculative task in terms of content, then, we might say that he agrees with Calvin and the Reformed emphasis on opposing a speculative method. Yet the knowledge of God also includes God’s works, which he has performed in our midst and through which he, in and of himself, is only ever known. Again, though, “the nature of God’s works ad extra cannot be grasped without immediate reference to God’s intrinsic self-satisfaction which is their principle or ground; put differently, the temporal divine missions are intelligible only as derivative from the eternal divine processions.”97
Because the knowledge of God himself includes his external works, and, furthermore, because “all things are from him, through him, and unto him” (Rom 11:33–36), theology also includes knowledge of everything else. “Theology treats things other than God, not because there is a world, but because there is God and there is a creation.”98 Thus, things are spoken of theologically only in as much as they relate to God; “theology is a comprehensive science, a science of everything. But it is not a science of everything about everything, but rather a science of God and all other things under the aspect of createdness.”99 Matters of sequence and proportion are shaped by understanding this double aspect of the object of theology, as well as the way in which “All things” are included in theology’s study only as part of the gaze we give unto God himself. Webster notes that we oftentimes find this firm focus upon God and on other things only in him to be difficult, and he does note cultural challenges in that regard (naturalism and the like). But he also raises spiritual maladies to the fore in giving a “spiritual history of this neglect: complacent satisfaction with consideration of creatures and creaturely histories apart from their cause; preference for surfaces rather than origins; reluctance to allow the intellect to follow divine instruction and be conducted to God. Such defects impede theological inquiry; sometimes they defeat it.”100
Webster then turns again to the principles of theology. First, he addresses the reality that God is a “God of knowledge” (1 Sam 2:3) and that theology is foremost a reality within the Godhead: Father, Son, and Spirit know one another fully. Second, the triune knowledge, while singular and unique, is not incommunicable, for God is a self-revealing God who makes common (that is, who communicates) his own wisdom to his creatures. Here Webster discussions the divine missions of the Son and the Spirit, noting that their internal processions extend outward into expressions of divine love and beneficence whereby God’s own wisdom comes to the possession of human creatures in the Son and by the Spirit. Such divine instruction is “not immediate, but mediate, served by creaturely assistants and accommodating itself to the forms of creaturely intelligence.”101 Interestingly, he subsumes the objective cognitive principle of theology under his first point here, namely, within the doctrine of God, rather than treating the doctrine of revelation or of the Word of God as a discrete category, and follows the doctrine of God only with a second major heading, regarding the subjective cognitive principle of theology in “regenerate human intelligence.”102 Here he addresses our knowledge as created, fallen, regenerated beings in a similar way as in his second phase of writings.
Turning from principles to ends, then, Webster begins by differentiating ends and purposes; while oftentimes related, they are not the same, for ends relate to one’s given nature and may or may not a matter of self-willed or individually-owned intentions (whereas purposes do relate to individual intentionality as such). Because of our instinctual sinfulness, “in all domains of human existence and activity, therefore, we are required to exercise vigilance and conform purposes to ends.”103 Having observed that spiritual need to have our desires and purposes reoriented by grace to our true creaturely ends, he then identifies scientific and contemplative ends of theology. The scientific idiom parallels earlier addresses where in all three phases of his work, he has commended theology’s place in the university and its contribution to wider intellectual life.104 The contemplative focus as a distinct end, however, has been a more recent concern, no doubt drawn from medieval and Puritan literature which he has more recently engaged at greater length.105 The language of contemplation appears elsewhere in the essays of God without Measure, so that this reference is not an idiosyncrasy but a truly new focal point.106
Finally, virtues requisite to the theological task are discussed. Such cannot assume pride of place. “Yet in its proper place a modest sketch of the personal graces which the theologian is to exhibit is a necessary extension of an account of the theological intellect in the realm of regeneration.”107 Following his emphasis from the second phase onward regarding the integrity of human nature and action in the realm of God, Webster continues to devote specific attention to the results of grace which are found in sanctified human life and virtue. He also attends to the death-dealing pathologies that continue to mar those sons of Adam and daughters of Eve all the way unto their entrance into glory.
This finale to his latest attempt to identify “theological theology,” then, serves as a useful reminder that his project thus far has offered methodological continuity, but each phase does build upon the preceding ones. This third phase intensifies the discussion of the aseity of God by unpacking the triune processions and missions, not only in the doctrine of God but at every point in talking about the economy as flowing from and expressive of those intra-divine relations. The third phase also furthers the specific attention given to the creaturely fruits of God’s gracious labors, wherein creatures are fit for virtue and called to contemplation of the Godhead. In each of these elaborations, Webster’s engagement with the patristic, medieval, and post-Reformation traditions shows itself to be significant, as his conversation partners have extended catholically and, even within his own Reformed tradition, taken in the early Reformed resources (not shirking Barth, to be sure, but situating or relativizing him, to some extent, amongst earlier figures and texts) from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
5. Principles toward a Theological Theology
Webster had not announced publicly the scope and sequence of his forthcoming multi-volume systematic theology, much less published that material, at the time of his death. Other works of significance were, as noted earlier, forthcoming as well. Any assessment is, therefore, duty-bound to note that he considered his published work as provisional to those intended works. Further, some have suggested that Webster had undergone a shift, having previously endorsed a more consistently Barthian theology and recently turned to divergent sources, principles, and architectonic schema. It has even been suggested that he has begun leading a “New Reformed Scholasticism” in recent years.108
We have observed developments as his methodological principles have been enunciated in these three phases. Specific concern to tease out the schematic shape of the economy for thinking about God’s Word and about human reason came to mark his approach in the second phase and has been sustained to this point. For instance recent work has been willing to pair his earlier emphasis upon Holy Scripture as the sanctified word employed by the divine voice with a more recent return to teaching on inspiration of texts drawn primarily from post-Reformation Reformed Orthodoxy (with affirmation of its verbal, plenary character and with correction offered to the criticisms of that tradition by Barth and Torrance).109 Similarly, this has put flesh on his earlier calls to offer an anthropology of inquiry that attends to the Christian difference, as noted in the very first phase of his work but not elaborated therein in any way. Similarly, the need to attend to the perfection of God in and of himself has marked his work in the second and third phases, extending his comments on how God is the ontological principle of theology. In the second phase, this primarily took the form of considering God’s aseity. In the third phase, this has also taken specifically Trinitarian form by elaborating the doctrines of divine processions and divine missions, drawing primarily from the Thomist tradition. Finally, his anthropology of inquiry has been extended in the most recent phase to include extended reflection upon virtues and vices which attend the intellectual calling of the theologian. Whereas practices and cultural values were noted early and often in the first phase, specific concern to extend reflection upon moral characteristics has developed over years and has drawn on patristic ascetical and medieval and Puritan spiritual writings in recent years.
Yet such additions and extensions do not negate the underlying continuity of Webster’s methodology through its various phases and multiple iterations. Indeed, it is that abiding continuity of approach that renders an interim report such as this one viable, with his magnum opus and several other major books still forthcoming. Each of these adjustments truly is an extension to and elaboration of his concern to pursue a theological theology whereby the object determines the shape of inquiry, precisely because the object is active and communicative. Theologians doing work in these and other areas of inquiry will need to attend to Webster’s thought; awareness of the underlying continuities as well as developing layers of concern, which have been sketched in this introductory essay, will enable more fruitful engagement and critical reflection.