Prof Webster. Photo courtesy of St. Mary’s College.
In this week’s post, we are grateful to offer a contribution from Dr Darren Sarisky, Tutor in Doctrine and Ministry at Wycliffe Hall in the University of Oxford. Dr Sarisky served alongside R. David Nelson and Justin Stratis as a co-editor of a festschrift in honour of Prof Webster entitled Theological Theology: Essays in Honour of John B. Webster (T. & T. Clark, 2015).
For an overview of Prof Webster’s legacy, consider starting with this official press release from St. Mary’s College and this remembrance piece from the Rev Dr Stephen R. Holmes.
Almost a year after his sudden death at age 60, I am still getting used to writing about Professor John Webster in the past tense. Not long before he died, I had been in touch with him to see if he was interested in doing an interview with an online publication once he had completed a miniature systematic theology he was trying to finalize. John was known to have rewritten the material several times, trying to get it right, and I was under the impression that he was nearing the point where he was happy with the text and could hand it over to the eager publisher. I wondered if he would like doing an interview to bring some attention to this work on which he had labored for so long. John’s response, for which I was not totally prepared, was to say he was unsure whether he would live to bring even his brief systematic theology to completion. I was uncertain whether he was being entirely serious: would anyone really say something like that about himself except in jest? In hindsight, I can see that he probably was serious, as he died not long after that. He passed away before he could finish this preview of his larger theological project, and before he could complete even one volume of the multi-volume work that he had imagined as the culmination of his career. Those of us who knew John personally cannot help but feel a sense of loss at his passing, as do those in the field of Christian systematic theology who were anticipating being able to read and ponder his presentation of Christian doctrine.
John was never one to seek the spotlight (so perhaps I should have known he would not have been keen to do an interview), and even in his death he would not want too much attention directed to him. Ultimately, the reason John did not seek attention for himself is that he saw himself as a witness. What is a witness? In Karl Barth’s lectures on the prologue to John’s Gospel, entitled Witness to the Word, Barth writes the following, quoting Augustine, “‘Direct your eyes to me and your hearts to him [i.e., God]. … See, you lift your eyes and your bodily senses to us, and yet not to us …, but to the Gospel, to the Evangelist, and your heart, that is to be filled, to the Lord.’ Let us each see to the heart and whither it is lifted up.” The witness proclaiming the Word directs his hearers’ attention to the text of the Bible, and via it, to that to which Scripture offers testimony, that is, God. This is what it means for a theologian to be a witness, to direct the gaze of one’s audience to God as he is revealed by the biblical text. John saw this as his role.
In this post, I want to commemorate his life by sketching out a few of the guiding principles of his theological thinking. Though he did not live to complete the constructive project toward which his prior work had all been leading, John was so prolific in his short life that it is sufficiently clear what some of the main themes of his synthesis of Christian doctrine would have been. With full awareness of the irony John would have seen in distilling this into a blog post, I summarize some of the key themes of his theology as follows.
First, theology must begin with God. As John says in his address Theological Theology, borrowing from a theologian who would be virtually unknown to many of his colleagues, “For theology as Wollebius envisions it, the being of God is not simply a hypothesis into which theology inquires, but rather the reality which actively constitutes and delimits the field of theological activity.” This ultimately means that theology must offer a depiction of who God is in himself, as the triune Lord who subsists in utter perfection and graciously reveals himself within creation. Basing all of theology’s talk of God on the fullness and perfection of the immanent Godhead meant that John held a more traditional view of God than many of the theologians who wrote so exuberantly of the economic Trinity in the twentieth century. For John, the immanent Trinity was by no means to be reduced to the revelation of the divine persons in the incarnation of Jesus Christ and the advent of the Holy Spirit. Rather, that revelation was a function of the fullness of the immanent divine life itself. John never weighed in formally and directly on the debate about the relationship between election and the Trinity that has exercised many of today’s best constructive theologians, but there was no question that he himself was not persuaded that an act of divine election constitutes God as triune. As John saw it, because of divine aseity, God is fully himself apart from and prior to both his work in creation and even determinations made without any reference to the world. Though John’s position was by no means unprecedented in the Christian tradition, his skill as a theologian allowed him to expound this view with insight, verve, and sparks of creativity.
Second, the final standard for what theology says about God is the testimony provided by the scriptural text. The Bible directs its readers to the triune God and is the touchstone for whatever theologians say about him. John’s monograph on the Bible, entitled Holy Scripture, is arguably the most important doctrinal work on Scripture since David Kelsey’s Providing Doctrine was published in 1975. The most original part of John’s presentation is his application of the notion of sanctification, usually reserved for the domain of soteriology, to the text of the Bible, and indeed its entire process of formation prior to taking on its final canonical form. There are many ways to make the point that the Bible is both a product of human activity and a field of divine speech, such as comparisons between the text and the two natures of Christ. But the advantage of John’s development of sanctification is that it speaks not only of the final form of the text as one in which human authorial activity testifies to the reality of God, but of all the processes that led to the formation of the text in its received form—the editing of preexisting sources, the reliance on historical memory, and so on—as works that are both genuinely human and simultaneously actions caught up in the process by which God makes himself known.
Third, theology speaks of God, as was stated above, yet the Christian God brings contingent reality into existence with his act of creation, and thus theology must speak of God and all things as they relate to him. In addition to depicting God in himself, theology should characterize the world sub specie divinitatis, in light of the God on whom it depends for its very existence, and toward whom it is oriented as its goal. John derived this insight especially from Thomas Aquinas. Though John made his mark with scholarship on Karl Barth, as he began to work quite directly toward writing his systematic theology late in his career, he tacked toward Thomas, who helped John to broaden his circle of dialogue partners beyond the Reformed tradition. Just as John’s book on the Bible argues against a zero-sum relationship between God and created reality when it comes to saying what sort of work the Bible is, so also John’s work on creation stresses that the distinction between the transcendent God and the immanent world order is not one in which the two terms are in any tension with one another. Creation’s dependence on the divine creator does not diminish its status, but invests it with being and orients it toward the fulfillment of that being.
Finally, the process by which human creatures come to know the God who is their creator is marked by dying to self and rising to new life in Christ. Human beings are not spontaneous subjects, free to orient themselves according to sources of moral guidance that lie within themselves, rather than being external to them. Instead, their choices ought to be responsive to God as he reveals himself and marks out determinatively that in which a good life consists. This means that the dynamic of the entire Christian life will be one of letting go of lesser things and constantly reorienting oneself toward God. This is the pattern that defines the way in which God comes to be known by rational creatures.
The above is a maximally brief listing of what would have been some of the leading themes of John’s systematic theology. Though this text will never be written, it is possible to find anticipatory citations of it in recently published books. That the project will never come to be is indeed a loss for the field about which John cared so deeply. His systematics has the sad distinction, among all contemporary systematic theologies, of being the best that never was. What Ivor Davidson wrote about John at the end of a biographical essay about him—ad multos annos (a wish that he might live many more years)—was said in vain. John’s whole life seemed to run in fast forward. He passed away before his time, but in his sixty years he gave all those interested in Christian theology quite a bit of food for thought. Because of all that John was able to do in the time that he was given, we all have reason to be very thankful to him. And so it is only fitting to close this post with an expression of gratitude for his influence on me personally as my doctoral supervisor, and for all the theological work that he produced and that we will have the opportunity to think through in the years to come.