Requiescat in pace, Professor John Webster: A Post on God’s Holiness in Commemoration

*So sad to hear that one of my favorites, John Webster died today. I learned so much from him, and had hoped to learn more; but the Lord was ready to welcome him into Christ’s blessed rest. I am reposting this post in remembrance of John Webster, a man who God used mightily in my life to point me to Jesus Christ; what a testimony!

Theology is a practice in knowing God with all that we are. While this can only remain a provisional, as the old school would say ectypal endeavor it is something we have been called to as Christians set apart unto God in Jesus Christ. But it is also important to remember that theology is not something that we have initiated, that seminaries and post-doctoral programs have invented. God is
russianGodthe one who initiates true theology; He in himself is the true Theologian as Augustine has said: “God alone is a theologian, and we are truly his disciples.” And so genuine Christian theology starts from God, and our knowledge is contingent upon His graciousness to invite us unto His banqueting table and participate in the meal of holy fellowship that He alone can freely provide for, which He has in His Son, Jesus Christ, God with us.

What viewing theology like this does is that it orients things properly; it takes the keys away from the rationalist who believes that their mind is prior to God’s Self-revelation and action, and it places theological reflection, again, in the domain of God’s holy Word for us, provided for in the election and Incarnation of God (Deus incarnatus), in Jesus Christ. We by nature have unholy thoughts; we by nature are removed from God; we by nature cannot recognize that God has spoken (Deus dixit); we by nature would not approach God even if we could, and if we could we couldn’t because to approach God is to come before Him on holy ground. Moses presented himself before God at the burning bush, only because God condescended and presented Himself, first, to Moses; and in this presentation He initiated the invite to Moses, to come before Him. Modern theological thinking tends to forget this. With the continuing influences of Cartesianism (cogito ergo sum ‘I think therefore I am’), Lockeanism, Kantianism, Schleiermacherianism, etc. we tend to forget that we cannot approach God unless He invites us. The good news is that He has invited us to know Him, to speak with Him, to love and cherish Him, but only on His terms; and His terms or term, is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the holy ground upon which and through whom we have access to God. It is through the broken body of Jesus Christ that the veil between the holy of holies and the outer part of the temple has been torn through. As such, all of our arrogant unholy pretentions about how we conceive of God are contradicted by how God has invited us to think of Him through His personal Self-revelation and exegesis in His Son, Immanuel, Jesus Christ. We come to Him on His predetermined terms not our terms; if we want to come on our terms and name those terms “Jesus Christ” or the “Holy Trinity” we will unfortunately only be worshipping our own self-projections of who we think God is based upon our own self-generated machinations. John Webster clarifies further:

Once again, therefore, we find ourselves running up against the contradictory character of theology as an exercise of holy reason. One of the grand myths of modernity has been that the operations of reason are a sphere from which God’s presence can be banished, where the mind is, as it were, safe from divine intrusion. To that myth, Christian theology is a standing rebuke. As holy reason at work, Christian theology can never escape from the sober realization that we talk in the terrifying presence of God from whom we cannot flee (Ps. 139.7). In Christian theology, the matter of our discourse is not someone absent, someone whom we have managed to exclude from our own intellectual self-presence. When we begin to talk theologically about the holiness of God, we soon enough discover that the tables have been reversed; it is no longer we who summon God before our minds to make him a matter for clever discourse, but the opposite: the holy God shows himself and summons us before him to give account of our thinking. That summons – and not any constellation of cultural, intellectual or political conditions – is the determinative context of holy reason. There are other contexts, of course, other determinations and constraints in the intellectual work of theology: theology is human work in human history. But those determinations and constraints are all subordinate to, and relativized by, the governing claim of the holy God, a claim which is of all things most fearful but also of all things most full of promise.[1]

Christian theology is an enterprise initiated and ingressed by God. When we attempt to talk about God, we must first recognize the fact that ‘God has spoken’ (Deus dixit) first, and that He continues to speak everyday in the same way that He has always freely chosen to speak for us, to us, and with us through Jesus Christ. We are always on holy ground when we speak of God, who alone is wise, immortal, invisible who alone dwells in unapproachable light. I fear that we forget this very often. I fear that we have gotten too comfortable talking about God and the things of God as if He hasn’t first invited us to speak of Him and with Him on His terms. I fear we have domesticated God to the point that when we speak of God we might not really be speaking of Him at all, but instead from a place, a divine spark, as it were, in our minds that we believe has access to God based upon some other terms than those He has given for us through Jesus Christ. It is a holy endeavor to speak of God, but only as we speak from within the domain He has provided for that to happen from does this holiness truly pervade anything we might think we have to say of Him. If the ground and grammar of our theological discourse is not from God in Christ in a principial way, then it is a fearful thing.

[1] John Webster, Holiness (Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), Loc. 157, 162, 167 Kindle.

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