A Little Tribute to John Webster and What His Theology Meant

John B. Webster (1955 – 2016) is a theologian to whom I will ever look as a man of God, a theologian of theologians, a doctor of the Christian church, and a humble soul who simply loved Jesus. Webster taught me that Holy Scripture rather than being an epistemological seed-bed for knowing God, instead represents God’s triune speech in which I encounter Jesus Christ as Scripture johnwebsterbooksspeaks the Word of God. Webster taught me that Holy Scripture has ontology, that it has ‘being’, and that its being is in ordered relation to God; that Scripture is an embassy and domain of God’s Word wherein knowledge of God indeed comes, but because Scripture is located within the realm of soteriology, and more particularly sanctification (a key thesis of his little book: Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch). John Webster taught me that Holy Scripture, as part of its ontology, is located within the realm of creaturely media; nevertheless it is just here, as Webster makes clear that Scripture umbrellaed in the domain of the living and eternal Word becomes the media wherein God speaks as it is a reiteration of the iteration of His living Word revealed in Jesus Christ. Webster once wrote:

… God speaks as in the Spirit Jesus Christ speaks. The eternal Word made flesh, now enthroned at the right hand of the Father, is present and eloquent. His state of exaltation does not entail his absence from or silence within the realm within which he once acted in self-humiliation; rather, his exaltation is the condition for and empowerment of his unhindered activity and address of creatures. This address takes the form of Holy Scripture. To accomplish his communicative mission, the exalted Son takes into his service a textual tradition, a set of human writings, so ordering their course that by him they are made into living creaturely instruments of his address of living creatures. Extending himself into the structures and practices of human communication in the sending of the Holy Spirit, the divine Word commissions and sanctifies these texts to become fitting vehicles of his self-proclamation. He draws their acts into his own act of self-utterance, so that they become the words of the Word, human words uttered as a repetition of the divine Word, existing in the sphere of the divine Word’s authority, effectiveness and promise.[1]

Furthermore, John Webster taught me that genuinely Christian systematic theology is a confessional endeavor, an endeavor not grounded in apologetics but confession; confession that Jesus Christ is Lord. Webster writes in his rather technical form,

… prolegomena to systematic theology are an extension and application of the content of Christian dogmatics (Trinity, creation, fall, reconciliation, regeneration, and the rest), not a “predogmatic”inquiry into its possibility. “[D]ogmatics does not wait for an introduction.” The fact that in its prolegomena systematic theology invokes doctrine means that this preliminary stage of the argument does not bear responsibility for establishing the possibility of true human speech about God, or for demonstrating how infinite divine truth can take finite form in human knowing. Prolegomena are, rather, the contemplative exercise of tracing what is the case, and explicating how and why it is so.[2]

Webster was not one to shy away from, or be apologetic about being erudite and rigorous in his theological activity and ministry; but this is what made him so endearing, at least to me. Yet his acumen wasn’t an instance of showing off his intellect either, instead he was full steam ahead in striving to know God for all His worth; Webster allowed worship to shape his theological discourse and endeavor — I think this was the most impactful thing he impressed upon me, that theology is and should be an act of worship.

Lastly what Webster modeled for me was someone who knew how to do theology After Barth and After the Tradition. What I mean by this is that he was a theologian who knew how to constructively resource great thinkers who others might place as antagonists against each other; i.e. like Barth and the pre-modern Tradition of the church. The best illustration of this, I think, can be found in Webster’s book Holy Scripture. It is in that book where Webster offers an account of Scripture informed by Barth, but not wholesale; here he demonstrates how one could be influenced heavily by Barth while at the same time remain open to the loci offered say by Post-Reformation Reformed orthodoxy and even medieval theology. Suffice it to say Webster was a unique theologian, sui generis even!

I will forever praise God for the impact that John Webster made on me, and will continue to through his writings. I am saddened that we will not get to benefit from his forthcoming Systematic Theology, but am thankful for what the Lord has seen fit to leave us with from his humble servant, John Webster. On a personal note I once was able to correspond with Webster via email about Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth. When I emailed him I didn’t expect him to get back to me, but he responded back quickly. He carried on a sustained correspondence with me for a bit which really impressed me; he was willing to spend his valuable time and correspond with a guy he didn’t even know. What a loss for us! Requiescat in pace, professor John Webster!

 

 

 

[1] John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (London/New York: T&T Clark International. A Continuum Imprint, 2012), 8.

[2] Webster, “Principles of Systematic Theology,” 57.

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3 Responses to A Little Tribute to John Webster and What His Theology Meant

  1. Thanks for this Bobby. A fitting tribute to an exemplary theologian. I identify with what you say about Webster’s personal correspondence with you. I personally have experienced that in the last week with someone I respect 😉

    Seriously though, in keeping with the spirit of this post in tribute of Webster, let me include a quote from one of his essays on Barth in the book “Barth’s Moral Theology” that represents something of the impact Webster has also had on me:

    “A less than robust account of the perfection of the person and work of Christ almost inevitably undermines his universality or catholicity, disturbing the deep sense that all times and occasions are the seasons of his mercy. Like much hermeneutical theory, much thinking about mission construes the history of the world as if the world can justly be understood apart from the gospel – as if the world’s course were not enclosed by, and wholly explicable in terms of, the grace of God in Jesus Christ, in whose light alone it is judged” (p.149).

    Webster here sounds very much like an evangelical Calvinist!

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  2. Bobby Grow says:

    Thanks, Jonathan. A great quote from a great book (I’ve enjoyed that one from him as well)!

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