God is God, the Basis of Theology: Taking Away Lament and Polemic as Places to Do Theology From {According to John Webster}

I want to offer a quick quote from the late John Webster on how two loci, according to Webster, ought to function (or not) in the practice of systematic theology; I think this has application for living the Christian life in general (which would make sense since for the Christian to live the Christian life is engaging in theology from moment to moment conscious or subconscious). In the context Webster is speaking to the domain or ‘sphere’ wherein theology ought to have voice; he believes it ought to have a public character, indeed as it is the discipline of self-criticizing what it means to live in and from the Gospel. In other words, if theology is the necessary corollary of living in and from the Gospel, and if the Gospel itself is God’s demonstration of love that he is for the whole world and not against it, then theology itself will have a public character to it; insofar as the universal application can be derived from its particular scandalization in and from the God-man, Jesus Christ.

The two loci that Webster lifts up for some constructive criticism, as that has to do with the ‘doing of theology’ are: Lament and Polemic. You’ll notice that Webster sees a healthy place for both of these in theological discourse, but what he warns against is an unhealthy absolutization of either; he warns of their corrosive nature if not held in the proper valence.

A critique of this conception of systematic theology would most properly be undertaken, not in prolegomena, but in the course of material dogmatic exposition, and cannot be pursued at this point. But it worth remarking that the contrariety of the conception of systematic theology explored in what follows ought not to be allowed to generate an enduring posture of lament for a lost dogmatic culture. Lament is fitting on some occasions, but as a permanent attitude it can do damage, breeding intellectual vices such as vanity or pessimism, inhibiting a clear-sighted  view of the situation and drawing theology away from its contemplative vocation. Likewise, polemic arrests and coarsens the mind when allowed to become habitual. What should hold lament and polemic in check is a gospel-derived awareness of the necessary pathos which attends theological work, the roots of which lie in the fact that the world is at enmity with the church and is reluctant to learn about the divine wisdom with which the saints have been entrusted. Yet even a due sense of pathos ought not to overwhelm the tranquil pursuit of theology, made possible and fruitful, not by the capacities of its practitioners or the opportunities afforded by its cultural settings, but by the infinite power of divine goodness shedding  abroad the knowledge of itself. That movement, in its boundless depth and its capacity to overcome the mind’s estrangement from its creator, constitutes the principles of systematic theology.[1]

For Webster theology, by way of order (taxis) has a soteriological location; but prior to that locus is God. If so, in the complex of a holy God confronting an unholy world, and an unholy world attempting to confront a holy God, a theological-valence will occur wherein the giver of life himself succeeds in communicating himself to such a world such that the world can finally come to hear him as he invades its sinful and putrid state recreating space for it to hear his Word just as it is confronted by it (or Him!). Within this setting Webster is calling for sobriety when we might want to tend towards lamenting the apparent loss that the in-roads of theological discourse might be having in the world (i.e. from a pragmatic point of view), or by doubling down into a posture of attack and polemic against an unbelieving world; both postures that are resultants of a desperation that in the light of God, and who he is by way of being and capacity, and who he has become for us in Jesus Christ, should not be. Can there be moments of lament, and moments of polemic when occasions call for such? Yes. But these should not be allowed to become our existential warp and woof as we live our lives in and from the theological grist of God’s reality for us in Christ.

What I take away from this most is that God is God and we are not. We should not lament nor polemicize when God does not require such in his economy of overcoming and reversing the way things might appear to us. So theology, if God is God and we are not, ought to be done from a posture of ‘walking by faith not sight.’ We ought to trust, as Christians, that God is not challenged by the puny sub-capacious ways of this world; God does not need us, we need him, whether we are able or willing to recognize this or not. I fear that the church, particularly certain sectors, and the sub-cultures they foster and construct, live in just the opposite direction of this. If we do theology as if God is God, then it will take on a proper orientation and character. The questions asked will be of the right order and not produced by an inconsolable lament about how things should be, but aren’t; or a by a militant polemic to forcibly make things the way we think they should be, but aren’t. Because God is God theology has an order and reality to it that is not contingent upon us, but instead one that makes us contingent upon it; the reality.


[1] John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (London: T&T Clark International, 2012), 135.