Christology as Theology: John Webster’s Turn to the Immanent God as the Salvage of the Economic God of Modernity

John Webster surveys three important modern theologians as examples of thinkers who to one extent or another, as he notes, reduce all theological endeavor to Christology or ‘incarnation.’

Formation of Christology by some or all of these principles may result from various factors, theological or non-theological. Chief among the theological factors is a commitment to a view of divine revelation as embodied divine self-manifestation: in effect, revelation is incarnation. One consequence of this strong identity between the divine Word and the historical form which it assumes is to close the space between God absolutely considered and God relatively considered. By virtue of the incarnational union of deity and humanity, there is consubstantiality between God’s immanent self and God’s revealed self, so that ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ are not simply coherent but identical. Theology cannot ‘get behind the back of Jesus to the eternal Son of God’. The non-theological factors are more diverse and less easy to specify. They include such matters as: consent to the metaphysical restrictions imposed by Kant’s placing of the noumenal beyond the reach of the human intellect; the effects of historical naturalism on interpretation of New Testament Christology; a valorization of history as first reality; a concomitant loss of confidence in the explanation of temporal events, acts and agents by reduction to their causes.[1]

As I noted, Webster then sketches three thinkers to one degree or another who fit what Webster sees as a lamentable turn for theological trajectory that took place in the modern period; the thinkers he surveys in this vein are Izaak Dorner, Albrecht Ritschl, and Karl Barth. The former two are used as par excellence examples of his negative description of this theological turn, while Barth is elevated, somewhat, as someone who was able to ‘mediate’ things between the orthodox and modern (or heterodox) periods of development.

I have great respect for John Webster, but I think it is unfortunate that he made a turn in his more mature theological reflection from what he finally came to think of as corrosive to a genuinely Christian theological project to the classical theistic mode he ended with prior to his call home. Nonetheless, I want to share his summary of Barth’s theology as the best of the mediating theologies to come from the modern turn; at least that’s the impression one gets as they read Webster’s detailing of the matter.

A final example is that of Barth, generally judged the most consistently Christocentric modern theologian. The unequalled intellectual grandeur of Barth’s achievement in the Church Dogmatics, along with its rhetorical, imaginative and spiritual force and its descriptive prowess, have combined to convey an impression of originality about his concentration on Christology, an impression which Barth himself did not discourage. However, his indebtedness to the great dogmaticians of the nineteenth century ought not to be understated (Barth himself did not understate it). What was original to Barth was not his Christological concentration so much as his combination of it with classical conciliar incarnational dogma and Reformed teaching about the hypostatic union, and his refusal to concur with the moralization of Christology into the soteriological background to religious-ethical society.

Barth’s concentration on Christology is more complex than admirers and critics often allow, and than some of his own programmatic statements about the place and function of Christology statements about the place and function of Christology suggest (understanding the Church Dogmatics requires attention both to Barth’s uncompromising enunciations of principles and his often much more nuanced and fine-grained exposition of detail). There are certainly many occasions when he announces the Christological determination of all dogmatic loci: revelation, the being of God in his freedom and his love, the election of humankind, human nature, sin, the Spirit, and more besides. Often the vigour of Barth’s statements derives from his resistance to what he considered the corrosive effects of natural theology. Moreover, the fourth volume of the Dogmatics, which treats the doctrine of reconciliation by an innovative interlaced account of the person and work of Christ, his natures, offices and states and their saving efficacy, is without doubt the point at which Barth’s powers are at full stretch. In the details of his exposition, however, Barth rarely reduces all other doctrines to derivatives or implicates of Christology. In part this is because he fears systematic master principles, even dogmatic ones, and seeks to preserve the freedom of the Word of God in dogmatic construction. In part, too, it is because he has a well-developed sense of the range of dogmatics, and an especially strong conviction that, in a dogmatics in which the covenant between God and humanity is of primary import, Christology in the economy must not overwhelm either the freedom of the eternal divine decision or the integrity of the human creature. In addition, Barth remains convinced that Christology and Trinity are inseparable and mutually implicating, and that teaching about the immanent Trinity is of great Christological import (this may be lost from view if Barth’s doctrine of reconciliation is detached from his doctrine of the Trinity in Church Dogmatics 1). Jesus Christ is the name, form and act of God; yet where those in Ristchl’s school (including the theological existentialists with whom Barth engaged in skirmishes in the 1950s whilst writing Church Dogmatics IV) took this as permission to set theology proper to one side in favour of an exclusively economic orientation, Barth continued to think that teaching about the eternal Son is essential to identifying the acting subject of revelation and reconciliation. In the overall sweep of his exposition of Christian doctrine, Barth does not allow theology to atrophy, though he is consistently and powerfully attentive to the economy as the sphere of the Son’s presence and action.[2]

By and large a favorable account of Barth’s theology; especially when placed against his teachers or forerunners, as we find in Dorner, Ristchl et al. Nevertheless, for Webster, Barth fits into the mold of a modern Christological theologian; even if he is more prescient or sensitive to the import of maintaining an antecedent ground or ‘primary objectivity’ to God’s being in becoming in the economy (‘secondary objectivity’). If you have ever read Paul Molnar or George Hunsinger on Barth you will find resonances with their interpretations and Webster’s here.

My concern, at least for my evangelical brethren and sistren, is that Webster’s turn will thrust people back into another ‘turn’ a turn away from, indeed, seeing Jesus Christ as the key to all theological knowledge. This is what has so attracted me to Barth, Torrance, et al; their emphasis upon Jesus Christ. Jesus was interested in emphasizing himself as the key to biblical exegesis and reality, and I take this impulse this centraldogma of dominical teaching as the mode for doing all theology. Sure, we could blame this turn to Christology as the key for theological explication on Kant and the modern turn to the subject; but why? Or even so, why is this turn ultimately a bad thing? Isn’t Webster’s own explication of Barth’s theology an example of how this ‘turn’ can be balanced out by recourse to a proper valence between the immanent God and the economic? Even with this valence, for Barth et al, Christ remains the concentrated and intensive key to all theological knowledge; to all Trinitarian knowledge, as the Son is the Son of the Father in pneumatic bondage.

My basic concern is that our knowledge of God, in principle is based upon a just is self possessed discursive root rather than the givenness of the God who speaks as gift in the face of Jesus Christ. In other words, my concern always seems to come back to natural theology; to base knowledge of God upon a pure nature, or even a given nature that epistemically precedes God’s confrontation with us in and through his Divine Logos, as far as I am concerned, lays a foundation for knowledge of God that necessarily starts from within the confines of a posit that has germinated in the mind of man rather than in the mind and heart of the living God. An appeal to the Tradition at this point only is to illustrate, by the way, the role that natural theology has in confirming the classical bias towards a naturum purum (pure nature).

 

[1] John Webster, God Without Measure: Working Papers In Christian Theology: Volume 1 God And The Works Of God (London-New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), Loc 1269, 1277 kindle version.

[2] Ibid., 1318, 1327, 1334, 1341, 1348.

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One thought on “Christology as Theology: John Webster’s Turn to the Immanent God as the Salvage of the Economic God of Modernity

  1. Pingback: Christology as Theology: John Webster’s Turn to the Immanent God as the Salvage of the Economic God of Modernity — The Evangelical Calvinist | James' Ramblings

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