John Webster Posts
November 9, 2011 by Matthew Mason
I discovered today that John Webster has recently published a volume of sermons, The Grace of Truth. If the endorsements – from people like Donald Macleod, Graham Goldsworthy, and Andrew McGowan - are anything to go by, this is preaching that is accessible, practical, scriptural, and theologically rich.0 Comments
November 4, 2011 by Matthew Mason
In an article in the International Journal of Systematic Theology (‘Principles of Systematic Theology’, IJST 11.1 : 56-71), John Webster argues that theological prolegomena depend necessarily on the material theological content of a system. The ontological principal of theology is God the Holy Trinity; the external cognitive principal is the Word of God; the internal cognitive principal is the redeemed intelligence of the saints.
Given that God is the ontological principal, the primary matter of theology is God himself; only secondarily is it concerned with the works of God (all things in God). Thus, theology is really all about the Holy Trinity in its inward and outward movements, and the best order for a system of theology is bipartite: first God in se, then the works of God, with the divine missions as the hinge between the two.
Here are a few of my favourite moments from the article.
Systematic theology ‘is the rational work of the children of Adam who are only slowly learning what it is to be the children of God.’ (71)
On why a theological system is possible, indeed necessary:
God is one; all other things are held together and have their several natures in relation to God and are known in that relation. Systematic intelligence is fitting, and it is appropriate to attempt a consistent overall presentation of Christian teaching, in which the infinite divine archetype is echoed in finite ectypal modes of intelligence (66).
But that does not mean a system could be exhaustive, first because of who God is:
God is infinite and ineffable, and so indeterminable, not exhaustible by any finite system of manifest objects (67)
And also because of our limitations:
Panoramic perception is unattainable to those still in via, not in patria, especially since they are not yet fully reconciled to the object of their contemplation, still learning how to see and love what they see (67).
Or, less technically:
Excessive systematic pretension is most effectively arrested by dogmatic rules: God’s life is infinitely abundant, we are not yet fully the friends of God, a theological system is no more than one staging-post on the mind’s ascent to paradise (67).
So, theology should be done
repentantly, under the guidance of the prophets and apostles and the tutelage of the saints, and with prayer for the Spirit’s instruction (66).
Avoiding such missteps is largely a matter of art, informed and directed by the principles of theology, deeply internalized, and by immersion in the texts and though patterns of the Christian tradition. In terms of the construction of a systematic theology, these principles will be best expressed by the substantial presence of exegesis, showing that Scripture is doing real work, not simply furnishing topics to be handled in a non-scriptural idiom or proofs for arguments constructed on other grounds. Scripture must be the terminus ad quem of systematic theological analysis, not merely its terminus a quo. Similarly, conceptual inventiveness, so central to the systematic enterprise, must go hand in hand with conceptual transparency, since the systematic concepts are simply windows through which we may glimpse the biblical landscape and its ultimate horizon in God. (70)
September 7, 2011 by Matthew Mason
It’s no secret that when Gerald and I aren’t commending old books, we’re quite partial to a spot of John Webster. So I was happy to come across the audio of a couple of old Webster lectures on discipleship from the 2005 Scottish Evangelical Theology Conference (ht: Jason Goroncy):
Gospel-centered, Scriptural, refusing the distinctions between systematic and practical theology – worth a listen.0 Comments
October 19, 2010 by Matthew Mason
The familiar modern pattern arranges theology by a four-fold division into biblical, historical, systematic-doctrinal and practical theology sub-disciplines. Ursinus himself mapped the theological task in a quite different way. There are, he says, ‘three parts of the study of Divinity’. First, there is ‘Catechetical institution’, defined as ‘a summary and briefe explication of Christian doctrine’. This is followed by ‘an handling of Common places’, which is differentiated from ‘institution’ not in terms of its subject matter, but in terms of depth. The study of commonplaces covers the same ground as ‘institution’ and differs only in that it offers ‘a larger explication of every point, and of hard questions together with their definitions, divisions, reason and arguments’. Finally, there is ‘the reading and diligent meditation of the Scripture, or holy Writ. And this is the highest degree of the study of Divinity, for which Catechisme and Common places are learned; to wit, that we may come furnished to the reading, understanding, and propounding of the holy Scripture.’
Three things might be noted about Ursinus’ map. First, the distinctions he draws are not between different sub-disciplines but between different modes of engagement with the same unitary subject. Second, Holy Scripture is not simply one concern of theology, but that towards which all studies in divinity move. Third, the end of studies in divinity is clear: ‘For Catechisme and Common places, as they are taken out of Scripture, and are directed by Scripture as by their rule; so againe they conduct and lead us as it were by the hand into the Scripture.’ (John Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch [Cambridge University Press, 2003], 120-1; the paragraph division is mine).
In Webster’s words,
…doctrine serves Scripture, rather than the other way round. Scripture does not provide warrants for doctrinal proposals, simply because in Ursinus’ model of theology, there is no such thing as a doctrinal proposal separate from exegesis. The nearest he comes to anything like a formal doctrinal statement is—as we shall see—in the idea of commonplaces. But there is little room in Ursinus’ ‘Oration’ for dogmatics, and still less room for a conception of doctrine as an improvement upon Holy Scripture. There is simply the task of reading Holy Scripture, learning and teaching Scripture in such a way that godliness is promoted and the church more truthfully established as the kingdom of Jesus. (115)
Strikingly, although it wouldn’t always have been mapped in precisely this way, this kind of integrated, Scripturally focused approach to theology was the common practice of the Church for hundreds of years, not just following the Reformation, but also in the Patristic and Medieval periods, and, more recently in the theology of Karl Barth.
And there are encouraging signs of some sort of return to this attitude to theology. One thinks of the current renewed interest in theological exegesis, and of the work of Webster himself, and among others, of John Frame, Kevin Vanhoozer, and Peter Leithart among evangelicals. It’s also there to some extent in a more mainline theologian such as Robert Jenson and in the writings of Pope Benedict. It’s certainly helped me frame more clearly what I want to accomplish in the time I devote to theological study and writing.0 Comments
October 11, 2010 by Matthew Mason
‘positive Christian dogmatics is a wise, edifying and joyful science.’ (130)
On his decision to teach confessionally (following training in the critical tradition at Cambridge):
‘First, I resolved to work on the assumption of the truthfulness and helpfulness of the Christian confession, and not to devote too much time and energy developing arguments in its favour or responses to its critical denials. I discovered, in other words, that description is a great deal more interesting and persuasive than apology. Second, I resolved to structure the content of my teaching in accordance with the intellectual and spiritual logic of the Christian confession as it finds expression in the classical creeds, to allow that structure to stand and explicate itself, and not to press the material into some other format. Thus my survey of Christian doctrine was (and remains) simply a conceptual expansion of the Apostles’ Creed as a guide to the Gospel that is set out in Holy Scripture. Once I resolved to work this way, I quite quickly found that the substance and order of Christian doctrine displayed itself as much more grand, and much more comprehensible, than when I had approached it as a series of critical problems. (130f)
What I had stumbled onto was something which I could have learned from Barth or many other theologians at the very beginning: the need to do dogmatics, and to do so with good humour, diligently and with a determination not to be troubled about having to swim against the stream, but rather to work away steadily at the given task as responsibly as possible. For me this has meant busying myself with two principal spheres of work. One is that of becoming acquainted with the history of Christian theology, and coming to understand it as the history of the Church: as spiritual history, as a history of attempts to articulate the Gospel, and not just as a lumber room full of opinions to be submitted to the critical scrutiny of ‘valuers’ and then auctioned off or discarded. The other task is that of trying to understand and think through the categories of classical dogmatics in their totality and their interrelations – to acquire a proper grasp of the architecture of dogmatics and to see its shape as the science of the Church’s confession. (132f)
On the state of systematic theology in Britain:
I find myself at odds with those of my British colleagues who are more confident of the state of systematic theology: where they see an invigorated and invigorating discipline engaged in lively conversation in the academy, I tend to see a soft revisionism chastened by bits of Barth, or over-clever Anglo-Catholicism with precious little Christology, soteriology, or pneumatology. I do not yet see much by way of positive dogmatics… (133)
It is obvious that, although he works in a university context (previously at Oxford, now in Aberdeen), Webster is self-consciously an ecclesial theologian.
Theology is an office of the Church of Jesus Christ. Whatever form there may be to the particular set of institutional arrangements in which it does its work, theology is properly undertaken in the sphere of the Church – in the sphere, that is, of the human community which is brought into being by the communicative, saving presence and activity of God. Theology is one of the activities of reason caught up by the miracle of the work of the triune God, a miracle which God himself makes manifest in his Word. This miracle, moreover, by virtue of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and in the sheerly creative power of the Holy Spirit generates a new mode of common life: the Church. (133f)
Reason, no less than body and conscience, stands under the sign of baptism. Theological reason is the exercise of the regenerate mind in the matter of the gospel of Jesus Christ that is at the heart of the Church’s existence and calling. (134)
Theology, to put it at its sharpest, is not a matter of “free speech”…. The activity of theological reason, rather, is undertaken as an act of deference; only its its deference to the given truth of its calling is it free…. Theological reason is as much a sphere of reconciliation, sanctification, prayer, and Church as any other human undertaking…theological reason works under the Church’s tutelage, authority, and protection (134)
What does the theologian do? ‘the task of theology is to take part in the common work of all the saints, that is, edifying the church.’ (135) How? ‘by testifying to the Gospel’s promise and claim.’ (135).
The two fundamental tasks are exegesis and dogmatics. ‘Of these tasks, exegesis is of supreme and supremely critical importance, because the instrument through which the risen Christ announces his Gospel is Holy Scripture.’ Without exegesis, ‘theological reason cannot even begin to discharge its office.’
Rather than offering an improvement on Scripture by being better organized, more sophisticated, or more precise,
Dogmatics is about the business of setting forth ‘commonplaces’, a series of loosely organized proposals about the essential content of the witness of Holy Scripture, which serve to inform, guide and correct the Church’s reading. Far from imporoving upon the scriptural material, dogmatics gives place to it. (135)
All of this means that to be a theologian is no easy task:
the demands of the office [of systematic theologian], both intellectual and spiritual, are virtually unsupportable. For what must the theologian be? Holy, teachable, repentant, attentive to the confession of the Church, resistant to the temptation to treat it with irony of intellectual patronage, vigilant against the enticement to dissipate mind and spirit by attending to sources of fascination other than those held out by the Gospel. In short: the operation of theological reason is an exercise in mortification. But mortification is only possible and fruitful if it is generated by the vivifying power of the Spirit of Christ in which the Gospel is announced and its converting mode made actual. And it is for this reason that theology must not only begin with but also be accompanied at every moment by praying for the coming of the Spirit, in whose hands alone lie our minds and speeches. (136)
John Webster, ‘Discovering Dogmatics’ in Darren C. Marks, ed., Shaping a Theological Mind: Theological Context and Methodology (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002): 129-360 Comments
April 2, 2010 by Gerald Hiestand
In a previous post I raised a question about the necessity of pastor-theologians in light of gifted, ecclesially sensitive academic theologians such as Jenson, Guton, Hart, Webster, Vanhoozer, etc. Is there anything that a pastor-theologian brings to the table that isn’t already being brought by academic theologians? And if so, what?
Nearly all of my study up to this point has been in historical soteriology (Augustine, the Cappadocians, Athanasius, Anselm, Calvin, Luther, Edwards, etc.) and New Testament studies devoted to Paul and justification (Wright, Westerholm, Seifrid, Bird, Moo, Dunn, etc.). I’m a new-comer to contemporary systematic theology, so the analysis provided below must be seen as preliminary. What follows is my “initial sense of things” after reading portions of Jenson, Webster, and Pannenberg, contrasted with the sort of theological reflection written by Calvin, Luther, Augustine, etc. My comments here are not intended so much as a critique, but mere observations. As I will note in a coming post, academic theologians are able to do things that pastor-theologians cannot.
1. Academic Theology lacks a sense of the preacher’s burden. Academic theologians do not typically have to preach to the laity. This reality is evident in the way their work is constructed. The reader senses that academic theology, even explicitly Christian academic theology, is a couple of steps removed from the situation on the ground. Theology, at it’s core, must be pressing toward the pulpit. This does not mean that a theologian’s work should be hung low enough for the shortest goat. But it does mean that whatever I come up with must be — in its most distilled form — preachable. Academic theology lacks this at many points. Don’t misunderstand my point. I’m not saying that a theologian’s project must be preachable without translation — that every interested lay person should be able to pick it up and understand it. Augustin’e De Trinita, or Edwards’ Freedom of the Will, for example, are not easily accessible. But there is a sense in both Augustine and Edwards that they are writing as pastors who have to weekly (if not daily) draw a connection between their most profound thoughts and the lives of average people. Academic theologians do not — as a matter of vocation — have to do this, and it gives them a certain luxury to split atoms that perhaps need not be split.
2. There is tendency in academic theology to speak of the believing community in the third person. John Webster, in his little book on holiness, is clearly driving toward an explicitly Christian application. Yet the readers notes a certain distance between Webster and the ecclesial community. His customary way of referring to the believing community is in the third person. He speaks of “the christian,” “the believer,” and “the church.” Yet throughout the book he often quotes Calvin, who in contrast speaks of the believing community in the first person — “I” and “we” and “us.” It’s not that Webster never self-identifies with the believing community. But the freedom to do so in academic prose is certainly less than what one finds in Calvin or Luther or Edwards or Augustine. I can’t help but feel that this rubs the ecclesial edge off of Webster’s work.
3. Academic theology is less self-consciously an expression of personal piety. Worship is a personal thing, and each person expresses it uniquely. Far be it from me to make a statement about the personal piety of academic theologians. Yet I think it a safe observation to note that contemporary scholarship (whether theology or biblical studies), is less self-consciously pietistic than what is found in theological treatises of old. One thinks here of Anselm’s Proslogion. In the opening paragraphs Anselm writes,
Lord, you are my God and my Lord, and never have I seen you. You have created me and re-created me and You have given me all the good things I possess, and still I do not know You. In fine, I was made in order to see You, and I have not yet accomplished what I was made for….I set out hungry to look for You; I beseech You, Lord, do not let me depart from you fasting.
The entire treatise is, in fact, a prayer. My point here is not that all theological treatise should be written as extended prayers. But there is certainly something to be said for a genre of writing that makes explicit the author’s personal hunger and love for God.
I like Webster and Jenson, and am finding their work helpful in many respects. And, as mentioned above, I think they are doing some important things that most pastor-theologians –given our eccleisal vocation – find difficult to pull off. More on that in the next post.1 Comment
March 27, 2010 by Gerald Hiestand
Theological reflection that cannot connect with the existential questions of the congregation is not ecclesial, however robust it might be. But popular theology, in and of itself, cannot be the sum total of ecclesial theology. The theological needs of the church will often compel us to press beyond a lay level of discourse, yet such pressing need not degenerate into irrelevant abstraction. John Webster helpfully notes,
[Theology] attempts a ‘reading’ of the gospel which in its turn assists the Church’s reading. Developing such a ‘reading’ of the gospel entails, of course, the development (or annexation) of conceptual vocabularies and forms of argument whose range and sophistication may seem distant from the more immediate, urgent idioms of Scripture. But though technical sophistication is not without its attendant perils, it is only vicious when allowed to drift free from the proper end of theology, which is the saint’s edification. When that end is kept in view and allowed to govern the work of theology, then dogmatics can be pursued as a modest work of holy reason, transparent to the gospel and doing its service in the Church as the school of Christ (Holiness, 4).
Webster is exactly correct here. It is appropriate for a pastor to ask about the “usefulness” of any particular theological synthesis. But the pastor must be able to see beyond the need to gather fodder for his next sermon. Sound theological preaching will often require preliminary “intramural” discussions among theologians, as a way of sorting through the legitimacy of its popular level proclamation. Short-changing this theological spade work, or abdicating it solely to academy, is a mistake.0 Comments