Baby boomers still run much of the world, and sadly, their greatest theologian has already died. John Webster, who passed away in May 2016, played an important role in the English-speaking Christian world. His singular achievement was to become an expositor rather than a conceptual innovator, a dogmatic theologian rather than that very modern theological figure, the creative and revisionary systematician. I count myself fortunate to have spent my formative years learning from him.
Born in 1955, Webster was a laconic Yorkshireman and low-church Anglican who had little regard for the pomp and pretension of upper-class English life. Educated at Cambridge University, he held teaching posts in Durham University and Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto, after which he was appointed Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Oxford. His time in Oxford was not happy, and when the opportunity arose, he went north to the austere precincts of Aberdeen, Scotland, to take up a teaching post at the university there. In the final years before his untimely death, he taught at the University of St. Andrews.
His professional pilgrimage was matched by his intellectual one. Webster was trained in the dialectical fireworks of Barthian theology. His early scholarship grappled with the theology of Eberhard Jüngel, a German figure of stature in the generation that succeeded Barth. But over the course of his career, he educated himself back into the classical tradition of Protestant scholasticism as an extension of patristic and medieval Christianity. At the time of his death, he was the most eminent proponent of an unapologetically Protestant project of ressourcement, the “return to the sources” that had done so much to renew Roman Catholic theology in the twentieth century.
Webster’s theology is best understood in terms of three themes. First, Webster insisted that theology begins with God. In this respect, he always remained in agreement with Karl Barth. But the second theme marked a departure from Barth (at least as the great Swiss theologian is typically understood). Webster came to insist that Christian theology, which begins with God, must discipline its reflection with metaphysics. His third theme is the central role of exposition. The theologian is not critical or creative. The Word of God is both of those things, and to a far greater degree than any human can be. If the theologian, therefore, wishes to participate in God’s critical and creative power, he must “hear, read, mark, and inwardly digest” God’s Word. Theology is, first and foremost, commentary. In each of these respects, Webster cut against cultural trends, not just in the wider Western world but in mainstream Christian theology.
Karl Barth’s reputation was made by his explosive commentary on Romans, which one review called a “bomb on the playground of theologians.” In that work, Barth spoke vividly of God and God’s action in transforming our world over against the liberal platitudes of human progress. Decades later, John Webster likewise took up the theme of the priority of God’s action and challenged the often human-centered methods that dominate a great deal of modern theology.
His seminal essay, “Theological Theology,” began as an inaugural lecture for the Lady Margaret Professorship at Oxford University in October 1997. Webster begins by addressing the nature of the healthy university. The essay is characterized, in part, by its ability to be self-critical and its transparency about its “anthropology of enquiry.” By this term, Webster means that all approaches to education adopt a particular view of the human person.
In Webster’s account, the modern research university depends on a view of “responsible selfhood.” This anthropology is “identified, not with the specificities of background, custom or training, nor with the habits of mind and spirit which are acquired from participation in a particular tradition, but from inwardness.” Insofar as inwardness is emphasized, Bildung (formation) becomes marginal. Inwardness asks us to “find” ourselves rather than submitting to a tradition that will shape and mold our thinking. The pedagogy of Wissenschaft (an antiauthoritarian and “value-free” science) thus fills the void. The university focuses on technique rather than on moral cultivation.
Webster then observes that the inwardly-defined self also reframes the place of texts within education. No longer authorities to be cited and commented upon, texts instead become resources to be used. A pedagogy devoted to cultivating inwardness seeks to assemble, as it were, a personal canon on which the self confers authority. This pedagogy is characterized by criticisms of the canon of great books and affirmations of “critical thinking.”
Modern Christian theology has absorbed a great deal of this ethos, Webster observes. A failure of theological nerve has marked the decline of Christian theology. This failure has diminished theology, dramatically reducing its influence within the university and upon the intellectual culture of the West. Theologians have not been forced into a corner; they have taken upon themselves the pedagogy of inwardness. Webster traces the decline of a distinctly Christian concept of God in works of doctrine. Revelation loses its claim to authority; the resurrection of Jesus becomes a problem to be managed with “hermeneutical” reasoning. This loss of authority leads to a “disorder within Christian dogmatics” and the “hesitancy of theology to field theological claims.”
This is a false view of theology. Webster argues that God’s actions as recorded in Scripture are not just the subject matter of theology—they are the foundation and rationale for any truly theological approach: “Talk of God not only describes the matter into which theology enquires but also, crucially, informs its portrayal of its own processes of enquiry.” God is the ground or basis of all theology. Theological study cannot occur apart from an acknowledged creaturely dependence upon our intellectual Creator, Father, and Redeemer. Gospel grace does not merely define some spiritual sliver of human life; it establishes the space for the intellectual-theological activity of human agents.
In short, theologians ought to do theology as if God mattered, indeed, as if God were present. My favorite line from Webster remains: “God is not summoned into the presence of reason; reason is summoned before the presence of God.” Theology is unique among the sciences, for its subject matter speaks and reveals, gives life and judges.
Webster frequently chided modern Protestants for reducing Jesus and his good news to an item of past divine intervention—a litany of wonderful works in first century Palestine—and failing to see that the ascended and reigning Christ continues to minister grace and oversee his flock. The heavenly session of Christ at the right hand of the Father informs Christian thinking, and we must let it do so, lest we think we’re left to ourselves and our scientific techniques in our efforts to find, know, and speak of God. Grace is not merely the content of doctrine but also the context within which Christian proclamation becomes real.
Many modern theologians suggest that metaphysical claims lead to oppression, fail to honor difference and contextual diversity, and manifest hubris. Some suggest that any recourse to metaphysics lumps God in with other beings, domesticating him as if he were part of what Stanley Hauerwas calls the “metaphysical furniture of the universe.”
Webster might have seemed a shoo-in for the anti-metaphysical maneuvers of modern Protestant theology. Eberhard Jüngel, the subject of Webster’s doctoral dissertation, was notable for deeming the claims of metaphysics totalizing or arrogant. Webster also wrote a great deal about the theology and ethics of Karl Barth. Barth is a contemporary of Heidegger and has been read as throwing into suspicion all metaphysical schemes in the name of dialectics.
By this reading, Barth thought backward from the Incarnation to define (or redefine) what “God” must be, rather than beginning with some (purportedly idolatrous) notion of divinity. A similar dynamic is assumed to characterize Barth’s ethical theory, which rejects natural law. To what degree Barth was “anti-metaphysical” is a hotly debated question in Barth studies.
Webster avoided these debates, hesitating to engage in the Barth Society contestations that marked the late 2000s and early 2010s. He was drawn to elements of Barth that were less emphasized by the “Barthians.” Webster played a key role in making the case for a distinctive but nonetheless substantial role for moral theology within Barth’s thought. More importantly, he focused on Barth’s exegesis and historical theology. He encouraged his graduate students to do so as well. As a result, his students did not fix on the relationships of Barth and Hegel or Barth and Heidegger (the usual themes for Barth studies). They were directed toward Barth’s reading of Zwingli, the Reformed Confessions, and the Gospel according to John. His book Barth’s Earlier Theology details the period when Barth, known as an apocalyptic thinker protesting mainstream liberalism, realized that he needed to ground his theological work again in the distinctly theological resources found in Scripture and the great texts of the Christian tradition.
Webster followed the same course in his own theological development. He defines “theological theology” as an engagement with classic Christian texts, most especially Holy Scripture. Webster was well-versed in modern theological debates, but he read Barth as doing “theological theology” in the refectory of the apostle Paul and Thomas Aquinas and Luther, rather than in the seminar room of Kierkegaard and Schleiermacher. In his thinking (as in Barth’s), exegesis is not at odds with metaphysical interests. But metaphysical concepts attain their theological validity insofar as they illuminate and open up the meaning of Scripture. The same holds for historical theology. The literary-expository skills of great interpreters from the church’s past allow for deeper entry into the world of Scripture.
Webster said of Barth’s years as a young professor: He was “stocking his mind with its traditions of texts and ideas and putting them to work in rearticulating the fundamentals of the Protestant confession of the gospel.” The same can be said of Webster’s own career as a theologian. He sought to deepen his theological vocation with exegesis and historical theology. To his mind, working within the tradition meant learning to put Christian language to use with confidence and firmness. His doing so in no way impeded his own theological voice. As T. S. Eliot argued in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” being shaped by a tradition is the only sure foundation for the kind of creativity that is not empty willfulness and self-display.
As Webster lingered over the classics of the theological tradition, his theological work became crisper and more forceful. He published monographs and essay collections at a remarkable clip during his last fifteen years: Word and Church (2001), Holiness (2003), Holy Scripture (2003), Confessing God (2005), Domain of the Word (2012), and two volumes of God Without Measure (2015). A churchman, he preached regularly, particularly in his Oxford years (The Grace of Truth, reissued as Confronted by Grace, is a volume of his sermons, soon to be joined by another homiletical anthology, Christ Our Salvation). Future projects were planned, most notably a five-volume dogmatics.
When assessing this body of work, some have suggested that Webster shifted, leaving Barth and modern Protestantism behind and turning to a version of Reformed Thomism. It’s true that he delighted in the scriptural exegesis and theological genius of the Angelic Doctor. He also repented of his earlier dismissals of scholastic textbooks (primarily later Protestant versions, and to some extent medieval ones as well). And there are moments of his writing that seem more Thomistic than Reformed, especially concerning the sacraments (see his brief remarks on baptism in “Communion with Christ”).
But this way of perceiving Webster—as having moved from one camp to another—mistakes conceptual tools for theological substance. (Reformed scholastics, for instance, often adopted Thomistic tools to articulate anti-Catholic positions.) Webster’s importance comes from his fundamental rethinking of Barth’s influence on modern Protestant theologians who seek to sustain orthodox Christianity. In his last years, he penned an essay on “The Place of Christology in Systematic Theology.” In it, he questions “Christocentrism” and argues that the doctrine of the Trinity must be the starting point of theology.
Webster often noted that Barth’s Christocentrism was more fine-grained than his interpreters assume. Still, he concluded that theology should not begin with the Incarnation, for the strange glory of the Incarnation is apparent only when one has already been catechized regarding the singular beauty of the living and true God. One must begin with the inner life of God himself, and only then turn to his works among his creatures (whether creation or Incarnation).
Michael Root, writing in First Things of the legacy of Wolfhart Pannenberg (“The Achievement of Wolfhart Pannenberg,” March 2012), differentiated between virtuoso theologians and those theologians whose work takes a more scholastic or ecclesial form. What makes a virtuoso in the study of divinity? Root identifies “the creative mind who recasts the field, the Schleiermachers and Barths of the discipline, Promethean figures who blaze the path others are to follow.” He reports: “Much academic work in modern theology seems less the study of God or of the Christian message about God, and more the study of the creativity of great theologians.” Creativity was no mark of greatness for theologians past, however. Against the prejudice in favor of invention, Webster noted that curiosity is a vice, especially in theology.
Few have the intellectual virtuosity to “go creative,” so the contextual approach is more common. How hard can it be to “speak from your experience”? Webster took contextualization seriously, but he rejected it as a theological principle:
Whatever else we may wish to say about church and theology, that, at least, must be said: church and theology stand in the space between Jesus’ coming in humiliation and his coming in glory. That space—and not any cultural space, postmodern or otherwise—is determinative of what church and theology may and must be. Put differently: Christian theology, and therefore Christian eschatology and anthropology, is responsible in its context but not in any straightforward way to its context.
The canonical setting remains definitive for thinking about our location in contemporary life. Gender and race are interesting, but they are less interesting than whether one is in Adam or in Christ.
It is because the drama of redemption is the ultimate context for theological work that God’s own work can be joyful and not repressive. Rather than “updating” and “redeeming” supposedly benighted and oppressive elements of the Christian tradition, Webster argued that theologians should accord “a proper dignity to repentant listening.” He extolled the classic genre of commentary—not just scriptural exposition, but the work of historical theology as well. Again and again, he reminded readers that Christian doctrine used to attend to Scripture, to texts such as the creeds and confessions of the Church, and to classic Christian literature, believing that exposition and citation were integral, not just ornamental, to the rhetoric of theology. Theology should not claim to improve upon Scripture and prayer. Its task is to help return the reader to those primary languages with greater attentiveness and understanding.
Webster followed his own advice. His later essays often provided detailed expository analysis of what might seem narrow doctrinal, ethical, and metaphysical topics. He treated creation from nothing and drew out five startling consequences. He reflected on the term “creature” and unpacked the metaphysical implications of this concept as it had been deployed in Christian theology through the ages, arguing that it leads to a more textured anthropology than does the usual exegesis of imago Dei. He rejected “creativity,” seeking instead the delight and intellectual attentiveness that comes from seeing new things in classic formulae and scriptural idioms.
His late dogmatic essays were extended commentaries upon classic texts (see the 2012 collection The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason and the two-volume 2015 collection God Without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology). Their focus would fall on Clement of Alexandria’s Christ the Educator, Bonaventure’s Reduction of the Arts to Theology, or John Owen’s Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ. Frequently, Webster turned to scholastic textbooks, whether Thomas’s Summa Theologiae or the varied gems of Reformed dogmatics such as Junius, Turretin, or the Leiden Synopsis. (The range of sources fits into classical Reformed tradition, though it rarely has marked the work of Barth scholars or modern Protestants.) Webster was eclectic. No single text or era was essential. Barth remained important (Bavinck as well). But the great tradition plainly won his grateful enthusiasm. His method, if we can call it that, was to enter patiently and attentively into the great conversation of classic Christian texts. This is what he trained his students to do—and that lesson remains his most lasting contribution.
When Jason Byassee and I interviewed him for The Christian Century in 2006, Webster opined that his early education had not prepared him well for this work of ressourcement. English theology was still suffering the effects of “doctrinal criticism,” and loving, patient engagement of classic theological texts was not the norm. In many ways, then, Webster saw himself in need of reeducation in the 1990s. He imagined a practice of theology not captivated by the liberal project of translating theology into supposedly more relevant, often man-centered, contemporary idioms. (He worried, as well, about the supposedly postliberal counterreaction, which often leaned heavily on analytic philosophy and cultural theory, to the exclusion of engagement with classic Christian literature.) His reeducation continued in the 2000s as he worked through text upon text, doctrine upon doctrine. It’s not happenstance that he described his essay collections as gatherings of “working papers,” a genre description meant to evoke the pilgrim-wayfarer still on the way to his destination.
Essays such as “On Evangelical Ecclesiology,” “Biblical Reasoning,” or “Trinity and Creation” show Webster following the model of Barth in the 1920s, the brilliant young professor who was systematically educating himself to be a real theologian rather than a theological celebrity. Toward the end of his too-short life, Webster said the task of theology was to indicate—to point readers toward—God and this takes precedence over any critical task. Nor does this task underwrite the status quo. Instead, as Webster knew, true and lasting chastening comes when one looks upon the God of the gospel: “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” The reform that the church and world always need comes from “repentant listening.”
John Webster was not an optimist. In his plainspoken manner, he made it clear that he did not believe that the maladies of modernity, the lure of anti-metaphysical thought, or the anthropocentric impulses of liberal theology had been in some way “defeated.” This would have accorded his theology too much creative agency! But he was hopeful that a strong counter to those trends had been established in the theological conversation. He was right. It is possible—indeed, imperative—to return to the ordinary and regular rhythms of classical Christian theological practice. As an author, yes, Webster outlines this return. But it was as a mentor to many that he invited us to be grateful readers and recipients of Holy Scripture and of the litany of Christian classics that shine with the truth of the gospel.
Michael Allen is the John Dyer Trimble Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida.