I remember it like it was yesterday. Having been invited by Alan Torrance to visit King’s College, London, I found myself sitting beside him and staring at Colin Gunton over lunch. Alan had just introduced me as a young doctoral student at Oxford studying Richard of St. Victor. Gunton piped up, “Oxford? There are no theologians at Oxford.” I recoiled momentarily and then blurted out, “We have John Webster”—to which Gunton immediately replied, “Right, well, Webster is an exception.”
Yes, John Webster was an exception, or, more accurately, exceptional. He arrived at Oxford as Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity in 1996, the same year I began my doctoral studies. He had developed a reputation as the premier translator and interpreter of Eberhard Jüngel, on whom he had written his doctoral dissertation. While most of his writings prior to 1996 offered an extended introduction to Jüngel’s corpus, his inaugural lecture as Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity marked a decided shift.
With this address, Webster made something of a Barthian declaration of war on the kind of approach he saw in Keith Ward, then Regius Professor of Divinity, and in others who, consciously or not, shared Ward’s mental habits. As I read back through the address, it seems clear that Webster had assumed the mantle he had bestowed on Barth in a 1988 essay titled “The Christian in Revolt.” Webster was no doubt playing the role, casting his revolt in terms of what he saw as Barth’s “hostility to abstraction” and commitment to particularism.
He lamented that theology had been “de-regionalized,” by which he meant that theological discourse no longer inhabited the particular Christian culture out of which it had emerged and which gave it meaning. His point was that in order to save theology, theologians had abandoned the habits of thought, genres, and literary conventions of the Christian tradition in favor of a more universalized inquiry into the truth governed by methods developed in other disciplines. Webster wanted theology to be theological, to be true to Christian culture and to the identity of the God who authored that culture. This meant that it must be dogmatic insofar as it begins with sets of assumptions articulated within Christian tradition and seeks to clarify them. Theology was an ecclesial vocation.
When true to its own habits of thought, theology could rightfully take its place in the university. The theologian will be just like any other kind of academic by “speaking as the intellectual voice of a particular culture.” University life, as conceived by Webster, was a series of conversations by persons who inhabited different discourses and the cultures out of which those discourses emerged. On this ground, theology could be rational and dogmatic because it was an intellectual inquiry into confessions of the church as found in the communio sanctorum.
Many of us who were doctoral candidates at the time could discern the differences between Ward and Webster. Whereas Ward declared in his 1996 Religion & Creation, the second volume to his project of comparative theology, that “theology is an enquiry into the being of God and the relation of God to the universe,” Webster countered that “theology is an office in the Church of Jesus Christ.” This is not to decry the important service Keith Ward has performed for the church through his own theological writings; it is to point out the stark contrast between his conception of theology and John Webster’s.
Almost all of Webster’s efforts at constructive theology after that address were an exercise in dogmatic theology, from his breviary on holiness (2002) to his “dogmatic sketch” of scripture (2003) and his collection of essays aptly titled Confessing God (2005). Of course, there was much more to the body of work Webster left than the three titles I have mentioned, but those three illustrate his ongoing concern with a theology of retrieval that privileged the particularity of Christian culture.
There is still one more lesson I gleaned from Webster during those early days at Oxford, and this was the role of grace in the theological task. At the conclusion of his introduction to Jüngel’s theology, Webster noted that Jüngel had focused on the role of grace as divine gift, to the exclusion of grace as elicitation and call. The indicative of the gift elicits the imperative of the call because the person is caught up into something greater that makes possible what was impossible. One can see how grace as elicitation began to permeate Webster’s work as he sought to redress the imbalance he found in Jüngel. The reconstruction of human identity in and through the sanctified life makes possible the task of theology, because theological reason just is “the exercise of redeemed intelligence within the economy of God’s revelatory grace.” Teasing out this notion of grace took Webster into the domain of pneumatology and the work of John Owen. But I learned the lesson through the deeply pastoral way in which Webster guided his students, even to the point of inviting us to continue dialoging in his house at Christ Church long after the lectures in the examination schools had ended.
As I reflect back on those heady days at Oxford reading through volume one of Barth’s Church Dogmatics with Webster at the helm in a room filled with Protestants and Catholics, I cannot help but recognize the way he became God’s gift of grace to so many. It is in this living communion that one discovers the many channels through which grace flows. John Webster was and is one such channel.
Dale M. Coulter is associate professor of historical theology at Regent University.