March 8, 2014
John Webster (St. Andrews) published The Domain of the Word a little over a year ago, and it has recently been released in paperback for the financially disadvantaged among us. It is the exciting culmination of Webster’s labor within the doctrine of Scripture, with prior installments including Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch and Word and Church.
Paul Dafydd Jones (Virginia) has written a review for the most recent issue of Modern Theology (30:1), and I thought it was worth posting here. Presumably I am not allowed to post the entire review, but here is a good size excerpt:
It is the virtue of studiousness, above all else, that The Domain of the Word seeks to commend. The cumulative effect of the assembled essays is akin to an instructional performance: a protracted attempt to remind scholars, and the church at large, that God provides a distinctive “space” in which scripture should be read and explored, and the rational capacities of the Christian can be put to work. This provision of space is, of course, an act of grace. To play on Webster’s own combination of figures: the Word’s domain is a divine address, spoken by the risen Christ and distributed by his Spirit, that activates and guides the response of those whom it locates and encloses; a temporal iteration of God’s own immensity, such that the historical body of Christ becomes a vocal witness to God’s creative, reconciliatory, and redemptive work. Negatively, the scholar qua exegete is hereby afforded the opportunity to move past an anti-theological naturalism that,Webster believes, frequently compromises the field of biblical studies. Positively, the scholar qua exegete is enabled to do what she should have been doing all along: offering a faithful response to the scriptural witness that honors God through the exercise of redeemed intelligence. Given the “unified saving action and presence of Word and Spirit, reason’s vocation is retrieved from the ruins: its sterile attempt at self-direction is set aside; its dynamism annexed to God’s self-manifesting presence; it regains its function in the ordered friendship between God and creatures” (p. 122).
The essays that comprise part one of this collection consider scripture’s role in the divine economy. Two treat of Karl Barth and T. F. Torrance, and give ample evidence of Webster’s renowned interpretative skills. The others are impressively programmatic. In “The domain of the Word,” Webster traces the shape of the Triune God’s self-communicative acts, identifying the canonical texts as discursive media that Christ commissions to speak on his behalf—the goal being a bibliology that integrates claims about providence, inspiration, and sanctification, and makes clear why and how scripture functions as “an instrument in the fellowship between the revelatory Word and its addressees” (p. 24). With “Resurrection and Scripture” and “Illumination,” Webster adds more detail. The Bible’s authoritative status is a function of it being the “creaturely auxiliary” (p. 38) that the risen Christ employs to make himself and his saving work known. Indeed, precisely because Christ is risen, all times and places are present to and for him, and all times and places are poised to receive the saving light that Christ communicates through the creaturely prism of scripture. The result, if God so wills, is the event of illumination: persons and communities who are corrected, re-formed, and “lit up” to enjoy ordered fellowship with God.
The essays in part two fall under the heading of “theological reason.” Generally, they show Webster’s longstanding interest in moral ontology—that is, an expansive account of the way that human beings can act, before God, in obedience and freedom— connecting with his more recent studies of scripture. In “Biblical reasoning,” Webster argues that exegesis succeeds insofar as it locates itself and scripture within God’s reconciling economy; in “Principles of systematic theology,” theological reflection is conceived as the reproduction of God’s antecedent self-knowing, mediated through God’s hallowing of creaturely media and sustained, despite the ongoing fact of sin, by God’s regenerative grace. In “Theology and the peace of the church” and “Regina artium: Theology and the humanities,” Webster develops his insights with reference to the church and modern university. In terms of the church,Webster insists that theological discourse make manifest the peace that God has established between sinners and himself. Precisely because “peace is the metaphysically basic and enduring condition of the church of Jesus Christ” (p. 159), theology should view conflict in general and intellectual dispute in particular as unseemly; only when there is a well-formed “passion for gospel truth” (p. 167) may controversy be joined. In terms of the university, Webster protests the tendency to construe theology as one more humanistic field of study. This amounts to a defection of reason—a perverse reluctance, on the part of Christian scholars, to inhabit and participate in the divine economy. Webster advances an alternative perspective by way of Bonaventure and Augustine: one that perceives “the encompassing context” (p. 191) of all intellectual labor, refuses an overdrawn distinction of “sacred” and “secular,” and affirms the theologian’s Spirit-led capacity to draw selectively on “the disarray of the arts of intelligence” (p. 190).
I have no hesitation in declaring The Domain of the Word an important, insightful, and often brilliant work. Of especial value is Webster’s willingness to articulate a consistently positive theological perspective—that is, his determination to promote a style of reflection that engages the complexities of a late modern context only occasionally, given the more urgent task of describing scripture’s role in the divine economy and, complementarily, providing an account of God’s invigoration of human intelligence. This does not mean that Webster’s ad hoc appraisals of the modern period as largely inimical to sound thinking about scripture and exegesis ought to go unquestioned. I myself favor a more mixed judgment—one that balances critique with an acclamation of the benefits that accompany an expansion of learning, democratic processes of inquiry, and a criticism of certain “traditional” mores. Yet the point still holds. Webster’s account of God’s gracious activity is such that one need not (and ought not) spend time bemoaning the temper of the times. One can simply get on with the more interesting business of doing theology.
“Doing theology”—but in conversation with whom? The Domain of the Word is particularly interesting on this front. Webster’s fascination with the work of Eberhard Jüngel, prominent in the early part of his career, is now in firmly in abeyance. His interest in Karl Barth continues, but is overarched by a strong commitment to “patristic and medieval authors and . . . their heirs in post-Reformation scholastic theology” (p. ix). What does this shift in conversation-partners portend? Webster’s critical asides about the modern condition notwithstanding, there is little point in framing an answer in terms of the binary of modernity = bad/pre-modernity = good. For once that is in play, sound judgments are hard to come by: sweeping historiographical claims bulk so large that dogmatic arguments easily become peripheral. More important here is Webster’s prefatory admission that an account of “God’s infinitely deep, fully realized life” (p. ix), developed in conversation with patristic, medieval, and scholastic authors, has become fundamental to his thinking. …
Jones continues with some modest criticisms/questions about whether the limitations of the finite and sinful creature are lost in Webster’s account, which would obviously be a question hailing from the biblical studies crowd as well. As you can see, it is an excellent review. I especially like his recognition of Webster’s current dialog partners in the church’s history. A fine example of his scholastic ressourcement can be found in his “Trinity and Creation” article from IJST 12:1 (Jan 2010), which pertains in part to the proper ordering of Trinity and incarnation, a heated debate in systematics for over a decade now.
You can also read Ashish Varma’s review of Domain from the Wheaton bloggers.
November 6, 2013
R. Michael Allen (Knox Theological Seminar) is known to some readers of this blog for his publication last year, Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics: An Introduction and Reader (T&T Clark), an excellent tool for classroom use. Prior to that, he published Reformed Theology in the T&T Clark series, “Doing Theology.”
His most recent monograph is a study of the doctrine of justification: Justification and the Gospel: Understanding the Contexts and Controversies (Baker Academic). He recounts his journey at the publisher’s website, as a once enthusiastic critic of the Protestant doctrine under the sway of the New Perspective. Things changed as he studied history and dogmatics:
But now I have written Justification and the Gospel: Understanding the Contexts and Controversies, arguing that the Protestant doctrine of justification is exegetically defensible and theologically essential to filling out catholic teaching on God’s relations to creatures in the gospel of Jesus Christ. This book manifests something of the journey I’ve been on now for a decade. I found that rising familiarity with the exegetical riches of the great teachers of the church (from Irenaeus and Gregory to Thomas and Bonaventure to Luther and Calvin) shows their brilliance as aids and our own limits as modern researchers. I’ve also seen that too often protests regarding the Reformation stem from really bad understandings of what it actually involved, too frequently based in reading of poor secondary sources rather than in careful study of primary texts. I hope this book serves as a useful prompt to further reflection in these two conversations: how do we think well of justification in light of the wider gospel of Jesus? And how do we go about the task of Christian theology and of a faithful Christian reading of the Holy Scriptures today?
Also, the publisher has an excerpt on Barth’s “sense of proportion and order”: Barth, Justification, and the Gospel.
I do find it fascinating and encouraging that Allen teaches at a seminary (Knox) that is owned and operated by a PCA congregation, Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, now pastored by Tullian Tchividjian. Needless to say, a friendliness toward Barth is not exactly commonplace in the PCA orbit.
August 4, 2013
The lecture title is “God as Creator.” This is a run-through of Webster’s trinitarian theology, focusing on the relation of God’s aseity to his work of creation (his work ad extra). For those unfamiliar with current debates on the Trinity, this would be a good place to witness trinitarian theology in action, from one of our most adept practitioners. However, it may be a bit rough-going for those not acquainted with the terminology (or with this sort of sustained categorical analysis). Yet, you can always expect with Webster great spiritual insight, such as when he discusses the “distinct appropriation” of the Holy Spirit:
The Spirit so moves creatures that we come to be animated, to be alive. The life of creatures is the gift of the Spirit. That’s a point of great spiritual loveliness, and yet one which is very hard for us to perceive unless we abandon an intuitive sense that only we ourselves can give life to ourselves. That’s a deeply flawed but deeply ingrained intuition that we have. We imagine that our integrity can only be secure if we place ourselves beyond the reach of divine love. But divine love does the opposite: it frees us from self-responsibility. “God the Father wrought the creature through his Love, the Holy Spirit,” says Aquinas.
The lecture series is entitled, “Creator, Creation, and Creature: God and His World.” Here are the other two lectures:
Lecture Two (“God and Creation”)
Lecture Three (“God and His Creatures”)
For those who are familiar with current debates on the Trinity, you can expect to be stimulated by Webster’s articulation of God’s sufficiency and fullness apart from his creation — as the ontological ground from which grace derives.
September 30, 2009
I just finished reading John Webster’s essay, “Rector et iudex super omnia genera doctrinarum?: The Place of the Doctrine of Justification,” in the recently published volume, What Is Justification About?: Reformed Contributions to an Ecumenical Theme (Eerdmans, 2009). You can read the essay for free by clicking here. It was an exciting read…well, if you’re a theology nerd.
For those who have read Holiness or listened to his Kantzer Lectures at TEDS, a lot of the material will be familiar territory but still well worth reading for another fine-tuning of how the being and works of God are necessarily related. Of particular interest, Webster sketches how a doctrine of justification will look if presented in a movement from God’s inner “fullness of life” to his salvation of sinners by “interposing” himself between the creature and his falleness, restoring the “righteous fellowship” for which God created man. The final pages of the essay — a six step outline of this movement — has much fruit for thought (p. 50 ff).
December 16, 2008
Many theologians are inclined to view the primary function of grace as one of contradiction or disruption of present creaturely existence. The “new creation” (Paul) is an eschatological reality. It does have current manifestations but mainly by way of revealing (a noetic category) our present abidance in sin, little by way of transforming (an ontic category) our lives into a genuine holiness. John Webster is hard to pin down on this issue, but in the following passage he expresses this (typically Protestant) view:
…the Church’s holiness is visible as it confesses its sin in penitence and faith. The Church is consecrated by the Father’s resolve, holy in Christ and sanctified by the Holy Spirit. Such holiness is not achieved perfection, but an alien holiness which is the contradiction of its very real sinfulness. The Church is holy, not because it has already attained the eschatological state of being ‘without spot or wrinkle’, but because the promise and command of the gospel have already broken into its life and disturbed it, shaking it to the core. The Church is holy only as it is exposed to judgment.
This means that, far from being a matter of confident purity, holiness is visible as humble acknowledgment of sin and as prayer for forgiveness. ‘There is no greater sinner than the Christian Church,” said Luther in his Easter Day sermon in 1531. It is in repentance, rather than in the assumption of moral pre-eminence, that holiness is visible. …Realized moral excellence does not necessarily constitute holiness and may contradict it.
Holiness, pp. 73-74
Penitence is, thus, the primary function of grace, and as a penitent people, the Church witnesses to the one alone who is holy, Jesus Christ. Not I, but Christ. “Witness,” like “reveal,” is a noetic category, at least insofar as it is signifying not one’s own reality, but another reality. Other theologians, however, are more inclined to view the primary function of grace as both condemnation and constitution. Holiness can really be predicated of the Church. Of course, the Protestant fear of this typically Catholic approach is that the Church, the objects of grace, become the focus (“look how holy we are!”, “we are justified in our acts!”), instead of the giver of grace, God, from whom all holiness exists. Hans Urs von Balthasar understands the issue well (far better than I do!), as seen in such careful distinctions as “grace is a de facto property of nature, not a de jure property.” We do not merit the grace given, much less are we entitled to it, but in the grace given we in fact do partake in the life of God — His existence as love. Here is a passage where von Balthasar expresses this understanding, against the Protestant eschatologists:
According to Catholic doctrine, grace is that self-disclosure and self-communication of God in which God no longer possesses his own divine inner life for himself but now bestows it upon the world and thereby gives the creature a share in it. Now because God is both absolute spirit and absolute Being, this sharing in God’s life must also be both something conscious and ontically real: or what amounts to the same thing, it can only be understood as simultaneously involving both an event aspect as well as an ontological aspect.
If it were merely something conscious and cognitive — that is, if God were known in his self-revelation only as a truth about himself that the creature would have to accept and to believe — then even though we might think we had been enriched by this knowledge, the gain would prove to be entirely illusory. For really all we would have gained is a view of a world to which we were otherwise forbidden entry. But this kind of merely cognitive revelation of a divine world is inherently contradictory and impossible, because God’s truth is one with his Being (this is expressed in the statement that God is love). In other words, God cannot communicate his truth without at the same time giving us access to his Being.
…God’s revelation can only be an event if something actually takes place. …In fact, if nothing actual occurs between God and man that can be expressed ontologically, then in fact what happens is…nothing at all.
The Theology of Karl Barth, pp. 364-5
Of course, the problem remains, as von B notes elsewhere, that the Christian is indeed, in some sense, both sinner and saint. In our pre-resurrection existence, sin is real — but holiness is also real. The former does not require an absolute Nein over against a holy life, my life, in Christ. Both penitence and charity can and do constitute the visible holiness of the Church, as indeed even John Webster notes the Church’s “constitutive character of its holiness” (p. 76) in its prayer for God’s enactment of his holiness in the Church.