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“…and so, theology is possible”

By R. David Nelson
Baker Academic and Brazos Press

August 12, 2021


Reflections on John Webster

By R. David Nelson
Baker Academic and Brazos Press


Shortly after John Webster passed away unexpectedly on May 25, 2016, a friend and I found ourselves reminiscing about our late mentor. “The thing I remember most about John,” my friend reflected, “is that he was always really present to me every time we got a chance to chat. I will never forget what it was like to be in his company.” For those of us privileged to know him well, Webster’s passing was a tremendous loss for this very reason. He was, to be sure, a brilliant and accomplished theologian. Indeed, at his death he was perhaps the most prominent scholar of Christian dogmatics in the English-speaking world. But besides all that, Webster was a real mensch. He was the liveliest of conversation partners, ever a teacher and advisor, a possessor of fierce wit and a wry sense of humor, and, above all, a good friend.

Webster’s passing is agonizing also because it ended his theological journey so suddenly and prematurely. At the time of his death, he was under contract to write a five-volume Systematic Theology, which surely would have taken its place among the most significant works in the field ever written by an English theologian. He was preparing a half-a-dozen other books on various topics in Christian dogmatics. All the while, he continued to shepherd doctoral students as chair of divinity at St Andrews, and to offer editorial leadership to the International Journal of Systematic Theology and the T&T Clark Studies in Systematic Theology series. Webster was right in the thick of things when he died, and many plans and commitments will remain unrealized.

Fortunately, Webster left behind a library of sparkling monographs and short works in contemporary theology and constructive dogmatics. If such publications are unable to capture the full breadth of engagement and encompassing vision only a comprehensive treatment of the doctrinal topics can convey, they yet find Webster’s theological genius on exhibit. Students of systematic and moral theology today could do no better than to plunge into Webster’s literary legacy. In addition to his handful of book-length studies, several of which I mention below, T&T Clark has released five volumes of his theological essays[1] and an annotated reader.[2] And Lexham press offers two anthologies of his theologically rich sermons.[3]

Webster’s Theology—A Short Sketch

As a rule of thumb, Webster’s career and publications divide into two broad phases. Early on, his work focused on Christian theology in the modern period, particularly the contributions of Eberhard Jüngel and Karl Barth. His Cambridge dissertation, which he later reorganized into a little primer,[4] was the first major study of Jüngel’s theology by an Anglophone scholar. He went on to compose numerous articles, book chapters, and prefatory pieces on Jüngel, organized an English-language Festschrift for the Tübingen theologian,[5] and spearheaded three translation projects of some of Jüngel’s most important works.[6] This segment of Webster’s literary output is scarcely studied, mainly because Jüngel’s difficult theology never found a wide readership in the Anglosphere. Nevertheless, Webster’s work on Jüngel stands as a significant scholarly achievement. He almost single-handedly introduced Jüngel to the guild of theology in the English-speaking world, producing what is likely to remain the most sizeable portfolio of scholarship on Jüngel by a single author.

Webster turned his attention to Barth with two works on the location of moral theology in Barth’s project: the monograph Barth’s Ethics of Reconciliation[7] and the anthology Barth’s Moral Theology.[8] A few years later, he contributed an introduction to Barth’s theology in the Outstanding Christian Thinkers series,[9] and edited the Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth.[10] A short book on Barth’s early lecture cycles in Göttingen— Barth’s Earlier Theology[11]—capped off an intense period of engagement with Barth stretching from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s. Webster never fully left Barth far behind, however. He continued to give careful thought to Barth’s exegesis of scripture, and one of the very last essays to come from his pen is a theological exploration of Barth’s lectures on Ephesians from 1921-22.[12]

Still, by the mid-2000s Webster had moved on to a second phase of work. His plans for the multi-volume Systematic Theology were materializing, and in the lead-up to that project he contributed numerous short pieces in constructive theology and Christian dogmatics. One matter occupying Webster’s mind during the early years of this second phase was the question of the ontology of scripture. As he argues in the magisterial little book Holy Scripture,[13] we must sort out what scripture is and how it functions in the economy of God’s creative, reconciling, and perfecting works before we turn to the question of how to interpret it. A score of essays and articles from the same period exhibit how theological exegesis of the Bible might look when we take the ontology of scripture seriously. Webster even agreed to write a theological commentary on Ephesians in which he would give his account of Christian scripture and its interpretation full expression.

Other topics stand out in the writings that make up this second period: the nature and tasks of Christian theology, the place of theology in the modern research university, the distinction between God and creatures, the doctrine of the church, and the moral and intellectual virtues, to name but a few. At all points in these brief works from his final decade, we find Webster casting a vision for a genuinely theological theology, a theology always ordered and determined by a twofold object: “God the Holy Trinity and all other things relative to God.”[14] And if the late essays showcase Webster’s brilliance in short bursts, they also are stamped by a sense of anticipation for something greater, as they foreshadow the major statement of Christian dogmatics on the horizon.[15]

On the Way to Well-Ordered Theological Thinking

In the preface to the first volume of her Systematic Theology, Katherine Sonderegger makes the case that Christian theology not only can but must speak about the triune life of God and the divine perfections. “Not all is Christology!” she writes,[16] referring here to the tendency especially in modern Protestant dogmatics to formulate assertions about God by starting with the episodes summarized in the Creed’s second article; namely, the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s a concern that Webster certainly shared, and it shows up in a number of his later works in those spots where he urges readers to recognize the material order in our God-talk of theology over economy, that is, of the divine life and perfections over God’s outer works.

“Though in the order of exposition the economy may be treated first and with great elaboration,” he puts it in one place:

in the material order theology proper is primary, and all other Christian teaching is suspended from it. This means that all Christian doctrines are functions of the doctrine of the Trinity…God’s immanent triune perfection is the first and last object of Christian theological reflection and governs all else. And that perfection is abundant, giving life to and sustaining that which is not God, and which is the object of economic reflection.[17]

While he does acknowledge here and elsewhere that the order of exposition can begin with economy if the material order of theology is clearly stated, in most of his late essays Webster starts with theology and proceeds to economy, moving from reflection on the inner life of the triune God to whatever topic is at hand. Singly rather than comprehensively, then, the short pieces from his last decade show the entailments of the doctrine of the Trinity for other regions of Christian teaching.

Webster also devotes considerable attention throughout his writings, especially in his mature essays, to the personal and intellectual qualities of the theologian. This emphasis—we might call it a moral theology of the theologian—sets his work apart and may stand as one of his most enduring contributions to modern dogmatics. “Good theology demands good theologians,” Webster proposes in his 1998 Burns Lecture on “Habits,”[18] and he goes on there and elsewhere to describe the habits of heart and mind ingredient to the work of Christian theology, and likewise to identify the moral and intellectual vices which ever threaten the theologian. In a sparkling essay on “Intellectual Patience,” Webster catalogues those intellectual virtues necessary for the cultivation of any sort of knowledge, especially theology:

(1) There are those virtues which dispose us to acquire intellectual goods [love of knowledge, studiousness]…(2) There are those virtues which dispose us to receive the intellectual goods [attentiveness, humility, modesty, docility or teachableness]…(3) There are those virtues which fit us to contribute to or profit from common intellectual life [intellectual benevolence, intellectual generosity, affability, impartiality, and gratitude]…(4) There are those virtues which ready us to deal with difficulty in the pursuit of intellectual goods [magnanimity, intellectual courage, patience][19]

There is much wisdom here and abroad in the late essays for those who find themselves on the path of theological thinking. In a world in which so much information travels quickly and cheaply, Webster encourages theologians to slow down, to read deeply and carefully in the canons of classical and modern theological literature, and to tend diligently to the gardens of heart, soul, and mind.

The Possibility of Theology

Fittingly, Webster ends the agenda-setting essay, “What Makes Theology Theological?,” with a brief engagement with Psalm 119. “‘If thy law had not been my delight, I should have perished in my affliction,’ the psalmist says (v. 92); but, the Lord’s word is indeed ‘firmly fixed in the heavens’ (v. 82), and so, theology is possible.”[20] For Webster, theology becomes possible when it is spellbound by the triune God, the One who dwells in inexhaustible splendor. And such a genuinely theological theology can dare to go about its tasks boldly, courageously, and animated by matchless joy.

Watch a video recording of John Webster delivering a lecture sponsored by the Stead Center.

[1] John Webster, Word and Church: Essays in Christian Dogmatics (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001); idem, Confessing God: Essays in Christian Dogmatics II (London: T&T Clark, 2005); idem, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (London: T&T Clark, 2012); idem, God without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology, Volume 1: God and the Works of God (London: T&T Clark, 2015); idem, God without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology, Volume 2: Virtue and Intellect (London: T&T Clark, 2016).

[2] Michael Allen, ed., T & T Clark Reader in John Webster (London: T & T Clark, 2020).

[3] Webster, Confronted by Grace: Meditations of a Theologian, eds. Daniel Bush and Brannon Ellis (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015); idem, Christ our Salvation: Expositions and Proclamations, ed. Daniel Bush (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2020).

[4] Webster, Eberhard Jüngel: An Introduction to His Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

[5] Webster, ed., The Possibilities of Theology: Studies in the Theology of Eberhard Jüngel in his Sixtieth Year (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994).

[6] Jüngel, God’s Being Is in Becoming; idem, Theological Essays, trans. J.B. Webster (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989; repr. London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014); idem, Theological Essays II, ed. J.B. Webster, trans. Arnold Neufeldt-Fast (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995; repr. London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014).

[7] Webster, Barth’s Ethics of Reconciliation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

[8] Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology: Human Action in Barth’s Thought (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998).

[9] Webster, Barth (London: Continuum, 2000).

[10] Webster, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

[11] Webster, Barth’s Earlier Theology (London: T&T Clark, 2005).

[12] Webster, “‘A Relation beyond All Relations’: God and Creatures in Barth’s Lectures on Ephesians, 1921-22,” in Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Ephesians (ed. R. David Nelson; trans. Ross M. Wright; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 31-49.

[13] Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[14] So he puts it in the programmatic essay “What Makes Theology Theological?” in Webster, God without Measure, Volume 1, 213. 

[15] On Webster’s plans for Systematic Theology, see R. David Nelson, “Epilogue: Courses Charted but Not taken,” in Michael Allen and R. David Nelson, eds., A Companion to the Theology of John Webster (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2021), 297-314.

[16] Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology—Volume 1, The Doctrine of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), xvii.

[17] Webster, “On the Theology of Providence,” in God without Measure, Volume 1, 128.

[18] Webster, The Culture of Theology, eds. Ivor J. Davidson and Alden C. McCray (Grand Rapids, Baker Academic: 2019), 15.

[19] Webster, “Intellectual Patience,” in God without Measure, Volume2, 176.

[20] Webster, “What Makes Theology Theological?,” 224.

R. David Nelson is Senior Acquisitions Editor for Baker Academic and Brazos Press. He has also recently co-edited a book on the theology of John Webster.