Look Closer at the Christmas Story During Advent

The Christmas story has become familiar. We know the story well—so well that we sometimes miss its beauty and power. But when we read Scripture closely, we rediscover the infinite wonder of God’s Word made flesh.

This Christmas, commit to looking closer at Scripture and rediscover the wonder of the Christmas story. Centered around the themes of preparation, anticipation, joy, and incarnation, Anticipating His Arrival guides you through Advent as your expectation of Jesus’ arrival grows. This Advent, follow along as we celebrate Jesus’ first coming in Bethlehem and his second coming, which we await. This guide through Advent is available for free this season.

To join the reading plan, go to Logos.com/look-closer or the Logos Bible Software Faithlife group.

Tocqueville on Democracy, Local Communities, and Moral Character

This guest post was authored by John D. Wilsey, editor of a new abridgment of Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville.

Once again, we have participated in a national community event that takes place every four years—we have elected a president. The new president will be our forty-fifth. It is astounding that Americans have participated in presidential elections regularly every four years since George Washington was elected in 1789. It is even more astounding when one considers that the quadrennial election for president has taken place despite the nation facing some of its most dangerous threats—the Civil War, the Great Depression, and World War II.

In every presidential election, one group of supporters is jubilant, while the supporters of the losing candidates are dejected. I can certainly relate to that—I cast my first ballot in 1988, and since then I have voted for both winners and losers. The election that has just passed was particularly shocking, because so few saw it coming. Time will tell when, how, and if the country will settle in and be at relative peace with the new administration.

It is indeed interesting how much consternation a presidential contest can achieve among the American people. In my local election, I cast a ballot for a proposed bond measure and another one on a question of whether or not stores could sell liquor within city limits. There was not any public outcry from the losing side of either of these two questions, at least to my knowledge. I can say the same for the election of our state officials. Nobody was in the streets protesting from the losing sides. I have not heard any discontent whatsoever from anyone in my community about the results of our state and local elections.

Why is that? Citizens have a direct and vested interest in their local communities. And while state government is a bit more distant from the citizens, they still have a legitimate stake in their state governments. It is interesting that people have put so much faith in their national government, and in their president in particular. The amount of faith the American people have placed in their national government in general, and president in particular, is demonstrated in the visceral reactions that many have shown in response to Mr. Trump’s victory. 

Alexis de Tocqueville foresaw such a state of affairs in his classic work, Democracy in America. He noted, with sincere admiration, how Americans in 1831-1832 were so deeply engaged with their local affairs. This was the case particularly in New England, where Tocqueville saw that citizens in their townships were deeply engaged in their communal lives because everyone had a stake in the success of their community. The center of political gravity for Americans in New England was not the national, but the local government. Because that was the case, Tocqueville believed that New Englanders were the freest of all the Americans. 

Tocqueville also saw that the Americans of his day were uniquely interested in forming voluntary associations to address issues in which the government had no jurisdiction. At one point, Tocqueville used the example of a local traffic jam—when a road becomes clogged with vehicles and there are no laws to follow and no magistrate present to bring order, Tocqueville said that Americans come together in a voluntary organization to bring order and to clear the road to make travel smooth again. This they do without prompting by the government, but on their own initiative. In the same way, Americans form local voluntary bodies to address hosts of questions and issues, and do so to further their interests independently of the government.

This is how free societies work, Tocqueville said. Laws are important in a democracy, but not nearly as important as the customs, the manners of the people. These manners—the moral character of a society—are what inform the public spirit of the people. They maintain the social integrity of the people and ultimately are the deciding factor on whether a democracy will be defined by liberty or by despotism. 

If a society’s manners are informed by Christian morals through a disestablished church, then liberty can be secured through citizen’s continual engagement with their local affairs through the townships, counties, state, and national government. But if the citizens become too obsessed with self, to enamored of materialistic concerns, and complacent in their local communities, they will rely more and more on a national government to take care of the details that they themselves would have taken care of through their local processes. When that level of complacency prevails, the democracy has become a despotism. 

As we consider our current situation, we should ask ourselves: have we allowed America to become a democratic despotism through our complacency? Have we lost our vested interest in our local communities, and put all our trust in our national leaders to take care of us? Have we allowed ourselves to become so enraptured by national public figures that we adore them or revile them as we would an emperor?

Tocqueville wrote, “For my part, I am persuaded that, in all governments, whatever their nature may be, servility will cower to force, and adulation will follow power. The only means of preventing men from degrading themselves is to invest no one with that unlimited authority which the sure method of debasing them.”

That sounds easy, but Tocqueville’s prescription requires American citizens to be vigilant in their guarding of their local interests, informed by manners that are rooted in morality. When this healthy public spirit prevails, we will find unity and peace in our national polity—even when the person we voted against wins the presidential election.

Karl Barth on Time, Eternity, and Jesus Christ

Recent years have seen a renewed interest in the relationship between eternity and time among philosophers, scientists, and theologians. Theologically, this question gets at the age-old problem of how an eternal God can interact with a temporal creation. A new generation of theologians is not content with the traditional answers proffered through the centuries. An eternal God who is wholly removed from our present experience and affliction, the thinking goes, is not a God we can trust. Karl Barth has been increasingly tapped as a resource for exploring this subject.

Barth’s Christology is neither metaphysical nor merely heuristic; rather, it must be understood as an act—an event. The event of Jesus Christ in God’s life is the only solution to the problem of time and eternity in every locus of theology—whether the doctrine of God, creation, reconciliation, or revelation. Jesus Christ is himself God, creation, reconciliation, and revelation. He is no abstract God but is both the electing, eternal God and the elected, temporal man in one divine act of rapprochement. Further, he is no abstract creature but is both the eternal Creator and the temporal creature in one divine act of rapprochement. Similarly, Jesus Christ is no abstract redeemer but is both the eternal redeemer and the time-bound man of sinful flesh in one divine act of rapprochement. Finally, for Barth there is no abstract notion of revelation but Jesus Christ is both the eternal revealer and the temporal receiver of revelation in one divine act of rapprochement. God, creation, reconciliation, and revelation are the eternal act of God in Jesus Christ, in whom and by whom time is eternity and eternity is time—precisely because and insofar as he has become time. 

This actualistic and temporal way of relating eternity and time is as monumental as it is revolutionary. In an attempt to bridge the infinite gap between eternity and time, Barth brings God and creation together in a third time-sphere—his theology is three-dimensional. He affirms the theological existence of three times: God’s time, our time, and the time of Jesus Christ. This last time is what Barth refers to as Gottes Zeit für uns—God’s time for us (Die kirchliche Dogmatik I/2, 50). Gottes Zeit für uns is a transcendent act of God in the event of Jesus Christ. Here, the Creator and the creature are temporally agglomerated in a perichoretic interpenetration of eternal divinity and temporal creatureliness in which God has become time without ceasing to be eternal. Thus eternity and time will always be one. In other words, they will always be Jesus Christ. For Barth, the rapprochement of eternity and time takes place in a transcendentally temporal act of God in Jesus Christ called “God’s time for us.” It is this act of rapprochement on God’s part that provides the conceptual foundation for Barth’s theologizing about his doctrine of election, creation, reconciliation, and revelation.

For Barth, Jesus Christ is himself a dialectical relation existing always and everywhere as a transcendent event. In him, eternity becomes temporal without ceasing to be eternal. Likewise, in him time is eternal without ceasing to be time. This is a relation-act that takes place in the event of God’s life that is Jesus Christ; it does not occur in “our time.” Our time is fallen time and is therefore incapable of containing God or bearing the acts of revelation, creation, and reconciliation. And it is not God’s time, which exists in a rarefied field of eternity. Rather, it is a third time: the time of Jesus Christ, who is himself God, and as such is also the act of creation, reconciliation, and revelation. He has always been the eternal God without ceasing to be temporal man. He is a time-bound man without ceasing to be the eternal God. Thus Christian theology may never speak about God or man, Creator or creation, Savior or saved, revelation given or received, in the abstract. The church must always speak about eternity and time as the dialectical reality of the event in God’s life who is Jesus Christ. In this way, Barth proposes a consistently, unapologetically, and unequivocally Christian answer to the problem of the relationship between eternity and time. Furthermore, it is also a distinctly theological proposal as opposed to a speculative-philosophical one.

Barth’s theology stands at the juncture of two converging concepts. The first is the idea of a three-dimensional structure, qualified in terms of time. The second is the solution to the eternity/time problem found in a transcendent act of God. If these two insights into Barth’s thought remain underdeveloped, the radical nature of Barth’s proposal is muted or missed altogether. Too often, interpreters resort to understanding his theology as if he allows for a substance ontology. But until Barth is read consistently as a post-metaphysical, dialectical, and actualistic theologian, the greatest depths of his thought will never be plumbed.

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God's Time for Us: Barth's Reconciliation of Eternity and Time in Jesus Christ by James J. Cassidy is now available in all formats.

An announcement from Lexham Press regarding EEC James

Lexham Press has withdrawn from publication Dr. William Varner’s Evangelical Exegetical Commentary volume on James. We discovered that the volume contains a number of uncited and improperly cited passages from other works, blurring the distinction between quoted and original material.

Lexham Press, and the editors of the EEC, are committed to the highest scholarly standards of accuracy and ethical standards of integrity. We regret that these problems were not discovered before publication, and are further strengthening our editorial review process. We will contract a replacement James volume for the EEC from another author. Logos customers who wish to return their copy of James should contact Lexham at customerservice@lexhampress.com to be reimbursed for the amount of their purchase. Customers who bought the print edition may contact us at the same address for return and reimbursement instructions.

We presented our findings and our plans to Dr. Varner; here is his response, which he wishes to make public:

“In assuming too many writing projects, I was not careful enough in this commentary to adequately cite some of my sources. I also was not always diligent to clearly express in my own words material that I gleaned from others. Although I did not deliberately misuse the work of other writers, I sincerely apologize for my lack of care in reporting my research. I ask forgiveness from all who trusted me to be an accurate handler of the Word (2 Tim 2:15), a responsibility that I take seriously.”

We apologize for any problems this may cause for our readers, endorsers, and other partners; we are dedicated to doing whatever we can to put this right and to ensure all Lexham Press publications uphold our commitment to quality and truthfulness.

Brannon Ellis, Publisher, Lexham Press
H. Wayne House, EEC General Editor

Retelling the Story of Atonement

Adam Johnson has already established himself as a leading theologian of the atonement, but in The Reconciling Wisdom of God he considers the atonement in light of God’s wisdom, rather than simply as an act of justice. 

By studying the atonement through the lens of God’s infinite wisdom, Johnson is able to speak meaningfully across the lines between the various theories of the atonement. The Reconciling Wisdom of God genuinely reframes the debate around the atonement in terms of God’s wisdom, making it a vital contribution to this essential debate.

Here's an excerpt from the first chapter of Adam Johnson's new book:

The doctrine of the atonement is a matter of telling a story, or retelling God’s story. One can do it any number of ways. At its heart, the atonement is a story, a history; and as with all stories, this telling is an art. 
Gustaf Aulén, a Swedish theologian, sought to move past the division he perceived between the rationalistic Lutheran orthodoxy and the liberal theology of his day. Aulén argued that we should return to the original or “classic” theory of Christ’s defeat of Satan. Building on a number of passages throughout the Bible, this view emphasizes the role of Satan in God’s fallen creation (Eph 2:2), the power he has over us (1 John 5:19), and the ways in which Christ came to defeat Satan, reestablishing us as the servants of God (Heb 2:14–15).
Aulén’s story caught the imagination of the church, and has proved to be of enduring value. Due in large part to Aulén’s influence, the defeat of Satan as one of the primary aspects of the work of Christ is now a staple feature of any work on the atonement, and is one of the storylines that receives the most creative energy from theologians of the atonement today. But Aulén’s telling of the story has its weaknesses, and unfortunately these have proved to be quite significant, precisely because his story was so compelling. The doctrine of the atonement throughout Scripture and the history of doctrine is far richer, far more complex and delightful than this simplistic story would suggest. While such an abridged story may suffice for bedtime, a far greater and more complex story is necessary to do justice to the drama in which we find ourselves.
The good news is that the doctrine of the atonement, much like Lady Philosophy in Boethius’ classic Consolation of Philosophy, lives still in all her undiminished vigor. The splendor of her clothes, however, is “obscured by a kind of film as of long neglect,” and her dress is “torn by the hands of marauders who had each carried off such pieces as he could get.” The problem is not so much with the doctrine itself as it is with the paltry mindset we have brought on ourselves by listening to distorted and inadequate stories. Stronger medicine is needed: a better, truer, and more faithful story. And for this story we turn to Lady Wisdom, because telling the story of Christ’s work from the standpoint of divine wisdom offers us the best and fullest standpoint from which to appreciate the full height, depth, and breadth of this vast, masterful, and saving story of God’s work for us and for our salvation (Eph 3:18).
What we need is a standpoint from which to view the whole scene. This doesn’t mean that it is the best standpoint in an unqualified, objective sense. Only God can simultaneously appreciate every aspect and dimension of the saving work of Christ. But given our finite and limited grasp of this story—this event—the perspective from which we view it matters greatly. A watchtower may be the best point from which to survey a valley or keep an eye out for forest fires, but is a poor place from which to fish.
As with any story, the doctrine of the atonement has certain key elements that must be in place for the drama to emerge clearly, and for the portrayal of the resolution to be deep and compelling. In this case, given the scope of realities entailed in the work of Christ, it is vitally important to have a sufficiently large structure or framework from which to tell the story. We need the full picture, and this picture begins with the primary character in the story: the triune God. The reason for this is that in this case, the main character and the history as a whole are bound together. God is simultaneously the central actor, the source of the setting and every other character, the one around whom the whole drama revolves, and ultimately the one in and through whom the whole drama is resolved.
I will tell the story of the work of Christ from the standpoint of divine wisdom. As we will see, this standpoint more than any other opens our eyes to the full size and scope of the wondrous, epic story of the work of Jesus. More than any other, this account of the history of Jesus the Messiah of Israel gives us a sense of the whole doctrine; in turn it equips us to tell the story in ever new ways, from ever more perspectives, to the benefit and nourishment of the church.

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The Reconciling Word of God is now available in print and digital formats. 

An Extended Interview with Grant Osborne

Lexham Press is proud to announce a New Testament commentary series from respected biblical scholar Grant Osborne. His seminal work, The Hermeneutical Spiral, has become a standard for biblical interpretation. As a culmination of his life’s ministry, Osborne is bringing his theological acumen to an accessible, application-focused commentary. The Osborne New Testament Commentaries interpret Scripture verse by verse, bridging the gap between scholarship and the church.

After almost 30 years of teaching at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS) as Professor of New Testament, Osborne gave his final lecture this year. His first post-retirement project is this New Testament commentary series. With the help of TEDS, we were able to interview Grant Osborne about his new endeavor.

Here is the extended length interview with Grant Osborne about this new commentary series:

The print editions of the first two volumes—Revelation and Colossians & Philemonare now available for pre-order on Amazon.com.

Four additional volumes—Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, and Philippians—are available for pre-order on Logos.com.

John Webster (1955–2016): Surveying a Man and His Métier

On May 25, 2016, Professor John Webster, one of the world’s great contemporary theologians, suddenly and unexpectedly entered glory. Within hours memorials began to appear. Following his training at the Bradford Grammar School and the University of Cambridge (MA, PhD), Webster took his first teaching post at St. John’s College at the University of Durham. After four years he moved to North America where he spent a decade teaching at the University of Toronto. He returned to England in 1996 with an appointment to the prestigious Lady Margaret Professorship of Divinity at the University of Oxford, which he left in 2003 for the open spaces of Bonnie Scotland. In Scotland he served as the Chair of Systematic Theology at the University of Aberdeen until 2013 when he took up an identical post at the University of St. Andrews.

Many of the memorials have mentioned a particular trait that characterized Webster: humility. He cared about his family, students, and colleagues more than academic accolades, which, although never sought, were plentiful. In the introductory chapter to The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, John Webster quoted from a speech Barth had given on the occasion of his eightieth birthday: “As a theologian one can never be great, but at best one remains small in one’s own way.” Those who knew Webster would agree this was indicative of him as well. But the God whom his theology celebrated is great, and for that reason Webster’s contribution is far from small.

Barth’s influence on Webster

Webster’s theological work began with interpretive analysis of the protestant theologians Eberhard Jüngel and Karl Barth, both of which he believed had set forth compelling proposals for understanding divine revelation. He would soon become one of the world’s foremost interpreters of Barth. Reading Barth, he realized, was a complex task, and did not lend itself to neat summaries. Barth’s work had not always been studied with the necessary depth and breath and, therefore, was often misunderstood and sloganized. Those seeking a simple linear argument could be totally frustrated by Barth, since, according to Webster, he moved with an almost musical structure—announcing a theme and extending it over a long series of developments and recapitulations across thirteen massive volumes.

Webster was careful in his own logic, writing with a rarely matched level of precision, clarity, and brevity. Yet maintaining an openness to re-examine one’s own work, to keep thinking, was a trait Webster gleaned from Barth. Recently, while hard at work on his systematic theology—which, sadly, will remain unfinished—Webster mused that he had just re-read the first volume of Barth’s Church Dogmatics the previous week and was wrestling again with the significance of the doctrine of the Trinity, something those familiar with Webster’s work would have assumed he had fully settled decades earlier. “It’s the relation between revelation and the Trinity. … I don’t think Barth gets it right, but as I re-read it I think he’s right to make the connection,” reflected Webster (see T. Whitman’s memorial). Webster also gleaned from Barth the relationship between theology and the church, observing that Barth was decidedly a church theologian who saw theology as “an aspect of the holiness of the church, the sanctification of speech and thought” (The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth). He therefore worked as a positive theologian—that is, one who takes his or her task and its object as a positum, “given” by God rather than invented or derived from elsewhere.  Webster’s work also contains an acknowledgment that Christian theology is an intentionally relational task that is prompted, not by culture, but by one who acts from beyond human history. He quoted Günther Dehn, in asserting that only such a theology “can help build up a church that really stands unshaken amidst all the attacks of the spirit of the age. Such a church alone will be the salt of the earth and the light of the world” (Holy Scripture).

A Practical Theology

As a positive theologian, Barth maintained that Christian theology was governed only by the reality that gave rise to it, namely, the God revealed in the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is the gospel that measures the speech of the church. So, when dogmatics ventures onto the critical path it does so as an ancillary and self-critical utterance, indicating the scope and vitality of the gospel within the Christian community that testifies to the reality of God. Webster took the point to heart; writing of his own theological program, he said: “Christian theology does not search out its object, still less create it for itself. Its originating context is the gospel which has already been uttered, in which God expounds his own presence and which is set out in the apostolic word. The task of theological reason is to pay constant and ever-fresh attention to that gospel, with a measure of focus and single-mindedness” (Confessing God).

With such an aim Webster was departing from the theological culture in which he and many other modern theologians had been trained, one which, according to him, suppressed constructive and positive dogmatics in favor of doctrinal criticism. Modern theology tended to approach its subject matter in light of the particular “problems faced by those who felt acutely responsible to do their theology under the bleak searchlights of what were taken to be normative modern intellectual developments” (“Discovering Dogmatics,” in Shaping a Theological Mind). The theological agenda was being set by something other than God himself. Of course, the human work of theology is a creaturely activity, but “the matter of the gospel is not; even as it announces itself increasingly in creaturely forms, the matter of the gospel is God” (Word and Church).

Webster swam against the stream, but was untroubled. He saw his work as a calling to rehabilitate an older theological frame of mind, ordering all things from beginning to end in relation to God. His goal was to be as faithful as possible to directing his attention to the gospel as announced in holy scripture and to draw composure and confidence from the fact that theology rightfully proceeds only in the wake of God’s own speech in the gospel.

For Webster theology must be clearly tied to its subject matter, accepting no outside regulation. This is the foundation of what he called theological theology—“A theological account of theology describes its nature and functions by invoking language about God, describing the human actions of creating and reading theology in relation to divine agency” (“Reading Theology,” in Toronto Journal of Theology). Theology is not merely the study of God and things in relation to him, it is moving at all times with theological categories utterly unique to and given by God himself. Theological reasoning is grounded in the gospel rather than any other frame of reference (such as a philosophical, sociological, or psychological account of the human condition or religious aspirations). Human reason itself caught up in the history of creation, fall, and re-creation as it inquires after the reconciling God who claims it in the sanctifying act of revelation. Theological reasoning is the fruit of God’s reconciling act, an “overflow of divine benevolence in which God gives to creatures a share in his boundless knowledge of himself and all things” (The Domain of the Word). Hence, according to Webster, revelation generates actual knowledge, not merely the possibility of knowledge. “God is not summonsed into the presence of reason; reason is summonsed before the presence of God” (Holiness).

As he began to follow his own prescription, Webster found himself ambushed by “the preponderance of God’s infinitely deep, fully realized life,” particularly as it touched the relation between the Trinity and creatures (The Domain of the Word). He drove this home with force to one of his students: “If your doctrine of God doesn’t scare the bejeebers out of you, then you’ve missed the point.” Character first, then causation. All other doctrines are extensions of theology proper.

Here is how attention to the gospel and a “character first” focus steers theological reason. Theology is not free to operate differently, argued Webster, since the gospel is truth in itself, a reality that generates and governs even its own reception as it bears witness to God’s revelatory and reconciling presence. Not a free science theology “is a counter-insistence to the (destructive) assumption that science can only be science if it takes its law not from its object for but from itself. For may it not be that what inhibits the open exercise of theological reason is not that which gives theology its law but resentment of that law? And, further, may it not be that the difficulties which attend theological work have much to do with our resistance to God’s reconciling presence?” (Confessing God).

Such questions are indicative of the shift in Webster’s theological method. Where his early years had concentrated on analysis and critique of other theologians, his latter years exhibited a confidence in working out theology as doxology. He decided to “work on the assumptions of the truthfulness and helpfulness of the Christian confessions, and not to devote too much time and energy to developing arguments … or responses to its critical denials”; to structure his work “in accordance with the intellectual and spiritual logic of the Christian confessions, to allow that structure to stand and explicate itself, and not to press the material into some other format”; and to take the Apostle’s Creed as a guide to the gospel set out in holy scripture. “Once I resolved to work in this way,” he said, “I thought I quickly found that the substance and order of Christian doctrine displayed itself as much more grand, and much more comprehensible, then when I had approached it as a series of critical problems” (“Discovering Dogmatics,” in Shaping a Theological Mind).

A singular focus on God

Webster’s theological methodology is a corrective to so much that can (and often has) gone awry in Christian theology. Inadequacies that cause theology to slip from doxology into speculation can be kept at bay by simply directing attention to God himself and his gospel. And this means, wrote Webster, that “for all its scope, Christian theology is an exercise in concentration, required to fix its eyes not on everything but on the ways of God; only in assent to this restriction will theology find itself having something to say about everything” (God without Measure, vol. 1). This conviction explains Webster’s consistent interest in and explorations of the divine perfections.

“Perfection is not at the root a formal concept,” said Webster, “but a material one: it indicates that, without restriction or lack, and in fullest measure, God is thus. Its context is therefore to be determined not from abstract notions of deitas but from God’s self-demonstration which is announced in the Christian gospel. The Christian theological concept of God’s perfection is an attempt to give conceptual expression to the great divine tautology: I am who I am; part of the force of that tautology is that God both specifies his own perfection and declares it in the enactment of himself” (Confessing God).

Because God’s perfections are not self-enclosed but extended to creatures in the creative, preserving, and restoring communication of the gospel, we encounter the reality that God’s perfection “is the fully realized singularity and unity of the Holy Trinity” (Confessing God). The holy uniqueness of God’s triune life means creatures could never participate substantially in God’s being; having a relationship with God arises only through God’s own movement toward us in election and fellowship. “God’s inner perfection and bliss apart from creatures is the very ground of his relation to them,” says Webster (Word and Church).

Since God is not self-enclosed in his perfections, but his perfection includes his self-presentation as majesty-in-relation, Webster held God’s revelation and its inscripturation to be of utmost importance. He devoted two books, amongst other articles, to the matter: Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, and The Domain of the Word.

Revelation for Webster “is a way of talking about those acts in which God makes himself present” (Holy Scripture); the texts of holy scripture are, therefore, “the prophetic and apostolic sign of divine revelation, that is, of God’s benevolence in granting rational creatures a share in the supreme wisdom proper to him alone” (The Domain of the Word). Revelation is not only theology’s object, but its personal Subject, “the one before whose presence it is ordered to appear”  (Confessing God). The work of theology is to pay close attention to, listen to, and reason together with these sanctified servants who are a recognition, contemplation, and articulation of God’s own wisdom and movement. “[I]n a well-ordered Christian theology, the divine movements of revelation, inspiration, and illumination do not compromise the human movements of authorship and interpretation. Showing that this is so, however, obliges theology to attend to doctrinal work on creation, providence and the Holy Spirit, in order to demonstrate that divine revelation is not a unilateral cognitive force but a compound act in which the creator and reconciler takes creatures and their powers, acts and products into his service. God speaks from his human temple” (The Domain of the Word).

Holy scripture is, then, according to Webster, human words formed and preserved by God as a sign of his loving address which non-violently enlivens, sanctifies, and moves human intelligence. It is not “cultural poetics,” but a set of texts brought forth “in conjunction with purposive divine action”, such that what is said about the triune God, is said by extension about revelation, and by further extension about holy scripture. “What scripture is as sanctified and inspired is a function of divine revelatory activity, and the divine revelatory activity is God’s triune being in its external orientation, it’s gracious and self-disclosing turn to the creation” (Holy Scripture).

Since theology testifies to the gospel in this way—in the wake of and in submission to God’s self-disclosure—Webster summarized the discipline’s two main subtasks as exegesis and dogmatics. Exegesis attempts to hear what God in scripture says to the church, and forms the backbone of dogmatics. Dogmatics is the complimentary and subordinate task of producing “a set of flexible accounts of the essential content of the gospel as it is found in holy scripture, with the aim of informing, guiding and directing the church’s reading. Dogmatics attempts a ‘reading’ of the gospel which in turn assists the church’s reading” (Holiness).

Webster was interested in neither conversational nor comparative theology. He leaves us rather with a constructive, positive theology that riffs on the structure of the historic Christian creeds, bringing a thoroughgoing emphasis on God’s triune being to bear on all things in response to the promise and claim of the gospel disclosed in sanctified scripture as an act of doxology.

Devoted to the Church

We have surveyed the major marks of Webster’s métier, yet it is important to know that he was not cloistered in the ivory tower. As a church theologian it was important for him to be involved in the church’s life. During his training at Cambridge he participated in the Christian Union, and from the moment his teaching ministry began he engaged in preaching. His posting at Oxford brought with it appointment as a residentiary canon of Christ Church Cathedral. And he would occasionally deliver messages at chapel services at the universities of Aberdeen and St. Andrews. Preaching he said was “one of the principal ways in which the God of the gospel has dealings with us. The gospel’s God is eloquent: he does not remain locked in silence, but speaks. He does this supremely in the mission of the Son of God, the very word of God who becomes flesh, communicating with human creatures in human ways, most of all in human speech” (Confronted by Grace). Jesus came as a preacher and charged his followers to preach, to carry forth the gospel from and about him. For “[p]reaching is not any sort of public Christian discourse,” attested Webster, “it is the church saying something about the words of this text [holy scripture], on the basis of the words of this text, under this text’s authority, direction and judgment. ... The sermon repeats the scriptural word in other human words, following the Word’s movement and submitting to its rule. In this the sermon assists in the work of the divine Word, which builds up the church, making its life deep, sturdy and vital” (Confronted by Grace).

Webster never thought that he had arrived at perfect theological enlightenment, and was always willing to be self-critical. We have noted his first major shift in separating from the  approach of his early theological training, but over time more developments came. His historical judgment, for example, shifted; he became less critical of post-Reformation Protestant Scholasticism and began to work backwards through the tradition, gleaning much from 17th and 18th century theologians (most notably John Owens and Francis Turretin). His interest in the catholic fathers also grew; he was drawn especially to Thomas Aquinas’s intellectual clarity and depth of piety. Aquinas’s voice echoes beneath some of Webster’s more recent work, such as his declaration that “theology is orientated chiefly to invisible things, things that are unseen (2 Cor 4:18)” (God without Measure, vol. 1). On the other hand, had Webster’s work continued we may have expected to see a greater emphasis on the doctrine of creation, through which Webster foresaw his theology becoming “less abstract and more persuasive, as well as more relaxed” (Confessing God).

Looking over his body of work three major phases emerge: an early phase, marked by critical analysis, historical interpretation, and Barthian description; a middle phase, which worked from a conviction concerning theological theology and positive dogmatics, which followed the structure of the Christian confessions; and a late phase, marked by a post-Barthian, evangelical, catholic, and Reformed independence that focused on doing theology doxologically.

John Webster was an example of dignity, charity, kindness, and humility. Whether chatting about the classics of literature, music, and art, sharing a pint, or cracking jokes, no one would have ever known they were in the presence of one of the world’s leading theologians, for he neither drew attention to his gifts nor pointed out the shortcomings of others. Rather, his aim was to create a Christian theological community, where gracious camaraderie ruled, rather than cutthroat competition. For those who worked alongside him or studied under his tutelage, his departure means the loss of an intellectual father and loving friend. He left several theological projects unfinished; we shall never know the impact they would have had on the church’s reading of the gospel. Yet John Webster’s greatest legacy is not the ink written in books, but the impact made on lives of those who will try to make up the considerable slack he has left in his departure.

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This blog post was written by Daniel Bush, author and former student of John Webster. To discuss this and other pieces Dan has written please join his group on Faithlife.