Tag Archives: John Webster

Three Conceptions of Christianity’s Dogmatic Center

A. Steven D. Paulson (traditional Lutheran)

The proper scopus for theology is not Trinity, incarnation, and deification, but law, sin, and grace, for when law and gospel are properly distinguished then and only then will the doctrines of Trinity, incarnation, and deification come to true expression.

from Lutheran Theology, (T&T Clark, 2011), 30.

B. John Webster (20th C. theology’s general consensus)

In sum: the only Christian doctrine that may legitimately claim to exercise a magisterial and judicial role in the corpus of Christian teaching is the doctrine of the Trinity, since in that doctrine alone all other doctrines have their ultimate basis.

from “The Place of the Doctrine of Justification” in What is Justification About? Reformed Contributions to an Ecumenical Theme. Eds. Weinrich and Burgess. (Eerdmans, 2009), 38.

C. Katherine Sonderegger (a recent — and ancient? — proposal)

We are advocating here for a proper starting point in the Oneness of God [instead of God’s Threeness], a beginning favored by Thomas Aquinas and many Reformers, but … disputed by Peter Lombard and many modern dogmaticians [e.g., Barth, Rahner, Jenson, Webster, and many others]. … Thomas differs from the Lombard on a key point. Peter Lombard considered Augustine’s De Trinitate to be the central governing authority for the doctrine of God; De Deo Trino would begin and ground the teaching on God. Thomas orders doctrine differently: for him De Deo Uno would stand at the head of the doctrine of God.

from Systematic Theology: Volume 1, The Doctrine of God, (Fortress, 2015), 7-8.

On directions in which to extend one’s critical vocabulary

1. Raimond Gaita

There is a permanent tension between academic practice and the example of Socrates, which is why philosophers cannot simply appeal to their authority as people who have mastered a subject to justify their entry into a discussion that requires some depth and wisdom. If they do enter it then they must not only expect, but also accept as proper, the extension of the critical vocabulary in which their remarks are to be assessed – that, for example, they are shallow, naive, callow, fatuous, or even corrupt.

from Good and Evil: An Absolute Conception, 2nd ed. (Routledge, 2004), 322.

2. John Webster

Much can be discerned about a theological proposal … by observing the sequence in which … topics are addressed and the proportions allotted to each, as well as by probing the material claims made about them. [89]

Sometimes [dubious proposals] may be warranted by appeal to elements of the Christian faith, often rather randomly chosen, abstractly conceived, and without much sense of their systematic linkages. [202]

from The Domain of the Word, (Bloomsbury, 2014), emphases added

See also: Lash and Tanner

On complicating the relationship between objects and methods of reflection

1. Ludwig Wittgenstein

318. […] there is no sharp boundary between methodological propositions and propositions within a method.

from On Certainty

2. John Webster

Determining the possibility, nature, and responsibilities of theology requires appeal to material theological doctrine. Indeed, prolegomena to systematic theology is an extension and application of the content of Christian dogmatics (Trinity, creation, fall, reconciliation, regeneration and the rest), not a ‘pre-dogmatic’ inquiry into its possibility. “Dogmatics does not wait for an introduction” [Hoeksema].

from The Domain of the Word (Bloomsbury, 2014), 133.

John Webster on the perennial nature of the intellect’s depravity

Thanks are owed to Resident Theology for flagging the following quote (HERE):

[W]e would be unwise to think of the depravity of the intellect as a peculiarly modern occurrence, a collateral effect of the naturalization of our view of ourselves. It assumes peculiar modern forms, such as the association of the intellect with pure human spontaneity and resistance to the idea that the movement of the mind is moved by God. But these are instances of perennial treachery; if our intellects are depraved, it is not because we are children of Scotus or Descartes or Kant, but because we are children of Adam.

from “On the Theology of the Intellectual Life,” in Christ Across the Disciplines: Past, Present, Future. Ed. Roger Lundin (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), 107.

Juxtaposing Comic and Tragic Theological Accents

There are few theologians I admire as much as Nicholas Lash. In fact he’s the subject of a thesis I’m currently writing. That fact in itself, however, is nothing remarkable. What I do find puzzling, though, is the fact that I would also consider John Webster to be one of the few other theologians whose work is comparably masterly. So here’s my rub: in more than a few respects they seem to operate more or less on the bases of antithetical premises. Whereas Lash’s sensibilities tend toward the critical, interrogative, and multidisciplinary, Webster, on the other hand, prefers a constructive, declarative, and monodisciplinary posture. Though I’ve tried to register what light the juxtaposition of these two theologians may bring to view before (e.g., here), I thought I’d like to do so again. If nothing else, I hope this post may at least serve as a modest reminder of the fact that you’re actually still allowed to like (and learn from) those you disagree with.

  1. John Webster

In order to speak about conflict (including the conflict of theological controversy) theology must first speak about peace, because peace, not conflict, is the condition of creatures in both their original and their final states. In order to speak about the peace of creatures, furthermore, theology must first speak about the God of peace, who is the principle and pattern of created tranquility. … Apart from the gospel of peace, conflict and peace are not transparent, self-evident realities, and our knowledge of them is at best half-knowledge. Conflict threatens knowledge of God and of ourselves, and hinders the tranquil operation of reason. Though in conflict we commonly pretend to a sharpened sense of our situation, this is an illusion born of the drastic simplification of the world which comes upon us in the grip of strong passion.

from “Theology and the Peace of the Church,” in The Domain of the Word, (Bloomsbury, 2012), 150.

  1. Nicholas Lash

There is no trace, in the Scriptures, of the banality, the cliché-strewn abstractness, which disfigures so much of our talk of life, and love, and justice. Our mistake, perhaps, is to suppose the brightness of the world to be imaginable without reference to the dark in which it dawns — unlike the psalmist, who writes so well about creation’s flourishing because he feels the garden-world’s fragility: its vulnerability to drought and desert storm.

Without in any way compromising the announcement of God’s sovereign faithfulness, and hence the primacy of life to death, of peacefulness to conflict, daylight over dark, the Scripture interweaves the strands into a single, sometimes quite disturbing tapestry.

from Seeing in the Dark, (Darton, Longman & Todd), 148.

John Webster 2009 Hayward Lectures

And here’s another lectures series I’d like to share. Back in 2009 John Webster delivered the Hayward Lectures at Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia, Canada. It was entitled Creator, Creation, and Creature: God and His World.

Its three lectures ran as follows:

  1. God as Creator (posted below)
  2. God and Creation
  3. God and His Creatures

Though these lectures aren’t available in printed form, Webster is at work on a multi-volume systematic theology, which can’t be released soon enough as far as I’m concerned.

Book Notice: Darren C. Marks

It’s been said that it’s “when we begin to discern the entire shape of a person’s life, [that] we also begin to understand why a particular belief might or might not be important to that person.”* I at least have found this a suggestive insight. That’s probably why I was pleased to happen across the following title from Darren Marks. Back in 2002 Marks published Shaping a Theological Mind: Theological Context and Methodology (Ashgate). I wish I’d known about it earlier. The modest volume is a collection of short autobiographical essays that offers an array of noted theologians the opportunity to reflect on the circumstances and deliberations that forged their theological sensibilities. Marks’s choice of contributors leaves the reader with a fair impression of the varied methodological options operative in theology today. We end up hearing from voices as diverse as those of James Cone, Colin Gunton, Alister McGrath, Wayne Meeks, John Milbank, Jürgen Moltmann, Keith Ward, Gerald O’Collins, Rosemary Radford Reuther, and more. For me, though, the standout contributions had to be those from Kathryn Tanner and John Webster. What I especially appreciated was how the juxtaposition of their respective theological orientations in such close proximity to one another brought to the fore a dilemma I’ve previously tried to register (here). But before we rehash that old ground, let’s hear from Tanner first:

With the onset of a postmodern humility about pretensions to such things as universality and disinterestedness, … the theoretical deficiencies of which theology has been accused are now so spread around [the academy] that they appear to be the defining fault of no one field in particular. … The legitimacy of theology … is no longer a matter of whether theology can meet some scholarly minimum in its procedures. Theology’s warrant now centers on the question of whether theologians have anything important to say about the world and our place in it. …

Answers to these questions require new methods. Theology’s closest analogue is no longer a perennial philosophy, addressing the most general questions of human moment purportedly common to every time and place, but a political theory (broadly construed) of cultural meanings that is quite situation-specific in its focus. In other words, the theologian — like a Weberian social scientist or a Gramscian political theorist – now asks about the way Christian beliefs and symbols function in the particulars of people’s lives so as to direct and justify the shape of social organization and the course of social action. As a historian of Christian thought and practice, the theologian needs a thorough knowledge of the various permutations of the Christian symbol in all its complicated alignments with social forces for good or ill. With this knowledge in hand, the constructive theologian is better positioned to intervene in the current situation adroitly, effectively and responsibly, with suggestions for both rethinking Christian claims and refiguring human life for the sake of the greater good. (116)

Bearing Tanner’s thought in mind, let’s turn to Webster:

[Systematic theology as Webster was taught it] tended to lack a robust sense of its own integrity and coherence as a field of intellectual inquiry, and so [expended] a great deal of energy in forming alliances with other disciplines (principally philosophy and history, but sometimes social theory or philosophy of natural science) as a means of reassurance. […]

A number of things came together to extract me from the inhibitions of my theological formation. One very prominent factor was a half-conscious but remarkably emancipating decision to teach confessionally, in two senses. First, I resolved to work on the assumption of the truthfulness and helpfulness of the Christian confession, and not to devote too much time and energy developing arguments in its favor or responses to its critical denials. I discovered, in other words, that description is a great deal more interesting and persuasive than apology. Second, I resolved to structure the content of my teaching in accordance with the intellectual and spiritual logic of the Christian confession as it finds expression in the classical creeds, to allow that structure to stand and to explicate itself, and not to press the material into some other format. Thus my survey of Christian doctrine was (and remains) simply a conceptual expansion of the Apostles’ Creed as a guide to the Gospel that is set out in Holy Scripture. Once I resolved to work in this way, I quite quickly found that the substance and order of Christian doctrine displayed itself as much more grand, and much more comprehensible, than when I had approached it as a series of critical problems. (130-131)

The questions that Tanner and Webster leave me with are ones I’ve asked before.

To Webster I’d want to ask the following:

  • Is every multi-disciplinary approach to theology, e.g. Tanner’s, indicative of a lack of confidence in the adequacy of theology’s explanatory power? Is insecurity the only motive that would lead one to reach for a multi-disciplinary mode of inqury?
  • Is it not possible to adopt a multi-disciplinary approach that would not distort theology’s aims and procedures, or press it into a model of inquiry that obscures its subject matter?

And to Tanner:

  • What tools of description and assessment can theology’s cognate disciplines provide that theology’s own categories don’t already equip it with? Can theology account for the blind spots being attributed to it?

I don’t have satisfying answers to all of these questions yet, but I do intend to return to them. Though we may be in a season that’s witnessing a shift in attention away from methodological issues to more substantive concerns, a trend both Tanner and Webster applaud, I still can’t help but find questions like these fascinating.

*This nugget comes from David S. Cunningham, Reading Is Believing: The Christian Faith through Literature and Film, (Brazos, 2002).