[Common Places] In Memoriam John Webster
As we mourn the death of a leading figure in our discipline and dear friend to many, we invite those impacted by the life and writings of John Webster to add their comments below.
The Reverend Professor John Bainbridge Webster (1955-2016) died on May 25, 2016. While family and friends, neighbors and fellow congregants will each observe his passing in ways which befit his private manner, it is appropriate to mark his departure from this life in the wider sphere of theological scholarship, for he was both a leading light and a generous friend and teacher to many around the globe. He was educated at Cambridge University and taught at Durham University, Wycliffe College (Toronto), Oxford University, the University of Aberdeen, and, until his death, the University of St. Andrews. He held the prestigious Lady Margaret Chair of Divinity at Oxford as well as endowed chairs in three other locations (Wycliffe, Aberdeen, and St. Andrews). In four of those settings, he supervised dozens of doctoral students, many of whom now extend his influence and shape the field of systematic theology around the world. With the late Colin Gunton, he founded the highly-regarded International Journal of Systematic Theology in the late 1990s, and he remained at the helm of its editorial team through 18 years. He served on the editorial boards of many other journals and book series.
His wide influence was acknowledged by the publication of a festschrift this past year. While accomplished and recognized for his work, his students and friends will know that he was always humored by what attention came his way and was never threatened by disagreement. Indeed, I can attest that in his final weeks he was first chortled that I had written an article about the development of his theological method and only then engaged in feisty, fun discussion concerning its claims, not least regarding areas of disagreement. He was generous, patient, and insightful in his care and guidance given to others, a subtle and gracious touch that also marked his writings.
Yes, his writings. I imagine that most of our readers will know him through his writings. While his early years focused upon the reception of modern Protestant divinity (especially the figures of Jüngel and Barth), he had more recently begun writing his own dogmatics. He churned out monographs and essay collections at a remarkable clip over the past fifteen years: Word and Church (2001), Holiness (2003), Holy Scripture (2003), Confessing God (2005), Domain of the Word (2012), and two volumes of God Without Measure (2015). He was also a churchman and regularly preached; a volume of sermons has even been published. He edited a number of significant reference works along the way, including the Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology (2009). Many of us awaited further writings; indeed, I can attest that every time he would email me a draft of an essay, my plans for that evening were immediately adjusted. He was finalizing a volume on creation and providence and bringing to completion a long-awaited lecture series on divine perfection and presence. He was planning a theological commentary on Ephesians, and he had already begun drafting the first installment of a projected five volume dogmatics.
As a teacher and pastor, I am struck especially by the timely nature of his recent contributions in three areas: first, in commending the faith by beginning with first principles, providing a model for how to catechize and expound the gospel in a radically post-Christian setting by always tracing things back to the God of the gospel and the basic lineaments of scriptural teaching; second, in seeking to honor the distributed nature of the doctrine of creation across the terrain of theological and ethical reflection, which proves significant in a day and age where anthropological issues are so contested and confused; and third, in his spate of writings on sanctification which laid out a distinctly Reformed approach that nonetheless drew upon the moral and ascetical insights of the patristic and medieval eras and to give due attention to God’s works of nature and of grace. In each area, by going back to the Bible and classical Christian texts, I suspect he has contributed much to how we might press forward faithful to our God.
In a number of ways, Webster stood out from the wider guild: in some of his principles, such as his focus upon the life of God in se, his concern that we never elide the distinction between God and creation or Christ and the church, or even his advocacy of the verbal, plenary inspiration of Scripture; in some of his sources, such as his delight in the patristic ascetical tradition, the medieval schoolmen, and the post-Reformation scholastic texts of Reformed Orthodoxy; and even in his tone, reminding us that divine revelation is the context as well as the content of theology and that “God is not summoned into the presence of reason; reason is summoned before the presence of God” (a line from what remains my favorite Webster essay, the chapter “The Holiness of Theology” in Holiness). In his own gentle way, John stood out and kept to his task, dutifully and delightfully savoring the work of having his mind and confession recalibrated by Christ the Teacher.
He was able, nonetheless, to see a groundswell of sorts toward a revived approach to Christian doctrine in recent years. Just two years ago he offered some words here regarding the renewal of Christian dogmatics:
Why the change? Interest in dogmatics is an element in the presence of an intelligent, articulate, ecclesially-minded culture which draws extensively on the church’s internal resources—biblical, theological, spiritual—in order to nourish its life and witness. This, in turn, prompts theologians to living conversation with the church’s heritage, looking to it for instruction, absorbing and inhabiting it as a complex body of texts, ideas and habits of mind which can relativize and sometimes subvert seemingly hegemonic modern conventions. In this connection, one thinks not only of those associated with Radical Orthodoxy, but of quieter trends in theological work, such as the recovery of the dogmatics and spirituality of Reformed orthodoxy, or loving attention to the speculative and exegetical works of the mediaeval schoolmen. Again, shifts in the practice of other fields of theology have encouraged dogmatics to pursue its tasks. In biblical and early Christian studies, the historical-naturalist assumptions on which much inquiry is often predicated no longer command universal assent, and ‘theological’ reading of Scripture and the fathers of the church is no longer self-evidently eccentric or complacent. In philosophical and moral theology, similarly, unease about the religiously generic leads to greater attentiveness to doctrinal specificity.
To a large extent, we can and should give thanks for him, as much as anyone, who helped to rejuvenate the classical discipline of systematic theology as what he deemed “biblical reasoning.”
In one of his final (as yet unpublished) writings, Webster wrote: “The order of love in which Christian theology takes place is full of promise, but not yet devoid of affliction.” That essay, entitled “Theology and the Order of Love,” commended the significance of gratitude and generosity for those who make their abode in the land of the gospel. Those of us blessed by him as a teacher, a colleague, a mentor, and a dear friend can attest to the power of generosity and may give thanks to the one who gives all good things, the “Father of lights,” for the gift of John Webster (Jas. 1:17). While this day we also know the lamentable affliction of pain and death, he would have been the first to tell us that a better theology yet awaits the people of God.
Requiescat in pace.
Michael Allen (PhD, Wheaton College) is Associate Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary. He is a Presbyterian teaching elder and has published several books, most recently editing Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic and writing Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation with Scott R. Swain.
Common Places is a regular column on the Zondervan Academic blog with a focus on systematic theology. The loci communes or “common places” of Christian theology, drawn out of the Scriptures and organized in a manner suitable to their exposition in the church and the academy, have functioned historically as common points of reference for theological discussion and debate. This column will focus upon the classical loci of systematic theology, not as occasions for revision, but as opportunities for entering into the ongoing conversation that is Christian systematic theology. We invite you to join and dialog with us on the first and third Thursdays of every month. For more about Common Places, read the column introduction.
Michael Allen and Scott Swain, editors