Monday, 29 May 2006

For the Love of God (6): Why I love John Webster

A guest-post by D. W. Congdon

“Christian theology is properly evangelical, because it is generated by the gospel” (Word and Church, p. 110).

This line near the end of John Webster’s discussion of Barth and Bonhoeffer stands like a banner over his own dogmatic work. Webster represents the future of English systematic theology simply because of his unwavering attention to the gospel—to the gracious Word of God incarnate, written, and spoken. To borrow a concept from Barth and developed by Eberhard Jüngel—both Barth and Jüngel are mentors as well as scholarly interests—Webster is committed to “thinking after” and “speaking after” God’s own speech in the Word of the gospel.

I was in my third year at Wheaton College when John Webster came as the keynote speaker for the annual theology conference. As usual, he demonstrated his characteristic concern for dogmatic precision. Webster refuses to compromise when the gospel is at stake. He insists on theological clarity in order to preserve what must be preserved: the distinction between Creator and creatures; the perfection of God; God’s being-in-act as a being pro nobis.

Webster is a brilliant expositor of Barth and Jüngel. He is largely responsible both for the current renaissance in Barth studies and for whatever interest exists in Jüngel in English-speaking countries. His own dogmatic work continues to grow and take shape in response to these two figures. When I was speaking with him last week at a Barth conference, he told me about his current work on a commentary on Ephesians, and he said that in perhaps five years his own systematic theology will be well underway. Whether his focus is on Christology, the canon, hope, holiness, Holy Scripture, or the attributes of God, Webster pursues what he calls a more “theological theology,” whose distinctiveness lies “in its invocation of God as agent in the intellectual practice of theology” (Confessing God, p. 25). The triune God of grace is not only at the center of his work, but actually shapes it as the God who acts. Webster knows that he only receives what he is given.

In an introduction to the recent English edition of Jüngel’s Justification, Webster writes the following about Jüngel’s polemicizing: “for Jüngel, contending about the truth is itself a contribution to ecumenism, since it is the truth of the gospel which is the only ground of the church’s peace” (pp. xiii-xiv). The same can truly be said of John Webster himself.


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