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.


Anonymous said...

Thank you, D.W.

Webster does it for me too. That he intends a systematics is great news - and that it should be under way within five years will soften the blow of hitting sixty!

Anonymous said...

Being new to Webster, what book would anyone recommend I start with to become more familiar with his stuff?

byron smith said...

Anon, if you want something short, try Holiness, though others who have read more might suggest otherwise.

Anonymous said...

Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch (2003) is also short - less than 150 pages - but half that much and it would still be worth the price of admission: there is no fat on Webster's prose, it's lean and always hits you right on the nose.

David Williamson said...

Thanks for a brilliant post! He's also written the book on Barth in Continuum's Outstanding Christian Thinker series.

Talking of Barth, has there ever been a great documentary or biopic?

David W. Congdon said...

Webster has yet to produce a systematic theology, so the best place to begin is with his essays, collected thus far in Word and Church and Confessing God. (You can read my review of Confessing God on These are excellent essay collections, and I turn to them time and again. His two dogmatic works are Holiness and Holy Scripture, and I recommend them both. They are quite accessible, and if the topics interest you theologically, you may wish to begin there.

Of course, the bulk of his work consists in explications of Barth's theology. If you wish to read his stuff on Barth, you should begin with his book simply titled, Barth.

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