I came to know John Webster partly because I moved in the wide orbit of Barth studies, where he was an acknowledged master, and partly because I was his successor teaching theology at Wycliffe College. Even after his departure for Oxford John would return to Toronto from time to time to connect with friends, including a group of doctoral students who had worked with him in the 1990s.
John was on the one hand obviously brilliant, one of the best theological minds of his generation, while on the other hand utterly democratic and down-to-earth in his personal style. John despised pretense—especially “churchy” pretense. He resisted what he saw as the creeping catholicizing tendencies in our chapel worship. He was a stout defender of Morning Prayer, with its insistence on the primacy of the Word of God in the church’s life. It is too bad the expression “Protestant Episcopal” has gone out of fashion, because that is just what John was: an Anglican with deep roots and commitments in the Reformation of the sixteenth century.
It is because John was so secure in his own theological identity that he could reach out to Christians from other traditions—most notably Roman Catholics. He enjoyed a warm, collegial friendship with George Schner, S.J., who had trained at Yale under Hans Frei and Louis Dupré before moving to Toronto’s Regis College; Word and Church is dedicated to George’s memory. For many years the two of them co-taught a doctoral seminar on theological method, in which they delighted in discomfiting their almost invariably correlationalist students with a vision of theology as “marginal notes on Scripture” (George’s term) and as ecclesial ressourcement. The excellent anthology Theology After Liberalism: Classical and Contemporary Readings, published by Blackwell, grew directly out of their work in that seminar.
It is because John was so secure in his own theological identity that he could reach out to Christians from other traditions—most notably Roman Catholics.In the early 2000s John generously invited me to write the Barth volume for the Ashgate Great Theologians series (Karl Barth: Theologian of Christian Witness, Ashgate and Westminster/John Knox, 2004). As an editor he was consistently generous, encouraging, and helpful—but he could also be tough, as when he told me I needed to tighten up my rather loose, chatty prose. Academic writing should not be afraid to sound academic! The book I ended up writing was clearly not the sort of work John himself would have written. For each major doctrine of the Church Dogmatics I set Barth into an imaginary dialogue with a contemporary theologian or religious thinker, e.g., Henri de Lubac, George Lindbeck, Michael Wyschogrod. John worried that the exposition of Barth might suffer as a result. As the work approached completion, he told me that while I had adopted a risky strategy it had paid off, and that I had shown my independence of judgment in relation to both Barth and the various dialogue-partners. It is one of the nicest compliments I have ever received.
On Evangelical Theology
If there is a particular area where John exerted an influence on me it is clearly ecclesiology, the doctrinal locus where I have tended to hang my hat. The essay where his views come to expression most clearly is “On Evangelical Ecclesiology,” first published in 2004 and reprinted in Confessing God. This long essay has two major parts: (I) The Church and the Perfections of God, (II) “The Visible Attests the Invisible,” followed by a brief coda (III) “In Place of a Conclusion.” The first section offers an account of divine reality as a basis for talk about the church: “A doctrine of the church is only as good as the doctrine of God which underlies it” (156). This, in itself, may not be controversial; all of communion ecclesiology is predicated on this assumption. But John moves in a contrarian direction when he turns not to the communion of the three divine persons but to the metaphysical perfection of the one God. The Creator/creature distinction is decisive, also in ecclesiology.
For Webster, the problem with the ecclesiology of koinonia is that it elides this distinction: the insistence on a metaphysics of participation, on theosis, etc., fails to “let God be God.” What we must say rather is that God is perfect, eternal life, who just so shares himself with us in an astonishing free act of grace. It is this grace that constitutes the church. A point John does not make, perhaps because it seemed obvious, is that the church in Scripture is called qahal YHWH or ekklesia tou theou; the assembly precisely “of the LORD” or “of God.”
Sic et Non: Communion Theology and the Church
Now, here’s the thing: John’s essay is not merely a critique of communion ecclesiology, but an able and surprisingly sympathetic exposition of the same. The footnotes in this essay would be a good starting point for anyone wishing to explore the literature in this area. The way beyond this dilemma is to situate the church in a rich matrix of theological categories such as grace, election, fellowship, and—very important for John—holiness, a somewhat neglected nota ecclesiae in modernity.John understood that the great Catholic ecclesiologists of the twentieth century, de Lubac, Tillard, Balthasar, et al., were trying to overcome a dualism between nature and supernature that resulted in a statically hierarchical, institutional, natural view of the church. This dualism was replicated on the Protestant side, with the demotion of the church to a merely human set of social arrangements; “whatever works” to advance a particular soteriological or ethical program.
The communion ecclesiologists are right to resist such naturalism, whether in its Catholic or Protestant forms, but their quasi-divinizing of the church is worse than the disease. The way beyond this dilemma is to situate the church in a rich matrix of theological categories such as grace, election, fellowship, and—very important for John—holiness, a somewhat neglected nota ecclesiae in modernity. Along the way John offers any number of crisp ecclesiological one-liners: “The ontological rule in ecclesiology is . . . that whatever conjunction there may be between God and his saints, it is comprehended within an ever-greater dissimilarity” (171). “The church is risen with Christ; but it is not risen as Christ” (173), a nod to the importance of the doctrine of the ascension.
The Visible Church as Witness
In the second part of the essay, John offers a bracing critique of the way the church’s visibility has been addressed in recent theology. Bonhoeffer’s dictum “The Body of Christ takes up physical space here on earth,” from Discipleship, serves as point of departure. Here again, John’s argument is typically nuanced. That the church is visible he does not doubt for a moment. The question is how we should think of its visibility. It is this part of the essay that cuts uncomfortably close to home, for here John’s main polemical target is postliberalism, the “school” in which I was trained. Two little essays of mine show up in the major footnote on this school, along with others who had made use of the “church practices” idea (Stanley Hauerwas, Reinhard Hütter, James Buckley, and in a more critical vein Nicholas Healy).
As John saw it, the postliberals risked reducing ecclesiology to a matter of cultural theory: hence his warning “election and its outworking the might acts of God through which the saints are gathered is not patent of ethnographic description” (184). Nor would it do, John thought, to recoup the theological deficit by going on to speak of “the church’s acts as epiphany, realization, or mediation of the acts of God . . .” (185). The church is not an epiphany of God but a witness to God. “Testimony is astonished indication. Arrested by the wholly disorienting grace of God in Christ and the Spirit, the church simply points. It is not identical or continuous with that to which it bears witness, for otherwise its testimony would be self-testimony and therefore false” (185, emphasis in original).
The exegetical warrant used to back up this position is powerful: the prophetic speech of the risen Lord to the churches of Asia in Rev. 2–3. The Word of God, we are told,
. . . is not in the church but announced to the church through Holy Scripture. The church is therefore not first and foremost a speaking but a hearing community. John the seer says that he turned to the voice that was speaking to him (Rev. 1.12); and there are few more succinct statements of the primary dynamic of the Christian assembly. The church is that turning. And, further, in making that movement, in fear and trembling, falling at the feet of the son of man, the church receives its appointment to a specific task: it is summoned to speech. (190, emphasis in original)
When John—Webster, that is, not the seer—says “the church is that act of turning,” one cannot help but think of Barth’s notion of the church as “event.” I used to resist that idea, on the usual grounds that it undermines the temporal continuity and social density of the church’s life. I also worried that it undermines the sacraments, since sacrament (it seems to me intuitively) presupposes the church’s extension across time. Yet it was John who helped me see all this differently.
Real Presence & Astonished Witness
A superficial reading of this essay might conclude that his intention was to develop an ecclesiology of the Word as an alternative to a sacramental ecclesiology. And indeed, some of the things he says lends support to this interpretation. But the real target of John’s polemic, I’ve come to think, is the over-extension of the notion of “sacrament” to encompass the whole of the church’s empirical life. What he wanted to avoid at all costs was the kind of immanentism by which the community rests comfortably in its own spiritual or religious character, rather than turning with astonishment to hear what the Lord might have to say. This is not sacramentality, however, but merely sloth in its high-church form (there are plenty of low-church equivalents!). Stated positively: there is nothing to prevent a sacramental ecclesiology from being seriously attentive to the Word of God, who also, in an extraordinary act of grace, gives himself for his people to feed on: “O taste and see, how gracious the Lord is. . . .”
John Webster might not have put it that way, even if “On Evangelical Ecclesiology” does offer some tantalizing reflections on the analogy between the clarity and sufficiency of Scripture and sacramental “real presence” (190). But the deeper issue at stake here is the priority of God in ecclesiology, under whatever mode of the divine self-giving. The church does not exist to perpetuate itself, but to bear astonished witness to God. This is the lesson John taught me, and that I try to keep constantly in view in my own constructive work. I only wish he were still around to discuss these things and to share his unending supply of wisdom—if possible, over a pint at our local pub. I will miss him deeply.