If there was an unmistakable constant in John Webster’s thought, it was his resolve to see all things in light of God’s perfection. It was this resolve that in turn gave his thought its particular intensity.
As he saw it, theology is truly theological to the extent that its rational movements find their resting place in the underived fullness of God’s inner life, to which they are drawn irresistibly by the glory of God’s self-communication in the gospel. This motif becomes a refrain especially in his later constructive phase, as Webster’s thought starts and ends by carefully orienting theological inquiry to God’s perfection. His colleagues did not always share this conviction, but it was at the very heart of John’s project and it influenced me enough to write a dissertation under his supervision that sought to work out what it means for theology to “let God be God.”
God’s Life in and of Himself
If this conviction finds its way into all of Webster’s writing, it comes up for explicit treatment in a handful of essays, one of which serves as the first full-length essay in his two-volume God without Measure–a collection that serves as a foretaste of what he would have delivered in his planned systematic theology. The essay in question, “Life in and of Himself,” concerns God’s aseity and has four sections: the first diagnoses what aseity is not, the middle two sections provide an account of God’s ‘immanent’ and ‘economic’ aseity, and the conclusion gestures towards the intellectual dispositions and ends that characterize a theology animated by God’s self-communicating life.
The heartbeat of Webster’s reflections is the simple claim that for dogmatics, “aseity is a positive or material concept, determined by the particular form of God’s self-expressive perfection.” (13) A number of things follow this terse claim that should be obvious, but which, evidence would suggest, are not. First, aseity is a positive and material concept and so it is not a contrastive, comparative, and ultimately empty concept. What Webster means is that divine aseity points us to the underived fullness of God’s inner life and how that fullness grounds the glory of God’s external works. These are the concept’s functions, and so whatever the concept may ultimately say about God as the ground of contingent reality will always be secondary. Sadly, this order has not always been observed.
The heartbeat of Webster’s reflections is the simple claim that for dogmatics, “aseity is a positive or material concept, determined by the particular form of God’s self-expressive perfection.”
Webster shows, with some pithy but striking examples, that God’s aseity easily becomes a ‘paired’ concept, explicable only against the backdrop of contingent existence, when the concept’s setting is cosmological and not trinitarian. When the concept’s derivation changes, so too does its content: what should inform us of the matchlessly underived fullness of God’s life as the Trinity, accessible only through the mercy of divine instruction, becomes a derivative concept accessed through comparison with creation. Ironically, such a concept of aseity is the product of a malformed theological intelligence creeping away from its subalternate disposition.
Second, if God’s aseity is a materially rich analytic repetition of the divine ‘I am’, then its articulation requires teaching about the Trinity. Trinitarian doctrine expounds aseity in terms of God’s personal properties, internal activities, and inner-divine processions: “Begetting–and likewise spiration–are the form of God’s aseity, not its result or term, still less its contradiction.” (21) Webster is insistent on this point: the trinitarian relations are properly understood only in light of their reciprocally determinative character, such that they introduce no hint of subordination. Misconceptions here lead many away from discussing aseity in terms of dogmatic specifications about relations of origin precisely because begetting and spiration are thought to introduce notions of derivation that aseity is, one-sidedly, supposed to transcend. Rather, Webster reminds us, “God is from himself as he enacts his life in the reciprocity of paternity, filiation and spiration.” (22) With these comments in view, concepts like causa sui and ens necessarium falter as ‘materially inadequate’ to depict God’s aseity precisely because they are too empty and open to ‘filling out from elsewhere’ than the doctrine of the Trinity.One will note a slight change in tone from Webster’s similar, earlier essay, “God’s Perfect Life,” in God’s Life in Trinity, eds. Miroslav Volf and Michael Welker (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2006), 143-52.
Only by foregrounding God’s fullness of life in himself are we equipped to discuss the fullness of that external movement in which God shares this life with us through Christ and the Spirit. Aseity is therefore both ‘immanent’ and ‘economic,’ with decided priority assigned to the former over the latter. This priority is distorted only where the “real content of God’s aseity” is not grasped, for God’s perfect life of self-movement “is also a movement of self-gift in which the complete love of Father, Son and Spirit communicates itself ad extra, creating and sustaining a further object of love.” (24) Webster demonstrates, through an appeal to the interpretation of John 5:26 by both Augustine and Calvin, that “the life with which God alone lives of himself is the fullness of life which quickens.” (26) Grasped in this material ordering of immanent and economic, aseity is filled out with its properly Christian meaning because attentive above all to God’s Word, and not to the “enticements of natural divinity.” (28)
Aseity and the Task of Theology
Like many of Webster’s essays in his mature phase, his essay on aseity spends a good deal of time reminding us of basics which are easily forgotten. This is not incidental. When I asked him a few years ago what he aimed to do with his writings, John told me he simply hoped to remind fellow theologians of their responsibilities. Through various conversations, it was easy to detect a sense that John thought he had only gradually come to ‘remember’ these responsibilities himself. Too much of his early career was spent on Jüngel, he would often remark, and not enough on biblical exegesis and classical Christian divinity.
Indeed, one of the last things he told me was how impressive it was that Barth had recovered what he had of the patristic and post-Reformation tradition on his own by the time he wrote Church Dogmatics I/1, without anyone guiding him into the material. These snapshots point to an underlying conviction about theology’s vocation. Webster thought one of the more pressing needs for Protestant theology is to recover the full scope of the theological encyclopedia, as well as the resources that nourish theology as an ecclesial science. Hence, Anselm, Augustine, and Calvin are the enlisted voices to help us recover the real significance of divine aseity.
When I asked him a few years ago what he aimed to do with his writings, John told me he simply hoped to remind fellow theologians of their responsibilities.
Philosophy and Theology
Allied to this conviction is another, less prominent context for the aseity essay, which is visible in its original venue in a collection of essays addressing the relation between philosophy and theology. There Webster writes that God’s aseity is a “keenly sensitive register of the divergences between some kinds of philosophical and theological inquiry, over such matters as the sources of teaching about God, the relation of non-biblical concepts to Scripture, the ways in which classical Christian texts are most fittingly read, and the ends of an intellectual conception of God.”John Webster, “Divine Aseity,” in Realism and Religion: Philosophical and Theological Perspectives, eds. Michael Scott and Andrew Moore (2007), 147. The reason why is that aseity touches upon God’s perfection, itself one of the fussier topics in philosophy of religion. Noticeably, Webster makes his points by peering over the shoulders of Augustine and Calvin as they read the Gospel of John. What might we see in all of this?
Refreshingly absent from Webster’s discussion of aseity is any invocation or vindication of some abstract “principle of perfection,” much less a “sovereignty-aseity conviction.” Such overly schematic, formal notions are, in Webster’s estimation, part of the problem with “perfect being theology.” Projects with this label often proceed by materially unspecific comparative description: whatever God is, we must first satisfy conditions for the intelligibility of deitas through appeal to great-making properties all too familiar to the creature’s haunted perception of its shortcomings. But theology concerns itself with confession, not the construction of models “synthesized from observations on creaturely realities.”Webster, “God’s Perfect Life,” 144.
Hence, the task of a concept of aseity “is not to establish conditions for conceivability but rather to have rational dealings with the God who is, and is self-communicative, anterior to rational work on our part.” (13) This is not to suggest that philosophical inquiry is but a dog’s breakfast. Webster shared Barth’s emphasis on learning God’s perfection from the place where God enacts and declares it, but he was not as nervous as Barthians about using the tools of ‘natural theology’ or ‘philosophical apologetics.’Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/1, p. 458. Theology has always valued certain auxiliary notions it employs to articulate its incomprehensible object (refinements about substance or causality, for example). But as helpful as it may be, philosophical inquiry is a cruel master not least because its end is not the praise of God the Trinity.
Something essential confronts us here. Much of what the academy tolerates as Christian theology is uncomfortably removed from doxology, where theology’s humility can only result from its binding to the Word of God alone–note, not from its binding to any other ‘science’ or discipline. This does nothing to minimize the seriousness of theology’s intellectual demands. Yet these demands are in some important ways distinctive, especially when they concern theology’s first principles and ends. Far from some territorial polemic against certain styles of theological reflection, Webster offers us a calm reminder that the intelligibility of divine perfection is above all a matter of trinitarian dogmatics, and thus confession ordered to contemplation and worship. We must recognize, then, that God’s perfection is not correlated to some cosmological fact, but rather is the luminous reality of the triune relations themselves. Without the fellowship these relations establish with us in grace, we would know perhaps some ancillary conclusions about aseity at best. True knowledge of God’s aseity comes with the confession that Jesus Christ is Lord, one with the Father and Spirit, thus requiring of us more receptivity, less spontaneity.
When perceived in all its spiritual intensity, God’s aseity provides us an occasion for joyful praise, not mere metaphysical assurances. For then the God who gives himself from himself shows us the path of life, and so we sing, “in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” (Ps 16:11)
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