I was a doctoral student at the University of Aberdeen in 2008 when John Webster was composing his essay “Trinity and Creation.”
It was initially delivered as a plenary session at the 2009 meeting of the Society for the Study of Theology eventually published in IJST (the version from which I will be quoting), and finally re-printed in God Without Measure.See ‘Trinity and Creation,’ International Journal of Systematic Theology 12 (2010): 4-19; ‘Trinity and Creation’ in God Without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology, Volume I: God and the Works of God (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016). I well remember Webster’s frustration at the conference’s prescribed limit of 4000 words (“that’s barely enough to clear my throat!”), as well as witnessing his increasing frustration, during the Q&A, as the majority of his audience hesitated to agree with—to him—the obvious point that God does not have ‘real relations’ with the creature. Looking back, at the time, I likely did not appreciate the dissonance many of Webster’s colleagues must have been experiencing as they listened to this long-time interpreter of modern German Protestantism casually quoting fine Thomistic distinctions in Latin as if these were the most natural conceptual resources available for contemporary theological reflection (though perhaps they are?).
Theology Proper and the Ground of Creation
In the essay itself, there is of course a good deal of theology that I could explore, from the material trinitarian teaching (“The divine essence is not anterior to triunity as its substrate; God’s non-compositeness is identical with his triune life.”; 9) to Webster’s suggestive and perhaps surprising claim that “especially philosophical theologians” have a role to play in recalling dogmatics “to its proper matter and task” (6; cf. n.5). Nevertheless, I would like to focus on Webster’s method, specifically, his belief that the greater danger in modern theology is not speculation, as may have once been the case, but rather the undoing of the distinction between God and creatures, which a modern preoccupation with theological epistemology has perhaps unwittingly encouraged.
Throughout the essay, Webster speaks of the need for disciplining our theological imaginations. He insists that in order to speak well of God and creation, we must remain aware that our intuitions can in fact mitigate our success in the task. For instance, out of zeal to secure the dignity of creation, we may be tempted to elide the infinite gap that exists between the Creator and the creature.In order to speak well of God & creation, we must remain aware that our intuitions can in fact mitigate our success in the task. Although our intentions may be pure—say, to affirm God’s judgment on creation as ‘very good’—the effect of such a move would be to diminish the perfection of God by which creation receives its value, blessed precisely in the reception of the grace of life: “God’s impassibility in relation to creation, far from being indifference, is an affirmation that the world has value in itself, not as a necessary counterpart to an otherwise deficient being” (13).
Time and again, Webster warns that exactly where we might be inclined to look away from the being of God to the supposedly more comprehensible realities of the economy, the chastisement of our intuitions is needed the most. Confessing God aright, so crucial to Webster for understanding creaturely being, requires ‘rigour’ (10), and patience (11) in order to overturn “the habitual assumption that to begin from talk of God’s life in himself is to obscure, not to illuminate, the divine economy” (7). In truth, he says, the ‘core’ of the doctrine of creation “is not cosmology but theology proper” (5), the “founding condition of the economy” (7). Even in matters of divine ontology, we must resist the temptation to make creaturely realities the measure of uncreated being, lest we become ‘mesmerized’ by distinctions that obtain in one way vis-à-vis creation, yet in quite another with respect to the life of God (7-8).
Obediently Receiving the Gift of God
In contemporary theology, this attention to the divine life as both materially prior and systematically fundamental is countercultural; nonetheless, for Webster, it is absolutely required. Indeed, it became something of a cliché in his later work for Webster to begin nearly every essay thus: in order to speak rightly about doctrine x, we must first speak of the divine processions (followed by yet another detailed rehearsal of trinitarian dogma). Why might he have considered this to be such a necessary move?
In the 1970s, Hans Frei observed that, due to the complex of emerging hermeneutical issues, the modern era experienced the rise to pre-eminence of “revelation as the central technical concept in theology”—an assumption that only just then was beginning to receive scrutiny.Hans W. Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), 52. John Webster felt this phenomenon keenly, and so often grew frustrated that questions of epistemological warrant seemed to crowd out the subject matter of the church’s received faith. Consequently, as he often put it: the modern era is in danger of obscuring the distinction between—by equating—the order of knowing and the order of being.
In conversation, this often led to a perceived flippantness with questions of warrant. I lost track of the number of times students and colleagues would challenge Webster to justify his lofty claims concerning the inner workings of the divine being, only to receive the exasperated response: “Well, just look in the Psalter!” This is not to say that Webster was indifferent to the problem; he was well aware of his place and time in the history of theological thought. Nevertheless, he grew troubled by the church’s reticence to deploy its positive claims without first making such claims accountable to the demands of ‘fallen’ reason (whatever its shape at a given moment). By contrast, he once famously quipped: “God is not summoned into the presence of reason; reason is summoned before the presence of God.”John Webster, Holiness (London: SCM, 2003), 17.
For Webster, a faithful theologian is one who focuses on the content of God’s revelation, thereby recognising but also moving beyond the mere fact that God has revealed Godself. Like the labourers of the parable, the theologian’s charge is to receive the gifts of God gratefully, without continually pausing to demand justification from the giver for the how’s and why’s (“Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?”; Matt 20:15). Yes, there is an infinite gap between the Creator and the creature, and yes, this raises a theoretical quandary as to how such a gap could be breached, but this ‘problem’ need not paralyse us in the face of the Lord’s self-presentation, nor ought we to relieve the tension by closing the gap ourselves. God is not summoned into the presence of reason; reason is summoned before the presence of God.The fact is that this gap “has been crossed” in a way that truly corresponds—somehow—to God’s essential nature (14). “Why this should be so, we are incapable of telling, for though with much concentration we can begin to grasp that it is fitting that God should so act, created intelligence remains bewildered by the fact that God has indeed done so” (14).
And so, in this essay, as well as several to follow,Note particularly the essays included in Part II, ‘God’s Outer Works,’ in God Without Measure. Webster continually implores us to respect the proper order of dogmatic exposition: “first the divine essence, then the distinction of persons, and (only) then the procession of creatures from God” (7). To date, there have been few systematic theologians (at least on the Protestant side) who have undertaken constructive work in the vein of Webster’s suggestion.One notable exception is Katherine Sonderegger; see her Systematic Theology, Volume 1: The Doctrine of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015). Many of us are still, I fear, in the grip of our own skepticism regarding the central claims of the Christian religion. For instance, I often wonder whether the prevalent christocentrism of theology ‘after Barth’ is cherished not primarily because of a desire to explicate the biblical witness, but rather because it functions to solve problems—particularly the problem of epistemological warrant. But surely theology has more to offer late modernity than the solution to a problem posed to it by the philosophy of religion. Surely Christ manifests in his very person and work a God who has redeemed the fallen, offered life to the lifeless, and does so only insofar as he is, as Webster never tired of emphasizing, life in himself.
As theologians now begin the process of reflecting on Webster’s (sadly now complete) corpus, perhaps we ought to reflect on what I think is one of the more profound challenges he left for us: the challenge to do theology not merely as an academic discipline, or as if it were a puzzle to be solved, but as a species of obedient contemplation of the God who swears by himself to perfect our created lives as we seek our end in him. Or, better yet: to remember that our work—even that of a true doctor of the church such as John Webster—can never be considered our own achievement, but rather as a monument to a divine Word received in faith. As Webster himself put it: “To know its creator, reason must be healed by repentance and the suffering of divine instruction, by which love of God is made to grow,” for it is love (not knowledge) that is “the end of theological contemplation of the creator and his work” (5).