Whenever John Webster published one of his essays, it seemed you could hear from certain sectors of the theological academy the sound of theologians dropping everything.
They wanted—we wanted—to make sure our hands were free so we could take up and read. For about two decades these essays arrived as something less authoritative and less definite than marching orders, but then again something more urgent and more penetrating than mere scholarship, or just sage advice from a seasoned senior colleague. A fresh Webster essay came with a certain understated urgency; a book full of them (gathered under the unassuming and unexciting subtitle “working papers in systematic theology”) combined immediately relevant communiqués with time capsules apparently to be reserved for future consideration. Webster frequently untied knots I had been struggling at for years, and then went on to worry away at harder knots I hadn’t even become aware of yet, and might never have recognized without his warning.
The essay “Christology, Theology, Economy: The Place of Christology in Systematic Theology” is a late essay by the late Webster. It first saw print in 2015’s Oxford Handbook of Christology (edited by Francesca Murphy) before appearing in the first volume of God without Measure (2016). It has the poignancy of final advice transmitted shortly before the line went silent. And however we may periodize the phases of his career, this essay shows where Webster’s mind was moving near the end. So many lines of his later thought come together in these 7,500 words that the essay is almost an index of Webster’s most important summary judgments for future doctrinal work.
Christocentrism & the Order of Theology
The question posed by the essay is what place Christology ought to occupy within systematic theology (recall its origin as a contribution to the Oxford Handbook of Christology, where, as the 39th(!) and final chapter, it had the task of locating a vast topic in a vaster field). The answer given is that “Christology is not in and of itself the starting point or center of Christian teaching, but one indispensable element of a complex whole” (48)
What can this mean? Surely Christ is the center, and surely knowledge of Christ is the starting point, of Christian knowledge of God and salvation. And if Christ is the center, mustn’t Christology in and of itself be central to systematic theology? How could a theologian with Webster’s breadth of exposure to the tradition fail to be aware of, alert to, and alarmed by the theological catastrophes that follow from any decentralizing of Christology? What rough sub-Barthian beast, its hour come round at last, is slouching toward its place of birth in this essay? If Christology is not the center and starting-point of Christian teaching, what in the world is?
There is much in this essay to reassure the anxiously Christocentric reader. Barth was not just a phase that Webster passed through, after all; the voice of Barth continues here as Webster approvingly cites his insistence that Christian theology “does not know and proclaim anything side by side with or apart from Jesus Christ, because it knows and proclaims all things only as his things. . .” (57, quoting from Church Dogmatics IV/1, 21). Webster notes that the impulse here to a “loving and ample dedication to the word incarnate” must be recognized as “incontestably correct and wholesome” because it acknowledges that Jesus is utterly unsubstitutable, and should never be treated as a cipher or placeholder: “Jesus Christ is not merely the exponent or symbol of some reality available apart from him.”
But Webster musters less approbation for slogans like “there is no God behind the back of Jesus Christ.” Why? Such a dictum may be taken in a healthy sense, which it perhaps retained in the work of its author, T.F. Torrance. But because it is so rhetorically ambiguous, it may also signal that a kind of doctrinal fever has broken out. It might mean, for example, that the personality of Jesus, in the history of his action and passion in the Gospels, is considered as if it simply were the depth of divinity in itself. “No God behind the back of Jesus Christ” might be the motto of a movement that refuses to see the personal history of Jesus Christ as proceeding out of any immense and eternal horizon of deity, but simply being that horizon.
“No God behind the back of Jesus Christ” might be the motto of a movement that refuses to see the personal history of Jesus Christ as proceeding out of any immense and eternal horizon of deity, but simply being that horizon.
Webster in fact diagnoses a few of the conditions that have made possible the febrile hyper-Christocentrism of some modern theology. It starts with Schleiermacher’s insistence that what makes Christianity distinctive among the religions is that “everything is related to the redemption accomplished by Jesus of Nazareth” and goes on to use nothing but Christology and soteriology to specify programmatically the entire Christian doctrine of God. God’s being is described as his act, but that act is taken to be the external act of redemption, and so the personal history of Jesus can no longer be understood as the effect of any cause, but must itself be thought of as the all-sufficient cause of salvation, of humanity, of divinity.
Something has gone awry with this style of Christology. Something has turned inside out here, as if a theology that becomes too Christocentric suddenly loses its ability to speak truthfully about Christ because it can no longer speak of anything outside of him. In its extreme expressions, such a theology can no longer signify anything when it claims that Jesus is God or man, since God and man are only predicates of what Jesus is.
Webster describes the problem as an over-intensification of certain elements of Christology, which has caused a disordered expansion and contraction of other elements (54). What has expanded is the field of doctrine called the economy of salvation; what has contracted is the field of theology called, well, theology: the doctrine of God’s own immense and perfect immanent life. Christology is a doctrine that straddles both domains, of course, but it must do so in a properly-ordered manner. The burden of Webster’s article is to exhibit and commend that proper order. It begins with an elaborate doctrine of God, that is, of the life of the Trinity, considered absolutely and in itself. Then it moves, always acknowledging freedom and grace, to the outer works of God in both creation and redemption. In other words, if Christology is considered in systematic-theological context, it is “not in and of itself the starting point or center of Christian teaching, but one indispensable element of a complex whole.” What Webster argues for is a contextualizing and, yes, a relativizing of Christology. Christology must not be handled “in and of itself,” but always in and of the triune God if it is to show us the center and the starting point.
Christology in Context
Early in my own theological career, I would have flatly denied, on principle, that it was possible to place too much emphasis on Christology. If pressed, I might have admitted that heterodox blunders like identifying Jesus as being the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit could be reckoned as an over-emphasis on Christology, formally speaking, but I would have pressed that their content ran so far afoul of true Christology that they didn’t count. But Webster has put his finger on a real and pervasive theological problem, and with his guidance I have come to see that there is Christology must not be handled “in and of itself,” but always in and of the triune God if it is to show us the center and the starting point.such a thing as the error of assigning Christology a place in systematic theology that is over-intensified, inflated, imbalanced, and disordered. With this in mind, I think I can hear, in a lot of the nineteenth and twentieth-century theologies that I have listened to, a tone of voice that suggests their authors knew they were being a bit naughty by participating so unreservedly in the Christological arms race.
A brief aside on Webster’s choice of interlocutors: characteristically, a Webster essay advances without the extensive apparatus of footnotes one might expect from an author for whom the genealogical mode is so important. He is generally so selective in his citations that each reader needs to supply examples from relevant literature, and sometimes to guess at which recent projects he may have in mind. In a key section of this essay, for example, he sketches a complex modern development in a series of paragraphs, one each, on Dorner, Ritschl, and Barth. Most readers can detect, over the years, a steady migration of Webster’s attention to Owen and Aquinas via the footnotes, but he turns his attention to the pre-moderns without prejudice against the moderns, and without the drama of oedipal shenanigans against figures like Barth.
In several of his last essays, Webster calmly and carefully set Christology in context, which is the only way to give this doctrine its due. Many judgments are concealed in that little phrase, “in context.” It entails a firm grasp of the blessedness of God’s immanent life, and a keen sense of how the distinction between creator and creature must regulate every theological utterance. It entails several other things as well, many of them itemized by Webster as he surveyed these important matters in his later work. His “working papers in systematic theology” are not systematic in the sense of deriving all doctrines from a few principles like some theological Euclid; they do not pretend to a totalizing finality or express “the malign bent to total knowledge.” For Webster, “systematicity in theology properly derives not from pretentions to perfect understanding but from contemplation of the scope and internal relations of the object” (44). In an essay like “Christology, Theology, Economy,” we see the value of beholding and articulating these internal relations, because what Webster sketches here is “an acknowledgment and reiteration of the order which obtains between the various elements of Christian belief” (44). Acknowledging and reiterating the order that obtains among Christology, theology, and economy is a crucial task, and one for which Webster’s essay is magnificently clarifying and instructive.