John Webster devoted a good portion of the first fifteen years of his career wrestling with the theology of Eberhard Jüngel.
Research for his Cambridge dissertation, “Distinguishing between God and Man: Aspects of the Theology of Eberhard Jüngel” (1982), anticipated the magisterial Eberhard Jüngel: An Introduction to His Theology, which not only served as the first major access point between Jüngel and the world of Anglophone theology, but remains the most comprehensive treatment in English of Jüngel’s work, even after thirty years in print.John Webster, Eberhard Jüngel: An Introduction to his Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986). In addition to the monograph, John was responsible for two anthologies of Jüngel’s essays in English, produced a new translation of Jüngel’s important early study Gottes Sein ist im werden, edited an English language Festschrift in honor of Jüngel’s sixtieth birthday, and composed several short pieces on various aspects of Jüngel’s thought.Eberhard Jüngel, Theological Essays I, ed. and trans. John Webster (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989); idem., Theological Essays II, ed. John Webster, trans. Arnold Neufeldt-Fast (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995); idem., God’s Being is in Becoming: The Trinitarian Being of God in the Theology of Karl Barth. A Paraphrase, trans. John Webster (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001); John Webster, ed., The Possibilities of Theology: Studies in the Theology of Eberhard Jüngel in his Sixtieth Year (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994); John Webster, “Eberhard Jüngel on the Language of Faith,” Modern Theology 1 (1985): 253–76; idem., “Justification, Analogy and Action,” in The Possibilities of Theology, 106-142; idem., “Jesus’ Speech, God’s Word: An Introduction to Eberhard Jüngel,” Christian Century 112 (1995): 1217-1220. He taught a legendary graduate-level course on Jüngel at Toronto School of Theology, and supervised two dissertations on Jüngel—Arnold Neufeldt-Fast’s excellent study of Jüngel’s anthropology, and my own thesis on Jüngel’s sacramental theology.Arnold V. Neufeldt-Fast, Eberhard Jüngel’s Theological Anthropology in Light of His Christology (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of St. Michael’s College, Toronto, 1996); R. David Nelson, The Interruptive Word: Eberhard Jüngel on the Sacramental Structure of God’s Relation to the World (London and New York: Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2013).
CHAPTER 5: JESUS IN MODERNITY
My program of study at Aberdeen commenced after John’s preoccupation with Jüngel had more-or-less drawn to a close. At the time, he was preparing the manuscript for Barth’s Earlier Theology, the book which effectively brought to an end the phase of his career dominated by exegetical readings of key texts from the modern period (mainly from Jüngel and Barth).John Webster, Barth’s Earlier Theology: Scripture, Confession and Church (London and New York: T&T Clark Continuum, 2005). A planned (but, unfortunately, never produced) multi-volume Systematic Theology was on the distant horizon, and, in anticipation of that endeavor, John was increasingly committing his energy and time to issues pertaining to theological prolegomena. Even though a couple of occasional pieces on Jüngel were yet to come, John was moving on from the Tübingen provocateur as a source of inspiration and interest.Namely, new “Forewords” to the 2014 reprint editions of Theological Essays I and Theological Essays II.
This shift of direction profoundly impacted the supervisory relationship. John took care to ensure that his growing misgivings about certain aspects of Jüngel’s thought did not unduly steer the course of my research. And yet—quite naturally—critical judgments rather quickly emerged as a recurring theme of our dissertation meetings. At around the mid-point of my stay in Aberdeen, I encountered John’s essay “Jesus in Modernity,” a penetrating analysis of Jüngel’s Christology that appeared some ten years after the Introduction. John told me at that time that he considered the essay to be a sort of “last word” on Jüngel, encapsulating both his deep admiration and persistent worries. Reading it on that first occasion brought a host of concerns into sharp relief, and decisively influenced my take on Jüngel’s approach to third article matters. John’s evaluation of Jüngel’s account of Jesus Christ abides as his most insightful short piece on Jüngel. Additionally, the essay reveals some of John’s key commitments about the scope, shape, and balance of Christology in Christian dogmatics.
Episodic Jesus; Interruptive Christ
The essay unfurls a thematic analysis of Jüngel’s Christology through close readings of several key texts. John addresses what he deems Jüngel’s “remarkably firm Christocentrism”  by investigating four issues to which Jüngel repeatedly turns his attention in the texts under consideration: (1) the unity of the New Testament, in particular the continuity between Jesus’s public ministry and Paul’s preaching; (2) the relation of the Christ confessed by faith to the history and self-understanding of Jesus of Nazareth; (3) the Christian confession of the crucifixion of Jesus, and the entailments of the cross for Trinitarian theology and Christology; and (4) the character of the ongoing presence and agency of Christ. John applauds Jüngel mainly for the intensity and panache with which he addresses these issues. “It is the jaggedness of Jüngel’s theology which most commands respect,” John writes, “for his real intellectual virtue is that of relentless critical interrogation of our representations of what he takes to be the heart of the Christian faith. A good deal of lesser modern theology pales in comparison: indolent, unimaginative, hidebound by (liberal) convention, too easily familiar with its own subject matter, and far from radical” .
It is the jaggedness of Jüngel’s theology which most commands respect.
And yet, for all his appreciation for the tenacity and sharpness of Jüngel’s approach, John is unpersuaded by a number of concrete Christological claims. Indeed, if critical commentary on Jüngel’s theology largely recedes in the Introduction, here it is foregrounded. John demonstrates that the category of “word,” and, in effect, the Christian confession of Christ as prophet, are hypertrophied in Jüngel’s program, resulting in a flattening of Christological material. For Jüngel, the unity of the New Testament is secured through the identification of Jesus’s eschatological proclamation—chiefly, the parables—and Paul’s Easter kerygma. Likewise, in Jüngel’s writings, proclamation is pinpointed as the glue that binds together the church’s confession of the Christ of faith to the Jesus of history. John shows that, consequent to such moves, the identity of Jesus Christ is compressed into the ‘Word made flesh,’ whose appearance in the world is sheerly “episodic: vivid and intense, certainly, but deficient in depth or extension” . Further, Jüngel’s overwhelming emphasis on the death of Jesus leads, strangely, to a preoccupation with the idea that he has withdrawn from the world. The account of the ongoing presence and agency of Jesus Christ folds back upon his identification with the word of Christian proclamation, which is enacted at the resurrection. What goes missing, observes John, is any acknowledgment that Jesus is “an operative factor in the present history of the world. . . The resurrection is detached from its wider dogmatic setting in Jesus’s status exaltationis. . .; disconnected from ascension, heavenly session and the present ministry of Jesus in the distribution of the merits of his saving work as prophet, priest and king” .
His humanity, his biography, his concrete place in history, the fullness of his career and ministry, & his real presence and agency to the church are all displaced by the category of the interruptive, eschatological word.
If the upshot of Jüngel’s agenda for Christology is a stress on the potency of the preaching of Christ, its shortfall is the portraiture of Jesus as “an eschatological, erratic, intrusive figure, distant from Israel, cutting across the grain of human time and space, a preacher with whose death God is identified and whose presence now is in the preached word which generates faith” . To put it another way, John shows that Jüngel’s Jesus “lacks location” . His humanity, his biography, his concrete place in history, the fullness of his career and ministry, and his real presence and agency to the church are all displaced by the category of the interruptive, eschatological word.
Order & Disorder in Christology
“Jesus in Modernity” is essential reading for those interested in Jüngel’s theology and in the development of constructive Christology in modern Protestantism. At the same time, the piece is, I contend, a harbinger of the brilliant round of constructive essays in dogmatics that mark the decade leading up to John’s untimely death. One of the striking features of those later works is the ubiquitous thematic tandem of order and disorder in systematic theology. For John, Christian theology, being by its very nature discursive (acquired over time through serious and sustained intellectual labor), strives toward comprehensiveness, discernment and discretion in its critical activities, and good balance. By contrast, whenever theology is afflicted by disorder, balance gets disrupted and even upended, particular themes or topics are improperly stressed at the expense of others, and the enterprise slides toward incompleteness and inchoateness. John’s concluding judgment in “Jesus in Modernity” is that Jüngel’s Christology is “strangely uneven”; that is, imbalanced, disordered. Though Jüngel’s work is “haunted by the figure of Jesus,” and for this reason rises above a host of alternative agendas for Christian dogmatics, the presentation of Christ consists of “vivid portrayals interspersed with large gaps” . While Jüngel should be lauded for prioritizing Christ as the heart of faith and theology, for John, Jüngel’s account of Christ is, in the end, far too restricted.
We have a glimpse of how a fulsome Christological treatment from Webster’s pen might have appeared in the essay “Christology, Theology, Economy,” the focus of Fred Sanders’s contribution to this series. Here John aims for a concertedly sequenced and balanced Christology, funded by an account of the governing principles, object, ends and purposes, and settings of Christian theology. Bureaucratic in style and scholastic in approach, I dare say that it doesn’t “preach” nearly as well as Jüngel’s flamboyant Christological treatises. But it offers a more orderly and developed presentation of Jesus Christ and his significance for us today.
Reflections on the Work of John Webster
Geoffrey Fulkerson | John Webster (1955-2016): Theologian, Essayist & Friend
Introducing Sapientia’s Year-Long Tribute to John Webster
Joseph Mangina | The Church as Astonished Witness
“On Evangelical Ecclesiology” (Confessing God, 2005)
Tyler Wittman | Theology and the Perfection of God the Trinity
“Life in and of Himself” (God without Measure, 2016)
Justin Stratis | Reason & the Presence of God
“Trinity and Creation,” (God without Measure, 2016)
Michael Allen | Theological Anthropology
“Eschatology and Anthropology” (Word and Church, 2001)
Fred Sanders | Making Christology Safe for Christology
“Christology, Theology, Economy” (God without Measure, 2016)
R. David Nelson | Strangely Uneven: Webster on Eberhard Jüngel’s Christology
“Jesus in Modernity” (Word and Church, 2001)
Stephen Holmes | Theology in Search of a Home
“Theological Theology” (Confessing God, 2005)
Darren Sarisky | Reading Theologically
“Hermeneutics in Modern Theology” (Word and Church, 2001)
Scott Swain | God-Centered Dogmatics
“Principlies of Systematic Theology” (The Domain of the Word, 2012)
Kevin Vanhoozer | Thinking Biblically & Theologically
“Biblical Reasoning” (The Domain of the Word, 2012)