Today marks the one-year anniversary of John Webster’s death. At the time he was, in my opinion and others’, the greatest living theologian writing in English, and perhaps in any language.
This is the tenth installment of a series of tributes to the man and his theological project, a work in progress that was tragically cut short by his premature entry to glory. Yet John was already on the way to glory before his death, as evidenced by a steady stream of essays that, like the diamonds they are, refract illuminating rays as they reflect on the divine perfections of the God who is light.
Chapter 6: Biblical Reasoning
In some respects, John was only getting started–or rather restarted. Arguably his chief contribution to the discipline of systematic theology was to put it on proper dogmatic footing. Having labored early on to satisfy his modern taskmasters, collecting various methodological straws in order to make doctrinal bricks, John eventually freed himself from bondage to untheological theology by retrieving Scripture and tradition. Joy and cheerful confidence mark his later essays, as well as a scrupulous concern for determining the proper dogmatic location of topics like the canon or christology, which effectively meant putting everything in its place in the economy of revelation and redemption, and then relating that economy to the perfect life of the triune God in himself (cf. immanent domain). Beginning with the perfect life of the triune God in himself was perhaps John’s signature dogmatic move–call it Webster’s principle of immanent domain.
My doctoral supervisor Nicholas Lash excelled in writing theological essays in the interrogative mood, posing question after question in order to deepen the mystery of God. By way of contrast, John excelled in writing theological essays in the indicative mood, carefully explicating the gospel of God and the God of the gospel in densely written exercises, the products of his prodigious created intellect, and his spiritual worship or “reasonable service” (Rom. 12:1, KJV) as a Christian witness and disciple.
One year later, theologians continue to mine the gold from shafts opened up by John’s careful dogmatic explorations. The present piece, on “Biblical Reasoning,” concludes a ten-part series that has reflected on essays written by John between 2000 and 2016, touching on creation, anthropology, ecclesiology, Christology, hermeneutics, the doctrine of God, and the nature of systematic theology itself. John authored so many seminal essays that we could easily fund another year’s worth of reflections. I know I was spoilt for choice, torn between “The Dogmatic Location of the Canon” and “Biblical Reasoning.” If I have chosen the latter, it’s because of my long-standing interest in the question, “What does it mean to be biblical in theology?” and because this essay, as perhaps no other, serves as a kind of mini-summa of John’s mature project.
The Divine Economy as Context for Dogmatic Thinking
Modern theology, viewed from one perspective, is a series of footnotes to Kant–an array of various attempts to find a respectable intellectual framework in some non-theological discipline within which one’s theological statements could appear meaningful, relevant, and plausible. This is the paradigm of academic theology from which John eventually took his leave, or should I say exodus.
John’s 2008 article, “Biblical Reasoning” (reprinted in The Domain of the Word), begins by specifying the dogmatic location of dogmatics itself in the divine economy in which creatures are addressed by the Word of the Father in the power of the Spirit. John elucidates his conception of theology by examining the nature (ontology) and end (teleology)The only way to understand what something is & what it is for is to discover its place in the divine economy of Scripture and reason alike. For the only way to understand what something is and what it is for is to discover its place in the divine economy: “We need to figure out what the text is in order to figure out what to do with it; and we determine what Scripture is by understanding its role in God’s self-communication to creatures” (116).
Faith’s search for understanding is rewarded when we are able to ascertain the proper place of creature and Creator in the divine economy, the outworking in time of God’s eternal saving purpose, “the historical form of God’s presence to and action upon creatures” (117). The divine economy is the context for understanding Scripture (God’s communicative initiative) and reason (the human person’s communicative response): “Scripture and reason are elements in the economy of God’s communication with creatures, aspects of the cognitive fellowship between creatures and their loving creator” (117).
The divine economy (the external missions of Son and Spirit) is grounded in the immanent perfection of God’s own triune life (the internal processions). God does not need human beings to be fully himself, but out of love he communicates something of his own light and life in order to provide fellowship with human creatures. This fellowship consists in God giving knowledge and love to human creatures and humans responding in kind. The divine economy is “the theater in which God’s Word is heard, in which God is communicatively and intelligible present … the atmosphere or sustaining context of what creatures are and do” (118).
John here describes the Bible, as he does in Holy Scripture, as the chief “creaturely auxiliary” through which God by his Word and Spirit gives humans a share in his self-knowledge. The Bible cannot be described in terms of human agency and historical categories only. John does not deny these natural properties of the text but locates them in the divine economy of revelation and redemption, and it is this divine economy that is ultimately determinative of its nature. The divinely authorized words of the prophets and apostles are “an embassy of God’s eloquence” (120).
Similarly, we come to understand the true nature of human reason too only in the light of the divine economy, which makes possible intelligent fellowship with and adoration of God. The final purpose of the created intellect is to grasp the goodness and end of all created things. However, fallen reason spurns its divine vocation; its vaunted autonomy is “not the triumphant fulfillment of rational powers [but] their contradiction” (125). The end of the economy, and the story of reason, is the good news that God loves creatures, desires their fulfillment, and so renews their rational natures along with everything else.
Theology as Biblical Reasoning
“Christian theology is biblical reasoning” (128). This succinct indicative requires some unpacking. In John’s words: “[Christian theology] is the redeemed intellect’s reflective apprehension of God’s gospel address through the embassy of Scripture, enabled and corrected by God’s presence, and having fellowship with him as its end” (128).
Some people have criticized John for his lack of engagement with Scripture. The charge has some merit, yet only superficially so. I deeply regret that both his friends and critics won’t get to see the commentary on Ephesians on which John was beginning to work at the time of his death Theology is a form of holy reasoning whose proper work consists in serving the intelligibility of God’s written Word(though we do have his theological reflections on Hebrews 1:1-4 in the essay “One Who is Son”). John’s essays may not have an abundance of proof texts, but they are nevertheless steeped in Scripture.
Scripture is “the cognitive principle of theology” (128), both source (the place where theology finds its subject matter) and norm (the standard to which theological statements must measure up). Theology is a form of holy reasoning whose proper work consists in serving the intelligibility of God’s written Word.
Biblical reasoning has two aspects. Exegetical reasoning is the intelligent and spiritual task of following the words of the text. This too is discipleship: “The principle task of theological reason is figuring out the literal sense, that is, what the text says” (130). This is not just retrieving information; it is more like swimming in the text’s wake, allowing oneself to be caught up by the living and active Word of God. Exegetes will be heartened to learn that we need commentaries because “the text is a gift which evokes the works of reason” (130).
Conclusion: Dogmatic Theology as a Biblical Discipline
Dogmatic reasoning produces “a conceptual representation of what reason has learned from its exegetical following of the scriptural text” (130). Contrary to popular caricatures, dogmatics is not further removed from Scripture than exegesis or, what is worse, unbiblical (may it never be!). It is rather that dogmatics presents the subject matter of the prophetic and apostolic discourse in a different idiom. Yes, dogmatics works with concepts that themselves may not be found explicitly in Scripture, but the point of conceptualization is not to replace Scripture but rather to see Scripture in its full scope “as an unfolding of the one divine economy” (131).
John helps correct another caricature as well: dogmatics is “systematic” not in the sense of imposing a foreign set of categories on Scripture but “in the low-level sense of gathering together what is dispersed through the temporal economy” so that we may better gaze on the glorious God of the gospel. In this essay, as in so many others, John has helped me towards an even deeper understanding of what it means to be biblical.
At the end of “Biblical Reasoning,” John mentions the deep fault line that runs in both the church and the academy between those who do their theological reasoning in the conviction that Scripture is the living and active voice of God (i.e., an ingredient in the economy of light and life), and those who fear that Scripture and reason alike are merely the auxiliaries of human finitude, special interests, or the will to power. On the one side of the fault lies a sickness of the soul; on the other side lies humility, hope, and the promise of wisdom. It is for such a time as this that John encourages theologians to seize the day, reasoning biblically to the glory of God.
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)