John Webster on Mercy: Divine and Creaturely

God without measureJohn Webster is in the business of doing “theological theology”—theology that takes its beginning and end to be God and the works of God—and so, in one sense, there’s nothing surprising about finding rich, dogmatic reflection in the second volume of his stunning set of essays, God Without Measure. In another sense, it’s remarkable given that it’s a set of essays in moral theology—indeed, the subtitle is “Virtue and Intellect”, specifically those of human creatures.

For Webster, however, dogmatics considers the creature and the principles according to which it acts only in light God—his being and the order of reality brought into being and rescued from corruption in the economy of creation and redemption. In other words, to speak of creatures and our activities, we must always consider God and his works in and through the Son and the Spirit. As he expresses it in the first chapter, activity follows being. We act out of what we are and the very first thing we must recognize about ourselves is that we are God’s creatures (3).

Moral theology, then, is a grand exercise in the famous dictum of Pauline theology that imperatives follow indicatives. Taking his cue from a theological reading of the letter to the Colossians, Webster suggests that Christian ethics is a matter of “seeking” and discerning “where Christ is”, for ingrafted into his history and life, that is where our life is and the reality out of which we must act (Col. 3:1-4). Theology cannot separate Christology from ethics, then, nor displace the primacy of the “metaphysical…over the paraenetic”, nor must it conceive of the human vocation as one separated from Christ (26).

This structure comes out in the variety of essays ranging from human dignity, courage, to the nature of theology in the university. For myself, I was struck by it in particular by two insights in his essay on the work and virtue of mercy. One on the nature of divine mercy and the other on the limits of human mercy.

Saying Jesus is Saying Mercy

But to begin, Webster makes it clear that “Christian theology speaks about mercy by speaking about Jesus Christ” (49). Jesus Christ is the reality that gives our reflection weight—not because he’s some symbol or exemplar, nor because he’s prophet or legislator of a moral truth beyond him. No, he himself is the concrete, historical, embodiment of the Word of God who “makes manifest the metaphysical and moral order of the entire creation” (51). So to speak of the history of Jesus Christ is to speak of the ultimate good and final end of creation, who clarifies, corrects, displays, and gives shape to the world as it is and as its meant to be.

Two more points before moving on. Webster makes it clear that to speak of Christ means to look back into the depths of God’s Triune life as he is the eternal Word of God, come at the command of the Father, in the power of the Spirit—to speak of Christ’s mercy is to speak of God’s mercy (52). What’s more, speaking of Christ means also looking forward into the lives of the people of God, since Christ coming as the mercy of God is aimed at reconciling and transforming the life of creatures, rendering them able to render mercy towards others (53). And this brings me to the two points that struck me.

Divine Mercy

First, Webster notes that God is intrinsically and unfadingly good—he is perfect in and of himself. This perfect goodness in himself is the ground for his goodness towards others—the relative (relating) goodness and love of God are his will to communicate goodness towards his creatures. Now, “mercy is the directing of God’s majestic goodness to the relief of the creatures in misery and wretchedness” (54). God’s mercy is God’s goodness at work to give us respite and liberation in our miserable rebellion and evil. Aquinas says that mercy is proper to God because it “involves the giving from one’s abundance to others” and “relieving their needs, a function especially belonging to a superior.”

Following this insight, Webster stops to draw out what it means for mercy to be proper to God. He urges us not to think that creaturely need is the cause of God’s mercy. No, rather, it is the occasion that brings to light God’s goodness in this particular situation of our misery. In other words, mercy is free act of God, but it is not an arbitrary one. Here he appeals to the distinction between an affection and a passion. A passion is an “emotion” that is forced, or drawn out of one under compulsion and by distress. An affection is a rational, free response consistent with who God is in himself. The upshot of this is that “God is not reduced to misery by creaturely wretchedness, so that his mercy is a relief of God’s ow trouble as much as that of the creature” (55). Quoting Barth, “God is moved and stirred, yet not like ourselves in powerlessness, but in his own free power, in his inmost being…his compassionate words are not grounded in a subsequent change…but are rooted in his heart…” (56).

God does not have to be convinced to be merciful. God, in his goodness, simply is merciful. This is the free, stable, unshaking ground of the gospel of God’s mercy to us in Jesus Christ.

Human Mercy

Of course, this divine mercy is the source of God’s victorious conquest over our sin and rebellion, bringing us back into proper relations, or fellowship with him. This fellowship in the Son and Spirit transforms and renews us, bringing us into a new order—an order of mercy, in which we begin to understand ourselves as objects of God’s mercy. “God’s active merciful presence and rule establishes a creaturely kingdom of mercy” (59). Webster goes into detail about the relationship between God’s mercy and our mercy at this point because he says “we should remind ourselves that a great deal hangs on achieving a sufficiently fine-grained description of a theological account of human mercy, but also”—and this is the point that caught my eye—“the burden of expectation which we place on human mercy” (59).

Among other points that he makes, Webster struggles to capture the tension of our works of human mercy in the command, “Be merciful, even as your heavenly Father is merciful” (Lk. 6:36). In the first place, they are the work of “God’s new creatures”, plucked up from misery, restored, renewed, and given a moral energy by the Spirit. They do not have to “strive to introduce grace into a world from which it is otherwise absent.”

That said, “because mercy is creaturely, it is limited.” Despite our new creation, we are still finite and we can only do what we can do, “no more.” This is important since it’s easy to become exasperated or hopeless at the limits to our efforts. Indeed, we can become merciless towards ourselves and others in our urgent drive to transcend the creaturely limits of our mercy. For this reason, it is so important that “creaturely mercy accept the restriction of its capacities without resentment or despair”, but instead, “venture its imperfect work cheerfully and hopefully, looking to God’s own encompassing mercy as its vindication” (61).

The work of mercy proceeds, then, because God is merciful and he is so towards his creatures in Jesus Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria

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