Theological Theology: Essays in Honour of John Webster

theological theologyJohn Webster has long been known for practicing and advocating “Theological Theology.” The point is not, as some might rightly worry, to practice a form of theology that exists solely for itself–“academic” in the worst sense. Instead, it is to practice theology that is confident enough in the importance of the theological task that it doesn’t need to be constantly borrowing its thought-forms, programs, and methods from other disciplines in order to prove its relevance. It means doing theology in a theological way that proceeds in a manner that fits its transcendently, unique subject matter–the Triune God as he has revealed himself in his works in the economy of creation and redemption.

It’s only fitting, then, that when R. David Nelson, Darren Sarisky, and Justin Stratis arranged a festschrift for him, it should take the title Theological Theology: Essays in Honor of John WebsterBut it’s not only the title that matches Webster’s programmatic judgment about the nature of theology–the whole of the work itself exhibits theological sensibility that Webster has cultivated over the years.  The volume really is a treasure-trove of theological theology precisely because its contributors are theologians of the highest caliber who, by and large, have managed to avoid the faddish nature of so much contemporary reflection.

And really, the line-up is quite impressive, including top shelf theologians across a variety of disciplines, theological traditions, and methodologies. Luminaries include: Robert Jenson, Stanley Hauerwas, Kevin Vanhoozer, Matthew Levering, Katherine Sonderegger, Bruce McCormack, and many more.

With over twenty essays and a biographical chapter on Webster himself, the book is impossible to review if we were to do a thorough engagement with each piece included. Instead, I’ll simply note a few of the essays I enjoyed most.

First, I’ve never had the pleasure of reading any of Ivor Davidson’s work previously, but his essay on “divine sufficiency” exhibits an elegance and judiciousness that makes me want to go dig through the archives for more. Davidson reflects on the reality that the theologians context is primarily in the presence of the all-sufficient God. Due to the perfection of the divine life, the Triune God is not only sufficient in and of himself, but is sufficient for us, making us sufficient for the theological task as we find ourself caught up in his sufficiency in the great things of the gospel.

Katherine Sonderegger has a tight little essay on the sinlessness of Christ (which was engaged profitably here), well worth the time. In it she engages the tradition broadly, ranging from Aquinas’ rather nosebleed conception, to modern “fallen” humanity interpretations we find in Karl Barth and Edward Irving, to liberation interpretations.

If you want a good primer/example on the “theological interpretation of Scripture”, in his chapter, Kevin Vanhoozer presents a lively engagement with the Acts 19. Through it, he presents a vision for a non-reductionistic, multi-faceted approach to the interpretation of Scripture which takes its unique ontology, cosmology, and teleological end into account in such a way that begins to responsibly bridge the gap between systematic theology and biblical studies.

A fantastically provocative (yet unfortunately brief) piece by Francis Watson challenges the notion that there even is such a thing as historical criticism. In brief, one of our age’s most renowned biblical interpreters takes the notion of “historical criticism” to task by exposing its history and the ideological and rhetorical function it plays within the academy, beyond its presentation as an interpretive best practice. I’ll likely return to this piece at greater length in a future post.

Francesca Murphy delivers an erudite and insightful entry on the way Aquinas’ appropriation and modification of Aristotle informs the shape and content of his section on the life of Christ in the Summa. In many ways, Murphy demonstrates the surprisingly modern shape of Aquinas’ life of Christ, especially the attention Aquinas pays to its historical structure, contrary to what we might expect in a scholastic treatment.

Again, I can’t begin to do justice to the variety of essays in the volume except to say that this is a valuable addition to any theological library–especially those of seminaries, since it’s quite pricey until the paperback comes out. More importantly, it is a fitting tribute to a theologian of Webster’s caliber.

Soli Deo Gloria

19 thoughts on “Theological Theology: Essays in Honour of John Webster

    • Right, the big difference is that I affirm Theotokos and that my article is in conformity with the council of Chalcedon. Also, I don’t see anything in the post as holding the natures apart. What I’m doing is affirming, with Chalcedon, that there is no confusion, blurring, or mingling of the natures.

      • I think I understand where your are coming from. However, one of the challenges with your explanation in the blog post, is that functionally, it in fact does flirt with Nestorianism. That is, when you say the human nature suffered, but the divine nature did not, how are you going to parse out the notion of personhood? Explaining the dynamics of the incarnation is definitely a challenging task, and I am not one who has mastered it my any means. However, I am wondering if you may have prior assumptions that stem from a reformedish understanding of God that, if subjected to the doctrine of the incarnation, would in fact be subverted and “reformed” in light of the incarnation. Catch my drift?

      • So, basically, you already have an idea of where you wanted this conversation to go and the answers I should be giving, right?

        Look, I get the critique of Reformed Christology. The point, though, is that it does not affirm two Sons, two Subjects, etc. The humanity of Christ is assumed en- and an-hypostatically. There is no separation and so forth. The point, though, is that there is more than one Christological error: Eutychianism is still a danger. So, we don’t want to confused or merge the natures either. This is all Chalcedon.

        As for the “Reformedish” doctrine of God, I don’t think it’s uniquely Reformed. Immutability and impassibility are Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Eastern Orthodox standard attributes as well. The question is more about the anthropology and the relationship between the finite and the infinite. Whether certain modes of deification or transformation respect the proper humanity of Christ or turn it into something else.

      • Hey Derek, yes, I do already have assumptions, as do you, about where I think things should go. Sorry if I said something that implied I do not. I don’t think I crossed any lines here though.

        I see your point regarding Eutychianism. However, my point in pressing back here on your reasoning is that, functionally, to say Christ’s human nature suffered but his divine nature did not, amounts to Nestorian-ish (not Nestorian-ism – so I am not implying you’re a heretic bro 🙂 understandings of the atonement. Citing and using Chalcedonian language does not, in and of itself, ensure that we are drawing Chalcedonian conclusions regarding the atonement, or any other topic for that matter. It is certainly a wise place to start though 🙂 Regarding the impassibility of God, I would not cite the Eastern Orthodox or Catholics as being in good company with impassibility. While the Catholics may have a doctrine of the impassibility of GOd, it shows up distinctly in their doctrine of the immaculate conception. As for the Eastern Orthodox, I would suggest that you are leveraging terminology in their tradition that is not used in the way you are suggesting it can be used to bolster your argument. Or am I misunderstanding what you are claiming by referencing them? Either way, thank you for explaining your position, but I obviously do not agree. So thanks for engaging me with your thoughts. Blessings to you.

      • I guess, but I am wondering about is how different my answer should look for it to pass muster as properly Chalcedonian for you? Do you want a passible God and suffering in the Son’s divine nature? If so, the issue is only secondarily Chalcedon and primarily doctrine of God. I still affirm that it is definitely the Son who suffers. It is simply according to the nature he assumed for that purpose.

      • Good question. I would work from the incarnation towards a doctrine of GOd, as opposed to having a doctrine of God, and then shaping my understanding of the incarnation around that. These are two different starting points, which means there can be two different ending points. It is a question of which one is informing the other. For me, I would start at the incarnation and let that inform and shape my doctrine of God. From my understanding of the incarnation, the person of Jesus suffered, and this means both his divine and human nature. So I work outwards from there and infer/defer that God is not impassible/immune to suffering. This is why it is not secondarily Chalcedonian, in my opinion. The incarnation gives us the clearest picture of GOd that we have in written revelation. I think we have to start with Jesus when it comes to our doctrine of God. I do not have a prior commitment to the impassibility of God based on a doctrine of God worked out apart from the incarnation. Therefore, I do not feel obligated to infer/defer that the Son’s suffering HAS TO BE his human nature, and not his divine nature, as if I had to somehow reconcile the impassibility of God with the incarnation. I start with the incarnation, and then allow that to shape the doctrine of God. These are two different starting places, which could explain why we will disagree on this subject.

      • Alright, let me take another tack. I think I can get to impassibility and immutability via the incarnation, but here’s a question: do you think it’s appropriate to distinguish “according to” the natures at all? I mean, does Jesus sneeze, sleep, use the bathroom according to both natures? Did he grow in wisdom and knowledge according to his divine nature or only his human nature?

        I’m not trying to split Christ, but Scripture itself seems to authorize some of this logic since it speaks of Christ descended from David “according to the Flesh” (Rom. 1:1-4), etc. While we would say it is the Divine Son, Jesus Christ, who descends from David, we wouldn’t say that the Son’s divine “nature” descends from David, would we?

        That’s my problem with the way your reasoning seems to be going.

      • I see. I think I know what you are getting at. Here is my take. Regarding Luke 2:52, I see this as referring to the Person of Jesus, and this includes both natures. For example, does Jesus have two brains? To use an illustration, does Jesus have two “hard drives” one that knows when he is returning, one that does not? Is there a divine knowledge base, and a human knowledge base, WITHIN the Person of Jesus? Jesus does not know when he is coming back, only the Father knows this. Jesus, as a Person, does in fact learn things. THis is why Hebrews 5:9 says that he learned obedience through the things he suffered. Is suffering only biological? Isnt it also psychological/emotional? Does Jesus have two sources of emotions? One human, one divine? Does he have two psyches, one human, one divine? If so, does he also have two wills, one human, one divine?
        Regarding his bodily functions, I do see this as something that Jesus does, and therefore this is something his divine nature participates in. This is part of the apparent scandal of the incarnation. Obviously, the Word did not fart before he became a human, but now that he is a human, the logos participates, 100%, as a human in all that it means to be human. THe Person of the LOGOS does this. This is part of the hypostatic union.
        Regarding Romans 1, I think this has to do with origins. Because of the Son’s preexistence, you have to qualify when you say “He descended from the seed of David.” I think this is what Paul is getting at when he qualifies statements like this with the language “according to.” This is the best way I know how to respond to our question, but I’m sure I could do a better job a it 🙂

      • Orthodox doctrine has historically stated that Jesus does have two wills. To deny that is the historic heresy of Monotheletism. So there is some double-faculty feature to the Incarnate Son. And again, I am not asking if the person of the son grows in knowledge. Of course he does as it says in Scripture. I am asking if the Son, in his eternal nature, grows in knowledge. The qualification you made at the end is the entire point of my post was making. If you say that the divine nature can grow in knowledge, you are denying God’s Perfection and omniscience. What’s more, you might be dividing the persons of the trinity into three different mines, three different wheels, and basically three different natures instead of seeing the persons sharing one divine nature.

      • Well, I knew at some point would say something that crossed a boundary, and the comment about the wills is a good example. So good call on that. I do not affirm monothelitism. The other points I make about his emotions/psyche have direct correlation to his experience of suffering though. An this is a good place to focus the conversation in regards to the Son experiencing suffering. Your comments about the divine nature growing in knowledge are only true if you assume the nature of God’s perfection is equal to omniscience. What do you make of the fact that Jesus does not know when he is returning? Would this not be an indication that Jesus’ divinity does not hinge upon the so-called notion of omniscience. Based on your comments, I would say we would land on different positions regarding this topic as well. While I am not an official “open theist”, to use the title of your blog, I am am open theism-ish, and do not have a problem with the concept of God “increasing’ or “decreasing.” The notion of God being immutable, and a stead state, from what I can tell, is Platonic. But again, this would beg other questions and discussions. Regarding my seeing the Trinity as having three different natures, again, this is dependent upon prior assumptions about God and his nature. Using your categories of omniscience/perfection, then, sure, I could see how you could say that. But if you begin with the incarnation, and then develop your doctrine of GOd from there, then the fact that the Son does not know when he is returning (but the Father does) should point to a wider understanding of what it means for God to be perfect/complete, as well as pose a significant challenge to our preconceived (Platonic) notions of God being omniscient. All in all, my goal was to press back on what I perceived to be a directional issue in your logic. It appears that you move from a doctrine of God to a doctrine of the incarnation. I move in the opposite direction, and hence our two different positions. I merely wanted to point that dynamic out. So from my perspective, our engagement has been fruitful and beneficial. Your point about monthelitism was helpful to me. Hopefuly, one of my points has been provocative for you as well. Blessings to you.

      • Tim, without going into all of what you just said, I will just point out that if you have the Son growing in knowledge according to his divine nature on the basis of his saying about only the Father knowing the time of his return comma you have now introduced a split between the knowledge that the Son has according to his divine nature and the knowledge that the Father has. At this point, it is not a matter of open theism. At this point, you are dividing the nature of God between the persons. That is a trinitarian mistake that I don’t believe any open theists I know would want to make. As for my doctrine of God, I take it from Scripture as a whole, not just the Gospels, precisely because Christ affirms the whole of Scripture and its view of God.

  1. Derek, I can only refer you to my previous comments about your approach to the definition of “perfection” and “omniscience.” I am not introducing the so-called “split.” Jesus said he did not know, and
    that pretty much introduces Jesus not knowing something that the Father does know. How you parse that out will depend upon your approach to omnsicience and perfection. It does not have to lead to the conclusions that you claim it automatically leads to. In your system of doctrine, I could see how you could say that. But remember, I do not subscribe to your theological “system”, as it were, which means I do not have to arrive at the conclusions entailed within that “system.” So without belaboring the point, I do not agree with your conclusions, neither do I subscribe to them in my own theological convictions about the Trinity or the nature of each Person within the Trinity. We obviously inhabit two very different theological “worlds”, as it were, and I realize there is a reason for you being in the w”world” you are in, just as I have reasons for the “world” I am in. But just for clarity, I subscribe to the Chalcedonian definition and and understanding of the Trinity. Blessings to you.

    • Tim,

      Honestly, it’s not even about my specific “system” in a narrow sense of Reformed theology or whatever. This is broadly, “catholic” and “orthodox” trinitarian stuff. I agree that Jesus doesn’t know things that the Father knows. I say that’s according to his human nature as has most of Christian theology for roughly 2,000 years. My point is that if you have the eternal Son not knowing something that the eternal Father knows within the Trinitiaran being of God, then you have a differentiation of knowledge and being that starts pushing you towards tritheism or subordinationism. I don’t know what “world” you are in, but if you keep pushing in the direction you appear to be, then it is apparently not even broadly-Nicene theology.

      I’m not trying to be a jerk here, man. You seem like a nice guy, but there are some troubling moves you’re making that threaten to pull God and the gospel apart.

      • Derek, I don’t perceive you to be a jerk. However, I do think it’s naieve to think you don’t have a system/world that influences your Theology. For example, claiming your thoughts are “catholic” ands “orthodox”, and that they fit within the last 2000 years is over reaching in my opinion. Your logic about the situation of the Father knowing something that the Son does not know, and how that leads to a differentiation in the being/nature of God, is only true if you buy wholesale into omniscience, traditionally defined, as an essential part of Gods nature/being. Once again, your starting point really matters. I try to begin with the incarnation and work from there etc. To use another example, if we assume omni-presence, traditionally defined, as an essential part of Gods nature, how do we explain Jesus being in a resurrected body right now, and therefore being limited, to some degree, by spatial dynamics? If he is in a human body, glorified and resurrected though it is, can we really claim that he is omni-present? This is quite problematic of I start with the omni’s and try to fit Jesus/God into them. See how the starting point makes a difference? The incarnation puts our Theology to the test.
        I appreciate you expressing your concerns about my “direction”, and I take note of them. However, I do indeed subscribe to the Chalcedonian definition, and from my perspective, I feel my approach actually takes Chalcedon seriously, and uses it as the starting point/foundation for Theology. Again, we likely have many things we disagree on, and for good reasons, but I don’t sense either one of us will be persuaded of reach others positions. You are a good conversation partner, and from what I can tell, a deep thinker. So thanks for engaging me in theological discourse. Blessings to you.

      • Tim,

        I am not saying that I don’t have a system. I was saying that my point wasn’t restricted to a Reformed system but is one that could be shared broadly across various traditions. And that’s actually historically verifiable. I’m actually in a Ph.D seminar in Christologu right now where we’re walking through texts in Patristic, Medieval, Reformation, Post-Reformation across multiple traditions.

        Also, my point about the Father and the Son having different sets of knowledge isn’t limited to a presupposition of omniscience. An Open Theist could still maintain that whatever sort of knowledge the Trinity has, the persons share it equally precisely because of their perfect unity. Do you see that? Your view posits an inequality between the persons that points to either subordinationism or a rupture in the Trinity.

        As for beginning with the Incarnation, fine, try that. Go read Karl Barth and T.F. Torrance. They still won’t wander into the theology you’re getting into, man.

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