What is the nature and task of Christian theology? What are we, and theologians primarily, doing? Have we really been overwhelmed by the gospel of Jesus Christ? Do we read the Bible just to find some proof-texts for the positions we hold, or do we read it to seek and know God?
John Webster (d. 2016) was Professor of Divinity at the University of St. Andrews. He was in the process of writing a five-volume systematic theology, along with numerous other works, when he passed. Editor Ivor Davidson (Honorary Research Professor at King’s College, University of Aberdeen) writes, “The Culture of Theology… stands as one of his more substantial endeavors to reflect holistically on the privileges, resources, and responsibilities of theological work” (2).
While Webster doesn’t give much attention here to the doctrine of creation, history, or the trinity (not in depth, anyway), the setting of christian theology is “the world which is brought into being by the staggering good news of Jesus Christ” (43). Webster’s book, and his whole idea of theology, is couched in eschatology. “The end of the ages has come” upon us with the death and resurrection of Jesus (1 Cor 10:11). Because of God’s grace in Christ’s sacrifice, Christian faith and life exist.
- Culture: The Shape of Theological Practice
- Christianity is a culture of its own, and “theology needs to be cultivated” through reading Scripture and classic Christian texts. Webster doesn’t deny faithful living and obedience to God’s word in the lives of Christians/theologians. He covers this in the last chapter. Faith is completely reliant on God, and its aim is God’s glory.
- Texts: Scripture, Reading, and the Rhetoric of Theology
- The Bible is “the primary bearer of Christian culture” (5, 65). However, many churches have little confidence in Scripture. When we read the Holy Scriptures, we encounter the holy, gracious, and wise God of the gospel.
- Traditions: Theology and the Public Covenant
- We should be attentive to the gospel; so we should be submissive to Scripture. Through it we remind ourselves that Jesus is alive, his death and resurrection are a reality, and this helps keep us from drifting “into stasis or self-satisfaction” (8).
- Conversations: Engaging Difference
- Christianity is different. We are supposed to be different. It makes “its greatest contribution to the conversations of the academy” when it doesn’t feel bad about being different and, as many would call it, “narrow-minded” (9, 113). Christianity is its “own world” (113). If theologians are exegetically lazy, timid, and vacuous, then the surround culture will have little to no resistance. When the Bible is taught and handled rightly, proclaim as the Word of God, then true change occurs.
- Criticism: Revelation and Disturbance
- The church is to be self-critical. We are sinners looking at the gospel; there is always something we can work on. Webster writes, “Theological criticism is simply the church repeating to itself a judgment which has already been issued by the gospel and which, as divine judgment, is infinitely more searching, radical, and truthful than anything the church could ever generate out of its own resources or by listening to words of criticism directed to it from without” (127).
- Habits: Cultivating the Theologian’s Soul
- Webster argues that “good theology requires good theologians” (131). These theologians will never be perfect, but “thinking and speaking well of the God of the Christian gospel involves the rather bruising business of acquiring and practicing certain habits of mind, heart, and will” (131-132). We are to be gripped, engaged, disturbed so much by the gospel that we don’t want to live the same lives we have lived before. We should see the disconnect between gospel-living and what the world does that we would be provoked “to learn how to think and live differently” (133). We are constantly “being slain and made alive by the gospel” (133).
Theology is the good news of God in Jesus Christ. God the Son in the flesh who died, rose again, ascended, and rules at the right hand of God. Nothing strange about that, right?
This was the first time I’ve read anything by Webster. Admittedly it was a difficult read, but what I read was rewarding. To see a theologian of his caliber constantly point his readers back to the source, God’s word which reveals to us God’s plan of salvation in Christ, is becoming rarer and rarer. Christians are to be salt and light. We should be different. If you’ve read Webster before, you should pick this up. If not, read the sample here and see what you think. Though he’s speaking mainly about theologians, I hope you’ll be both surprised and pleased by what he says about our task as Christians as we handle God’s word and live out our faith.
- Author: John Webster
- Editors: Ivor J. Davidson & Alden C. McCray
- Hardcover: 176 pages
- Publisher: Baker Academic (October 15, 2019)
- Sample: Read the Introduction and Chapter 1!
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