John Webster (1955-2016) Ref21 Contributions
June 13, 2016
Ref21 readers who are familiar with the British theologian John Webster will, I'm sure, already know that he passed away late last month. I'm equally sure that many readers of this site will not have heard of Webster, or will at least be hard pressed to place him. That's an unfortunate truth. Webster's influence even (or perhaps especially) upon confessional Reformed circles in America will persist when the most celebrated (celebratized?) pastors and pop theological writers currently moving within those circles are gone and long forgotten. His influence will be realized not only by means of his published writings, but also by the significant number of evangelical/Reformed theological educators whose doctoral work John supervised during his time at Oxford, Aberdeen, and St. Andrews, and by the personal impact he had upon his doctoral students during that process. Simply put, John Webster taught the teachers of our generation -- the teachers who will teach the next generation of teachers and preachers. Even for that reason alone his name is worth knowing. Others would be better suited than I to discuss the finer points of Webster's theology. To be honest, Webster's name does not in the first instance evoke for me thoughts of particular doctrines or some specific theological method. It evokes, rather, memories of a man who was eminently kind, humble, and always ready with a piece of wit. It was my privilege to attend John's weekly systematics seminar at Aberdeen University for eight years -- four years as a doctoral student at the University, and four further years as a faculty member. I remember quite vividly the very first of John's seminars that I attended. I was fresh out of seminary, and far too confident of my grasp of Christian theology. John delivered a paper on the aseity of God, and--fool that I was--I dared to criticize him on one point, immediately regretting my boldness the minute I closed my mouth. John couldn't have been more gracious in his response. It was clear then, and became even clearer the longer I knew him, that John's passion was for greater precision and (ultimately) faithfulness in theological expression, not for his own reputation or track record for getting it right.Accordingly, he was unfailingly supportive of the contributions that doctoral students made to his seminar, even when those contributions (my own included) were mediocre at best or critical of his own theological approach. John was the internal examiner for my doctoral dissertation. I recall him coming to fetch me from the hallway outside his office, where I had been relegated on the heels of my viva while he and the external examiner decided my fate. He could apparently see the nervousness in my eyes, and was quick to reassure me that my dissertation was successful before leading me back in to hear the official verdict. John was also my official mentor during my tenure as Hope Trust Research Fellow at the University of Aberdeen from 2010 to 2012, though neither of us were ever entirely sure what that role was meant to entail. As he put it to me when he agreed to mentor my postdoctoral project, I was already well aware from my days as a student which of the university staff were most cantankerous and best avoided, so he wasn't entirely sure what he could do to assist me. In the end, John was a friend. And I can't speak or write his name without feeling a profound sense of loss, especially so as I write this my in-laws' house on the coast of northeastern Scotland, close to the town that John most recently called home. I suspect that there are many like me, for whom John's name, and news of his passing, evokes first and foremost very treasured personal memories and deep sadness. That, of course, is not to disparage the significance of John's contribution to Christian theology. As already noted, others would be better suited than I to discuss or analyze that contribution. For my part, I was impressed by John's firm and persistent insistence on making God (in all his Triune perfection) the starting point of theological reflection upon, well, pretty much everything. John had a clear grasp of the tendency for even Christian theology to marginalize God, to lose itself in abstraction, to evolve into a glorified anthropology or sociology, to become a species of philosophy, and so on. John was determined to keep God at the very center of Christian theological thought and expression. I was also impressed by John's ability to communicate, even more so after he confided to me at one point that he hand-wrote all his articles, essays, and books, only employing a word processor for purposes of seeing his writings through the publication process. Those who have read John will, I think, agree that his writings contain no fluff whatsoever. There is no stray word, no ill-considered phrase, to be found in his entire corpus. I suspect that has much to do with the fact that writing was, for him, a final stage in, as he himself put it, "the exercise of faithful and regenerate reason" that constitutes proper theological work. Readers interested in sampling Webster's writing need look no further than this very site. In the course of the past year, Webster graced Reformation21 with a series on the fruits of the Spirit (part 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5) and, more recently, a piece on Christ's resurrection. I highly recommend reading all of the above, but the article on Christ's resurrection is particularly noteworthy, both for its intrinsic worth and for the fact that its author now constitutes one member of that glorious throng currently enjoying God's presence but awaiting resurrection themselves. Here's a small but particularly compelling sample from that piece, in which John discusses the nature of Christ's resurrected presence among his people: [Christ] is present at his own initiative, by his own limitless capacity. He is not present because summoned by creaturely longing or entreaty or imagination. He is present in divine freedom and goodness, that is, in grace, by his own loving provision and self-bestowal. Nor is his presence such that he puts himself at the disposal of creatures. His presence is always gift, not given. This may be seen in the strangely fleeting character of his resurrection appearances: 'their eyes were opened and they recognised him; and he vanished out of their sight' (Lk. 24.31). The evanescent character of his risen presence indicates, not the tenuousness of his reality, but his transcendent spontaneity, his sheer fullness of uncreated life which cannot be contained.