John Webster (1955–2016): Reflections from One of His Students

Esteemed English Theologian Dies at 60

My heart is still heavy from the passing of John Webster on May 25. For those like myself who knew him as their doctoral supervisor, it feels as if we have lost an intellectual father under whose careful oversight we “grew up” in many respects. No small part of his legacy will surely be how he gave so much of himself to others, but he was also a man of considerable intellect who put his gifts to work in retrieving a serious and joyful approach to systematic theology.

Much has been and will be said about his life and achievements elsewhere by those who knew him better than me. Though it’s difficult to know just what to say only days after his passing, what I offer here is a personal reflection on how John impacted one of his last students.

Disappearing Act

As a green doctoral student in October 2012, I arrived at my first supervisory meeting with a sprawling and somewhat silly thesis proposal. John knew it was silly, but coming out and saying it would’ve destroyed something he was trying to cultivate. Like many of the meetings I’d have with him over the next few years, John understated his points, made them gently, and always finished with an encouraging word. In his own Socratic way he eventually led me to the purer theology buried beneath the dross of that initial proposal, and it started with an initial lesson in virtue.

When I asked what he thought were the essential characteristics of a good theologian, he discussed intellectual virtues: docility, studiousness, patience, magnanimity, and the foundation for these in the fear of God: “We can’t talk about God behind his back. It’s crucial that one develops a sense of thinking and speaking in the presence of God. Augustine really understood this.”

For one thing, this meant cultivating a contemplative posture that reasoned calmly from and to the text of Holy Scripture—certainly a disputed stance for contemporary Protestant theology. And this also meant unlearning the vice of curiosity; as theologians we’re responsible for the questions we pose as much as the answers we give—and some questions are symptoms of unrestrained or disordered appetites. Over the next few years John would exemplify these virtues in person and in writing, modeling patience, generosity, and humility at every turn.

So started a theological tutelage centered on example (though John never saw it this way). That John should be this example certainly didn’t make sense from a human perspective: John was quite intellectually gifted, privileged with an elite education, and honored with many of the highest dignities our small discipline confers. Moreover, he could converse in depth and without affectation about world literature, classics, or art history—but you wouldn’t know it. He never wore his learning on his sleeve, and he never used his position as the most capable theologian in the room to browbeat anyone. Despite the grandeur of his intellect and gifts, he was one of the most humble men I’ve ever known.

A good friend once noted the baffling stupidity of the questions we would ask, especially in the first year of doctoral studies. But then we paused as we realized John never once made us feel stupid, even though on more than one occasion he would’ve been justified. John knew about us what he knew about himself: we’re all works in progress, still undergoing the Spirit’s work of sanctification across the intellectual and spiritual domains.

John never abused his gifts since he was trying to cultivate theologians’ minds, and you can’t do that when you’re drawing people’s attention to their shortcomings or to your own gifts and away from the blessed Trinity. In all of this there was an important lesson in how he scrupulously avoided attention and sought to disappear behind the truth he wanted to exalt.

Matters of First Importance 

John encouraged this disappearing act in his students, which is one reason he didn’t care which institutions conferred the degrees they’d earned or who they knew or what they’d done. He cared that we respected the intellectual ascesis required before the task of theology, and he cared that we revered God more than words about God. “The subject matter is infinitely more important than what we think about it,” he once remarked. This captures nicely at least two of John’s dispositions relevant for those unfamiliar with his work.

First, he had a keen sense for what were matters of first importance, and how to distinguish genuine theology from its distractions. It’s not that theology has nothing to say to culture or other disciplines; it does, given its scope. “But,” John wrote, “for all its scope, Christian theology is an exercise in concentration, required to fix its eyes not on everything but on the ways of God (Ps. 119:15); only in assent to this restriction will theology find itself having something to say about everything” (God Without Measure: Vol. 1, 223). One of the biggest problems John saw was that too many theologians were embarrassed about being theologians, and so turned their attention to secondary matters—culture, critical theory, sociology, have your pick.

He thus sought to rehabilitate an older theological framework of seeing things in relation to God as their beginning and end, and to do that one would first have to be proficient in God’s Word, the great texts of the tradition, and the whole scope of Christian doctrine. He knew the work of a theologian was vital, but not because it was the work of a theologian much less that of a credentialed “professional.” Theology is important because the church always has need of giving its attention—reflectively, systematically—to the gospel as announced in Scripture. For this reason, John warned us that responsible theological work was unlikely to gain praise from presiding cultural establishments. Hence the importance he attached to the integrity of theology as a discipline and the pressing need for theologians to remember their responsibilities.

Second, John sought to emphasize the priority of God’s perfect life in himself for all Christian doctrines, as well as the foundational role of the doctrine of creation. For these reasons, John was in constant dialogue with Aquinas, Protestant scholasticism, and Karl Barth. John appreciated Barth for many reasons: his theological genius, his constant attention to the Bible, his concern for divine aseity, his sense of the ethical demands of Christian doctrine, and his resistance to any theological norm but the Word of God.

Yet, for the last 10 to 15 years, the Church Fathers, Aquinas, and the Protestant scholastics (especially John Owen and Francis Turretin) began to appear more and more in his footnotes. This was a conscious undertaking, since he was trying to find his way out from under Barth’s shadow as well as find resources to address what he found wanting in Barth: an unwarranted nervousness about creaturely mediation that manifested itself in an insufficient doctrine of baptism and biblical inspiration, a lack of specificity about moral instruction, and, above all, the underdeveloped doctrine of creation that he thought was the source of these shortcomings (among other things). What he thought Barth lacked, John found in rich supply in the patristic and scholastic traditions: a doctrine of creation, some ministerial metaphysics, a robust account of the divine names and attributes, and the Christology these elements enabled.

Studiousness and Humility

By his own admission, John had just in the past few years found his footing “after Barth” and throughout this last year in particular was busy preparing the first of five volumes of his long-awaited systematic theology. However, John would follow masters like Aquinas and Barth by leaving his work unfinished. I met with John on Friday, May 20, for what would be the last time. He was full of his characteristic joy and humor, as well as much-needed words of encouragement. We discussed the conclusion to my thesis, which he had guided with characteristic patience, wisdom, and enthusiasm. We also talked theology, as always.

Hard at work on his systematic theology, he had just re-read Barth’s Church Dogmatics I the previous week and was wrestling with the doctrine of the Trinity: “It’s the relation between revelation and the Trinity . . . I don’t think Barth gets it right, but as I re-read it I think he’s right to make a connection.” John liked to wrestle with issues out loud, and so we did. Neither of us knew his questions would fade away so soon in the light of glory. Even to the end, with fresh eyes and unfailing interest, John was thinking through topics I thought he had long settled, returning to Scripture trying to hear the voice of the risen Jesus better than before, and to testify ever more faithfully to the God of the gospel. Though we planned to meet again in a couple of weeks, that would have to be the last lesson John taught me.

I grieve for the loss of a friend and mentor, for the loss of his important voice, and my prayers especially are with his family in this difficult time. But, like so many of his students and colleagues, I’m deeply grateful for John’s influence in my life and how God has used and will continue to use his hedgehog-like commitment to “theological theology” to build up the church of Jesus Christ. There is something good, beautiful, and true about John’s constant fixation on God’s majesty; I rest assured he knows this even better today.