A Companion to the Theology of John Webster

Written by Michael Allen and R. David Nelson, eds Reviewed By Alden C. McCray

This Companion marks a significant milestone in reflection on the theological contribution of John Webster. In recent years, the International Journal of Systematic Theology published a symposium on Webster’s God without Measure (October 2017) as well as another series of reflections on his work (January 2019). Monographs by Jordan Senner and Zachary Fischer represent the first doctoral theses to detail the contours and development of Webster’s theological programme. Ivor J. Davidson, Webster’s friend and colleague, has penned several poignant pieces reflecting on Webster the person, companion, and teacher. The present volume represents the most wide-ranging study to date in views of its contents, contributors and goals.

Part 1 guides the reader through Webster’s theological development. Chapters 1–3 cover his overall theological project (Allen) and his relationships to Jüngel and Barth (R. David Nelson and Kenneth Oakes). Martin Westerholm details Webster’s theology of the university and Matthew Levering explores Webster’s practice of theological exegesis (chs. 4–5). The bulk of the anthology collects essays from established scholars introducing and analysing Webster on standard theological topics in part 2. Amongst others, we have Fred Sanders on the Trinity (ch. 9), Justin Stratis on Creation (ch. 11); Katherine Sonderegger on Jesus Christ (ch. 13) and Ivor J. Davidson on Salvation (ch. 14). Other chapters happily cover understudied themes, such as Webster’s metaphysics (Tyler Wittman, ch. 16) and his depiction of human reason (Michael Allen, ch. 8). The volume also includes several introductory pieces: a characteristically energetic foreword by Kevin Vanhoozer, a preface by the editors that overviews the project, and a biographical reflection by Davidson in ch. 1. Throughout, the contributors offer penetrating summaries, grateful reflections, and occasional probing questions—a mixture Webster would surely have appreciated.

The reader cannot help but be drawn to ask what it is about Webster’s work that animates so many of the great and the good of the theological world? One common refrain throughout is that Webster sought to do theology that would meet the needs of the day not on their own terms but from theology’s own bountiful resources. Certainly, Webster’s theology represented great scholarly depth and profundity. Like its author, though, it was also unselfconscious and generous. Webster was focussed not on the games of scholarship and prestige—indeed, he “discerned academic vanity projects at some distance” (p. 12)—but rather he untiringly pursued theology, which in content and approach was rooted in the content of the gospel.

Each contribution to the volume is informative and worthy of attention. Those new to Webster’s work will find here an accessible and wide-ranging introduction. The regular reader of his theology is likely to find both luminous insights and the occasionally unexpected judgment. This is all to the good and what we should expect in a collection of reflections on a theologian of uncommon range. Throughout, the reader is pointed to other important resources on Webster’s work and to unknown or forgotten contributions. As an introduction and summary of Webster’s development and contribution, the volume reminds us just how impressive a theologian he was, and that he resists caricature or domestication. Amongst many striking essays, three points were especially thought-provoking. Davidson’s intimate portrait of Webster is stirring, detailing a man who was persistently unassuming and resolutely cheerful, even in the face of reasons to be otherwise. David Nelson’s epilogue offers a unique window into the development of Webster’s unfinished dogmatics. Martin Westerholm helpfully asks whether Webster’s favoured ‘analysis by elements’ could give disproportionately more weight to creation than to the effects of sin.

The book also presses on us certain questions: in what ways do we best understand his theological development? What measures of continuity and fulfilment are there? Or is his theological career marked by more disruptive growth as he departs from earlier approaches? It offers a range of possible answers. Christopher Holmes, for instance, rightly highlights genuine developments in Webster’s portrait of God. Writing on Webster and Jüngel, Nelson draws attention to themes which animate Webster’s maturity–including the distinction of God from creatures–but appear already in his doctoral thesis. Kenneth Oakes helpfully notes that we should not so much see Webster leaving Barth behind as surrounding him with other voices (p. 87). There are different approaches to how we distinguish various stages of Webster’s development. Vanhoozer places Webster’s inaugural Oxford lecture ‘Theological Theology’ in the ‘late period’ of his career (p. x). Michael Allen, with a greater emphasis on theological development, locates this lecture in Webster’s ‘first phase’ (p. 36).

The reflections on Webster collected here are a reminder of what so many have found compelling about his work: carefully prosecuted theology rooted in the dogmatic and exegetical resources of the church; a contemporary voice for whom retrieval could be charitable without becoming uncritical; sparkling turns of phrase which arrest attention. The volume should attract considerable interest. If its voices are right, though, Webster would be happiest if it stirs interest in contemplating the presence and perfection of the triune God.

Alden C. McCray

Alden C. McCray
Oak Hill College
London, England, UK

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