In Memoriam: Professor John Bainbridge Webster (1955-2016)

By Derrick Peterson

Death is, of course, the last enemy to be conquered.  It is a wound that festers on the face of life itself, a hole in the map of existence.  Despite its tangible horror, a subversive delight of Christianity is that death is now also the doorway to another great adventure.  Or as Rowan Williams once put it, with Christ death "became a window instead of a wall."

Such adventure has many faces.  For the theologian, one of those thrills is, to put it crudely, that we will be privileged to finally see how much of what we wrote and thought was actually so, and not otherwise.  Both excitement and dread no doubt linger here, to watch which words of ours, which syllogism, what poetry, what brutal prayer uttered will escape the flame, and what will not emerge on the other side. Yet even what emerges will no doubt expand, whole new dimensions of meaning will unfold from our flat little words, and they shall burst and play.

Yesterday, John Webster, Professor of Divinity at St. Andrews, passed away. Undoubtedly most of his words made it through.  More than most, at any rate.

I did not know John Webster personally.  Nonetheless, like many, his theology has had great impact upon me.  As a seminarian, I had my share of moments where I would sit back in my chair, perplexed about the very task of theology that I had set for myself.  "What am I even doing?"  I would ask, perhaps after reading a particularly arcane piece of theory, or some lengthy article regarding deponency in Greek or Latin.  "Does any of this matter?"

My momentary anxiety attacks are not just my own, of course.  One might say twentieth century theology was from one angle just an extended series of such anxiety attacks, with theologian's projects often profusely apologizing for theology's past attempts, and then  carrying on as if they were interested in doing anything but theology.  As Webster writes regarding this

Doctrine was chiefly taught through analysis of problems, particularly the problems faced by those who felt acutely responsible to do their theology under the bleak searchlights of what were taken to be normative modern intellectual developments. Dominating the curriculum as it did, this approach –- roughly speaking, it can be called ‘doctrinal criticism’–- had a suppressive effect on constructive theology.

John Webster worked otherwise.  He was, Bobby Grow explains, unashamed of the task of theology because it is God himself who is the true theologian and we, just his disciples who were, as Derek Rishmawy writes, to carry on our task studiously and as a spiritual discipline. Webster was very critical of anything that circumvented this ever-new witness to the Gospel.  We should not think of him, as David Congdon rightly pointed out a decade ago, as "a watchdog" barking at anything that threatened the fence-lines of orthodoxy.  To Webster, Christians are "not watchdogs ... but rather always and only witnesses to the Triune God."  Anything that obscures this has to go.

Stephen Holmes, for example, reminisces about hearing a lecturer speak on the idea of "needing to forgive God," when, right in the middle of it all, fellow theologian Anthony Thistleton turned to Webster to whisper a question about this difficult concept.  Webster immediately snapped "it isn't difficult at all; its blasphemy.  Come on, we are going for a pint."  And at that, all three simply left.  And Holmes recalls this was not the first time the clear-headed Webster would vacate a rhetorically bloated presentation with a few of his colleagues to commune at the local watering hole.

"There is nothing the Gospel does not explicate," Webster once said, being quoted by fellow theologian Fred Sanders in his own beautiful send off written earlier today.  "An academic theologian couldn't have written like that and been taken seriously when John started his career" says Holmes elsewhere.  "That we now can—that most of our best theologians now do—is down to a few genuinely great figures like John." 

Webster, of course, would never attribute such a feat to himself.  Indeed, when he himself noted the relative absence of strong theological reflection when he first started his schooling, he attributes its eventual rise to many others:

Why the change? Interest in dogmatics is an element in the presence of an intelligent, articulate ecclesially-minded culture which draws extensively on the church’s internal resources—biblical, theological, spiritual—in order to nourish its life and witness. This, in turn, prompts theologians to living conversation with the church’s heritage, looking to it for instruction, absorbing and inhabiting it as a complex body of texts, ideas and habits of mind which can relativize and sometimes subvert seemingly hegemonic modern conventions. In this connection, one thinks not only of those associated with Radical Orthodoxy, but of quieter trends in theological work, such as the recovery of the dogmatics and spirituality of Reformed orthodoxy in the work of Richard Muller and a host of other American and Dutch scholars, or loving attention to the speculative and exegetical works of the mediaeval schoolmen paid by interpreters such as Jean-Pierre Torrell or Gilles Emery. Again, shifts in the practice of other fields of theology have encouraged dogmatics to pursue its tasks. In biblical and early Christian studies, the historical-naturalist assumptions on which much inquiry is often predicated no longer command universal assent, and “theological” reading of Scripture and the fathers of the church is no longer self-evidently eccentric or complacent: students can now turn to a number of distinguished series of biblical commentaries which draw out the theological and spiritual import of the text, and to revisionist patristic scholarship such as that of Lewis Ayres or Michel Rene Barnes. In philosophical and moral theology, similarly, unease about the religiously generic leads to greater attentiveness to doctrinal specificity. One thinks of the work of the Roman Catholic philosopher Robert Sokolowski, or of moral theologians like Gerald McKenny and Oliver O’Donovan.

And yet Webster himself was indeed instrumental in this turn.  Sanders quite provocatively calls this change in Webster's maturing thought "a major event in modern systematic theology." 

And so too, lamentably, is his death; Heaven's pubs are no doubt full tonight, buzzing with whatever words of Webster's now flit before the Lord in praise.