Tag Archives: John Webster

Doctrine as Life-Skill

In his excellent essay on “Providence” (in Kapic & McCormack, Mapping Modern Theology, 203-226) the late John Webster suggests that the classical doctrine of providence was not so much metaphysical speculation as practical theology,

Providing orientation and consolation to believers by instructing them in how to read the world as an ordered, not random, reality—ordered by divine love and directed by divine power for God’s glory and the creature’s good (207).

Thus the knowledge of providence is not theoretical or metaphysical knowledge, but

One of the skills required for and reinforced by living life in a certain direction. . . . Knowledge of providence can [console and direct] because it refers us to the objective realities of God’s antecedent purpose, present active care, and promises for the future (216).

When I read this I was intrigued by the idea of doctrine understood as a skill for Christian life and service. Those Christians equipped with a theological understanding of providence are prepared in some sense for living “in a certain direction,”—that is, toward God. The doctrine orients and consoles, provides direction and a framework for thinking about life’s blessings and difficulties, opportunities and threats. It provides assurance that life is fundamentally purposeful and in some way ordered, and so also encourages the believer to live purposefully and confidently in trust that the provident God sees, provides, directs and cares.

If this is true of the doctrine of providence, is it true of other doctrines also? Do they also provide certain “skills” for fruitful Christian living “in a certain direction”? Beth Felker Jones argues that this is the case in her Practicing Christian Doctrine in which she argues that theology and Christian life are bodily realities which press towards visibility in the world. Therefore the careful articulation of doctrine must issue in practice if it is to be faithful to its intent. Doctrines are not simply about intellectual development or “getting the faith right.” They are equipment for Christian life.

The corollary is also true: a Christian without doctrinal foundations may be considered “unskilled in the word of righteousness” (Hebrews 5:13). We owe to ourselves and to our congregations to learn and teach good doctrine, and to reflect and deliberate on the significance and implications of these doctrines in the mundane affairs of daily life that we may become skilful with respect to Scripture, doctrine and life.

Barth’s Romans Commentary

roemerbrief2-787x1024In his widely-acclaimed commentary on Romans, C. E. B. Cranfield says of Barth’s commentary,

Of its importance as a turning-point in the history of theology there can be no doubt, and Barrett was certainly right to say that ‘to read it must be reckoned an essential part of a theological education’; but, while it rendered the Church, and can still render it, a much-needed service, it has very serious deficiencies as an exposition of Romans, and to take it for one’s main aid in studying the epistle would be to demonstrate one’s failure to learn from Barth’s maturer thinking and one’s lack of an essential element in theological seriousness, a sense of humour (Cranfield, Romans, 1:41-42).

Cranfield does not suggest that Barth was less than serious when he wrote his commentary, but he does seem to suggest that Barth was doing something less or at least, something other, than writing an exposition of Romans. It is true that later in his career Barth did pull back from the one-sidedness of his commentary, especially the second edition. But it is also the case that he did not repudiate his commentary, although he was happy for the first edition to “disappear from the scene” (Barth, The Epistle to the Romans tr. E. Hoskyns, 2).

Reception to Barth’s commentary was from the beginning subject to such criticism. In 1920 Adolf Jülicher gave a polite but damning review of the first edition, accusing Barth of being a ‘pneumatic,’ somewhat like Marcion in his exegesis of Paul. Karl Ludwig Schmidt echoed this judgement, as did Adolf Harnack who likened Barth to Thomas Müntzer—not quite Marcion, but unfavourable still. The young Bultmann dismissed Barth’s interpretation as ‘enthusiastic revivalism.’ (For references and broader discussion of these and other early reviews, see my Church as Moral Community, 184-190).

Nevertheless, we do well to recall John Webster’s suggestion that

Romans is not primarily a hermeneutical manifesto, or a piece of irregular dogmatics (that is, a set of theological reflections only loosely attached to the Pauline text); still less is it an encoded set of socio-political experiences or directives. It is a commentary, intended by Barth as such; and whatever abiding interest and worth it may have stands or falls by its success in fulfilling that intention. Barth meant what he said in his preface to Hoskyn’s idiosyncratic translation of the second edition: “My sole aim was to interpret Scripture” (Webster, in Greenman & Larson (eds), Reading Romans Through the Centuries, 205-206; note Barth’s citation is on page ix of the English edition, rather than page 11 as Webster reports).

I must say, however, that I applaud Barrett’s contention  that ‘to read it must be reckoned an essential part of a theological education’!

In Memoriam: John Webster

John WebsterIn the abstract to my doctoral dissertation I write, “Following the lead and suggestion of John Webster, the thesis adopts a chronological and exegetical reading of Barth’s work…” Then chapter one starts with a long citation from John Webster’s Barth’s Moral Theology:

Close study of Barth’s ethical writings is still in its infancy.…[The] conventional treatment of Barth often revolved around an anxiety that the sheer abundance of Barth’s depiction of the saving work of God in Christ tends to identify real action with divine action, and leave little room for lengthy exploration of human moral thought and activity.…A great deal of work remains to be done. What is required more than anything else is detailed study of Barth’s writings which, by close reading, tries to display the structure and logic of his concerns without moving prematurely into making judgments or pressing too early the usefulness (or lack of it) of Barth’s work for contemporary moral theology.…For Barth, ethical questions are not tacked on to dogmatics as something supplementary, a way of exploring the ‘consequences’ of doctrinal proposals or demonstrating their ‘relevance.’ Dogmatics, precisely because its theme is the encounter of God and humanity, is from the beginning moral theology. An inadequate grasp of this point often lies behind much misunderstanding, not only of Barth’s ethics but of his dogmatics as a whole (Barth’s Moral Theology, 1, 8).

I never knew John Webster, although I did correspond by email with him once or twice, and to my surprise and delight, received answers from him! I knew Webster through his several books, especially those on the theology and ethics of Karl Barth. He was one of the foremost Barth scholars in the world, and we are the poorer for his untimely passing.

Professor Webster died a few weeks ago, aged just sixty years, and Kevin Vanhoozer has written a very appreciative eulogy.

Like Webster, evangelicals need to learn not to be overly concerned about what others will think of them, and to be more concerned with bearing cheerful and true witness to the gospel.

 Another appreciation can be found over at First Things.