I was very sad to learn late last night that John Webster, Professor of Divinity at St. Andrews, died suddenly yesterday morning. You can find a fine summary of John’s theology by Fred Sanders here and a eulogy by Stephen Holmes here. The internet will be full of tributes in days to come, but I want to offer a short remembrance.
John was the chair of the Divinity department when I completed my PhD at the University of Aberdeen. He was not my supervisor, but he was always available for a conversation. We had many (a testament to his generosity). I remember one in particular. It was so telling of John’s approach to theology. We were discussing God’s providence and the manner of his interaction with the world. At one point John leans back, puts his hand on his forehead and thoughtfully says, “In this matter I think we must give our attention first to God’s revealed character, and only then look to theories of causation. Character first, then causation.”
And that was John’s whole approach to theology. Whatever else it’s about, it is first and foremost about God – and principally about God’s life in himself. Hearing last night about John’s death was especially shocking because I had spent the day reading his recently published God Without Measure (it was like spending a day with him). There he writes,
Christian theology is a work of regenerate intelligence, awakened and illuminated by divine instruction to consider a twofold subject. This object is, first, God in himself in the unsurpassable perfection of his inner being and work as Father, Son and Spirit and in his outer operations, and, second and by derivation, all other things relative to him” (Vol. 1:3).
God first, then everything else in light of God. Whatever else we might say about God’s interaction with the world (his outer works), the theologian must first – diligently and cheerfully – give her attention to God’s life in himself. For John this was a corrective to so much that goes wrong in Christian thought, not least of which the migration of theology away from the praise of God. So quickly we slip from the register of doxology into speculation. But when we train our attention again and again back onto God the distance shortens between the work of sanctified reason and praise. John explains,
If Christian dogmatics wishes to offer a corrective, it can only be by recalling itself to its proper calling, which is the praise of God by crafting concepts to turn the mind to the divine splendour. But deeply important as they are, concepts are only serviceable as the instruments of spiritual apprehension” (Vol. 1:27).
The spiritual apprehension the theologian seeks comes in this life as faith, not sight (Heb. 11:1). Following Aquinas (so often a voice in John’s recent work) he wrote, “Theology is oriented chiefly to invisible things, ‘things that are unseen’ (2 Cor. 4:18)” (Vol. 1:6). This is as it should be, for faith is the particular form of seeing fitting for the Christian life. But it will not always be so. In glory we will stand in the presence of God and share in his life. This was John’s hope and it is mine. As I grieve John’s death I praise God in the same breath that what he saw by faith he now has by sight.
Lord Jesus Christ, may your name be praised through the legacy of John’s work and the sweet remembrance of his friendship.