God Without Measure

Working Papers in Christian Theology: Volume 1: God and the Works of God

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John Webster
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury T&T Clark
    , November
     2015.
     240 pages.
     $120.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780567139429.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This work is the first volume in a two-volume set referred to as a collection of “working papers” in constructive Christian theology published mere months before the author’s untimely and unfortunate death in May 2016. Hence, along with its companion volume, this work marks the publication of John Webster’s most mature theology and also provides a clear insight into the trajectory on which his theology was moving both away from and towards at the time of his death. As a compilation of various previously published essays, this work is not exhaustive of every theological locus, but it is indicative of the concerns and issues Webster believed he needed to address, particularly regarding the place and role of the doctrine of the Trinity for Christian dogmatics. For Webster, only when theology proper materially and logically (but not necessarily chronologically and formally) precedes all theological discussion of the external works of God can, does, and will it rightfully determine and aid in the understanding not only of God’s immanent relations but also all of God’s external works.

The book is divided into two sections: “God in Himself” and “God’s Outer Works,” with an introductory chapter and epilogue bookending the two sections. In the introductory chapter, Webster describes traditional theology as ordering God first and then everything else as understood in relation to God. In the modern era, however, this ordering has been on the wane with much of modern theology preferring to discuss theology proper as a topic of equal normativity relative to the external works, or even to allow the external works to determine one’s knowledge of theology proper. In chapters 2, 3, 4, and 5, Webster attempts to correct this equalizing, inverting, and historicizing tendency by discussing the aseity of God, the eternal generation of the Son of God, the place of Christology in systematic theology, and the high Christology of Hebrews 1:1-4 all in the light of the triunity of God, who is the plenitude of being, love, and grace and then also the creator of all things.

The second part of the book looks to various theological topics in the external works God, with chapters 6, 7, 8, and 9 focusing on various aspects of creation and providence. Again, Webster is keen to demonstrate why and how attention must be given first to the triune God before one can speak on these topics and still engage in Christian theological discourse. In chapters 10 and 11, Webster provides his revised version of penal substitutionary atonement, anchoring it within the eternal life of the Trinity and how the doctrine of the Trinity is the ruler and judge over all other doctrines, even justification. The final two chapters (12 and 13) see Webster discuss ecclesiology in a trinitarian mode and provide a sustained exposition of and critical engagement with Yves Congar’s important work Tradition and Traditions (Macmillan, 1966). The book ends with an epilogue in which Webster answers the question: What makes theology theological?

This book is a prime specimen of theological acuity and perspicuity written by a theological scholar par excellence. Although Webster’s prose is dense and sometimes abstract, his clarity and composure are exemplary and it is almost impossible to misunderstand him even if one ultimately disagrees with his conclusions. Webster displays a masterful depth and breadth of theological loci and is to be commended for his indefatigable attempt to retrieve the doctrine of the Trinity not only for itself, but for every other doctrine in a Christian systematic theology. This book exudes the confidence one would expect of a career theologian who has wide-ranging interests, from Augustine to Aquinas to Owen to Barth to Jüngel and beyond. The various doctrines discussed is to be expected from Webster, and yet there are also enough innovative topics woven into the text to keep the reader intrigued throughout. Readers may be surprised, moreover, to find that Webster, who is traditionally known as a world-renowned Barth scholar, makes little mention of Barth in this book, instead preferring Thomas Aquinas as his chief interlocutor. This is neither a condemnation nor a commendation; rather, it is to point out the path Webster was treading in his later theology even though there is still a significant residue of Barth’s theology within Webster’s theology.Where I do have a few minor reservations with this book is, first, with regard to the chapter on Congar’s Tradition and Traditions. Even though Webster’s deft analysis and exposition of Congar’s work along with his charitable and critical response to some of Congar’s conclusions should be appreciated, there was little to no mention of how the doctrine of the Trinity would, could, and should correct some of Congar’s theological arguments. This was the only chapter in which Webster did not employ the doctrine of the Trinity, causing me to wonder why the chapter was included in the book at all. Second, the epilogue would be better suited as the first chapter on theological prolegomena and methodology rather than as a concluding afterthought. Third, Webster could have been more explicit on the place and function of the doctrine of election relative to the doctrine of the Trinity. Although we should not expect him to rehearse the current arguments and debates over the relation of these two doctrines (or lack thereof), it would have been nice to see Webster reveal to his readers where he stands on the issue and how that affects his re-emphasis on trinitarian theology.

These slight disappointments aside, I unreservedly recommend this book written by a scholar primarily, but not exclusively, for scholars, and possibly for upper-level undergraduate and graduate courses in contemporary theology. Webster’s theology is characteristically demanding on the reader but with enough time, patience, and resolve the reader will be richly rewarded. This book will surely be referenced from and read for many years to come.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Bradley M. Penner is Adjunct Professor of Theology at Biercrest College and Seminary.

Date of Review: 
September 7, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John Webster is Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Aberdeen. His published work includes a number of books on the theology of Karl Barth, on the nature and interpretation of Scripture, and on Christian dogmatics, including Confessing God. He edited The Oxford Handbook to Systematic Theology, and is an editor of The International Journal of Systematic Theology. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

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