The Culture of Theology

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John Webster
Editor(s): 
Ivor J. Davidson, Alden C. McCray
  • Ada, MI: 
    Baker Academic
    , October
     2019.
     176 pages.
     $26.99.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781540960801.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The late John B. Webster’s The Culture of Theology is a series of six lectures given at the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand in August 1998 as the Thomas Burns Memorial Lectures. Published afterwards in the New Zealand journal Stimulus (John Webster, Stimulus, the New Zealand Journal of Christian Thought and Practice, Laidlaw College, 1998–1999), this book embodies John B. Webster’s visionary and programmatic statement for the discipline of Christian theology, namely: “to do Christian theology ‘theologically’” (1). This was Webster’s inaugural lecture as Oxford University’s Lady Margaret Professorship in Divinity in 1997 entitled “Theological Theology.”

The Culture of Theology is a short investigative account of the nature and task of theology, namely: its contexts, aims, sources, methods, practices, and character. Its central thesis is that “Christian faith, and therefore Christian theology, takes its rise in the comprehensive interruption of all things in Jesus Christ, for he, Jesus Christ, now present in the power of the Holy Spirit, is the great catastrophe of human life and history” (43). Christian theology is driven by eschatology as “one of the practices which make up the disturbing, eschatological world of Christian faith and life” (44). How successful is Webster’s account in proving his thesis? What are some further implications and complications for the study of Christian theology? The Culture of Theology consists of six chapters. The first three capture Webster’s claims for the nature of Christian theology. The latter three consider the actual practice of Christian theology. What follows are short summaries of each chapter accompanied by critical questions.

Webster begins by claiming that Christian theology is part of a Christian culture that takes place “in a public or social space” (44) and that “needs to be cultivated” (45) by “the cultivation of persons with specific habits of mind and soul.” (45) This implies a process of continual conversion through mortification and vivification in Christ, reflected in the pattern of overthrow and reestablishment of Christian culture in Christ’s sanctifying work. Webster further contends that the task of Christian theology within the Christian culture demands attention to the study of authoritative texts particularly a recovery or “theological account of the biblical texts as Holy Scripture.” (65) In fact, Webster commends the practice of meditation, embodied in biblical commentaries. He writes: “Theologians should consider ceasing to write systematic treatises and confine themselves to the work of exposition of Scripture” (80). Finally, Webster’s states that the nature of Christian theology is “inseparable from the apostolic tradition” (81). For Webster, the Christian tradition is a theological rather than a sociocultural notion and one that is shaped by the apostolicity of the church which is rooted in “an account of the presence of Jesus to the church in the power of the Holy Spirit” (84).

Webster’s comments on the nature of contexts and texts for Christian theology is consistent with his claims on the Gospel of Jesus Christ and its eschatology. Christian theology responds to Christ, to the Christian pattern of mortification and vivification and to its theological tradition. However, what happens when this Gospel is truncated? How do Christians retrieve or appropriate the wisdom of the church in its various ages without repristinating? Whose tradition(s) are Christians to follow? How exactly does going back help Christians advance?

In chapters 4–6, Webster focuses on the practice of this culture of theology. Beginning with “conversations” on chapter 4, Webster argues that the practice of theology in the university needs to adopt “a better politics of intellectual exchange.” (102) This is characterized by nonconformity and “an unenvious pursuit of its own concerns” (103). Theologians must be both advocates and attentive to their own intellectual spheres and to spiritual graces. Webster continues by examining to what extent Christian culture can be self-critical. Self-criticism is primary to that community’s vocation and informed by the doctrine of divine revelation. Christian theology is critical because it is a theology of revelation. Revelation authorizes and subverts. In the final chapter, Webster suggests that the culture of Christian faith requires good theologians. The good theologian cultivates theological existence by “calling upon God” (143), namely: by prayer. Theologians cultivate “fear of God” (145), “a patient teachability or deference” (146), and “freedom from self-preoccupation” (147).

Webster’s comments on the practices of Christian theology are quite appropriate to those whose vocation is the Gospel of Jesus Christ and its eschatology. The history of the church clearly shows that Christian theology has its own vast and rich resources. Christian theological anthropology makes evident the critical necessity of Christian theology to embrace self-criticism as well as the practice of virtue. However, given the legacies of the Enlightenment and today’s pluralistic contexts, would Christian theology benefit and be enriched from interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary engagement while remaining properly “theological”? How do we define self-criticism and under whose criteria given the conditions of late modernity and the difficult legacies of postcolonial theologies that are still prevalent today? Practicing piety, cultivating teachability and humility are laudable. But how do religious institutions such as the church, and others such the academy, create spaces for these practices in a comprehensive and holistic manner? 

The Culture of Theology is a courageously and richly descriptive and prescriptive reflective statement for the discipline of Christian theology. It is courageous for a theologian to affirm his unrepentant commitment to “grand narratives and substance ontology” (47) and to call for the recovery of scripture, classical texts, and church tradition at a time that celebrates and commends particularities, relationality, and revisionary approaches. Webster’s The Culture of Theology not only underscores the reconstructive and deconstructive character and practices of intellectual and theological discourses—Christian theology in this case—but also gestures toward his later dogmatic constructive essays. Webster’s vision for Christian theology is commendable while also provocative for its silence on the critical questions raised above. All said, Webster’s proposal succeeds in terms of the Gospel’s eschatological nature and task of Christian theology—namely, receiving its appointment and calling from the staggering good news of Jesus Christ.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David A. Escobar Arcay is adjunct instructor in religion, Christian theology, and leadership at South Florida Bible College and Theological Seminary, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and Western Theological Seminary, and is a doctoral student in divinity at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland.

Date of Review: 
February 16, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ivor J. Davidson is Honorary Research Professor at King's College, University of Aberdeen. He previously held chairs in systematic and historical theology at the University of Otago and the University of St. Andrews. He has written extensively on Christian doctrine and on patristic theology and history.

Alden C. McCray is a PhD candidate at the University of St. Andrews.

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