John Webster's Holy Scripture may be the most helpful text that I encountered as a seminary student. I read this book in a historical theology class at the end of 2015, and found it to be a thoughtful and encouraging take on Scripture. Seminary tends to draw students' attention to difficult questions about Scripture, and many end up asking themselves, "Why study the Bible at all?" For me, at least, Webster's work helped to answer that question.
Webster sadly passed away in May 2016. I am sorry that the church has lost his mind and heart, and thankful for what his work has meant to me. This week I am adapting a review of Holy Scripture that I wrote as an assignment for my historical theology course in 2015, and I hope that some of my readers (if you're out there) will receive as much from it as I did.
In Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, John Webster is concerned not only with the Bible as a text, but with Holy Scripture as a text in the service of God. While much of modern theology focuses on the human aspects of the Bible, Webster urges that we understand Scripture as having its origin in, pointing to, and operating under the power of God in Trinity. Though Webster’s “sketch” clearly will not (and is not at all intended to) satisfy the concerns of those outside of the church, it is extremely successful in its attempt to draw a theological picture of the word of God.
Ultimately what Holy Scripture presents is not a method for reading the Bible, but an orientation. Webster does not answer the question of how we read Scripture, except that we are to read it as faithful listeners, attentive to our Lord. “Christian theology has a singular preoccupation: God, and everything else sub specie divinitatis” (43). But modern biblical criticism and hermeneutical methods usually prevent this orientation. Textual theories, for example, “descripturalize” the text by assuming the correctness of a natural reading and excluding the necessity of the Spirit’s presence and power in the act of interpretation (29).
In contrast to a natural reading, Webster turns to the work of John Calvin and Dietrich Bonhoeffer to help form a picture of “faithful reading"—one characterized by listening and obedient response. “Reading Holy Scripture is ‘faithful’ reading: exegetical reason caught up in faith’s abandonment of itself to the power of the divine Word to slay and make alive” (87). A faithful reader recognizes that the Holy Spirit is active in the church's reading of Scripture (cf. 93). The text is not sufficient on its own.
Webster’s theocentric approach is both a strength and a weakness. Many will object that ignoring questions of this-worldly authority removes discussion of Holy Scripture from the public domain. For Webster, revelation is a mystery—“the manifest presence of God which can only be had on its own terms, and which cannot be converted into something plain or available for classification” (15). By moving revelation into the category of mystery, Webster moves it beyond the reach of criticism. Holy Scripture cannot be questioned; it can only be obeyed or disobeyed, and many simply will not be able to accept these possibilities. To the modernist it is baseless and to the postmodernist it is too narrow. Many will even call it dangerous.
On the other hand, faith in the mystery of revelation allows for Christianity to be lived out as Christianity. Webster is well aware that his characterization of revelation in Holy Scripture is not broadly acceptable. In fact, he says, this is well within the inner-logic of Christian faith.
Ultimately, what is scandalous about Christian theology is that it is a work of reason which can only fulfill its office if it bears the marks of God’s destruction of the wisdom of the wise and the cleverness of the clever . . . . What is clear is that the kind of theology whose defining activity is exegetical reason needs to be ready to take its share of the embarrassment and censure which accompany its exile. (134)
The question is not one of faith versus reason, but of theological reason versus the “forceful moral commitment to a certain mode of critical inquiry” that seems to characterize so much of scholarship (125). Playing by the rules of the latter force, Christianity will constantly be engaged in a battle for its life: here overcoming and there conceding, but ultimately losing by allowing the rules of the fight rather than the mysterious revelation of God to be its primary engine of truth. Doubt rules where faith should.
But according to Webster, “an authentic Christian theology will simply go about its task with a measure of quiet determination” (125). While the questions of how the Bible can say what it says are significant and worthy of attention, faith does not need to prove itself before it obeys. Faith in the revelation of God in Holy Scripture will allow Christians to live as Christians in submission to God rather than in flux between competing views of the world.
For Webster this “utopian” picture of the Christian shunning the world and looking toward God is not inappropriate. It is “an attempt to reach towards the eschatological” (133–34). Escaping the modern conversation in order to trust in God’s revelation may not be strictly possible, but it is the direction in which we ought to be going. To appropriate one of Christ’s metaphors, this is a narrow path that many will simply not follow, but it will allow Christian faith to be itself rather than shaping itself into the image of the world.
Revelation through Sanctification
While Webster advocates a reading of Scripture grounded in faith, he does not advocate one that is naive to the human elements of the Bible. One of the most helpful and enlightening pieces of Webster's work is his presentation of how Scripture comes to us from God.
For many who have studied the Bible at length, it is difficult to reconcile the church's claim that the Bible is God’s book on the one hand with what appear on the other hand to be its very human qualities. In the midst of such a struggle, Webster offers a compelling demonstration of how the faith in God’s word for which he argues is reasonable by presenting carefully framed definitions of the terms revelation, sanctification, and inspiration.
In his first chapter, Webster accomplishes a delicate balancing act in order to avoid what he considers to be the chief sin in speaking of God’s revelatory activity: dualism. Scripture has its origin in God’s redemptive self-revelation and acts in service to it. It is not simply a creaturely reality. However, Scripture, which has its formation in human processes, is not simply divine utterance. Both the human and the divine are operative in it.
The notion that God cannot work in, with, and through creaturely realities has its origin in theistic monism, not Christian Trinitarianism with its faith in the incarnation and the work of the Holy Spirit (11, 18). Scripture is a creaturely servant to the divine revelation, faithfully testifying to the triune God and his redemptive acts. Holy Scripture is thus a text in the creaturely sphere, but an incomparably unique text, truthfully testifying about God by the power of God.
Thus, following the terms of chapter one from the broadest to the narrowest: “Revelation is the self-presentation of the triune God, the free work of sovereign mercy in which God wills, establishes and perfects saving fellowship with himself in which human kind comes to know, love and fear him above all things” (13). The triune God, with his redemptive acts and intentions, is both the agent and the content of his revelation through Scripture (14). Talk of revelation is not primarily epistemological (what we can know about God), but redemptive (what God freely communicates to us).
Sanctification is normally a soteriological term, but Webster employs it novelly. For him, sanctification refers to “the act of God the Holy Spirit in hallowing creaturely processes, employing them in the service of the taking form of revelation within the history of the creation” (17–18). Thus Webster answers the perennial problem of whether the Bible has been “dictated” by God. The power of God to make human beings, their actions, and their words holy can ease our concern over how such an apparently human book can be the God-breathed.
The term “sanctification” has the advantage of enveloping the whole process of the formation of Scripture. It’s not only the hypothetical autographs, frozen at one point in time, that are holy. Rather we can trust that the scope of God’s work included pre-textual traditions, redactions, transmission, and even such post-biblical events as canonization in the middle of the first millennium and the act of reading the text at the beginning of the third (30).
That is not to say that other forms of the text are equally valid forms of the church's, so that we ought to have scholarly reconstructions of J and Q sitting the in the back of our pews. It is to say that we need not be afraid of the fact that the Bible may not have fallen straight from the mouth of God, or straight from the pen of a prophet, in its present form. It answers the equal and opposite problems of naturalizing and super-naturalizing the Bible by testifying that God in Trinity can elect creaturely processes for his purposeful self-communication (21). No doubt many who have studied the history of the text from within the faith of the church have trusted in God’s power to work through such human processes, but the implementation of this word lends that faith a new power.
Inspiration, in turn, “is the specific textual application of broader notion of sanctification” (30). Wilson cautions, again, against equal and opposite errors of objectifying the text as something available apart from the Holy Spirit’s present work, and of spiritualizing it so that the matter of the text itself is inconsequential (33-35). As an outgrowth of the doctrine of sanctification, inspiration is a process in which both the divine and the creaturely function: they are “directly, not inversely, proportional” (38).
Although the introduction of the category of sanctification to revelation theology has potential to resolve a number of questions, one may leave Webster's work wanting a fuller account of the relationship between faithful reading of Holy Scripture and the epistemological fight that happens separately from it. Has the church any answer to critical approaches to Scripture than, “thus saith the Lord”? Given the “utopian” nature of escaping those conversations, a more detailed account of how the church might respond to them without conforming to them would be welcome and helpful.
Nevertheless, Webster presents a highly satisfactory account of Holy Scripture to be employed within the ecclesial realm. Grounded in God in Trinity and following the logic of that God’s redemptive self-presentation, it keeps Scripture firmly within the realm of faith in and obedience to that God. Within this account is the understanding that the church does not choose for itself, but faithfully listens to and obeys the voice of God mediated by the Holy Spirit through Holy Scripture. The church does not rule itself, but is ruled, directed, rebuked and corrected by an outside force—namely the God of the church.