Students of theology have reason to thank Baker Academic, along with editors Ivor Davidson and Alden McCray, for the recent publication of John Webster’s book, The Culture of Theology.
The publication of the present volume makes available to a wider audience six lectures originally delivered by Professor Webster at the University of Otago in August 1998, and later published in the journal Stimulus.
In the blurb I wrote for the book (see below), I noted that The Culture of Theology captures John Webster’s thinking about the nature and tasks of theology at a crucial stage in his own theological development. I thought I’d flesh out a bit more what I meant by that.
First, The Culture of Theology exhibits a number of features that remain constant across all phases of Webster’s theological development: (1) the conviction that theology is not in search of something to talk about but that it has a determinate object, given to it by the Word of God, namely, the good news of God in Jesus Christ, (2) the conviction that theology has self-critical resources internal to its own object that can provide for theology’s ongoing reform and renewal and, therefore, that theology is not wholly dependent upon external sources of critique if it is continually to reform and renew itself, (3) the sense that, given the determinate nature of the object of theology, the fundamental genres of theology are commentarial in nature, i.e., second order reflection on primary, authoritative texts, supremely, Holy Scripture, but derivatively also, the creeds and confessions, sermons and catechisms, hymns and prayers of the church, (4) an embrace of the human, and therefore constructive, character of theology in its social and historical development and form, though without the excesses of modern historicist relativism, and (5) the belief that the cultivation of theology requires the cultivation of virtue in the theologian.
Second, The Culture of Theology lacks significant development of a number of themes that would later become important in Webster’s theology: (1) God’s immanent fullness as blessed Trinity, (2) the doctrine of creation, including some sense of the importance of grasping the various natures and ends of creatures if we are to appreciate God’s redeeming and perfecting work in relation to creatures, (3) positive appropriation of classical Protestant idiom related to scriptural inspiration and perfection. In certain cases, we see signs in The Culture of Theology that Webster is working, or at least gesturing, in the direction of later themes. In other cases, the lack of significant thematic development represents a more noticeable gap that later work would have to fill.
Reading John Webster is always instructive, always a source of pleasure. His sense of astonishment and wonder before the gospel’s God is palpable. Consequently, reading The Culture of Theology gives us more than an awareness of where Webster’s thinking about the nature and tasks of theology was in 1998, it gives us an awareness of the One with whom theology always has to do: Jesus Christ, “the living one,” who “makes himself our contemporary, startling us with the fact that he simply is.”
Here’s my endorsement for the book.
The Culture of Theology encapsulates John Webster’s thinking about the task of theology at a crucial stage in his own theological development, orienting the study of theology around the living address of the gospel’s God and toward the communities, conversations, and character requisite to theology’s flourishing. In addition, this book exhibits many of the virtues it commends: reverent wonder before theology’s divine subject matter, humble attention to the divine Word, deference to the wisdom of the communion of saints, and critical dialogue with the various conversation partners and settings of theology. For this reason too The Culture of Theology is a welcome guide in the cultivation of theological understanding.”
For further discussion of John Webster’s theological development, see Michael Allen’s excellent overview.