Theology after John
After the passing of John Webster earlier this year there were a plethora of tributes (many of them excellent, especially here and here). What with this and the service of remembrance coming this weekend in St. Andrews, there probably isn’t much need to add to those – other than to echo amen; rest in peace. That said, this summer some of us have found ourselves mulling over a question we really didn’t anticipate but find ourselves sadly asking nonetheless. It’s a question personal and theological at once, namely: What does it mean for you to do theology after John?
It’s a personal question because, if you knew him or read him closely, he likely left an indelible mark on your life simply by the way he went about his work. But it’s a theological question too. It’s about legacy – not in the sense of hagiography or fame (especially not in this case) – about reflecting on the imprint John may have made on theology; on the way it’s done; on the things it does.
For me, theology after John comes back to the typical but immeasurable things that good supervisors do – he gave me my chance, guided me in my topic, helped me see dead ends before I hit them, and supported me at wits’ end. More particularly, John unassumingly nurtured me in the un-anxious, constructive sort of theology that one learns (and I needed to learn) to do when one is given the time and space to read Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics IV carefully. That’s a gift I cannot now imagine my life without.
Beyond this there are all the off-the-cuff remarks in supervisions and seminars – which John would likely not have remembered if you had asked him, but which for me were like vital rudder-readjustments for a ship adrift at sea. I started out trying to write about these at length but realized you kind of had to be there – and be me – for them to really seem that important. The point is that John had plenty he could have been doing (and we’re all ruing the writing projects we wish he’d finished) but he met with us, a lot (at peak he would see each of us for an hour per week). I’m not sure how standard that is, regardless I’m thankful for it.
But what about the question more broadly: What impression does John leave on theology? I suspect there are several ways one might answer that. Answers could even take the form of constructive critiques or outstanding questions. Likely many would have to do with the compact, methodical way John went about integrating and explicating various doctrines.
What I want to mention is simply this: John read him some serious Bible.
You see this, if you’re paying appropriate attention, in his writing. Those who judge something ‘biblical’ based upon a scatter-gun approach to referencing (see Ps. 119:57; Prov. 14:3; Mt. 7:21-23; 23:24; 1 Cor. 13:1) might think John’s writings to be damningly sparse – but you’d never catch him citing verses for no discernible reason. Quite the contrary: often enough the biblical quotations that dot his essays carry such a density to them that every word appears to have informed what came before.
You see this in something like the title of his essay on ‘soteriology and the doctrine of God’, quoted from Isaiah 53:10: ‘It was the will of the Lord to bruise him.’ You realize what a loaded line that is. You realize this is a guy who reads his Bible, and when doing so – be it in morning prayer or in the study – he pays attention. The other day I ‘caught’ a student in our library ‘just’ reading the Bible and when I jokingly questioned her she said ‘reading Barth makes me read the Bible.’ Well, its that way with John as well.
We saw hints of this in our systematic theology seminar too. Judging from how many people I’ve heard telling the story, one of the most lasting memories of John from Aberdeen was the term we spent reading Karl Barth together. Rather frequently someone would wonder ‘where Barth got this from’ – usually with a bit of reasoned speculation about the genealogy of the idea (i.e., ‘Hegelian undertones’). Invariably at some point all eyes would turn to John for his opinion, and more often than not his hands would go to his forehead and he would humbly (almost sheepishly, given how ‘un-academic’ it might sound) say something like: ‘I think Barth just thinks he’s getting it from the Bible!’ It wasn’t to ward off critique, of course, it was simply a reflection of his own first instinct that theology is going to involve a lot of exegesis. Come to think of it, it was the only moment he really ever seemed kind of flabbergasted with us.
But for me what makes this legacy ‘stick’ is simply my memory of morning prayer in King’s College Chapel being introduced by John and by Brian Brock to the rich cadences and wonderful routine of the Book of Common Prayer. There were only a handful of us each morning, sometimes only two of us, but there John was, ready to take the first line in reading the Scriptures and saying our prayers. It wasn’t widely publicized. I was invited when I made an off-hand remark to him about my years dedicated to private devotions; how simultaneously thankful for them I was and yet how desperately I wanted spiritual practices which were not me inside my own head with God, alone. Turned out there was this modest time of scripture reading and prayer in the chapel each morning; it was how John started his work day, and we were welcome to come along. Now whenever I read his stuff I see how thoroughly that rhythm informed his theology. After John, hopefully also ours.
(If you’d like to offer an answer to this question, either in the comments or with a link or perhaps by a guest post, please let us know. It doesn’t necessarily have to be something wholly unique to him; what we’re after with this question is those particular characteristics of John Webster’s theology which we can see being important or positively contagious. It’s probably best answered over years and by many. For my part I’d like to thank Joe McGarry for spurring these reflections, and mention the wonderful essay by Ivor Davidson entitled in ‘John’ in the Festschrift Theological Theology, edited by Nelson, Sarisky, and Stratis.)