A Memorial For Prof. John Webster
The following is a guest post by Dr. Timothy Baylor (University of St Andrews), one of John Webster’s last doctoral students. Tim delivered this reflection at John’s memorial service in St Andrews this past August, and has graciously shared it with us.
John devoted his life to the teaching of theology. And not just any kind of theology, but to what he called “theological theology” — a vision that placed the heralding of God and his works at the very center of the theologian’s work. John once said that the whole of his career was about reminding theologians what they are responsible for — namely, bearing witness to God. And John did this throughout his career by his publications, his institutional leadership, and his mentoring of students.
Perhaps most of us who gather in this sanctuary today have at some time counted ourselves among John’s students, in one respect or another. I had the joy of being one of the more than 70 PhD students which John mentored over the course of his long career in academic theology, starting with him in Aberdeen and then concluding my work here in St Andrews only five days before his sudden departure.
Even to those who knew him only casually, John’s devotion to teaching was always evident. John was recognized as a teacher’s teacher and as a gifted mentor of intellectuals. During his time at Aberdeen, the University had him address the faculty on the art of PhD supervision. I remember one conversation with a newly appointed Lecturer in History who, when I told him I was studying under Professor Webster, said that he didn’t know much about his work, but that he had heard John was supposed to be some kind of “teaching guru.” And that was about right.
John really did give exceptional attention to his students. For being such an accomplished senior scholar, he was remarkably generous with his time. In fact, while many PhD students had to chase their advisors to make their meetings each semester, during the first year of my studies with John in Aberdeen, he asked to meet with me for an hour each week to discuss my research and to talk over what I was reading. I finally asked him if we could meet only every-other week instead, because I found that I could not formulate questions quickly enough to make full use of his time.
This was only one of many ways in which John gave to his students. Every one of John’s students has a story of receiving some lengthy, detailed email from John hammered out at 3:30 in the morning, carefully answering their question or interacting with their ideas. It was not at all uncommon to receive very thoughtful feedback from John within days of sending him a very lengthy piece of writing. On one occasion, he returned to me some very helpful notes along with a profuse apology for not responding in a timely fashion to an article that I had sent him only a week earlier.
Practices like these are notable because it is so far outside of the norm in modern universities, where academics are commonly saddled with many urgent administrative tasks that often obstruct or delay meaningful interaction with their students. It is even more impressive given that John was doing the same for people who were not his students at all! In the days immediately following John’s death, as tributes to him came in from around the world, I was struck by the numbers of people who had never studied under John, but who expressed gratitude for some lengthy correspondence which they had enjoyed with him, and which they no doubt found clarifying or encouraging.
I have often thought that John might have been more prolific and productive as an author had he guarded his time more jealously. But then, the fact that this was such a decisive pattern over the course of John’s career just indicates that he did not see his writings as the most fundamental part of his legacy — John invested his energies in his students and in creating institutions where theological theology could operate freely and thrive.
In his final book published earlier this year, John described teaching as “a particular kind of fellowship, one which intends the communication of goods and the cultivation of intellectual and moral excellencies.” This really captures how John thought of his work as a teacher. John labored to instill intellectual and moral excellencies in his students. In the realm of theology, this involves certain kinds of spiritual formation, and John made it a point to urge the importance of reverence and fear of God for the work of any theologian. To him, the academic work of analysis and criticism was all one with the life of faith and piety.
But having been his student myself, I can say that John’s manner of working as a teacher really was to initiate “a particular kind of fellowship” with his students. John was, of course, a very private man and so he was not often chummy with his students, though he would often discuss what he had been doing in his garden, or last night’s Blue Jays game. But while he never brandished about his accomplishments, it was always clear to us that John was our superior. The sheer scope of his knowledge meant that he would always have to assume the role of our example, a role that he carried with his characteristic humility and light-heartedness.
But there really was a special kind of fellowship that we had with John. He accorded us a level of respect that, while we did not always earn, nonetheless made us rise to the occasion as responsible participants in a larger academic conversation. In this way, he taught us to take our own thoughts and opinions seriously — seriously enough to evaluate, to criticize, and to reformulate them.
This meant that he sometimes offered pointed criticisms of the work of his students, because he expected that we were capable of more. But, on balance, he was far more liberal with praise. He took visible pleasure in the work of his students, especially when he felt he had learned something new from them. Earlier this year, one of John’s students submitted to him a paper on the theology of Karl Barth — a topic on which John was, perhaps, the world’s foremost authority. John’s reaction was to tell the student that he wished he had written it himself, a really wonderful comment that indicates just how free John was of any necessity to protect his own legacy or reputation. Nothing delighted him more than making esteemed colleagues out of students.
But the very nature of academic theology, as John practiced it, meant that mentorship could never be a strictly professional relationship. God is the highest good — the One who makes all things good. And so, two people cannot talk about their beliefs about God without grappling over their greatest hopes, their highest ideals and their most deeply held convictions. Conducting conversations like these over the course of three, or four, or sometimes five years, a certain kind of intimacy is bound to develop. You come to know a person and what moves them — what inspires them and brings them joy. In some cases, you come to adopt their point of view, and maybe even trust their judgment more than your own. And in this respect, teachers can be far more than educators, even taking on a kind of parental role.
And this is, in part, what has made John’s absence such a source of sorrow for so many of his students, like myself. You have the feeling of being an intellectual orphan — of being deprived of counsel and wisdom upon which you have come to depend. Of course, were John here today, he would be the first to point out that we cannot be orphaned in the ultimate sense. For since Christ has died for our sins and is risen from the dead, he has not left us alone in this world but has promised to us his Spirit to guide us into all truth. And it is, indeed, sufficient for us. Yet, certainly, it makes our sense of loss no less real.
In the weeks before his death, John spoke about the systematic theology that he had been preparing so painstakingly. He told me that he had been working on the first of five volumes, particularly on a portion dealing with the place of tradition within the church. John said he was surprised at how much he had to say about the importance of tradition. He planned to depict it as an act of God’s generosity to creatures.
Tradition, you see, is an act of giving. In the church, it is the act of handing on the deposit of faith — the gospel — from age to age, and from one generation to the next. This is an act in which God also gives. The church’s labor to pass on its faith to each new generation both represents God’s ceaseless generosity to us, and is also a real means of God’s self-giving. Because it is through the witness of our Fathers and Mothers that we receive the wealth of the good news.
As we pause today to remember John’s life, we mourn the loss of a trusted advisor and friend. Yet we also remember the good that we have received from God through John’s life. I believe I speak for all of his students when I say that John’s friendship was truly a gift. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to learn from him, and to accept from his hands the deposit of faith as a Father in the Lord, count ourselves to have received richly from God himself. In this way, our lives continue as part of John’s legacy — that gift he gave to others. And if God is pleased, this legacy shall continue, though only by the generosity of his grace.