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Against the Theological Nomad

John Webster and the culture of theology

I count myself among the many students of theology, past and present, who are indebted to John Webster. Of the lessons I’ve learned from Webster’s pen, the preeminent is the need and necessity for theology to remain theological (I’ve reflected on this lesson from Webster here). Students familiar with Webster’s work have come to expect a God entrenched vision for the theological task that both convicts and instructs. In this way, The Culture of Theology fits right in with the remainder of the Websterian corpus.

Providing the introduction, Ivor Davidson’s opening is instructive for setting this particular volume in Webster’s chronology. Davidson, writing about the “neglected jewel in [Webster’s] literary legacy” informs that the piece was constructed during the second year of Webster’s tenure as the Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford. Furthermore, Davidson helps set the occasion for the writing, saying, “Webster wrote and presented the material as a series of six lectures, the Thomas Burns Memorial Lectures at the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand, in mid-August 1998” (2).

In order, Webster’s six lectures cover Culture, Texts, Traditions, Conversations, Criticism, and Habits. With these six lectures, Webster zooms out from walking the streets of theology and helps readers understand instead the larger contours of the neighborhood. Ultimately, Webster declares his aim, saying, “My proposal is that much can be gained by thinking of Christian theology as part of Christian culture—as one of the practices which make up the disturbing, eschatological world of Christian faith and life” (44). Webster continues, “Christian theology flourishes best when it has deep roots in the region, the cultural space, which is constituted by Christian faith and its confession of the gospel.” Webster, as he puts it, is concerned that modern theology is in a “disarray” for a variety of reasons, one of which is the “dislocation from its cultural place” (44).

As one who spent the entirety of his theological career in the university setting, Webster is familiar with the danger of theology being dislocated from a Christian culture with the living God utilizing the living texts to reveal himself as they are being studied and practiced among the eschatologically minded people of God. When describing “the culture of Christian faith,” Webster states that he has three things in mind:

(1) “Christian theology, like any other form of reflective activity, takes place in a culture, that is, in a public or social space.”

(2) Theology is such that it needs to be “cultivated.” Proper theology, according to Webster, must entail “certain interventions” to promote spiritual practices. Webster here gives the example of textual practices such as habits of reading, both the Scriptures and a renewal of classical Christian texts.

(3) The final aspect of the culture of Christian faith entails the theologian who has “specific habits of mind and soul.” Webster summarizes the third point, saying, “To put the matter in its simplest and yet most challenging form: being a Christian theologian involves the struggle to become a certain kind of person, one shaped by the culture of Christian faith” (45). Being a Christian theologian involves the struggle to become a certain kind of person, one shaped by the culture of Christian faith Click To Tweet

Webster contrasts his proposal with that of the Enlightenment project. Whereas in the age of the Enlightenment intellectual life and activity was to happen divorced from cultural realities and treated on the bases of reason alone, Christian theology should happen within real space and time, with real participants who have real names and stories. In fact, it is the placement of Christian theology within culture which gives it form, shape, and substance. In this way, the intellectual life is not merely a matter of understanding but of practice. Webster calls this the reality of intellectual activity being regional.

“Re-regionalizing” the Christian faith, as Webster puts it, allows us to move through the theological enterprise not from a position of skepticism against those people and institutions who came before us. Instead of fancying ourselves as being set free from the obligation of history and culture, theology allows us to press into these spheres knowing that our subject matter has something to say to the hearts, minds, and hands of those who surround us. For Webster, this approach to theology allows for the death of the dichotomy and bifurcation between “Christian theology and the life of Christian communities” (51).

Webster concludes the opening, and perhaps most important, lecture by describing both the location and dislocation of Christian theology. He utilizes two words, building off of Simone Weil and Karl Barth, to describe the task of Christian theology—roots and astonishment. He first calls for the theologian to be rooted. Rooted “into the troublesome, contrary world of the Christian gospel” (60). Within this discipline of location comes texts, co-laborers, mission, eschatology, and more. However, the theologian is to also work from a place of astonishment. Webster writes, “Christian astonishment is the amazed realization that all human life and thought is undertaken in the presence of Easter, for Jesus the living one makes himself into our contemporary, startling us with the face that he simply is” (61). The rest of the lectures are working out the significant vision of Christian theology taking place within the Christian culture of faith set in this critical first lecture. The theologian is to also work from a place of astonishment. Click To Tweet

In his second lecture, Webster continues surveying the contours of “local” theology. He begins with the habits of reading the Christian texts. Contrasting a “local hermeneutic” with that of modernity’s interpretive method, Webster writes, “When the situation of reading the Bible is no longer Christianly construed as an episode in God’s dealings with God’s people, as part of the process whereby God arrests our ignorance of his ways and savingly communicates with us, then theological description is superfluous: it doesn’t take us to the heart of what is happening when we read this book” (67). The Christian is not just to understand the words of this text but is to also cultivate a habit of reading such that the text is utilized in the faithful eschatological living in light of the gospel. In line with Webster’s theological vocation, he roots this lecture in the doctrine of the Trinity articulating that the “proper doctrinal location for a Christian theological account of Scripture is (primarily) in the doctrine of the Trinity and (secondarily and derivatively) in the doctrine of the church” (70).

In his third lecture, Webster writes contra “a number of recent accounts of the theological task.” These theological accounts, according to Webster, take a number of “extreme” views of tradition. Webster’s aim, in this third lecture, is to right-size our concept and role of tradition, which balances well with his previous emphasis on the eschatological dimension of theological method. In summative fashion, he states, “my suggestion…is that a distinctively theological account of the public covenant of Christianity undermines the de-eschatologizing potential of tradition; in fact, a theological account of tradition is a matter of tracing the permanent revolution to which the gospel gives rise” (84). Webster describes two faulty views of tradition—“tradition as play” and “effective history”—and conclude that both misunderstand Jesus’ relation to history and the present day. The each, in their own way, “perpetuate the assumption that there is, indeed, a distance between Jesus and ourselves, and that the distance has to be bridged, as it were, from our end” (87).

Moving from deconstruction to construction, Webster suggests that we move from understanding the leading metaphor for tradition as “embodiment” to contemplating it as “apostolicity.” “Tradition is the apostolic form of the life of the church” is where Webster in defining his view of tradition as apostolic; there is an undeniable ecclesial element and the public covenant which is important for the culture of theology. Bringing the lecture to a conclusion, Webster articulates an understanding of culture which is thoroughly apostolic in the sense that it “[is] a set of human readings of the gospel which , like everything else in the life of the church, is a space in which Jesus Christ announces and presents himself in the power of the Spirit as one who is indefatigably alive” (96).

The final three lectures—Conversations, Criticism, and Habits—all address an anxiety Webster assumes his interlocuters will have with his proposal. Namely, that Webster’s eschatological depiction of the culture of theology will lead to a sort of homelessness for theology. Webster writes that some may see his proposal as “exotic” and leading theology to lack any “stable set of practices, let alone in any regular institution” (99). Webster puts it another way, asking if any conception of theology which is “governed by faith” is not by necessity “anything other than literally outlandish, never to be naturalized or acclimatized, and therefore, in short, an impossibility” (100)? Webster uses the concluding three essays to address this anxiety and in doing so address areas of theological politics and the university, critical theology and theological method, and the proper ethics that ought to be found in the Christian theologian.

In the first lecture, Conversations, Webster tackles theology in the life of the University. He begins, to my dismay, by owning that what he has thus far presented, and will present, come not with a handful of pedagogical nor curricular implications per se. Webster gives this caveat at the outset of his fourth lecture and, in his own way, gently lets down the “hard-nosed realists.” This may leave the reader, even readers who are not entirely committed to pragmatics, wanting as we can be sure that the brilliance of Webster’s articulation of the culture of Theology could be match by his spending time on the curriculum of theology. He gives one piece of curricular advice: begin theology by reading the classics.

Yet, we know from the whole of Webster’s career, that his work is nothing short of a clinic on theological curriculum. Webster’s insistence that the proper starting point of Christian theology is the doctrine of God has been instructive for a generation of theologians following him. It is wrong, in a book review like this, to critique a writer for not writing a book they did not intend to construct. However, it is hard not to desire a work examining the curricular and methodological implications for what Webster has outlined in The Culture of Theology.

Describing theology’s role in the university, Webster, running against the grain of modernity, suggests that what university theology needs is “nonconformity.” Webster here means to propose that theology has something unique to contribute in university life and need not be define solely by its relationships to other disciplines. Webster, opines that the unique contribution theology stands to make is summed up with just one word: “Christianness.” Continuing on the theme of theology’s unique role to play in the university life, Webster makes an interesting and important move—he calls for the theologian to be a Christian. In some contexts, this may sound like an obvious observation. However, in the context of many modern universities, this just simply is not the case.

Moving from theology in general, to the theologian in particular, Webster says, “The process of learning itself is utterly demanding. It sets before us the devastating imperative of holiness, the transformation which is so basic to living the apostolic life.” He continues, “sanctification leaves nothing intact; there is little that is comfortable about the new creation. Yet without participation in the passion of regeneration, the theologian will be less than likely to have much to report when it is his or her turn to speak up in the colloquy of the sciences” (114).

The concluding lecture in the Burns series is Webster’s lecture on habits and cultivating the theologian’s soul. In this sixth lecture, Webster strives towards an “anthropology of the theologian” and in doing so gives us a “sketch of the human striving and suffering which are involved in doing theology well” (131). Webster repeats a refrain in this lecture, “Good theology demands good theologians.” These “good theologians” are those who, as Augustine articulates, are those who work diligently to sharpen the tools need for faithful Christian theology but also recognize that theological reasoning and articulation are gifts from the Lord. Moreover, these “good theologians” are thoroughly made new by the gospel of Jesus Christ. Webster, in what is arguably the most oft quoted portion of the book, writes, “Good theologians are those whose life and thought are caught up in the process of being slain and made alive by the gospel and of acquiring and exercising habits of mind and heart which take very seriously the gospel’s provocation” (133).

Keeping in step with the first five lectures, Webster, in his sixth lecture, demands simply that the Christian theologian be Christian. Recognizing theology as a gift received as opposed to something cultivated in the human mind, Webster informs his hearers that often the greatest theological tool, for the Christian, is simply prayer. He writes, “There is no technology of the Spirit, no moral or intellectual or even spiritual performance which will automatically make us into theologians. What there is—much to our disappointment, usually—is prayer. At the heart of theological existence is calling upon God” (143). After an inspiring definition of prayer, Webster concludes, “To pray is to be human in the theatre of grace.” Webster finishes his concluding lecture by urging the theologian to pray for three things: (1) fear of the Lord; (2) a “patient teachability or deference; and (3) freedom from self-preoccupation.

In these six lectures, John Webster offers a treasure trove of theological perspective. The Culture of Theology affords readers an eschatologically informed, ecclesially rooted, textually reasoned, piety cultivating, and uniquely Christian view of the person and work of a theologian. Although brief, there is much in these six lectures for the student of theology to sit under and receive. Ultimately, like Webster so often does, he has in this short volume pointed our attention Godward and reminded us that the task of theology is a gloriously gracious activity aimed at the good of others and the glory of our Triune God.

Ronni Kurtz

Ronni Kurtz is the Managing Editor of For The Church and also serves as the Assistant Director of Marketing at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary—where he is pursuing a Ph.D. in systematic theology. He also serves as Pastor of Teaching and Equipping at Emmaus Church. You can follow him on Twitter at @RonniKurtz.

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