The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason by John Webster (London: T&T Clark International, 2012), x + 205 pp.
Article first published online: 5 DEC 2013
© 2013 John Wiley & Sons Ltd
Volume 30, Issue 1, pages 174–176, January 2014
How to Cite
Jones, P. D. (2014), The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason by John Webster (London: T&T Clark International, 2012), x + 205 pp. Modern Theology, 30: 174–176. doi: 10.1111/moth.12088
- Issue published online: 5 DEC 2013
- Article first published online: 5 DEC 2013
In the final chapter of this impressive collection of essays, John Webster compares two habits of mind: curiosity and studiousness. Curiosity describes creaturely reason gone astray. It identifies “the direction of intellectual powers to new knowledge of created realities without reference to their creator … the movement of the mind [that] terminates on corporeal properties of things newly known, without completing its full course by coming to rest in the divine reality which is their principle” (p. 196). Studiousness, by contrast, is an altogether more laudable disposition: a purposeful inhabitation of the triune economy such that, by the grace of God, human intelligence is turned towards God's communicative acts, to which Holy Scripture bears preeminent witness, and is therefore progressively conformed to the lovely operations of God's missions, which themselves propel the theologian to contemplate the riches of God's perfect, eternal, triune life.
It is the virtue of studiousness, above all else, that The Domain of the Word seeks to commend. The cumulative effect of the assembled essays is akin to an instructional performance: a protracted attempt to remind scholars, and the church at large, that God provides a distinctive “space” in which scripture should be read and explored, and the rational capacities of the Christian can be put to work. This provision of space is, of course, an act of grace. To play on Webster's own combination of figures: the Word's domain is a divine address, spoken by the risen Christ and distributed by his Spirit, that activates and guides the response of those whom it locates and encloses; a temporal iteration of God's own immensity, such that the historical body of Christ becomes a vocal witness to God's creative, reconciliatory, and redemptive work. Negatively, the scholar qua exegete is hereby afforded the opportunity to move past an anti-theological naturalism that, Webster believes, frequently compromises the field of biblical studies. Positively, the scholar qua exegete is enabled to do what she should have been doing all along: offering a faithful response to the scriptural witness that honors God through the exercise of redeemed intelligence. Given the “unified saving action and presence of Word and Spirit, reason's vocation is retrieved from the ruins: its sterile attempt at self-direction is set aside; its dynamism annexed to God's self-manifesting presence; it regains its function in the ordered friendship between God and creatures” (p. 122).
The essays that comprise part one of this collection consider scripture's role in the divine economy. Two treat of Karl Barth and T. F. Torrance, and give ample evidence of Webster's renowned interpretative skills. The others are impressively programmatic. In “The domain of the Word,” Webster traces the shape of the Triune God's self-communicative acts, identifying the canonical texts as discursive media that Christ commissions to speak on his behalf—the goal being a bibliology that integrates claims about providence, inspiration, and sanctification, and makes clear why and how scripture functions as “an instrument in the fellowship between the revelatory Word and its addressees” (p. 24). With “Resurrection and Scripture” and “Illumination,” Webster adds more detail. The Bible's authoritative status is a function of it being the “creaturely auxiliary” (p. 38) that the risen Christ employs to make himself and his saving work known. Indeed, precisely because Christ is risen, all times and places are present to and for him, and all times and places are poised to receive the saving light that Christ communicates through the creaturely prism of scripture. The result, if God so wills, is the event of illumination: persons and communities who are corrected, re-formed, and “lit up” to enjoy ordered fellowship with God.
The essays in part two fall under the heading of “theological reason.” Generally, they show Webster's longstanding interest in moral ontology—that is, an expansive account of the way that human beings can act, before God, in obedience and freedom—connecting with his more recent studies of scripture. In “Biblical reasoning,” Webster argues that exegesis succeeds insofar as it locates itself and scripture within God's reconciling economy; in “Principles of systematic theology,” theological reflection is conceived as the reproduction of God's antecedent self-knowing, mediated through God's hallowing of creaturely media and sustained, despite the ongoing fact of sin, by God's regenerative grace. In “Theology and the peace of the church” and “Regina artium: Theology and the humanities,” Webster develops his insights with reference to the church and modern university. In terms of the church, Webster insists that theological discourse make manifest the peace that God has established between sinners and himself. Precisely because “peace is the metaphysically basic and enduring condition of the church of Jesus Christ” (p. 159), theology should view conflict in general and intellectual dispute in particular as unseemly; only when there is a well-formed “passion for gospel truth” (p. 167) may controversy be joined. In terms of the university, Webster protests the tendency to construe theology as one more humanistic field of study. This amounts to a defection of reason—a perverse reluctance, on the part of Christian scholars, to inhabit and participate in the divine economy. Webster advances an alternative perspective by way of Bonaventure and Augustine: one that perceives “the encompassing context” (p. 191) of all intellectual labor, refuses an overdrawn distinction of “sacred” and “secular,” and affirms the theologian's Spirit-led capacity to draw selectively on “the disarray of the arts of intelligence” (p. 190).
I have no hesitation in declaring The Domain of the Word an important, insightful, and often brilliant work. Of especial value is Webster's willingness to articulate a consistently positive theological perspective—that is, his determination to promote a style of reflection that engages the complexities of a late modern context only occasionally, given the more urgent task of describing scripture's role in the divine economy and, complementarily, providing an account of God's invigoration of human intelligence. This does not mean that Webster's ad hoc appraisals of the modern period as largely inimical to sound thinking about scripture and exegesis ought to go unquestioned. I myself favor a more mixed judgment—one that balances critique with an acclamation of the benefits that accompany an expansion of learning, democratic processes of inquiry, and a criticism of certain “traditional” mores. Yet the point still holds. Webster's account of God's gracious activity is such that one need not (and ought not) spend time bemoaning the temper of the times. One can simply get on with the more interesting business of doing theology.
“Doing theology”—but in conversation with whom? The Domain of the Word is particularly interesting on this front. Webster's fascination with the work of Eberhard Jüngel, prominent in the early part of his career, is now in firmly in abeyance. His interest in Karl Barth continues, but is overarched by a strong commitment to “patristic and medieval authors and … their heirs in post-Reformation scholastic theology” (p. ix). What does this shift in conversation-partners portend? Webster's critical asides about the modern condition notwithstanding, there is little point in framing an answer in terms of the binary of modernity = bad/pre-modernity = good. For once that is in play, sound judgments are hard to come by: sweeping historiographical claims bulk so large that dogmatic arguments easily become peripheral. More important here is Webster's prefatory admission that an account of “God's infinitely deep, fully realized life” (p. ix), developed in conversation with patristic, medieval, and scholastic authors, has become fundamental to his thinking. The essays that follow certainly bear witness to this point. There are frequent references, for instance, to the “external works of the Holy Trinity” as an “orderly enactment of the absolutely original and antecedent purpose of God the Father” (p. 7), and Webster writes in an especially moving way about the divine missions as disclosive of the “harmony” and “repose” of God's immanent being. An obvious set of questions, then: how does this perspective relate to other accounts of the divine life—especially those that build on Barth's suggestive doctrine of election? Is talk about God's “infinitely deep, fully realized life” a necessary foundation for a theological approach to exegesis and reason? Further, why ought one to prefer Webster's incipient doctrine of God—which, I hurry to add, is decidedly more interesting than a “perfect being” theology, given its robust articulation of God's triune relations, its delicate appropriation of Thomas' insights, and its subtle emphasis on divine immensity—to a range of options that might be loosely described as post-metaphysical?
Accompanying these questions, I would add a point of concern. Specifically, I worry that Webster's fascination with the “infinitely remote regions of divine peace” (p. 158) that, by way of God's communicative advance, enclose the theologian and order her thinking, draws attention away from the contingencies, confusions, and corruption of theological inquiry in the present. To make the point a little more forcefully: I fear that Webster sometimes operates with an underdeveloped account of creaturely finitude and sin (perhaps the consequence of an underdeveloped account of Christ's suffering and death?), and therefore risks a description of theological reason that is too “settled,” too assured, and insufficiently susceptible to critique. This does not mean, I hurry to add, that Webster trades in a cramped brand of dogmatism. Nor do I want to suggest that Webster's diagnosis of modern theology is such that, pace Milbank, the pathos of “false humility” should be overcome with combative assertion. Moreover, Webster does acknowledge that “theology participates in our fallen condition … as science in via, not in patria, it knows only in part, and can lay no claim to comprehension of the wisdom of God, because its learning is not finished” (p. 189). Still, some of these essays seem short of dialecticism, hesitant to emphasize the real possibility that theological inquiry confuses the faithful pursuit of truth with self-deceptive, misguided, “religious” schemes. Granted that cheerfulness necessarily accompanies the belief that Christ has “overcome the world” (John 16:33, kjv), and granted that grace, above all else, should be a theologian's abiding preoccupation, I would have liked Webster to remind readers, more frequently, that the Word's domain is not easily or comfortably inhabited—that our journey into the neue Welt of scripture remains fraught with some degree of ambiguity, confusion, and error.
Such a worry, however, does little to subdue my admiration for The Domain of the Word. Webster's book is a remarkable accomplishment: a wide-ranging and learned work by a theologian approaching the height of his powers. Those with interests in systematic theology will profit greatly from this excellent collection.