God Without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology. Volume I: God and the Works of God
John Webster. God Without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology. Volume I: God and the Works of God. New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015. pp. 240. $120.00 (hardback).
Reviewed by Kevin Vollrath
John Webster’s new release collects his recent thoughts on a variety of doctrines. The book is thereby accessible for narrow reading on a particular doctrine, but the organization builds on itself with recurring themes and echoes to previously and later developed thoughts. The refrain of the book is the precedence of the trinity before all other doctrines: proper Trinitarian theology is the means of explicating any and every other doctrine. Webster repeatedly shows how any attempt outside of such grounding consistently falls short.
Webster offers frequent quips about the nature of theology which rise to a crescendo in the final essay, “What Makes Theology Theological?” He employs a self-consciousness that invites the reader—even if less equipped in breadth and depth of study which Webster unabashedly betrays—to critical engagement with the texts he utilizes, the thinkers he thinks with, and the ideas he preaches. To be sure, “preaches,” I submit, deserves a raise of the eyebrow but not an eye roll. Each essay builds upon and towards beautiful affirmations of faith, such as at the end of his soteriology essay regarding the essence of the history of the Savior: “the accomplishment of the incarnate Son, the servant of God who is exalted and lifted up, and very high” breathing freshness into even the language of traditional doctrine (157).
Such attention to detailed phrasing and concise “punches” of argument led me to inquire the details of his thoughts on theological language in general. How might he specify the relationship between human language and theological truth, the ancient problem of the inadequacy of human language to sing divine truth and beauty? One instance of the relation between terms and content arises in his argument regarding the place of the doctrine of justification relative to the trinity: to say the trinity is the only Christian doctrine “might attract the charge of theomonism, however unjust,” but “to say that the content of Christian dogmatics is the double theme of God and his external works” (161). Does the alteration resist the charge? If so, we expect a difference in content between the phrases, but I detect little hint that such a change is intended. So what is it to affirm the inadequacy of language and the significance of its precision? How might explicit account of this tension further clarify what makes theology theological? What might a Trinitarian theology of language look like?
Perhaps the structure and organization of the book is most responsible for its engaging nature. Its clarity in detail does not cost its coherence as whole in the slightest. On the contrary, the rhythm of “what is theology all about,” “what is this doctrine about,” “how does the trinity explain it,” and “how have others done it” makes the pace of each essay quick enough to not lose the forest for the trees while slow enough not to get out of breath. His systematic and careful— though not excessive—distinction between doctrines, and pointed arguments within each of the 3-5 sections comprising each article, points the reader always toward the peak of the article which constitutes a brief historical overview and forecast for future work in theology. Demonstrating a talent for utilizing a range of theologians even broader than Aquinas to Barth and contemporary protestants offers an appeal to most every theologically minded reader regarding where theology has been and where it is going.
Webster’s commitment to comment on the nature of theology, the place of each doctrine as well as its content, and to wrestle with people who disagree on both topics, makes for a read which is, in a particular sense of the word, entertaining. For example, his criticism of Wolfhart Pannenberg in the third section of the third chapter, “Eternal Generation,” functions as a means to illustrate his argument concerning a proper conception of divine aseity as life in Godself.
Webster’s commitment to comment on the nature of theology, the place of each doctrine as well as its content, and to wrestle with people who disagree on both topics, makes for a read which is, in a particular sense of the word, entertaining. For example, his criticism of Wolfhart Pannenberg in the third section of the third chapter, “Eternal Generation,” functions as a means to illustrate his argument concerning a proper conception of divine aseity as life in Godself. Webster’s Pannenberg prioritizes the person of Jesus over the divine processions, thereby making problematic the proper relationship between the Father and the Son. A proper conception of the Trinity is the bottom line for Webster because with it, the incarnation and processions can be properly explained but if trinity is seconded to the identity of Jesus, cognitive and ontological priorities in the revelation of the Godhead risk confusion and distinction between the Son and the Father risks their unity (39). Rather, Jesus is known through/as “utter incommensurability,” which follows directly from an understanding of Jesus as principally inseparable from filiation. Here we find an instance of the kind of life Webster pushes us to find in divine aseity: much more than a negation of dependency or external causation, a theme already apparent in the third essay. It’s this kind of spiraling construction which makes the process of reading Webster enjoyable in itself.
The pinnacle essay of the work—“What makes Theology Theological”—gives a concise, precise account of what belongs in the domain of theology: all things of God and all things in their relation to God. This chapter may prove convicting in its condemnation of ‘curiosity’ as seeking to know things in themselves apart from God, on the surface, and for no end but knowledge itself. This coupled with quips about “whether theological institutions possess the willingness or capacity for such a recovery remains unclear” leads me to wonder what a reform of theology on the level of institution may look like (224). Webster accounts for what makes theology theological, but what—and Who and how?—makes theologians, churches, or institutions theological? Webster accounts for the practice of study and the beauty of contemplation in the life of the believer, but how might the lay perspective inform the practice of theological theology? How might such an inversion affect the ways we think about theological institutions and the ongoing reformation of the Church?
Kevin Vollrath, MDiv Student, Princeton Theological Seminary