God Without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology. Volume II: Virtue and Intellect
John Webster. God Without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology. Volume II: Virtue and Intellect. New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016, 187 pp. $112.00 (hardback).
Reviewed by Alex Siemers
In several senses, God Without Measure is an appropriate title for this collection of essays by John Webster. Firstly, God is without measure. Thus, even though Webster is ostensibly addressing virtue and intellect in this volume, his ultimate aim is to refer these back to God. That is, Webster is concerned that moral theology be moral theology – and only to this extent is it truly moral. Furthermore, God is without measure in at least three senses for Webster: God is beyond any standard of comparison to created things (since God is their source), God lies beyond any bounds or measurements, and God is beyond complete comprehension. Finally, it is fitting that this is Volume II, as this embodies Webster’s key conviction that action follows being – Webster’s first volume dealing with God in se and then ad extra.
These matters deserve further comment since they illuminate key themes for Webster throughout the essays. Webster’s introduction orients the reader to his concerns, demonstrating his material order. He argues that theology deals with God and all things in relation to God—as he states later, “Theology is comprehensive in scope; it is the science of all things. Theology is about everything; but it is not about everything about everything, but about everything in relation to God” (141). There is a material order to his theological method: theology first considers God absolutely, in se, and then relatively towards creatures, ad extra. Only after these matters are explicated can theology turn to the activities of creatures themselves. Thus, for Webster, action follows being, though this material order may differ from the orders of instruction or discovery. Action follows being, in that theology must begin with the being of God, and action follows being, in that action cannot be severed from discussions of being.
Webster’s essays thus primarily deal with the actions of creatures, but always in relation to God. He discusses the connection between Christology and ethics in Chapter 2, arguing that Jesus Christ determines the orders of moral being and knowing. Chapter 3 addresses the dignity of creatures as grounded in God’s creating, reconciling, and perfecting work. In Chapter 4 Webster founds the mercy of creatures in God’s active, merciful presence. Chapter 5 examines sorrow, arguing for its rightful (since sorrow flees from evil) but derivative (in that evil is subordinate to good) place in the Christian life. In Chapter 6, Webster argues that courage is possible, fitting, and necessary since God has bestowed a new nature upon believers, but the promised future good is not yet realized. Contemplating mortification and vivification (Chapter 7), Webster stresses their conformity to the pattern of the death and resurrection of Christ. Discussing sins of speech (Chapter 8), Webster demonstrates the impact of depravity upon human speech but keeps in mind the priority of creation and reconciliation over sin. Webster’s final three essays thoughtfully consider the intellectual life, universities, and intellectual patience, grounding the created intellect in God’s intellect and tracing patience to its source in God.
Apart from the brief introduction and the essays on mercy and intellectual patience— though the latter was an inaugural lecture at St. Andrews—most of these essays have been published before. Though much stands out, one particular point from Webster’s unique contribution on mercy should be examined. Webster begins the essay by speaking about Christ, not merely as an example or teacher, but as the eternal Son made flesh. Thus, teaching about mercy runs backwards into the doctrine of the Trinity, but it also runs forward into the lives of God’s children. Webster claims, “mercy is proper to God,” but this does not mean that creaturely need is the occasion of God’s mercy; rather, God remains completely free in his action (55). Further, Webster argues that mercy is a divine affection, but not a divine passion – as passion implies for him that God is placed under compulsion. Thus, “[W]hat God does in the economy of his works has its principle in who he is in himself and so in what he is capable of doing without deprivation” (55). However, the question might be raised whether God is free but has chosen to be subject to ‘compulsion.’
More broadly, it should be noted that Webster’s conviction that action follows being does not eliminate the need for meaningful creaturely action. To be a creature (as Webster often points out) is to recognize that your being is not dependent upon you, since God (as Creator) is the source of creaturely being. This recognition of creatureliness in fact secures meaningful action, as it grounds proper action in relation to God. Moreover, Webster is not naïve in regards to the effects of sin, but denies that good and evil are equal sparring partners. Rather, God is good, and made a good creation – thus, the fundamental movement of creatures is towards life.
Webster’s essays in God Without Measure operate from a set of common principles which he regularly revisits. Webster’s discipline in returning to these principles throughout the work is commendable, although the principles themselves are by no means self-evident and, in fact, are contestable at points. For example, one wonders if Webster’s account strikes too much of an intellectualist note by giving governing primacy to reason in human life as an undefended presupposition. However, Webster places primacy upon exposition over disputation: “What the church says to itself and what the church says to its neighbours outside the church will be the same thing; in both contexts, theology has to describe the gospel well, and to persuade by description. In terms of its speech before the world, therefore, theology simply speaks the gospel and leaves the gospel to look after itself” (50). Webster’s collection of essays ably demonstrates this conviction, and for this fact alone is well worth reading, dwelling upon, and discussing.
Alex Siemers, MDiv Student, Princeton Theological Seminary