John Webster (1955-2016): Requiescat in pace

The news broke on social media last night and was confirmed today by The University of St. Andrews.

A great deal will be written and said about Webster's significance as a theologian, his powers as a thinker, and his virtues as a human being. As it should be. And the people who will write and say these things will have much more of a right to do so than I. I was not close to Webster by any stretch of the imagination. Nevertheless, he impacted my intellectual life in a number of crucial ways and at a number of crucial moments, and I feel compelled to pay him some small tribute.

I cut my theological teeth as a student in the Biblical and Theological Studies department at Wheaton College in the first years of the 21st century. It was clear at that time to even the most casual observer that there were three preeminent interpreters of Karl Barth in English language theology. They were, in alphabetical order: George Hunsinger, Bruce McCormack, and John Webster. While it would later be my privilege to study with Hunsinger and McCormack, it was Webster who decisively shaped my entry into Barth studies.

My adviser at Wheaton was Mark Husbands. He moved on from Wheaton a few years after I graduated, and spent most of a decade as the Leonard and Marjorie Maas Chair of Reformed Theology at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, before announcing—only a few weeks ago—that he is on the way to Northwestern College in Iowa to serve as Provost. But before all that, Webster was Mark’s doktorvater at the University of Toronto. So it was through Mark’s mediation that Webster became the first of those three major Barth scholars to impact me.

Church Militant and Triumphant, fresco by Andrea di Bonaiuto
(via Wikimedia Commons)
I met Webster in April, 2004. At that point I was a senior, about to graduate and go to Princeton Seminary for my MDiv. Mark played a big role in organizing the Wheaton Theology Conference that year, on the theme of ecclesiology, and Webster came to give two keynote addresses. They are preserved in the conference volume. My department honors thesis, completed the summer before, was on the Lord’s Supper and I had always been interested in ecclesiology. Webster’s lectures pushed me further in that direction, and I continued to grapple with the sacramental account of the relation between divine and human agency that he previewed in those lectures. This issue ties in to Webster's scholarship on Barth, and especially his treatment of baptism in his book on Barth’s Ethics of Reconciliation. In many ways, all my work on Barth’s account of the relation between divine and human agency as explicated from his doctrine of baptism—both in my book and in my essay published last year—owes its genesis to Webster.

Anyway, I said I met Webster in 2004. Mark introduced me to him, along with some other students. Webster was very gracious in answering our questions and questioning us in turn about our theological interests. I remember also seeing him half-slouch and half-stretch out in one of the seats in Barrows Auditorium to listen to the other conference speakers. He closed his eyes during their lectures and we were convinced he was sleeping. Mark told us that he just closed his eyes to aid his concentration. I don’t know if Mark was telling the truth or just trying to cover for a jet-lagged Webster.

I also remember that one day a largish box appeared in Mark’s office. He had found a great deal on remainder copies of Webster’s book on Barth’s Moral Theology, and proceeded to give copies to his advisees and other interested students. If this wasn’t the first secondary source on Barth that I owned, it was very close, and my copy is worthless for resale because of all the markings. At some point Mark also assigned Webster’s little introduction to Barth in a class, and my copy of that one is in a similar condition. And then there was Word and Church, the hardcover with the bright red dust-jacket. Mark assigned that one in an upper-level ecclesiology class that I took from him. A fellow student in that class—now a doctoral student in theology and a pastor—used to carry that book around everywhere with him, even on late-night burrito runs.

The next time I met Webster was in May, 2006, when he gave a paper at the Princeton Barth conference. The conference theme was Barth and scripture, and Webster spoke on Barth’s lectures on the Gospel of John. His lecture is available in the conference volume. I had just finished my middler year as an MDiv student, and I was gearing up to apply to doctoral programs. Webster was kind enough to sit down with me for a chat about the possibility of my coming to Aberdeen to study with him, and we talked about my ideas concerning a dissertation on Barth’s doctrine of baptism. His candor, encouragement, and insight in that conversation not only influenced the later course of my education, institutionally speaking, but also helped me to clarify some issues materially. Or at least to identify a few of the issues that I would need to address. I remember he told me to be alert when reading Barth to the way his authorial voice becomes shriller the less well-grounded his argument is. I’m not sure that’s always true, but the comment stuck with me (obviously) and changed the way I read Barth.

In any case, Webster was kind enough to correspond with me off-and-on over the years since 2006. He also read over at least two exploratory essays that I wrote while trying to get my bearings on the topic of baptism. That he would read them at all is a shining testament to his generosity, to say nothing of the thoughtful and insightful comments that he provided.

I feel compelled also to mention his “dogmatic sketch” of the doctrine of scripture. Only a month or six weeks ago I had occasion to recommend this book to an undergraduate student. It is a masterful articulation of a doctrine of scripture that is both within hailing distance of North American evangelicalism and attuned to the importance of historical critical interpretation. To put it differently, he skillfully balances treating scripture as a human text and as the bearer of God’s word—and he does so by way of the doctrine of providence rather than that of inspiration.

Well, I’ve gone on long enough. Webster’s absence will leave a gaping hole in the contemporary theological landscape, and he will be missed both for his intellectual contribution and for his admirable humanity. On the former, I suppose we’ll have to see how much of his systematics he managed to draft. (I remember that his systematics was already a topic of conversation when I first met him in 2004.) On the latter, I look forward to getting to know Webster a little better even if “too late,” as it were, as others who knew him better tell their stories.

The ecclesia triumphans is enriched, and the ecclesia militans struggles on.



Matthew Frost said…
Amen. And Barth's "authorial voice becom[ing] shriller the less well-grounded his argument is" is a perceptively blunt way of putting something I try to recommend to younger Barth readers, which is to listen for how he's critical of his sources and where he steps boldly away to make his own novel claims. More pejorative than I ever would put it, to be sure, but there are definitely spots where that novelty is brilliant, vast tracts where it's middling, and places of utter catastrophe. Gendering Mitmenschlichkeit is about the shrillest and least-well-grounded moment I can think of.

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