In memoriam John Webster
Readers of this blog will probably by now have heard that my senior colleague John Webster died suddenly yesterday morning. I had the privilege of writing a brief obituary for our School website, which reads as follows:
The Revd Professor John Bainbridge Webster, DD, FRSE 1955-2016
It is with enormous sadness that the School announces the sudden death on Wednesday 25th May of our friend and colleague John Webster, Professor of Divinity.
John was amongst the leading English-language theologians of his generation. Twelve monographs, four major edited volumes, and a host of shorter publications would have established his reputation on their own; when his extensive service to his discipline and the wider academy—founding the International Journal of Systematic Theology; serving on many editorial boards; membership of peer review colleges and learned societies—is added in, the true magnitude of his contribution can begin to be seen.
John’s academic career began at St John’s College, Durham (1982-86), then continued in Canada, at Wycliffe College, Toronto (1986-96). His eminence was recognised in 1996 when he was appointed Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity in the University of Oxford, a post he held until moving to the University of Aberdeen as Professor of Systematic Theology in 2003. He took his chair here in St Andrews in 2013.
We remember John as a warm and generous colleague, whose penetrating intellect was combined with a down-to-earth attitude, a ready sense of humour, and a deep Christian faith. Our thoughts and prayers are with his widow and family at this time.
Other tributes will no doubt follow. Fred Sanders already has an excellent account of John’s theology here. I just want to add some personal reminiscences now. I had known John for a couple of years only when the Society for the Study of Theology met in his then home university of Oxford in 2000. In one plenary session, I found myself seated between him and Tony Thistleton, as the speaker started telling us of the ‘pastoral need’ to ‘forgive God’. Tony turned across me to John and said ‘forgiving God is rather a difficult concept theologically, is it not?’. John’s response was straightforward: ‘It’s not difficult at all; it’s blasphemy. Come on, we’re going for a pint.’
That was not the last conference session we vacated together for the bar. John became a good friend and a mentor to me, particularly after my doktorvater Colin Gunton died equally suddenly, and also in May, thirteen years ago. Nor was it the last time I was to hear John cut dismissively through windy ‘theological’ rhetoric. Indeed, his theological style became more uncompromising as the years went on. Working back from Barth, through a Reformed scholastic tradition (particularly Owen), to a fascination with the intellectual clarity and deep piety of Thomas Aquinas, John became more and more convinced that dogmatic theology well-done began unapologetically with the word of God revealed in the Scriptures and preserved in the faith of the Church. The task of theology is, on John’s telling, to expound that word and that faith carefully and extensively, so that every thought may finally be taken captive to Christ.
John also became more and more focused on ‘theology proper’: the doctrine of God’s life in se. Unfashionably, it was the treatise de deo uno, not trinitarian theology, that captivated him. The careful explication of God’s eternal life through the enumeration and description of the divine perfections was for him the highest calling of the theologian—and an act of praise.
Such summaries of his academic interests make him sound somewhat intellectual and austere. The power of his intellect was unquestionably dazzling, and he was perhaps a little remote from the modern world (he wrote his publications longhand with a fountain pen, then typed them into a computer when finished for editors who demanded electronic copy). John was never remote from people though: a zest for life, an easy sense of humour, a gift for devastating one-line summaries of fellow theologians, and a genuine interest in his students and colleagues were all as much a part of him as his intellectual interests.
Giving himself to the careful explication of God’s eternal life, he then viewed all else sub specie aeternitatis. I remember him a couple of years back, in conversation at the end of a seminar in our College Hall here in St Mary’s, commenting almost in passing about the brevity of life, over in the blink of an eye compared to the endless ages of joy that would follow the resurrection (and, he believed with the church down the ages, would be enjoyed in anticipation by the soul between death and bodily resurrection). This was not rhetorical or homiletic affectation; it was a simple and honest reflection of how he had come to view life, having devoted himself for so long to the task of understanding all things in the light of God’s grace and glory.
Because of this, he was also deeply humble and uninterested in worldly advancement. Academic honours came regularly, but he never sought them, and the Church of England, and Episcopal Church of Scotland, hardly noticed what a gift they had been given in John Webster.
I mourn a colleague, friend, and mentor; I grieve for what our discipline will now never gain from his pen; I pray for his widow and family—but I believe to remember John as he would have wanted to be remembered, none of these can be the final note. He now knows the beginnings of an eternity of joy unspeakable, and his theology remains an invitation for us all to look beyond death to the promise of endless life and joy.
‘Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.’ (Ps. 116:15)