John Webster, a year on

Today is the anniversary of John’s death. His widow Gloria did me the honour of asking me to speak briefly at the memorial service we had for him here in St Andrews, led wonderfully by Rowan Williams. This is what I said then:

In a memorial written the day after John’s death, the American theologian Fred Sanders wrote of discovering a note he had written to himself in his first year of teaching: ‘Teach theology as if John Webster is right about what theology is!’ The legacy of the greatest scholars, in the humanities at least, tends not to be a discovery within their discipline, so much as a rediscovery, or a reconfiguration, of their discipline. John Webster left us many great works of theology, but through them all, he gave us a new vision of the great work of theology.

Of course, his early engagements with a German tradition, Barth mediated through Jüngel, shaped his approach, but his own voice soon developed: it was less occasional than Barth, less needing to understand how (certain streams of) theology had gone wrong. John simply began to teach through the doctrines of the Creed, patiently expounding each one, and exploring the connections between them. Perhaps because he developed this approach in church colleges, he felt no need to defend it; by the time Oxford called him, his work was its own defence. And that remained characteristic of John’s theology: he never sought to justify or explain his approach, he merely offered essay after essay, each so compelling, each so grand in vision and generative of ideas, and each so precise—and so joyful—in execution, that no apology for what he was doing was either necessary or indeed possible.

John’s move to St Andrews just three years ago was a chance to build a school to develop and carry on this vision. I first met John whilst a doctoral student at King’s College London in 1997. He had recently taken the Lady Margaret Chair in Oxford, and quickly formed a friendship and alliance with my doktorvater Colin Gunton. He became a central part of the community Colin formed to carry on his own theological project—they founded the International Journal of Systematic Theology together—and after Colin died in 2003, John looked to build a similar community of scholarship. He moved to Aberdeen, and under his guidance over a decade it became a leading international centre for systematic theology; there the reputation was for interpreting German theology; the move to St Andrews was a chance to do something different, to create a community known for work that would attract, rather than offer, interpretation.

Of course, John’s work, and the work he put his students and colleagues to in seminars, was not detached from the history of the discipline; if anything, it was increasingly grounded in that history. He taught us, though, to approach that history with a different orientation. We were not studying a genealogy, not attempting to understand how we had got to here, whether ‘here’ was regarded as a good place to get to or not; instead, we were reading theologians as theologians, women and men engaged in the shared task of explicating divine truth. A couple of years back in the graduate seminar he had us all reading Ritschl, whose ideas were perhaps as far from John’s as any ideas could be. But we did not study Ritschl as Barth would have done, as a chapter in a narrative of decline; we read Ritschl as last year we read Kate Sonderegger, as someone who was seriously trying to understand the gospel, and so someone to be read seriously

There is challenge here: assigning writers to ‘their place in history’ is a way of refusing to consider their claims on our thinking. This is what John would never do, not with writers with whom he shared a great deal, and not with writers with whom he disagreed profoundly. As theologians, they were attempting to speak of the reality of God, and of all else in the light of that reality; as theologians, they deserved to be taken seriously, not relativised; they should be voices which can challenge us, not merely specimens to be studied.

In three years here John could only begin to lay foundations; we will never see what he hoped to build. We can see, however, the effect he had on colleagues. To say he was respected would be true, but far short of the truth. He was admired for his deep expertise, valued for his unselfish collegiality, and cherished for his Christian character. He committed himself to the life of the institution, his wisdom as freely offered as it was perceptive. We as a School are a better place, in our processes as well as in our ethos, because John was amongst us these last years.

My colleague Judith Wolfe drew our attention to a paper entitled Dolent gaudentque, published just last year, where John reflected on the place of sorrow in the Christian life. He began by acknowledging that ‘[s]orrow is vividly and destructively present in the lives of very many persons’—gathered here today we cannot but own that truth. But John would not see this as a sign of divine abandonment. ‘The proper functioning of sorrow,’ he asserted, ‘indicates that by virtue of divine grace human nature has survived the fall and its powers have not been entirely eradicated.’

Divine grace preserves us, but of course it does more, and promises more still, and so John concluded: ‘Even in our restored condition, the penal consequences of the fall linger, one of which is the sheer hard work which an emotion like sorrow requires of us. Yet the one who has borne our sorrows once for all continues to bear them, and will do so until we attain the final happiness for which God destines us, when mourning, crying and pain shall be no more because the former things will have passed away.’

As we remember John today, I want not just to heed Sanders’s call to teach theology as if John Webster was right about what theology is, but also to live as if John Webster was right about what life under the gospel is. May all we who grieve find consolation in the One who has borne our sorrows once for all.

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