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John Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch.


 (The Toronto Journal of Theology, Fall 2004)

John Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch. Cambridge , Eng. Cambridge University Press, 2003. Pp vii + 144. paper, $19.00 ISBN 0-521-53846-7.


The ligature of this book is as unmistakeable as Webster aspires to render it irrefragable; namely, while it is never to be denied that biblical texts have a “natural history,” what characterizes such texts isn’t this history but rather their role in the saving economy of God’s self-communication. In short, this function “is ontologically definitive of the text.”(p. 19) Admitting the assistance that cognate social and literary criticism renders the exegete, Webster relentlessly prosecutes his thesis: the essence of Scripture (he capitalizes the word everywhere) isn’t one with the ontologies presupposed by cognate disciplines; the ontology of Scripture is unique just because there is no substitute for the service it renders the self-bestowing God who ever remains ontically sui generis and whose self-communication is therefore logically singular. In short, Webster’s book sustains his conviction that Scripture is rightly understood only as it is apprehended in accord with its dogmatic purpose, fellowship with the Holy God.

While the book is principally about Scripture, it can be about this only as it is simultaneously no less about gospel, church and theology. Accordingly Webster declares concurrently, “[I]n following God’s address of the church in Holy Scripture, theology cannot be anything other than a commendation of the gospel.”(p. 132) Situated in an era where many find theology freighted with almost every concern except the gospel, Webster’s pronouncement will reverberate as both manifesto and gauntlet.

The book consists of four chapters, each of which describes a feature essential to “an orderly dogmatic account of what Holy Scripture is.”(p. 1) In the first chapter, “Revelation, Sanctification and Inspiration,” Webster insists that Scripture is a human artefact and the church’s use of it a human event. Yet since Scripture is acknowledged Holy, it is related to God in a way that the creation-at-large is not. Specifically, Scripture is an aspect of that revelation whose author and content is the self-bestowing God who genuinely gives himself to us salvifically without giving himself over to us. God ever remains Lord of that revelation whose substance God alone is, and Scripture ever remains the unsubstitutable occasion of its reoccurring. In this context sanctification is that act whereby God authentically uses human creatureliness without thereby suggesting that God’s action here renders revelation naturally apprehensible or Scripture’s substance philosophically determinable. Wisely avoiding “naming names” (e.g., post-Reformational Protestant Scholasticism) Webster cogently argues for the subordination of inspiration to revelation. (To invert this is to misconstrue both.) He insists that inspiration is neither objectification (this would elevate the inspired “product” above the activity the reality it attests) nor spiritualization (this would render the church the locus of inspiration rather than the text.)

In the second chapter, “Scripture, Church and Canon,” Webster is unambiguous: “The definitive act of the church is faithful hearing of the gospel of salvation announced by the risen Christ in the Spirit’s power.”(p. 44) Yet he disclaims anything approaching bibliolatry: to speak of Scripture is to speak for the sake of the action of God; i.e., while Scripture is not the object of faith it can never be separated from the faith that God alone quickens.

In a masterly discussion of canon and canonization Webster voices the most direct disagreement of the book when he faults Robert Jenson for the latter’s insufficiently qualified assertion (Systematic Theology, Vol. 1. Oxford : OUP: 1997, p. 27) that the canon is the church’s decision rather than acknowledgement. Jenson’s deficiency here Webster deems to leave Scripture in the church’s control, whereas faithful submission to Scripture defines the church. The same deficiency denatures Scripture as the instrument of God’s judgement on the church. Canonization, Webster argues, is not the church’s achievement but rather the event of the risen Christ’s bringing his people to account for his sovereign efficacy through the witnesses he has commissioned.

In the third chapter, “Reading in the Economy of Grace,” Webster advances his preference for “reading” to “interpreting” Scripture, since the latter term is freighted with literary, psychological and philosophical considerations amounting to qualifications that humans “bring” to the text, when Scripture as viva vox Dei requires self-renunciation as spiritual qualification. Here Webster distances himself from Schopenhauer’s typically modern “anthropology of reading” wherein reading results (supposedly) in an unthinking absorption that obviates the “immediacy of judgement” (p. 69), a free, creative, spontaneous act. The revelation that Scripture attests and in which it is included contradicts Schopenhauer at every point as grace frees cognition from self-deception and spontaneity from arbitrariness. Reading , then, so far from mindless absorption, is a human activity that paradoxically confesses, “Nothing in my hand I bring.” Perspicuity, similarly, is an implicate of soteriology as faith discerns the inherent splendour of the gospel.

“Scripture, Theology and the Theological School ,” the final chapter, explores the place of Scripture in the curriculum of theological institutions. Cherishing the theo-logic of the Magisterial Reformers, Webster ransacks Ursinus’ A Hortatory Oration to the Study of Divinity. He contrasts Ursinus’ preoccupation with the substance of Scripture to the methodological self-consciousness that haunts contemporary theological discussion and obscures the gospel. Like Calvin before him, Webster gladly admits pietas alone to direct theological learning to holiness, without which theological endeavour becomes vicious. At the same time his emphasis on pietas by no means denigrates the place of office. So far from Spirit-less bureaucratization, “office” confesses that theology has been appointed to warn the church where and how it is capitulating to an idolatrous proclivity to domesticate the Word. Theology will honour its authoritative office only as is claims no authority for itself but forever points away from itself to that Word whose authority can never delegated, relegated or shared.

While the book’s thesis tolls the author’s disagreement with approaches to Scripture that claim to be theological yet disdain dogmatics, the tone of the book can only be described as judicious understatement. Aware that his point is unpopular in much of Anglo-American divinity, Webster takes pains to ensure that if there has to be a stone of stumbling it won’t be his style. His most tendentious points never so much as hint at rabies theologorum. At the same time subtlety never fosters opacity. Certainly compressed, the book is nowhere turgid or confused. Modestly it claims to be no more than a sketch when in fact it is a lode whose riches can be mined . Unflinchingly it has planted the flag of dogmatic priority concerning Scripture in that citadel whose putative guardians claim every scholarly reason for recognition except the reason: the God who is known only as he reconciles recalcitrant sinners, thereby relieving their blindness. For they are made partakers of that reality which Scripture attests and whose coherence dogmatics exposes.                                                              1102 words


Victor Shepherd

Tyndale University College & Seminary