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Webster, John. Holiness (Grand Rapids : Eerdmans, 2003)


Webster, John. Holiness. Grand Rapids : Eerdmans, 2003. Pp. ix + 116. Paper, $26.99 Can.

ISBN: 0-8028-2215-0


Those familiar with Webster’s magisterial works concerning the practical import of Karl Barth’s theology (e.g., Barth’s Ethics of Reconciliation and Barth’s Moral Theology: Human Action in Barth’s Thought) will not be surprised to find this book exemplifying the same learning, wisdom, and turn of phrase that sears insight after insight upon mind and heart. Neither will they be surprised to find here sufficient evidence that it is precisely the most recondite theology which most consistently and most profoundly assists the Church in its daily life, worship and mission. Webster’s opening sentence, “This book is a Christian theological essay on holiness” (p.1), declares his agenda. The four chapters of the book deliver the promised substance.

Webster is unapologetic concerning his orientation and logic: theology is holy speech; holy just because it is generated by, bound to and disciplined through the Holy One whom it aspires to serve. And since “The self-giving presence of Christ in the Church is the law of the holy” (p.2), theology can be articulated only in the Church. In turn the Church’s stammering attempt at speaking for God can be protected only by a proper fear of the Church’s Lord.

Throughout chapter one, “The Holiness of Theology”, Webster sustains his contention that theological thinking about holiness is itself an exercise in holiness. In this vein he develops the leitmotif of “holy reason.” Here Webster avoids twin pitfalls: capitulation to modernity’s brazen confidence that reason is unimpaired, and capitulation to postmodernity’s lament or sneer that reason’s integrity can never be recovered (or perchance never existed.) Cogently he argues, from several different angles, that it is grace alone, known in faith, which restores reason’s integrity inasmuch as reason is an aspect of humankind in its entirety, and it is this entirety which is included in the history of sin and reconciliation.

In “The Holiness of God” Webster’s Trinitarian focus comes to the fore. Rejecting any non-ostensive understanding of God, he insists that God’s simplicity, for instance, isn’t an undifferentiated unity in God that logically precedes God’s tri-unity (as in much Protestant Orthodoxy) but rather God’s “irreducible ‘this-ness’, executed in the drama of his works.”(p.38) Distancing himself from Rudolf Otto, Paul Tillich and Friederich Schleiermacher, for whom “the holy” was chiefly a religiously generic, humanly experienced phenomenon rather than God’s presence and action, he avers that “the holy” is the undiminished majesty of God in its most intimate saving relationship with us. Here Webster’s ringing affirmation is the ligature for several related considerations: e.g., the positive, sanctifying aspect of God’s holiness is characteristically prior to the wickedness-destroying aspect, the latter being merely the merciful militancy of the former; God’s jealousy is holy love’s refusal to allow the creature to forfeit itself by setting the terms on which it will live before God.

In “The Holiness of the Church” Webster maintains that the Church is holy not because of any ontological participation in God but solely on account of its vocation. For this reason he remains critical of “social trinitarianism”, the notion that the Church becomes not the witness to God’s saving incursion because first an heir of it, but becomes rather part of the being of God on account of the Church’s participation (in Hegel’s sense) in the Triune life of God. Here Webster identifies two implicates: the undervaluation of the free majesty of God and the concomitant drift toward divine immanence, as well as the compromising of the perfection and sufficiency of God’s work in Christ. At the same time he judiciously cautions against a similar two-fold reaction: a false spiritualization in which the humanness of the Church is denied, together with a dualism where God and the human are necessarily deemed mutually exclusive. Denying that the holiness of the Church is visible as if holiness inhered the Church, Webster nonetheless glories in the earthliness of the Church by insisting that the Church’s holiness is visible as the Church visibly hears ever again the promise and command of the gospel, confesses its sin in penitence and faith, bears witness to the world, and pleads with God for God to hallow his own name.

In the final chapter, “The Holiness of the Christian”, Webster highlights the difference between the Christian’s holiness and contemporaneity’s concern with “spirituality”, the latter too often hedonistic self-fulfilment. Instead he maintains that holiness is rooted in and finds its stable basis in forgiveness and reconciliation. He continues this “otherward” direction by complementing a reinvestigation of Calvin’s “mortification” with a refreshing exploration of holiness as divine appointment to obligatory service of the neighbour. Put most pithily, the believer’s holiness in Christ means “by the Spirit’s power I am separated from my self-caused self-destruction, and given a new self, enclosed by, and wholly referred to, the new Adam in whom I am and in whom I act.”(p.84)

Everywhere the book exudes an irenic spirit as Webster gently exposes inadequacies (e.g., Schleiermacher) while identifying strengths (Juengel, Staniloae, Augustine.) It rescues a crucial topic from the hands of religious romantics. It depicts an able theologian at work, zealous for God’s honour and the edification of the Church.


Victor Shepherd

Tyndale Seminary, Toronto