God the Trinity in the theology of John Webster (1955-2016)
Rempel, Brent Anders
At the centre of John Webster’s theological mind lay a measureless object: God the Trinity. The centrality of theology proper in Webster’s thought and its significance for all other doctrinal loci are well-recognised, but there remains no extended scholarly treatment. Filling this lacuna, the following thesis traces the contours, shape, and development of Webster’s doctrine of the triune God. Webster’s unwavering ‘God-intoxication’ is marked by shifts in form—style and idiom—focus—proportion and placement—and material content. The character of such development, particularly with respect to individual themes and topics, remains unexplored in detail. Webster’s ‘theological theology proper,’ to use Tyler Wittman’s apt descriptor, is characterised by three longstanding commitments: particularity, aseity, and self-correspondence. First, Webster carries forward Barth’s deep sense of God’s aseity in relation to the world. Aseity is a plastic term that includes a cluster of convictions regarding God’s self-sufficient and perfect life. Second, Webster is committed to the singularity and uniqueness of God’s triune being. Third, the particularity and aseity of God’s being converge in ‘God’s self-correspondence,’ that is, in the notion that God ‘in Godself’ corresponds to God ‘for us.’ In the final decade of his writings, Webster’s doctrine of God undergoes subtle development which requires careful parsing. In particular, divine perfection, blessedness, and goodness become the leading themes. Perfection integrates and amplifies early concerns—not least divine freedom and aseity—while permitting a sharper distinction between ‘God in Godself’ and God for us. By recentring Christian teaching on divine perfection (and, in due course, blessedness and goodness), Webster increasingly appeals to the catholic tradition. He turns to the patristic (most often, Augustine), medieval (most often, Thomas Aquinas), Reformation (most often, John Calvin) and the post-Reformed orthodox (most often, John Owen) for inspiration—though the grand old man from Basel is never far from view. The thesis structures the material chronologically to disclose the overall shape, contours, and development of Webster’s doctrine of the Trinity. The first chapter, “The triune God in Karl Barth,” frames the analysis of Webster’s early writings with a focused reading of Karl Barth’s doctrine of the triune God. It charts three structural principles of Barth’s teaching that Webster finds most salutary and, by consequence, prove most formative for his constructive interests: aseity, particularity, and correspondence. The second chapter, “The Road to Basel (1980-1994),” unfolds Webster’s early engagement with the German Protestant tradition. In Eberhard Jüngel and Karl Barth, Webster finds what will become two leading themes of his early doctrine of God: first, the recasting of the doctrine of divine aseity as God’s freedom to love (here the principles of particularly and aseity interlace); and second, the correspondence (material identity) of God pro se and God pro nobis. The third chapter, “Discovering Dogmatics (1995–2002),” traces Webster’s discovery of ‘theological theology,’ which will, in due course, inform theology proper. A new note breaks forth in the theology–economy relationship which supplements the equiprimordiality motif with the ‘soteriological priority’ of God’s immanent life. I also identify a corresponding concentration on the antecedent conditions of divine aseity over its enacted or actualised form. The fourth chapter, “God’s Perfect Life (2003–2006),” attends to the content and consequences of divine perfection. The governing aim of the period is coordination: dogmatics offers a “fully integrated account” of God’s inner life and outer activity which grounds the former in the latter without detriment to their equiprimordiality. For the time, then, equiprimordiality and “proper distinction” co-exist in dialectical tension within the frame of ‘holism’ (which counts God’s being and activity as a consistent, coherent whole) and ‘inclusivism’ (which counts God’s relationship to creatures as an integral part of God’s immanent life). The fifth chapter, “‘Qui est’ (Ex 3:14): Thomas Aquinas’s Doctrine De Deo,” provides a selected survey of Aquinas’s confession of ‘God as God’ in order to animate Webster’s late-career ‘theological theology proper’ (2007–2016). I concentrate on three key tracts of Thomas’s teaching: the material ordering of sacred teaching, the contours of the undivided essence, and requisite distinctions of trinitarian theology. The sixth chapter, “Perfection and Presence (2007-2009),” explores a dominant pairing of Webster’s late-career: perfection and presence. The terms ‘perfection’ and ‘presence,’ which correspond to theology proper and economy, restate the logic of God’s immanent perfection. The pairing, then, permits a much sharper distinction between God’s immanent self-relation and God’s transitive acts. Webster depicts God’s perfection primarily by dint of God’s trinitarian aseity, that is, in terms of the personal hypostatic character of the divine persons. The seventh chapter, “Blessedness, Divine Goodness, and the ‘Christian Distinction’ (2010–2016),” considers how the logic of divine perfection expands—reinforcing, refashioning, and refining other areas of teaching. I trace three interrelated lines of argument: First, how a refined doctrine of creation expands the logic of divine perfection to include the ‘Christian distinction,’ that is, the confession of God’s blessedness apart from and prior to God’s relation to creatures; second, the implications of the material priority of God in se for Christological teaching; and third, I consider the changes afoot in Webster’s final year of writings by a close examination of rare retractions and silent editorial judgements, alongside exceptional genealogical remarks. The final chapter shifts to a more critical register to consider the contribution of Webster’s theological theology proper in three parts. First, it asks after the extent and character of Webster’s theological development. Second, it responds to recent criticisms of Webster’s doctrine of God and offers a way forward. Third, it takes up two countervailing aspects of Webster’s late-career thought: the path of redoublement and the idiom of participation. Though rudimentary in many respects, this teaching provides footings for further expansion. The re-constructive potential lies in a more robust appeal to the idiom of participation. Thinking ‘after’ Webster in this way, I argue that a participatory vision expands the core convictions of Webster’s late doctrine of God the Trinity.
Advisor: Holmes, Christopher; Rae, Murray
Degree Name: Doctor of Philosophy
Degree Discipline: Theology
Publisher: University of Otago
Research Type: Thesis