Being Constructive: An Interview with John Webster
Byassee, Jason, Allen, Mike, The Christian Century
ONE OF THE WORLD'S leading Reformed theologians, John Webster, has focused his study on the works o[ Eberhard Jungel and Karl Barth (he edited the Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth) and on the theological interpretation of" scripture (a commentary on Ephesians is forthcoming). He is working on his own multivolume systematic theology. He co founded (with Colin Gunton) the International Journal of Systematic Theology and is a coeditor of the Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology. He taught at the Toronto School of Theology and Oxford University before taking up his current post at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.
There seems to be renewed interest in systematic theology over the past decade or two. How would you account for that?
The renewed confidence that constructive theology is possible and worthwhile is probably the biggest change in theological culture since I was a graduate student in the late 1970s. The confidence has many roots: the steady decline of models of theology in which "critical appraisal" is the dominant task; receptiveness toward and fresh engagement with classical thinkers, patristic, medieval and Reformation; a sense that the Enlightenment is only one episode in the history of one (Western) culture and not a turning point in the history of humankind; the work of a number of gifted and independent-minded theologians now at the height of their powers who have shown the potency of constructive doctrinal work.
That being said, the renewal of interest ought not to be overstated: much doctrinal theology in English remains preoccupied with keeping up a conversation with other fields of inquiry (often literary and cultural theory) and is so eager to do so that it often neglects the descriptive or dogmatic tasks of systematics.
In your work on the theology of scripture you have had negative things to say about historical criticism when it's regarded as the lone means of accessing truth about Jesus. How does the historical-critical approach hinder rather than help efforts to get at who Jesus "really was"?
Historical criticism is not a single entity but a family of approaches to texts and religious history. Constructive Christology has much to learn from what historians can tell us about the temporal realities into which the eternal Word descended. But for the past two centuries, historical study of Christian origins has been plagued by historical naturalism, which converts the history of Jesus into one more temporal state of affairs. And this naturalism means that something basic to the church's confession about Christ is missed--the fact that the history of Jesus is what it is only because it is rooted in God's being in a direct and immediate way.
To say that Jesus is God incarnate is to say that there is a history of Jesus only because in it God's very being reaches out to us; only because of that outreach of the divine being is there this historical figure, and only on that basis can his history be known for what it is. Put differently: incarnation goes all the way down; it's not something added onto a more basic historical reality. Without the movement of God's unrestricted love and self-giving, without the Son's eternal obedience to the Father, there is no history of Jesus.
And so historians who seek to find a Jesus of history behind the incarnate one of the apostolic Gospels are looking for a figure who doesn't exist. If that's so, then the church's conceptual formulation of its confession of Christ--its dogma--doesn't obscure Jesus so much as tell us who he is, what's going on in his history: God's very life is being borne to us.
Karl Barth looms large in your writings. What aspects of his theology, or what accounts of his theology, do you especially seek to engage?
Barth's work is still in the process of reception (as might be expected from a corpus of texts of such range and depth). …