Review: The Domain of the Word by John Webster

Webster, John. The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason. London: T&T Clark, 2012.

In The Domain of the Word, students of theology welcome the first of two new companion volumes from British evangelical theologian John Webster.[1] This collection of essays on the ontology of Scripture and theological reason shares the characteristic precision, eloquence, and conviction of Webster’s previous domain-of-the-wordworks and, from start to finish, boldly challenges the orientation of Christian theologians to think and live from the triune God and for the triune God. Webster repeatedly calls for right recognition of ontology, both with regard to Scripture and to human being in the world. Over the course of the essays, Webster draws heavily from Scripture and tradition—concerning the latter appealing most frequently to Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth—demonstrating along the way sensitivity to revealed biblical narrative in addition to ontology. Apart from the material contributions of the volume, Webster’s attention to ontology and canonical narrative is refreshing in a time when one or the other is too often lost or distorted in biblical and theological scholarship due to over- or exclusive attention given to a single side of the junction. The present collection most certainly lies decisively on the side of dogmatic theology, but it is not a theology devoid of either piercing thought or perceptive biblical reasoning.

Structure and Themes

            As suggested by the subtitle, The Domain of the Word is divided into two main sections: part one addresses issues pertaining to Scripture—including ontology and hermeneutics—while part two answers the question, “So what?” to the gaze toward Scripture and considers the ontology, development, and practice of thinking theologically (“theological reason”). Though too simplistic to attribute absolutely Barth’s and Aquinas’s influences to the two sections respectively, it is nevertheless generally true that Barth’s strong considerations on the ontology of Scripture feature more obviously in part one while Aquinas’s ontology of virtue (intellectual and moral) are more prominent in part two. Even so, both theologians still offer much to Webster’s thinking in the complimentary parts. Other prominent historical interlocutors include Augustine, Bonaventure, Bernard, John Calvin, and John Owen, in addition to the Reformed tradition in general.

John Webster

John Webster

Historic sensitivity to the communion of saints notwithstanding, the essays cannot be reduced to the thought of any of these great theologians, for the tenor and content belong ultimately to the convictions of Webster himself in his careful study of Scripture within its ontological and canonical dimensions. For Webster, while “the order of being precedes and is actively present to the order of knowing” (i.e., the triune God precedes the Scripture by which we know him, and he is the one doing the revealing in Scripture—135), “Scripture is the cognitive principle of theology in the sense that Scripture is the place to which theology is directed to find its subject matter and the norm by which its representations are evaluated” (128–29). The interplay of these orders of being and knowing ultimately set the agenda for all that Webster does in the present volume, for the former shapes the metaphysical (or formal) contours of his thought while the latter provides the material revelation of the object of his study (namely, the triune God). This should not be read as a modernist mining of Scripture for facts, for Webster acknowledges and embraces the complexity of its forms and content and the need for studiousness in ascertaining the meaning beyond the surface symbols, but it should be seen as an affirmation that in Scripture by the Spirit, the church encounters the triune God as he has freely wished to make himself known. Webster is adamant that in Scripture, the church has the divinely-authorized account of the creative and redemptive acts of the triune God, an account shaped primarily by God himself (though not without actual human involvement) into a coherent account that reveals God to us ultimately in the Son and through prophetic and apostolic witness to the Son. This is significant for Webster’s structure because this theological commitment of the orders of being and knowing shape everything he says about Scripture and theological reasoning to the point, at times, of Barthian-like repetitiveness. Like Barth, though, this is not (primarily) a gratuitous repetition but rather a theological necessity in light of our creaturely and sinful limitations when talking about God and coming to know him. The “domain of the Word,” so to speak, encompasses all that Webster has to say in this volume for it pertains to ontology, biblical narrative, and the ongoing life (intellectual and moral) of the church as intimately related theological truths; it all begins with and continues to fall within the domain of the Word.

Content

            As with all collections of essays, a single review is incapable of summarizing—let alone analyzing—every article enclosed. Even to pick a couple would be insufficient for anything beyond an outline with highlights, yet such an approach must suffice. Since eight of the ten essays appear elsewhere (either in scholarly journals or edited volumes), the present review will limit itself to a brief sketch of the two contributions unique to the volume: chapters one (“The Domain of the Word”) and ten (“Curiosity”).

In the initial chapter, which shares its title with the book itself, Webster addresses two main issues: “the nature of Scripture” and “the interpretation of Scripture.” Both issues resurface throughout the first part of the book—for reasons mentioned above and by fact of nature that most of the essays appear elsewhere in varying venues and thus require a brief restatement of Webster’s primary convictions—but nowhere as fully and as systematically together as here. For those familiar with Webster’s previous work or simply with the analysis above, it should come as no surprise that Webster treats “nature” prior to “interpretation.” On the matter of the nature of Scripture, Webster wastes no time identifying the actual heart of the issue: “a prudent theology will treat questions concerning the nature and interpretation of Scripture indirectly, that is, as corollaries of more primary theological teaching about the relation of God and creatures: this, because Scripture is (for example) part of God’s providential supplying of the life of the church, and we will remain unclear about Scripture as long as we are unclear about God, providence and church” (3). In other words, to understand the nature and content of Scripture, it must be rightly situated within an ontology and “metaphysics of nature” as subservient to the person of God and his creative and redemptive purposes (see p. 7).

In this light, without denying the historicity of the biblical texts and the (limited) helpfulness of historical and literary research for our understanding of the text, Webster disavows the “dominant trajectory in the modern development of study of the Bible” (5), namely the treatment (and sometimes identification) of Scripture in purely historical ways as merely the historical fruit of human authors. For sure the Bible is a collection of historical texts with human authors, but for Webster, these are derivative truths of the biblical text in light of divine accommodation (see pp. 95ff.): “[w]ithin the divine economy, the value of the natural properties of texts, and of the skills and operations of readers, does not consist in their self-sufficiency but in their appointment as creaturely auxiliaries through which God administers healing to wasted and ignorant sinners” (6; emphasis mine). Thus, he uses an entire gamut of descriptors to better situate the nature of the text[2]: it is “commissioned” and “sanctified” (8, 15); “human speech . . . sustained by a movement of the Holy Spirit” (i.e., “mystery”—9); “signa mediating divine instruction,” not “simply signifying” (6, 10); “biblical signs [that] bear the divine Word to their hearers” (10); the product of “verbal inspiration” of God (10; “God speaks as inspired Scripture speaks”—16); “human words . . . caught up in God’s providential ordering” (14); and “a unified attestation of Jesus Christ” (17). Webster is emphatic that all of this is true of Scripture because of its ongoing position within its ontology, not “in isolation from God’s continuous relation to it” (17).

The second part of the essay, the interpretation of Scripture, follows closely upon Webster’s reflections on its nature. He is adamant that hermeneutics, while important, is secondary to ontology. It is the latter that guarantees Scripture’s clarity even if the church does not always apprehend with clarity (23). Furthermore, it is the latter that properly situates the church as readers and especially as hearers (24–5). In other words, it is the ontology of the text that guarantees the place of the church as receiver of the Word; hearing more clearly demonstrates our posture as primarily one of reception, which precedes “one of teaching and proclamation” (25). (On this point, Webster’s affinity with Martin Luther is astounding, for Luther, too, argued for hearing before reading for similar reasons.) The preacher sits comfortably in this ontology as an “ambassador of the Word” (26), again showing God’s active accommodation as we move from Word to Scripture to church. The church’s reception of the Word through hearing and reading also constitutes the transformation and reorientation of the church by the Spirit. Webster astutely writes of the church that seeks to understand Scripture, “We must become certain kinds of persons”; indeed, “[t]he Spirit produces readers” (26­–7). Ultimately, it is only in this divinely initiated and fulfilled process that one may move beyond the signa of Scripture. Historical and literary analysis may aid in understanding (Webster calls them necessary but not sufficient causes), but neither these nor any other “interpretative procedures” will lead to understanding of the text apart from the ministry of the Spirit and the (Spirit-enabled) willingness of the church to be a hearing body open to “exegetical surprise” and “spiritual astonishment” in receiving Scripture (28–9).

Fittingly, the other new essay (ch. 10—“Curiosity”) seems to pick up where the initial chapter leaves off. Webster’s concern here is faithful theological reasoning, and his avenue of exploration is the interchange or “conflict between the virtue of studiousness and the vice of curiosity” (193; emphasis mine). For the sake of avoiding equivocation, it is worth pointing out that Webster’s actual objects of examination are most certainly the Latin studiositas and curiositas; that these are the more central terms are evident in his heavy appeal to Aquinas and his defining of his English terms along the lines of traditional technical usage of the Latin terms in virtue treatises. Clarification aside, Webster explains that curiosity is fixated on the signa (196), knowing for the sake of knowing rather than out of love of God (199). Webster describes this kind of knowing as “intellectual promiscuity” (198). It is this undisciplined, rogue desire to know that Webster sees as rampant in academic theology in its obsession with novelty and its concession to the “authority of the convention” (202). Conversely, “studious dedication of mental powers must so relate to the object of study that the integrity of the object is respected as it comes to be known” (194). The studious person loves the object of his/her study and strives to know this object without violating it/him/her or its/his/her terms. The object of theology is God, which makes the concern all the more important. Knowing God means knowing God as he reveals himself, moving beyond the signa of Scripture, and not reaching beyond God’s own initiated boundaries.

Final Thoughts

            In whole, The Domain of the Word is a thoughtful work, full of conviction, beautifully and worshipfully written. It is a must read for all theologians, academic or lay, for all of the reasons described above, in addition to the specifics of Webster’s work. He masterfully paints the biblical picture of not just Scripture’s ontology, but that of all people as creatures of the triune God. This ontology carefully attends to the narrative of Scripture—Creation, Fall, Redemption, New Creation—and robustly considers what this means for the thought life of the church. And in Webster’s own words, all of this is because “[t]heology is not indiscriminately about everything, but about everything in relation to God” (201).

Thank you to T&T Clark for providing a review copy.


[1] The other is God without Measure: Essays in Christian Doctrine; it remains forthcoming from T&T Clark.

[2]Think here of Barth’s description of the theological task, to paint verbally a bird in mid-flight. To do this, one must continue to describe the bird anew from a number of angles. Webster’s tactic here appears the same, offering a number of ways to describe the phenomenon of Scripture as Word.

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About Ashish Varma

I am a PhD student under Kevin J. Vanhoozer, and my dissertation project pertains to defending the theological validity and identifying the dogmatic location of virtue in traditional Protestant thought, namely within the sphere of union with Christ. My wife Narissa and I attend College Church in Wheaton.
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4 Responses to Review: The Domain of the Word by John Webster

  1. Pingback: Review: The Domain of the Word by John Webster | ChristianBookBarn.com

  2. Pingback: Review of The Domain of the Word | After Existentialism, Light

  3. Pingback: Nature Precedes Interpretation- Another Dose of John Webster | Glimpses Elsewhere

  4. Pingback: Is curiosity good for you? | Perennial Student

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