Book Review: Holy Scripture – A Dogmatic Sketch

John Webster. Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

John Webster’s work, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch is exactly what the title implies, it is a dogmatic account sketching out a doctrine of Holy Scripture. It is not meant to be a comprehensive account of Holy Scripture, thus it is just a sketch. Also it is a piece of dogmatic theology, thus it is a piece of theology which exists within the bounds of recognized church dogma. In the book he takes for granted the most essential pre-suppositions of Christianity and creates an account of scripture from there. What results is a brief, but dense, dogmatic ontology of scripture. It is an account of “what Holy Scripture is in the saving economy of God’s loving and regenerative self-communication.”[1]

In this review I intend to do several things: 1-present a brief sketch of what Webster says throughout the book; 2-present what I take to have been done well by Webster; 3-make several critical observations about Webster’s account of Holy Scripture.

Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch – A Brief Sketch

This book is divided into an introduction, four chapters, and a conclusion. Foundational to Webster’s account is Chapter 1. The content of chapter one, specifically his definition of revelation, sets the trajectory for the rest of his work. One might even say that the rest of the book is an unfolding of Webster’s definition of revelation.

In the introduction Webster tells the reader what he intends to do in this dogmatic sketch. He tells the reader that he is trying to give an account of what Holy Scripture is. Not necessarily what Scripture does, or why it does the things it does, but what it is. Any talk about what scripture does in the life of the church, or in the life of unbelievers will flow out from what it is. For Webster these other issues are secondary. Webster begins with the question of whether there even is such a thing as Holy Scripture. He claims that the Christian dogmatic position says that yes there is, and whatever Holy Scripture is, it must be understood in the context of the triune God’s saving action and the triune God’s revelatory action. Although we do need to take into account that Holy Scripture is still a human text, we must first understand Holy Scripture in light of what it is in the context of God’s loving and regenerative self-communication.

Chapter 1 begins by attempting to clear up what people mean when they speak about “Holy Scripture.” Naturally Holy Scripture can refer to a set of texts, but we must be careful not to treat it as simply another text which is religious in nature. Perhaps Holy Scripture can be considered in light of how the text is used by the church. However we must be careful about defining Holy Scripture solely in its relationship and reception by the community that uses that text. Although we may talk about Holy Scripture in these two ways Holy Scripture must be primarily understood in light of its “origin, function, and end in divine self-communication.”[2] Understanding Holy Scripture in this way will lead us to see that Holy Scripture is shorthand for “the nature and function of the biblical writings in a set of communicative acts which stretch from God’s merciful self-manifestation to the obedient hearing of the community of faith.”[3]

Since Holy Scripture is primarily the writings in a set of divine self-communication, but also a text which is meant to be received by a creaturely community, this means that a dogmatic account of Scripture must be about God’s communication and about humanity’s reception of the text. In this chapter Webster takes on the first part of this task, sketching out how Holy Scripture relates to God’s revealing, sanctifying, and inspiring actions. It could be said that this chapter is the most important chapter in the book because it sets the foundation for the rest of the chapters.

Webster begins by defining revelation as “the self-presentation of the triune God, the free work of sovereign mercy in which God wills, establishes, and perfects saving fellowship with himself in which humankind comes to know, love, and fear him above all things.”[4] By defining revelation Webster points out that revelation is not merely cognitive. Revelation is the act of presenting a person for the sake of relationship. The triune God presents himself so that humans would enter a relationship with him that is marked by love, fear, and presence. In the end revelation reconciles humanity to God and brings humans into the light of the knowledge of God. Webster goes on to define sanctification as “the act of God the Holy Spirit in hallowing creaturely processes, employing them in the service of the taking form of revelation within the history of the creation.”[5] Defining sanctification in this way allows Webster to bypass docetic and naturalistic tendencies that are often played out when discussing the nature of scripture. If we understand scripture as a sanctified text we are allowed to maintain the special nature of scripture and the creaturely processes involved in the writing of scripture. Finally Webster says that any definition of scripture must not primarily be about the text itself, nor how it functions in the community, but rather it must be about the divine action accounting for the formation of the text. This must include the fact that the generative impulse of the text lies in God’s will and not the human will, that the action is carried out by the Holy Spirit, that the Holy spirit impels writing of words, not just subject matter.

In chapter two Webster takes on the relationship between Scripture and the Church and Scripture and the canon. Webster works out how these relationships are to be understood in light of what has been said about revelation, sanctification, and inspiration. However, these relationships are primarily worked out in light of what has been said about revelation and God’s saving work. Webster says that however we are to understand these relationships we must understand them keeping in mind that the church is hearing church, a spiritually visible church, and an apostolic church. First the church is a hearing church; it hears and receives God’s revelation through the gospel. Secondly, the church is visible as the place where the gospel, the revelation of God, dwells. Finally, the church is apostolic in that it is sent by the mandate of the risen Christ, to proclaim the revelation of God. The church that is described by these three characteristics is the church that the Spirit has enabled the recognition of, trust in, and glad obedience to the Holy Scriptures. Finally as we talk about the canonization of scripture, we must understand canonization as the act of the church accepting, submitting, and committing itself to the authority of these writings.

In chapter three Webster shows the reader what it looks like to read the scriptures within “an economy of grace.” Once again the definition of revelation helps us understand what he means. Remembering that revelation is the self-presentation of the triune God that perfects saving fellowship, we come to understand that as revelation, scripture is a part of God’s saving work which leads to fellowship with God. Thus when a believer reads scripture she must read it in light of how God uses it to perfect fellowship with himself. This means that the reader must come to the scriptures with humility, willing to be confronted but also expecting to be given grace through God’s presence.

The fourth and final chapter takes up some of the material presented in chapter three and applies it to the field of theology. By examining Ursinus’ “A Hortatory Oration to the Study of Divinity,” Webster argues that theology must be done with humility, that it must lead to the edification of the church, and that it must keep Holy Scripture central. If the church and theological schools are to do theology properly, they must understand theology as an operation of reason in the economy of grace.[6]

These four chapters constantly return to the fact that Holy Scripture is to be understood in light of its position in the economy of grace. The giving of scripture is an act of grace. The reading of scripture is an act of God’s grace. The studying and teaching of scripture is an act of God’s gracious purposes to bring us into perfect fellowship with himself.

Positive Observations

Webster’s book could be commended for doing many things well, but there are a few that he does particularly well. First, at a literary level, this book is well organized and structured. Webster organizes the book into chapters and sections. Because he does this one can easily discover what Webster is trying to do in any given part of the book. Not only does the fact that the book is well organized help the reader understand what it is that Webster is doing, it also helps him make his argument in a clear and coherent fashion. As an example of how well this book is structured and organized one could simply look at chapter one. This chapter is divided into four major sections: 1-revelation, 2-sanctification, 3-inspiration, and 4-conclusion. And even within these sections he often includes a thesis that lets the reader know what he intends to do within that section. For instance in this chapter he defines revelation[7], and spends the rest of the section further analyzing that definition. Since he is clear in his definition of revelation, the reader knows the trajectory that Webster follows throughout the chapter and the rest of the book as well.

In addition to organization and structure in Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch Webster can be commended for avoiding the dualist trap that many books fall into when giving a doctrine of scripture. He carefully walks the line between a view of scripture that places too much responsibility in the hands of humanity and a view that is almost docetic. Both of these views of scripture minimize the fact that scripture really is something special and unique. Yet Webster’s view, which is based upon the notion of sanctification disallows these this sort of dualism into our account of scripture. Webster says that sanctification refers “to the work of the Spirit of Christ through which creaturely realities are elected, shaped, and preserved to undertake a role in the economy of salvation.”[8] Thus Holy Scripture being sanctified should be seen as a creaturely work made holy. The strength of this view is that the notion of sanctification can be extended even beyond the original autographs, sanctification can be used to describe how canonization takes place. The notion of sanctification could even be applied to our modern translations as well.

Finally, Webster can be commended for how he ties in the majority of his work throughout the book back to his original definition of revelation, and revelations’ end which could be considered to be soteriological. Since the earliest version of this book was actually a series of lectures delivered at the University of Aberdeen it would have been easy for these chapters to seem unrelated and disconnected from each other, yet Webster avoids this and makes the entire book a coherent whole. For instance in chapter one he subordinates all talk of inspiration under the concept of revelation.[9] In chapter two Webster argues that any account of the authority of scripture cannot be abstracted from its soteriological end. In chapter three he argues that scripture must be read within the economy of grace, thus once again he places scripture within his definition of revelation which has a soteriological end. Finally in chapter four he presents his case for the fact that theology serves scripture. Thus even theology and theological studies are placed within a soteriological end, in this case the edification and sanctification of the church. For Webster theology must be understood in the context of the triune God’s saving action and the triune God’s revelatory action which lead the church to love, fear, and obey God.

Critical Observations

Although there is much that Webster does well, there are also several shortcomings within this piece of theology. I would like to briefly mention two of these shortcomings. The first is that this book has very dense prose. Perhaps this is what one should expect when reading a brief sketch on a massive issue. And perhaps this really is not even a shortcoming, although in light of what he argues for in chapter four it seems as though it actually is. In chapter four he argues that as an office of the church, theology is to assist in the edification of the church. So the reason that dense prose is a shortcoming of this book is that it will be a very difficult task for such a dense piece of work to reach out to the church and edify it. That is not to say that it cannot be done, and perhaps it is the work of pastors to translate these theological materials into the vernacular of the congregants, but if this is the case then Webster has moved away from the models he looks up to, namely Calvin and Ursinus. Calvin and Ursinus were theologians that did theology which was concerned with the instruction, guidance, and formation of Christian disciples yet remained accessible to theologically uneducated people.

Another shortcoming of this book is that there are sections in which Webster’s position remains unclear. For instance consider his section on inspiration in chapter one. Webster says that the mandatum scribendi (command to write) should not be confused with dictation.[10] Yet he also says that “what is inspired is not simply the matter (res) of Scripture but its verbal form (forma).” How should we understand this distinction? A dictation view suggests that the Spirit tells the author what to write, but Webster’s view also suggests that the Spirit leads in the writing of specific words. Perhaps we should understand the distinction between the dictation view and Webster’s view as being primarily about conscious and willing participation of those involved in the writing of scripture. As he says of the authors and the Spirit, that the work is “concursive rather than antithetical.” Yet no one who holds a dictation view will disagree with this. So in the end Webster’s view is unclear because at times it looks to be compatible with positions that people who hold the dication view would agree with but at the same time he distances himself from the dictation view.

Overall Webster’s Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch is a worthwhile read. Though dense, it is informative. Though at times specific arguments are unclear, his overall argument is very clear. Having said these things, it should be noted that for me this book was both devotional and theological. As I read Webster’s theology I was personally edified, and was drawn into a deeper fellowship with the God whose communicative actions was what this book was all about. Ultimately Webster embodies what the proper task of the theologian: to instruct, guide, and form the disciples of Jesus Christ.[11]

 


[1] John Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 2.

[2] Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, 5.

[3] Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, 5.

[4] Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, 13.

[5] Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, 17-8.

[6] Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, 123.

[7] Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, 13.

[8] Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, 26.

[9] Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, 31.

[10] Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, 39.

[11] Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, 131-2.

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