Tag Archives: John Webster

LATC 2017: Can I Get a Witness? Analytics, Poetics, and the Mission of Dogmatics – Kevin Vanhoozer


Here are some lecture notes from Kevin Vanhoozer’s plenary session at LATC 2017kevinvanhoozer1200x1800

A-Introduction – the discourse of dogmatics: saying what is “in Christ”

  • Who God is and what God is doing – “in Christ”
  • For most of the 20th century Dogmatics is in the doghouse
  • Which comes first in dogmatics? A experience, community, language?


B-The issue: experiencing/thinking/speaking-of/living-to God


1.The Man Who Saw Infiinity

  • “The Man Who Saw Infinity” – Poetics vs. Analytics in Math
    • A feeling for form – poetic sensibility
  • What about dogmatics?
    • Where should we locate it on the spectrum? Analytic or Poetic?
      • Perfect being theology
      • Apophatic theology
      • Cataphatic theology
    • Dogmatics is a response to a prior divine communicative initiative
      • It exists under the domain of the Word
      • The communicative agency of the Triune God is what makes theological reflection possible. Christ is the human surface who mirrors the Father.


2.Dogmatic Discourse: the task

  • Barth: Dogmatics about how well church proclamation lines up with Revelation of the Word. The church must embody and proclaim the truth of the gospel. It was a science of the Word of God whose form and content is JC. It is scientific in the sense that it is the object that determines the practice.
  • Bavinck: Distinguishes symbolics from dogmatics (what it actually confesses and what it should confess). Dogmatic theology dogmatizes.
  • Webster: Focus is still on God’s communicative agency. Identity b/w God’s inner and outer works. Theology was under house arrest of modernity. Webster doesn’t deny the ectypal nature of human knowledge of God, yet this does not necessarily result in the deconstruction of dogmatics. Rather it acknowledges the limitations of human intellect, but places them under the sphere of God’s communicative action.


3.Dogmatic Discourse: The Challenge

  • Not all God talk constitutes dogmatic discourse
    • e. Jesus’ encounter w/demons. When demons speak. True, but not dogmatics.
  • Dogmatics not only involves words, but a doxastic attitude
  • The Latinization Thesis
    • Language change was crucial in refashioning the mentality of eurpoean thought process
    • Goal: have a humanist schoolboy speak and think like ciceronian Latins
    • Should we say something similar about dogmatics? i.e. to train to speak, write, and think as if they were in the same speech community as Athanasius and Calvin
  • The Globalization Thesis
  • The modern barrier to the thing-in-itself and God-in-himself

D.Dogmatic Discourse, part 1: Analytics

1.Dogmatic Discourse, Part 1:analytics

  • Language as a tool or language as what makes inter-subjectivity possible in the first place
  • Webster sounds an analytic note
    • Dogmatics is a species of reasoning. It involves viewing reason as created, fallen, redeemed. Caught up in an economy of grace. Dogmatic reasoning yields a conceptual representation to what reason has learned from following the exegetical text.
  • Is Webster an analytic theologian?
    • What is AT?
    • Its clear that Webster makes use of conceptual distinctions: i.e. Creator and Creature.
    • Dogmatics begins with economic works, and traces back to God in himself.
    • Webster insists again and again that theology proper is directed towards things unseen, but not necessarily unheard. It offers conceptual analysis of biblical discourse.

2.Linguistic Phenomenology

  • Webster may be a kind of phenomenlogist of the Triune God. Not the “thing in itself” but God in himself. Attempt to ID the essential components of phenomena. Webster even sounds like Husserl when he speaks of reducing elements to their founding principles. Webster – contemplation requires the mind to move through created things to the Trinitarian things themselves.
  • JL Austin compared his method to a phenomenology of ordinary language. Is dogmatics a sort of phenomenology of biblical language? It sort of resembles this.
  • Is analysis the task of dogmatics?

3.Warnings to reducing dogmatics to analytics

  • Webster’s Warning
  • Vos – Biblical theology considers the form and content, Systematic theology examines these same contexts as the material for a human work of classifying and systematizing according to human principles.
  • Webster: says this suggest two problems
    • Makes Bible raw material, hence the idiom of systematic theology drifts away from Scripture. It operates at a distance from the idiom of scripture.
    • Gives rise to the dangerous idea that dogma is an improvement upon Scripture.
    • Webster prefers a more “light-weight” understaning of the dogmatic task


E.Dogmatic Discourse, part 2: Poetics:

1.The Poetics of Dogmatics: a brief historical sampling

  • Not just content, but Form
  • David Tracy describes theology as the triumph of logos over theos.
  • Some examples:
    • Gregory of Nazianzus: Poemata Arcama
    • Schleiermacher: Christmas Eve Celebration: A Dialogue
    • Von Balthasar: Theo-Drama
    • Vanhoozer: Theodramatics

2.The Poetics of Dogmatics, part 2: biblical reasoning revisited

  • Webster’s exhortation to not let dogmatics drift away from the idioms of scripture
  • The imagination is a cognitive capacity: its important then to harken to the different ways Scriptures speaks of Christ. Given recent critiques of the designative function of language, we ought to pay more attention the the shaping of a biblical imagination, which includes also forms and content. Stories are not just delivery systems for delivering propositional content. They do something else too.
  • We needs poets and novelists, how much more do we need biblical narrative, to not only cultivate right opinion but also right affections.
  • What’s the moral for dogmatics? Should dogmatic theology look more like a science textbook or a story?
    • Lets not confuse propositional content and form
      • Some forms i.e. analytic excel at form
      • Some forms i.e. narrative excel at content too
    • Lets not think that dogmatics needs to adopt the styles of biblical discourse in order to think biblically
  • Gunton – Dogmas are summary of gospel material
  • Dogmas provide direction for doing, seeing, tasting, everything that is the drama of relation
  • The dogmatic imaginary is the social imaginary of the church generated and governed by the biblical imaginary

F.The Mission of Dogmatic Statements

  • Dogmatic indicatives: statements on a mission
    • Task: say what is happening in the mission of the F, S, HS
    • Dogmatics bears witness to this
    • Saying of what is in Christ, that it is
      • Many forms of IS (metaphorical, eschatoalogical, poetic, eternal)
    • Dogmatics guides the church in saying what “is” in Christ.
    • Dogmatic theologians are part of the cloud of witnesses
  • Dogmatics at Jerusalem: a mission(s) statement
    • Acts 15 – an example, Luke even uses DOGMATA to describe what happened in Acts 15
      • Judgement about “fittingness” of action to what we know is true about what God is doing in Christ
    • Dogmatic discourse and confessional statements
    • Confession is responsive and not spontaneous

G.Conclusion – the discourse of dogmatics and the gestures of discipleship

  • Why is there dogmatics rather than nothing?
  • Importance of including gestures in dogmatic discourse. Saying what IS in Christ involves action too. Action of what is true in Christ. The evangelical task is not just a finger pointing to Christ, but a whole BODY gesturing towards Christ.
  • Gestures are language too.
  • Dogmatics helps the church make Christly gestures.

If Only I Had More Faith…

Faith is such a hard concept to grasp… John Webster sheds some light on it in a sermon on Hebrews 11:

Often when we think and talk about faith, we fall into a trap. The trap is that of thinking of faith as some sort of special power or faculty that we have, or at least that we ought to have. We think of faith as a sort of natural talent, a bit like being good at arithmetic or having a flair for gardening—again, some power or capacity we have or would like to possess. Very often thinking in this way about faith is bound up with a sense of frustration about ourselves, a sense that to some extent we are deficient Christians because we don’t seem to have much of a talent for faith. “If only we had more faith,” we chastise ourselves; if only we had a great measure of this mysterious power which would somehow make the Christian life more real and lift us out of our doubts and confusions.

The problem with thinking along these lines is that it begins in the wrong place. It begins with us: our attitudes, our emotions, our inner lives. And in this it tends to reinforce the false idea that sorting out how to live a life of faith is basically a matter of figuring ourselves out. It can encourage us in the idea that getting faith right means cultivating some attitude, putting our inner lives on some sort of disciplined regime. And the result of that is that we’re disoriented from the start. The basic rule for thinking about faith is this: What matters about faith is not us, but the object of faith. Faith isn’t primarily a power or capacity in me; it isn’t first and foremost an attitude which I adopt; indeed, it’s not first of all something which I do. Faith is objective—that is, faith is wholly turned outward to the object of faith. In a real sense, it’s not faith itself but that toward which faith is turned that is critically important in getting our thinking straight. What matters about faith is therefore not us but God, the object of faith.

Webster, J. (2014). Confronted by Grace: Meditations of a Theologian. (D. Bush & B. Ellis, Eds.). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

May we remember that its not about the size of our faith but the “size” of the object of our faith – i.e. God himself.

Fear & Loathing In… God?

Today, if you hear his voice,
    do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,
    as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
when your fathers put me to the test
    and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.
10 For forty years I loathed that generation
    and said, “They are a people who go astray in their heart,
    and they have not known my ways.”
11 Therefore I swore in my wrath,
    “They shall not enter my rest.” – Psalm 95

Moses Striking the Rock by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (oil on canvas 1660’s)

God loathed that generation! If you are like me that is so hard to grasp – God Loathed them! Why because they complained against God and hardened their hearts against him. How can God loath his chosen people? How does that even make sense? In one of John Webster’s sermons on this very Psalm he addresses how this can be. Honestly its one of the best explanations of God’s wrath and hatred and anger that I have ever read…

Now, if we are to hear Holy Scripture aright at this point, we must be very careful. We read of God “loathing” this generation, of God’s anger against them. But if we are to make sense of that, we must not fall into the idea that God becomes another God—a God without grace, a God without mercy, a God who is not the redeemer and guardian of his people. God’s anger against this wicked generation does not mean that God abandons his covenant. It does not mean that God casts off his people forever, and that his promises are at an end. God’s purpose stands fast. His ways will be brought to completion. No sin, no rebellion, no refusal of God, can overthrow the determination of God. If our sins could stand between us and God, then no one would ever have been saved. God has never and will never go back on his avowed purpose that he will be our God and we will be his people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand. God is infinitely greater than all our sins.

Because this is so, then this “loathing” and “anger” of God does not mean that God rejects his people and that he is no longer with them. But it does mean that his presence is the terrifying presence of the judge of all. And that presence purifies by destroying evil. God’s anger is not just sheer destructive rage, the kind of thing which afflicts human beings and leads them to smash everything in their sight. God’s anger is God setting aside the evil which we sinners have allowed to invade us and take over our lives. It is the fearful energy of his holiness; it is his refusal to let sin have the upper hand. Through his anger, God eradicates sin and evil from the world. And he eradicates evil with a purpose: He eradicates it in order that righteousness and holiness might flourish; he attacks sin to establish the good order of human life. God’s anger is not God on the rampage; it is the form of God’s love. It is God refusing to let sin triumph; it is God not allowing his people to destroy themselves. God’s anger is his faithfulness to the covenant, the purifying power of his love. It doesn’t send us to hell; it rescues us from hell.

Webster, J. (2014). Confronted by Grace: Meditations of a Theologian. (D. Bush & B. Ellis, Eds.). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

Atonement is Penal and Substitutionary

Atonement is both penal and substitutionary – here is John Webster on what is happening on the cross:

He becomes, that is, the bearer of our sins. “Surely,” Isaiah tells us, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (53:4); and again: “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (53:6); and again: “he bore the sin of many” (53:12). It’s easy to misunderstand this. If we’re not careful, we can think that what’s happening in the passion is that God is simply punishing an innocent victim for our wrongdoings—as if God simply requires that the punishment for our crimes should be enacted, and it doesn’t matter who is punished. But Jesus is not just a mute sacrificial animal. If he is like a lamb led to the slaughter, it’s not because God is victimizing him; it is because he is God himself fulfilling his own purpose; it is because he is God the Son, freely and lovingly acting out the will of the Father. “It was the will of the Lord to crush him” (53:10). That does not mean that God just vented his anger at sin on Jesus. It means that he, Jesus, the Son of God, is God himself bearing the wounds of our wickedness. God does not save us by sacrificing someone other than himself. God sacrifices himself. In his Son, God himself bears our sins. He makes himself an offering for sin (Hebrews 7:27). Or as Colossians puts it “in him”—Jesus—“all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (1:19).

Webster, J. (2014). Confronted by Grace: Meditations of a Theologian.