Monday, November 19, 2007

Holiness by John Webster

Holiness, John Webster, 2003, SCM Press

In this remarkable book, John Webster attempts to develop a dogmatic theology of holiness. Webster is an academic theologian with a special interest in Karl Barth. But he does not view theology as a merely "academic" exercise. Theology is a work of human reason that has been sanctified by God and that is subject to the revelatory presence of the Holy Trinity as set forth in Holy Scripture. Webster insists that the theologian needs to undertake this venture with prayerful dependence of the Holy Spirit in the context of the communion of the saints. The grand objective of theology is the sanctification of God's holy Name. Webster disagrees with some modern theologians who seek discern the meaning of holiness by a study of religious phenomenon of "the sacred". We can only understand the holy God, who is Father, Son and Spirit as he brings us into saving fellowship with himself by an act of free mercy. The writer offers a compelling vision of the task of theology,
"Theology is an office in the Church. When Church and theology are shaped into holiness by the gospel, then the work of theology is one to which the theologian is called and appointed and for which the theologian is equipped, in order to undertake a particular task. Theology is not free thought or speech, if by 'free' we mean unattached to any given set of objects or any given sphere of inquiry. Theology is not free speech but holy speech. It is set apart for and bound to its object - that is the gospel - and to the fellowship of the saints in which the gospel is heard as divine judgement and consolation - that is, the Church." (p. 2)
We are to view God's holiness in relational terms. The triune God is holy in himself. His attributes including holiness are a true revelation of the being of God. But his holiness is revealed to us in the acts of creation and redemption. The Father elected human beings for fellowship with himself. The Son has rescued humanity from sin by his atoning work. The Spirit perfects the work of redemption by sanctifying sinners and bringing them into fellowship with God. Webster is clear that God does not set aside his majestic holiness in the event of our salvation. It is as the Holy One that the Lord acts to overcome our unholiness to reconcile us with himself. But what of God's holiness in relation to those who remain in their sin? To such, the holy God is a "consuming fire". The theologian does not comment on this aspect of the subject, choosing to emphasise God's holiness in salvation rather than in judgement. But if an account of holiness is to follow the contours of Holy Scripture, then something should be said about God's holy and eternal wrath against unrepentant sinners.
The doctrine of God's holiness should not be separated from the doctrine of the church because the holy God has acted to sanctify a people for himself. However, Webster is careful to guard against social trinitarianism, which tends to blur the distinction between God's intertrinitarian life and the life of the church. He rightly prefers to discuss God's relationship with his people in terms of the doctrine of election. The church exists because the Father has chosen and gathered a holy people to himself. This is a work of free grace accomplished by the Son and enacted by the Spirit. The church does not possess an innate holiness. Hers is an alien holiness bestowed upon her and maintained by God's sanctifying grace,
"The church is holy; but it is holy, not by virtue of some ontological participation in the divine holiness, but by virtue of its calling by God, its reception of the divine benefits, and the obedience of faith." (p. 57).
The church exists to confess God's own holiness. She does this as she hears and responds to the promise and commands of the gospel. The church's holiness becomes visible when she confesses her sin and asks God for mercy. The holiness of the church is missional. She bears witness to the world in word and deed, "the dynamic of holiness includes not only gathering and withdrawal but also sending." (p. 74). The holiness of the church is expressed as she prays, 'Hallowed be thy name!' "Praise is the great act of rebellion against sin, the great repudiation of our wicked refusal to acknowledge God to be the Lord." (p. 76). This consideration of the holiness of the church - the people of God - is a welcome corrective to privatised versions of holiness and spirituality.
But where does all this leave the holiness of the individual Christian? The theologian devotes the last of his four chapters to this subject. Here is his basic proposition,
"The sanctification of the Christian is the work of the Holy Trinity in which the reconciled sinner is renewed for the active life of holy fellowship with God. Grounded in the electing, reconciling and perfecting work of Father, Son and Spirit, the active life of holy fellowship is the work of faith, which is at every moment characterised by mortification and vivification, and which is actual as freedom, obedience and love." (p. 78-79, italics original)
As Webster expounds this proposition phrase by phrase, he develops a theology of the Christian life of holiness. The holy life is not a matter of autonomous self-actualisation. That would be a denial of our creaturely dependence upon God. The writer draws on Calvin's teaching on 'double grace' at this point. God not only reconciles us to himself and acquits us from guilt, he also transforms us for holy action. The goal of our election is that we should be holy, (Ephesians 1:4). Holiness is evangelical sanctification - a holiness that has been declared by the gospel and is received in faith. But holiness is not only declared in the gospel, it is also commanded by the gospel. The believer has been united to Christ in his death and resurrection. The pattern of the Christian life is that of mortification and vivification. Through the Spirit, sin is put to death and holiness brought to life. The life of holiness is an expression of true Christian freedom. We are free not for self-realisation, but to obey the law of God and walk in his ways.
The theologian draws on the teaching of Barth here and there. His influence can perhaps be discerned in Webster's teaching on election as "the separation of humankind as a holy people" (p. 48). Does this mean all humankind? He does not spell out what he means in detail. But there are many good things here. The writer has given us a well argued and attractive account of Christian holiness. Webster's theology is deeply trinitarian and is full of textual exegesis and biblical reflection. He helpfully draws upon the theological insights of John Calvin, John Owen and Jonathan Edwards. This study enriches our understanding of the holy God of the gospel. Here is a work of 'holy reason' that is of great practical value both to the church and individual believer.


Anonymous said...


Thanks for this post. I am one among many who have profited greatly from Webster's fine book.

A wee question. You wrote: 'holiness is revealed to us in the acts of creation and redemption'. While the revelation of holiness in the latter of the divine actions is clear (at least to those given eyes to see) where would you say divine holiness is revealed in the acts of creation?

Guy Davies said...

Thanks for your question, Jason. I suppose that I was trying to summarise Webster's point that "God is holy in all his works" and that his holiness is revealed in the economy of his actions. Webster defines the economy very broadly as God's dealings with creation and humanity as creator and saviour,(p. 39-40).

I think that we can say that God's holiness is revealed in creation because creation displays the glory of a holy God. A number of Scriptures come to mind -

And one [cherubim] cried to another and said:“ Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; The whole earth is full of His glory!”
Isaiah 6:3.

To quote Alec Motyer's commentary, "This transcendent holiness is the mode of God's immanence for the whole earth is full of his glory.

Also in Isaiah, God the Holy One is revealed as he who created and upholds the stars,

“To whom then will you liken Me,
Or to whom shall I be equal?” says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high, And see who has created these things, Who brings out their host by number; He calls them all by name, By the greatness of His might And the strength of His power; Not one is missing. (40:25-26).

Obviously God's holiness is revealed more fully in the economy of redemption than in creation. But the Scriptural testimony recognises that creation in some way discloses God's holiness.

Jon said...

John Webster is probably more interested in Jungel academically rather than Barth. Plus he reads Barth much differently to the accepted traditional readings of Barth and ties him into reformed faith. Also, seems a bit harsh on Barth to suggest he saw theology as a merely academic activity. I know you don't mean it but it comes across: "with a special interest in Karl Barth. But he does not view theology as a merely "academic" exercise."

Thanks for the review though. I hope to begin working on my PhD with John Webster after next year which will be good fun!

Guy Davies said...


I wasn't trying to suggest that Barth viewed theology as an academic exercise, merely that Webster is an academic theologian with an interest in Barth. That might sound a bit heavy and "academic" to some, but I wanted to stress that Webster's Holiness is really very accessible.

All the best with your studies!

Anonymous said...


Thanks for your response, and the inclusion of the quote from Motyer (I love that commentary!). I like the point you're trying to make. I'm not convinced, however, that any mileage is gained by conflating holiness into notions of glory, or the reverse, which seems to be the tendency in most thinking on holiness. Neither am I suggesting that the two are unconnected.


PS. Don't listen too carefully to Jon. He's just a Jungel freak trying to convert us all to his Jungelism. And, as we all know, all isms are dangerous.

Jon said...

Ha! Jungel would take down PTF any day of the week - any rules of engagement. Don't listen to Jason, Guy, cause he's just a fuddy-duddy Oz who likes Kierkegaard too much!

Anonymous said...

A 'fuddy-duddy Oz'? - Yes!

'Who likes Kierkegaard too much!'? - I don't think so.

'Jungel ... take down PTF any day of the week - any rules of engagement'? - You've got to be kidding!!!

Guy Davies said...

I think that I'll just let you two battle this one out!

HEJ said...

I am currently reading this book and I have a question in regards to how John Webster view on sanctification differ and compare to John Wesley's?