Friday, May 22, 2009

Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch by John Webster

Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, by John Webster,
Cambridge University Press, 2007, 144pp

Christian theology is an attempt to articulate the gospel in accordance with the witness of Scripture. But how should we view Scripture in the context of the church's theological task? Should we see the Bible simply as a human book that speaks of man's consciousness of the divine? Or would it be better to regard Scripture as a God-given text that the church must seek to understand and obey as best it can? Both positions are obviously reductionistic. The first fails to take seriously Scripture's own claim that it is the living and enduring Word of God. The second recognises the divine origin of the Bible, but does not give sufficient attention to the place of Scripture in communicative action of the triune God. How then may we understand Scripture in relation to God's self-revelatory presence and saving purposes? This book is John Webster's attempt to sketch out an answer to that question.

In the first chapter Webster discusses Revelation, Sanctification and Inspiration. From the outset Webster makes it clear that he does not want to consider the Scriptures in isolation. A theological account of Scripture must set the Bible in the context of God's self-revelation and the reception of that revelation by the church. Webster's concept of revelation has a decidedly Barthian emphasis. For him revelation is reconciliation. But it is possible to hear of God's offer of reconciliation without actually being reconciled to him. Revelation is only reconciliation in the context of the effective call of the Gospel. Webster is right, however to stress the role of Scripture the communicative action of the Triune God. Scripture serves the revelatory presence of God, as the Father brings his people into fellowship with himself through the work of the Son in the power of the Spirit.

The biblical writings are distinguished from all other literature by the designation “Holy Scripture”. Webster invokes the concept of the ‘sanctification’ of Scripture to hold together both the divine and human aspects of the Bible, “the biblical texts are creaturely realities set apart by the triune God to serve his self-presence.” (p. 21). But the theologian is unhappy with the oft drawn analogy between Scripture as a divine/human book and the union of divine and human natures in the person of Christ. He suggests that the analogy blurs the distinction between Christ and the Bible. Webster prefers to speak of Scripture as a witness to God’s Word. This was Karl Barth’s preferred way of viewing Scripture, to the extent that he viewed Scripture as a fallible, human witness to the divine Word,

“The men whom we hear as witnesses speak as fallible, erring men like ourselves. What they say, and what we read as their word, can of itself lay claim to be the Word of God, but can never sustain that claim”, (Church Dogmatics Book I, 2, p. 507).

Webster formulates the idea of Scripture as testimony with greater care and respect. He does not want to so stress the fragility of Scripture’s human witness to the divine Word that the relationship between the Bible and God’s self-revelation become almost accidental. We have to bear in mind the work of the Spirit in the production, preservation and interpretation of Scripture.

What Webster wants to avoid in rejecting the analogy between Christ and the Bible is the attribution of divine properties to the text of Scripture. At this point he draws on Herman Bavinck’s idea of the ‘servant form’ of Scripture. As developed by Berkhouer, this perspective is taken to suggest that in the Bible we have the treasures of God’s self-revelation in ‘earthen vessels’, subject to human weakness. Webster does not spell out what he means by human 'weaknesses', but I guess he has the traditional Evangelical doctrine of biblical inerrancy in his sights. This calls for a couple of comments. First, in Bavinck, the notion of the ‘servant form’ of Scripture is explicitly rooted in an incarnational analogy,

"The incarnation of Christ demands that we trace it down into the depths of its humiliation, in all its weakness and contempt. The recording of the word, of revelation, invites us to recognise that dimension of weakness and lowliness, the servant form, also in Scripture. But just as Christ's human nature, however weak and lowly, remained free from sin, so also Scripture is 'conceived without defect or stain'; totally human in all its parts but also totally divine in all its parts." (Reformed Dogmatics Volume 1, Herman Bavinck, Baker Academic, 2003, p. 435).

Second, I agree that it would be wrong to attribute divine properties to a text. But the Bible is not simply an inert text. It is the product of the God's communicative action. As Timothy Ward points out, Scripture is better described as ‘Word’ or ‘message’ than ‘text’. In Scripture we have God's speech acts performed through the words of Scripture. This construction does not entail divinizing the biblical text, but it does mean that Scripture will reflect the divine identity of its ultimate author. As God’s speech act, we can expect that Scripture will be wholly reliable and without error. (Words of Life, Timothy Ward, IVP, 2009. See p. 78ff for his interaction with Webster).

After discussing the sanctification of Scripture, Webster moves on to reflect on the inspiration of the Bible. He holds to the verbal inspiration of Scripture. But the theologian rightly insists that inspiration does not simply have to do with the original production of Scripture, as God moved men to write the Bible. As Bavinck points out, theopneustos (2 Timothy 3:16) means that Scripture is both God-breathed as to its origin, and God-breathing as he continues to speak through his written Word.

Despite the strictures noted above, there is much that is helpful and thought provoking in Webster’s treatment of the relationship between God’s self-revelation and Scripture. In setting Scripture in the context of the communicative presence of the triune God, he is able to conclude, “what we encounter in Scripture is the terrifying mercy of God’s address.” (p. 41).

Webster also discusses Scripture, Canon and the Church. He provides a good Protestant account of the canon of Scripture in terms of the Church recognising what God has given in the sacred writings rather than the Church conferring its authority on the Bible. He interacts with Gerorge Lindbeck’s postliberal approach to the Bible. Lindbeck lays great stress on the role of the Church as an interpretative community. What the Church makes of the Bible is what seems to matter above all else. But this proposal virtually ignores the self-communication of God in Scripture. The Church is enabled to understand the Bible by the witness of the Spirit. Her authority is not the voice of the Church as an interpretative community, but the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture.

A rich chapter is devoted to reading in the economy of grace. Shortcutting complicated hermeneutical theories, Webster commends a simple, trusting and attentive reading of Scripture, saying, "Faithful reading of Holy Scripture in the economy of grace is an episode in the history of sin and its overcoming." (p. 87). How we ought to remember that when tempted to skim through our daily Bible readings! We need to cultivate a deep, meditative and prayerful engagement with Scripture.

Finally, drawing on the teaching of the Reformers, Webster makes a case for Bible-based theology in the context of the secular university.

Webster’s dogmatic sketch of Holy Scripture helps to place the Bible in its proper theological context – the self revelation of the one God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He has attempted give a us coherent account of Scripture as the living and active Word of God to human beings, through human beings. He could have gone further in asserting the infallibility and inerrancy of the Bible as God’s authoritative speech. We certainly need to avoid giving the impression that we attribute divine properties to Scripture. We do not worship a Book. But ‘bibliolatry’ is not the only danger we face. We also need to avoid driving a wedge between the eternal and omniscient God of the Gospel and his communicative action in Scripture. God’s Word is ever God’s Word.

“‘The grass withers, and the flower falls but the word of the Lord remains forever’. And this word is the good news that was preached to you.” (1 Peter 1:24-25).

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