03 October 2005

webster on dogma

Some more from John Webster's Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch (Cambridge 2003).

Webster's account of the doctrine of Scripture is frankly dogmatic. He notes in his introduction that such an approach isn't very popular these days, especially inasmuch as the doctrine of Scripture is so often subsumed under cultural and religious studies, understanding Holy Scripture to be "an extension of the term 'scripture,' and refers not to properties which the biblical canon has by virtue of its relation to God's communicative activity, but to the activities of human agents in constituting a cultural and religious world" (1).

This doesn't mean that Webster in any sense downplays the humanity of Scripture, but his account remains theological in character, taking stock of the human in light of the doctrines of creation and providence, as already the sphere of divine, trinitarian action. Webster is insistent that the language by which we sketch out what Scripture is must be the "language of the triune God's saving and revelatory action" (1). As an exercise in dogmatics, it cannot allow the concept of Scripture "to be folded into the more general category of 'scripture'," but instead seeks "to maximise the difference between the two and thereby to resist the subordination of Holy Scripture to cultural poetics" (2).

Thus, later in his exposition, Webster points out the difficulties with both modern critical biblical scholarship and modern philosophical-theological hermeneutics, suggesting that both are primarily theological difficulties, rooted in a naturalistic ontology that assumes that "a text's being is defined by reference to its occupation of a space in a natural field of communicative activity" (29). In this way, the biblical writings end up being treated as "instances of the nautral class of texts," but this assumption is to be resisted, according to Webster.

Such an assumption misconstrues the text, Webster suggests, reading it wholly in terms of "textual clues" from which one can reconstruct the historical matrix out of which the text emerged, while failing to read the text as something that involves God's address of the hearer or reader. This is a theological error, Webster asserts, that assumes a "natural" understanding of the text "is more basic than an understanding of the text as 'scripture'," to wit, as "this text - sanctified, that is, Spirit-generated and preserved - in this field of action - the communicative economy of God's merciful friendship with lost creatures" (29).

The result of approaching the doctrine of Scripture theologically, Webster notes, is a "dogmatic ontology" of Scripture, "an account of what Holy Scripture is in the saving economy of God's loving and regenerative self-communication" (2).

In light of Webster's insistence upon dogmatic theology, it is interesting to note the way in which he frames such theology in relation to Scripture. He writes,

It is, therefore, of prime importance to avoid construing dogmatics as a set of improvements upon Scripture. The relative necessity of the theoretical language of dogmatics should not blind us to the fact that it is exposed to the "heresy of paraphrase" - the assumption that theology, once formulated, effectively replaces the more rudimentary language forms of the Bible. It is fatally easy to prefer the relatively clean lines of doctrine to the much less manageable, untheorised material of the Bible. But once we begin to do that, doctrine quickly becomes a way of easing ourselves of some permanently troubling tracts of Christian language: in effect, the rhetoric of dogma can serve to de-eschatologise the church's apprehension of the gospel. (130)

Webster goes on to suggest that our understanding of dogmatic theology must account for it as something "much more light-weight, low-level, and approximate, something therefore less likely to compete with or displace Scripture" (130). Thus dogmatics must always be characterized by "modesty and transparency" and function as "a kind of gloss on Scripture" (130). In this light dogmatic theology must remain "self-effacing" and allow its function to be "exhausted in the role it plays vis-a-vis Scripture" (131).

All of this seems to me very much on track and serves as a helpful reminder to those of us who labor primarily in the area of dogmatic or systematic theology.