Thursday, May 26, 2016

Rest in Peace: John Webster, Theologian Proper

Yesterday John Webster died suddenly at the age of 60 (he would have turned 61 next month). St. Andrew's has a short comment here, and there are already reflections up by Steve Holmes and Fred Sanders. I have just moved cross-country, and my boxes of books, including Webster's, have yet to arrive, so while I wanted to go ahead and offer a reflection on his passing now, I may return in a week or two with a post on his published work.

Webster was—hard as it is to shift the tense from "is"—one of the great theologians of his and our time, to some the greatest. Of the many virtues of his work, perhaps the most compelling are the humility, unshakeable confidence, and good cheer that never fail to characterize the penetrating insight, clarity of mind, demanding rhetoric, and sheer theological command that are ubiquitous in his work. Webster loved theology, loved theological theology, and every word he wrote was utterly animated and captivated by this love. The deep reason was his love of God, the one holy and triune God, and the theology he loved and practiced in service of this highest love was theology proper: disciplined human speech about the principal matter of Christian confession and praise, God, God himself, the infinite and eternally perfect God in se, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the creator and reconciler and perfecter of all things. The one who, turning to Holy Scripture and to the church's life and liturgy, considers, contemplates, and talks about this perfect one in the awesome peace of his simplicity will be filled with unutterable gladness. The reader of Webster's work will find it difficult not to be moved by this vision of God, indeed to be moved to worship and love him—an effect not always common in contemporary theology, but one Webster would have pleased by.

I did not know Webster personally, though I corresponded with him a number of times. He is one of three primary figures in my dissertation, and he was consistently kind, helpful, available, and supportive in the process, agreeing to serve as my external reader. A very minor regret is that I did not share with him while he lived what I had written about his work, though I did share what it meant to me.

Webster had many works in process, not least his planned 5-volume systematics, though for me perhaps the one I will miss most is his commentary on Ephesians for Brazos. He was an extraordinary servant of the church through the extensive, untiring use of his gifts and talents of thought, speech, teaching, and writing, and though his death is included in the providence of the great and living and gracious God he lived for and spoke of, it is a loss to those of us built up in the knowledge and love of God by his work. Which is to say, it is a loss to the church's theology, small as that loss may be in comparison to those who loved and knew him.

May John Webster, servant of God and theologian proper, rest in peace. And may he rise in the glory of the resurrection on the last day. Amen.