Webster’s Neo-Barthian View of Scripture

According to historic Christianity, Scripture is one of the ways God reveals God’s-self. But precisely how that occurs has been the subject of a good deal of discussion. There are many fundamental questions to be answered. Which doctrine does scripture belong under? Ecclesiology or Trinity? Is Scripture best seen (from a Christian viewpoint) as a continual dialogue81ozvta3drl akin to Jewish Midrash or does it communicate timeless truths? Is all Scripture equally inspired? Is there a canon within the canon?

The late John Webster presupposed a neo-Barthian picture of Holy Scripture. Like Barth, he asserted that only Jesus is the total self-revelation of God, i.e. the “Word of God” proper. Scripture is, or becomes, the Word of God as it points to Jesus, the Word made flesh. For Webster, Scripture is a part of the created order, and, as such, has need to be sanctified like all of creation. According to him, “it has to be asserted that no divine nature or properties are to be predicated of Scripture.”

Webster argues that if we say that the Bible belongs under ecclesiology, then it only says what the church says. It cannot address the church or call the church in any meaningful way. However, it does not follow that it speaks to us from above as the direct and unmediated voice of God. Webster’s dogmatic innovation is the use of the term ‘sanctification’ to describe the relationship. He also utilizes the terminology “means of grace” and  “testimony’ to the same effect:

“The very genre of ‘testimony’ – as language which attests a reality other than itself – is especially fitting for depicting how a creaturely entity may undertake a function in the divine economy, without resort to concepts which threaten to divinize the text, since – like prophecy or apostolic witness – testimony is not about itself but is a reference beyond itself.”

The church, as a result, has to listen, revere, and submit, but this view also qualifies scripture as an appointed servant and witness, a creature which cannot, ultimately, be divinized. It is God’s voice as it has been heard and repeated by people, not a mediation or repetition of God’s voice.

God continues to sanctify the Bible through the reading and discussion of the text within the Church. In this way, Webster connects sanctification to the process of dialogue. At least this is how I understand him.

“In sum: the biblical text is Scripture; its being is defined, not simply by its membership of the class of texts, but by the fact that it is this text – sanctified, that is, Spirit-generated and preserved – in this field of action – the communicative economy of God’s merciful friendship with his lost creatures.

Sanctification is not to be restricted to the text as finished product; it may legitimately be extended to the larger field of agents and actions of which the text is part.”   – Holy Scripture: A dogmatic sketch p.29

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