Holy Scripture (Webster)

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Puritan Board Freshman
Webster, John. Holy Scripture. Cambridge University Press, 2003.

In this book, Webster addresses the topic of the Bible. His goal: to describe what Scripture "is" in the Christian faith, rather than defining Scripture through general phenomenology (or what could be called the "history of religions" approach, with a general category of 'scripture' applicable to all religions). The four chapters have similar threads running through them, but are relatively independent with a fair amount of thematic repetition. It should be noted that Webster's view on inspiration in this book is problematic - his later views on Scripture (particularly inspiration) changed to the extent that he briefly defended the usage of dictation terminology, and entirely rejected the Barthian critiques of inspiration. This work is earlier than that, and he wrongly accepts the Barth/Heppe critique of the Reformed Orthodox here.

Chapter 1: Revelation, Sanctification, Inspiration.
Main point: To talk about what Scripture is, the doctrine needs to be integrated with the entire scope of Christian theology. This is done by a progressive movement: God -> Revelation -> Sanctification -> Inspiration. By contextualizing the doctrine of Scripture like such, modern dualism is countered (which would falsely see divine activity and Scripture's creaturely form as mutually exclusive).
- Disorder 1: the reduction of 'Holy Scripture' to mean 'reader practice' (you can interpret the Bible to say anything)
- Disorder 2: the reduction of 'Holy Scripture' to mean 'church teaching' (think "tradition" or postliberalism)
- Webster's Proposal: divine action is primary in understanding what 'Holy Scripture' means
- Revelation in modernity: modernity does two things:
1) It reduces the material content of the doctrine of revelation, turning it into universal naturalistic reason
2) It increases the demands upon the doctrine of revelation, making it a "pre-belief" epistemological warrant/ground for belief
- Revelation defined: "the self-presentation of the triune God, the free work of sovereign mercy in which God wills, establishes and perfects saving fellowship with himself in which humankind comes to know, love and fear him above all things" (14). Basically: revelation is not only noetic, it is also relational.
- Sanctification: this is (broadly speaking) divine action whereby God makes a creature fit for divine service (including providential shaping of its entire history)
- Dualism: the category of sanctification assumes the compatibility of Scripture as both a "historical" and a "theological" entity, thus rejecting dualism
- Utility of the term: sanctification can apply to all the processes concerning Scripture (production, maintenance, reception)
- Inspiration: Webster defines this as sanctification applied to texts
- Apologetics: inspiration should not be treated as a justification for belief because faith is in God, not in inspiration - conversion precedes affirmation of inspiration
- Implication: not just the content of Scripture (matter), but also the actual words (form) are inspired, and therefore important

Chapter 2: Scripture, Church and Canon
Main point: Scripture is not immanent within the church as an "internal" feature of its life, but the instrument by which God presents himself to the church from above. More fundamentally: the church is the creature of the word, the word is not the creature of the church.
- Critique: post-critical theologies inflate ecclesiology, resulting in an immanent ecclesiology where the church creates Scripture (example: Lindbeck)
- Nature of church: its basic act is hearing, which corresponds to sola fide
- Visibility of church: it is spiritual. This means that sociological description of it as a human society fails
- History of church: it is "apostolic." Apostolicity is not caused by an order of ministry (which would be immanentist) but by hearing Scripture
- Authority: Authority is not a consequence of inspiration because it is the social/ecclesial reality in which the church acknowledges Scripture (instead of a textual property)
- Polemics: If we turn Scripture into primarily a tool to argue with others, we tend to deny its authority to rebuke ourselves and demand our repentance
- Canon: with Calvin, we don't deny the human act of canonization. Instead, we characterize it as acknowledgement (not authorization): "this decision has noetic but not ontological force" (62-63)

Chapter 3: Reading in the Economy of Grace
Main point: If Scripture is God's communication, then the right reader stance is teachableness, not creativity.
- Modernity: modernity says "think for yourself" to be authentic, but Scripture demands self-negation and calls such thinking for yourself idolatry
- Calvin: Scripture is essential because it is what God uses; readers actively submit to Scripture
- Bonhoeffer: He emphasizes obedience to Scripture by intentional over-plainness; perspicuity implies an attitude of listening rather than an activity of analysis
- "Reading" > "Interpretation": the former term is preferred because it acknowledges God's communicative action as primary (and our act is repentance)
- Sufficiency: Scripture's sufficiency implies that it should be the primary focus of our reading
- Critique: James K.A. Smith thinks like an Arminian, so he talks too much about reader action instead of divine action. Webster actually critiques a whole host of modern thinkers here, but his accusation of Smith being Arminian was particularly sharp.
- Conversion: this is the basis of teachableness, which drives a wariness towards "critical" methods of interpretation

Chapter 4: Scripture, Theology and the Theological School
Main point: Modernity's rejection of Scripture as God's communication results in the divide between theological disciplines (systematics, biblical exegesis, etc.). When Scripture is instead understood as God's communication, theology (as a whole) is understood as a unified science to serve the Word in the church.
- Ursinus: Doctrine is an instrument, derived from Scripture, which God uses to edify the church
- Exegesis: Absolutely necessary for doctrine
- Positivity: Theology is a "positive" rather than "natural" science. Modernism (Kant/Hegel) divides reason (which is universal) from positivity (which is particular - therefore scandalous). The result: OT study looks like "Near Eastern" studies more than it looks like dogmatics.
- Theology and Apologetics: As an office in the church, theology should not care about justifying itself to audiences outside the church
- Paraphrase: Theology's goal (and therefore its manner) should be "deliberately unoriginal: (132-133)
- Practice: Theology as described requires fellowship in the church and prayer.

Thoughts: Overall, the book is very good. It is denser than Webster's book on Holiness (and a tad longer). He interacts much more with scholarly thought and trends here, mainly to criticize the immanence of post-critical/postliberal theology. His comments on the nature and harmful effects of modernity upon theological thought are extremely insightful, as are his discussions of "meta-theology" regarding the relationship of various doctrines to each other. His comment that modernity makes the OT look like Near Eastern studies more that theology resonated deeply. His phrase "deliberately unoriginal" is profound and helpful in describing the fundamental attitude of Reformed theology (think of a particular example: the regulative principle). His critiques vary in their quality though: they are either incredibly specific and useful because detailed, or they are subtle and lacking in detail/utility. An example of the former is his discussion of Lindbeck in chapter 2, or his discussion of various thinkers in Chapter 3. Examples of the latter are probably most apparent when he talks about inspiration though.

And this brings us to the primary problem area of the book: inspiration. He initially describes a movement: God -> Revelation -> Sanctification -> Inspiration. But the last step is never practically made, because by his definition of inspiration (it is sanctification applied to texts), all that needs to be said has already been said under sanctification. Nothing distinguishes inspiration from sanctification, except that it is an instance of a more general category. One would expect that like sanctification builds on revelation by addition, that inspiration in his scheme adds something unique. It does not, and therefore could be omitted with no loss of content. He makes somewhat indefinite and non-specific critiques (without examples) of the Reformed Orthodox, following Barth and Heppe. Again, he later in life rejected these critiques and signed on with the Reformed Orthodox (in his essay on inspiration in 2015/2016). But in this book, he leaves the reader frustrated, especially when such an unhelpful critique is followed by an incredibly unapologetic affirmation that the words of Scripture themselves (not just their significance) are inspired and from God! One is thankful that this apparent inconsistency was later resolved correctly, in favor of the Reformed Orthodox view.

Another theme which I think is helpful is Webster's discussion of apologetics. It pops up from time to time, with Webster commenting on how apologetical motive takes doctrines out of the context of Christian belief, to make them do work they aren't designed to do. Thus, they misshape the doctrines themselves. This sounds remarkably similar to Van Til's idea that theology should precede apologetics. However, where Van Til then tries to articulate a vision for apologetics based in prior theological context (despite the reverse from some of his heirs, who seem to turn Van-Tillian apologetics into prolegomena before systematics), Webster takes it in a different direction. He basically says "why think about apologetics when you could just do theology instead?" This comes back in the fourth chapter: theology should be concerned with serving the Word in the church, not with justifying itself to outside audiences. As such, the "prolegomena" to theology for Webster is just the basic action of theology: prayerful exegesis. While I learned quite a lot from reading Van Til while in college, I find myself much more attracted to Webster's view, because it seems both more concretely attentive to Scripture, and more consistent with the actual thrust of the idea that theology precedes apologetics. With the idea that conversion precedes belief in inspiration, he also seems to line up much more closely to the spirit of WLC 4. Apologetics isn't external justification for Webster: if it happens, it is constructive explication.

With a somewhat critical eye towards the section on inspiration in chapter 1, I highly recommend this book. It is not introductory though, and shouldn't be read without having some experience in systematic theology (particularly bibliology).
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