The Culture of Theology (Webster)

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Puritan Board Freshman
Webster, John. The Culture of Theology. Baker Academic (2019).

John Webster gave these six lectures in 1998 in New Zealand about the nature of practicing Christian theology. He outlines the utility of thinking in terms of culture, the practice of reading texts in Christian culture, the role of tradition, a politics of Christian theology in the university, an internal critical theory of theology, and the habits of theological formation. He constructs a view of what it means to be a theologian "as a Christian" - not as a detached academic. Thus, he helpfully colors in the meaning of what doing theology from a confessional stance, rather than simply supplying rhetoric about it.

Before discussing the lectures, a note should be made about the introduction (42 of the 147 pages of the book). It tries to summarize the substance of the lectures, but does so in what I found to be an obscure and unhelpful way. It is uninteresting, and takes up far too much space. If your introduction is almost half the length of what you are introducing, it is far too much. Thus, it can be safely ignored: proceed directly to page 43 and start reading Webster's first lecture.

Lecture 1: Culture.
Main point: we should reconceive theology as a practice within the culture of Christian faith. This culture is rooted in being astonished by Christ and has Christian activities as its shape.

- What is culture? "A culture is a space or region made up on human activities. It is a set of intentional patterns of human action which have sufficient coherence, scope, and duration to constitute a way of life" (48).
- This view of life is contrasted to Enlightenment detachment, which reinforces narcissism and an illusion of transcendence. "Culture" allows us Christian theology to be itself, instead of standing under autonomous (non-localized) reason.
- Risk: talk of culture can tempt us to immanence. Instead, Christian culture is eschatological. It is fixed by the constancy of its object, Christ, but displaced by its status of dependence upon Christ.
- Summary: "the practice of Christian theology in the culture of Christian faith requires roots and astonishment" (60).

Lecture 2: Texts.
Main point: Humble and attentive reading of Scripture is a primary activity within Christian culture. By it, God calls us to repentance and shapes our practice.

- The center of theology is exegesis. Unfortunately, the Church of today has generally lost practical confidence in Scripture because it has not been in the habit of using it rightly. Further, "local" hermeneutics has been displaced by "general" hermeneutics which privileges information over belief.
- Kant's rejection of Scripture's authority is due to his mislocation of the doctrine. Instead of establishing the possibility of God's speech, the role of the doctrine is attentive listening to the actuality of God's speech. In Scripture God addresses us, and demands a response from us. Unlike autonomous reading, character is more important than method: we require humility and passivity.
- This leads to two styles of theological rhetoric. Rhetoric 1: effacement. The rhetoric of effacement is a style of theological discourse that gives attention to Scripture as primary. In doing so, it exemplifies (and encourages) self-renunciation by being deliberately unoriginal. Rhetoric 2: edification. The rhetoric of edification is a style of theological discourse that is pastoral, explicitly self-conscious in discipling and commending the gospel.

Lecture 3: Traditions.
Main point: Christian life happens in history. Therefore, it manifests itself as a public covenant. This institutional form is the visible inheritance of apostolic ministry which points to Christ's presence.

- Christian theology is ecclesiastical and historical, not individualist/universal. But to understand the concept of tradition rightly, we need theology. The concept of "apostolicity" is a good starting point.
- Error 1: postliberalism. It transforms tradition from being the "form" into being the "content" of doctrine. Thus, the Church displaces the Spirit.
- Error 2: critical theory. Kathryn Tanner serves as the example, seeing tradition as a purely human construct.
- Solution: we need to reframe the question. The errors presume that there is a gap between us and Christ, which tradition bridges. This is the root doctrinal error. Because of the resurrection, Christ is our contemporary, present in the Holy Spirit. In contrast to emphasis on the Church as "Christ's body," tradition is a description of the apostolic form of Church life, encompassing 1) the things passed on, and 2) the acts by which they are passed on.
- Theology is reflection upon and within the tradition of Christian culture. Scripture is tradition's norm: it questions and overthrows tradition which does not derive from it, while remaining unproduced and unquestioned.

Lecture 4: Conversations.
Main point: Christian theology best contributes to university life when it is able to be itself.

- The basic question is this: can Christian theology exist in the university? In contrast to the modern university, we should ask this: "what sort of institution might the academy have to become to profit from having Christian theology?" (102).
- Because Christian theology is located within Christian faith, it should not be anxious about norms of "universal reason" or having to apologetically prove itself. Such misshapes it, and thus makes it unable to contribute to genuine university life.
- The university should be understood as a "contest of faculties." Universal reason does not preside - such would make human life unanswerable to reality's claims upon it. Further, this is not peaceful coexistence of "opinions" - such would devalue reality's claims.

Lecture 5: Criticism.
Main point: The doctrine of revelation serves as theology's critical theory. It chastens infidelity to the gospel, repeating God's judgment on idolatrous accretion or neglect.

- A fundamental vocation of Christian culture is repentance. Therefore, tradition is not static or unchallengeable - to be Christian demands that Christian culture be self-critical.
- Modernity made revelation epistemological. Instead, its true primary function is soteriological, and only derivatively is it epistemological. Revelation as epistemology is our tool; as soteriology it is God's action and chastening of us. This implies it critiques our sin.
- To understand critique, we must criticize criticism. Total critique is from modernity's rejection of all authority. But "local" critique is within a tradition and defined as a matter of fidelity. Theology critiques the Church through repeating God's judgment, pointing out infidelity in the application of the gospel.

Lecture 6: Habits.
Main point: Theological formation is a gracious action of God. It drives humility and deference through the principal action of prayer.

- Good theology requires good theologians. We cannot make ourselves such: theology's vocation is to plead to God.
- "Local" education (not "universal reason") is "learning the skills, habits, and roles appropriate" to living in the world of Christian faith (135). To understand what those are, we can refer to Calvin, "we are not our own, but the Lord's" (139).
- Christian life is conversion. Conversion means that it does not derive from what preceded it (life does not come from death). This implies divine agency is the cause of life: it is the gift of Christ. Our life is located outside of ourselves, in Christ's life.
- Since theological existence is beyond human cultivation, we are left with prayer. Prayer is the exercise of faith in waiting.
- This leaves us with some virtues to be mentioned: fear of God, deference to the Gospel, and freedom from self-preoccupation. These express humility before God and dependence upon him, which is the energy of Christian life.

Concluding reflections:
This series of lectures is truly fantastic in helping reorient us away from "intellectual" theology into "confessional" theology. While there is plenty of rhetoric about doing Christian theology from the stance of faith instead of "abstract reason," much of it lacks any concreteness about what such is supposed to look like. It is short on examples or instructions. Webster's lectures are different: they take up the theme of doing theology as a Christian and actually illustrate what that means in concrete terms, and from a Reformed perspective. There are also striking parallels to Machen's Christianity and Liberalism.

I can't recommend this book enough. At 105 pages of text, it is not long either. While it requires some focus, anyone accustomed to theological reading should have no trouble. It will reinvigorate your love for Christ, and for theology.
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