Saturday, December 16, 2006


John Webster, “Theological Theology,” in Confessing God: Essays in Christian Dogmatics II [London, New York: T&T Clark, 2005]

In this article I will present and review the thought of John Webster, specifically on his first chapter essay which talked much about doing Christian theology in the modern university. I appreciate his great effort to set Christian theology free from the Enlightenment project in which reason is to be the supreme one. Through his theological theology’s breakthrough, he suggested that every Christian theologian must work with its own theology instead of copying the intellectual procedure from another disciplines. To put it in another word, every theologian should sustain its distinctiveness. By doing that manner, theology may give a significant contribution to the modern university that is under influence by the Enlightenment project. In this regard, theology will suggest to the university to maintain the confident sense of the importance of non-conformity and see the differences not as a curse but a given condition for the university’s life. But unfortunately, I would think that his great emphasis on the distinctiveness of Christian theology will lead into another problem, so-called isolation. If this is so, then how might Christian theologians give a contribution in spreading God’s salvific narrative that is embodied in the life of Jesus Christ to the university and the world? I believe that problem of isolation would give no contribution to outsiders; otherwise, it will allow outsiders to put theology back to the corner just as modern universities do so far. Thus, I would suggest that we mustn’t leave non-Christian disciplines at all; otherwise, we must locate its disciplines in the theological realm wisely and properly. However, I still acknowledge that his essay has given inspirations for theologians in doing the Christian theology, especially in the postmodern world.

As an introduction of an inaugural lecture in the University of Oxford, Webster described one of the criteria of a healthy university, that is, its ability to sustain lively self-critical disagreement about its intellectual life. That is to say, that the university is supposed to maintain the conflict for correcting and reformulating the fundamental intellectual and spiritual ideals. As well as theologians, they “ought to be busy about this kind of dispute, both among themselves and in their extra-mural conversations.”[1] From this sort of manner among the university’s life, hopefully Christian theology will transform human life and thought by inexhaustible suggestiveness and provocative effect.

But the problem nowadays is that Christian theology is not taken seriously in modern Western universities anymore. Christian theology has not been in a good position in the face of modern universities. The existence of Christian theology has declined as an unimportant subject in the universities’ life. If one day theology were absent, the university’s pursuit of its ideals would in no way be imperilled.[2]

Why is it? Why has the Christian theology been declined by the modern university? One of the reasons, according to Webster, is because of the history of the modern research university and its ethos of scholarship has had as one of its major corollaries the marginalization of moral and religious conviction, and thus the discouragement of theological enquiry.[3] What he meant is that modern universities have been familiar with the method of enquiry or in Webster words it is called “anthropology of enquiry”. He stated: “That [anthropology of enquiry] is to say, underlying its specific practices and preferred modes of research, its norms of acceptability and its structures of evaluation, is an account of the intellectual life, of what intellectual selfhood ought to look like.” [4] With such method, they will discuss and review the issues on the earth.

That anthropology is bound up with some of the most potent and spiritual ideal of modernity; and it is an extension of the ideal of freedom from determination by situation. It means that anthropology of enquiry is a method that doesn’t acknowledge that what people think and do is according to his/her background. On this matter, Webster added: “No background is needed; indeed, if the intellectual life is to proceed properly, then the enquirer has to leave all particular convictions at the portal of the university before stepping inside, such convictions have to be factored out from the very beginning.”[5]

In such method, everyone will be asked to identify him/her self without any reference to the specific background, tradition, custom and whatsoever that is brought with him/her. One is encouraged to detach with such a particular background. Otherwise, one is encouraged to attach him/herself to reason. In other words, the method which is used in modern Western universities is dominated by ideals of procedural rationality, context and conviction independence, and representation and judgement.[6]

As a reaction of such method, Webster argued that this anthropology is not fit for theological enquiry which is informed by Christian conviction. It has proved very barren soil for theology because “[p]rocedurally, the method of enquiry has excluded ab ovo the modes of reflective activity which have been most commonly deployed in the traditions of Christian theology.”[7] But ironically and strangely, the Christian theology is not able to give a significant criticism to this barren intellectual context. “This is in itself an indication of how successfully the research university has been able to represent itself as definitive of rational practice tout court,” thus Webster stated.[8] And this too is the external factor that makes the decline of Christian theology in the university.

Now the question goes further, is the external factor the only reason that makes theology not attractive in the university? Webster went to another factor, so-called internal factor. As he quoted E. Charry, he said that, “If theology finds itself on the margins, responsibility may well lie not only with a desacralized culture, but ‘within the field of theology itself’.”[9] From the statement, Webster asked us to reconsider how we are doing the theology so far, whether we have a certain failure of theological nerve.

On this matter, he explained that most traditions of modern Christian theology in the west have very deeply internalized the anthropology of enquiry and so have found themselves alienated from the subject matters, the cultural, and intellectual processes of the Christian religion.[10] This would be the failure of theological nerve. To clarify what he meant Webster gave us two tangible examples. First, the example is taken from the matter of doctrine of revelation. In the magisterial Reformers, the doctrine of revelation was used for knowing God. They realized that man can’t know God unless God reveals himself to be known. That is what the doctrine of revelation was all about. But nowadays, revelation becomes predoctrinal, prolegomenal, the ground of doctrine which is explicable in relative isolation from other Christian doctrines, such as Christology and pneumatology. Second, the example is taken from the issue of the resurrection. The resurrection used to be an object of belief but now it becomes a ground of belief in the sense that it comes to perform a function in an apologetic strategy as part of the endeavour of fundamental theology to defend the possibility of revelation and special divine action.[11] From those two examples, we see that the contents and operations of theology are no longer determined by theological considerations themselves but by another disciplines. In my own words, we are not doing theology by theology.

It could have happened because theology is steadily assimilated to those of standard rational discourse. Webster stated:
The canon gradually shifts from being that on the basis of which theology proceeds to that into whose transcendental conditions theology enquires. This shift involves retiring the rhetoric of commentary, paraphrase and reiteration, for those ways of doing theological work cannot serve the goal of enquiry, which is proof underived from the terms of the tradition itself. They are replaced, therefore, by modes of theological discourse which reflect a quite different set of interest, whose key feature is undetermination by the self-representations of the tradition of Christian practice.[12]

So far, Webster has presented two factors that make for the decline of theology in modern universities. Firstly, it is because of the anthropology of enquiry that has dominated the modern university; and secondly, it is because of the certain failure in doing the theology itself.
Now we see that the problem is not simply about the failure of theology to keep pace with modernity or see how that theology was turfed out by rationalism, but it is rather a matter of seeing how internal disarray incapacited theology all the more because it left theologians with such a reduced intellectual capital to draw upon as they sought to make judgments about the ideals, academic and spiritual, which presented themselves for their attention with such institutional force.[13]

And yet, those ideals and the institutions in themselves are showing signs of strains. What have often been judged to be invariant principles of rational enquiry by the university actually are customs that have to do with the plausibility structures which surround them. Though the academy always acknowledges itself as a place of total, interest-free reflection, but its reflective practices have sometimes contradicted with that acknowledgment. To concretize his explanation, Webster stated:
In representing itself as a sort of disinterested tribunal, the university may in important respects obscure from itself and others the real character of its operations: its place as a regulator and distributor of cultural capital, its proposing of ideals of acceptable intellectual practice, its commitment to determinate moral and political goals.[14]

Exploring the matter above, though Christian theology has been in decline for a long time, it still has a chance to give a significance breakthrough in the academy’s life. Now the question is how might Christian theology offer a significance breakthrough for the academy’s life? In this regard, Webster proposed that first of all, when we are doing the theology, we should hold fast to its own concerns, pursue its own goals and fulfil its own responsibilities by making full use of its own procedures. To put in another word, we should hold fast the distinctiveness of Christian theology. Webster said that:
. . . [T]he most demanding task is that of re-establishing theology’s relation to the culture of Christian faith and practice from which it so often find itself dissociated. . . . . Christian theology’s culture is that of Christian faith—its store of memories, its lexical stock, its ideas, its institutions and roles, its habits of prayer and service and witness, the whole conglomeration of activities through which it offers a ‘reading’ reality.[15]

From his saying, we may see that Webster asked us to sustain the uniqueness of Christianity instead of casting it out to get along with another method or disciplines. This sustaining action is called theological theology. When we are able to sustain the theological theology, then we will have a confidence to articulate a distinctively theological account of the content, methods and goals.[16] And above all, it also makes theologians worth talking to, because he/she has something different among the other disciplines.

In doing so, our theological theology will surely be a particular contribution to the university’s life too. Christian theology will suggest a different model of academic life by going about its business, by skilful, reflective, self critical practice within its own world of discourse.[17] The university is encouraged to maintain the confident sense of the importance of non-conformity and see the differences not a curse but a given condition for the university’s life. If this is happening in the university life, then the energetic, curious and fruitful conversations about differing visions of human life and thought will be maintained. As a conclusion, Webster said that, “Theological theology has much to contribute to the fostering of that kind of intellectual polity and the academy has every reason to expect much from its contribution.[18]

In this review section, first of all, I acknowledge that surely what Webster presented to us has given an insightful information and deep analysis on looking at the position of Christian theology in the face of modern universities. In his essay, he tried to set Christian theology operations free from the distortion of the Enlightenment project that characterize modernity condition.[19] Related to this matter, Kevin J. Vanhoozer described that, “Modern thought was characterized by a drive for certitude, universality, and perhaps, above all, mastery. . . . [it] may be understood broadly as the attempt to bring critical rationality and scientific method to bear not only on the natural world but on humanity . . . even ‘divinity.’”[20] It sought the universal emancipation through the universal and supremacy of human reason that can be seen in the technology development, science and democracy.

Ironically, modern Christian theology has lost its prestige by internalizing the Enlightenment project. Stanley Grenz rightly observed that in the premodern era, divine revelation has been a final arbiter of truth and the task of human reason was to understand the truth that was revealed in the revelation. Reason will be used for demonstrating the invincible of the revealing truths and reconciling experience with the understanding of the cosmic drama taught by the Christian faith. But otherwise, Enlightenment theologians began to appeal to human reason rather than externally imposed revelation as a final arbiter of truth. They use their reason to determine what constitutes revelation.[21] In McGrath’s words, “Enlightenment rationalism, then, upheld the sovereignty or reason, arguing that human reason was capable of establishing all that it was necessary to know about religion without recourse to the idea of “revelation.’”[22]

In this regard, Paul Tillich’s method of correlation is an example of theology which let modern thought forms set the agenda of doing Christian theology.[23] In his method, Tillich tried to propose a theological method that would be faithful to the original Christian message and contemporary life. Tillich offered his method of correlation, which explains the contents of the Christian faith through existential questions and theological answers in mutual interdependence. The questions are raised by philosophy through careful examination of human existence. And the theologian must do his/her function as a philosopher in this first step of theology. The second step, the theologian draws on the symbols of divine revelation to articulate answers relating to the questions implied in human existence that philosophy can discover but not answer. But in fact, his employment of the method of correlation did not match with his idealistic description of its method. Theologian Kenneth Hamilton accuses Tillich of allowing a philosophical system of ontological speculation to predetermine and control the content of the Christian message. In actual practice, he interpreted the language of Christian faith so as to make it conform to his preconceived ontological system. Therefore, Hamilton stated: “To see Tillich’s system as a whole is to see that it is incompatible with the Christian gospel. From the perspective of results the system is something the believer has to meet with a ‘No!’, since to accept it would be to put aside the kerygma in favour of a logos philosophy functioning as a self-contained and authoritative theology.”[24] Tillich’s system will only show us that he was immersed by the supremacy of human reason of the Enlightenment project.

From this sort of doing theology, Webster tries to revitalize the distinctiveness of Christian theology by sustaining the theological theology. It is a method of theology that showing the faithfulness to the richness of Christian culture and serving to “highlight the fact that there is no non-local public, no rationality abstract from social practice, no sphere where everything is open for total reflection.”[25] It is a method that recognises that everyone and everything on earth has their own background. If theologians continue to internalize the Enlightenment project, then Webster correctly said that Christian theology will be found increasingly alienated from the subject matters and the cultural and intellectual processes of the Christian religion.
If theologians have done the theological theology that is proposed by Webster, Christian theology will make modern universities realise that, “Learning is not some eternal essence that happens to enter history at particular times and places, but a long enduring social practice whose goals, methods, standards of excellence, and legitimating and orienting frameworks of conviction change drastically over time and are often deeply contested.”[26] Theological theology will be a significant contribution for the university’s life.

Until that point, I’m in the line with Webster in the sense that knowledge is not disembodied. Therefore, one, whether as a theologian or non-theologian, must recognise his/her backgrounds which can’t be detached. But on the other side, I’d think that Webster has gone too far when he emphasised that theologians must do the Christian theology by its own concerns, pursuing its own goals and fulfilling its own responsibilities by making full use of its own procedures. Obviously, Webster stated: “. . . the most fruitful contribution which theology can make to the wider world of learning is by demonstrating a stubborn yet cheerful insistence on what Barth called ‘the great epistemological caveat’ . . . [T]he way of thought [of theology] . . . is not secure except in the reality of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit’.”[27] From that statement, it implies that theologian is suggested to do the Christian theology by its own theology without looking at another disciplines anymore.

I would think that his thought is echoing from Barth’s theological method. As Barth was attempting to break with liberal theology, he eschewed the natural theology. His refutation to the natural theology can be seen from his statement: “. . . if we only lend our little finger to natural theology, there necessarily follows the denial of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. . . . Rebus sic stantibus, any other source [other than the revelation of God in Jesus Christ] could only be myth and therefore the end of all things and certainly the end of the church.”[28] Barth assumed that any other source has been contaminated by sin. And therefore, it cannot be used for knowing God, or in the broad sense, theological method. Our theological method must rely only on the special revelation.

In this regard, Grenz and Olson rightly criticize Barth by questioning that, “If there are no intelligible bridge connecting theology with other disciplines or with common human experience, how can Christian belief appear to outsiders as anything but esoteric?”[29] Grenz and Olson believe that in some sense the bridging connections between theology and other disciplines are needed for showing what Christian belief looks like. If there is no such connection, then Christianity possibly becomes an “untouchable” religion. And furthermore, Christianity will be isolated from other religions. Such a result could be seen too in Webster’s theological theology when he tried to emphasise too much on the distinctiveness of Christian theology. His proposal would be suffered with an isolation problem and soon theology would be an alienated subject matter within the university, especially, and the world, generally. If this is so, then how might Christian theologians give a contribution in spreading a story that is embodied in the life of Jesus Christ to the university and the world? I believe that problem of isolation would give no contribution to outsiders; otherwise, it will allow outsiders to put theology back to the corner just as modern universities do so far. Hamilton reminds the theologians that, “[t]here is the danger of a progressive isolation of religion in society as a consequence of separating sacred and secular concepts and values.”[30] Therefore, I suggest that in doing our theology we mustn’t leave non-Christian disciplines at all; otherwise, we must locate its disciplines in the theological realm wisely and properly.

Enclosing my review, I would say that theological theology project of Webster must be highly appreciated because it gives significant inspirations for doing theology in the postmodern world. His essay is particularly strong in criticizing theologians who internalized the Enlightenment project in doing their theology and regaining the distinctiveness of Christian theology. Finally, I would recommend his brilliant essay to be used as a “mirror” for our theology today.


Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics II/1, The Doctrine of God, Part 1, trans. T.H.L. Parker et al. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1957.

Descartes, René. “Meditations on First Philosophy” in From Modernism to Postmodernism: An Anthology, ed. Lawrence Cahoone. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.

Frame, John M. The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God. Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1987.

Grenz, Stanely. Primer on Postmodernism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996.

Grenz, Stanley and Olson, Roger E. 20th Century Theology: God and the World in a Transitional Age. England: Paternoster, 1992.

Hamilton, Kenneth. The System and The Gospel: A Critique of Paul Tillich. New York: Macmillan, 1963.

Lonergan, Bernard J. F. Method in Theology. London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1971.

McGrath, Alister. Christian Theology: An Introduction, 3rd ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.

Vanhoozer, Kevin. “Theology and the Condition of Postmodernity: A Report on Knowledge (of God)” in The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Webster, John. Confessing God: Essays in Christian Dogmatics II. London, New York: T&T Clark, 2005.

Wolterstorff, Nicholas. “The Travail of Theology in the Modern Academy” in The Future of Theology: Essays in Honor of Jürgen Moltmann, ed. Miroslav Volf [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996.

[1] Webster, “Theological Theology,” 11.
[2] Ibid., 12.
[3] Ibid., 12.
[4] Ibid., 4.
[5] In the same understanding, Nicholas Wolterstorff explained the matter in a more detail way. He explained, “Before entering the university halls of learning we are to strip off all our particularities—our particularities of gender, race, nationality, religion, social class, age—and enter purely as normal adult human beings. . . . Black history, feminist sociology, Muslim political theory, and liberation theology, whatever may be said for their practice in other contexts, had had no place within the halls of the modern public university (“The Travail of Theology in the Modern Academy” in The Future of Theology: Essays in Honor of Jürgen Moltmann, ed. Miroslav Volf [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996], 38).
[6] Webster, Confessing, 15.
[7] Ibid., 17.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid., 17.
[10] Ibid. 12. Through the survey of Michael Buckley, Webster traces the history of the alienation of theology. The history of the alienation started in the very early modern period when theology left its own ground in order to debate with natural philosophy over the existence of God. The result is that theology became a disciplina otisia in the justification and establishment of its own subject matter (Ibid., 18).
[11] Ibid., 19-20.
[12] Ibid., 21.
[13] Ibid., 23.
[14] Ibid., 24 .
[15] Ibid., 28-29.
[16] From the beginning, (in the introduction) we may see that Webster has encouraged the theologians to have a great confidence in doing their own theology. However, “[s]uch confidence is not a matter of mastery of its object . . . [i]t is rather what Calvin calls ‘the high confidence which befits a servant of God furnished with his sure commands’.” Webster tried to revitalized theologians’ confidence from the authority of the risen Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. See ibid., 5.
[17] Ibid., 28.
[18] Ibid., 31.
[19] Frenchman René Descartes is often considered as the father of modern philosophy. As a scientist, mathematician, and philosopher, Descartes’s intent was to devise a method of investigation that could facilitate the discovery of those truths that were absolutely certain. In his pursuit of certain knowledge, Descartes begin with doubt. For further reading on his personal diary that told about his journey from the despair of doubt to the peace of certainty, see René Descartes, “Meditations on First Philosophy” in From Modernism to Postmodernism: An Anthology, ed. Lawrence Cahoone (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), 29-40.
[20] “Theology and the Condition of Postmodernity: A Report on Knowledge (of God)” in The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 8
[21] Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 62.
[22] Alister McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), 182.
[23] There are several basic assumptions lies in his theology. They are: (1) Theology should be understood in apologetic way in the sense that theology must formulate and communicate its concepts in a way that truly speaks to the modern situation; (2) There are some common ground between the Christian message and the contemporary culture; (3) In direct contrast to Barth, he believed that philosophy is indispensable to theology. For him, there is no theologian should be taken seriously as a theologian if he does not take philosophy seriously; (4) He believes that ontology as a particular philosophy is the most useful to theology. At its root, then, philosophy is ontology and ontology, then, is absolutely crucial to Christian theology. See Stanley Grenz and Roger E. Olson, 20th Century Theology: God and the World in a Transitional Age (England: Paternoster, 1992), 116-119. Another prominent Catholic theologian that internalized the Enlightenment project is Bernard Lonergan. I would think that the chapter one of his Method in Theology contains an obvious project of the Enlightenment. For further reading, see Bernard J. F. Lonergan, Method in Theology (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1971).
[24] See The System and The Gospel: A Critique of Paul Tillich (New York: Macmillan, 1963), 227. For exploring his critique to Tillich’s system of thought, see p. 227-239.
[25] Webster, “Theological Theology,” 30.
[26] Wolterstorff, “The Travail of Theology in the Modern Academy,” 37.
[27] “Theological Theology,” 27.
[28] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1, The Doctrine of God, Part 1, trans. T.H.L. Parker et al. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1957), 173,176. For an introduction into Barth’s thoughts, see The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, ed. John Webster (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
[29] 20th Century Theology, 75. Moreover, I would think that Barth forgot that natural theology as a part of general revelation also plays particular important roles in Christianity. For example, sociological science. John M. Frame exclaimed that one of the important roles playing by that science is helping in the communication of theology. Its studies can help theologians to contextualize the gospel to the particular culture. See John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1987), 314-315. For a concise comparison views on natural theology, see McGrath, Christian Theology, 208-214.

[30] The System and the Gospel, 228.

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