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Theology in the Order of Love (1)


In that same hour, Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.”

Luke 10:21

John Webster (1955-2016) was a theologian’s theologian,[1] writing theology of the highest order, always in a desire to serve the communion of saints. Few if any contemporary theologians can match the breadth and depth of his thought. And few have thought as deeply or as theologically about what theology is, its relationship to other disciplines, and the virtues required of true theologians.

One of the hidden gems in Webster’s output is the last theological essay he wrote before his untimely death, “Theology in the Order of Love”.[2]It is an exquisite exploration of what is required of us if we are to be faithful (pastor-)theologians within the economy of the Triune God’s creating and saving works.

Webster’s thesis can be summarised in his own words:

Christian theology is intellectual work in an order of friendship or love, established and preserved by divine goodness. It participates in a loving flow of goods from God to creatures, and from creatures to other creatures.

He sketches this divine “order of love”, before focusing attention on two virtues that should therefore mark our theological work: gratitude and generosity.

The Order of Love

Webster makes two key moves. First, he explains that theology takes place within the communicative economy of God’s works of creation and regeneration. And second, he notes that within this divine economy, the primary location of theology is the communion of saints: theology takes place within and serves the church.

The order of love within which theologians work is simply the divine economy of creation, preservation, redemption, and consummation. 

As humans, and so as theological thinkers, we are created to live in a twofold relation—with God, and with other creatures. Theology cannot be done in isolation from either. 

In his work of providence, God, by his Spirit, gives life and movement to created intellects, enabling them to fulfil their functions. But this movement, and the relational order within which it functions, is “fractured” by sin—we “repudiate” our intellectual nature. And so, God must regenerate us.

As Webster uses the term here, “regeneration” means more than simply the work of the Holy Spirit in the regeneration of individuals. Rather, regeneration encompasses the entire economy of salvation. Regeneration is accomplished through the mission of the Son in taking our flesh, dying, and rising. It is then applied through the mission of the Holy Spirit, who restores, re-orders and directs to perfection our God-given created nature, including our intellectual nature and intellectual society.

Although the regeneration of our fractured natures is God’s work from beginning to end, we must fill out this reality by working hard in pursuit of intellectual powers (abilities), and virtues. Webster acknowledges a long list of intellectual virtues, but focuses on just two: gratitude (to God and to others in the communion of saints), and generosity.

We’ll think about gratitude to God in the remainder of this post, and gratitude and generosity to others in a later post.

Gratitude to God our Teacher

Webster reminds us that “Gratitude is fundamental to regenerate life: ‘Give thanks in all circumstances for this is the will of God for you.’ (1 Thess. 5.18).” For theologians in our theological work, this includes gratitude to God as our teacher.

As our instructor, God doesn’t merely pass on information to us. Rather, he establishes a relationship and he makes us his friends. We don’t just know information. God enables us to know God (Jn 17:3). In God’s grace, “Ignorance and idolatry are overcome; powers of mind which creatures have neglected to exercise or squandered on worthless objects are awakened, reanimated and redirected.” And this is not done in isolation: in his saving work of regeneration, God is created an “intellectual society”, a “company of pupils or disciples (Isa 2.2-4; Mic. 4.1-3; Mk 6.34).”

Webster is less clear than he might be about the integral place of prayer in Christian study. As Evagrius of Pontus famously states:

If you are a theologian, you will pray, and if you pray truly, you are a theologian.

Prayer and thanksgiving are not just something we do at the beginning or end of a morning’s theological work. They are the atmosphere in which theology lives, the native air our thinking breathes as the motion of our mind comes from and returns constantly to the God from whom, through whom, and for whom our intellectual labours exist.

As we recall our self-inflicted intellectual bankruptcy, and how, in his great love, the Holy Trinity has remade us by becoming our teacher and making us friends and disciples, how thankful we should be to God!

And what security and humble confidence we can have as learners. God is our teacher. He has re-ordered us within the company of Christ’s disciples, and given us a share in his knowledge of himself.

[1]The best introductions to Webster the man are Ivor J. Davidson, ‘John’, in Theological Theology: Essays in Honour of John Webster, ed. David R. Nelson, Darren Sariskey, and Justin Stratis (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), 17-36; Ivor J. Davidson, ‘In Memoriam: John Webster (1955-2016)’, International Journal of Systematic Theology 18, no. 4 (2016): 360–75; the former also provides a helpful overview of the stages of Webster’s theological development, on which, see also Webster’s own reflections in ‘Discovering Dogmatics’, in Shaping a Theological Mind: Theological Context and Methodology, ed. Darren C. Marks (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002), 129–36. Davidson offers a superb introduction to Webster’s thought in ‘Introduction’, in John Webster, The Culture of Theology, ed. Ivor J. Davidson and Alden C. McCray (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019), 1-42; see also Michael Allen, ‘Toward Theological Theology: Tracing the Methodological Principles of John Webster’, Themelios41, no. 2 (2016): 217–37. In my view, the best entry point into Webster’s thought is his inaugural Kantzer Lectures in Revealed Theology, Perfection and Presence (2007).

[2]John Webster, ‘Theology and the order of love’, in Rationalität im Gespräch: philosophische und theologische Perspektiven: Christoph Schwöbel zum 60. Geburtstag = Rationality in conversation: philosophical and theological perspectives, ed. Markus Mühling (Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2016), 175–85.