John Webster Theology

Theology in the Order of Love (2)

For even as it is better to enlighten than merely to shine, so it is better to give to others the fruit of one’s contemplation than merely to contemplate.

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II.188.6

Last time, with the help of John Webster’s essay “Theology in the Order of Love”,[1] we considered the shape of the God-given order within which we do our theological work in relation to God, and in relation to the communion of saints. And we thought about the necessity of gratitude to God for making us his friends, and giving us a share in his knowledge.

This time we will explore what Webster says about the need for gratitude in the communion of saints, and generosity in sharing what God has given us to know.

Gratitude in the Communion of Saints

Theological thinking does not take place in isolation. Its proper location is within the church. And, within the communion of saints, “one of the chief life acts…is sharing of common goods, among them the intellectual goods of divine instruction.”

Webster notes in a different essay that there is no past in the church[2] —God is, after all, the God of the living not the dead. Therefore, this receiving of divine instruction includes receiving intellectual goods from those who went before us, who are still our contemporaries in Christ. In other words, one of the virtues of true theology is grateful listening to the Christian tradition. 

We do this not because it supplants or supplements God’s teaching, nor because tradition it is somehow on a par with Scripture. God’s instruction in his written Word is primary. In Webster’s explanation, “Tradition and its practitioners are recipients and tradents [passers-on], passing on that which alone possesses originality.”

Furthermore—and in contrast to Scripture, although Webster does not make the contrast explicit—“tradition is a mixed reality: like the society of which it forms a part [i.e., the church], it is not yet wholly free from inherited corruption.” 

But even in this imperfection tradition remains a tool of God’s instruction.

Webster thus has a nuanced—and classically Protestant—account of tradition. Tradition is an instrument of divine instruction. As we learn from Pseudo-Dionysus, or Bonaventure, or Barth, they are (fallible) instruments in the hands of our principle Teacher. But Webster is careful to place the instruction of tradition firmly on the finite, incomplete, good-but-corrupted, human side of the Creator-creature distinction.

With these qualifications in place, in relation to our teachers in the communion of saints, gratitude should be our fundamental posture. 

According to Webster, this posture of gratitude entails a willingness to lay aside our own pressing interests. It also entails a willingness to pay close attention to the interests of others. This humble displacing of self offers the hope of immeasurable enrichment. Attention to the traditions of the church is attention to the the saints of God as they strain to hear his voice and pass on what they have heard. And, says Webster, it ushers us into “the possibility of a more spacious domain, a greater store of intellectual goods.”

As we sit in our studies and pay heed to Augustine, or Luther, or Edwards, they invite us to leave cramped and crowded walls of our own small understanding, and to step with them into the soaring cathedral of divine truth.

How grateful we should be! Grateful for the church’s rich heritage of creeds, confessions, prayers, sermons, liturgies, texts, and authors, which are ours in Christ. And grateful to God for the splendid gifts he distributes to us at their hands.

Of course, this gratitude does not mean uncritical and slavish following of any theologian, confession, or theological tradition: “The church and its traditions are imperfect, sometimes wicked.” Rather, the instruction of the Christian tradition—received as gifts from those who testify to God’s Word—should prod and encourage, unsettle and provoke us to think hard as we draw on the riches of the communion of saints for the sake of faithfully hearing and speaking God’s Word to his church today.

Intellectual Generosity

The converse side of theology’s place—and our place as theologians—within the communion of saints is intellectual generosity.

It is good to learn and be grateful in the communion of saints. But, in the words of the Lord Jesus himself, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).

As Thomas Aquinas—one of Webster’s own chief teachers—notes in his discussion of the active and contemplative life, contemplation of God is a great good and a source of great delight. But, there is, argues Aquinas, something that in this life, is even better than contemplation: “even as it is better to enlighten than merely to shine, so it is better to give to others the fruit of one’s contemplation than merely to contemplate.” (ST II-II.188.6). Where does Aquinas get this idea? From the example of Jesus himself: “He came into the world, first that He might publish the truth.” Thus, he demonstrated that 

that form of active life in which a man, by preaching and teaching, delivers to others the fruits of his contemplation, is more perfect than the life that stops at contemplation, because such a life is built on an abundance of contemplation, and consequently such was the life chosen by Christ.

Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, III.40.1

Therefore, to return to Webster, intellectual generosity— “the disposition to share intellectual goods with others”—is a virtue to be cultivated. As Webster explains:

The intellectually generous person does not consider intellectual gifts a possession to be sequestered or, perhaps, a commodity to be traded for profit; they are common goods for dispersal.

By all accounts, this kind of intellectual generosity was one of the outstanding marks of Webster’s own life.

But it raises some uncomfortable questions about speaking fees, honoraria, copyright,[3]motivation in teaching and writing. Why do we want these things and do these things? For career advancement? To gain a reputation? Because of who else will be on the platform? If the speaking fee is high enough? For our CVs? 

Why do I love to read? Why do I teach? Why do I write? What do I hope to gain? Why this talk, this book, at this price, for this audience?

These painful questions perhaps illustrate Webster’s point that generosity—including intellectual generosity—requires our sanctification. By the Spirit, we must kill sin and live to God in newness of life. Our intellectual work is also conducted under the sign of our baptism.

None of this is a call to break copyright, or to refuse payment for teaching and writing. But it is a call for radical generosity, because generosity is an aspect of gratitude. Generosity remembers the whence of our theological knowledge—God the Father, through the saving missions of his Son and Spirit. And generosity remembers the whither of our theological knowledge. Theological knowledge is not a possession for our own enrichment; it is a common gift, from God to the communion of saints, for our mutual upbuilding and for the life of the world.

To sum up, let’s give John Webster the final word. Those set by God to serve as pastors, teachers, theologians, are “appointed to share the gospel’s intellectual goods to the enrichment of others.”


[1]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.

[2]John Webster, Barth’s Earlier Theology: Four Studies (London: T&T Clark, 2005), 91–117.

[3]On which see this important lecture by Paul Griffiths.