The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason

John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason. London: T & T Clark, 2012. 240 pp. $39.95, paper.

With the surge of interest in Reformational theology in recent years, the five great sola’s have garnered a good bit of attention. We can also expect still further attention to such principles in 2017, given the significance of that year in Protestant history. There is much to be grateful for in both respects. Too often, however, claims like sola Scriptura, sola gratia, or solus Christus are viewed as discrete pieces of teaching and not seen as synthetically related. Too frequently, talk of grace and Christ in salvation can have little effect upon people’s thinking about, well, thinking as Christians about the Bible and theology. John Webster’s book, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason, helps remedy this problem and deepen our understanding of Reformational teaching about grace and Scripture, by showing the rich links between Christ, grace, and the theological task of sitting underneath scripture’s authority.

John Webster serves as Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of St. Andrews. He has published numerous books over the years, whether on major figures in theology or on key topics like Holy Scripture or holiness. He serves as founding editor of the International Journal of Systematic Theology. For those of us in the guild of evangelical systematic theology, he is one of its leading English-speaking practitioners. Yet he remains too little read by American pastors, largely because he has published mostly with British publishing houses and his books have tended to be geared toward academic audiences and have sold at higher prices. Given that he is one of the most significant Reformed theologians working today, one hopes that this lack of familiarity can be overcome in years to come.

The Domain of the Word is not only the title of the book but the matrix within which its chapters do their work. “The Bible, its readers and their work of interpretation have their place in the domain of the Word of God, the sphere of reality in which Christ glorified is present and speaks with unrivalled clarity” (viii). Scripture and theological reason are, in this volume, occasions for the risen Christ’s presence and agency. The title chapter, “The Domain of the Word,” lays out the territory for the two parts of the doctrine of Scripture: its nature and its interpretation, arguing that Christ has primacy in respect to both (ch. 1). In “Resurrection and Scripture,” Professor Webster expounds on the prophetic office exercised by the risen Christ (ch. 2). Here he teases out how Christ’s communicative presence comes through real historical texts in the biblical canon: “In – not despite – their natural properties, the biblical texts are signs in the renewed order of creation; by them, in the Spirit’s power, the risen one loves creatures by speech” (40). In “Illumination,” he addresses its effects within the regenerated Christian, who is brought to life by the life-giving words of the Risen One (ch. 3). These theological reflections on Scripture are followed by two case studies, wherein Professor Webster reflects critically upon the teaching on Scripture found in the writings of Karl Barth (ch. 4) and T. F. Torrance (ch. 5).

Webster has notably shifted gears in certain respects from his earlier work, Holy Scripture, wherein he had shared a concern with Barth and Torrance that the text of the Bible cannot itself bear divine properties and had concerns about not only subjectification but also objectification of the text as such (HS, 35). Here, at the end of ch. 5 (e.g., pp. 110-112), he clearly shows that a creaturely reality can, in fact, bear the marks of divine characteristics through God’s sanctifying providence (in so doing he is now aligning his project with that of post-Reformation Reformed bibliology, which is another shift in his approach). This development has been furthered yet more in another recent essay (“ὑπὸ πνεύματος ἁγίου φερόμενοι ἐλάλησαν ἀπὸ θεοῦ ἄνθρωποι: On the inspiration of Holy Scripture,” in J. G. McConville, L. K. Pietersen, ed., Conception, Reception and the Spirit: Essays in Honor of Andrew T. Lincoln [Eugene: Cascade, 2015], pp. 236-50), wherein he takes up the accounts of the Reformed scholastics and demonstrates why Barth’s worries about them were misplaced and owing to his dependence on the rather flawed account of Heinrich Heppe (see fn. 3-5).

Christology and grace come first in Professor Webster’s account, but they really do generate human response. In this case, the risen Christ’s presence and speech generate illumination, hearing, reading, and theological reasoning. So the second part of The Domain of the Word involves analysis of biblical reasoning (ch. 6), systematic theology (ch. 7), the practice of churchly controversy by ecclesial authorities (ch. 8), theological engagement with wider intellectual discourses (ch. 9), and, finally, the faithful exercise of genuine academic curiosity (ch. 10). Webster sketches a path whereby Christ is the one in whom all truth holds together, and his grace the sine qua non of all creaturely knowledge. Yet Christ is Lord of all, and, thus, he sheds abroad his truth in various arenas of knowledge and sustains a vibrant journey of intellectual growth. “In short: reason is renewed after its self-alienation and treachery against God, because God loves creatures and desires to fulfil their natures, including their rational natures. This is why reason is a grace and a gift of love” (126). The second part of the book involves a theological anatomy of reason’s sanctification and an analysis of how this plays out in the study of systematic theology, the judgments of church authorities, and the discursive reflections of Christian intellectuals.

Engaging this volume cannot be commended highly enough. Admittedly, there are many areas of bibliology and methodology left untouched, particularly regarding hermeneutical matters and specific exegetical principles. But such practical matters require a theological orientation to be engaged in a distinctively Christian manner, and Webster is operating in the realm of giving a theology of Scripture and of reason rather than offering a practical ethics of either. And as in his earlier collections of essays, Word and Church and Confessing God, Webster here reorients our approach to a major area of concern by viewing it from the angle of Christ’s singular, life-giving work. Because we turn wholly to Christ (solus Christus) and live fully by grace (sola gratia), we must turn intellectually and ecclesially to his communicative presence in Scripture as our only final authority for faith and practice (sola Scriptura). Grace really goes all the way down, even into the depths of theological debate and scriptural study, and Webster has helped point us to celebrate its fullness.

Michael Allen
Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando