John Webster and the Joy of Theology

A Happy Discipline

Theology may appear to many—even Christians—as a rather cold, boring, or emotionless discipline. However, as I have learned the past three years from who perhaps was the best living theologian in the world in his mature years, John Webster (1955–2016), theology is far from being a lifeless or boring discipline. As Professor Webster saw it, theology is instead peculiarly exhilarating. 

In his autobiographical essay, “Discovering Dogmatics,” Webster writes, “I began to find my way out of doctrinal criticism, to realize that its scruples were in large measure misplaced, and so to rediscover that positive Christian dogmatics is a wise, edifying and joyful science.”[1]

Elsewhere, in his little monograph titled Holiness, Webster says, “Dogmatics is that delightful activity in which the Church praises God by ordering its thinking towards the gospel of Christ.”[2]

So, according to Webster, theology is actually filled with wisdom, delight, and joy and edifies the soul. There is a certain cheerfulness or happiness found in practicing the discipline called “theology.” But a question still remains: Why is theology a “delightful activity” that is “joyful”? Much of the answer rests upon the subject matter or object theology studies.

In nearly all of his essays in constructive dogmatics, Webster explicitly says what theology studies, namely, God and everything else in its relation to God. Additionally, Webster would further say that God’s life is the primary or principal object of inquiry in theology. He certainly saw and drew this from Thomas Aquinas’s writings: “Sacred doctrine does not treat of God and creatures equally, but of God primarily, and of creatures only so far as they are referable to God as their beginning or end.”[3] This clearly helps us see that theology first studies God, and even when it studies creation (i.e., things that are not God), it still studies God because it studies those other things with reference to or in relation to God. So, theology is a happy study because it studies God.

But we’re still left with a question: Why does this make theology a joyful practice? Answer: If theology tends to God and all things in relation to God, it is indeed a joyful discipline because “in contemplation of God lies our true happiness.”[4] And we find happiness in studying and knowing God because God is the “blessed” or “happy God” (1 Tim 1:11). 

Theology is far from a boring or cold discipline because it studies the “happy God” who shares his happiness with those who know and love him. Theology is far from being a lifeless study because it studies the God who is living (Matt 16:16), who has life in himself (John 5:26), who is Life (14:6), and who gives eternal life (10:28).

Only when we understand who God is and what theology studies, we will surely know that theology isn’t a cold activity only for academics in their ivory towers, but rather that it is a joyful, delightful, and happy activity of and for all the saints wherein we learn about the God who is life and gives life, who is happy and shares his happiness with those who find their happiness in him—the only source of true happiness.

[1] John Webster, “Discovering Dogmatics,” in Shaping a Theological Mind: Theological Context and Methodology, ed. Darren C. Marks (Farnham, England: Ashgate, 2002), 130.

[2] John Webster, Holiness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 8.

[3] Aquinas, Summa Theologiae Ia.1.3 ad. 1.

[4] John Webster, “On the Theology of the Intellectual Life,” in God Without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology, vol. II Virtue and Intellect (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 155.