John Webster on Holy Scripture (2003)


Christian theology has a singular preoccupation: God, and everything else sub specie divinitatis [underneath the Godhead]. All other Christian doctrines are applications or corollaries of the one doctrine, the doctrine of the Trinity, in which the doctrine of the church, no less than the doctrine of revelation, has its proper home.[1]

God first is, and then he reveals himself to creatures. Because God reveals himself, the doctrine of revelation, therefore, likewise depends upon the doctrine of God. Because God reveals himself,“revelation, therefore is identical with God’s triune being in its active self-presence.”[2]That is, when God reveals himself to creatures, God directs his being toward them.[3]

 For Webster, God’s “revelatory self-gift” of himself is the Word,[4]which is distinct from Holy Scripture. Holy Scripture is not the Word—it is not the divine self-gift of God. Rather, Holy Scripture is the servant of the Word, which bears faithful witness to the “revelatory self-gift” of God. Holy Scripture is “the sanctified and inspired servant through which God announcesthe judgement and promise of the gospel.”[5]

Holy Scripture: A Divine and Creaturely Product

The actual text of Holy Scripture is a result of creaturely activities: humans wrote the text. But Holy Scripture’s origin is divine. Webster wants to steer clear of dualizing the creaturely and divine characteristics Scripture. The created text and its divine origin are inseparable. This is seen is Webster’s understandings of scriptural sanctification and inspiration. First, Holy Scripture is a sanctified text. “Sanctification is the Spirit’s act of ordering creaturely history and being to the end of acting as ancilla Domini.”[6]Humans create the text, and simultaneously the Holy Spirit hallows (i.e., sets apart the text “as a means of divine self-communication”[7]) the process of inscripturation and preservation, which includes “the complete histories of pre-literary and literary tradition, redaction and compilation.”[8]Next, if sanctification refers to the hallowing of the creaturely realities of Holy Scripture, then inspiration “is the specific textual application” of this broader concept of sanctification,[9]“that act of the Spirit through which this set of texts proceeds from God to attest his ineffable presence.”[10]Webster emphasizes that inspiration also must be subordinate to the revelation. Scripture is not “revelatory because it is inspired;”[11]rather, Scripture is inspired because God reveals himself through Scripture. Inspiration, therefore, is “a corollary of the self-presence of God which takes form through the providential ordering and sanctification of creaturely auxiliaries.”[12]Once again, “inspiration is not primarily a textual property but a divine movement and therefore a divine moving,”[13]which is appropriated to specific texts, those “fitting vessels of the treasure of the gospel.”[14]

In the act of inspiration, as Michael Graves would affirm in his essay on Early Church views of the literary quality of Scripture, “the divine impulse finds expression through human conventions, so that the result is understandable in human terms and appropriate to God’s purpose.”[15]

Just as God adopts the covenantal structure of Ancient Near Eastern treaties to covenant with his people,[16]so God also adopts the human textsthat occupy the covenantal structure. For Webster, this very act of adoption is the particular work of inspiration, which, again, is a mere sub-set of the larger category of scriptural sanctification. And the work of this larger category ends with canonization. When talking about canonization, Webster is wary not to “idealise or spiritualise the canon,” which would deny that the Scriptures are human texts formed and compiled through “human textual activity which are sanctified by God.”[17]As such, Webster’s dogmatic understanding is underpinned by Christology and pneumatology.[18]The Spirit of the risen Christ is actively involved in the church, and more particularly in the process of canonization: “the faithful preservation of the apostolic writings is the work of the Spirit of God acknowledging his own products.”[19]As such, when the church chooses which books to include and which to exclude from the canon, according to Webster, the “choice” merely isn’t an act of authorization (the church determining the authenticity of the text), but an act of reception.[20]In the act of canonization, the triune God affirms his own sanctified texts to his church through her creaturely means. Thus, the divine and creaturely acts of canonization, just like sanctification and inspiration, are inseparably one act originated in God’s self-revelatory gift of himself.

Faithful Reading in the Economy of Grace

By way of attempting to explain how one should embody Scripture, I’ll begin by quoting Webster in the form of a question: What does it mean “to be a reader of Scripture in the economy of divine grace?”[22]First, to be a faithful readerof Holy Scripture is to read Scripture inthe economy of grace—to read the Bible as a spiritually alive Christian. Practically, then, the Christian’s posture towards Scripture is primarily of receiving and responding to the self-presence of God revealed in the text, not of dissecting or investigating. If the reader doesn’t have a pure heart to receive and therefore rightly respond, though he certainly reads the text, he cannot see the Word in the text (Matt 5:8; John 12:40); the Jewish Pharisees in the Gospels are a prime case study of this truth.

Second, “faithful reading of Holy Scripture in the economy of grace is faithful reading of the clear Word of God.”[23]That is, just as Webster said, faithful reading of our Bibles—whether alone in the morning, around the dinner table, at family  , with the gathering, and in the preaching of Holy Scripture—is reading (via the creaturely means of exegesis) to seethe Word. And since through Holy Scripture God covenants and binds the consciences of all who read, the faithful reader of Scripture should seek utmost adherence to the Scriptures. Therefore, reading Scripture isn’t a mere cognitive activity where information is transmitted from a text to one’s intellect. When we read the Bible faithfully “the Holy Spirit rules, accompanies and sanctifies the work of the reader in engaging the sanctified and inspired text.”[24]

Augustine, in On Christian Teaching, prescribes the right kind of animated understanding that comes from faithful reading: “So anyone who thinks that he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbour, has not yet succeeded in understanding them.” (Doctr. chr. 1.35.40).[25]This resonates with Webster’s understanding of the purpose of divine revelation: “[revelation’s] end is not simply divine self-display, but the overcoming of human opposition, alienation and pride, and their replacement by knowledge, love, and fear of God.”[26]Therefore, to faithfully read Holy Scripture isn’t merely to “get the diagram, arc, or phrase right” or to understand how the specific text in front of you fits into its overall literary structure or (even) to find “the main point;” no, rather, to faithfully read Holy Scripture is to participate actively in God’s purpose, as Philip Porter writes, “to cultivate faith and love in God,”[27]which flows like a fountain into the stream of love for one’s neighbor.

And so, just as Holy Scripture originates in God and bears witness that God, through his Spirit, speaks through its creaturely text, so our lives originate in God (John 1, 3) and bear witness that God, through his Spirit, speaks through creaturely people. Faithful reading (receiving) and faithful living (responding) are inseparable; if you lack one, you cannot have the other.

[1]John Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 43.

[2]Ibid., 14. In an essay written twelve years following this book, Webster articulates five topics upon which any theology of Scripture should touch: (1) the proper location of Scripture in the economy of revelation, reconciliation, and regeneration; (2) “the causes of authorship of Holy Scripture;” (3) the properties of Holy Scripture; (4) the ends and purposes of Holy Scripture; and (5)  the uses of Scripture in the church (Webster, “ὑπὸ πνεύματος ἁγίου φερόμενοι ἐλάλησαν ἀπὸ θεοῦ ἄνθρωποι: On the Inspiration of Holy Scripture,” in Conception, Reception, and the Spirit: Essays in Honour of Andrew T. Lincoln, J. Gordon McConville and Lloyd K. Pieterson, eds. [Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2015], 236–37).

[3]Webster, Holy Scripture, 14.

[4]Ibid., 44.

[5]Ibid., 47.

[6]Ibid., 28. Further, he writes: “A sanctified text is creaturely, not divine. Scripture’s place in the economy of saving grace does not need to be secured by its divinisation through the unambiguous ascription of divine properties to the text. But as creaturely, the text is not thereby less serviceable, precisely because as creature it is sanctified (set apart, fashioned and maintained) for God’s service.”

[7]Ibid., 9.

[8]Ibid., 30. Those who may find difficulty with this assertion (that Scripture is foremost a creaturely reality) according to Webster, often view all texts as “simply natural” like any other text (ibid., 28). He continues: “If this is difficult for us to grasp, it is because of a convention which so often presents itself to us as self-evidently authoritative, namely the convention that all texts are simply natural, historical entities, and that the Bible is to be read ‘like any other text’ because it is a text, and all texts are fundamentally the same kind of entity.”

        On the contrary,“the biblical text is Scripture; its being is defined, not simply by its membership of the class of texts, but by the fact that it is this text—sanctified, that is, Spirit-generated and preserved—in this field of action—the communicative economy of God’s merciful friendship with his lost creatures” (ibid., 29).

[9]Ibid., 30.

[10]Ibid., 33. In his later essay on inspiration, Webster provides a more detailed definition of inspiration: “Inspiration is the Spirit’s work of illuminating the prophetic and apostolic writers, and providing both the impulse to write and the matter and verbal form of their writing” Webster, “ὑπὸπνεύματοςἁγίου,238. And again, “the divine action which moves [the] prophetic and apostolic work is inspiration,” Webster, “ὑπὸπνεύματοςἁγίου”, 244.

[11]Ibid., 31 (emphasis mine).

[12]Ibid., 32.

[13]Ibid., 36.

[14]Ibid., 39. 

[15]Michael Graves, “The Literary Quality of Scripture as Seen by the Early Church,” TynBul 61 (2010), 182.

[16]Meredith Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority, 2nd ed. (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1997).

[17]Webster, Holy Scripture, 58.

[18]Ibid., 59.

[19]Ibid., 60 quoting F. Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith(Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1928), 602.

[20]Ibid., 61–62 (emphasis mine).

[21]This “application” section, like my previous responses, will be fairly general and “theological.” I write this way because I find it more valuable for Christians and ministers to rightly think through applicatory principlesthat Scripture prescribes (cf. the impetus behind Dorothy Sayers’s brief essay The Lost Tools of Learning)  rather than to think through all the specific instances that could arise when living Scripture (of course, with the exception of incredibly difficult topics that ministers should think through before handling them first hand [e.g., divorce and remarriage issues, homosexuality, modern gender issues, etc.]).

I would rather have a set of tools by which I can approach a variety of scenarios rather than a handful of limited and thought-out scenarios that only get me as far as the individual scenarios go. (This is not to say that in those individual scenarios general principles couldn’t be derived by which one could address a multiplicity of other scenarios.)

[22]Ibid., 69.

[23]Ibid., 91.

[24]Ibid., 94. In Webster’s final chapter of Holy Scripture, he lays out his thoughts for Christian higher education, which I think can be summed up with this quotation: “Theology is thus more a process of moral and spiritual training and an exercise in the promotion of common life than it is a scholarly discipline,” ibid., 116.

[25]Augustine, On Christian Teaching, R. P. H. Green, trans. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997). Cf. Webster, Holy Scripture, 116: “Theology is thus more a process of moral and spiritual training and an exercise in the promotion of common life than it is a scholarly discipline.”

[26]Webster, Holy Scripture, 16.

[27]Philip Porter, “Liberated by Doctrine: Augustine’s Approach to Scripture in De Doctrina Christiana,” Pro Ecclesia 26 (2017), 220.