John Webster: Holy Scripture

Holy Scripture: to depict these texts in light of their divine self-communication (Webster 5). It is a “short-hand for the nature and function of these communicative acts.”

Scripture has its place as an act of the God who speaks to and sanctifies his people (8). Webster makes an unusual move: he speaks of the sanctification of Scripture. It is the holiness of Scripture which is an aspect of God’s using creaturely reality to attest to his revelation (this is what we normally call the self-attestation of Scripture). The sanctification of Scripture always refers back to God’s activity.


Webster notes a problem when revelation is collapsed into prolegomenal foundations: it isolates revelation “from material dogmatic discussions” (12). Webster proposes an alternative, identifying revelation as “the self-disclosure of the Triune God” (13) in which God establishes mercy and fellowship with human beings.

The content of revelation is God’s own proper reality (14). It is divine “self-presentation” and not merely facts about God. But not only is God not merely the content of revelation, he is the subject. Further, revelation is not merely God’s self-displaying, but it is the establishing of fellowship and overcoming human opposition. In fact, Webster concludes: “revelation is reconciliation” (17). I disagree, but more on that later.


Webster’s emphasis on the sanctification aspects of Holy Scripture is much appreciated. Whatever else the Bible may mean in relation to political theology or historical criticism, if it is not first anchored in the sanctifying acts of God towards his people, then we have divorced Scripture from life.


The Church does not create Scripture, but is called into being by God the Word. If it is called into being, it stands in the relation of hearing. Webster notes, “The church’s being is ectopic” (47); it’s place is in the being and creative act of God the Word.

Invisibility of the Church: it is in-visible in that it is not identified/seen in the world’s social institutions.

Apostolicity and Tradition: tradition is just as much an act of hearing than a fresh act of speaking (49). Further, the church’s “acknowledgment of Scripture’s authority is not so much an act of self-government, but an exposure to judgment” (57).

The canon is an extension of Christ’s communicative presence in his church (58). The Church’s speech is generated and controlled by Christ’s own self-utterance (60).

We do not deny the canon is the church’s act; we are simply clarifying what kind of act it is (62). It is an act of assent rather than self-derived judgment. It is an act of confession of that which precedes and imposes itself upon the church. It is an act of submission before it is an act of authority. The act of canonization has a backwards reference. The church and all of its acts are ostensive–pointing above and beyond itself.

Reading in the Economy of Grace

“Grace establishes fellowship” (71). Reading erodes spontenaity and subjects the reader to different modes of learning. Bonhoeffer: we must be wary of positing an archimedean point of judgment outside of Scripture. We should inculcate a habit of “listening” that draws us into the story extra nos (83).

self-interpreting: only so by virtue of its relation to God.

Helpful Points

Webster avoids predicating divine attributes to Scripture; it’s relation to God is instrumental (23). This might appear a sop to liberalism, but a moment’s reflection will prove its obvious point: No one believes the pages of the bible as such are divine, for they wear away (which an attribute like eternity cannot). Therefore, the bible I have is a copy of something. A copy of what, precisely? This isn’t Barthianism. It’s common-sense. Let’s go back to the Augustinian use of res/signs. What’s so bad about looking at my individual copy of the Bible as a sign to God’s res? I really don’t see how one can avoid this conclusion. We don’t have the autographa, but if we want to maintain a strong doctrine of inspiration (or better, ex-piration), then we have to use some form of Augsutinian signs.

Webster suggests we should prioritize the model of “Scripture as prophetic testimony.” It fits in with speech-act concepts. It is “language that depicts a reality other than itself” (23). However, Webster suggest we best see Scripture as “a means of grace” (24). What do we mean by means? He warns us not to view “means” as something that makes the divine reality present where it wasn’t present before, giving a quasi-divine and magical connotation to the “means.”


Webster says revelation is reconciliation (16). Does he mean all acts of revelation are reconciliatory? Surely he can’t mean that, because Paul says the ‘wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all unrighteousness of men” (Romans 1:18). This aspect of revelation is not saving. It is judgmental and even damning.

Practical conclusions:

We should insist on Scripture in usu et actione (7).

3 thoughts on “John Webster: Holy Scripture

  1. You could construe reconciliation as revelation if you think in terms of a cosmological renewal of all natures. Wrath would be against those who pervert nature. Thus there is restoration to being for those who participate, and destruction for those who move against.

    I’m giving Webster a kind of benefit of the doubt, assuming he is not an apokatastasis kind of Barthian.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s