John Webster On Defining Holy Scripture

This is the fourth and last post in a series on the nature of Scripture and inspiration. Previous posts looked at the early church fathers, Kenton Spark’s adoptionist model, and Peter Enns incarnation view.

John Webster provides a helpful contribution to the discussion on revelation and inspiration in Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch. He provides a much needed look at the role of the Holy Spirit (pneumatology) that is missing in some of the discussions on the nature of Scripture. Webster roots his views of Scripture in a doctrine of God as saving presence (39). He emphasizes the importance of understanding the Bible as Holy Scripture, and not merely “scripture” (2). The former is a “human text which God sanctifies for the service of his communicative presence” and the latter is “human writing generated and used by religious communities.” He further defines Holy Scripture as “the saving economy of God’s loving and regenerative self-communication.” Webster believes that in some circles the Holy aspect of Scripture has been discarded (1). He seeks to provide a dogmatic explication of what we mean when we say “Holy” Scripture. In religious studies programs analysis of sacred texts tends to focus on the human agents in the production of the text. But, “Holy” Scripture is indicative of the reality that something divine is occurring beyond merely human activity. Webster does not deny the human elements in Scripture, but rejects reducing Scripture to mere scripture. A doctrine of Scripture must be firmly rooted in the “self-representation of the triune God, of which the text is a servant” (6). When Scripture is divorced from divine activity the text is treated as a matter of independent investigation.

Webster outlines three primary areas in his discussion: revelation, inspiration, and sanctification. His concern is to keep in view revelation as the life-giving presence of God, not merely a “process of causality whereby persons acquire knowledge through opaque, non-natural operations” (12). In other words, revelation is not primarily about prophets acquiring information, but the presence and activity of God. Revelation is not something that gets dropped and deposited into the world and then becomes subject to manipulation (14). Revelation is God himself (as Holy Spirit) and God is the one who reveals himself. Revelation is also purposive to the goal of redemption and reconciliation between God and human beings (15-16). This means revelation cannot ever be reduced to knowledge about God as though God is a thing or object, but rather revelation is to know God. More specifically, God’s self-revelation is evident in acts of “election, creation, providential ordering, reconciliation, judgment and glorification of God’s creatures” (17).

Sanctification refers to how God involves human beings in God’s self-communication. God set apart (i.e. sanctified) particular human beings (17). Webster is sensitive to the reality that some theologians have reacted to naturalistic treatments of the Bible by going to the opposite extreme of denying the creatureliness of the biblical text (20). Strident naturalism and supernaturalism are two sides of the same coin that fail in their lack of a “theological ontology” of the text (21). Like many of the early church fathers, Webster understands Scripture as a product of God’s condescension (22). However, he cautions against separating the mode of revelation from the content which leads to a dualism that reinforces “the idea that the creatureliness of the text is simply external and contingent.”

On the other hand, Webster does not advocate a supernaturalism that ignores human effects in the production of Scripture. In fact, he rejects the incarnation analogy of inspiration because it can insinuate things about the text that are not correct, namely the divinization of the text. The text is a creaturely reality; it does not have a divine nature or properties (23). Scripture is sanctified (i.e. Spirit-generated and preserved; 29). By this Webster means the text is an instrument of “personal relations between God and humankind” (9, 23). The texts have been set apart by God for his purpose of self-revelation. Webster follows Barth in viewing Scripture as a testimony or witness to God’s active presence. However, he rejects the idea that Scripture is a purely natural entity and merely “adopted” by God for self-communication (24).

Scripture is a servant (25). As such its creatureliness does not hinder its role in the “communicative self-presentation of God.” For Webster sanctification is not an occasional event wherein the Spirit comes upon and overwhelms a person in a prophetic moment. It is “not the extraction of creaturely reality from its creatureliness, but the annexing and ordering of its course so that it may fittingly assist in that work which is proper to God” (26-27). The creaturely element is governed and molded by God for divine service (27). God makes holy. In terms of the biblical texts this means that even though they are creaturely they are not simply natural entities because they have been set apart for God and are “fields of the Spirit’s activity in the publication of the knowledge of God.” Scripture is a servant as a creaturely reality, not despite it. The creatureliness of Scripture is not to be confused with naturalness (28). The ontology of the text is in the Spirit’s sanctifying work. As such the Bible should be read as a text that addresses its audience “in the name of God” and not only from a historical critical approach (29). The Spirit’s activity involves how the texts came together in the production process, including authorship, the redaction processes, and canonization (30).

Webster sees sanctification primarily as the ontology of the text while defining inspiration as “the specific work of the Spirit of Christ with respect to the text” (31). Inspiration is subordinate to the broader category of revelation. Our confidence in Scripture’s revelatory message is not based on the fact that it is inspired, and thus dependent on proving the text’s inspiration, but rather our confidence is in God (32). The fact that Scripture is an instrument that proceeds from God is the reason for faith. Webster also counsels that we should not lose sight of God as divine agent by giving the inspired “product” priority (33). Similarly, we are advised to not shift attention toward authors or readers of the biblical text. Inspiration does not reside in the reader. Often “in the modern history of Scripture and its interpretation, the gap left by the withdrawal of the self-communicative divine presence is filled by readerly activity” (35). Inspiration is not about the properties of the text or the authors or readers, but the communicative function of text as part of God’s presence. Based on 2 Peter 1:21, inspiration is about divine movement and not reflective of human spontaneity. Human beings spoke as moved by the Spirit (37). This inspiration involves words because the writing comes from divine impulse (38). But this is not a dictation view. Rather the Spirit “lifted up, energized, and purged” the biblical authors. Verbal inspiration does not ignore the historical and cultural aspects of the text (39). Scripture is God’s self-communication as treasure in “earthen vessels.”

Finally, Webster states that Scripture is clear not because of our exegetical efforts or anything intrinsic in the text, but because God “interprets himself through the Spirit’s work” (94). The Holy Spirit illuminates the reader. Technical skill alone is not enough to understand Scripture. As such historical critical methodology can create “a false stance towards Scripture” (104). Scripture is properly read from a place of the humble, repentant learner, and not as one who has mastery over God’s revelation (72-78).

What I resonate most with in Webster’s proposal is the grounding of Scripture as Holy. Scripture is not merely a human text and cannot be conceived of or read only in the same manner as other texts. In some proposals on the nature of Scripture, for example Kenton Sparks’, I sense too much emphasis on Scripture as a human document that can be dissected and assessed through natural means. But if God reveals God’s self at all, and if the Bible is truly an instrument of God’s revelation, then there are supernatural aspects to how we understand it. I also appreciate that Webster encourages a proper posture of humility and teachableness as one approaches Scripture, and not as one who sits in judgment over it.

In terms of the biblical authors and how God set them apart, Webster’s proposal of sanctification makes sense, especially if it is understood as the Holy Spirit setting apart certain individuals and molding them toward godly service. Whereas the incarnation model does not make a distinction between human beings who are sinful and Christ who is sinless, the notion of sanctification places inspiration more in the realm of pneumatology instead of Christology. This makes better sense. Of course, the CSBI inerrantists would say such sanctification led to Christ-like perfection and thus a “perfect” Bible. But, that would be a problematic explication of sanctification pre-eschaton. More likely, as the Apostle Peter suggests, the “Spirit of Christ” within the biblical authors was illuminating them to truth (I Pet 1:10-12). In other words, the biblical authors were set-apart, holy persons molded by God—not perfect like Christ in sinlessness, but also not ordinary sinful human beings who were not sanctified. In this way, I view the human traits in Scripture not as “fallenness,” “sinfulness,” or “errors” but as finite creatureliness which by definition does not include omniscience. Like the early church fathers, I would see Scripture as a matter of “seeing in part.” Revelation will not be fully revealed until the end of time.

Webster is right that we need a dogmatic sketch of Scripture and that we should understand Scripture as rooted in the activity of God. In other words, we should not approach a doctrine of revelation and inspiration by first and foremost looking at the difficulties in the text. A dogmatic sketch should start with God’s activity, not human activity. Human activity is subordinate to God’s activity. Sometimes in certain proposals on the nature of Scripture this gets turned around. However, where I would like to see Webster do more is to take his dogmatic sketch and work it out on a concrete level. I would like him to better explicate what a sanctified text means when we encounter difficulties such as the Canaanite conquest. Or how does he understand the text functioning when archaeological evidence suggests the walls of Jericho did not fall in the way the biblical depictions state? Would he suggest the text is operating more theologically than historically in these cases? For example, I appreciate Gregory of Nyssa’s and other church fathers who were comfortable making theological interpretations rather than historical ones when encountering difficulties (e.g. the killing of the Egyptian firstborns is the killing of sins not literal babies).

Whether or not one uses allegory to make sense of the text, I believe church tradition has something to teach our anal, post-Enlightenment minds that are hesitant to read Scripture in spiritual ways. But, if Scripture reflects the on-going active, dynamic presence of God’s self-communication (not as divine properties in the text, but the text as instrument used by God), then we would expect to read Scripture in light of the Spirit’s present activity. That creates an element of subjectivity. But the fact is the church has thrived on numerous hermeneutical methods and not merely grammatical-historical or critical approaches. In other word, even if we don’t prefer to use allegory, allegory did work for many of the church fathers in finding the truth of Christ in Scripture. I appreciate Augustine’s proposal:

Whatever there is in the word of God that cannot, when taken literally, be referred either to purity of life or soundness of doctrine, you may set down as figurative. Purity of life has reference to the love of God and one’s neighbour; soundness of doctrine to the knowledge of God and one’s neighbour . . . Now Scripture enjoins nothing except charity, and condemns nothing except lust, and in that way fashions the lives of men. In the same way, if an erroneous opinion has taken possession of the mind, men think that whatever Scripture asserts contrary to this must be figurative. Now Scripture asserts nothing but the catholic faith, in regard to things past, future, and present. It is a narrative of the past, a prophecy of the future, and a description of the present. But all these tend to nourish and strengthen charity, and to overcome and root out lust. I mean by charity that affection of the mind which aims at the enjoyment of God for His own sake, and the enjoyment of ones self and one’s neighbour in subordination to God; by lust I mean that affection of the mind which aims at enjoying one’s self and one’s neighbour, and other corporeal things, without reference to God (On Christian Doctrine, III.10.14-16).

Whether or not we use allegorical or grammatical-historical or other hermeneutical methods, Augustine is right that God’s purpose in Scripture is to “enjoin nothing except charity.” Modern interpreters might criticize the church fathers for using allegory because its “incorrect” and doesn’t arrive at a “proper” interpretation. But can we not also say the same thing about the grammatical-historical method? How many “literalistic” interpretations have been used to perpetuate sin rather than charity? A “literal” interpretation of the Old Testament was used as justification in the genocide of Native Americans. Thus, various interpretive methods can result in Christ-like movement or evil. The goal and end of Scripture is Christ. Therefore, any and all “proper” interpretation is Christ. And the active, dynamic presence of the Holy Spirit guides us in reading and seeing Christ in Scripture so that we are transformed into persons who love God and neighbor.



One thought on “John Webster On Defining Holy Scripture

  1. “The goal and end of Scripture is Christ. Therefore, any and all “proper” interpretation is
    Christ. And the active, dynamic presence of the Holy Spirit guides us in reading and seeing
    Christ in Scripture so that we are transformed into persons who love God and neighbor.”

    I couldn’t agree more.

Comments are closed.