John Webster on Scripture authority and action

John Webster calls for a scriptural hermeneutic and doctrine of episcopacy subordinate to the doctrine of God. In an article on scripture he argues that the God who addresses the world does not lose control of that address to the Church: God’s word remains with him so Scripture must be referred to God, not understood on any independent epistemological basis such as the authority of reading communities. In an article on episcopacy he argues that God does not abdicate his authority (episcope) to the Church. I am going to ask whether we can combine these issues to come up with a single statement about the action of God that witnesses to the possibility of an obedient action for man graciously extended to him by God.

In recent articles John Webster calls for a scriptural hermeneutic and doctrine of episcopacy subordinate to the doctrine of God. In an article on scripture he argues that the God who addresses the world does not lose control of that address to the Church: God’s word remains with him so Scripture must be referred to God, not understood on any independent epistemological basis such as the authority of reading communities. In an article on episcopacy he argues that God does not abdicate his authority (episcope) to the Church. I am going to ask whether we can combine these issues to come up with a single statement about the action of God that witnesses to the possibility of an obedient action for man graciously extended to him by God. I suggest that discussion of God and ethics must involve a wider definition of sanctification of man as the creature of God set to work by God on a work that remains God’s own. I will argue that we should we see the exercise of authority as the task of the whole Christian assembly: the whole body is elect to serve and to take care, to judge between competing claims and exercise authority and oversight. The purpose of the appointment of some to particular offices is then to prepare the whole body to exercise this single office of servant of God to the world.

Theology is a complex business. It is supposed to be complex because it is intended to remind other discourses that there is more complexity than they can comprehend and control. I will suggest that at moments the proper statement is that which re-asserts the transcendence of God, and at others that which re-asserts the pneumatology appropriate to set out the immanence of God’s invisible working on the world. Which of these is at any time appropriate is a function of God’s own discernment, and under him the church’s discernment, of what at each moment the world needs to hear. This requires the constant laying out of the number of duties or responsibilities of theological statement, so theology is already ethics, an action, that witnesses to a proper and liberating action itself created by the truth.

The canon of Scripture

In an article entitled ‘The Dogmatic Location of the Canon’ Webster argues for ‘a trinitarian and soteriological account of revelation as the context for talk of canon’ (29). Revelation is the free work of God in which God is outgoing and communicative; he speaks out in a history in which he establishes saving fellowship with his creatures and in all his speaking to us remains free. Scripture is the medium of this fellowship. What makes scripture decisive for the Church? It is made holy and effective for its purpose by God so has a derivative and functional holiness and affect. It and the community that reads it are the functions and functionaries of a single Spirit, and so of a single action. ‘Faithful action is action; its practitioners are agents. But both action and agent are defined by reference to that in the presence of which (of whom) they find themselves.’

Webster wants to move beyond a hermeneutic in which Scripture is something the Church does because recent moves towards post-liberal ‘inter-textuality’ have tended to portray the gospel as one language game amongst others. Intertextuality, virtue ethics and similar hermeneutics ‘leave us within the relatively self-enclosed worlds of readerly psyches and habit-forming communities.’(42) But a hermeneutic of scripture must start from the address of God and so from the doctrine of God who speaks. The doctrine of scripture has quite wrongly been made a basis (a ‘woodenly deistic’, ‘foundational doctrine’, a natural theology) upon which teaching about the revelation of God may be placed. But it is it not a basis. It is nothing but the revelation itself, and revelation and the doctrine of scripture belongs within the doctrine of God’s saving action. Until this is established Scripture is likely to remain a function of extraneous epistemologies and so disconnected from other doctrines and so misplaced. It will only be located either with God or with man. Instead it must be located in God and therefore in a doctrine of man who is the creature of God, under the authority of God and moved by the Spirit. To get to this theological anthropology there must be an account of God’s work in making holy the community of his choice, an account of sanctification, that understands man as presently ongoing work, the work of God.

We have to find a way to re-relate scripture to the doctrine of God to say that scripture is what God does for us as one mode of his being for us. This is the breakthrough Webster wants to see. I will come back to talk about scripture after I have introduced another theme. There must therefore be two accounts. One must be an account of the finished and perfect creation in which Christ is Lord, and his creatures obediently exercise his gifts and return to him his praise. The second must be an account of God’s ongoing work in overcoming our sloth and resistance. In this account we have to be taught and disciplined, and some are set over others so we have hierarchy. In the finished and perfect (resurrection) account internal authority will be not stand in opposition to external authority, but rather authority will be equally external and internal.

Authority and episcopacy

In ‘The Self-Organising Power of the gospel of Christ: Episcopacy and Community Formation’ (International Journal of Systematic Theology 2001) turns to the issue of authority. Why should we be concerned with authority? Isn’t authority an extraneous issue and doesn’t discussion of it represent a departure from the central concern of the gospel? No, not at all. Jesus is Lord. Others therefore are not lord. We are struggling here against ‘the notion (which very deeply affects much ecclesiology and theology of ministry) that at his ascension Jesus Christ as it were resigns his office in favour of human ministers, and that henceforth the Church is the real centre of ministerial agency.’(74) So is ‘the sole headship of the one Lord Jesus to some degree compromised’ (79). But ‘The dogmatic premisses of an evangelical ecclesiology – that as the risen and ascended Lord, Jesus Christ is present and active – do not permit any such transference of agency. Christ distributes his own benefits through his Spirit, that is, by his own hand; they are not to be thought of as some treasure turned over to the church for it to dispense.’(75)

Yet ‘though the acts of Christ are incommunicable, non-representable, Christ himself freely chooses to represent himself through human ministry.’ (75) ‘‘Office’ does not usurp the work of Christ or the Spirit, or the work of the whole church in witnessing to that work. Rather, it has the task of overseeing the unity and authenticity of the testimony of the church, and so of being caught up into Christ’s own formation of his community.’ (77) though Webster tells us that the church is the function of its Head, so that the Head determines the orientation, identity and being of his body, he also give the impression that the church is primarily a ‘human’ group left dangling at the end of God’s mercy, such that to progress beyond talk of God’s mercy to discussion of that group would be to diminish its the sheerly merciful character. Such is a proper correction to the immanentist tendencies of post-liberal and virtue-ethic theologies, but emphasis on Christ’s transcendence of his church must not downplay the equally proper statement that God is competent to bring his Church into conformity with his will so that this creature of his will finally have all its definition and being from him. How can we balance these concerns?

The rule of God

We need to set out a number of accounts. In the first God is king and judge alone. He is king, therefore we are not. The proclamation of his kingship is our own dethronement and exposure as usurpers. It releases the world from our clutches and it releases us from the illegitimate clutches of others and thus it is gospel. Our claim to power is the more malign insofar as it is been allowed to avoid ever becoming a public and political claim to kingship, and remained instead a claim to epistemological sovereignty. It was a claim to be able to know and command everything that is, so that nothing escapes our act of knowing. By Christ we are liberated from the rule of unrighteous and from the temptation to be wield an illegitimate authority over others, and we are freed from a hubristic and unsustainable claim to know the world immediately, without the mediation of its maker – and so to wield an absolute knowledge of others and the world beyond us. Because God holds this knowledge and these offices exclusively we cannot hold them ourselves and so the world is liberated from our tyrannical power of interrogation, and we freed from the compulsion to exert it. Knowledge of the world can only be given under the discipline of the Christian theological knowledge of God who made the world, and whose world it remains. God can and does hide all knowledge of his creature the world away, in order that we may not damage it, or finally harm any of these little ones or prejudice our own safety with any usurped knowledge of them.

But such a statement, that God is judge alone, is not sufficient, for God does not intend to be alone in exercising judgement and authority. His leadership is positive and generous, for it not only makes this creation good for all creatures of it, but it leads it and us to a place we have never been. God intends that we also come to learn this action, find it good, and exercise it with him and under him. The end and purpose of his judging is that we ourselves are brought up by him into the office and work of judges. God gives us not only a being but also an action. He gives us an action that is intrinsically his and which will always remain his, yet which he does not will be his such that it is not therefore also ours. He gives us his action, which we must understand both as servanthood and as leadership. Of course we must understand this not as an action given away, but as action on loan to us precisely as long as we exercise it with him and under him. When it is not exercised properly or we fail to learn our role, his Spirit and our office is taken away from us again – all without us being any the wiser.

The rule of the people of God

God has an assembly about him who see that God judges rightly and say so by praising him for the virtuosity and generosity with which he gives justice. God intends to admit new members to this assembly and to induct them into the skill of giving judgment they are gathered as the earthly assembly of the church. Part of the skill of judging is the skill of advocacy, the office of the defence counsel who puts the case for mercy. These trainees – the saints – must be taught the skills of entering a plea, interceding (prayer), to argue on behalf of those who are not yet just that a little more time is needed, and on behalf of those who have been denied justice that they should be given justice without delay. Christians are elect to serve and to take care of the world entrusted to them, to exercise oversight (episcope), to put the case to the Lord their God for justice and mercy, and together by praying him to exercise the power of binding and loosing. The Christians are held responsible for ‘the least of these’, and subject to a more severe judgement when they lose even one of them. The whole Christian body is elect to this work.

When these intercessor-judges are made perfect this assembly will then govern a combined kingdom of heaven and earth, in which we will be not divine, but for the first time properly human, creatures made holy.

But of course the Christian body is not yet obediently at work. The body must first be prepared to exercise this office and authority, and some in the Church are given this or that specific office precisely for this purpose. Authority is presently be limited to those elect to teach, encourage and prepare others, but the only purpose of the appointment of some to particular offices of oversight in the church is to prepare the whole church to exercise this single office for the world. There are different kinds of gifts but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service but the same Lord. To this end God has appointed first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles. The church appoints overseers and bishops – and there is a hierarchy, some exercise authority and many do not, though all of course are under authority. When Christ is all in all even the most modest members will be made able to play their part and the whole church participate in its Lord’s work of releasing the world from captivity to all the other alien authorities – other gods – that presently divide and hold it down. All Christians are to be full members of this political, public assembly and court of law which speaks the truth, teaches and enable truthful public speech, practises justice and praises God for his order and the generosity with which he upholds it for us.

Right judging is the proper action by which the new people follows its Head and with him takes up the mandate given to Adam to be custodian of creation. Judging is a constructive and generous act, the act of husbandry required in order to sustain created order. It the work of the gardener who adjudicates between the claims of competing plants, and prunes back some in order to promote the weaker in order that not just some but all flourish. What is true for judging is true for knowing the world, and for reading scripture as the authorised way to know the world as God knows it, as custodian knows and cares for his charge. This account then looks forward – it is hopeful and transformative. It understands the church as God’s work in progress, a work the beauty of which can be seen with baptised and therefore hopeful eyes.

Being and action

On modern Western understanding, there is a gap between being, which is understood as substance we are all understood to have already, and authority, which only some of us are understood to have. Leadership is understood only as an unfortunate necessity, or not so much as a necessity as an unnecessary evil. But authority is not something subsequent to being. Nor is action something subsequent to being (substance). We have to see authority as the action of humans. Wielding authority and power is what humans do every time they do anything. We discern, we distinguish, we prefer, we prioritise, we count, setting some things before others and so telling them apart, we give orderly accounts of things – we exercise Adam’s job of giving names to the things that are. We do this only because we first received a name and a mandate from God, a mandate that has not gone away just because mankind has refused to exercise it in obedience. We received from God being and action, and we received the power to discern name and to know. We are agents of this power because we are first its patients and recipients, our action derived from our being first passive to God’s originating work of creation and command.

We moderns understand only that we read Scripture as we read any text. No text is closed to us. But we must instead understand Scripture as the means by which God brings us into being and commands us to take up our action and our life. We must hear scripture as continuous with the Word of God by which we are brought into being and are now commanded to take up the life he confers. It is not that we sit in judgement upon scripture, but that scripture sits in judgment on us and puts us under its discipline. Scripture offers itself not as another thing to be read, one thing among many, but as the tool by which we may for the first time correctly read any and all texts in the world, not simply as ends in themselves, but as the medium by which we ourselves are read and transformed into the proper shape by God. But this is so not merely for texts, but for all events and all persons too. Humans are read into the shape of Christ – and texts are read only secondarily and instrumentally as the mode by which humans are read into the fullness of Christ. Scripture judges, tests, trains and transforms us. Scripture is not to remain external to us but to be internalised by us as we become woven and written together in Christ.

Sanctification means that we are made holy. But this holiness is not given into our hands as though it were an property that could be alienated from God. Rather it is given to us as a series of forms of action and forms of competence. This action is given and taught by God to his people and shared and practised by God with his people. He gives it to them so that they can return it to him so that he can give it back to them in this way creating an event of complex response, of taking and giving again, of being first passive then active then passive again, that constitutes a communion within which persons come into being – just as it is not the ball itself but only the passing of the ball that constitutes a game of football. Without such an account of action as action we are left with the old dichotomy of charisma (by which individuals are separated from the many) and institution, between one and many, and between interiority and external authority that Webster points to as unsatisfactory. The Western form of being as substance is just a form of ultimate passivity, but Christian doctrine says that we are raised from such a deathly passivity to action and activity, in an economy in which we are both passive and active in receiving and giving again to God and to each other, in an economy of response and communion that is entirely his but which we participate in.

Is God’s authority compromised and diminished by the exercise of Church authority? Is the master threatened by the obedience of his servant? Or is not Church authority precisely the exercise of authority mercifully extended from God to man and obediently exercised by man under God by the Holy Spirit? What is missing is a sense that action is precisely the gift given by God to man and exercised by man with God, to be conceptualised in pneumatology and ecclesiology. The two-natures language with which we properly distinguish God’s part from that man, is not the only tool with which we are supplied. We have pneumatology as the conceptuality with which are to give an account of how of God commandeers our action and transforms it into his. God has us – by his Spirit – while we have no knowledge of him or power over him. He can make us one with him in the body of his Son, so there is an identity, but it is the unilateral work of one party towards the other, and he is not be identical with us or in the least threatened by us. This pneumatological account is also eschatological. It is not a simple account of what already is, but of what is not yet present to our own economy of being and knowing. The coming time of God already keeps the disintegrating times of men under pressure, not letting mankind come to any other end than the end he intends for them.

Webster’s concern is that the long-standing error of making scripture a foundational doctrine, and more current post-liberal trend to virtue ethics and inter-textuality, have subordinated theology to the extrinsic discipline of non-theological hermeneutics. But two-natures language that re-emphasises the transcendence of God alone is not sufficient to show where authority comes from or how scripture has authority for us. If we restrict ourselves to two-natures language we can only correctively contrast God’s action and man’s action, but what we have to show is that God gives man an action, life and function, and that this new action and authority that is under God is counted by God precisely as his glory. The obedience of the servant is the work and glory of the master, so God’s authority is not diminished by the exercise of Churchly human authority, but is witnessed to by it. The authority of the Church is precisely the authority mercifully extended from God to man, exercised under God by the Holy Spirit by the one man Jesus of Nazareth.

Because God has provided in scripture the means by which we are drawn into his work and authority his church is made able to read and be built up by scripture. Scripture remains closed to us as long as we have not absorbed and do not exercise the lesson of the previous instalment of scripture. Scripture reading is a plural exercise, conducted under the oversight and authority of our teachers and leaders, in public liturgies. It is only in exercising proper oversight and care of one another that we are readied to receive, absorb and employ the next instalment of Scripture. Because the church is responsible for the world it is responsible for the care and use of that body of instruction that alone is able to translate the world from its own definition of itself to God’s definition of itself. The scripture is that body of instruction, and instruction in the use and upkeep of this instruction. It cultivates the skills not only by which it can be read, but by which the world can be read through it. This involves the proper care of scripture and of the tradition of right-reading of scripture and right-discipline of the community that can read it because it has been brought into being within it.

Scripture is given to us under a licence that can be revoked. Though the scriptures are before us God can close them to us without our knowledge, so we have the text without the truth. God’s word is not distant from him, but immediately with him, so this king can close a gate at the other end of his land simply by a nod. With the bible we have the whole world in our hand entirely present to us in microcosm, and yet on our own we are utterly without means to open it. Scripture is not intended always to remain external to the body but the body is to be integrated into the fullness of the stature of Christ which scripture outlines; we become woven and written together in Christ and scripture is then internal to us. Moderns understand only that we read and sit in judgement upon scripture, not that it reads, judges, tests them because it intends to train and transform them. Scripture does not offer itself as another thing to be read, one thing among many, but as the tool and means by which we may for the first time correctly read any and all texts in the world such they will all serve to form us into the people of God. This reading is not an act of mere representation but of formation and transformation, so in a much stronger sense of being made present to each other again, properly this time, indeed for the first time. In the finished and perfect account the external mandate of scripture will not be contrasted to or opposed to our own internal will, but rather the command of God will be received as equally external and internal – as God’s will and therefore as our will. What was once merely external textuality will become our own internal wiring and metabolism so we will have the mind of Christ.

Christ does this in two modes, but both of them are by his Spirit. He does it directly, and he does it employing the mediation of apostles, teachers and leaders, and through scripture, tradition and institutions. These intermediary authorities and modes, scripture chief among them, are intrinsically the work and working of the Spirit, of God. Scripture is therefore the mode of God’s work in bringing us into his own action: scripture and Spirit make a single agency. Scripture directs itself to the identification of the burdens laid on our shoulders by other gods, the specific practices that trap and hold us now and it supplies us with instruction on how to identify for each other and together shake off these internalised bonds, poor posture and instincts, and to train and develop the new action. It builds up that expertise that allows the church to find that best expression of scripture’s guidance so its members can aid one another to ease out from under the old bonds into the new freedom in Christ. It is not a static description of a truth that has no regard to time and which could be spread flat all at once – but it is the active prescription of the adjustments that will allow the church now to receive more scripture and Spirit and so to move slowly from stage to stage up towards the fullness of the stature God intends for it. It is only the dead who think that in the bible they have a dry description of generations now passed. These generations are the whole house of Israel, here for us visibly as scripture and invisibly as the Spirit. They are alive as the Holy Spirit, the army of the God of Israel, present to us in this double mode of Spirit (in which we are available to them but not they to us) and scripture (in which they are available to us but we are not yet raised and made available to them. They are visible to us as this tightly bundled microcosm of the finished and perfect creation while they now wait patiently for us to catch them up.

To sum up then, we can say that description of the works of Christ requires a number of accounts kept in parallel. I have suggested that we need an account of (a) a new status (forensic – we become judges), (b) a new being (ontology – we become creatures), (c) a new action (ethic), and finally (d) a new knowledge – of God and only therefore of the world of his creatures (epistemology as servant of theology). I have argued that the concepts of authority, oversight and care belong with the (c) account of a new action in terms of the office of the servant and creature of God. This office I described as that of judge giving this as positive a character related to Adam’s mandate to be the custodian of creation, and the consequence for epistemology is that only this servant is extended its Creator’s licence to read, know and name the world of his creation. Theology is a practice of interrupting the simple statements the world makes about itself by which the world always seems to want to close itself down, and of providing complex statements that keep the world open. This requires a sense of compassion that gives us the discernment what needs to be said to each audience that effects their release. The divorce between authority (episcope) and the ability to know and read this creation is a function of the modern separation of powers. I have taken a lot of shortcuts in sketching these connections. More useful would be to give a longer historical account of how these issues were separated from each other as a result of being detached from the doctrine of God who is God for us.