In the essay, The Immensity and Ubiquity of God, Webster’s thesis for Christian Dogmatics is primarily methodological. When beginning to speak of the divine nature, the theologian must first and originally speak of the divine identity found in the biblical-historical economy of God’s gracious action, for this is the sole direction of Christian dogmatics.
Webster points out in the first section of the essay that his thesis has an initial polemical intent. There are two extremes usually taken up when engaging in the doctrine of the divine perfections: 1) An account of God’s attributes that are wholly determined by prior conceptions of what a deitas must be; or 2) a reaction to the former that wholly reduces the divine to its economic concerns, creating an arbitrary, purely voluntaristic God separated from the divine nature in se. According to Webster, a proper theology of the divine perfections avoids these pitfalls by focusing its efforts solely upon indicating what Barth called the enacted singularity of God – a focus upon the identity of the biblical God over against the presumed nature of a deity. When perceived as such, the definitions of immensity and ubiquity become predicates of the triune-personal God found in the Father, Son, and Spirit. Thus, God’s relation to the creaturely realm is not one of competition (where infinity is simply the inversion of finitude), but of Lordship. Seen through the lens of creatio ex nihilo, God’s limitlessness is not a purely negative concern, but one that posits the divine acts of creation and redemption as constituting the relation between God and world. In sum, a theological account of the omnipresence of God makes created space into a medium of fellowship.
In the Holiness and Love of God, Webster continues on this ground by addressing the attributes of holiness and love in God. As previously explained, the proper end of theological discourse concerning the nature of God is found when dogmatics is able to redefine the classical characteristics generally applied to deity in a way that befits the trinitarian nature of the Christian God. For Webster, this means making identifying rather than classificatory judgments. In this way, God’s holiness and love are defined by His person and actions. These terms are nominal before they are predicative. The subject provides the content for the predicates of “holy” and “loving”. By virtue of this methodological move, Webster claims that the assumed tension between God’s holiness (which warrants human perfection) and love (His desire for mercy) can finally be smoothed over.
In The Fountain of Life (a lecture given at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School), Webster furthers the logic of the redefinition of the divine attributes by claiming that an eternal depth is necessary to ground the historical manifestations of God’s perfections. Over against the supposedly modern tendency to ascribe the perfections solely to their historical representations (which is assumed to be a slight against the metaphysical impulse), Webster claims that these contingencies that we see in history are, in fact, representations of the eternal divine processions. They always look back to something that grounds them. With this, the non-necessity of creation to the constitution of God’s being is vouchsafed while the divine missions are kept central to the dogmatic project.
When approaching the trajectory of Webster’s thought on the divine perfections, I can’t help but be amazed at the logic of it all. Early on in my theological education, I came to the immediate conclusion that all reflection on the divine perfections was boring – or even worse (as Webster seems to admit), latent Deism. Webster’s vision to reformulate the doctrine of God in specifically economic concerns (over against the Deistic tendencies of much modern theology) is the very definition of a ‘breath of fresh air’. With this in mind, however, it is his hesitancy to follow all the way down the rabbit hole that leaves me curious. What is Webster afraid of in the work of Robert Jenson? Why so quickly denounce a “wholly ‘economic’ account of the attributes of God without roots in God’s being in se”?
For Webster, the matter seems to come down to the issue of the relation between theology and metaphysics. The substance metaphysics of much of classical theology (or, more precisely, the modern interpretation of classical theology) is outright rejected for reasons previously mentioned, and the contemporary interest in participatory metaphysics is understood to be lacking the robust historicity of biblical thought – this much is certain. However, while some would see historical contingency as the only avenue left open in the ontic realm, Webster goes in a different direction. For him, this kind of “dramatic coherence” lacks the proper depth needed to ground the divine economy. As Webster himself explains it:
“…the drama of the economy has not only events but agents, dramatis personae. A doctrine of the immanent Trinity furnishes precisely a description of these personal agents and the modes of temporal action proper to them. It does not reduce the drama to a facade or its agents to masks. It tries to indicate that the force of the drama as gospel derives from the infinite capacity of these agents, and from their acts of ‘sending’ and ‘coming’ – from the divine missions and their temporal enactment – in which the eternal God reaches out to bless… these missions arise from the divine processions, and the divine processions are immeasurably more full of life and power than any temporal reality.”
Hmmm… I understand that Webster wants to ground the divine missions in the processions. In this way, he is able to capitulate to the tradition and be a good Barthian at the same time. But what I don’t understand is how this grounding is said to truly express the radicality of God’s actions in Christ. For example, Paul’s sermon in Acts 13 seems to be pointing out the fact that the ‘begetting’ of the Son that traditionally takes place in the divine processions is actually constituted (achieved?) by the Resurrection (v. 33). This is exactly what Webster doesn’t want to hear – “achievement” and “realization” language lack proper ontological depth. Instead, we should speak of “manifestations” and “iterations”.
If the reformulated doctrine of Election is to be understood as the ground of the trinitarian being of God (and I am fairly sure that this is the radically subversive core of Christianity), then wouldn’t we have to use so-called voluntaristic categories? If so, then how do we not fall right back into Nominalism? Better yet, is there any way to possibly keep the talk of “agency” and “actors” without negating this radical core?