John Webster on the task of theology

The late John Webster begins his book, Holiness, with some notes on the task of theology:

What is the task of theology…? When it is not overtaken by arbitrariness or self-confidence or scepticism about its object, theology takes its part in the work of edifying the Church. It does not do this by its own unaided powers, but by bearing witness to the risen Christ who speaks his word… The particular task of theology is to attest the truth of the gospel in the wake of Christ’s own self-attestation. Theology edifies by testifying to the gospel as promise and claim. In the Church’s theological work, the gospel is articulated as the norm of the Church’s praise, confession and action, and the ground of the Church’s understanding of nature and human history. As it seeks to articulate the gospel in the sanctorum communio, theology concentrates on two fundamental tasks, namely exegesis and dogmatics. Exegesis is of supremely critical importance, because the chief instrument through which Christ publishes the gospel is Holy Scripture… Dogmatics is complementary but strictly subordinate to the exegetical task…it seeks simply to produce a set of flexible accounts of the essential content of the gospel as it is found in Holy Scripture, with the aim of informing, guiding and correcting the Church’s reading (3-4).

He adds:

Dogmatics is often caricatured as the unholy science that reduces the practices of piety to lifeless propositions. But far from it: dogmatics is that delightful activity in which the Church praises God by ordering its thinking towards the gospel of Christ (8).

Webster’s constant emphasis on theology being the Church’s work is refreshing, as is the his assertion that the end of theology is our collective praise of God.


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