John Webster – Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch (Cambridge University Press, 2003)

Webster says in his introduction, ‘what many of my contemporaries regard as self-evident I find to be puzzling or unpersuasive and…matters which I regard as self-evident make many of my contemporaries feel bewildered’. This is a sentiment I share, and doctrines of Scripture are perhaps among the most difficult. Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch is by no means a comprehensive take on the subject of Scripture, but just a sketch of a number of issues relevant to it. It is an academic book, so no light read, but it isn’t too long and it rewards effort.

The first chapter – on ‘Revelation, Sanctification and Inspiration’ – is the best. It addresses the question of whether the Scriptures are human or divine, and argues that they are best seen as sanctified, saying, ‘the biblical texts are creaturely realities set apart by the triune God to serve his self-presence’.

The second chapter looks at the relationship between the Church and Scripture. He rejects Roman Catholic doctrines, maintaining, ‘Scripture is not the word of the church, the church is the church of the Word’. This raises issues with canonisation – who has authority over what is Scripture if not the Magisterium? Webster answers that it is the clear work of the Spirit. The third chapter further describes the work of the Spirit as the Scripture is read – a work incomparably more powerful than any exegetical labour.
Perhaps the best thing about Webster’s writing is that it is theology that leads to doxology. As he talks about who God is he also wants to praise God for who he is.

The last chapter addresses the relationship between scripture and theology. For Webster, the role of all theology is to lead the Christian back to the Scripture and exegesis is the primary theological task. As such, ‘Christian theology is to manifest a modesty and transparency, a deferral to its object, which is divine self-communication through Scripture.’ Webster criticises commentaries that are free reflections not directly following the text, and he admires Calvin’s style which Calvin himself described as plain and simple, with all ostentation removed. But in reading this, it is striking how far Webster’s own writing is removed from what he seems to suggest is best. As a ‘dogmatic sketch’, Webster draws on the works of theologians, but almost never on the Scriptures themselves – specific passages are referred to no more than half a dozen times and he never even quotes a verse in full. He acknowledges this somewhat by classing himself as a systematic theologian rather than a biblical theologian, like Calvin and Bonhoeffer. While he affirms the authority and perspicuity of Scripture, but it has no practical application in his writing.

Also, his writing is ostentatious. He leaves Latin, Greek and German untranslated and he is unnecessarily verbose, sometimes to the extent of being unreadable. So, although I feel like I have learnt a lot from the book it is not one I would recommend highly. If you want to look at the topic of Scripture better to read Holy Scripture: Revelation, Inspiration & Interpretation by Donald Bloesch and Christ and the Bible by John Wenham.

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