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White Horse Inn: Conversational Theology

In Memoriam: John Bainbridge Webster (1955-2016)


Michael Horton

Release date:

May 27, 2016

This past Monday, the Lord received John Webster, whom many have regarded as among the greatest living theologians.  Others who knew him better have offered fitting tributes such as this one from my friend Michael Allen:


I could enumerate his accomplishments, including the founding of the International Journal of Systematic Theology, holding a string of prestigious posts such as Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Oxford and professorships at Aberdeen and, until his death, at St. Andrews.  Along with others, such as the late Colin Gunton, John Webster elevated and enriched theological discourse.  

But what struck me equally was John’s character.  I was already impressed with his scholarship.  He was equally at ease in explaining the fine points of Jüngel’s complex thought, the Trinity, the holiness of God and prayer.  Whether forgetting the time as we discussed theology in the pub or speaking at one of his famous seminars and meeting his doctoral students from all over the world, I was struck first of all by John’s generosity and humility.   Each interaction left me with an example to imitate.  

Careful and even plodding in his scholarship, he also had a great sense of humor.  He was vigorous and cheerful in his confidence in God’s Word.  In fact, he wrote two books on Scripture that breathe such confidence.  His humility was not merely the product of British understatement; he seemed simply to assume that God was great and he was small by comparison.  

In a sermon on Matthew 21:33-39, he began, “One way of coming to understand the events of Holy Week is to think of them as the triumph of falsehood.”  John had a way of exegeting the culture—indeed, us—as well as Scripture.  He faced the challenges to the gospel within the church as well as outside it, but in neither a flippant nor fearful manner.  Confident in the truth’s power to create the reality of which it speaks, he was generous and nuanced even in his handling of views with which he strongly disagreed.  His observations here http://zondervanacademic.com/blog/common-places-the-promise-and-prospects-of-retrieval-recent-developments-in-dogmatics/

provide a helpful account of what has happened to enliven serious theology over the last few decades and point up his own sympathies for catholic, evangelical and Reformed truth.

John Webster was the first name I suggested to aspiring doctoral students.  He didn’t seem to mind, graciously accepting our seminary graduates. They all gave the same reports: of a godly mentor who held them to high standards while pouring his life into them as if they were his colleagues rather than pupils.  

In a blurb for his collection of sermons, Confronted by Grace, I said, “in reading these sermons one forgets the preacher and hears Christ.”  That’s how I will remember John and his legacy.  In fact, the very title of that book demonstrates his central conviction that grace is not something that we find, use and control but something—or rather, Someone—who finds us.  If you haven’t been introduced yet to John Webster, take this occasion to meet a truly great mind and heart.  He will take you by the hand to the Triune God of Scripture.