Forthcoming in Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology

Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch

John Webster

Cambridge University Press, Cambridge , 2003; 144pp.; ISBN 0 521 83118 0 hardback; 0 521 53846 7 paperback


Written for upper-undergraduate and graduate students of theology, this work seeks to give a dogmatic account of the nature of scripture. Chapter 1, 'Revelation, sanctification and inspiration', introduces the term 'sanctification' alongside two terms that are more common in discussions of scripture. 'Sanctification' is used to describe the way God sets apart the biblical texts for the purpose of revelation. Webster holds that problems have arisen in Christian accounts of revelation because revelation has tended to be related too closely to contemporary intellectual conventions and too little to the doctrine of the Trinity. He complains of the way therefore that discussion of revelation has tended to come first in dogmatic treatments so as to form the starting point for epistemology while somehow detached from the doctrine of God. He finds rather that revelation is a 'corollary of more primary Christian affirmations about the nature, purposes and saving presence of the triune God' (p. 13). Considering attempts to describe the relationship between divine and human elements in scripture, he finds problematic the use of the concept of divine accommodation and also the use of the hypostatic union of Christ as an analogy for the divine and human properties of scripture (pp. 22-23). The notions of scripture as testimony or as a ‘means of grace', as well as of its 'servant-form' are found to be helpful, though the author judges the concept of ‘sanctification' to be most useful as it 'can more readily be applied to the full range of processes in which the text is caught up from pre-textual tradition to interpretation …' (p. 26). In common with classic Reformed positions inspiration is said to be verbal, that is to involve words; inspiration applies not only to the subject matter of scripture but also to its form. Chapter 2, 'Scripture, church and canon', insists that the church is a product of the divine word and that 'the church is not competent to confer authority on Holy Scripture' (p. 53), though at the same time Webster wishes to avoid 'denials of the element of human decision-making in the process of canonisation' as might be found in some 'older theories of inspiration' (p. 58). Chapter 3, 'Reading in the economy of grace', contrasts attitudes to reading in contemporary culture, as represented by Schopenhauer, and the approaches to reading scripture advocated by Calvin and Bonhoeffer. Whereas Schopenhauer contrasts reading with 'thinking for yourself', stressing human autonomy, Calvin and Bonhoeffer emphasise the need for thought to be subordinate to the word. Webster maintains, 'Reading Scripture thus involves mortification of the free-range intellect which believes itself to be at liberty to devote itself to all manner of sources of fascination' (p. 90). Chapter 4, 'Scripture, theology and the theological school', considers the catechesis of the sixteenth century reformed theologian Zacharius Ursinus. His theological 'method' was simply a question of organising matter to help the reading of scripture. Webster contrasts to this the primacy given to universal reason in prestigious theological institutions today along with the fourfold division (or fragmentation) of theology into biblical, historical, systematic and practical. He calls for a reformation of the curriculum, realising that in many situations this will mean that

theology will find itself moving to the edge of the modern university. In contexts committed to the sufficiency of natural reason (or at least to the unavailability of anything other than natural reason), theology will have something of the scandalous about it. (p. 134)

In days when the church continues to wrestle with its relationship to academic institutions and when even evangelical curricula are in danger of theological fragmentation there is much to heed in this book.


P.J. Williams, University of Aberdeen