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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

Making Ontology Great Again: John Webster’s “Domain of the Word”

Published Monday, March 28, 2022 By Andrew Miller

When I attended seminary, I learned not only that eschatology precedes soteriology (Vos), but also that ontology precedes epistemology. Ontology is the study of being, epistemology, the study of knowing. Before we can ask how we know, we need to consider who we are. My former professor Michael Horton puts it this way: “The widest horizon for theology—indeed for all of our knowledge—is the question of ontology: what is reality?”[1]

Likewise, one reason that John Webster’s The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason is so compelling is because he steps back and asks that question: what are our presuppositions when we study Scripture? Webster has us stop and consider what it says about God that we read the Scriptures as his Word. “Bibliology and hermeneutics are derivative elements of Christian theology, shaped by prior Christian teaching about the nature of God and creatures and their relations. Again, bibliology is prior to hermeneutics, because strategies of interpretation will be maladroit unless fitting to the actual nature of the text which they seek to unfold” (viii). In other words, before we can consider how to interpret the Bible, we need to understand what the Bible is. And this leads us back to God: we have the Bible because God speaks and reveals himself. We can understand the Bible because God the Spirit brings illumination.

Practically speaking, we get so wrapped up in the various tasks of life that we seldom stop to think about ontology questions. But it can be immensely revealing to consider such matters, as Webster does.[2] For example, Webster devotes a whole chapter to how the harmony among the persons of the Trinity, the God of peace, is the foundation for any creaturely peace and harmonious thought. In “Theology and the peace of the church,” Webster gives us his course:

It begins by talking of the peace of God’s own life and the harmonious order of God’s inner works. It moves to consider the peace which is intrinsic to created being. This peace unfolds over the course of God’s outer works of creation, preservation, and reconciliation, and supremely in the mission of the Son, who interposes himself into created hostilities and makes peace. From there we turn to consider the church, constituted by the gospel of peace and animated by the Holy Spirit to speak and enact the peace of Christ… (151)

Whereas so much that passes for sermon application today is simply moral exhortations detached from deep moorings in the being of God, the person and work of Christ, or the course of redemptive history, Webster’s vision is refreshing. It is also profoundly biblical: “…as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:15-16). Our being and doing flows from God’s being and doing.

The Christian life is deeply shaped by theology, and theology that may have become stale comes to life when the imperative is truly rooted in the indicative. The great commission and the subsequent mission of the Christian church, for example, is rooted in the deep reality of God’s action: “the Missionary God not only saves us but incorporates us into his missionary people.”[3] Application like this engages us because it gives us reasons as well as rules. We are not simply told not to commit adultery, for example, but reminded of the deep covenant faithfulness of God (Ps. 117:2). Furthermore, it reflects the great reality of the church’s union with Christ. Because Jesus is the servant of the Lord who set his face like flint on his mission of redemption and would not be turned, so too, united to him and indwelt by the Holy Spirit, Christ’s people serve him determinedly (Isa. 50:7).

Webster’s reflection on the nature of Scripture (“bibliology”) both evidences and evokes a sense of wonder at God, weaving together various facets of theology: ecclesiology, providence, anthropology, and the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, to name a few. He writes, “the nature and interpretation of Scripture [are] corollaries of more primary theological teaching about the relation of God and creatures: this, because Scripture is (for example) part of God’s providential supplying of the life of the church, and we will remain unclear about Scripture as long as we are unclear about God, providence and church” (3).[4] It is a catch-22 of the best kind: before we can speak properly about how to interpret Scripture, we have to listen to Scripture talk “of God as Scripture’s author and illuminator” (4).

Webster’s emphasis on ontology highlights the doctrine of God as grounding all subsequent theology and practice. He writes, “in an important sense there is only one Christian doctrine, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity in its inward and outward movements. Whatever other topics are treated derive from the doctrine of God as principium and finis” (145, see also 27). Other proponents of the Theological Interpretation of Scripture movement seem to have taken this to heart, giving prominence to the doctrine of the Trinity (e.g., Scott R. Swain, The Trinity and the Bible: On Theological Interpretation and Trinity, Revelation, and Reading).

Those tempted to dismiss ontology as ivory-tower contemplation should take note: The Domain of the Word blends deep scholarship with pastoral warmth. While exploring the ontology of Scripture, Webster examines important practical questions—e.g., what is the posture we must have as Bible readers? (26ff). Furthermore, the nature (ontology) of Scripture leads Webster to wonder-filled doxology:

But the prophets and apostles are alive, their texts are their voices which herald the viva vox Dei. ‘Following’ these texts is as it were a movement of intellectual repetition, a ‘cursive’ representation of the text, running alongside it or, perhaps better, running in its wake. To be taken into this movement is the commentator’s delight, tempered by the knowledge that we cannot hope to keep pace, because the prophets and apostles always stride ahead of us. This is why following these texts involves the most strenuous application of the powers of the intellect, demanding the utmost concentration to resist habit and to ensure that the text’s movement is not arrested in our representation. (130)

Webster also deeply engages with the problem of human sin—we would be spiritually ignorant and unable to know God except the Spirit applies to us the benefits purchased by Christ (50-64). In this, Webster calls all readers of the Bible to humility. We do theology and exegesis in dependence on God, for the good of our neighbor. Our theology should lead to peace—even our polemics must consider this goal (166-170). While Webster may not always connect the dots for us, this too reflects ontological considerations. Our godly conducting of theological disputation reflects telos which reflects anthropology: man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever (WSC Q&A 1).

Likewise, Webster’s chapter on “Curiosity” is almost worth the cost of the book alone (and this little book is costly, around $44), for it explains some of the problems with those who are obsessed with theological questions but hardly seem interested in putting theology into practice. “Theological coming-to-know does not terminate in the acquisition and storing of knowledge but in its exercise, in adoration of God and edification of others. Curiosity is selfish…it is preoccupied with satisfying the appetite for new objects to be consumed or hoarded” (201-202).

These observations barely scratch the surface of the richness of The Domain of the Word. Webster’s little book eruditely contemplates far more than I have expressed here. It certainly succeeds in bringing ontology back into fashion. Tolle Lege!

Andrew J. Miller is the pastor of Bethel Reformed Presbyterian Church (O.P.C.) in Fredericksburg, VA. He is a graduate of Grove City College and Westminster Seminary California.

[1] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims On the Way, 36.

[2] As examples of the helpfulness of giving attention to our creatureliness, our limitations as human beings, see two recent books: David Murray, Reset: Living a Grace-Paced Life in a Burnout Cultureand Kelly M. Kapic, You’re Only Human: How Your Limits Reflect God’s Design and Why That’s Good News.

[3] Horton, The Christian Faith, 112.

[4] Likewise, Webster laments that education has become untethered from an ontology of man, anthropology: “Theology supplies such a metaphysics of created intelligence, its origin, nature and ends, grounding the arts of human intelligence in the eternal self-communicative wisdom of God himself…all intellectual enquiry and educational practice, all research and teaching and learning, is informed by an underlying account of the intellectual life and its goals, even when our thinking about such matters is not made explicit” (172; cf. 20).

  • Andrew Miller

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