On hearing the news that John Webster (English theologian) has died

On the sad news of the death of John Webster. Here is a small section from Ivor Davidson's chapter entitled 'John' in the very recent festschrift written in Webster's honour. 

Quite a few moons ago, I had occasion to introduce a public lecture by John Webster. In the usual way, I took a quick look at the CV I had been sent to see what he had been up to since the last work of which I had known. As I ended up saying to the folk who gathered that evening, looking at John's resume can, in honest, by bit depressing: you are confronted with all the themes on which you suspect there is little point in trying to say much ever again ... It is not just the range [of John's work], but the sheer quality across that range - the depth of learning, the precision of thought, the distinctiveness of approach, the elegance of style - that makes John's work so exceptional.

For those who knows its author, all of it has been done by probably the most unassuming scholar they have ever met. John is firm in his convictions, no question, and crystal clear in presenting them. He is equally devoid of personal grandeur, and suspicious of quests for scholarly prestige which jeopardise the uniqueness of theology's vocation. His life's work has, in truth, been motivated by different ambitions than those that typically sway in the realms of academic culture. 'The matter to which Christian theology is commanded to attend,m and by which it is directed in all its operations, is the presence of the perfect God as it is announced in the gospel and confessed in the praises and testimonies of the communion of saints' (Confessing God). Most scholarly prose does not sound like that. For John, the idiom is standard issue, and deeply felt. As he sees it all theological work occurs in the history of grace, its mandate and possibilities determined solely by the miracle of divine generosity.

Ivor Davidson, 'John' in Theological Theology: Essays in Honour of John Webster (Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2015)


Why the Centre for Theology, Religion and Culture shouldn't be closed

News reached me over the weekend that it is looking extremely likely that the Centre for Theology, Religion and Culture at King's College London is to be closed. The reasons why are unknown to me at the moment. There is a 40-day consultation period.

This is sad, terrible and disappointing news.

The Centre founded by Andrew Walker in the mid-1990s has played a huge part in developing ethnographic ecclesial research. This was largely through Walker supervising the doctoral work of Pete WardKristen AuneRob WarnerJames Steven, James Heard, Andrew Rogers, Ruth Valerio, to name a few. More recently Pete Ward has picked up the baton in the Ecclesiology and Ethnography Research Network, which is one of the most exciting and interesting research projects in recent years.

Alongside this kind of work Andrew Wright has led research into the teaching of Religious Education in schools, which has been influential in the way the subject is now taught.

And through the work of Luke Bretherton (up-to 2013) and more recently Anna Rowlands the Centre has developed into the field of political theology, largely through its Faith and Public Policy Forum. Bretherton wrote the Michael Ramsey prize winning Christianity and Contemporary Politics whilst a member of the Centre.

In addition, the Centre has also provided an MA in youth ministry for many church youthworkers (myself included, graduating in 2004).

Whilst some key staff are leaving/have left - Alister McGrath back to Oxford and Anna Rowlands to Durham, it would not be beyond the KCL to attract some big names to those positions. 

There is nowhere else in England, save perhaps Durham, which is doing the kind of research the Centre has been responsible for. It would be a huge loss for the practice of sociological, ethnographic and political theology to see the Centre close. 

Where To Study Theology in the UK? A Suggested List

If I was looking to study theology at undergraduate or graduate level, based on staff line-ups.

1. St. Andrews - N. T. Wright, John Webster*, Alan Torrance, Stephen Holmes, Ivor Davidson, Grant Macaskill, John Perry*, James Davila, Trevor Hart, David Brown (Strengths - Doctrine and New Testament)

2. Durham - John Barclay, Lewis Ayres, Francis Watson, Karen Kilby*, Mike Higton*, Anna Rowlands*, Matthew Guest, Walter Moberly, Mark McIntosh, Paul Murray, Gerald Loughlin (Strengths - New Testament and Catholic Theology)

3. Aberdeen - Bernd Wannenwetsch, John Swinton, Brian Brock, Paul Nimmo*, Tom Greggs, Christopher Brittain, Philip Ziegler (Strengths - Practical Theology and Ethics)

4. Cambridge - David Ford, Sarah Coakley, Janet Martin Soskice, Simon Gathercole, Nathan MacDonald, Katherine Dell, Eamon Duffy, Anna Williams, Judith Lieu (Strengths - Doctrine and Philosophical Theology / InterFaith)

5. Edinburgh - David Fergusson, Paul Nimmo, Michael Northcott, Brian Stanley, David Grumett (In the Emeritus category they have Duncan Forrestor, Larry Hurtado, and now Oliver O'Donovan) (Strengths - Doctrine and Ethics)

6. Oxford - Nigel Biggar, Paul Fiddes, Graham Ward, Markus Bockmuhel, Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christopher Rowland, John Barton, Christopher Hays, Martyn Percy, George Pattison, Sarah Foot (Strengths Doctrine, Ethics and Old and New Testament)

7. King's College London - Ben Quash, Oliver Davies, Edward Adams, Alister McGrath, Pete Ward, Paul Janz, Dominic Erdozain, Susannah Ticciati, Paul Joyce (Strengths - Practical Theology and Doctrine)

8. Nottingham - John Milbank, Connor Cunningham, Simon Oliver, Richard Bell, Philip Goodchild (Strengths - Home of Radical Orthodoxy)

9. Exeter - Timothy Gorringe, David Horrell, Esther Reed, Francesca Stavrakopoulou, Morwenna Ludlow, Christopher Southgate

10. Chester - David Clough, Chris Baker, Ben Fulford, Elaine Graham, Willam Kay, Hannah Bacon, Wayne Morris, Steve Knowles (Strengths - Practical Theology)

* new appointment this summer

Where some theology and biblical studies departments have been under threat in recent years (Sheffield, Gloucester), both St. Andrews and Durham are currently expanding their departments. 

Systematic Theology, the recent past and the next few years

In the last thirty years there have been (arguably) four important works of systematic theology. Each offering something different.

Robert Jenson, Systematic Theology (2 Vols - The Triune God, The Works of God)

Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology (3 Vols)

J├╝rgen Moltmann, Contributions to a Systematic Theology (5 Vols - The Trinity and the Kingdom of God, God in Creation, The Way of Jesus Christ, The Spirit of Life, The Coming of God)

James McClendon, Jr. (3 Vols - Ethics, Doctrine, Witness)

The next few years should see the first full-length systematic theologies from an English theologian.

Colin Gunton was writing one before he died (a version of the first of a projected 4-volumes should appear in November). We await systematic theologies from John Webster and Sarah Coakley who are both promising one (Coakley's first volume is on the Trinity and is due out next year; but it will apparently be a few years until we see the first of Webster's projected 5 volumes). I think Paul Fiddes would one day like to write one in conversation with literature. John Colwell wrote an excellent short systematic theology around the liturgical year which demands a longer version.

Over in the United States, Kathryn Tanner has provided us with a sketch of a systematic theology and one day may write an expanded version. We may also eventually see one from Bruce McCormack.

New Reason to Study at Oxford?

Sean has put me on to Graham Ward's move from Manchester to Oxford to be new Regius Professor of Divinity replacing Marilyn McCord Adams from October 2012. Ward will join Nigel Biggar, Paul Fiddes and George Pattison as the major theological line-up in Oxford. Interestingly Ward, Fiddes and Pattison all have a special interest in the relationship and conversation between literature and theology. Of course as Ward arrives, Bernd Wannenwetsch (who although not a professor was a important reason some theological ethicists chose Oxford) leaves.

Ward is the author of Christ and Culture, The Politics of Discipleship, Cities of God, True Religion, Cultural Transformation and Religion Practice, amongst others, and has been part of the Radical Orthodoxy conversation from the beginning (he was a co-editer with Milbank and Pickstock of the original 1999 text that launched the movement.

Is martyrdom the new hospitality?

The last decade saw a growing amount of literature around hospitality, and as another book is published on Christian martyrdom, I'm wondering if we're seeing another trend and why. I have not as yet got round to reading any of these books.

The purple crown: the politics of martyrdom by Tripp York (Hearld, 2007)

To Share in the Body: A Theology of Martyrdom for Today's Church by Craig Hovey (Brazos, 2008)

Pilgrim holiness: martyrdom as descriptive witness by Joshua J. Whitfied (Wipf & Stock, 2009)

Martyrdom and Identity: The Self on Trial by Michael Jensen (T & T Clark, 2010)

Witness of the Body: The Past, Present, and Future of Christian Martyrdom edited by Michael Budde and Karen Scott (Eerdmans, 2011)

Why are so many theologians going to Scotland?

Aberdeen has just announced the German theologian Bernd Wannenwetsch is to be the new professor of theological ethics. Wannenwetsch currently lectures at Oxford (and in fairness has be due a jump to a professorship for a while), but he will be missed - he has supervised a number of PhD students will in Oxford. Tom Greggs is also moving to Aberdeen (from Chester) as Professor of Historical and Dogmatic Theology. Steve Mason has the Kirby Lang Chair in New Testament Exegesis (replacing Francis Watson who left a few years back for a chair in Durham). Aberdeen have already got John Webster, who left Oxford back in 2004. Aberdeen are not alone, last year St. Andrew's nabbed Tom Wright and Ivor Davidson (from Otago, New Zealand), as well as Steve Holmes back in 2005 (from King's), and back in 2006 Edinburgh got Oliver O'Donovan (again from Oxford) and also manged to get Paul Nimmo in 2008 from Cambridge. It seems any of the Scotland divinity departments are by far the place to go if you want to study theology ... poor old England seem to be struggling to hold on, especially to some of the most able theologians of a new generation - the likes of Greggs, Nimmo, Holmes and also Brock (Aberdeen) are all likely to be making a big mark in theological circles in the years to come.

The theological scene in England, managed to get Nigel Biggar in 2007 to Oxford from Dublin, Sarah Coakley to Cambridge from Harvard, Lewis Ayres to Durham from Emory, and as already mentioned above grabbed Francis Watson also back to Durham from Aberdeen.  

Church After Google

I was speaking with another minister today about social networking and remarked that I hoped it wouldn't be too long before we would begin to some theological reflection emerging. I have come home to find the latest edition of the Princeton Theological Review is on 'The Church After Google'. The essays are academic and some a little heavy going, but its good to see some engagement with the ways church, theology and faith are being reconstrued by the new online media.

I know of very little other engagement, save an article on theological blogging by Ben Myers in Cultural Encounters (which due to a error in its publication, can be downloaded for free here), a chapter on blogging by Justin Bailey in Everyday Theology (Brazos, 2007), a book by Dwight J. Friesen, Thy Kingdom Connected (Baker, 2009) and some bits on facebook in Kester Brewin's book Other (Hodder & Stoughton, 2010).

Hauerwas responds to Nate Kerr

Hauerwas' response to Nathan Kerr's criticisms in Christ, History And Apocalyptic (SCM, 2008) can be found in his contribution 'Beyond the Boundaries: The Church as Mission' in Viggo Mortensen and Andreas Osterund Nielsen (eds.), Walk Humbly with the Lord: Church and Mission Engaging Plurality (Eerdmans, 2010), which I found I was able to read via google books.

On another note, the ongoing, and seeming endless, battle between Paul Molnar and Bruce McCormack on how to read Barth, has a close encounter in Molnar's (article length) book review of Orthodox and Modern and McCormack's repsonse found in the April 2010 edition of Theology Today. This is the first time McCormack has directly responded to Molnar.

Why Have You Forsaken Me? by John Colwell now available

John Colwell's new book Why Have You Forsaken Me? was due out last December, but got caught up in the problems Paternoster were then facing. It is now finally available. It has eight chapters reflecting both on Psalm 22 and his own struggles with manic depression.

1. Into the Darkness

2. Reflecting on the Darkness

3.Darkness and the Psalmist

4. Darkness and Israel

5. Christ's Human Darkness

6. Christ's Unique Darkness

7. Darkness and God

8. Darkness and Presence

The book is Colwell's most personal so far - the book opens with the story of his experience of manic depression whilst being a church minister and college tutor. The bulk of the book them explores how we trust God in his absence. Through the book Colwell argues for the importance of lament in worship over against worship that operates only as praise. He is critical of contemporary worship scene. In later chapters he also argues against a understanding of atonement in terms of penal substitution, the doing away with the doctrine of impassibility and a distorted gospel that sees miracles as everyday (and so not they cannot be described as 'miraculous') and healing as a right. The book is a departure from his earlier books on ethics, the sacraments and Christian doctrine. It is a 'Personal Reflection' as the subtitle indicates. Although exploring not an easy subject matter - illness and the absence of God - it is written in the usual Colwell style: the occasional anecdote, the helpful and clear engagement with theological questions (here most notably the doctrines of atonement and impassibility) and a readership that always seem to keep the pastor and interested Christian in mind (that is, the so what question is always near the surface). While there are other books that deal with the absence of God and illness (I can think of several Philip Yancey ones), John provides a theological exploration with honest reflection that I think will be helpful to many.