John Webster, Participation, and Analogis Entis: Friends or Foes?

This paper examines the theological anthropology of the late John Webster, with a particular focus on the development of his views regarding creaturely participation in God. The early Webster rejected any appeal to the idiom of participation. Following in Karl Barth’s wake, Webster argued that God’s being and act are imparticipable. Participation and its corollary, the analogy of being, undermine the Creator/creature distinction. Yet, Webster’s late-career reception of Thomas Aquinas’s teaching on creation and divine goodness raises the question of the relationship between Webster’s anthropology, participation, and the analogy of being. In his final decade of writings, Webster provides clues and gestures that a participatory vision provides a rich repository for confessing the ‘mixed’ relationship between God and humanity. Against early objections, then, Webster’s theological project ultimately supports a retrieval of a participatory understanding of God’s relation to humanity.

The argument develops in three stages. The first section surveys Webster’s early criticism of participation. In Radical Orthodoxy, Webster found a form of participation that includes materiality. In the case of John Milbank, participation includes mutual indwelling, and by consequence, the co-constitution of Christ and the church. On Webster’s terms, the idiom of participation disrupted the absolute distinction between uncreated and created being. The early Webster pressed the graciousness of the God–creature relationship, and characterized the relation in terms of ‘election’ and ‘fellowship.’ Yet, not all forms of participation are susceptible to Webster’s early criticisms.

The second section traces Webster’s late-career teaching on divine perfection and goodness, after the manner of Thomas Aquinas. In understanding creation as proceeding from God’s goodness, a communicative goodness which produces ‘likenesses of itself,’ Webster argues that there is an intrinsic ‘connection’ or ‘correspondence’ between God and creatures. Finite human existence participates in the universal good of being. “The goodness of creatures,” he says, “is had by participation or gift.” God’s works of nature reveal the unconstrained goodness and gracious nature of God. Webster’s appeal to a Thomistic understanding of divine goodness provides the scaffolding for a robust participatory vision of creaturely existence.

The final section, ‘thinks after’ Webster with respect to participation and the analogy of being, in dialogue with Andrew Davison and David Bentley Hart. Participation indicates creaturely dependence. Creaturely existence is wholly constituted by God’s goodness (which includes benignity, extrinsic or transitive goodness). God’s existence, by contrast, is without derivation and self-subsistent. Far from blurring the diction between God and creatures, the idiom of participation integrates and amplifies Webster’s material dogmatic principles regarding the ‘Christian distinction,’ divine goodness, and the ‘mixed’ God-creature relation. Crucially, then, participatory language expands the gift-character of creaturely existence–all created things exist solely by virtue of their participation in God.

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