Theological Theology: John Webster and Oswald Bayer in Dialogue

“What makes theology theological?” This probing question has now become somewhat commonplace among evangelical theology due to the increased impact of the late John Webster and his writings upon the contemporary theological landscape. Likewise, the answer he proposed—God the Holy Trinity in absolute and all other things relative to God—seems to have received general acceptance among many evangelical theologians as the primary approach to defining or qualifying the “theological” nature of theology’s procedure, inquiry, and content. The precision and force of Webster’s proposal has brought much benefit to the discipline of systematic theology, reinvigorating its practitioners with a renewed vision for and confidence in theology’s own rich resources to engage its task on its own terms in response to the prophetic and apostolic Word of God, Holy Scripture.

As compelling as Webster’s understanding of “theological theology” is, some questions remain pertaining to whether or not “God in himself and in relation to all things” should be the exclusive formulation for identifying theology’s subject matter, at the least among Protestants. Another contemporary systematic theologian, the German Lutheran, Oswald Bayer, contends in a different register that “what is theological about theology” has to do with God’s “promissio and lex” (i.e., gospel and law). In contrast to Webster, for whom all theology takes place sub ratione Dei, Bayer submits that the primary subject matter of theology is the study of “the sinning human being and the justifying God.” In other words, Bayer aims to qualify theology as “theological” on the basis of the gospel instead of God in himself. As one might expect, Bayer’s claim is indebted to Martin Luther, yet more than simply an attempt to elucidate a principle of Luther’s theology, Bayer understands this construal as constitutive of distinctly “evangelical” theology that needfully distances itself from the medieval scholastic approach that plays such a prominent role in Webster’s proposal. Related to ETS’s 2023 theme of “theological anthropology,” Bayer’s methodology features an “anthropological depth,” as he terms it, that sees an intrinsic relationship of “theological theology” to theological anthropology that determines its starting point rather than a secondary or derivative concern.

The purpose of this paper is to bring John Webster and Oswald Bayer into dialogue concerning how each figure defines “theological theology.” This study will proceed in three stages: In the first place, a brief survey of Webster and Bayer’s key writings where they pose and answer the question of what theology’s primary subject matter is will be conducted in order to foster dialogue between the two in next sections. Second, the study will consider areas of central agreement and divergence toward a better understanding of how each view can be strengthened by the other rather than leaving them in total opposition. And last, the goal of this paper will be to suggest a way forward through the construction of a proposal funded by Webster and Bayer in dialogue that would result in a uniquely evangelical grasp of theology’s primary subject matter that remains substantially informed by both its classical and Reformational heritage.

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