Holiness (Webster)

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Puritan Board Freshman
Webster, John. Holiness. Eerdmans, 2003.

In this short (105 pages - coincidentally similar to The Culture of Theology) book, Webster conducts an extended meditation on God's holiness. He has two goals in mind. First, he wants to make an argument about the nature of theology and to exemplify it. Second, he wants to do so by putting forward a discussion about holiness. So while it is a discussion on holiness, it is shaped to emphasize concepts of theological practice. But while it is about theology, it is actually theology, and not an abstract discussion of method.

His theme is organized around four chapter: theology, God, Church and Christian. The discussion is guided by several main propositions, which are expounded piece by piece.

Proposition 1: "A Christian theology of holiness is an exercise of holy reason; it has its context and content in the revelatory presence of the Holy Trinity which is set forth in Holy Scripture; it is a venture undertaken in prayerful dependence upon the Holy Spirit; it is an exercise in the fellowship of the saints, serving the confession of the holy people of God; and its end is the sanctifying of God’s holy name" (9-10).
a) "An exercise of holy reason" - reason is not autonomous or transcendent, but occurs within God's economy of redemption.
b) "Trinity" - theology is revealed; not by us, but by God. Therefore, it is receptive rather than critical, and humble in God's presence.
c) "Scripture" - this is where God reveals himself, implying sola scriptura, tota scriptura, and Scripture's sufficiency.
d) "Prayer" - because moved by God, our primary role is not achievement but prayer, asking God for instruction (the Psalms exemplify this).
e) "Fellowship" - theology happens 1) by those in fellowship, 2) for fellowship, 3) as one particular manifestation of common activity.
f) "God's name" - theology does not add to God, but indicates and acknowledges him.

Proposition 2: "God’s holiness is the holiness of Father, Son and Spirit, the one who bears his holy name, who is holy in all his works, and who is the Holy One in our midst, establishing, maintaining and perfecting righteous fellowship with the holy people of God" (32).
a) "Father, Son and Spirit" - God's identity is Trinity. To speak of God's identity means that we require metaphysics, that we acknowledge Christian particularity, and that his attributes are derived from his own revelation of his identity rather than natural necessity.
b) "His holy name" - God is self-determined (Isa. 42:8). He names himself, which means that attributes are conceptual elaborations of his name. Since his identity is primary and irreducible we have aseity and simplicity as guiding concepts that relativize attributes. Attributes are distinct not because of distinctions in God's being, but because of his incomprehensibility.
c) "In all his works" - God is known only through revelation, which is through his works. Therefore, theology can only describe him by looking at his works. Holiness is manifest particularly in his work of condescension.
d) "In our midst" - If holiness is manifest in condescension, it is not "alienation" but purposeful and effective in overcoming separation. Otherwise stated: it is relational.
e) "Fellowship" - God's holiness overcomes separation positively (making us fit) and negatively (judging and destroying sin). God's jealousy is his dedication to success in working holiness.

Proposition 3: "The holiness of the Church is grounded in the work of the Holy Trinity in electing, reconciling and perfecting a people to become God’s covenant partners and the fellowship of the saints...The holiness of the Church is visible in all its acts as confession of the name of God, the thrice Holy One, the Lord of hosts" (57, 64).
a) "Grounded in the work of the Holy Trinity" - God makes the Church, it does not make itself. Three movements: election (Father), redemption (Son), and sanctification (Spirit) give the Church its "alien" holiness.
b) "Visible in all its acts" - The fundamental act by which the Church is holy (with "alien" holiness) is to confess God.
b.i) Nature of Confession: it is responsive, demonstrating God's primary agency in the Church's holiness.
b.ii) Content of Confession: the identity of God as Trinity, through recounting his works.
b.iii) Practice of Confession: hearing the Gospel, confessing and repenting from sin, evangelism, and prayer are main activities exemplifying holiness as worked by God.

Proposition 4: "The sanctification of the Christian is the work of the Holy Trinity in which the reconciled sinner is renewed for the active life of holy fellowship with God. Grounded in the electing, reconciling and perfecting work of Father, Son and Spirit, the active life of holy fellowship is the work of faith, which is at every moment characterized by mortification and vivification, and which is actual as freedom, obedience and love" (78-79).
a) "Work of the Holy Trinity" - Christian life is not self-generated or sustained, but originates from election, made concrete in Christ's life, and made mine (made active within me) by the indwelling Spirit.
b) "Fellowship is the work of faith" - Because holiness is alien, it is possessed through faith. Not just justification, but sanctification is sola fide. That is, both are worked by God and not by me.
c) "Mortification and vivification" - The basic pattern of Christian faith is the displacement of sin by holiness. Per Calvin: obedience to Scripture and deference to the Spirit.
d) "Freedom, obedience and love" - Summaries of how faith acts.
d.i) Freedom: liberty is not "unformed and unconstrained self-actualization" (92-93) but purposive, and therefore structured by God's law. In Christ, we are freed from self-destruction to be what God has made us to be.
d.ii) Obedience: law is imperative, but imperative built upon indicative. It describes what Christian life looks like (ideally), serving as our teacher.
d.iii) Love: faith reflects God's holiness through our dependent holiness, especially in an attitude of attention to our obligations to others, that we are not independent or autonomous.

Webster's conclusion: Foucault is evil, so read Scripture instead. Modern culture tends towards an unholy voluntarism in its conception of humanity.

Some thoughts:
This is a really good (and quite short) book. It is also pretty deep, and sometimes you don't immediately understand what Webster is getting at. So it takes longer to read than you think, and contains plenty of benefits for multiple readings.

One particular advantage: Webster is concrete. He not only talks about theological method, but then he actually applies it to a specific topic: holiness. One of the best lines of the WCF is about repenting from "particular sins particularly" rather than a "general repentance." The same sentiment is throughout Webster: particularity trumps abstraction.

An ambiguity: "identity." Webster makes several statements which are concerning such as "God enacts his identity," but does so alongside the most unapologetic affirmations of traditional doctrines of aseity, simplicity, and divine perfection. To avoid misunderstanding him, we need to understand what he means by "identity." There are two senses to the word: an internal sense, and a functional sense. The internal sense of identity is who someone is. God's identity in the internal sense is his immutable perfection. The functional sense is a description which helps others to "identify" that person. He is "this one," or "the one who ..." instead of "that one." So it is a matter of pointing rather than a matter of substance. Webster often uses "God's identity" in this latter sense, because of his close attention to the fact that God is revealed in his works. Who is God? He is the one who saved us from our sins. That doesn't mean that "the one who saved us from our sins" is part of God's "substance" - rather, it is the action he has done, by which we know him and can identify him. Understanding Webster's usage of the word "identity" is key to understanding most of what I would call the problematic/concerning statements in the book. So understood, they cease to be problematic and concerning, and are merely somewhat unhelpful ways of phrasing the issue, but still definitively maintaining orthodox doctrine.

Overall: I highly recommend this one as well. It is short, and a constant pointer to Scripture. It directs us away from ourselves (and from idolatry) and to God. The conclusion with the brief discourse on modern culture is also fantastic.
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