Holiness, John Webster. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2003
Summary: A theology of holiness, beginning with holiness in the theological enterprise and then thinking about the holiness of God, the church, and the individual.
Many treatments of the theme of holiness either focus on or begin with the holiness of God. John Webster takes what seems to me a novel, but important approach and begins with the holiness of theology. That is, he considers “A Christian theology of holiness is an exercise of holy reason.” He begins with a critique of modernity’s idea of “natural reason” as “transcendent, ignoring the noetic effects of the fall. He argues in the doing of theology, this exercise of holy reason is critical:
“Christian theology is a particular instance of reason’s holiness. Here too–as in all truthful thinking–we are to trace what happens as reason is transformed by the judging, justifying, and sanctifying work of the Triune God. The sanctification of reason, moreover, involves a measure of difference: reason’s transformation goes hand-in-hand with non-conformity. Holy reason is eschatological reason, reason submitting to the process of the renewal of all things as sin and falsehood are set aside, idolatry is reproved, and the new creation is confessed with repentance and delight” (pp. 11-12).
Webster then turns to three aspects of holiness in scripture: the holiness of God, of the church, and of the individual. Beginning with the holiness of God, Webster considers the holiness of God as triune: Father, Son, and Spirit, holy in all God’s attributes and works. This holiness is evidenced in the establishing of holy relationships with his people, redeemed to be holy through the Triune God’s initiative.
He then turns to the church, described as a sanctorum communio. He grounds the holiness of the church in the electing, reconciling, and perfecting work of God, a theme of the grace of God in the holiness of the people of God that runs through this book. This holiness is evident in all of the church’s actions as they confess the name of the Triune God.
Finally, he discusses the holiness of the Christian. Here, too, holiness from beginning to end is the work of the Trinity, likewise in electing, reconciling and perfecting. This is through faith, both in death to sin and renewal of life expressed in freedom, obedience, and love, toward the end of fellowship with God.
Each section begins with a set of propositions which Webster unpacks in a treatment which, though concise is an eloquent and deep exploration of holiness. It reflects a Reformed vision that roots holiness in God’s gracious initiative. This is a slim book worthy of more than one reading and a good introduction to the work of a fine theologian.
3 thoughts on “Review: Holiness”
Would you rate this over J.C. Ryle’s book on Holiness?
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This is more theological. Ryle, while well-grounded in theology is more pastoral. Webster’s chapter on theology as the exercise of holy reason is unique.
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