In a previous post I discussed Webster's Holy Scripture (Cambridge University Press, 2003). In particular I highlighted his robustly trinitarian approach. In this post I will discuss his useful notion sanctification.
Although an ontology of scripture raises a complex set of questions – which could not be answered here – Webster’s notion of sanctification could help explicating how the biblical texts are considered neither natural nor supernatural (22-23). He argues against several models including witness – which tends to make the relation of content and revelation too arbitrary – and the incarnational analogy – which tends to deemphasize the uniqueness of the incarnation of the Son and to make the Bible somehow divine. In relation to scripture, sanctification refers to the activity of the Spirit of the risen Christ whereby the creaturely processes of production, canonization, and reception of scripture are set apart, shaped and preserved in order for scripture to serve as a vessel for the triune God’s self-revelation (17-30).
In this statement it is assumed that revelation, in short, is “the self-giving presence of God which overthrows opposition to God, and, in reconciling, bringing us into the light of knowledge of God” (16; cf. 11-17), and that canonization is primarily the church’s “Sprit-produced acknowledgement of the testimony of Scripture” (30; cf. 58-67). This is not to deny the complex human – mostly male dominated and partly sinful – process. But from a theological perspective it is not primarily a sociological, psychological or even sinful process, although not less, but creaturely processes used by God. The church, on this view, does not “create” Scripture. In order not to fall into dogmatic disorder, according to Webster, God and God’s revelation is always first. Thus canonization must first and foremost be seen as the church’s response to the Spirit’s activity. In this context he also critiques so-called postliberal accounts of church as Lindbeck’s (42-52). I am not sure all his criticism is on target, but he rightly notes that dogmatic disorder can occur if ecclesiology primarily becomes sociology and is not properly related to the triune economy of salvation.
The term sanctification is also a way of distinguishing but not separating the creaturely texts from revelation (23-24, 26, 40). The relation between creaturely texts and revelation, however, is neither accidental nor occasional. Rather, the whole process from production to ongoing interpretation is actively overseen by the Spirit of the risen Christ in order for scripture to become a mediator of revelation. But Webster does not answer how the texts become this mediator. In an e-mail dialogue with Webster he seems sympathetic to my proposal that the relationship between creaturely texts and revelation could be construed as an intertwined work of witnessing, primarily to the climactic revealing moment in Christ, and of addressing that witness to ever-changing circumstances in order to summon people to fellowship and service. That is, scripture's revelatory ministry is in tandem both witness (content) and reconciling summons (power) but only as the Spirit of the risen Christ is active. If witness and power are entangled in this way, past revelation in Christ could be said to become re-presented or mediated in the present not only as witness but also as powerful summoning words without the content being of accidental significance (cf. 1 Thess 1:5). This is, of course, a simplification that could only serve as a conceptual pointer to what really is a mystery.
The Spirit’s overseeing consists in “the Spirit’s activity in the life of the people of God which forms the environment within which the text takes shape and serves the divine self-presence” (29-30; cf. 39). Such an ordering of creaturely realities involves God’s shaping of culture and tradition in which tradents, redactors and authors take part as well as the summoning of creatures to repentance, faith and service including the commissioning of specific creatures to speak for God as prophets and apostles. The biblical texts, then, are sanctified as creaturely entities. That is, “sanctification is not transubstantiation” so that the texts become divine (28). Instead, it is as creature that scripture is set a part to be an instrument in the divine economy, and such use does not seem to diminish its creatureliness.
Two implications seem to follow. First, on this view, the biblical texts’ are sanctified creaturely entities rather than natural entities. The biblical texts are natural entities in the sense that they are viewed first and foremost as products of historical, social, political, psychological and literary processes. On such an ontology the biblical texts are primarily defined by being like any other text. This particular naturalism goes back to Baruch de Spinoza. Moreover, although modern critical exegesis is complex and by no means monolithic, this naturalism seems to have characterized critical exegesis since then (18-20, 28-29). Similarly, much modern hermeneutical theory seems to assume that the texts are primarily determined by their participation in natural human communication. Again, it is assumed that the biblical texts are determined by being like any other text. Webster does not want to suggest that contemporary exegesis simply repeat de Spinoza’s work as if no progress has been made. Nor does he deny the fruitfulness of such exegesis (to some extent). Instead, his main point is that Christian exegesis emerges out of an ontology of the biblical texts that, at least in the sense just stated, is different.
Secondly, as sanctified creaturely entity scripture is not supernatural. Webster points out that the “text does not have to assume divine properties as a protection against contingency” (25). Sanctification neither diminishes scripture’s creatureliness nor brings it out of human contingency. “It is as – not despite – the creaturely realities that they serve God” (28). Thus the biblical texts are by no means withdrawn from human historical and communicative processes, but more fundamental to the texts’ being is how those processes are taken up into the economy of salvation (19, 29). Different forms of dualisms between history and eschatology, then, are denied.