exposition precedes disputation

Assumed audience: Theologically-orthodox Christians, or folks interested in things that theologically-orthodox Christians think.

In what follows, exposition precedes disputation. The order of the tasks is to be noted: critical-polemical considerations are subordinate to positive dogmatic description, and must not be allowed to distort the matter of doctrine. Critical engagement is often most effectively and charitably undertaken by better portrayal of the material content of dogmatics, especially when doctrinal portraiture has an eye to the placement of particular doctrines in the entire dogmatic corpus, and to the need to retain proportion, coherence and order. Good dogmatics is only incidentally elenctic,1 preferring rather to unleash doctrines and let them run, to allow them to explicate themselves with the assistance of a conceptual vocabulary and a measure of systematic organization. This does not mean that doctrinal criticism is simply the result of misunderstanding; some doctrines are well understood and wrong. But the doctrine of the Son’s eternal generation is a good instance of the way in which contemplative attention to the res of theological intelligence can deflect some kinds of critique.

 — God Without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology – Volume I: God and the Works of God, John Webster, p. 30

Part of the reason Webster’s work is so compelling to me is that I so often want to shout Yes! This is what I’ve been trying to say for years!” This claim, for example: that apologetics and argument and application are secondary to proclaiming the truth positively and directly, is and has been a theme of mine for many years. The upside is that I find Webster deeply encouraging to read: here is another soul singing the song mine sings. The potential downside is: this shared commitment can mean we also are blind to the same things. So I shouldn’t just read Webster — but what a great joy to find a kindred spirit!

In my time at SEBTS, I often heard my friend Nathan Finn encourage students to find a thinker who they found particularly helpful and engaging to mind and soul, and then to commit to reading and understanding that thinker deeply and thoroughly. The advice always seemed good — very good! — but I simply hadn’t found such a thinker: there were plenty to learn deeply from, but none who just grabbed me. Webster does both, though!


  1. Elenctic” is like apologetics” in American evangelical usage. — Chris ↩︎