Friday, 19 February 2016

John Webster on Pathological Self-destruction

There are many gems to be mined from the writings of John Webster, despite the uncommon or unfashionable terminology he often uses. Here are some extended quotations from an essay invitingly entitled ‘Mortification and Vivification’:

By mortification is meant the disciplined practices in which renewed creatures, reconciled to God by Christ’s meritorious death and moved by the Holy Spirit, repudiate, resist and do away with the remnants of the old ‘earthly’ nature which has been disqualified but which nevertheless persists ‘in’ us (Col. 3.5). By vivification is meant those habits of life in which renewed creatures, made alive and empowered by the Spirit, amplify their new nature, actively disclosing, confirming and exercising it. [. . .] Mortification is not a permanent, essential practice of the regenerate nature but an interim necessity, and once its goal of clearing away the diseased remainders of the old nature is reached, it will no longer be required. Vivification, by contrast, is the implementation of the new nature and stretches out to perfection. In vivification we begin to perform the new nature which will endure and so complete and resolve itself that there will be no necessity for mortification.

[. . .]

Continence is much broader than sexual abstinence; it is restraint of all sinful appetite and the setting aside of wicked practice. By continence, the regenerate resist the propensity of vestigial sin to continue to rule conduct. Sin’s persistence depends upon consent. Sin is not natural, some irresistible element of creaturely life, but an interpolation which holds out the prospect of pleasure in order to win compliance. Mortification refuses to acquiesce, and by withholding consent it despoils sin of its pretended power and clears a space for the operation of the new nature.

[. . .]

Continence operates in the situation in which regenerate persons are divided against themselves, and so it takes the form of self-denial, that is, denial of that which the Christian once was and is no longer, but which, despite its abolition, continues to disturb. ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me’ (Mk 8.34). An invitation to pathological self-destruction? No, because self-denial derives from faith’s contentment with and joy in the new nature bestowed by divine love. The ‘self’ which is denied is worthless, and can be lost without peril; indeed, to lose it is to save one’s life (Mk 8.39) by ridding oneself of an enemy.

[. . .]

In practice mortification takes the form of a regime of training, disciplining and forming bodily, intellectual, affective and social life so that regenerate conduct eradicates the vestiges of the old nature and amplifies the new.

[. . .]

In a culture ensnared by tawdry and ignoble conceptions of human flourishing, dedicated to hurtful appetites and unsure how to relieve its sorrow, mortification and vivification bear testimony to the gift of different possibilities by which creaturely life may be healed and enlivened. Dying and rising with Christ, believers exemplify a way to love life and see good days (Ps. 34.12; 1 Pet. 3.10-12).

John Webster, ‘Mortification and Vivification’, in God without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology, Volume ii: Virtue and Intellect (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), pp. 115–116, 117, 118, 119, 121


It’s axiomatic to me that Christians are called to live the life of the age to come in the present evil age (Gal. 1:4), that is, in the here and now. Webster’s words in this essay seem to relate to that quite well. In many sermons I hear, there’s an emphasis on compassion for one’s failings—and this is certainly in line with the gospel, which proclaims forgiveness for the truly penitent. But I don’t hear so much about mortification and vivification, either in name or in concept. And on those rare occasions when mortification is mentioned, vivification tends to be neglected, and so the former is relegated to a concept of the pathological self-destruction Webster himself eschews. Is it time to promote anew self-denial not as the simple denial of self but as the denial of the sinful self?


  1. Yes. It is. I have found the contemplatives have a fair bit to say on this matter. Trying to remember which one but I recall they were talking about self-flagellation (so I presume it was someone from the middle ages) and how it's not necessary because the focus, far from emphasising Christ, detracts from His teachings. It could have been St. John of the Cross - seems like something he might have said. Instead we are to bear our burdens sweetly and discreetly, and in this way we bring glory to God.
    I'm not explaining very well, am I? I think there is a blessing in recognising ourselves as flawed and unable, of ourselves, to change, but that that has to come *after* the full repentance and recognition of our baseness (is that a word?). We are first brought to repentance in shame and sorrow, and then the 'vivification' is the work of grace.
    So I agree with what Webster says, wholeheartedly, but I think it could be explained more simply, so that you don't need a degree to understand it - not that I have a degree - but communication, especially the sharing of the Good News, is best done with simplicity.

    1. Yeah, Webster's not the easiest of reads, though (as with many things) the more of him you read, the easier he becomes. I do sometimes think I'm reading someone from 800 years ago, though!

  2. We are defined and controlled by all that we have not transcended.
    Mortification only increases ones bondage to one's fear based identity and everything that controls it.

    Mortification is only another way of asserting one's superiority, of denying love, of attaining the "ecstasy" of self-pity.
    Its goal seems to be the truth, God,love,etc.,but it is a manifestation, itself a signature of a certain dismal self-destructive quality of life. and it only perpetuates itself. It is a false mode of life. It is a demonstration which is itself a refusal to live in a world where there is God, a world of unbounded love, openness and happiness.
    It embraces guilt and the incapability for love, self-pity and hard-hearted superiority of self. It seeks to "win" through self-effort.
    This instead of grace and the labors of love.
    Those who mortify themselves thus dramatize that they are seeking superiority through the emblem of suffering. But its only fruit is more self-pity, and darkness and lack of love.
    It is the dramatized refusal to live in a world in which radiant-love is the essential medium of Reality, and Freedom the essential Blessing force of being.
    It seems to seek a condition of light,life,love,and freedom, but in fact it manifests and enforces a condition of depression, ignorance, bondage and separation.

    By contrast in the state of non-strategic surrender or perfect participation there is no separation, no hindrance, no despair, no ignorance, no question. There is the Grace-filled quality of union, of bliss, of freedom (Sat-Chit-Ananda). and all energy is operative as love, as real union with all other beings (both human and non-human), and all "objects".

    1. Ah, mate, I'm not sure you've really understood what Webster's saying . . .

  3. Maybe John Webster is channelling the 17th-century dramatist of the same name... ;)

    Certainly not the easiest to read and take in, to start off with at least. I find the language a little off-putting but the ideas seem basically good! Tom Wright makes a similar case more readably in 'Virtue Reborn'. I think Dallas Willard may be saying something along the same lines in 'The Divine Conspiracy' which I finally started last night...

    I'll confess that it's not a message I find particularly appealing, but then it's not meant to be. And I suspect that it's basically right whether I like it or not! :)

    1. The first volume of God without Measure is, in my view, better than this second one. While Webster's language isn't dissimilar, at times his theology functions almost as an icon for me. I don't think there's anything particularly difficult about his writing, but it's a style that doesn't seem to be today's norm.

      Interestingly (perhaps), Webster and my namesake you mention are colleagues at St Andrews, so perhaps they'll have an effect on each other's writing styles!

  4. PS I'd be interested to know what Webster (and what you) think mortification and more particularly vivification look like in practice.

    Mortification is easier to understand - we know that we are to avoid sexual immorality, drunkenness, fits of rage, slander etc. Though of course it's often the subtler examples that are more problematic and harder to spot or discern.

    So (as a perhaps slightly daft example), is my enjoyment of dissonant or distorted music a manifestation of my old fleshly nature that needs mortifying, or can it be baptised and included within the new nature? (I'm not expecting you to have the answer.)

    And on vivification, what kinds of things can we do or actively embrace that will bring the new life of the Spirit / Kingdom here and now? Clearly we can practice the spiritual disciplines, and we can look to develop the qualities that we know as the 'Fruit of the Spirit' or 'Christian virtues'. What else does Webster advocate?

  5. I thought the YouTube clip would show you what Mortification looks like . . .

    To be clear, Webster is writing primarily for an academic audience, and his concern isn't to give examples of what mortification and vivification look like in practice, but to attend to the principles behind them. He's more concerned with what does the mortified and vivified person look like than what does it mean to mortify and vivify.

    That said, for Webster, the acts of mortification are:

    1. faith in Christ
    2. restraint of sinful appetite and the setting aside of wicked practice
    3. the training not just of the body, but of the mind, the emotions, and social relations as well
    4. self-examination

    Webster seems to equate these forms of discipline with practising rules of faith.

    Vivification, for Webster, seems to be more about recognising one's identity in Christ as part of God's new creation. The point is, to paraphrase Paul, we have died in Christ and have risen in Christ. So vivification increases as mortification increases. One's vivification doesn't come first; it happens only as one mortifies one's flesh. I guess the more we recognise we are trapped in sinful patterns of behaviour, the more open we are (or should be) to recognising the work of the Spirit to free us from those patterns. But yes, it's difficult.

    Your example of music is interesting. Dissonance is, I suppose, the shadow side of harmony, and so has a place. I don't think it needs mortifying. Certainly not like patterns such as unhealthily expressed anger or pride, anyway.

  6. I suppose my slight reservation about Webster's approach (or at least my limited understanding of it) is that there seems to me a danger of mortification turning into little more than a list of proscribed 'vices' that we seek to avoid. And this in turn easily descends into a rather narrow and negative legalism that can miss the heart or point of spiritual transformation.

    I know that there are some fairly obvious behaviours that we do well to avoid, but many others are far subtler and harder to discern, or have underlying causes which may be more important to address than the apparent 'sin' or 'vice' itself. And simply seeking to set aside unhealthy behaviours seems to me often doomed to failure.

    I do understand that mortification is meant to work hand in hand with vivification, and that we can't expect to stop doing bad things except by the presence / work / grace of God operating in and on us. And I do appreciate that Webster includes other elements in mortification than just avoiding vice.

    The other big question this raises for me is - how literally are we to take the biblical imagery of an old sinful nature and a separate new spiritual one? Is there really nothing good or redeemable in our pre-Christian selves, and anything good and healthy/living only comes through new relation with Christ? Is the new nature entirely separate from the old? I confess I struggle with this one, particularly as it applies to the people I know who aren't Christian...

    1. Funnily enough, I get a completely different vibe from Webster. I think his approach highlights the importance of being the particular person each of us is and of working out prayerfully what each of us needs to mortify. Of course, that puts a huge weight on each of us really to ask God what needs to be mortified - this seems to militate against a mentality that requires a list of dos and don'ts to function.

      On your last paragraph: I think we should take the biblical imagery of the two natures quite seriously - we have been clothed with Christ (choose your biblical metaphor here). But it's only through the acts of mortification and vivification that that clothing becomes fitting (in more than one sense of the word). Does this mean that non-/pre-Christians can't live good lives? Of course not; and, depending on how you look at the doctrine of election as proposed by someone like Barth (i.e., Christ is both the elect and the reprobate, and humanity in toto is elect in Christ), you could argue that non-/pre-Christians are clothed in Christ, too - only they don't accept it, and so their clothing is ill-fitting. Barth would say that every person is a witness to God's action in Christ, but only professing Christians are willing witnesses. . .

      Of course, all of this raises the issue of universalism - and, unless we embrace universalism in full, the main response to this is that although God's intentions towards the world are nothing but good, there's a possibility that, one day, God will accept a person's rejection of Jesus and thus reject that person.

      And, of course (I'm saying that a lot), all this seems fixated on the eternal destination of each person rather than the renewal of all things in Christ, who is the proper focus and reason for our mortification and vivification.

    2. I probably just haven't read enough of Webster in context to pick up the full vibe!

      I like your answers re our two natures and they make a lot of sense to me. I think I'd probably go with something along Barth's lines. Nonetheless I'd still say that it *is* imagery and we shouldn't perhaps push it too far.

      For me the main point as I think I understand it is that everything in the current nature or current cosmos needs to be transformed by being united with the divine nature in/through Christ. How exactly that happens and to what extent we can resist it I'm not so sure.