The following biography of Robert Alexander Webb (1856-1919) was written by Rev. John R. Richardson, pastor of Second Presbyterian Church in Spartanburg, S.C., for the 1947 publication of Webb’s The Reformed Doctrine of Adoption.
Robert Alexander Webb, the third child of Robert Clark and and Elizabeth Eaton (Dortch) Webb, was born on the twentieth day of September, 1856, in Oxford, Mississippi. His father served as a Ruling Elder in the Presbyterian Church and his children were from infancy brought up according to the strict methods of the Presbyterian Church of their day. In 1871 the family removed to Nashville, Tennessee. The mother died in 1873 and the summer of that year Nashville was visited by a very severe epidemic of cholera. Robert had a very violent attack of this dreadful disease. He was brought near to the gates of death. Convinced that his recovery was due to the special blessing of God, be interpreted it as God’s confirmation of his call to the ministry of the Gospel.
The Presbytery of Nashville licensed him to preach and in 1883 he was ordained by the Presbytery of Bethel, South Carolina. For the next few years he served churches in North and South Carolina. He was serving the Westminster Church in Charleston, South Carolina, when in 1892 he was called to the Chair of Systematic Theology in the Southwestern Presbyterian University. Here he served with distinction for sixteen years and was then urged to accept the Chair of Systematic Theology in the Presbyterian Theological Seminary of Kentucky at Louisville in 1908. In this institution he taught apologetics and systematic theology until his sudden death on May 23, 1919.
One of Dr. Webb’s pastors described him in these words “Dr Webb was a true man, strong, purposeful, courageous, striving to use to the most the powers with which God had endowed him. He was intensely human in the best sense of the term. To use a phrase common in the old days in the South, ‘He was a born gentleman.’ ” He was a magnificent specimen of manhood redeemed by Christ.
Dr. Webb was recognized as a deeply spiritual Christian. He was conscious of his lost estate as a sinner under condemnation of God’s law. He realized his own helplessness but saw in Jesus Christ a Saviour able to save to the uttermost. His spiritual life was nourished by his ardent study of the Word of God and prayer. One of his colleagues remarked, “Was spirit more Johannine than his? O yes, he could dame up in wrath, his tongue could flame and burn, but that was only when his Saviour was robbed of His royal dues or the truth he loved and defended was attacked. For the rest he walked among us as an ‘other worldly-minded man.’ How tender and filial were his prayers in our morning chapel exercises! How he soared as he approached the Throne! How childlike his faith! How absolute his submission to the will of God! To me personally these morning prayers of Dr. Webb were an unfailing benediction.”
Although Dr. Webb served only ten years as a pastor of churches, he won the love and confidence of his people as he preached the Word which fed and nourished their souls. It was as a preacher that be attracted the attention that sought him for the chair of theology in training young men for the ministry. His parishioners stated that Dr. Webb generally selected the more profound truths, the great fundamental doctrines of the Bible for exposition. He refused to discuss questions of society or politics as affecting communities. His message was to individuals, urging subjection to Christ, believing that if a soul surrendered to Christ completely that soul could be trusted under the guidance of God’s Spirit to settle questions of secular duty and to determine with other Christians what duty is owed to God and what to Caesar. In the writings of Dr. Webb it is evident that he believed that the influence of the Church on secular life is indirect. It was to influence the world by bringing a new life to the individual. He knew that in this manner the Church of God could most powerfully bless the world.
One who observed Dr. Webb’s pulpit ministry remarked, “is Dr. Webb’s preaching there was as earnestness, as unction, and a tenderness, which indicated his deep sense of the greatness of the issues at stake, the salvation of immortal souls, and while he depended on the Holy Spirit for results of his ministry, yet he realized his personal responsibility for declaring the truth and this sense of having to answer to God gave to his delivery a certain sense of laboriousness, of weariness, as if bearing a great burden.”
In Dr. Webb’s thinking Christian preaching and Christian theology were closely allied. He felt that so long as there is Christian preaching there must necessarily be Christian theology, for theology has as its mission the investigation of the message the preacher is commissioned to proclaim, in all of his pulpit ministrations he never forgot that “the thing preached,” the “kerugma,” “the Word of the Gospel,” constituted the most vital part of preaching. He insisted that so long as there is a Christian Church there must be a Christian theology and this Christian theology must be preached. This preacher was never afflicted with what Barth has called the children’s disease of being ashamed of theology,” even in the pulpit. He knew that Christian experience is contingent upon Christian facts, therefore it becomes the duty of the preacher to pass on to the waiting congregation clear statements of Christian truth.
When Dr. Webb was called to the chair of theology in the divinity school of Southwestern Presbyterian University in 1892, he succeeded Dr. Joseph R. Wilson, the father of President Woodrow Wilson. It was not long until Dr. Webb vindicated for himself a place as one of the great theological teachers of America. He was enthusiastic in his study of the science of theology and he infused this enthusiasm into his students. To him theology was nothing less than “the Queen of Sciences.” He accepted the Bible in its plain sense as the Word of God, the inspired and infallible guide in the service of God. He agreed with the Schmalkald Articles of 1537 which declared, “The Word of God should establish the articles of faith, and none other, not even an angel.” He also accepted the Westminster Confession of Faith and the catechisms as the greatest and fullest uninspired summary of the doctrines of the Bible separately and in their relations to each other.
One of the most marked characteristics of Dr. Webb’s mind was his clearness of vision. It has been said that whatever truth he received he saw it distinctly in its separate value and saw it all around in its relation to its bearing on other truths. He was gifted in expression and explaining the truth with marvelous clearness. He had the lucidity of Calvin, but none of his verbosity. He was a master of English style and was able to express his thoughts so clearly that all could understand. So clear and simple were his theological expositions that he could use them as sermons and the ordinary congregation would listen to him for an hour in rapt attention.
Probably the largest personal influence on Dr. Webb’s theological thinking was that of his teacher and father-in-law, Dr. John L. Girardeau. Many of the germinal thoughts expressed by Dr. Girardeau were later expanded by Dr. Webb. The subject of Adoption was one that intrigued Dr. Girardeau and was developed by Dr. Webb to the highest point of excellence.
Although Dr. Webb commanded the whole field of theology and the philosophies underlying or akin to them, he was primarily a Calvinist theologian. He believed in the Calvinistic system on the ground of both Scripture and reason. Such themes as the Absolute Sovereignty of God and His electing love, the real Deity and genuine Humanity of Christ, the Son of God, the necessity and the efficacy of Christ’s Atoning Sacrifice as the Representative of His people fascinated him. He believed that these truths should be the burden of every minister’s message.
Due to Dr. Webb’s exalted conception of theological science he had a burning passion to magnify his office as a teacher of theology. To him his work as a teacher of theology was a high honor and a great joy. To get some idea of this I want to quote a few paragraphs from Dr. Webb’s induction address to the chair of theology in the Presbyterian Seminary of Kentucky. The subject of this address Dr. Webb declared:
My task is not irksome, my duties are not drudgery. The subject which I teach fascinates my mind, charms my powers, and evokes my enthusiasm. To walk the raised fields of sacred truth with aspiring young men puts me on my mettle, challenges my spirit, and converts my occupation into a daily delight.
In signalizing my induction into my professorship I shall attempt the comparison of the Old Theology and the New with a view to showing that the Old is better, that the hour has not come for the abandonment of the faith of the fathers.
I begin by saying that Systematic Theology is becoming once more the dynamic center of Christian truth. The best apologetic is that harmonious and self-consistent statement of Christian doctrine which articulates with the human soul as the tenon fits the mortice. The facts of nature must be reduced to scientific form in order to satisfy, to command, to entertain, to instruct; and the public demand shall not be dispensed by its teachers in a disorganized and disunited condition. The ‘New Theology’ which had its rise in a revolt against dogma is becoming to proclaim its triumph, make an inventory of its findings, and formulate its conclusions into a complete scheme of dogmatics. It cannot be denied: man’s supreme concern, man’s supreme demand, is for a system of religious truth which is Biblical and self-consistent, satisfying his reason, his conscience, and his heart.
Continuing in this address Dr. Webb further affirmed his faith in the Old Theology in this significant paragraph.
For centuries the Church has been laboring to develop just such a system of Christian doctrine. Through controversies within and without, by criticisms friendly and hostile, by study and prayer, by altering and amending, by readjusting and restating, progress has been made in clarifying and defining and articulating the tenets of the Christian faith. In this way an historical outline of the faith has been created, the general trend of doctrine has been established, a traditional orthodoxy has been defined, the communis consensus of Christendom has been registered. These generic findings of the past verified by the studies and experiences of the fathers, baptized by the blood of the martyrs have come to be denominated the ‘Old’ or the ‘Traditional’ theology, and define the lines within which the conservative student prosecutes his investigations and seeks to make more accurate adjustments. He declines to nullify historical results achieved by a Church which has been under the tuition of the Spirit, – to abandon that highway which is crowded with the foot-prints of the flock of Christ.
Dr. Webb studied very closely the New Theology with its radical reconstruction and did not fail to point out its dangers. He saw that it was a “cross” between rationalism and orthodoxy with the voice of Jacob but the hands of Esau. He recognized that the New Theology diluted every fundamental article in the Christian religion and therefore must be considered a mortal enemy of historic Christianity.
Dr. Henry E. Dosker, the distinguished professor of Church History, knew how to evaluate theologians. This was his specialty. After careful analysis Dr. Dosker affirmed, “Dr. Webb was, I think, the greatest theologian of the Southern Church. I say it without disparagement of his co-laborers in this field, and barring Dr. B. B. Warfield of Princeton Theological Seminary, I know of no greater theologian in all the Presbyterian Church than was Dr. Webb.”
Although Dr. Webb prepared his lectures with the greatest of care it is unfortunate that so few have been given to the public. During his lifetime he published a series of lectures on The Christian Hope which were delivered before the Columbia Theological Seminary on the Smyth Foundation. He also published a treatise on The Theology of Infant Salvation. In evaluating this latter book Dr. Charles R. Hemphill wrote, “So far as my knowledge goes, his work on Infant Salvation is the most comprehensive discussion of this subject, and not only vindicates Calvinism from the charge of holding or of logically necessitating the damnation of some infants, but convincingly shows it to be the only system that on the basis of the Scriptures provides for the salvation of all persons who die in infancy.” After his death Dr. Charles R. Hemphill selected some of Dr. Webb’s lectures and published them under the title Christian Salvation. The entire edition of this book was sold quickly and has had tremendous influence upon the preaching of Southern Presbyterian ministers.
This present document represents the fourth volume of Dr. Webb’s works. This monograph on Adoption is unique. So far as my knowledge of theological literature goes there is nothing in existence comparable to these lectures. They constitute an invaluable contribution to Reformed Theology.