On Rowan Williams Critical Essays

1 While enjoyable, learned, and otherwise quite thorough, Benjamin Myers’ recent work, Christ the Stranger: The Theology of Rowan Williams (London: T&T Clark, 2012) makes virtually no reference to Williams as a reader of scripture. Likewise the works in RussellMatheson (ed.), On Rowan Williams: Critical Essays (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2009) contain no sustained analysis of Williams’ scriptural hermeneutic. Higton'sMikeDifficult Gospel: The Theology of Rowan Williams (London: SCM Press, 2004) is a slight exception; see his brief analysis on pp. 62–8 of that work.

2 For Webster on Williams see ‘Rowan Williams on Scripture’, in BockmuehlMarkus and TorranceAlan J. (eds), Scripture's Doctrine and Theology's Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2008), pp. 105–24. See also Bockmuehl's critically appreciative engagement with Williams in his Seeing the Word: Refocusing New Testament Study (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2006), pp. 82–6; and Bockmuehl's comments on Williams in ‘Reason, Wisdom and the Implied Discipline of Scripture’, in FordDavid F. and StantonGraham (eds), Reading Texts, Seeking Wisdom (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2004), pp. 59–60. More recently, SariskyDarren, Scriptural Interpretation: A Theological Exploration (Oxford: Blackwell, 2013) offers two chapters of analysis on Williams as a reader of scripture, largely in the tone of his teacher, John Webster (see n. 18 below).

3 See WilliamsRowan, ‘Historical Criticism and Sacred Text’, in FordDavid and StantonGraham (eds), Reading Texts, Seeking Wisdom: Scripture and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2003), pp. 217–28; ‘The Discipline of Scripture’, in On Christian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), pp. 44–59.

4 Williams, ‘Historical Criticism and Sacred Text’, p. 221.

5 Rowan Williams, ‘The Bible Today: Reading and Hearing’, The Larkin-Stuart Lecture, 16 Apr. 2007. www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/2112 (accessed Apr. 2013).

6 For Williams’ diachronic approach, see ‘The Discipline of Scripture’.

7 Williams, ‘Historical Criticism and Sacred Text’, p. 228.

8 See esp. ‘The Discipline of Scripture’, p. 52.

9 Williams, ‘The Bible Today’. For example, the Apostle Paul's argument in Romans 1–2 seeks to facilitate a certain movement within the reading community: ‘The change envisaged is from confidence in having received divine revelation to an awareness of universal sinfulness and need.’

10 ed. IpgraveMichael (ed.), Scriptures in Dialogue: Christians and Muslims Studying the Bible and Qu'ran Together (London: Church House Publishing, 2004), p. 21.

11WilliamsRowan, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1982), p. 49.

12 See Williams, ‘The Bible’, p. 90.

13 Key to Williams’ analogical reading of scripture is the sense in which the eucharistic celebration, along with the scriptural texts, tells a story into which participants are invited. Williams would surely suggest that one without the other is inadequate.

14WilliamsRowan, Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), p. 121.

15 Webster, ‘Rowan Williams on Scripture’, p. 120.

16Ibid., p. 122.

17Ibid., p. 120.

18 Darren Sarisky has recently argued in a similar vein, claiming that Williams’ conception of scripture betrays a ‘certain vagueness in the doctrine of God’ and that Williams is relatedly ‘skittish about applying theological categories to depict the way things really are’ (Scriptural Interpretation, pp. 170, 34). Sarisky notes that ‘Christ is primarily an interrogative presence for Williams, not a commanding one’ (p. 168). He concludes, ‘what holds the text together is more readerly response than it is robust theological description. This is the upshot of Scripture's unity being diachronic rather than synchronic’ (p. 170). In this, Sarisky claims, Williams ‘makes the Bible seem too much like other texts’ (p. 171). Part of Sarisky's own project is to suggest that both diachronic and synchronic approaches to the text can coexist within the same theological hermeneutic, and that an operative doctrine of providence (which Williams allegedly lacks) allows for this coexistence.

19 Webster, ‘Rowan Williams on Scripture’, p. 113.

20Ibid., p. 122.


22WebsterJohn, Word and Church (London: T&T Clark, 2006), pp. 9–10.

23 In this regard, see WebsterJohn, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch (Cambridge: CUP, 2003), particularly the first chapter, ‘Revelation, Sanctification and Inspiration’, pp. 5–41.

24WebsterJohn, Domain of the Word (London: T&T Clark, 2012), p. 32.

25 Webster, Word and Church, pp. 2–4.

26 Webster, Domain of the Word, p. 45.

27 Webster, Holy Scripture, p. 72.

28 Webster, Domain of the Word, p. 24, emphasis original.

29Ibid., pp. 27–9.

30Ibid., p. 6.

31Ibid., p. viii.

32Ibid., p. 12.

33Ibid., pp. vii–viii.

34Ibid., p. xi.

35 This recent emphasis perhaps stands in somewhat of a contrast to Webster's earlier work on Jüngel and Barth. As examples of Webster's recent writing on the doctrine of God, see ‘Life in and of Himself: Reflections on God's Aseity’, in McCormackBruce (ed.), Engaging the Doctrine of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2008), pp. 107–24; ‘Webster's Response to Alyssa Lyra Pitstick, Light in Darkness’, Scottish Journal of Theology 62/2 (2009), pp. 202–10; ‘Trinity and Creation’, International Journal of Systematic Theology 12/1 (Jan. 2010), pp. 4–19; ‘Perfection and Participation’, in WhiteThomas Joseph (ed.), The Analogy of Being (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2011), pp. 379–94.

36WilliamsRowan, ‘Language, Reality, and Desire in Augustine's De Doctrina’, Journal of Literature and Theology3/2 (July 1989), pp. 38–50.

37 Williams, ‘The Discipline of Scripture’, p. 56. See also his conclusion to ‘Word and Spirit’ in On Christian Theology, p. 127: ‘I hope what I have written may suggest some affinities with the hermeneutic expressed by Luther in the words crux probat omnia.’

38WilliamsRowan, ‘Reading the Bible’, in A Ray of Darkness: Sermons and Reflections (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1995), p. 136.

39 Williams, Resurrection, p. 92.

40 Williams, ‘Historical Criticism and Sacred Text’, p. 225.

41WilliamsRowan, The Dwelling of the Light: Praying with the Icons of Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2004), p. xviii. Williams more explicitly relates icons to scripture on pp. 33–6 of this work.

42 Williams, Tokens of Trust, p. 122.

43 Donald MacKinnon, God the Living and the True, p. 22, quoted by RobertsRichard, ‘Theological Rhetoric and Moral Passion in the Light of MacKinnon's Barth’, in SurinKenneth (ed.), Christ, Ethics, and Tragedy: Essays in Honour of Donald MacKinnon (Cambridge: CUP, 1989), p. 5.

44 See e.g. WilliamsRowan, ‘Barth on the Triune God’, in HigtonMike (ed.), Wrestling with Angels: Conversations in Modern Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2007), p. 127; Williams, ‘Word and Spirit’, pp. 110–15.

45 See Williams, ‘Word and Spirit’, p. 110.

46Ibid., pp. 115, 126.

47Ibid., p. 109.

48 Williams, Wound of Knowledge, p. 70.

49 Williams, Christ on Trial, p. 7.

50 Williams, ‘Word and Spirit’, p. 125.

51BarthKarl, Church Dogmatics, IV/3.1, trans. BromileyGeoffrey W. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1961), p. 377.

52 Williams, Wound of Knowledge, p. 20.

53Ibid., p. 15.

54 For the notion of revelation as ‘generative’, see Rowan Williams, ‘Trinity and Revelation’, in On Christian Theology, pp. 131–47.

55WilliamsRowan, ‘Knowing Myself in Christ’, in BradshawTimothy (ed.), The Way Forward? Christian Voices on Homosexuality and the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2004), p. 18.

56 For a recent take on Williams’ theological habits, see Medi Volpe, ‘“Taking Time” and “Making Sense”: Rowan Williams on the Habits of Theological Imagination’, International Journal of Systematic Theology, article online posting date: 24 Mar. 2013. DOI:10.1111/ijst.12004. While congenial to Williams’ theology, Volpe helpfully questions whether Williams assumes the importance of Christian habits without ‘describing a process of formation that might cultivate these habits’ (p. 11).

A guest post by Chris Green

In his Pro Ecclesia review of Williams’ On Christian Theology, Robert Jenson observes—and calls into question—what he believes is Williams’ ‘obsessive fear of closure’. As Jenson sees it, the Archbishop is attempting at every turn to ‘enforce theology’s function as critique, and especially as self-critique’, as if ‘keeping the questions alive’ in a state of ‘indefinitely sustained puzzlement’ were the raison d’être for Christian dogmatics. Jenson suspects that such a use of theology, for all the good it might do, is finally inadequate because it is for all intents and purposes useless for the life of faith. Or, to put the same point another way, Jenson worries that Williams’ methodology is useful only for theological de(con)struction and not for ‘building up’.

I don’t quite agree with Jenson. For one thing, even assuming that Williams is obsessively afraid of ‘closure’, such interminable self-criticism is useful to the life of faith at least in this way: it helps guard against presumptive and trite God-talk—and that is no small gift. For another, Williams can and sometimes does talk in adoring, even confident ways. Nevertheless, I don’t entirely disagree with Jenson. Or, to put it another way, I think Williams at least sometimes puts himself at risk of exaggerating the obscurity of revelation and the difficulty of thinking and living Christianly. Whether he intends it or not—and I’m fairly certain he does not—the Archbishop can be taken to mean that Christian theology is a finally useless enterprise.

For example, he suggests in OCT that ‘puzzlement over “what the Church is meant to be” is the revelatory operation of God as “Spirit” insofar as it keeps the Church engaged in the exploration of what its foundational events signify’ (p. 144). Read in one way, this claim means only that the Spirit’s work is to chasten theological hubris. Read in another way, however, it effectively circumscribes the Spirit’s work, as if the Spirit’s role were merely disruptive. Such a theological mode has the effect of keeping Christian thought endlessly ‘up in the air’ and so incapable of arriving at any dogmatic stability, which, as Jenson quips, leads us to say not ‘I believe!’ but ‘I wonder…’ It’s telling, I believe, that Williams speaks of the creeds as only the ‘least inadequate’ way of talking of God.

Of course, Williams wants to make it ‘harder to talk about God’ (OCT, p. 84) precisely to protect the church and the world from destructive misunderstandings of God and misappropriations of theological justifications. Much like St John of the Cross, he refuses ‘infantile dependence on forms and words and images’ (WK, p. 189) precisely because he knows the danger of ‘premature harmonies’ (OCT, p. 50). He wants to ‘save the theologian from a captivity to trivial optimism … and lying cliché’. So far, so good. But at some point does it become too difficult to talk about God? How do we not all fall finally, everlastingly silent?

For the Archbishop, God is ‘a stranger in the most radical way possible’ so that faith is ‘the receptivity of the self before the ungraspable mysteriousness’ (WK, p. 188) of God’s ‘alien sovereignty’ (WSP, p. 114). In describing the theology of Gregory of Nyssa, Williams remarks that ‘God is what we have not yet understood: the sign of a strange and unpredictable future’ (WK, p. 66). Perhaps this is a defensible summation of Nyssa’s speculations, but it might defensibly be read as a distortive amplification of God’s otherness and unknowability.

At times, the Archbishop’s theological reflections sound quasi-masochistic. For example, he returns again and again in his work to the idea that the ‘inner readiness to come to judgment’ (OCT, p. 32) is the mark of the true disciple. In WK, he claims that ‘the greatness of the great Christian saints lies in their readiness to be questioned, judged, stripped naked and left speechless by that which lies at the center of their faith’ (p. 11). If he means that this ‘readiness to come to judgment’ is one of the marks of genuine faithfulness, then I agree wholeheartedly. I would argue, however, that it belongs to a complex of other readinesses that together constitute the form of faithfulness. In other words, openness to judgment is genuinely Christian only insofar as it is wedded to the humble audacity—to take up the S. Bulgakov’s idiom—also to receive blessings and to offer judgments in Christ’s name.

So, in conclusion, it seems clear that Jenson’s criticisms hit near the mark. At least in some of his work, Williams seems to exaggerate the gospel’s incomprehensibility and disruptiveness. Perhaps his theologizing suffers from an overdetermined theologia crucis? But thankfully Williams does not do all of his theology with a hammer. He knows that ‘the concern is not to inscribe disruption at the heart of the Christian story’ (WSP, p. 44), and that Christ is ‘the root of our security and our insecurity alike, promise and judgment, end and beginning’ (WK, p. 77). As he himself says, the Christian life simply does not make sense ‘without some confidence in the possibility of the reality of our own transformation in Christ’ (OCT, p. 28). Even if Williams sometimes talks as if he’s forgotten it, not all confidence is trivial. Oddly, perhaps no one has said this better than Williams himself:

If the Christian way were simply an experimental spirituality loosely inspired by a dead foreigner, we should no doubt be spared a lot of trouble; we should also be spared the transformation of the human world by God’s mercy in Christ. As it is, theology remains hard, for theologians and for their public, but the fact itself indicates the occasion or unstinted gratitude, celebration and—as we have seen—wonder at the sovereign work of grace. ‘The wrath of man shall turn to thy praise’; so, too, should the complexities and the turmoil of theology (On Doing Theology).

A final, anticlimactic word: so much depends on how Williams is read. In OCT (pp. xii-xv), he speaks of three styles of theology. Accordingly, readers of Williams must be careful to always hear even his ‘critical’ theology as both ‘celebratory’ and ‘communicative’. Otherwise, we play back in monophonic mode what is necessarily heard stereophonically.

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