A Review of Rowan Williams’ Christ the Heart of Creation

My familiarity with Rowan Williams was, like that of most people, confined to knowing that he was the archbishop of Canterbury. Having left the Anglican Communion in 1985 I did not keep abreast of the latest news in the Church of England, and had little personal interest in its fortunes, errors, and schisms. I was, and am, content to wish them well from a distance, and am grateful that their experience of liberalism and resultant decline provides the Orthodox with a cautionary tale. I was therefore a bit surprised when a scholarly friend of mine, Carl Trueman, emailed me to suggest that I might like to read Williams’ latest book on Christology. Can anything good come out of Canterbury? As it turns out, the answer is yes.

The book Christ the Heart of Creation, published by Bloomsbury in 2018, surveys the debates about Christology from the New Testament until the present. It is a substantive volume, with the text itself running to 272 pages. As one would expect from an English academic (it seems as if most C of E bishops hail from the Academy), it is a work of great scholarship. It does not attempt to break new ground (or—which too often amounts to the same thing—to advance a new heresy), but rather explain what has gone on before as objectively as possible. It was because of the promise of historical scholarship that I decided to read the book. The last time I read an academic work which attempted to “break new ground” (on the Virgin Birth, no less) it gave me such gas that I had to eat a whole bottle of Gaviscon. Much better for my digestion to read history.

In his introduction, Williams begins by describing the insights of Thomas Aquinas, as he (whimsically) says, “Beginning in the Middle (Ages)”. In this Williams defends Thomas from his Nominalist challengers, and describes how Thomas stood at the end of a long line of thought, and how he built on the patristic inheritance. Williams goes on the detail the material in the New Testament, the Fathers, the Councils, the Byzantine synthesis of St. John of Damascus, and later western developments, including that of Barth and Bonhoeffer.

Implicit in all his historical survey was an impatience with and rejection of the facile critiques and rejections of traditional Christology. Thus, on p. 7 Williams writes, “I am not going to spend a great deal of time on those modern critiques of the classical framework that show a lack of awareness of exactly what was discussed in the development of that framework. Thus, the once popular complaint that claiming divinity and humanity to be equally predicable of Jesus Christ was simply to utter a contradiction (comparable to trying to describe a square circle) ignores the absolutely basic point which [Austin] Farrar was concerned to highlight”. In particular, William’s takes aim in a footnote at John Hick’s notorious The Myth of God Incarnate as an example of such nonsense. Being an academic, Williams is very polite; he does not describe Hick’s work as nonsense, but only says that it “suggests a somewhat cavalier approach to what historic orthodoxy actually affirmed”—which is academic speak for roughly the same thing. Go Williams!

If I have one quibble with the book it is regarding its sustained use of abstract language, and the comparative rarity of concrete examples to help the reader understand what the abstract terms mean. Thus, for example, on p. 29 we find, in his discussion on Aquinas’ assertion that the human nature of Christ cannot add anything to His esse of being the divine Word, Williams writes, “The relation between them is like that between a complex whole and subsidiary elements of it that do not in themselves have the character of being subjects of active predication (even if they can be said to ‘have’ esse in that they are actively involved in a distinct individual life; they are an element of ‘that by which’ this individual is actively present in the world).” The book is filled with such statements, requiring (by me anyway) slow and repeated re-readings of the text to figure out what the words actually mean. This is not a book one can read unless one is well-caffeinated.

This means that it is also not a book that I can easily put into the hands of my flock. My parishioners are by no means unintelligent; in fact we seem to have a disproportionate amount of health care professional among us. But the abstract language of the book makes it unnecessarily heavy slogging. I could, for example, put anything by C. S. Lewis into their hands, even his non-theological works such as An Experiment in Criticism and his Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature. These works are specialized, but their language is not abstract, and anyone can understand what Lewis is talking about. Williams’ book is too full of abstract language to be readily accessible. Trueman described Williams in his email to me as “more well-read than any living man has a right to be”, and perhaps this is the problem. People as intelligent and well-read as Williams might have no problem with such abstract language. For the mass of plodders like me, the abstract language can sometimes be a barrier to communication.

This does not mean that his book should be dismissed, and I am glad that I have it on my shelf. The Christology that many (perhaps most) Christians have in their heads may be a bit simplistic. They perhaps imagine that the years of Christ’s earthly life in Palestine represent a kind of temporary absence from His pre-incarnate life in heaven with the Father, a kind of grim terrestrial Sabbatical among the earthlings before His return to His normal life among the angels. This is not what the Church teaches, but no devout Christian ever perished for thinking this way, or (come to that) for imagining that God the Father had a white beard. But sometimes people challenge the Church for its supposedly simplistic ways of thinking about the Incarnation, and when they do it is helpful to have a way responding which says that the Church does not in fact think that simplistically about the Incarnation. It is then that we can take Williams’ book off the shelf, dust it off, and put it to good use.

3 comments:

  1. So where can I find a synopsis of how the church does actually view the incarnation and Christology, if Christ was not absent from his pre-incarnate life? I was confused by that.

    1. Hi Isaac

      Pay close attention to the Matins service each week. The Church’s Christology is gradually communicated, patiently, week-by-week. Indeed, the question you asked is answered within one of the Matins services.

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