Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Difficult Gospel: The Theology of Rowan Williams by Mike Higton

Difficult Gospel: The Theology of Rowan Williams
Mike Higton, SCM Press, 2004, 174pp

One of our church members refers to the current Archbishop of Canterbury as "The Wizard". Maybe the moniker has something to do with the fact that Rowan Williams is a proud member of the Gorsedd of the Bards. After all, Merlin was reputed to be a Druid sorcerer. Another factor might be Williams' beardy appearance. His looks conjure up an image  of an ancient Druid high priest. But it's not just that. It seems that many ordinary Christians find his utterances as comprehensible as druidic mumbo-jumbo. And when they do grasp his meaning, the response tends to be, "What? Did he really say that?" His controversial remarks on the place Islamic law in the UK legal system are a case in point. 

Anyway I thought I should try and get to grips with the teachings of Rowan Williams to find out what makes the current Archbishop of Canterbury tick, besides dressing up like Merlin. So, I ordered Mile Higton's book from Amazon. Higton offers a sympathetic reading of Williams' theology. The writer is not, as far as I can tell, an Evangelical in his theological bent. His  approach is not to offer an assessment of the Archbishop's teaching from an Evangelical standpoint. His aim is simply to give his readers a guide to understanding key aspects of Williams' thought. 

As the title acknowledges, Williams' theology is notoriously difficult to understand. He's an academic after all, and Higton admits that "there are times when Williams' writing is unduly complicated, moments when it is weighted down with unnecessary jargon, or arguments which turn out to have twists and riffs that are purely decorative" (p. 4). But, contends the writer, the Archbishop's teaching is also difficult in a good way. The Gospel itself faces us with difficult challenges and demands. Hence the book's title, A Difficult Gospel

So, how does Rowan Williams understand the gospel? It is all about God's "disarming acceptance" of fallen humanity in Jesus Christ. In his life, death and resurrection as the incarnate Son of God, Jesus is the decisive revelation of God. To encounter Jesus is to encounter the God who is love. His "disarming acceptance" crucifies of our selfish desires and demands that the followers of Jesus offer unconditional love and acceptance to others. 

It is not easy to discern, at least from Higton's account, the exact relationship in Williams' thought between the fact that Christ "died for our sins" and the "disarming acceptance" of God. The cross is described as "the form which judgement God's judgement takes", but there is nothing approaching a penal substitutionary understanding of Christ's atoning work in these pages. However, Williams is robust on insisting that the resurrection of Jesus entails the empty tomb. As the man says, without the empty tomb there is no Gospel (p. 49-50). True, but without penal substitutionary atonement there isn't much of a Gospel either. 

Evangelicals sometimes refer to Williams as a "Liberal". But this is an overly simplistic labelling of the Archbishop. Few Liberals would hold so firmly to the biblical revelation of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit as disclosed in Scripture and confessed by the Church. Higton offers an informative discussion of Williams' trinitarian theology in  Chapter Two, The Source of Life. But this does not mean that the Archbishop is a card-carrying Evangelical. Hardly. In his doctrine of Scripture Williams denies that the Bible represents the mind of God, "[T]he revelation of God comes to us in the middle of weakness and fallibility." (p. 65). For Williams Christ is the touchstone for the Bible (p. 65). Difficult texts such as Psalm 137 or Revelation 2:23 are to be reinterpreted in the light of the revelation of God's love in Christ. Of the latter text Williams says that "We aren't called to believe and endorse [it]." This is troubling as the words at least purport to be the direct speech of Jesus, Revelation 2:18. Who is this Christ to whom we appeal as the "touchstone" for the Bible if not the Jesus disclosed in Holy Scripture? As Donald  Macleod points out, writing on Karl Barth's doctrine of Scripture, "there can be no other Christ behind and above the Scriptures, no word behind the written word, casting the church into doubt, enveloping her in a cloud of uncertainty and raising the possibility that the Christ of Scripture is not the real Christ or the final Christ." 

The writer devotes an interesting chapter to Williams' reflections on Childhood and Adulthood, which is worth a read. When it comes to ethical issues, Williams struggles to accept that a Christian could believe in a nuclear deterrent, a matter which is not directly addressed by the Bible. On homosexuality, which is directly addressed in Scripture, he thinks that despite the witness of texts such as Romans 1, "a homosexual relationship might be one which instead of inherently obstructing the Christlike development of those involved in it, can like a heterosexual relationship, show Christ to the world." (p. 146). It is that kind of statement that leaves ordinary Christians understandably baffled by Williams' pronouncements. No amount of theological wizardry can magic away the Bible's insistence that sexual intimacy is for heterosexual marriage alone and that sex outside of that context is wrong. 

Yes, Williams' theology is "difficult" in a number of ways. His thought often is complex and hard to grasp. As Archbishop of Canterbury he has the difficult task of trying to stop the Anglican communion from falling apart. He has disillusioned Liberals by failing to make the case for a change in attitude towards homosexual relationships in the Church. Evangelicals are rightly suspicious of his privately held views on the issue. Meanwhile Anglo Catholics are crossing the Tiber and converting to Rome. But the greatest difficulty is that Williams' theology is not sufficiently governed by the authority of Scripture. This enables him to make his preconceived understanding of Christ the standard by which even biblical truth is judged. His extrabiblical Christ is a figure of wax who can be reshaped to suit fashionable opinion so that homosexual relationships "show Christ to the world". If faithfulness to Scripture counts for anything, the Archbishop's thinking on this matter is not just difficult, it is impossible. 


Ben said...

One of the great mysteries about Rowan Williams is how he has managed to preserve his reputation as a very clever man when few if any can understand what he is really saying. He doesn't have the kind of intellectual skill that would enable him to be a good communicator; perhaps rather his particular gift is ambiguity, giving him the possibility of being all things to all men in entirely the wrong sense of that phrase.

Covering=converting, in your last paragraph.

Phil Collinson said...

What do you make of Garry Willaims' documented research into Rowan's theology that showed that, in the matter of revelation, God is no more able to communicate himself to us than a young spastic child can communicate his thoughts to others?

Phil Collinson

Guy Davies said...

In the back of my mind I was aware that GW had done some work on RW, but I hadn't looked it up until you mentioned it.

If God is no more able to communicate himself to us than a severely disabled child, then the whole of God's self-revelation is compromised. On that basis, why believe in the Trinity, or that Christ discloses God's "disarming acceptance" of humanity?

James S said...

I'd prefer Rowan & Martin's gospel after reading of Rowan Williams' version.
Sock it to me!

Okay I know that's lame, but as an American who grew up in the 70's, I couldn't resist. Sorry.

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