Rowan Williams on seeing the church’s future in the church’s past

I am working on a book that explores historical “retrieval” as a mode of theological reasoning, and I find Rowan  Williams characteristically on the mark in his brief (but excellent) little book Why Study the Past: The Quest for the Historical Church (2005). I especially like the way he turns loose his doctrine of the church as the Body of Christ on the act of appropriating from the tradition.

I would be interested to hear: do you find overtly theological/dogmatic reasoning such as this driving the engines of contemporary historical recoveries (how about The New Calvinism movement in the US or Paleo-orthodoxy)?

Rowan Williams 1To engage with the church’s past is to see something of the church’s future. If we relate to the past as something that settles everything for us, something whose meaning is utterly and finally plain, it is to treat the texts of the past as closing off history, putting an end to our self-awareness as historical persons involved in unpredictable growth. If we dismiss the past as unintelligible, if we read its texts as closed off from us by their alien setting, we refuse to see how we have ourselves been formed in history; we pretend that history has not yet begun. And in the specifically theological context, we shall on either count be denying that we can only grow in company, can only develop because summoned by a word that is not ours. That word is made concrete and immediate for us in the human responses that have constituted the Church’s history; all of this has made our present believing selves possible (p. 94) …

The dangers of looking to the past for a solution of present difficulties are obvious enough; but there is another way of approaching this which is less fraught with risk. If we begin from our axiom of common membership in the Body, there will always be gifts to be received from the past; we can expect that we shall find something that we had not grasped until a contemporary crisis had brought it into focus. Hence the extraordinary regularity with which radical renewal in the Church has come about from a new appropriation of tradition of one sort or another (p. 97).


12 thoughts on “Rowan Williams on seeing the church’s future in the church’s past

  1. I agree, these paragraphs really show Williams’ Barthian influences. Reading CD I/1 on theological method is an utterly similar experience to reading Rowan Williams.

  2. Kent,

    This is not a comment on the blog – though I love this little book by Williams and use it in a class I teach. Congrats on your appointment at Huntington. Once you get settled, send me your e-mail.

    cheers – Brian

    • Brian, great to hear from you! Your name just came up a couple days ago as I was talking with Edwin Woodruff Tait (a colleague here at Huntington). He was familiar with your work on Romans and very complementary. I will get in touch with you via email.


  3. “Post-liberal” evangelicalism, like Dr. Child’s, seems to deliberately try to revive/work within, a 1950’s sense of the Bible; as if that was definitive.

    They say that the best rock and roll, is whatever they were playing when you were 16 years old; when the hormones kick in. And maybe the “best” and “conservative” and “true” theology for those of a conservative bent, is whatever they heard in church when they were that age, too.

    Personally I would rather see academic theology, with its greater sense of freedom, with also its inevitable rationalism, (by way of “academic”), actually drive more corner-church religion.

    I’d like to see lots of “thinking-man’s” churches.

    No doubt, seminaries have found Biblical arguments to justify academic rational theology, vs. blind faith; I’d like to see them become standard sermons.

    • Your comment about the “academy” driving corner-church religion reminded me of something Nicholas Healy said in a recent essay:

      “The university takes neither professional systematic theology nor the church particularly seriously. It provides academic systematic theologians with a place to work at a healthy distance from the institutional church, checks our pride, and makes possible ongoing and extensive enagement with all forms of inquiry. Whilst no systematic theology really belongs to the modern university, it may well be best, for the time being at least, for professional systematic theology to remain there, provided it also keeps within the sphere of the whole church, and so in close relation to both ordinary and official theology. If it stays where it is, it may be graced with opportunities to continue its work as a constructively unsettling element in both places” (International Journal of Systematic Theology, 11/1 [Jan 2009]: 39]

  4. I just finished reading Tait’s thesis on Bucer. It is exceptional! Send him my compliments. Looking forward to hearing from you.


  5. Once you allow the church very, very great authority, as the living Body of Christ, to approriate – or even expropriate – from tradition, to define its own new dogmas … then you are giving a group of ordinary people the explicit power to define God. Could accepting this openly, go to peoples’ heads? And mislead the many people in the church, who don’t know all this might be very ad hoc?

    And if we allow ad hoc creations to be issued as the voice of GOd, shouldn’t we at least now and then, regularly warn people that the latest “words from God” might not have passed very, very thorough scrutiny? And might not have a very thorough historical foundation? And might well be the voice of the ministers, more than of any stable god, in fact?

    • Good thoughts Griffin, and they make me think of a recent article by Nicholas Healy (St. John’s University). He makes what I think is a helpful distinction between four different practices of theology: (1) official (2) ordinary (3) churchly (4) academic.

      On his taxonomy, you seem to be referring to both “ordinary” and “official” kinds of theology. Official theology doesn’t need originate from an institutional church authority (either Roman or otherwise) but comes to lay people each week from their pulpit. Although congregational churches would not think of this theology as especially “official” it has (from my experience) an incredibly powerful impact on shaping the theology of its hearers. To your comment, yes, these “words from God” might not have passed much scrutiny – especially if the preacher had a busy week filled with funerals, visitations, counseling, and elder meetings. It is my opinion that congregations should be made aware of their own responsibility in discerning truth from error in their church’s (official) theology.

      To your other point, regarding ordinary people coming up with ad hoc theology, this is certainly the best indication of theology’s need for its proper home in the community of believers – a community in which the necessary pulling and pushing takes place this side of the eschaton when final certainty arrives.

      There is a book I have been meaning to read called, “God Talk: Cautions for Those who Hear God’s Voice” (IVP, 2006). Any chance you have read it?

  6. Pingback: links for 2009-08-23 | The 'K' is not silent

  7. Kent:

    Haven’t read much on the subject of the non-dogmatic presentation of religion. I’ve got a doctorate myself, but not in theology: Culture Studies.

    But I like your style; as a sometimes academic, I sort of like the style in some pastors and theologians, that presents things in a more tentative, non-dogmatic way; leaving things a little more open.

    In fact, I believe that presenting ideas about God as if they are entirely well known and fixed, is not quite honest, at any level; from theology professional journals, to even especially, ordinary sermons and talk-show religion.

    And I’m very interested therefore, in presentation styles – and any new and old formulas, humble demurrers – that could and in my opinion should be expressed, before and after perhaps any pronouncement of anything at all, as the “word of God.”

    Your occasional speculations on theology and/or its God, as an activity in part of the “flesh” therefore interests me.

    For my own part, I’m finishing up a book on seeing theology, Christianity, as a science; with the “correctibility” of science implied.

    Regarding my book by the way: any leads about a fast, free, on-line publisher? For my fairly polished draft? I’d like to get my book on line; get some feedback; then go on to a print publisher.

    • I will be quite interested to read your work. The German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg, the subject of my doctoral work, saw theology as a science as well. For him, theology’s status as a science did not negate the “provisionality” of its truth-claims but, in a way, secured it: its claims always open to testing and evaluation for coherence in the public market place of ideas.

      Regarding online publishers – I won’t be much help to you there. I do know that Lulu’s rates are reasonable for trade paperback (


  8. This is an old post so I’m late to the game here. But I would be curious to know which of today’s so-called “Neo-Calvinists” you would point to as examples of what you’re talking about here?

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