Christ the Heart of Creation
By Rowan Williams
304 pages (hardcover), $35.00
I have always had a somewhat ambivalent attitude to Rowan Williams. I find his own positive theology to be of the banal liberal variety that causes damage to the church. His time as archbishop of Canterbury was, in a sense, the practical fruit of that—though, to be fair, from a purely human perspective, no one can corral the Anglican communion of our day, riven as it is with theological and moral disagreements made yet more intractable by geographical tensions. Yet if I find little or nothing to admire in his theology or ecclesiastical leadership, I still regard him as one of the most brilliant and helpful expounders of historical theology. He may not agree with the tradition of Christian orthodoxy on many salient points, but he certainly understands it.
His latest volume is a case in point. Christ the Heart of Creation is a dense though sweeping account of the doctrine of God from the perspective of Christology from the ancient church via Aquinas, Scotus, and Ockham, through Luther, Calvin, and their heirs, to Kierkegaard, Bonhoeffer, and Wittgenstein. It is, of course, not a comprehensive treatment of the topic (Williams is selective in the theologians he chooses to address), but it is both substantial in argument and judicious in focus.
Anyone who has ever taught a course in patristic thought knows that the literature has traditionally been divided in approach between those scholars who see the doctrine of God as emerging from questions relating to the identity of Christ and those who see the doctrine of Christ emerging from questions relating to the identity of God. We might put it this way: Which comes first, the incarnation or the Trinity? It has also often been framed in terms of an East-West divergence, whereby the Cappadocian fathers set forth a view of the Trinity emphasizing God’s threeness, while the West, under the influence of Augustine, emphasized the unity and fell thereby into an incipient Unitarianism. The systematic work of the late Colin Gunton was predicated on such a distinction.
More recent scholarship, however, has challenged both the Trinity-Christology alternative and the East-West dichotomy. Lewis Ayres and Khaled Anatolios have reframed the history of Trinitarianism in a manner that refuses to see a major disjunction between the Eastern fathers and Augustine, and John Behr has retold the story of Nicaea in a manner that makes creation and God’s relation to it the central question in the development of patristic theology.
Though Williams offers no significant interaction with Ayres, Anatolios, or Behr, his work certainly complements theirs. The story he tells is one where the relation between God and creation is central to understanding the emergence of the Chalcedonian understanding of Christ’s person, and where the doctrinal questions concerning God and Christ also raise logical or linguistic questions concerning how human words can be applied to God (how we can speak of him) in a meaningful fashion.
One of the central points that Williams makes—one that is vital for contemporary conservative Protestants to heed—is that the linguistic and conceptual developments represented by the Nicene-Chalcedonian trajectory in patristic thought do not occur as the result of the imposition of an alien Greek philosophy onto the narrative of the Gospels. That notion—touted by Socinians, Adolf von Harnack, et al.—is one of those simplistic errors whose superficial plausibility gives them an almost zombie-like longevity, even within allegedly orthodox circles. On the contrary, says Williams, “What seem to be highly abstract terminological debates, in the patristic and medieval periods, are generated by problems that are rooted in the narrative of the New Testament—not by the importation of alien considerations, the agenda of ‘Greek philosophy’ or whatever” (117). Put simply, the Gospel narratives make claims about the identity of Christ that point both to him as God and as a creature. Generating a conceptual framework for doing justice to both of those is a complex task that takes a long time; but it is a process demanded by the biblical text, not by the speculative imaginations of hair-splitting theologians with nothing better to occupy their time.
Given this, the reader is variously treated to subtle but rewarding accounts of divine simplicity, immutability, impassibility, and other attributes. Williams puts numerous caricatures to the sword; and certainly in the sections dealing with the patristic, medieval, and Reformation periods, he provides the reader with a thought-provoking account of the development of christological and Trinitarian doctrine. Although the sections on Kierkegaard, Bonhoeffer, and Wittgenstein were of less interest to me, even here his sympathetic reading of the sources provides material for the orthodox to use in positive theological construction.
If I had to cite one section as particularly helpful, it would be the one on the development of Christology by the Byzantine fathers after Chalcedon. As Williams puts it, the ecumenical council did not so much solve the problems of Christology as restate them in a different form. Thinkers, such as Leontius of Byzantium, took the formula of Chalcedon and further elaborated a Christology to address the issues of Christ’s full humanity and divinity in the unity of his person. Most notably, the idea of Christ’s anhypostatic human nature emerged as vital to discussion. This is important, because it allows Williams to show the dialectical nature of doctrinal formulation over time.
Orthodox Protestants should heed Williams’s argument. Until very recently, much of what has been written on the doctrine of God in our own circles has been neither biblical nor orthodox by the historic standards of the church, and much of it is based on simple ignorance of the texts. Talking a few years ago to one prominent critic of eternal generation and advocate of the eternal subordination of the Son, I asked him what fourth-century fathers or what work of Lewis Ayres he had read and found wanting. He responded that he had read nothing of either, but he did quote the Bible all the time in his systematic theology. Such ignorance is culpable among those who seek to teach the church. A few hours in the company of Williams’s book would be a great antidote to those who understand neither the catholic faith nor the way in which theological concepts are framed and refined over time.
Some years ago, I was sitting in a restaurant in Cambridge with my son when I noticed a donnish bearded figure walking past the window. “That,” I said to my son, “is Rowan Williams, the former and disastrous archbishop of Canterbury.” “What does he do now?” he asked. “He does what he is best at,” I replied. “He doesn’t try to lead the church or be a big shot. He simply reads historic texts carefully and teaches them to others.” There is a lesson here for many of us, and this book is a prime example of that.
Carl R. Trueman is professor at the Alva J. Calderwood School of Arts and Letters at Grove City College in Pennsylvania.