Theology at the Boundary

John Richardson takes a second look at the theology of Rowan Williams

What are the limits of ‘what it makes Christian sense to say’? This is a question tackled by Dr Rowan Williams himself in his On Christian Theology. But it is a question which is posed by his whole body of work and also, therefore, by his appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury. In its earliest years as a body independent of the Church of Rome, the Anglican Church sought to establish as narrow boundaries as possible to what was ‘Christian’. It is often (and probably best) forgotten that the Thirty-Nine Articles exist ‘for the avoiding of diversities of opinion’. Such was the via media in 1562! Over the last fifty years, by contrast, many have wanted Anglicanism to be ‘inclusive’ in the sense of excluding nothing. But such an approach is ultimately self-defeating. Something which includes everything is no longer ‘inclusive’ of everything but simply synonymous with everything.

Anglicanism must necessarily have some limits. It is not, for example, Methodism or Romanism. Nor are the differences here merely institutional. Roman Catholicism holds to very clear theological axioms which give the institution its shape and which also thereby exclude other axioms and institutions. By the same token, Anglicans cannot even hope to be inclusive of all theologies which make a claim to be Christian without thereby excluding at least those theologies and institutions which believe Christianity must be more tightly defined. Anglicanism has avoided confronting this difficulty for at least half a century. But the appointment of Dr Williams may have brought the day when it must do so much closer.


However, the likely impact of Dr Williams’ theology can only be gauged when it has been fully grasped and explicated – and that is no mean task. In my first essay I complained of what I felt to be a lack of substance in some of Dr Williams’ more populist works. Since then, I have been getting to grips with his On Christian Theology (hereinafter OCT), which more than makes up for this want. Unfortunately, it is also an extremely difficult book to read, not least because of its style. Perhaps the best illustration of this is a paragraph of untranslated German which Dr Williams describes as ‘lucid summary’ to which he wishes to add nothing more than the contents of his next, seventy-eight word, sentence.

Dr Williams and his supporters have complained that he has been misunderstood by Evangelical critics, and I would not be surprised if this were true. Certainly I don’t pretend to have understood fully all that I have read, nor to have read all that Dr Williams has got to say. What follows therefore makes no claims to be a definitive guide to his thinking. But herein also lies a difficulty, for although I don’t know everything Dr Williams thinks about Christian theology, I do know that nothing in my own understanding will ‘fill in the gaps’. On the contrary, the very first observation I made on his work is that Rowan Williams’ theology is quite simply the theology of Rowan Williams.


And this, I believe, explains the difficulty others have experienced in engaging with him, for we naturally tend to bring to the enterprise of reading a Christian theology our own pre-understanding. Yet at almost every significant point, Dr Williams’ views are certain to be quite different from those of the reader. The effect of failing to recognize this, however, is that Dr Williams’ words are invested with the reader’s own meaning, which consequently distorts what he has said, dragging it, as it were, towards the reader’s own position and hence away from what he means. There is no room here, incidentally, for the post-modern abandonment of ‘authorial meaning’. Dr Williams’ texts are certainly intended to convey what their author means. However, if one is to understand them it is helpful to empty one’s mind of previous meanings in order to let his shine through. And as one does this, every key theological term and concept acquires a radically new complexion, which is very disorientating. It is, nevertheless, possible to discern an outline of themes which hold these new meanings together. Yet as one does so, one has to ask – or perhaps the Church has to ask – what is the relationship between these meanings and themes and those which have heretofore defined the Christian tradition.


At the back of Dr Williams’ theology is (it almost goes without saying) God. This God is conceived in ‘realist’ terms – as a God who exists. And the nature of God’s existence is characterized by absolute freedom and generative energy. That freedom consists, specifically, of freedom from need or compulsion. God is ‘that other who, by definition, cannot want us to supply deficiencies in the bliss of divine ego’ and hence ‘whose whole life is a "being for", a movement of gift.’1

The discerning reader will notice, however, that in Williams’ usage God not only lacks need but also gender. Williams does not totally avoid the personal pronoun for God, but he frequently eschews it, and indeed in The Body’s Grace places it in inverted commas (p10). Such a gender-free view of God is not, of course, value free, and Williams is uncritically critical of all expressions of patriarchy – whether human or divine. Indeed, one detects something of an aversion to all that might once have been regarded as ‘manliness’. Thus Williams makes the admittedly odd statement that ‘creation is not an exercise of divine power’, on the grounds that ‘Power is exercised by x over y.’2 It is the feminist critique, moreover, which has in Williams’ view rightly challenged the distorted notion of God as monarch over creation.3 The God with which one is left, however, hardly seems the sort of being to have wrestled with Jacob all night, much less to have put his leg out of joint! And what does ‘Israel’ mean if the one who ‘struggles with God’ finds no-one who will fight back?


God is not, however, the starting point for Williams’ theology, nor is ancient Israel. Rather, the starting point is Jesus. He is the one in and through whom God is ‘revealed’, but rather than answering our questions about God, Jesus questions our answers. And this is why Williams’ theology cannot begin in the Old Testament, for the community constituted by and generative of Torah was mistaken in its confidence about its grasp of God:

Jesus is God’s ‘revelation’ in a decisive sense not because he makes a dimly apprehended God clear to us, but because he challenges and queries an unusually clear sense of God (as the giver of Torah to Israel): not because he makes things plainer … but because he makes things darker.4

Certainty about God – about ‘having the answers’ – leads inevitably in Williams’ view to oppression via the exclusion of those who do not ‘have the answers’. And such a world of ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ is incompatible with his eschatology:

The Christian claim … offers a direction for historical construction of human meaning, but it does not offer to end history. [Rather] … it envisages a ‘long revolution’, at best an asymptotic approach to a condition that history is itself (by definition) incapable of realizing – a perfect communality of language and action free from the distortions imposed on understanding by the clash of group interests and the self-defence of the powerful.5

To approach this ideal state is to experience in human history the Son’s relationship with the Father, which is simultaneously one of complete security and total vulnerability. And hence on the principle that eschatology defines missiology.

Christians in general and theologians in particular are thus going to be involved as best they can in those enterprises in their culture that seek to create or recover a sense of shared discourse and common purpose in human society.6

But Christians will not, of course, dictate how this future is to be attained since they themselves ‘may have no clearer picture than anyone else of what this would look like’.7


In all this the figure of Jesus is crucial, since Jesus embodies God’s own response to God’s free gift and in so doing transforms our understanding of God, thus making available in a human life something which previously was thought to belong to God alone – that generative energy which is able to be truly creative. When the Church which is constituted by Jesus gathers to make Jesus present, then all things, including the Church itself, can be brought to this point of judgement and thence can become ‘open’ to God’s intention for its life and the life of the world. In this process, Spirit is ‘the pressure upon us towards Christ’s relation with the Father’8, the relationship towards him and towards one another of vulnerability, grace, forgiveness and powerlessness. That, at least, is what I understand Williams to be saying! However, Williams admits that he has no adequate model to offer of the Holy Spirit’s role. Indeed, in his essay ‘Word and Spirit’ Williams drops the definite article, referring simply to ‘Spirit’ and arguing that this is a ‘weak and unspecific word’ reflecting ‘an elusiveness and an unclarity’ found in the New Testament itself.9


But although it is central, the figure of Jesus is also problematic in Williams’ theology, not least because between the human Jesus and the Trinitarian Son one occasionally catches glimpses of what looks unnervingly like daylight. What happens ‘in 4 or 5 bc.’ is that, ‘a human being comes into existence who so transforms what we mean by "God" that we can boldly and almost playfully say that God has moved, or changed places.’ But Williams explicitly denies that ‘God the Word’ thereby enters ‘the narrow confines of humanity’.10 Jesus is ‘the Word made flesh’ in the sense of being ‘an embodiment of creative holiness’.11 But ultimately the credal language of ‘he came down from heaven’ is ‘vividly mythological’.12

Williams’ christology thus sometimes feels ‘functional’ rather than ‘ontological’. Who Jesus is matters a good deal less than what Jesus does, with the result that various aspects of Jesus’ ‘ministry’ could conceivably be delegated to different persons. There is, for example, no obviously necessary connection in Williams’ framework between the revelatory function of Jesus as the embodiment of God’s response to God and the salvific history of Jesus as the ultimate innocent victim, rejected by humanity and yet re-presented to his victimizers through the resurrection.12 Nothing more seems to be required for this latter demonstration of God’s grace than that Jesus be utterly innocent. There is no requirement that this victim also ‘enflesh’ the divine Word. Williams could, of course, answer that he just does, but this hardly addresses the force of Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo? – why must God become this man?

Again, there are problems with Williams’ salvific scheme as it revolves around Jesus. If crucifixion and resurrection focus on one who is simply ‘innocent victim’, there is no necessary connection between his being victimised and my acts of ‘victimization’ (whether of myself or others). Moreover, whilst the resurrection may indeed suggest that I should ‘recognize my victim as my hope’13, my victim is nevertheless not the utterly innocent victim penalized by the Jerusalem authorities. Therefore my act of victimizing is not their act, either in an historical or in a parallel sense. And therefore once again there is daylight between things – in this case my sin and Jesus’ death – which in traditional theology are totally connected.


Rowan Williams ambitiously and brilliantly reworks virtually all the central themes of Christian theology. However, in questioning traditional answers he lays himself open to questions in at least two areas. First, is what he offers a truly coherent alternative? Do the various parts fit and work together better than, or even as well as, the traditional understandings? And secondly, is it still within the limits of Christianity? It is quite possible that in pushing at the boundaries of Christian understanding a theology may push through them. This is a risk we must allow, but we must also be willing to confront the situation when it happens. In a future article I hope to look further at some of the problems in Dr Williams’ approach to theology and the implications this has for his role in the Church.


John Richardson reads and works in a parish close to Stansted Airport.



  1. The Body’s Grace (London: Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, 2002) 9

  2. On Christian Theology (Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, 2000) 68, his emphasis. God, he argues, does not need to exercise power ‘over’ creation, since creation can only be what God wants it to be. Yet the biblical witness is that the creation is indeed an expression of God’s power (Heb 1:3, etc).

  3. OCT, 77-78

  4. Open to Judgement (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1994) 24

  5. OTJ 158

  6. OCT 138

  7. OCT, 36-37. Notice again Williams’ suspicion of ‘power’.

  8. OCT, 37

  9. OCT, 37

  10. OCT, 124

  11. OCT, 126

  12. OTJ, 24

  13. OTJ, 25

  14. OTJ, 27

  15. See Resurrection (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1982) passim

  16. Resurrection, 14

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