Open to Question?

John Richardson continues his exploration of Rowan Williams' theology

The Church of England has managed its affairs for almost a century now with scarcely any regulation of the range of theologies it contains — theologies which are sometimes not merely at variance but in conflict. The professional study of theology has increasingly been left to academia, whilst the denomination has relied on a combination of enthusiastic amateurism at the top and pragmatic hard work at the grass roots. Arguably, the Church of England has merely followed its own culture. It was, after all, Flanders and Swann who complained about foreigners who ruin sport because ‘they practice beforehand which spoils all the fun’. Religion is simply one more area in which the English regard professionalism as being in poor taste.

Anglicanism has therefore increasingly relied not on theological definitions but on its structures, and specifically on the person of the bishop, to hold it together.1 The dangers of this, however, are revealed by the occasional appointment of a bishop whose theology is neither more-or-less orthodox nor blandly nondescript. In academia, anything is properly open to question, including the questioner. But the fragility of Anglican ecclesiology requires that the bishop be accepted unquestioningly — otherwise where is our unity? Hence the publication of Garry Williams’ negative evaluation of Rowan Williams’ theology2 was greeted with open hostility, not because it could readily be refuted, but because such criticisms of the Archbishop are seen as somehow ‘wrong’ in a way that they would not be if the latter were simply a university don.

Yet no institution whose raison d’être depends on ideas can afford to stifle ideological criticism of its leadership. Either it must allow criticism, and therefore (at least potentially) refutation of the leaders, or it must ensure that their ideas are so unremarkable as to be accepted by all. The appointment of Dr Williams thus brings the Anglican Church to a crossroads. There are aspects of his theology which may be questioned. But there is currently no way of doing that without threatening the institution.


Yet is there really such a problem with Dr Williams’ theology? During the run up to his appointment, he was hailed as ‘liberal on social issues, orthodox on theology’, and in Evangelical circles no less figures than Drs Alister McGrath of Wycliffe Hall and Francis Bridger of Trinity Bristol welcomed his arrival. Indeed, there seemed to be a palpable relief that here was a theologian who nevertheless believed in both the physical resurrection and the virgin birth. Others, however, knew that Williams’ ideas were rather more ‘nuanced’. In July last year, Revd Angela Tilby opined cheerfully of both Williams’ orthodoxy and his liberalism that ‘perhaps neither … is quite what it seems’.3 And my own experience, charted in these columns, has certainly been that the deeper one looks into it, the more that observation is confirmed about his theology.

This is particularly so with regards to Williams’ Christology, which lies at the heart of his systematics.4 Here, however, I must add a caveat. Williams is by no means an easy read, and I would not be the first to have misunderstood at least some of what he is saying. Nevertheless, a writer must accept some responsibility for the impression he gives, even if it is false, and what follows is as much a plea for clarification as a critique.


That being said, there seems to be a significant problem – or at least potential for misapprehension – with Williams’ presentation of the incarnation. The closest I have come across to a definition of its nature is, unfortunately, at the end of a passage on the theories of his former tutor, Donald McKinnon, which is entirely beyond my grasp.5 Nevertheless, we emerge into relatively clear water with the following statement:

‘(T)he substantiality, the ‘subjecthood’, the continuous identity of this individual (the human Jesus) is so related to the substantiality of God that it cannot be grasped in its full reality without allusion to God as constitutively significant for it […]. God is what is constitutive of the particular identity of Jesus; that is what can be said of him6 and that is what the homoousion of Nicaea endeavoured to say.’7

Williams thus claims to have exposed the heart of the Nicaean ‘one substance’ formula. Yet repeatedly in his work, one finds statements that distance the human identity of Jesus from the personal being of God. Writing on the question of the risen body in Resurrection, he says that ‘Jesus’ ministry had communicated to the apostles the possibility of human flesh carrying divine meaning, God being "enacted" in the acts of a man’.6 Yet he immediately adds this qualification:

‘But notice: we speak of Jesus’ acts as bearing divine weight. If we say that Jesus in his ministry ‘embodies’ the grace of God, we do not and cannot mean that the grace of God is identifiable with Jesus’ material and biological constitution. […] If we are to say of Jesus that he is God’s ‘body’ in the world, we must at once make it clear that we mean the life, the history, of Jesus […]. It is absurd to think here of ‘body’ and ‘embodiment’ referring simply to Jesus’ physicality; although this is the necessary identifying centre for speaking of his acts and effects. Put another way, it is not simply Jesus’ bare presence that is ‘gracious’, but Jesus present ... in words and deeds that make grace concrete […].’9

It may be that the repeated use of ‘simply’ as a qualifier of the denials about Jesus’ physicality is enough to render this passage orthodox. But the qualification surely rests on a false dichotomy. The supposed ‘either/or’ between Jesus’ body and his bodily acts are nowhere put forward as alternatives in classical theology. Incarnation is the divine assumption of ‘living flesh’ – the nephesh chayah of Genesis 2.8. And the result is not ‘a body which performs acts’, but a bodily life. Yet elsewhere, Williams advances what Jesus does, rather than what he is, as the decisive factor in his ‘embodiment’ of God’s grace. Hence,

‘… (if certain facts were to be demonstrated about the life and character of Jesus, that he was a violent and exploitative personality, for instance, the symbol (of Jesus as one who absorbed and did not transmit deprivation and human violence) would be reduced to being only a convenient fiction, and its force would be very different).’10

Of course, this could be saying little more than that Christ was without sin (though the ‘sinlessness’ of Jesus is something which Williams describes as a ‘dauntingly complex matter’11, and ‘sin’ is not a word which features large in his vocabulary). Knowing that Jesus had indeed sinned would inevitably change the classical view of him. But the classic formulation of Jesus’ character is that it arises out of his being as ‘God made man’. It is not because he ‘acts sinlessly’ that he embodies God’s grace, but rather that because he is both God and man he is therefore sinless. Moreover, in classical theology the ‘sinlessness’ of Jesus is not merely a condition for the cognitive effectiveness for us of the symbolism of his death, but is the precondition for the salvific effectiveness of that death in regard to the relationship between God and mankind. It is not the symbolism that would be spoiled by sin but the sacrifice.


Ultimately in Williams’ theology Jesus seems to be an ‘act’ of God, in that, by the purpose of God, everything that Jesus is and does stems from and ‘enfleshes’ what God is in himself. Thus far I hope I have presented Dr Williams’ views accurately. But is this view enough? Genesis tells us that God made man ‘in his own image’, and Colossians tells us that Jesus is ‘the image of the invisible God’. Jesus is thus the ‘last Adam’ of 1 Corinthians 15. But is he not also something more than a perfect Adam – a successful demonstration of God’s ability to image himself in flesh, which does not require that he himself ‘become flesh’? In Williams’ soteriology, Jesus seems to represent something we can all hope to be:

‘The language of the first Christian theologians … assumes that Christ is a word that has come to mark out the shape of the potential future of all human beings, while remaining at the same time the designation of a specific person. […] Thus each believer is, through the agency of other believers, growing into a ‘Christ-shaped future’, in the sense that his or her possibilities are defined with reference to Jesus. We may have the same freedom, the same direct intimacy with God, the same commission of healing and restoration.’12

Yet surely the classical understanding is that, whilst through union with Christ we may share in everything which belongs to his humanity, this is only possible because he uniquely combines two natures in one person. Dr Williams, by contrast, explicitly denies that at a certain point in history the Word entered into ‘the narrow confines of humanity’13, and it does not seem unreasonable to ask for clarification of what this statement implies.


This is, moreover, no mere quibbling about details. The soteriology which Williams puts forward seems to depend on being informed about, persuaded of and actively responding to what is revealed and enacted of God in Christ. In Resurrection he writes that ‘forgiveness occurs not by a word of acquittal but by a transformation of the world of persons’.14 It is as people realize what the death and resurrection of Jesus mean regarding their own actions and attitudes, and as they respond by changing the way they regard and act towards themselves and others, that ‘salvation’ occurs. In short, this looks like a return to the pre-Reformation understanding, that ‘facienti quod in se est Deus non denegrat gratiam’ – ‘God will not deny grace to the man who does his best’. Those who hear and respond to the gospel by seeking to let it change their lives will find and know forgiveness. In other words, as Luther realized, salvation is for the good, dependent upon their ‘good work’. As Williams writes,

‘[Forgiveness] is not a bland legitimation of all we are and do, despite the fact that it involves an acceptance of what we are.15 Forgiveness does not occur without the reality of that relation and transaction in which we discover the victim as saviour […].’16

In this sense, I believe Williams has crucially misunderstood Luther’s concept of the ‘passive righteousness’ of God, describing it as ‘the justice that will not act against us … the righteousness that makes righteous’.17 But what Luther means by this is our righteousness, ‘the righteousness of faith, which God imputes to us through Christ without works’:

‘For here we work nothing, render nothing to God; we only receive and permit someone else to work in us, namely, God. Therefore it is appropriate to call … Christian righteousness "passive".’18

And naturally, the proclamation of a gospel of forgiveness based on active righteousness, albeit in response to a gracious God, will be quite different from an ‘evangelical’ gospel, whether preached in vestments, robes or ‘civvies’.


The above are some of the more crucial questions I believe can be asked of Dr Williams’ theology. I have said nothing about the notable omissions in his works. In the index of On Christian Theology there is no mention of atonement, Satan or sacrifice, and only one mention of sin. And in his work as a whole I find little engagement between his Christology and Old Testament themes such as Temple, priesthood, kingship or covenant. On the contrary, I find a tendency to create a disjunction between Israel (which continues to exist as a community defined by Torah) and the Church (which takes its origin from a Christ who stands alone, rather than fulfils the Scriptures).

These last observations may be as mistaken as they are superficial. Fortunately, it is not for me, as an individual, to judge the adequacy of Dr Williams’ theology for his role as Archbishop. It is the Church of England which must face this challenge. Alternatively, it may (and probably will) evade the issue. But if it does it is simply putting off the evil day when it must decide whether it has unifying beliefs or only centralizing structures.

John P Richardson


  1. ‘A bishop is the person in whom the three planes of the Church’s life intersect. He is a ‘corporate person’.’ (Episcopal Ministry, para 388)

  2. Garry Williams The Theology of Rowan Williams (Latimer Studies 55: 2002)

  3. ‘Sunday’, Radio 4, 28 July 2002

  4. Williams is not a ‘systematic theologian’ in the sense of aiming at a ‘system’. Nevertheless, there is ‘system’ — an internal connectedness and coherence — to his theology.

  5. An e-mail to a fellow Evangelical, Simon Vibert, author of Two Archbishops on the Doctrine of Revelation (Orthos 19, Fellowship of Word and Spirit, 2002), asking ‘Is it me?’ produced the helpful response, ‘It might be.’

  6. Ie of God, see Williams’ earlier question ‘If God is neither a quasi-Hegelian organizing principle, nor an abstract postulate, nor yet an agent among other agents, what is to be said of him?’ (156).

  7. On Christian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2000) 157. For the influence of MacKinnon on Williams, see

  8. Resurrection, 98

  9. Ibid, 98-99

  10.  Ibid, 20-21

  11.  OCT, 157

  12. OCT, 172

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

  14. Op cit., 45, emphasis added

  15. Hence, naturally, grace is present in his model.

  16. Resurrection (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1982) 45, bold added.

  17. Ibid, 13

  18. LW 26

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