An End to All Endings? Reflections on Rowan Williams’ Critical Theology

A guest post by Chris Green

In his Pro Ecclesia review of Williams’ On Christian Theology, Robert Jenson observes—and calls into question—what he believes is Williams’ ‘obsessive fear of closure’. As Jenson sees it, the Archbishop is attempting at every turn to ‘enforce theology’s function as critique, and especially as self-critique’, as if ‘keeping the questions alive’ in a state of ‘indefinitely sustained puzzlement’ were the raison d’être for Christian dogmatics. Jenson suspects that such a use of theology, for all the good it might do, is finally inadequate because it is for all intents and purposes useless for the life of faith. Or, to put the same point another way, Jenson worries that Williams’ methodology is useful only for theological de(con)struction and not for ‘building up’.

I don’t quite agree with Jenson. For one thing, even assuming that Williams is obsessively afraid of ‘closure’, such interminable self-criticism is useful to the life of faith at least in this way: it helps guard against presumptive and trite God-talk—and that is no small gift. For another, Williams can and sometimes does talk in adoring, even confident ways. Nevertheless, I don’t entirely disagree with Jenson. Or, to put it another way, I think Williams at least sometimes puts himself at risk of exaggerating the obscurity of revelation and the difficulty of thinking and living Christianly. Whether he intends it or not—and I’m fairly certain he does not—the Archbishop can be taken to mean that Christian theology is a finally useless enterprise.

For example, he suggests in OCT that ‘puzzlement over “what the Church is meant to be” is the revelatory operation of God as “Spirit” insofar as it keeps the Church engaged in the exploration of what its foundational events signify’ (p. 144). Read in one way, this claim means only that the Spirit’s work is to chasten theological hubris. Read in another way, however, it effectively circumscribes the Spirit’s work, as if the Spirit’s role were merely disruptive. Such a theological mode has the effect of keeping Christian thought endlessly ‘up in the air’ and so incapable of arriving at any dogmatic stability, which, as Jenson quips, leads us to say not ‘I believe!’ but ‘I wonder…’ It’s telling, I believe, that Williams speaks of the creeds as only the ‘least inadequate’ way of talking of God.

Of course, Williams wants to make it ‘harder to talk about God’ (OCT, p. 84) precisely to protect the church and the world from destructive misunderstandings of God and misappropriations of theological justifications. Much like St John of the Cross, he refuses ‘infantile dependence on forms and words and images’ (WK, p. 189) precisely because he knows the danger of ‘premature harmonies’ (OCT, p. 50). He wants to ‘save the theologian from a captivity to trivial optimism … and lying cliché’. So far, so good. But at some point does it become too difficult to talk about God? How do we not all fall finally, everlastingly silent?

For the Archbishop, God is ‘a stranger in the most radical way possible’ so that faith is ‘the receptivity of the self before the ungraspable mysteriousness’ (WK, p. 188) of God’s ‘alien sovereignty’ (WSP, p. 114). In describing the theology of Gregory of Nyssa, Williams remarks that ‘God is what we have not yet understood: the sign of a strange and unpredictable future’ (WK, p. 66). Perhaps this is a defensible summation of Nyssa’s speculations, but it might defensibly be read as a distortive amplification of God’s otherness and unknowability.

At times, the Archbishop’s theological reflections sound quasi-masochistic. For example, he returns again and again in his work to the idea that the ‘inner readiness to come to judgment’ (OCT, p. 32) is the mark of the true disciple. In WK, he claims that ‘the greatness of the great Christian saints lies in their readiness to be questioned, judged, stripped naked and left speechless by that which lies at the center of their faith’ (p. 11). If he means that this ‘readiness to come to judgment’ is one of the marks of genuine faithfulness, then I agree wholeheartedly. I would argue, however, that it belongs to a complex of other readinesses that together constitute the form of faithfulness. In other words, openness to judgment is genuinely Christian only insofar as it is wedded to the humble audacity—to take up the S. Bulgakov’s idiom—also to receive blessings and to offer judgments in Christ’s name.

So, in conclusion, it seems clear that Jenson’s criticisms hit near the mark. At least in some of his work, Williams seems to exaggerate the gospel’s incomprehensibility and disruptiveness. Perhaps his theologizing suffers from an overdetermined theologia crucis? But thankfully Williams does not do all of his theology with a hammer. He knows that ‘the concern is not to inscribe disruption at the heart of the Christian story’ (WSP, p. 44), and that Christ is ‘the root of our security and our insecurity alike, promise and judgment, end and beginning’ (WK, p. 77). As he himself says, the Christian life simply does not make sense ‘without some confidence in the possibility of the reality of our own transformation in Christ’ (OCT, p. 28). Even if Williams sometimes talks as if he’s forgotten it, not all confidence is trivial. Oddly, perhaps no one has said this better than Williams himself:

If the Christian way were simply an experimental spirituality loosely inspired by a dead foreigner, we should no doubt be spared a lot of trouble; we should also be spared the transformation of the human world by God’s mercy in Christ. As it is, theology remains hard, for theologians and for their public, but the fact itself indicates the occasion or unstinted gratitude, celebration and—as we have seen—wonder at the sovereign work of grace. ‘The wrath of man shall turn to thy praise’; so, too, should the complexities and the turmoil of theology (On Doing Theology).

A final, anticlimactic word: so much depends on how Williams is read. In OCT (pp. xii-xv), he speaks of three styles of theology. Accordingly, readers of Williams must be careful to always hear even his ‘critical’ theology as both ‘celebratory’ and ‘communicative’. Otherwise, we play back in monophonic mode what is necessarily heard stereophonically.


  1. Interesting post; I haven’t really read Williams’ theology either, but at some point there have to be some givens and some understandings about the faith, otherwise we’re struggling at all points in some theological fog. After 2000 years, we must have made up our minds about some things, surely! :)

    It seems, from your post, that he could easily come across as an equivocator, which is no doubt why he frustrates the rather more down-to-earth African bishops. But of course his age may be a factor: the older you get the less sure and confident you are about some of the big issues that other, younger people almost take for granted. It’s not a lack of confidence in faith, or in God, but in definitive statements about either of those. From that point of view I can understand something of where he’s at. Not that it’s very helpful when you’re trying to talk about God with other (younger) people, or get some ‘answers’ to your own issues.


  2. This is a very helpful exposition of Rowan Williams’ theology. The last “anticlimatic” bit is a good reminder to moderate our reading of Williams, checking us not to exaggerate one part of him to overshadow other parts.


  3. Thank you for this very perceptive piece, Chris. I wonder whether a lot of this talk of the usefulness, or otherwise, of Williams’ theological style (in the most pregnant sense of that word) ought to be connected to the account of what it means to be a creature, that informs his work. The sort of “interminable self-criticism” that Jenson accuses Williams of might certainly be – as you observe – useful to the life of faith in so far as it ‘helps guard against presumptive and trite God-talk’. But I suspect that Williams would want to go further here. I don’t want to put words in the Archbishop’s mouth, so I’ll speak for myself here: if human beings are the sort of creatures who, when seeking a particular kind of certainty are, in fact, being less than fully creaturely; if, then, we follow Barth (and, indeed, Augustine) and suggest that human being is, in a sense, quite properly ontologically unstable – we could say, un-housed, and that the desire to find a kind of ontological security (‘ah, this, finally, is what I am’) is a deceit, a grabbing at things around us, which is really a sort of fall into nothingness, then ‘interminable self-criticism’ becomes not simply a guard against presumptive talk about God, but also (and perhaps precisely because it is a guard against idolatry) an index of creaturely dignity. In one sense, what I am suggesting here is that we ought not to play off the ‘celebaratory’ tasks of theology from that of the critical – even as we distinguish them, we ought to continually press home that it is at the place where we are most unhoused, that we are most freely ourselves.


  4. “How do we not all fall finally, everlastingly silent?” I think this question is a good one. But as others have said, we have to balance it with, “How do we not royally screw it all up with our big mouths?” Both of these things are present for the church. I grew up around a group of folks who were scathingly confident and loud. Through the years, I found myself more towards the opposite end. Now I am falling somewhat back towards the middle. But odds are, as I’m only thirty, Lord willing, the roller coaster ride is far from over. All in all, I know this, I don’t want to be so rigid and dognmatic that I can’t love people that God calls me to love, and I don’t want to be so scared of my own shadow that I am sapped of the courage to call evil for what it is. Finally, I don’t want to be so wrapped up in obsessing about whether I am getting it right and finding the right balance to enjoy life and be present to those around me. So I guess my brain is just a big cluster!


  5. Mike Crowl, I hope that my response to Williams is not merely the result of my being young! Even more, I hope my critique doesn’t suggest that I simply want answers to my questions and therefore find Williams’ reticence irritating. And let me be clear that I agree with Andre and Michael Wilson on this point: all the evidence suggests that a search to discover/deliver a totalizing system of meaning ends in disaster. We should honor Williams for reminding us of that fact. That said, Williams’ uneasiness with Christian dogma and spirituality disquiets me, as it clearly did Jenson.

    To that point, Andre, I’m not quite at ease your claim that precisely when we are most “unhoused,” we are most “at home.” I’m not even sure what that means, honestly. What does it look like in practice? How does it shape prayer? Worship? Preaching? Evangelism? Would you hate it if I said instead that in this life, short of the beatific vision, we live in temporary housing—we “tabernacle,” if you will—but we have housing nonetheless. We are pilgrims, but not homeless!


  6. Thanks for the article Chris! I’d appreciate if you wouldn’t mind appending the other works of Williams’ that you reference. The OCT is clear enough, but the others not.


  7. Perhaps Rowan Williams’ ‘fear of closure’ is, after all, well founded in his particular ecclesial location. Is there something about the English Anglicanism of the twentieth-century that leads to precisely some sort of premature closing down of theological questions and that draws forth this tentative, probing, cross-questioning theological style? Are there fundamentalisms afoot on the one hand or evasions of the theological task on the other which he is moved to confront? I don’t think this is entirely a matter of temperament but it is worth asking why the Welsh Williams (and the Scot MacKinnon before him) found this form of theological passion (a loaded word!) to be required. Williams in a perceptive essay in OCT wrote of MacKinnon that he deployed complexity as a form of resistance against idolatry and against glib, smooth theological articulations that failed to go anywhere deep enough or that failed to reckon with the perduring presence of unassuaged suffering in the world – the latter, to my mind, a very interesting pastoral response to a world in crisis. Moreover, there is a sense in which silence before the ‘inexpressibility of God’ (MacKinnon) is an appropriate medium of theological expression. As for ‘puzzlement’, it should be noted that Williams understands that those who are prepared to probe it and to raise the difficult theological questions in all their many-faceted complexity will thereby be kept focussed on its object, the revelation of God in Christ Jesus. Thanks to Chris (and to Joel) for these stimulating posts.


  8. This is a very interesting article and a good critique of williams. I have read a few of williams books-Where God Happens, Tokens of Trust, Wound of Knowledge and found them to be wonderful texts which reveal a deeply nuanced theology. The reason i have liked Williams is that his writing is superb but also that he does not offer a wooden, closed or non-contextual theology. Perhaps he does not “fear” closure but rather resists it because of the trace or possibility of violence of a “closed” theology.
    Can the avoidance of closure go too far? Maybe. Or maybe williams role in modern Christian theology is to provide an apophatic poetic voice in a world of settled and oppressive theological prose?


  9. Three further comments, if I may. First, it is the figure of Christ as set forth in the gospels which exercises a disruptive mastery again and again over Williams’ theological thinking, rescuing it not from complexity but from abstraction. Second, Williams is heir to the strong Anglo-Catholic appropriation of Luther’s theologia crucis dating at least from Michael Ramsey’s The Gospel and the Catholic Church, a retrieval that found critical reception in MacKinnon’s work as well. Third, Williams would surely consider the ‘language’ of the liturgy (the Scriptures included) in all its modes to be the first order language of Christian discipleship and theological reflection upon it to be a second order exercise.


  10. Myself, I am just not a convinced Luther guy with RW, noting again the depth and contra of theologia crucis toward theologia gloriae. Not to mention Luther’s: Simul Iustus et Peccator – Simultaneously Sinner & Saint, which is certainly Augustinian. So often we simply forget Luther’s Augustinian roots, note even the effect of Staupitz on Luther here, btw, we could call Staupitz a kind of Augustinian Thomist. To quote Luther, ‘Christ destroyed the glory of the world through his humility and achieved his victory through defeat.’


  11. Hey Robert. I guess what i was trying to say is that much of what we call theology has been doctrinal statements, logical arguments, rational systems. Some of us might be tempted to believe that we affirm exactly the same thing as previous generations of Christians. On one level i agree that we have a core of theology passed down through the ages.

    But what i like about Williams is that his theology is rooted in historical content, tradition AND context. Williams avoidance of closure is also likely a deep recognition of CONTEXT. Context shapes reception of the tradition. Appropriation is always particular. Jesus was a jew, augustine lived most of his life in northern africa and Luther was a German priest. All come from particular contexts that shape their theology.

    Theology rather than just parroted ideas spread across time is dynamic because it always given and received from particular places. Theology that is merely parroted ideas without a sensitivity or recognition of the different cultures, genders, socio-economic classes can become “violent.” For evidence we can look at the inquisition, colonialism, etc. Therefore, i suspect that Williams is endevouring to write his theology in a way that can be appropriated by a variety of contexts.

    I don’t want to oversell the point i am making. Context is not everything, but it is something.


  12. James: Yes, context is very important, but then so is history, and here we can see a Catholic Augustinian doctrine and a Reformational Augustinian one. But I don’t see much Augustinian doctrine in RW. He is a great intellect for sure, even a mystic soul (as is really every true Christian). But a classic historical theolog or theologian? Not in my understanding. :)


  13. James: Just a note, my feelings about RW are not an attack so much, as a theological one. As an Anglican conservative, I am very concerned about the Church of the via-media, both “Catholic” and “Reformed”, and seeking to maintain that great historical place of God’s Salvation History and Covenantal truth, on this earth. And to quote a great theolog, Eschatology is in reality first place in Dogmatics! (Geerhardus Vos)


  14. Hi again Robert. ok i am starting to fall out of my theological depth here. ha ha…that is good. I am a Covenant person, rooted in swedish lutheran piety, so i do like Luther a lot. I, like you, also want to see a great sense of history in our theology. Particularly in a highly consumeristic society.
    Williams may not be very augustianian…i cannot say either way but he certainly communicates the brilliance of Augustine, maybe more of a psychological-spiritualist reading, in his Wound of Knowledge. Yes so he is no classical historical theologian that is for sure. But i think that reflects his interest in the human subject as a receiver station. After all, he wrote a book on Dostoyevsky!
    From my context, i see a lot of folks who live a disingenuous Christianity of pop psychology or simply are going through the motions. We need more history AND more existential appropriation.
    But i appreciate the dialogue and your theological concern. Great to hear someone who cares about the church so much.


  15. Timothy,

    Thanks for this latest response. I agree that Christ, for Williams, is a disruptive figure, one who drives out the theological moneychangers again and again! Know that I celebrate this feature of Williams’ theology, Not to put too fine a point on it, but I pray for that work of Christ in my own life and in the lives of my friends. (I had an exchange with Jason G about this very performance of Christ just a few months ago, in preparation for a sermon.) All that I want to say—and again I’m saying this in qualified agreement with Jenson—is that idol-breaking, temple-cleansing, world-disruption is not all that Jesus does. There’s the wine-to-water performance, too. And, of course, Easter and Transfiguration. Christ’s work is every bit as much taboric as it is kenotic, to steal from David Bentley Hart’s idiom.

    Also, as I suggested in the original post, I wonder if Williams’ doesn’t sometimes work with an ‘overdetermined theologia crucis’. At least, I think Williams sometimes leaves himself vulnerable to that (radically postmodernish) reading and that we, as responsible ‘hearers’ of his work, must be careful to receive his wisdom with care and creativity.

    On that note, I found it interesting that Joel, in his paper, observed Williams’ tendency to regard the world tragically. I suspect there needs to be much more work done on the relationship of Williams’ tragic sensibilities and his commitment to this Luther-via-Anglo-Catholic tradition.


  16. Thanks Chris, for this helpful response and for your witness to the impact of RW’s theology in your own life and ministry. I am particularly happy that you chose the water-into-wine incident because the Johannine witness is entirely apropos
    to what, I think, Williams wants us to ponder. The whole of the life of Jesus is situated entirely along the via crucis such that glory shines forth not only at a wedding in Cana but also (supremely) in the lifting up of the Son of Man on the cross. That is, glory is not something merely juxtaposed with opposition, conflict and, ultimately, rejection but is made known precisely there and then in such contexts and by such means. This does seem to be the thrust of the ‘Book of Signs’. And this bears upon what Williams understands by kenosis – not the laying aside of any quality or attribute of the divine nature or any other such mythology – but rather what is shown to us in the way of the Incarnate One along the via crucis itself. I suspect that, with MacKinnon, Williams fears a reading of the gospel that would simply resolve the cross under the comfort of a ‘happy’ ending. (MacKinnon’s deployment of ‘tragedy’, for what it is worth, is several shades darker precisely in this sense.) So a lot hinges for my ongoing understanding of RW’s work on what you might mean by an “overdetermined theology cruces’. (Of course, to put it somewhat hamfistedly (!), there is a lot more to say about Easter and RW knows that too – as did DMacK.)

    I note that DBH in his column in First Things (Feb. 2012, p. 71) had this to say: “it is wise to recall that the Christ of the gospels has always been–and will always remain–far more disturbing, uncanny, and scandalously contrary a figure than we usually like to admit. Or, as an old monk of Mount Athos once said to me, summing up what he believed he had learned from more than forty years of meditation on the gospels, ‘He is not what we would make him.'” It is not just the cross that unsettles our judgements about Jesus. That is at bottom what I take RW to be saying to us.

    Thanks again, Chris. Your original article has certainly stirred me to a lot of thinking!


  17. Thank you, Per Crucem ad Lucem, for having both of these two guest posts on the theology of Rowan Williams, which have reminded me of what I had found most attractive about his work. When so many Christian theologians seem to fear the freedom of God to do new things, it was a breath of fresh air for me as a ministry student to come across a theologian who reminded people that we cannot in any way pin down God.

    Thanks again.


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