Publications

By Word And Spirit

Two Archbishops on the Doctrine of Revelation

Introduction

In the last 12 months, two controversial appointments were made in the Anglican Communion. The first was of the Revd Dr Peter Jensen as the Archbishop of Sydney. As principal of Moore Theological College (a college well known around the world for its evangelical stance and emphasis on biblical theology and preaching), Dr Jensen had also authored several books and been in this country regularly as a conference speaker (including the FWS, Church Society and Reform joint Councils’ conference in 2000).

The appointment of the Right Revd Dr Rowan Williams to be the successor to George Carey as the next Archbishop of Canterbury caused a lot of reaction from mainstream evangelicals in England. As a prolific author whilst Archbishop of Wales, and previously as Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity, Oxford, his views have been widely known. As we shall observe shortly, it was his controversial ordination of a man whom he knew to be in a practising homosexual relationship which caused the most stir. However, the discerning quickly realized that this is not the main issue of concern, for, behind this controversial episcopal practice is a way of doing theology which he himself describes as ‘being heretical’. To be fair, this understanding of heresy reflects his own desire that the theologian should be the ‘gadfly’ which challenges un-thought-through theological positions. Nevertheless, there remains a certain irony to this self-description, given the swift and strongly worded reactions that came out of evangelical groupings (more on this in a moment).

The hope of this paper is that I may be able to summarize succinctly the difference between mainstream evangelicals’ and Dr Williams’s theology. There is a need for many more scholarly responses. However, this booklet is intended to help pastors and clergy and their church leaders, PCC or eldership. It is intentionally short and, hopefully, written in a readable style, with an eye on lay readership more than the professional theologian.

Much of this booklet consists of a summary of Dr Williams’s and Dr Jensen's own words, with my own, briefer, commentary on the issues which their writing raises.

Responses to the announcement of Dr Williams’s Appointment

Church Society

In the summer Church Society sent a delegation to Rowan Williams, seeking clarification on a number of issues. The press release on 3rd October 2002 stated:

In a candid exchange with three council members of Church Society, the senior Anglican evangelical body, Rowan Williams clarified his opinion on a number of issues. On the fundamental issue of the truth and authority of the Bible he showed that his understanding is one which evangelical Christians cannot accept.


The Archbishop designate was clear that homosexual activity is not always wrong, based on a perverse interpretation of chapter 1 of Paul’s letter to the Romans. He further said that although he recognised that his appointment risked dividing the Anglican Communion, he could not but accept the office.

At the conclusion of the meeting the representatives of Church Society urged him not to take up the post, and made it clear that if he did his unscriptural views would compel conservative evangelicals to repudiate his oversight as Archbishop.

The Council of Church Society went on to ‘call upon Bishops in the Church of England and the Primates of the Anglican Communion to distance themselves from his doctrinal and ethical position’.

St Helen’s Bishopsgate

The rector of St Helen’s Bishopsgate, the Revd William Taylor, announced on 13th October 2002 that church’s response to the appointment of Rowan Williams. As a symbolic act, St Helen’s has withdrawn from official funding from the Church of England and now pay their staff from their own resources.

Reform

Reform sought clarification of Rowan Williams’s theology during the summer months before issuing the following press release in December:
The Council of REFORM, the evangelical Anglican campaigning network, met in Sheffield last week. In the light of the confirmation of the election of Dr Rowan Williams as the next Archbishop of Canterbury on Monday 2nd December, the Council once again considered his public views on the issue of homosexuality. It concluded that Dr Williams' teaching was contrary to the clear thrust of the Bible which identifies marriage as the only state in which human sexual activity can be regarded as blessed by God.

The Council recorded its deep regret that as a result of his views and his new position of leadership within the Anglican Communion, Dr Williams is, in the Bible’s terms, a ‘false teacher’. It also noted concerns about Dr Williams’ published views in other areas of Biblical doctrine. The Council was conscious of the imperative in Romans 16:17 to ‘watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them.’ It therefore decided that there was a requirement for those who are committed to the authority of the Bible formally to distance themselves from the new Archbishop of Canterbury and such teaching.

The Council recognised that this decision would have implications for oversight and ministry within the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion. It re-iterated that it had no intention of encouraging anyone to leave the Church of England. However, since this was unknown territory, more discussion and consultation was needed in order to work out practical strategies that will further REFORM's primary objective of the evangelisation of England through the Church of England.

Latimer Trust

Latimer Trust published Dr Garry Williams’s booklet The Theology of Rowan Williams in November. Dr Garry Williams has read almost everything which Dr Rowan Williams has written. He reviews the books under the three main headings: ‘The Doctrine of Revelation’; ‘Sin and Salvation’; and ‘Sexual Ethics’. He concludes:

The theology of Rowan Williams puts souls at risk of perishing. The tragic consequence, a consequence which we can only greet with heavy hearts, is that we find ourselves bound to oppose his appointment. To keep silence in the face of his theology is to acquiesce in the injury of souls. (p.37)

Fellowship of Word Spirit

FWS Trustees and Council members expressed their own concern at the appointment at their October meetings. This booklet is part of the theological response which the Council called for, following Dr Rowan Williams’s appointment.

Recent responses from the House of Bishops

In October twelve senior bishops in the Church of England offered to hold confidential talks with the new Archbishop of Canterbury amid growing fears that his liberal views will divide the church. Over a quarter of diocesan bishops have written a confidential letter to Archbishop Williams, warning him to follow a more cautious line or risk splitting the church.

George Carey himself has made his own plea to his fellow bishops to maintain a tough line on homosexuality amid fears that the Anglican Church is disintegrating. In a private letter sent to every member of the House of Bishops just before his retirement, Dr Carey urged his colleagues to show leadership and warned them that the example of the Church of England would be crucial in preserving the unity of the worldwide church. He said that he had earned the ‘moral right’ to offer advice. He called on the bishops to recognize their special role in providing a model for the rest of the church, and said that it was crucial that they display ‘a strong sense of purpose’ in holding things together. He has publicly warned that the issue of homosexuality will cause real problems in world Christianity.

In America and in England many bishops find themselves increasingly out of step with those in South America, Asia and Africa. George Carey has warned with increasing anxiety over the possible fracture of the Anglican Communion.

Church of England Evangelical Council

The initial press statement, following Dr Williams’s appointment, read as follows:

We congratulate Dr Rowan Williams on his appointment and will be praying for him and his wife and family as he embarks on this enormously responsible task of leading the Anglican Communion.

Our commitment is to work with all those who uphold our church’s biblical and spiritual heritage in all matters, both creedal and moral, as we aim to reach the nation for Christ. We will gladly support the Archbishop in all his endeavours to that end as he seeks the future direction and unity of the church.

As head of the worldwide Anglican communion, he will lead a church of which the majority of its members are in third world countries where many are called upon to suffer for their faith. They are prepared to do so because of their commitment to Christ and to the authority of Scripture in all matters of faith and practice. Our prayer is that a similar courageous commitment will characterise the leadership of Archbishop Rowan Williams.

We trust that we can make a positive supportive contribution to his term of leadership in the worldwide Anglican Communion. We will specially be praying for him as he engages with rights in the Canadian and American Provinces, and in his encouragement of the fast-expanding younger Provinces of the developing nations.

In the past, many church members have expressed concern over reports of Dr Williams’ views on some areas of sexual ethics, and more recently, of his apparent preparedness to be involved in a ceremony involving Welsh Druids. In line with the Christian way of handling differences, we will look forward to conversations with him on such matters.

We pray that he and his wife will enjoy energy and health, together with all the resources of the historic Christian faith, as received by the Church of England.

On the 11th October 2002, CEEC issued a further press statement following their residential meeting at High Leigh, Hertfordshire:

We, the Church of England Evangelical Council … unanimously resolve:

  • to reaffirm our commitment to the authority of Scripture;
  • to endorse fully the letter previously released on our behalf …
  • to establish a theological working group, which, building on the work already done, will consider further the implications of the doctrinal and moral issues which have arisen following the announcement of Dr Rowan Williams as Archbishop-designate of Canterbury.

All Souls Group

On Saturday, 14th December 2002, All Souls Group issued a statement entitled ‘Leadership in Society Today’. I have edited it, but the full statement may be found at www.ceec.info

… the biblical norms of sexuality and sexual relationships are first order issues in exploring the best to offer our children. We see sexual morals as norms which people can decide for or against. There is strength in deciding to follow a moral norm, in drawing on the wisdom of the ages, and in the mutual encouragement of following what we believe is right. This provides more energy for practical decisions than the hope of a distant ideal.

The responsibility undertaken by bishops is to uphold the teaching of the church, being faithful to the scriptures and to such traditional formularies as the creeds, and to refute contradictory teaching. This is in contrast to the celebrity culture where the individual opinions and convictions of a charismatic celebrity are the basis of their broad acceptance by the culture.

The authority of church leaders, then, derives not from their individual charisma but from the authority of their teaching. As they receive, test and apply teaching in response to the changes and challenges of the present, they empower their churches and communities in a process of transforming lives, public culture and the state….

We pledge ourselves to work with, pray for and support the leadership of the church both in England and around the world which is faithful to this calling and responsibility, and with those in wider society who share these concerns. We also commit ourselves to pray. We recognise our dependence on the Lord of the nations. We seek his kingdom and the welfare of the nations. Our strength is in using the spiritual resources with which he gifts us. We pray that God will save and protect our nations and communities and lead us all in his way.

Implications

First, it is clear that evangelicals have expressed considerable concern over both the theology of Dr Williams and the possible consequences of his position on certain issues.

Secondly, it is important that the challenge to do more theological thinking, particularly in the area of sexuality, is heard. This booklet is an attempt to respond to some of the concerns expressed in the press releases and comments recorded above.

Thirdly, whilst evangelicals might disagree as to what is the correct strategy for dealing with the appointment of Dr Williams, there is wide-ranging agreement that some of his theology is out of step with what has been hitherto accepted as mainstream Anglican theology.

Who is Rowan Williams and how was his appointment made?

I have already alluded to Dr Williams’s distinguished academic career in Oxford. He has read widely and is a prolific writer.

However, he is no ‘ivory tower theologian’. He is prepared to speak out. Most recently this has included his anxieties about a possible war in Iraq. He has condemned the ‘Macdonald’s consumerism culture’ and the detrimental effect it is having upon young people today.

Rowan Williams is not only bright and very gracious with it. He is also shrewd and shows great media awareness. One of the newspapers commented, in a peculiar postmodern bit of ‘retro’, that ‘Dr Williams is so un-cool that he is trendy’. I think I understand that! This ‘hairy lefty’ (his self-description) is prepared to listen, engage and challenge any perception of power-language or unconsidered tradition.

With respect to the controversial ordination of a man whom he knew was in an active homosexual relationship, Dr Williams has indicated that he will act in line with the 1998 Lambeth resolution and will uphold the church’s official document on the topic, Issues in Human Sexuality, whilst arguing that more thinking needs to be done on the subject.1

The Church of England Newspaper published an article by Bishop Peter Forster (of Chester diocese) in which he expresses his concern that Dr Williams had breached Issues in Human Sexuality by ordaining a practising homosexual. But Bishop Forster questions how it will be possible for Dr Williams to support the church's agreed position when privately he disagrees with it.

Given the growing sense of unease about the possibility of a split in the Anglican Communion (more on this in a moment), many of us feel concerned that the letters which were written after the leak about his appointment by Tony Blair’s press office on 23rd July 2002 were not heeded. Evangelicals felt outmanoeuvred by the political agenda which seemed to hold sway in the Crown Appointments Commission. Along with many others, I wrote to the Prime Minister, indicating that almost any of the other candidates would be preferable as the next Archbishop rather than Rowan Williams. The response of the secretary for appointments (William Chapman) indicated that they had done their homework:

Not least among the many attributes which commended the Archbishop was his strong support for Christian evangelism; indeed … his appointment has been warmly welcomed by many leading Evangelicals in the Church, including the Bishop of Carlisle, the Bishop of Stepney, the Bishop of Maidstone, and Professor Oliver O’Donovan.

David Atkinson and Francis Bridger have recently written in the Church of England Newspaper in support of him.

The issue of homosexuality has caused much contention for traditionalists in the Church of England. At the end of this booklet we will re-engage with Dr Williams’s views on the subject.

A brief summary of Rowan Williams’s theology in his own words

1. ‘Religious and theological integrity is possible as and when discourse about God declines the attempt to take God's point of view.’ (On Christian Theology, p.6)2

2. ‘So far from a literal or historical sense [of Scripture] being a resource of problem-solving clarity, as it might appear to be for the fundamentalist, an area of simple truthfulness over against the dangerously sophisticated pluralism of a disobedient Church, it may rather encourage us to take historical responsibility for arguing and exploring how the gospel is going to be heard in our day.’ (On Christian Theology, p.44f.)

3. ‘We read neither with a kind of blind and thoughtless obedience to every word of scripture, as if it simply represented the mind of God, nor do we read with that rather priggish sensibility that desires to look down on the authors of scripture as benighted savages. We read with a sense of our own benighted savagery in receiving God’s gift, and our solidarity with those writers of scripture caught up in the blazing fire of God’s gift who yet struggle with it, misapprehend it, and misread it.’ (Open to Judgement p.159)3

4. The Bible only condemns homosexuality as practised by heterosexuals engaging in homosexual acts for gratification.4

5. ‘This is the solitude of truth, the solitude, finally of God: God as a spastic child who can communicate nothing but his presence and his inarticulate wanting.’ (Open to Judgement, p.145)

The main purpose of this paper, however, is to examine the views he holds which lead him to make conclusions in these, and other areas of debate, which are at odds with the historic teaching on the subject. It seems to me that, at heart, the issue is an epistemological one, and in particular, further thinking needs to be done on the question, ‘How does God reveal himself?’5 There has been some criticism that those who have critiqued Dr Williams’s writing at a popular level have failed to put individual paragraphs in the context of his argument and have misunderstood what he is saying. I make no claim to have avoided this error. However, I have tried, as far as possible, to keep to Dr Williams’s actual words, and have commented directly on what he has written. This does mean that this section of the paper is quite difficult to read. However, I think it is important that we try to engage with what both authors are saying. Any writer is frustrated by misunderstanding and misquotation.

Who is Peter Jensen and how was his appointment made?

The Revd Dr Peter Jensen has a DPhil from Oxford University and, prior to his consecration as Archbishop of the Diocese of Sydney and as Archbishop of the Province of New South Wales, he was principal of Moore Theological College for sixteen years.

The main controversy surrounding Dr Jensen’s election as the eleventh Archbishop of Sydney on 5th June 2001 surrounded the perceived narrowness of the theology which he holds. Sydney Diocese is well known for its strong evangelical heritage; however, there were those present at the diocesan synod who wished for a more moderate candidate.

From the English perspective, two things are noteworthy. The first is the absence of the Crown Appointments Commission, which, most observers agree, is notoriously unaccountable to either the General Synod or the parishes. Peter Jensen was appointed by selective voting directly from his synod.

Secondly, the debate over Dr Jensen’s appointment was an in-house controversy over the breadth of evangelicalism. Without casting any aspersions over the appropriateness of this debate, outside observers have noted how far this is from the discussions surrounding the appointment of Anglican bishops and archbishops, where some might suggest that there seem to be few questions asked about orthodoxy at all!

Rowan Williams On Christian Theology

On Christian Theology is a collection of free-standing essays published in various journals over the last fifteen years. Some of them are more pertinent to the subject of Christian revelation than others. Consequently I have concentrated on summarizing these essays.

Introduction

Williams begins by stating his methodological starting point. Theology moves between the celebratory, the communicative, and the critical. There is a connection between theology, self-awareness and self-critique, and, as a consequence, the major doctrines of the Bible – Creation, Incarnation and Trinity – need to be discussed in this light (p.xiii).

We should not be detached from our theological tradition but, rather, we should be reworking it in dialogue with modernists and postmodernists. Language will be used in different ways in different contexts. Imaginative language is required for celebration. There is a different kind of language to communicate critical theology.

The theologian is always in the middle of things. The early church’s condemnation of heresy was a desire for a ‘tidy version of its language’ (p.xiii). The real theologian is a heretic.

It’s no use pretending that there is a real and recognizable religious practice that does not include this – just as it’s no use pretending that there is a reading of the Bible that is free of selection and interpretation. (p.xiii)

Williams states his indebtedness to Schleiermacher, in particular his understanding of the ‘typology’ of language (see The Christian Faith). This has led Williams to characterize language as:

1. Celebratory phenomenon

  • The purpose of this language is to evoke ‘fullness of vision’ (p.xiv):

The problem comes when that congruence becomes so densely worked that the language is in danger of being sealed in on itself. (p.xiv)

2. Communicative

  • This relates to ‘a theology experimenting with the rhetoric of its uncommitted environment’ (p.xiv).

3. Critical theology

  • The apophatic tradition (denying what is not true) is the basis of negative theology which ‘[sounds] a warning note against the idea that we could secure a firm grip upon definitions of the divine’ (p.xv).

Critical theology therefore may move towards a rediscovery of the celebrations by hinting at the gratuitous mysteriousness of what theology deals with, the sense of a language trying unsuccessfully to keep up with a datum that is in excess of foresight. (p.xv)

Critical theology ‘points to an essential restlessness in the enterprise of Christian utterance’. This restlessness is in part because of the eschatological nature of the events of Jesus’ life and death which open up ‘schisms’ in any kind of language, and is the result of ‘any attempt to picture the world as immanently orderly or finished’ (p.xvi).

Theological Integrity (pp. 3-15)

Theological integrity involves doing theology as a conversation. However, the ideological language of theology involves power because it does not allow the listener to respond (p.5f.); thus ‘integrity in religious discourse is unrealizable’ (p.6):

religious and theological integrity is possible as and when discourse about God declines the attempt to take God’s point of view (i.e. a ‘total perspective’). (p.6)

Theological integrity will resist systematizing: ‘it is rooted in the conviction that God is to be sought and listened for in all occasions’ (p.6).

The response to God creates the frame of reference to repeat the story to the ends of the earth (p.7). Language is to be ‘surrendered’ and ‘given to God’ (p.8).

We should be aware of the limitations and weakness of language. In religious discourse, falsehoods should be confronted and acknowledged (p.8).

The danger faced by theologians is to seek prescriptively to reduce the disturbingly wide range of meanings and resonances that exist in the more ‘primary’ religious talk of stories and hymnody. (p.9)

We should give our language to God in repentance (p.8) and in praise (p.9):

… with the language of praise for God: it needs to do its proper work, to articulate the sense of answering to a reality not already embedded in the conventions of speech; to show the novum of God’s action in respect of any pre-existing human idiom. (p.9)

This kind of praise involves the ‘suspension of the ordinary categories of “rational” speech’ (p.10). To this extent language is apophatic; an acknowledgement of the inadequacy of language and symbol to picture God (p.11).

For St John of the Cross, the ‘three faculties of the soul’ (memory, understanding and will) translate through contemplation into three theological virtues – hope, faith and love (p.11):

Contemplation … is a deeper appropriation of the vulnerability of the self in the midst of the language and transactions of the world; it identifies the real damaging pathologies of human life, our violent obsessions with privilege, control and achievement, as arising from the refusal to know and love oneself as a creature, a body. The contemplative is thus a critic of the ideological distortion of language in two ways: negatively, as exposing some of the sources of our fears and obsessions; positively as looking to a fusion of ‘inner’ and ‘outer’, or, rather, a dismantling of that dichotomy as normally understood. (p.12)

Prayer (in thanksgiving for unplanned benefits and in intercession as acknowledging relative powerlessness) ‘resists the urge of religious language to claim a total perspective: but articulating its own incompleteness before God, it turns away from any claim to human completeness’ (p.13).

It is mistaken to think of theology as a science. When theology thinks of itself in this way it will assume that its job is to clarify and explain (p.13). Rather, the rigour of theology is to ‘keep watch for our constant tendency to claim the “total perspective”’ (p.13).

God is there not to supply what is lacking in mortal knowledge or mortal power, but simply as the source, sustainer and end of our ‘mortality’. (p.14)

The Unity of Christian Truth (pp.16-28)

As the result of cultural fragmentation we are faced with increasing religious pluralism. How does the issue of unity and Christian truth relate to this culture?

We have been too easily mislead, by a harmonizing biblical exegesis on the one hand and a Denzinger-based version of doctrinal history on the other, in supposing that the articulation of what is believed by Christians to be true about God and the world naturally falls into a pattern of tidily unified correlations. (p.16)

You can not use one word for Christianity because there are no longer any ‘strictly theological criteria’ immediately available to discriminate among varieties of ‘Christianity’. If there is nothing Christian theology cannot comment on then there is no point in using the term ‘Christian theology’ as an ‘intelligible description’ (p.17).

We can construct ‘monothematic’ theologies in which unity is bound up around a single theme or doctrinal nexus. Or, ‘we can attempt to list and summarize the topics which a coherent theology ought to deal with and to display their interdependence’ (p.17).

Indebted to The Logic of Theology by Dietrich Ritschl, Williams outlines two main ways of looking at the unity of Christian theology.

Monothematic theology requires finding a central point of judgement, as Martin Luther did on the theme of justification by faith alone. Karl Barth is another example of this way of doing theology, concentrating on the sovereign liberty of God. Rahner did so in the arena of human knowing.

The second approach is the Loci method, particularly exemplified in medieval theology. The difficulty, argues Ritschl, is that monothematic theologies are ‘all very well so long as they do not set themselves up as exclusive paradigms’ (p.18).

The problem with monothematic theology, according to Ritschl, is that the unity is based upon its own immediate context, and the unity would need to be reconstructed in a different context. This leads to what Williams calls a ‘plurality of systems’ with no principles or relating organizing perspectives, an untrammelled pluralism (p.19). In addition to this, the monothematic approach encourages ‘the formation of closed systems’.

A further weakness, according to Ritschl, is the distortion of theological and biblical discussion by removing the original context within which the theology was formulated.

Thus, in its claim to do justice to the wholeness of the Christian heritage, this approach erodes the concreteness of that heritage. To quarry Augustine or Calvin for arguments on specific topics while amputating the historical and polemical setting of those arguments, is to risk a bland homogenization of the past, indeed a refusal to see it as the past; and so, in refusing to acknowledge that there is a genuine ‘occasional’ aspect to theology, it condemns itself to abstract generality far from the actual mode in which the tradition took shape. (p.19)

Along with Ritshl, Williams believes that ‘the conception with the unity of humanity which has a theological basis, calls for the venture of an overall view’ (p. 20).

It is the relationship between community then and community now which is all important. Moreover, Christian belief ‘involves exposure to what the New Testament calls ‘the judgement of this world’. In other words, there is a community which enables us to discover what truth was revealed in the past and how that relates to the present.

The meaning of the term ‘God’ is worked out in the unity of religious discourse in a tradition (p. 21). Williams is committed to the oneness of God and the establishment of divine community. But he sees, for example, the canon of Hebrew scripture as being both an articulation of the oneness of God and the community, and the community’s speech constructing the way in which God is to be understood (pp.21-2):

And if the New Testament is less a set of certain theological conclusions than a set of generative models for how to do Christian thinking, our own consideration of how we should speak about the unity of doctrinal language must be shaped by the methods displayed in these writings. (p. 22)

To this extent, a central aspect of appreciating the unity of God is by getting into the community of the Jewish faith and understanding the relationship between life before God then, and life before God now (p. 23). The points of unity between the ancient community then, and the modern community today, give ‘a possible lead in considering the problem of the unity of our discourse today’ (p. 23). We are to look at the compatibility and coherence of the roles made available and look at the speech that witnesses to the foundation of ancient events.

The fundamental disunity would be where there are incompatible models of Christian (or Jewish) humanity (p.24). In practical terms it could mean that the modern church’s view of age, race or sexual exclusivity fail to see appropriate points of analogy between the ancient community and our own (p.24).

In other words, the search for a theological unity in what we say involves a high degree of sustained conversation with the history of Christian ethics and spirituality … with the history of how the vocation of human beings is imagined by Christians and in reading the text of faith in the context of sacramental action of the community, we are reminded of what is, in fact, a significant aspect of all reading of the text: we are not the first or the only readers. We read as we perform identifiably similar actions to those performed by other readers, representing a single story which is believed to be the point of focus for all our analogies – what interprets and is interpreted by the life of the new community, and thus connects ‘new’ and ‘old’ worlds. (p.24)

In recognition of the objection that Christian unity should be found in the central figure of Jesus Christ, Williams responds that referring to Christ in this way would run two different kinds of risks. First, it could reduce the Christian faith to a series of ethics and spirituality in the form of ‘imitation of Jesus of Nazareth’. Or, if the history and literary criticism of the Gospels was taken sufficiently seriously, then any reference to Jesus would be evacuated (p.25).

Christ rather acts as a unifying point in and through an attention to the varieties of Christian humanity. Jesus’ life and death become a ‘focal sign’ in which we can bridge the gap between the horizon of his incarnation and the current horizon of the modern day (pp.26-7). This enables us to locate Christian theology in the arena of the church community, a community in which corporate activity articulates God’s activity both in the record of Israel and Jesus (p. 27). Thus the Bible becomes a ‘source of critique’ (p.28).

The Judgement of the World (pp. 29-43)

The ‘world of scripture’, so far from being a clear and readily definable territory, is an historical world in which meanings are discovered and recovered in action and encounter. (p.30)

The Bible itself is a history of the re-reading of texts, thus providing its own interpretation. This definition of hermeneutics gives the bridge into the interpretation of Scripture today, our own re-reading of the texts. In order to do this properly we need to submit our readings to the ‘judgement of the world’.

In judging the world, by its confrontation of the world with its own dramatic script the Church also judges itself: in attempting to show the world the critical truth, it shows itself to itself as Church also. At any point in its history, the Church needs both the confidence that it has a Gospel to preach, and the ability to see that it can not readily specify in advance how it will find words for preaching in particular new circumstances. (p. 31)

Modern readers create themselves within this drama as one would play a part in a theatre workshop (p.32):

I am wholly in sympathy with [Professor Lindbeck’s] challenge to the ‘liberal assumption’ that this is to be achieved by adjusting theology to current fashion, and what I have already said accords in important respects with his call for discernment on the basis of criteria drawn from this specifically Christian narrative. (p.33)

How is the ‘judgement of the world’ to take place? The church is to put itself in the ‘naked public square’ (Richard Neuhaus). Faith is not to be reduced to a commodity marketed in our fragmented culture, but it is to be worked out in communal enclaves, not religious ghettos, which must recognize the possibility of communal thought, even in our culture (p.36).

The danger of theological theocracy is that it would bring to an end dialogue and discovery. Moreover, it assumes an end to history, and it also misunderstands the hope for God’s kingdom which is a ‘fusion of divine and earthly sovereignty in a way quite foreign to the language and practice of Jesus’ (p.36).

The church has this role of restoring public discourse. Williams distances himself from a ‘liberal foundationalist perspective’ by stating that we rediscover ourselves in the foundational story, which is part of the ‘recreating grace of God’ (p.38).

Christians in the front line of politics, art or science will find that they frequently do not know what to say. Their traditional articulations are not being translated, rather they are being tested (p.39). The world is passing its judgement upon what the church says:

The paradox of our situation often seems to be that the struggle for Christian integrity and preaching leads us close to those who least tolerate some aspects of our preaching. (p.39)

Christian mission is not ‘talkative and confident activism’: rather it involves a contemplative reflection on the unfamiliar, and a reluctance to force language and behaviour into other Christian categories.

The premature and facile use of Christian interpretive categories in fact invites judgement of another kind. My title is deliberately ambiguous: the Church judges the world; but it also hears God’s judgement on itself in the judgement passed upon it by the world. (p. 39)

Christian language which does not allow the judgement of the world trivializes or evades aspects of the human and will fail to transform the world.

It is notoriously awkward about sexuality; it risks being unserious about death when it speaks too glibly and confidently about eternal life; it can disguise the abiding reality of unhealed and meaningless suffering. (p.39)

Williams does not believe himself to be ‘liberal’ by holding this view: rather, he argues, the church needs to earn the right to speak in the world before it will be heard (p.40).

One example of the disturbing scriptural reading he has been speaking of is the contemporary feminist agenda. In the radical interpretation of scriptural texts a ‘conversion’ is forced upon us as we see how our own words and stories may be sinful or violent in their telling.

Good doctrine teaches silence, watchfulness, and the expectation of the Spirit’s drastic appearance and judgement, recognition conversion, for us and for the whole world. (p.43)

The Discipline of Scripture (pp.44-59)

In this chapter Williams explores the role of the ‘literal sense’ of Scripture. When we are working out the role of the ‘literal sense’ we need to examine the relationship between ‘diachronic’ and ‘synchronic’ styles of reading.

As the etymology implies, a diachronic reading involves following through the dramatic time-line of the text. Whilst this may work out in a number of different ways, primarily it implies an awareness of the narrative context in the act of writing and a relationship between the world, the writer, and of his or her goals as they are enacted in the text (p.45).

A synchronic reading of the text involves finding signs in the material that may point either backwards or forwards or in some other form of interaction, rather like the way that the surface of the picture may show a number of different things going on.

Williams assumes that the ‘literal sense’ of which Thomas Aquinas speaks, is primarily concerned with the diachronic style of reading. However,

Thomas sketches an understanding of the literal that allows for plurality of genres within it; it is the failure to see and to develop this insight that has led to those narrow and sterile definitions of the literal sense against which recent hermeneutics has so sharply reacted. (p.48)

Here Williams is dependent upon his reading of James Barr’s book Fundamentalism (London 1977). Williams sees the job of modern hermeneutics as being an attempt to re-examine and restate the case for ‘the primacy of the literal’ (p.48).

It is in the form of dramatic reading that the literal sense will be best heard. The diachronic is the central element, but there is a relationship between the ‘movements, transactions and transformations of the texts’ which are similar to the reader’s own experience (p.50).

As an illustration, one thinks of the liturgy of Holy Week, which involves a thoroughly diachronic reading. The congregation takes on the succession of roles leading up to Good Friday. With a diachronic reading we assume a continuity between the time of the text and the effect that the text has in our current contemporary lives (p. 52).

The idea of a movement between two concrete situations, the location of the text and the location of the reader, depends on the mediation of a text which enacts the producing of a meaning in such a way that it is open to its own situation, its own production, and offers an analogical bridgehead to the world in which the reader experiences the production of meaning. It depends, that is to say, on a text that can be read diachronically in the first instance. (p.53)

‘Literal’ exegesis has ‘a particularly strong stake in the realities of conflict’ (p.53). This is most obvious in the relationship between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ covenant.

To read the New Testament with any understanding at all is to see it as in part an attempt to claim and re-order the existing texts and traditions of a community from which the producers of these new texts seek to distance themselves even as they seek to present themselves as its true heirs. (p.53)

The rewriting of the historical story is a retelling of the story, which implies that previous telling of the story is ‘unbalanced or inadequate’, and even the retelling has a sense of provisionality about it (p.55).

What I am suggesting here is that it is ‘diachronic’ reading of Scriptures that gives us the ‘interiority’ of the text, and that this interiority is not a point of hidden clarity and security but a complex of interwoven processes … Synchronic reading of whatever kind relies on that suspicion of ‘surface’ phenomena that can make interpretation a systematic exercise in losing or ignoring the object, seeking the ‘spirit’ through the absence of the ‘letter’. (p.55)

Diachronic reading is ‘the most attentive to the real plurality … in the material text and the material world’ (p.55).

The unity of Scripture has to do with how it becomes part of this articulation, how it establishes itself as a point of reference (a canon) for a community with a definite and perceptible historical unity. Its unifying themes are established according to what is understood as unifying the community. (p.56)

Word and Spirit (pp.107-27)

In this chapter Williams grapples with the mediatorial role of the Holy Spirit. If the ancient questions of Christology relate to coping with ‘tormenting questions of our age about the humanum’, pneumatology must avoid appearing either evasive or triumphalistic (p.108).

He argues that ‘Spirit-theologies’ can trivialize theological anthropology. The subject should be approached with caution. But it is equally wrong to separate Christology and pneumatology (p.109).

The key issue is: ‘God communicates or “interprets” himself to the world by the mediation of Word and Spirit … [Therefore] how is God heard or seen to be present to the human world?’ (p.110).

In order to do justice to the role God has fulfilled as ‘bridge builder’, there must be ‘space’ between the term ‘God’ and ‘the world’. The mediator must answer the question ‘How does God come down to this world?’ There must be an exploration of how ‘the lines run from the world to God through the mediator’ (p.110).

Obscure as this is, it does appear that we have to do with a basically binitarian structure, in which the eternal Son is strictly the same as the Holy Spirit, but the assumption of Jesus into the heavenly realm adds some kind of ‘third term’ to the divine council. (p.111)

Thus, the mediatorial role of the Spirit is to be between the Word (Logos) and the universe (p.112).

As a starting point, Williams takes Tertullian’s classic Trinitarian doctrine, arguing that he was struggling with the other Apologists to explain the bridging gap between God and creation. This Spirit is someone who would continue the Logos’ revealing activity (pp.115-6). So, what is the relationship between ‘God and his Logos’?

… if we conceive of the Spirit and the Word as illuminators, transmitters of saving knowledge, we are in danger of driving a wedge between the idea of ‘Spirit’ and the ‘spirituality’ of Christian people. If the Spirit simply instructs and guides, leads towards the Logos, it is less easy to talk about ‘Spirit’ as the constitutive reality or quality of Christian existence – Spirit as received in baptism, as invoked in liturgy, received and invoked not simply to instruct or inform but to transform. (p.116)

The role of the Spirit is communicative. This means our views of the Spirit are enhanced by ecstatic vision or noetic purity and weakened by ‘an impoverished and abstract concept’ (p.116).

Williams argues that Karl Barth (in Church Dogmatics I.1 and 2) was in danger of reducing Spirit to Word, where the Spirit is the subjective side to the objective events of revelation. For Barth the prime role of the Spirit is as the Spirit of adoption.

Barth was particularly concerned about the transcendence of God and spoke in terms of the impossibility of there being any immanent or worldly or human ground for the hearing of the Word: ‘subjective revelation’, the hearing of the Word by this or that person, occurs only on the basis of ‘objective revelation’, the truth that there is an eternal Word, and an eternal witness to that Word. (p.117)

The role of the Spirit was to make the Word present, argues Barth. We have no access to the transcendent God other than the work of the Spirit making God immanent through the Word. The Spirit does this work when he makes us realize our status in Christ through adoption.

Williams’s concern is that sin is reduced to ‘ignorance’ and salvation becomes a matter of ‘taking cognizance’ (p.118).

Pneumatology looks uncomfortably like an exercise designed simply to explain how we know what Christ does (granted that we do not know it simply by historical inspection or by subjective intuition): the Spirit is the seal of epistemological security…. (p.118)

What of the notion of ‘Spirit as “historicity”’? (p.118). Particularly in the Western tradition, the Spirit has been cast in ‘a Lukan mould’, namely, that the Spirit is here as the continuer of Christ’s work, filling the space he left at the ascension. Looking at John, however, we find that the Spirit is seen as more than mediator and continuator of Christ’s work. In chapters 14 to 16 the Paraclete is viewed as being active upon the disciples, moving them towards Father and Son (p.119). It is the Spirit who removes the distance between God and the world (p.120). He does this by recreating or translating the medium of human existence.

The logical outworking of the doctrines of ‘adoption’ and ‘union’, as seen in Barth, need to be worked out:

It is significant that the word Abba occurs on the lips of Jesus only in Gethsemane (Mk. 14:36): thus, to cry ‘Abba’ with Jesus in the Spirit is not only to put on Christ’s sonship but also to recognize that ‘This child, sinful man, can meet this Father, the holy God, as a child meets its father, only when the only-begotten Son of God has borne and borne away his sin’. (p.121, quotation from Dogmatics I.1, p.458)

For Williams, this adoptive language takes on a particular form, moving away from Barth. The identification with the Son is, in this world of violence, as a ‘crucified victim’ … ‘to speak of adoptive relation, then, is, in the light of the cross of Jesus, to accept the death of the distant and alien Father-God’ (p.121).

Thus, the term adoption refers to a ‘dimension of reality, not a solution or a promise of easy deliverance’ (p.122):

If the sonship of Jesus means the poverty and vulnerability of Jesus in the world, it is indeed both active and contemplative, both the taking of responsibility for one’s place in the world and refusal to intercept and enact this as coercive power. (p.122)

The relationship with pneumatology is that we need to see the connection with ‘the central Christological issues so as to bear more directly on the humanum…’ (p.122). The Spirit is more than communicator. The role he fulfils as ‘completer’ of Christ is not that it makes possible the hearing and reception of the Word. Rather, his is a gift of ‘liberation and transformation’ (p.123). The ‘bridge concept’ is best understood as covering the gap between suffering and hope: ‘by creating that form of human subjectivity capable of confronting suffering without illusion but also without despair’ (p.124).

It is ‘regressive’ to hold to spiritualities which restrict the Spirit’s work to ‘a mediatorial or an episodically inspirational role’ (p.126). The Spirit’s role needs to be rescued from religiosity and ‘set to work in the shadow of the contemporary crucifixions of God and the human’ (p.127).

Summary of key points

  • The theologian must act as a heretic to challenge the church’s desire for ‘a tidy version of its language’.
  • To be a theologian of integrity will involve declining to take God’s point of view on everything.
  • It will mean allowing our teaching to be subjected to the ‘judgement of the world’ and restoring the role of ‘public discourse’ – not in talkative activism, but in listening.
  • Harmonizing biblical exegesis and monothematic theologies reduce theology to a central point of judgement in the immediate context. Better is a view which works out theological meaning in the context of the modern community and the judgement of the world.
  • A truly diachronic reading of Scripture will use the ‘literal sense’ and be true to the ‘interiority’ of the text in relating the material of the text to the material world through unifying themes.
  • The Spirit acts in a mediatorial role between the Word and the universe. The bridge language is best understood as taking us into a dimension of reality and relationship which connects central Christological issues with the humanum.

Peter Jensen The Revelation of God6

This book addresses a key question: How can God be known? It is an age-old question. Traditionally the answer has been found through an understanding of the revelation of God, supremely in Scripture. In modern times this assertion has been vigorously challenged. Some have questioned the nature of the relationship between ‘the revelation of Scripture’ and ‘the revelation of Christ’. For others, there are more fundamental questions to be asked about whether God (assuming he exists) is able to communicate in a way that mortals can receive and apprehend with clarity.

This is of course a question of fundamental importance. We shall spend some time carefully examining what Dr Jensen has written.

Introduction (pp. 13-29)

We begin by considering the historical pathway which has been travelled to reach current thinking on the question of the revelation of God. In the eighteenth century, Enlightenment philosophy launched an attack on Christianity. This was not a challenge concerning the existence of God, which is inferred from natural theology, but the issues concerned the claim which Christianity asserts about the uniqueness of revelation (p.14).

Philosophers such as David Hume (1711 - 76) championed the triumph of human reason over revelation. Polytheism, he argued, is more likely to be true because God cannot intervene in laws of nature. Indeed, if he does exist, his powers would be limited – miracles are fundamentally impossible because they break the laws of nature (p.15). It was the Enlightenment that first made human reason the ‘canon of judgement’.

A shift was happening in theological assumptions. Emil Brunner typified this when he referred to ‘the fatal equation of revelation with the inspiration of the Scriptures’ (p.18). In the nineteenth century, Friedrich Schleiermacher espoused a theology which put reason and human experience at the centre. The focus of revelation was to be found in the human experience of God (p.19).

In the twentieth century, with Karl Barth as the dominant theologian, it was asserted that revelation is found in Jesus Christ, and the Scriptures witness to him (p.14). However, this was a conscious break with the view that revelation is to be identified with the words of the Bible. For example, the Catholic writer Dulles spoke of revelation as an event and not as the words of Bible, (p.20). Revelation is God’s self-giving. This is not an intellectual thing but relational (p.21). Revelation is in Jesus Christ as the contact with God, not the Bible (p.22).

The result of this shift in thinking is that the Bible is now most often thought of as a witness to the word of God (p.23). The Bible is no longer thought to be bound up with the character of God.

To these assertions some response needs to be made:

First, the mighty deeds of God include speech (e.g. Sinai). God’s deeds need words to interpret them, and the events retain their significance long after they have happened through the retelling of them – through words (p.25).

Secondly, Christianity is relational and relationships need words. This is most obviously true in human relationships. Without trustworthy language, faith and trust do not develop (pp.25-6).

Thirdly, ‘The Christ in whom we put our trust must be the scriptural Jesus and no other; there is a special quality in our verbal access to him that is indispensable in origin and significance’ (p.26).

The Gospel as Revelation (pp. 31-43)

Snodgrass stated: ‘Revelation does not bring the gospel: the gospel is revelation’.7 The gospel was not shaped by the religion or philosophy of the day, nor was it changed by it: rather the preachers proclaimed the message, calling upon the hearers' allegiance. For the gospel is the summons from God to human beings, to return to God (p.31-2).

1) The content and function of the gospel

The content of this gospel message involves an announcement of the kingdom. This refers to the Lordship of Jesus, as understood in his historic appearing (p.32). In the same way that the nature of New Testament preaching depended on the audience (p.35), the writing of the New Testament is for specific purposes which need to be understood. It was written in response to the readers’ anxieties about heresy or false teaching, for example.

The gospel includes verbal announcement, warning and exhortation to believe the gospel message – it is to be heard and heeded (p.36).

In short, so fundamental to the knowledge of God is the gospel that we may properly regard it as the type or paradigm of true revelation. (p.37)

2) The credibility of the gospel

First, the gospel presupposes that God can reveal himself (p.38). In other words, it is only through God revealing himself that God can be known. The Incarnation – through which God revealed himself as fully human and fully divine – is analogically matched in apostolic preaching, which was a combination of human energy and divine illumination (p.39).

Secondly, for the gospel to complete its revelation of God, it must be believed. It must be believed because Jesus is the Christ (p.40); because the apostles are reliable witnesses to Jesus (p.41); and because Jesus answers human problems of suffering, etc. (pp.41ff.)

It is true that human reason, or better, human experience, is fully engaged in its reception; it is not true that we can appeal to something higher than the word of God itself to provide its warrant. (p.42)

The Nature of the Gospel (pp.45-63)

A relationship with God is tied to the gospel of Jesus Christ (p.45). For, first, the gospel is a word from the God who speaks, creates, judges and saves.

The revelation is not the proper nouns ‘Jesus Christ’ but the proposition ‘Jesus is the Christ, the Lord’. The divine word comes to us in, and not apart from, the words of this gospel. (p.49)

Secondly, the gospel contains a warning of judgement to come on rebellious humanity. Jesus preaches judgement (p.50). The gospel itself is a rescue from judgement. Consequently the language of the gospel is eschatological (p.51). The past revelation of Christ as Saviour is also a pledge of his return as judge (p.52).

Thirdly, the gospel declares Jesus Christ as Lord through his death, resurrection and exaltation. For the first disciples, very practically, the Lord Christ demanded a higher allegiance than Caesar (p.53).

This gospel is not about us: it is always about Christ (p.54). In gospel preaching it must be the real Jesus Christ who is proclaimed: otherwise it is a different gospel (p.54, cf. Galatians 1:6-7).

The Jesus whom we preached is authenticated in three ways: by the things he said (p.55); by the things done to and through him (p.56); and by the things said about him. Only this Jesus is the content of the true gospel (p.57).

Fourthly, the gospel is a word of promise about God’s love and mercy , and his reconciliation and forgiveness (pp.58-9). The response to the gospel is a response to the promises God makes in Scripture. Faith in him is faith in the promises God makes through his word (pp.60-1).

Fifthly, the gospel demands repentance and faith in its hearers. The gospel does more than provide information; it provokes ‘a crisis of decision in its hearers’ (p.61). This is a call to relationship. The gospel must be kept pure, for ‘another Jesus’ cannot save. He saves and makes the Christian his slave. This language is offensive to the modern and post-modern mindset – for we love autonomy (p.63).

The Gospel and the Knowledge of God (pp.65-83)

The fruit of the gospel is knowledge which leads to a relationship. The human predicament is more than ignorance of God; humans ignore God too (pp.65-6). Sin, at heart, is rejecting his word (Gen. 3:1).

The truths on which we base our faith depend on God’s verbal self-disclosure. Trust needs truthful speech (John 17:17, 20-21). God has demonstrated himself to be trustworthy in his deeds: ‘then they will know I am God’, the Scripture affirms (pp.68-70). But God’s mighty deeds alone are not enough. Deeds need words for interpretation. God makes himself known by making promises and fulfilling them. Of course, Jesus is the fulfilment of all God’s promises (2 Cor. 1:20, pp.70-1).

Covenants

At the heart of God’s promises is the covenant. Some of the biblical promises are conditional, some are unconditional. We must take into account the promissory nature of the Bible, particularly in seeing how the Old Testament is fulfilled in the New (pp.80-2).

The relation between the person of Christ and the word about him is far more intimate than Brunner will allow, and authentic faith involves the capacity to trust and obey words, sentences and paragraphs. The issue is obviously significant, for the very nature of the Christian life itself is at stake. (p.83)

The Gospel as a Pattern of Revelation (pp.85-94)

There are certain fundamental assertions which the Scripture makes about the way God has revealed himself. First, the gospel of Jesus Christ is God’s primary revelation (p.85). The gospel is the measure of all revelation. Only through the gospel do we come to a saving knowledge of God (see Heb. 1:1-2, p.86).

Secondly, Christian revelation is basically verbal:

Propositional revelation has been attacked and the revelation of persons favoured; communion with the self-giving God is preferred to information from propositions. (p.87)

However, this objection creates a false dichotomy between personal and propositional knowledge. Moreover, the gospel is not just a witness to revelation (p.88). Hebrews 4:12-13 and John 15:7 indicate that we should behave towards the words of the Bible as we behave towards God.

Thirdly, revelation conveys both information and relationship.

Faith directed to an invisible Lord requires words it can trust implicitly; it cannot survive on words that may be true, or that contain the truth, or that witness to the truth, or that are true episodically. A faith directed towards promises (such as ‘I am with you’) must be able to trust them to the same degree as it trusts the one who makes the promises; at this point the promise and the promise-maker are indistinguishable. (p.91)

It must be stressed that knowledge of God includes information and the invitation to relationship.

Fourthly, Scripture is revelation. The Jesus Christ whom the gospel calls us to trust for our salvation is the same Jesus who fulfils the words of promise in the Scriptures (p.92).

The revelation is verbal; it announces the word of God, centred on Jesus Christ but multifaceted in its expression. It is coterminous with Scripture, and it functions to re-establish God’s rule by creating and nourishing faith. (p.93)

Revelation and Human Experience (pp.95-118)

A distinction needs to made between natural theology (the knowledge which can be attained through human reason) and general revelation (the universally accessible knowledge of God), (p.98). Furthermore, the relationship between general revelation and the gospel needs to be explored.

There are a number of things which the Bible says about the knowledge of God. Saving knowledge is a relationship which is a gift of God (p.96). It is thwarted by sin (p.96). Such knowledge is finally and exclusively found in the gospel (p.97). In a way analogous to the Incarnation, the knowledge of God does not bypass human faculties: rather it is to be found through human reason, but not to be identified with it (p.97).

One of the main objections to natural theology is that in order for human reason to be capable of discerning the truth by natural theology, the effect of the fall on the image of God in humankind is held not to involve the corruption of the mind. (p.102)

General revelation acknowledges human suppression of the truth which natural theology does not (p.105). Some have so pressed the uniqueness of the revelation of Christ to the extent that all other revelation is denied (which was the error of Karl Barth).

All religious knowledge of God, wherever existing, comes by revelation; otherwise we should be committed to the incredible position that man can know God without his willingness to be known (H. R. Mackintosh). (p.107)

Human experience should be interpreted through the gospel.

… when the gospel is preached it is appropriate to point to the ways in which, when accepted, it makes sense of our experience in the world. Experience intimates, the gospel enlightens; the gospel interprets, experience confirms. (p.108)

The human problem is not lack of knowledge, but lack of acknowledgement. Humans know God but fail to acknowledge him (p.112). General revelation points beyond itself.

At most, the general revelation of God, touching us in various ways through human experience, serves to trigger a receptiveness to the gospel, which God may use to call us to himself. (p.117)

The Gospel and Religious Experience (pp.119-44)

Since the Enlightenment, experiential Christianity has been placed over cognitional Christianity, but this is a false dichotomy. Christian experience has an empirical tone, although it cannot be verified in the same way as, say, the existence of black swans. Feeling is part of knowing (pp.123f.).

The modern trend is to dismiss all religious experience – psychologically, socially, and culturally (pp.128f.). But human experience needs to be judged by the gospel: ‘Experience is shaped and tested by the Word, not the reverse’ (p.131).

Christians do not hold to a deism, but they believe in a sovereign God’s rule over the world (Heb. 1:3). For example, in conversion, there may be identifiable human factors which have led to conversion, but conversion itself is the sovereign work of God (p.137).

Experience is essential. To take a further example, Christian assurance is to be encouraged and found in human experience of the gospel. This may include General Revelation, or, what Peter Berger calls ‘Signals of transcendence’, (p.140).

The judging of our experience comes through a right Christology. Because Christ is the only means of salvation, human religion is condemned (p.140). The religions of the world are viewed as the invention of the sinful heart, not as something to be commended (Acts 4:12; 2 Cor. 3:6; Heb. 8:13).

Christianity, therefore, appeals to the Christ of history as judge of experience.

God does reveal himself in human experience, but it is only through his word that we may truly apprehend his revelation. (p.144)

The Authority of Scripture (pp.145-78)

Modern culture is inherently sceptical of authority. It is assumed that ‘Man’ is sovereign. Liberal education means the free exchange of ideas without censorship (p.146), but it has developed a society where individualism is prized, and where there is a tendency to make the subjective life of the individual the master and measure of truth. (pp.146-7)

One practical outworking of this is in the subjectivism of modern approaches to literature. It is assumed that the reader is the author (p.147).

This contrasts with the Christian view of the Lord’s rule over his people through covenant (p.150). The Lord of the covenant has absolute authority, mediated through the Bible (p.158). His authority is exercised via a linguistic entity – the Word of God.

The Bible is neither a textbook about God, nor is it a witness to God: rather it comes as the personal authority of the Lord of the covenant, for God is its author (2 Peter 1:19-21, p.157).

The Bible is inspired but not dictated (p.158). ‘His still small voice’ is God’s approach via a gracious word (1 Kings 19:12, p.163). The Bible is not to be worshipped (bibliolatry), for there is a clear distinction between God and the Bible. However, at the same time, you cannot say: ‘I did not believe your words, because they were not you!’ (p.165).

These foundational principles need to be appreciated in a discussion about Scripture and tradition. Scripture is above man-made tradition (Mark 7:8, p.167). Some traditions are identified as the Word of God (p.168), for example 1 Corinthians 15:3ff. Tradition allows the testing of ‘new’ interpretations of Scripture (p.170).

The Nature of Scripture (pp. 179-204)

The Lord rules us by his covenantal word. We should expect unity in the Scriptures because God is consistent. We should expect truthfulness in the Scriptures because God cannot lie (p.179).

The Bible contains texts written and assembled by human hands (p.181). The Bible has a divine origin; thus failure to be humble before Scripture is culpable. The Bible is a book of promise and fulfilment (2 Kings 24:44; 2 Cor. 1:20).

Faith is indispensable in all relationships, especially when we relate to one another on the basis of promises … Furthermore, the inability to trust the words of another corrupts a relationship … The opposite of faith is not certainty, but doubt (cf. James 1:51). (p.197)

There exists a heated debate over the terms Infallibility and Inerrancy. However, we must remember that divine condescension does not have to mean error in Scripture (p.198). The creator God has shown himself as willing to, and able to, communicate to human beings without compromising his deity.

The following points need to be borne in mind:

1) Autographs, that is, the originally written manuscript, not copies or translations, are inspired (p.200).

2) Genre must be considered in scriptural interpretation (p.201).

3) Scriptural writers employ approximation, hyperbole, metaphor, etc.

4) History is selective and not the whole story.

5) Not all problems can be explained (p.202).

The Bible has always been out of step with the culture. At the original time of writing, the authors were contending with similar challenges to the modern questions about God’s revelation.

On Reading Scripture (pp. 205-30)

In reading Scripture we must remember, first, that promises and covenants are at the heart of the Bible (p.207). Secondly, we should realize that the promises challenge the critic to act. Therefore ‘all critics need to be servants of what they read’ (p.207).

Reading Scripture involves discerning the actual nature of what is being read (p.209). This means understanding the type of language involved. It involves appreciating the relationships which are implied with the author (note the etymological link between author and authority). The Bible is authoritive because of who the author is (p.212).

This is the spiritual point of the doctrine of inerrancy. This book is to be read as the truth and trustworthy. Proper reading demands a humble attitude. (p.213)

The Bible reads us as well as we read the Bible.

This aspect of the reading of Scripture should grapple with the meaning of texts, appreciating that the author is purposeful in his writing (p.217). This is under serious challenge today: the modern reader has replaced the role of the writer. But the authority of the text of Scripture stands in confrontation with the autonomy of the reader (p.219).

Thirdly, in reading Scripture we should be aware of the claims of unity which the scripture makes. ‘The Bible is a series of stories that constitute a central story’ (p.223). The source of the unity of Scripture is the divine authority of the author of Scripture (p.224).

In reading the Bible, our flight from the author is an example of our general flight from God, as when Adam and Eve hid from him in the garden. The gospel shows that we are fooling ourselves into thinking that freedom may lie in such flight. This applies fundamentally to God, but our unwillingness to accept the authority of the human author also leads to the corruption of relationships at all levels. Cynicism and love cannot co-exist; where words fail, love fails too. (pp.228f.)

Because God uses trustworthy words to make relationships, this gives renewed hope for human language (p.229).

The Gospel and the Spirit (pp.231-7)

Immanuel Kant had no place for a theology of the miraculous. For example, he believed that the only value in prayer is to strengthen our resolve to live differently (pp.232-3).

However, this has not been the view of Reformed theologians. The inspiration of Scripture and inner illumination of the Spirit are linked, especially in the theology of John Calvin (p.233). Thus, the revelation of God and the inner work of the Spirit are linked. But Schleiermacher and others deny the revelation of God through Scripture (p.235).

John Macquarrie comments that the modern trend is to free the Spirit’s ministry from the written word. The moment of revelation may be found in community, in event, in history, in culture or in experience, not in the Word (p.236).

However, the connection between Word and Spirit is essential. In the Old Testament, the Spirit’s work is mainly seen in power, presence and gifted persons (p.238). As the Lord’s Spirit, an encounter with God is an encounter with a person. It is focused on the Son, and thus, an encounter with him must be gospel-centred, for it is only through the gospel that we are told who he is and how we should approach him (pp.242-3).

Humanity is unable to grasp the gospel without the Spirit’s revealing (pp.249-50). But the inner work of the Spirit is not a second source of revelation alongside Scripture: rather the Spirit illumines the gospel (p.252).

Word and Spirit belong irrevocably together; but the function of the Spirit, having inspired the normative revelation, is to illumine the gospel so that we may see Christ, not to add fresh revelations. (p.253)

It is essential that we read the text well. But through the work of the Spirit, the Bible will read us (p.253). It is the Spirit who illumines the ancient text for the modern reader.

Contemporary Revelation (pp. 257-79)

Some contemporary evangelicals (Joyce Huggett, David Watson, Wayne Grudem) have emphasized ‘the still small voice’ as the need to listen to God speaking now.

The Scriptures themselves affirm that the living God is a speaking God (p.260). The Bible provides framework and direction for life. The gospel is the ‘clearest and fullest revelation’ (pp.263-4).

Whilst God is able to act in whatever way he pleases (through healings, glossolalia and other miracles), special revelation is only through Word and Spirit. Other ‘revelations’ should be classed as ‘general revelation’ (p.273).

The challenge for today is to recognize these fundamental, and previously assumed, issues concerning God’s revelation. The modern church has abandoned the Word as the focus of revelation (p.274). The Word is unchanging because human nature and human needs remain the same (p.278). The role of hermeneutics is to span the bridge between what the Scriptures meant and what they mean.

Disbelief in the message of salvation arises not from science, history or reason, but from spiritual distaste caused by the philosophy of autonomy. (p.279)

The main role of hermeneutics is to compare scripture with scripture. We do not make the Bible relevant: rather, we should serve the text and show its relevance (p.279).

Summary of key points

  • The revelation of God is inextricably tied up with God’s self-disclosure in the Bible through words and language.
  • The fundamental revelation is the gospel, which affirms the uniqueness of Jesus’ person and work.
  • The Bible is full of promises which God fulfils. He is the paradigm for how language is to be used and trusted.
  • Through the Bible we may interpret and understand human experience.
  • God approaches us through his word and rules us by his covenant word. The Bible reads us.
  • New interpretations of Scripture need to be tested against Scripture itself, but also by using tradition, to see whether such interpretations are defensible.
  • Understanding the connection between Word and Spirit is essential. The Spirit is not a second source of revelation alongside Scripture: rather, through the Spirit, the ancient text of Scripture is illuminated for the modern reader.

Key Concerns Arising From Rowan Williams’s theology

1. A scepticism over God’s ability to reveal himself through language

There is a certain irony in Dr Williams’s distrust of language as the means of revelation – after all, he uses words, phrases, sentences and structural language to write this book (On Christian Theology) – and presumably assumes that the reader will understand what the author has written.

Critical theology [has] the sense of a language trying unsuccessfully to keep up with a datum that is in excess of foresight. (p.xv)

To this extent language is apophatic; an acknowledgement of the inadequacy of language and symbol to picture God. (p.11)

The difficulty with sustaining this position is that God has chosen language to communicate and, equally clearly, God has forbidden images. Idolatry is forbidden because God is to be heard, not seen. Through language God brought the world into being (Gen. 1:1ff.).

Furthermore, God communicates fully and supremely in the Son, the Divine Logos (although not in the impersonal Greek view which seems to be present on pp.115-16). God became man and – in the language of John – unveiled himself as the speaking God (John 1:14, 18). The way we hear his voice now is by trusting the testimony of those who were eyewitnesses (John 20:30-31).

2. A radically different view of the doctrine of revelation

Religious and theological integrity is possible as and when discourse about God declines the attempt to take God’s point of view (i.e. a ‘total perspective’). (p.6)

Apparently, religious integrity in theological communication is only possible if God is not taken as the determiner of all our understanding! This argument appears to be denial of the absolute necessity of God’s self-disclosure in order to understand, not only God, but ourselves too.8

Williams states ‘… it is rooted in the conviction that God is to be sought and listened for in all occasions’. At one level this is true but, more fundamentally, the Scriptures teach that God is the seeker and we are running away from him, until by Word and Spirit he arrests us!

John Stott has championed the term ‘double listening’:

I believe we are called to the difficult and even painful task of ‘double listening’. That is, we are to listen carefully (although of course with differing degrees of respect) both to the ancient Word and to the modern world, in order to relate the one to the other with a combination of fidelity and sensitivity … It is my firm conviction that, only if we can develop our capacity for double listening, will we avoid the opposite pitfalls of unfaithfulness and irrelevance, and be able to speak God’s Word to God’s world with effectiveness today.9

I compare this statement of John Stott with these two quotes from Dr Williams:

The premature and facile use of Christian interpretive categories in fact invites judgement of another kind. My title is deliberately ambiguous: the Church judges the world; but it also hears God’s judgement on itself in the judgement passed upon it by the world. (p. 39)

The unity of Scripture has to do with how it becomes part of this articulation, how it establishes itself as a point of reference (a canon) for a community with a definite and perceptible historical unity. Its unifying themes are established according to what is understood as unifying the community. (p.56)

These comments seem to me to be very different from ‘double listening’. Rather, according to Williams, the modern community defines the meaning of the text by bringing new insights and challenges. The reader, indeed, becomes the author.

One practical example of how this theological position works out is to be found in Dr Williams’s view on homosexuality. During the weekend of his confirmation as Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Williams made it very clear in television and radio interviews that he would adhere to the mind of the church on the issue of homosexuality and not ordain practising homosexuals.10 As Archbishop of Canterbury he will follow the church’s position on homosexuality, but at the same time he will work to change the mind of the church. For, if the modern community espouses a different view, then he will be pleased if this coincides with his own view. The issue for Williams is not just that the modern church has seen insights into the text which previous generations had overlooked. Rather the issue is that the modern reader is able to bridge the gap between the ancient community and our own and come up with interpretations of the text which were unanticipated by the author.

3. A misunderstanding of the role of Word and Spirit

Obscure as this is, it does appear that we have to do with a basically binitarian structure, in which the eternal Son is strictly the same as the Holy Spirit, but the assumption of Jesus into the heavenly realm adds some kind of ‘third term’ to the divine council. (p.111)

This quote seems to get dangerously close to the ancient error of Modalism. The Spirit’s role is to help bridge the gap between God and man.

Karl Barth argued that the role of the Spirit was to make the Word present. We have no access to the transcendent God other than the work of the Spirit making God immanent through the Word. The Spirit does this work when he makes us realize our status in Christ through adoption.

This was the strength of Barth’s theology – God’s transcendence and a high view of the doctrine of special revelation. From Barth’s strong emphasis on adoption, Williams formulates a view of the Holy Spirit as follows:

The identification with the Son is, in this world of violence, as a ‘crucified victim’ … to speak of adoptive relation, then, is, in the light of the cross of Jesus, to accept the death of the distant and alien rather-God. (p.121)

The key focus of the gospel, it seems, is not the atonement, but rather Jesus’ identification with us as the victim. Theology is weakened by ‘impoverished and abstract concepts’ and enhanced by ‘ecstatic vision or noetic purity’.

However, the Scriptures seem rather clearer about the Spirit’s role. He inspired the Word of the Scriptures to be written and continues to illuminate their meaning. In order for this to happen, we must sit humbly under their authority: not over their authority, either in personal judgement, or in submitting them to the judgement of the world.

4. An unscriptural approach to the issue of propositional and personal revelation

Dr Williams seems to argue that revelation is not primarily propositional in its nature. And, that God has made himself immanent through the experience of modern community as it resonates with the experience of the ancient community.

However, Scripture seems to assume that God is both able to, and wants to, reveal himself as a Person, and he does this through propositional language. In the same way that human friendship grows through trustworthy language, so a relationship with God is dependent upon trustworthy language.

The following quote is taken from Dr J.I. Packer’s classic book God Has Spoken:11

To deny that revelation is propositional in order to emphasize its personal character is like trying to safeguard the truth that cricket is played with a bat by denying that it is played with a ball. The denial undercuts the assertion. To say that revelation is non-propositional is actually to depersonalise it. As Dr F.I. Anderson says: ‘To belittle propositions because they are impersonal is to destroy human relations by despising the normal medium. The bliss of being loved is different from the words of love-making, but the “proposition”, “I love you”, is a welcome, nay, indispensable means to the consummation of love in actuality. But in modern theology we have a Lover-God who makes no declarations!’12

To claim that men may know God without God actually speaking to them in words is really to deny that God is personal, or at any rate that knowing him is a truly personal relationship.

The God of the Bible is a speaking God, who speaks in order to reveal himself and in order to make friends with the creatures he has made.

Concluding thoughts

I am appreciative of the breadth of research and reading which I have found in Dr Williams’s books. Moreover, I also value his concern to apply Scripture through the discipline of diachronic reading. The warm welcome he has received in the popular press is an indication of his desire to communicate theology in a contemporary and relevant manner. There is some irony here, though, for he is far from easy to read or understand. In some instances, because his approach to language is very different, he seems to obfuscate simple concepts, and thus is of little value to the average reader.

However, my understanding of his theological method, and his approach to hermeneutics, give me cause for much concern. Classic hermeneutical questions relate to two fundamental issues. First, how did God communicate to the original audience who were responsible for recording the revelation of God for our benefit? Did they record the words of God? Secondly, what is our role as Bible readers in the modern world? How do we relate to this understanding in such a way that we can show that meaning for today?

It seems to me that the way in which Dr Williams answers these fundamental questions about the revelation of God are very important. It is my own view that his conclusions are often out of step with historic methods of biblical interpretation, and his hermeneutics enable him to arrive at conclusions in many areas of Christian theology which are alien to the original meaning of the text.

Clearly the theological issues raised by Dr Rowan Williams are a matter of grave concern for evangelicals. There may well be a place for political action in response to this theology. However, it is also important that we remember the New Testament pattern for dealing with error in the church. These are days when Christian leaders will have to be prepared to contend for the faith (Jude 3), and they must also be prepared to suffer for the gospel’s sake. This should not come as a surprise to us, for the equation of 2 Timothy 3:12 is clear, although the modern western church has largely lost sight of this truth.

In conclusion, we look to the pastoral epistles as a model of how such disputations should be undertaken:

2 Timothy 2:24-26

And the Lord's servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.

The church leader should not be quarrelsome and argumentative. Rather he should teach with patience and correct gently. Such work must happen even if the results of the teaching are not always heeded, as the last chapter of 2 Timothy makes clear:

2 Timothy 4:1-5

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.

The church leader should engage in reproof, rebuke and exhortation with the Word of God. But this should be undertaken with longsuffering and prayer, and a realization that the message will often not be heard.

The Revd Dr Simon Vibert is vicar of St Luke’s, Wimbledon Park, London.

Notes

1 The House of Bishops document, Issues in Human Sexuality (London: Church House Publishing, 1991).

2 Rowan Williams, On Christian Theology (London: Blackwell Publishing, 2000).

3 Rowan Williams, Open to Judgement (London: Darton, Longman & Todd 2002).

4 Rowan Williams is reported to have used this argument, which is very similar to that used by the late Michael Vasey, namely, that the modern Gay scene is unanticipated by the Bible. See Conduct Which Honours God?, Orthos 14, for my own response to this argument.

5 A fuller summary of Dr Williams’s writing has been published by Dr Garry Williams (no relation) in his booklet The Theology of Rowan Williams (Latimer Studies 55, 2002). This present booklet is not an attempt to be exhaustive and readers may find it helpful to read Garry Williams’s booklet for a more complete synopsis and reaction to Rowan Williams’s theology.

6 Peter Jensen, The Revelation of God (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2002).

7 Kyle Snodgrass, Gospel in Paul, eds. L.A.Jervis & P. Richardson (Sheffield Academic Press, 1994), p.314.

8 This was most eloquently expounded in John Calvin, The Institutes of Christian Religion, (tr. Battles, F.L., London: SCM Press, 1961) where the doctrine of the knowledge of God leads to a knowledge of self, and God is known through his self-revelation alone.

9 John Stott, The Contemporary Christian (Leicester: IVP,1992), p.13.

10 The official document by the House of Bishops is entitled Issues in Human Sexuality (CHP, 1991).

11 J.I. Packer, God has Spoken (Hodder and Stoughton: London, 1979) pp.52-3.

12 F.I. Anderson, Westminster Theological Journal, May 1960 (XXII, ii), pp.127f.

The Revd Dr Simon Vibert is Vicar of St. Luke's, Wimbledon Park, London and chairman of Fellowship of Word and Spirit. The full text of this booklet made be ordered from The Fellowship of Word and Spirit, c/o 86 All Hallows Road, Bispham, Blackpool, FY2 OAY