Quote Of The Day: Rowan Williams

“Trinitarian theology, in so far as it is concerned with what ‘kind’ of God Christians worship, is far from being a luxury indulged in solely by remote and ineffectual dons; it is of cardinal importance for spirituality and liturgy, for ethics, for the whole of Christian self-understanding”
Rowan Williams, p. 142

Saint Augustine: much maligned, little understood


Augustine grappled with some big questions. Following on from my last post, what follows isn’t an attempt to defend Augustine, but to understand and explore his continuing relevance as I reflect on the small amount of his writings that I have been able to engage with recently…

open quotesgrace heals us so that we have the freedom to choose rightclose quotes

Augustine’s theology of grace demands a different reading of what it means for the Christian to have freedom of action. There is a danger that, if we accept Augustine’s diagnosis of our weak human state, we become virtual puppets of God.1 Just as the sinner has no option but to sin – does not have the ‘freedom’ of manoeuvre to avoid it – does the Christian therefore have no option but to be saved? According to Rist, Augustine would respond to such a charge by arguing that grace restores, rather than takes away, free will.2 “Our delusion,” explains Rist, is that “to do ‘as we like’ is freedom.”3 However, even our free will must be restored so that it unconquerably desires the good. The function of grace, therefore, “is not to drag us, kicking and screaming, to salvation,”4 but rather to heal us so that we have the freedom to choose right. Augustine describes this in another way as God’s love breaking into our predicament with “sweet violence.”5 If Pelagius’ views freedom as the means by which humans attain their salvation, for Augustine “it is the issue, not the source, of salvation.”6

open quoteseven our free will must be restored so that it unconquerably desires the goodclose quotes

To speak in an Augustinian register about the love of God working with our free will is to use the imagery of the elect Christian as a wounded man being helped to cross a road that he wants, but is unable, to cross, unaided.7 Of course, this ‘external’ support for the morally corrupt is really internal support, and a moral cripple requires not just the healing of a limb but the restoring of the whole personality. This journey of healing is one in which the baptised Christian must “remain an invalid,” living life in a “precarious convalescence in the ‘Inn’ of the Church”8 until, in the distant future, his body is transformed.

By the 390s it is clear that Augustine’s emphasis is more and more on the darkness of human experience and that the journey to Christ-likeness would never be complete until the Christian enters peace in the ‘City of God’. The life of the Christian would always have, according to Augustine, “a streak of ugliness that seems to endure no matter how well we learn to control our speech and actions.”9 It is at this point that Augustine’s doctrine of grace seems to me to not only be morose but does not offer a sufficiently robust doctrine of sanctification in the present and seems to ignore the opportunity to know God’s (albeit partial) healing now for the human psyche. It seems that Augustine’s doctrine leaves little room for each human being, whilst corrupted by sin, to also reflect and bear the image of their maker.

open quotesGod’s love breaking into our predicament with “sweet violence.”close quotes

Such an emphasis on the struggle of the Christian life opened Augustine to significant criticism. If one still finds incoherence in Augustine’s understanding of the relationship between grace and freedom establishing, rather than violating, free will, then they “inherit the misgivings of Julian of Eclanum”10 who argued that for the sinner to have no choice but to sin was to absolve the sinner of responsibility for their actions (sine reatu). Likewise, for the saint to pursue good and so possess glory “without the bother of holiness (sine cura sanctitatis)”11 seemed equally against the grain. Room needed to be left in the human experience for human responsibility towards God and especially for the special exertions of a religious life.12 In what is sometimes somewhat misleadingly seen as a ‘semi-Pelagian’ modification of Augustine, it was proposed that God began the life of grace, but that “virtue under grace no longer expresses human self-determination.”13

Williams is unrepentant in arguing that Augustine, with his insistence on the need for conversion, is closer to the heart of the gospel than the Pelagian overstatement of humanity’s unaided spiritual resources for personal salvation. The positivist Pelagian view sees “no schism in the heart and so no need for healing and reconciliation.”14 An Augustinian picture, however, depicts “the world as unclear and the human spirit as confused and imprisoned in fantasies,”15 in which the need for reconciliation “is a basic human datum.”16

open quoteswhen God pulls taught the slack thread of desire, binding it to himself, the muddled and painful litter of experience is gathered together and given directionclose quotes

What’s increasingly clear to me, is that Augustine’s thinking gives us a clear framework, perhaps more than any of other early Christian writer, in which to understand how the complex web of human experience is subsumed by the grace of God, presenting the action of God present in the Christian in spite of mixed motives, continuing sin, confusion and doubt. To adopt the imagery of Williams, a human life is given unity and intelligibility not from within but from outside: “when God pulls taught the slack thread of desire, binding it to himself, the muddled and painful litter of experience is gathered together and given direction.”17 Augustine’s legacy was in understanding that a graced life could include within it a life of moral struggle and spiritual darkness. Augustine was able to accept the radically conditioned state of human behaviour and integrate this reality with the grace of God at work to mend the wounds in human experience. God was looking, according to Augustine, not for heroes but for lovers, “not for moral athletes but for men and women aware of their need for acceptance, ready to find their selfhood in the longing for communion with an eternal ‘other’.”18

Through the development of his theology of grace, Augustine displayed the Pelagian optimism for human agency to be “based upon a transparently inadequate view of the complexity of human motivation.”19 It is clear that Augustine’s doctrine of grace shall continue to stand as a problematic yet clearly articulated “defence of Christian mediocrity.”20

  1. The analogy here is taken from Rist, J., M. (1997), Augustine: Ancient Thought Baptised, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 133–4  ↩

  2. See Letter 157.2.10 in Rist (1997), p. 133–4  ↩

  3. Rist (1997), p. 133–4  ↩

  4. Rist (1997), p. 134  ↩

  5. See Serm. 131.2 cited in Williams, R., (1979) The Wound of Knowledge: Christian Spirituality from the New Testament to St John of the Cross, (London: Darton, Longman & Todd), p. 82–3  ↩

  6. Williams (1979), p. 82–3  ↩

  7. Rist (1997), p. 133–4  ↩

  8. Brown, P. (1967), Augustine of Hippo, (London: Faber & Faber), p. 365  ↩

  9. Kent in Stump, E., and Kretzmann, N. (Eds.) (2001), The Cambridge Companion to Augustine, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 224  ↩

  10. Wetzel, J. (1992), Augustine and the Limits of Virtue, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 197  ↩

  11. Wetzel (1992), p. 197  ↩

  12. Markus, R. (1991), The End of Ancient Christianity, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 63  ↩

  13. Wetzel (1992), p. 163–4  ↩

  14. Williams (1979), p. 87  ↩

  15. Williams (1979), p. 87  ↩

  16. Williams (1979), p. 87  ↩

  17. Williams (1979), p. 81–2  ↩

  18. Williams (1979), p. 86  ↩

  19. Brown (1967), p. 371  ↩

  20. Markus (1991), p. 45  ↩

Rowan Williams on God


God is first and foremost that depth around all things and beyond all things into which, when I pray, I try to sink. But God is also the activity that comes to me out of that depth, tells me I’m loved, that opens up a future for me, that offers transformations I can’t imagine. Very much a mystery but also very much a presence. Very much a person…

Have just returned from a stunningly relaxing week in Pembrokeshire. I read ‘Rowan’s Rule’ whilst away which I found to be a fascinating read. Completely by chance, we even bumped into Rowan whilst visiting St Davids Cathedral and had the opportunity hear him read some of his poetry and preach at evensong.

I am impressed by Rowan – at times it does seem as if he is an academic square peg in a political / media round hole but he is serving God as honestly and faithfully as he knows how. He’s made plenty of (big) mistakes, especially in understanding how the media will report what he says, but I think he’s a good bloke 🙂

Rowan’s New Year Message

Thanks to Peter Ould I’ve been enjoying Rowan Williams’ New Year Message.
His message is particularly poignant in our local community, with Oasis Academy Brightstowe having opened this year and doing a really good job at transforming the lives of our local children. I love the story of St Lawrence he quotes:

Lawrence was a Christian minister in Rome in the days when you could be arrested and executed for being a Christian 1900 years ago. When he was arrested he was told to collect all the treasures of the church to be given up to the courts. He got together all the homeless, the orphans, and the hungry that the church looked after in the city, and presented them to his judges saying ‘These are the church’s treasures’….

Reflecting on this story he says:

What would our life really be like if we really believed that our wealth, our treasure, was our fellow human beings? Religious faith points to a God who takes most seriously, and values most extravagantly, the people who often look least productive and successful. As if none of us could really be seen as ‘doing well’ if these people were secure… One of the most damning things you could say about any society is that it’s failing its children.

His reflections on advent weren’t bad either.

Rowan Williams on the Incarnation


… it means that he understands exactly what we are and what we suffer and why we struggle; but he is never overwhelmed because there is no obstacle in him to the action of God at every moment. What he’s doing is what God’s doing.

Rowan Williams, Easter 1995, in ‘Rowan Williams: An Introduction‘, by Rupert Shortt.

Stumbled across this whilst thinking about the Council of Nicaea. I love what Rowan Williams is expressing here – there was no obstacle in Jesus to the action of God. There are so many obstacles in my life to the action of God in every moment – more of Jesus, less of me!

Rethinking The Council of Nicaea (325)


The Council of Nicaea, and the Arian controversy with which it dealt, remains “a landmark in the development of classical Christology.”1 Its reception, and the process that led up to its development, is a far more convoluted process than the classical portrayal of the victory of Athanasian ‘orthodoxy’ over ‘Arian heresy’. Many of its conclusions were far from wholeheartedly embraced by many for much of the rest of the fourth-century, and a millennia and a bit later, elements of Arianism still exist in the thinking of groups like the Unitarians and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Notwithstanding this, its conclusions and the process by which it arrived at them, lay important foundations not only for Christology but also for the life and practice of the Church and its key thinkers. The controversy of Nicaea revolved around the person of Arius. His fundamental premise was the “absolute uniqueness and transcendence of God, the unoriginate source of all reality.”2 God is the only one who is selfsubsistent; nothing exists which does not ultimately derive from God. Arius’ logic led him to the conclusion that the Father must have existed before the Son. Hence the familiar slogan ‘There was when He was not’.3 This statement clearly places Father and Son on different levels; Father as unoriginate, Son as a creature deriving from the Father. Arius was keen to emphasise the Son’s uniqueness to the rest of creation, but does so with some difficulty: The Son, he argued, is “a perfect creature, yet not as one among other creatures; a begotten being, yet not as one among other begotten beings.”4 To refer to the ‘Son’, according to Arius, was “an honorific, rather than a theologically precise way of speaking”5 because of the controlling principle of a God who is totally different in essence from his creation – including, of course, the Son. Equally, to speak of the Son as ‘God’ was also a courtesy title, a designation “by participation in grace”6 We can therefore tentatively conclude, based on incomplete source material, that the status of the Son was seen by Arius as a consequence not of the nature of the Son, but of the will of the Father.7

We must be aware of the danger of concluding, however, that the controversy surrounding Arius concerned the ‘divinity’ of Christ. At issue until the very last decades of the crisis was “the very flexibility with which the term ‘God’ could be deployed.”8 Ayres points out that many fourth-century theologians would distinguish the terms ‘God’ and ‘true God’, making any a priori agreement about the meaning of, and ‘grammar’ for talking about, God very difficult.9 Aside from the language of the divine, the question of the generation and ontological status of the Son or Word does have “immediate repercussions for how one understands incarnation and redemption.”10 One must question whether a generated and inferior Son can act salvifically to effect closeness to the Father in any meaningful way. If Jesus was lower than the Father then he couldn’t possibly fully know and understand the Father: God was again ‘unknown’ and ‘unrevealed’. A key thinker in the development of this line of thought can be identified in the figure of Athanasius of Alexandria.

Athanasius is often credit to be the “rock from which Nicene orthodoxy was hewn.”11 Whilst present at the council as a young deacon accompanying his bishop, Alexander, we do not see any “sustained public refutation of Arianism until the early 340s with his Orations against the Arians.”12 For Athanasius, the established liturgical customs of baptising in Jesus’ name and of addressing prayers to the Son made nonsense of Arius’ description of the Son’s lower status to the Father if he was worshiped both in the New Testament and liturgical tradition.13 Christians were not wrong to worship Jesus – but in doing so they were recognising him as God incarnate, as the worship of any creature was forbidden.14 Most importantly, Athanasius emphasised that it is only God who can save, and so the redemptive work of Christ was undermined by Arius’ views. Only the creator can redeem creation,15 since only a divine Mediator could re-establish fellowship with God. If creatures cannot redeem other creatures, and according to Arius Jesus is a creature, then Jesus Christ cannot redeem humanity – salvation requires divine intervention.

It would seems then, that the council “had a more limited objective than is sometimes supposed.”16 Through the process of outlawing Arianism, the council was able to affirm both the Son’s full divinity and equality with the Father. Whilst debates on the issue would continue well beyond Nicaea, we can consider this council to be the place where Jesus was first officially to be considered ontologically identical the Father, which dealt “a mortal blow to subordinationism.”17 This was, perhaps, Nicaea’s main achievement. The degree of Christological consensus achieved did enable the development of doctrine concerning the relationship of the Trinity. In the aftermath of the debates between Arius and Alexander at the council on the relationship between Father and Son, the council adverted to the Holy Spirit in what seemed “like a mere afterthought”18 in the short addendum ‘And we believe in the Holy Spirit’. This clause would need to be developed further, especially through the writings of Athanasius and Basil of Caesarea, and in 381 at Constantinople.

It’s pretty clear that the creed produced at Nicaea did not “end the Arian crisis – it confirmed its existence.”19 Through its condemnation of Arius and its positive formulation of the faith, it “opened the way for the solution of questions that were still open.”20 Through the confrontation at Nicaea, Arius had “stirred an intellectually careless Church into a ferment of conceptual reconstruction.”21

Some blogs about Nicaea

For more on Alexander’s dealings with Arius head over to Notes from a Small Scotsman.
43beliefs.wordpress.com also gives an account of the crisis that’s worth a read, as is as midanglican.com.

Books worth a read…

  • Ayres, L., (2006) Nicaea and its Legacy, (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
  • Bray, G., (1997) Creeds, Councils and Christ, (Ross-shire: Christian Focus / Mentor)
  • Cassidy, A., and Norris, F., W., (Eds.), (2007) Cambridge History of Christianity: Constantine to c. 600, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) – Norris, F., Greek Christianities, pp. 70 – 117 – Anatolios, K., Discourse on the Trinity, pp. 431 – 459
  • Chadwick, H., (2003) The Church in Ancient Society, (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
  • Hanson, R., P., C., (1988) The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark)
  • Kelly, J., N., D., (2007) Early Christian Doctrines, Fifth Edition, (London: Continuum)
  • Letham, R., (2004) The Holy Trinity, (New Jersey: P & R Publishing)
  • McGrath, A., Christian Theology: An Introduction, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing)
  • Studer, B., (1993) Trinity and Incarnation, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark)
  • Williams, R., (1979) The wound of knowledge: Christian spirituality from the New Testament to St John of the Cross, (London: Darton, Longman & Todd)
  • Williams, R., (2001) Arius: History and Tradition, (London: SCM Press)

  1. McGrath (2001), p. 357  ↩

  2. Kelly (2007), p. 227  ↩

  3. Kelly (2007), p. 229  ↩

  4. Arius cited in McGrath (2001), p. 358  ↩

  5. Arius cited in McGrath (2001), p. 359  ↩

  6. Arius cited in Kelly (2007), p. 229  ↩

  7. McGrath (2001), p. 359  ↩

  8. Ayres (2006), p. 14  ↩

  9. Ayres (2006), p. 14  ↩

  10. Ayres (2006), p. 3  ↩

  11. Norris in Norris & Cassidy (2007), p. 74  ↩

  12. Anatolios in Norris & Cassidy (2007), p. 436  ↩

  13. Kelly (2007), p. 233  ↩

  14. McGrath (2001), p. 360  ↩

  15. McGrath (2001), p. 359  ↩

  16. Kelly (2007), p. 237  ↩

  17. Letham (2004), p. 117  ↩

  18. Anatolios in Norris & Cassidy (2007), p. 441  ↩

  19. Letham (2004), p. 117 – 8  ↩

  20. Studer (1993), p. 107  ↩

  21. Williams cited in Letham (2004), p. 126  ↩