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Crux probat omnia: Rowan Williams’ scriptural hermeneutic

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 April 2016

Derek W. Taylor*
Duke Divinity School, 407 Chapel Drive, Durham, NC 27708,


Although Rowan Williams is widely recognised as one of today's leading theologians, comparatively little attention has been paid to his scriptural hermeneutic, and much of what has been written has been critical of the role scripture plays in his theology. This article explores Williams’ biblical hermeneutic in light of the criticism of John Webster in particular. It is argued that for Williams a good reading of scripture must be at once critical, analogical, and christological. While this last characteristic is often overlooked by his critics, Williams’ emphasis on the risen Christ's ongoing presence in the church, and on the specifically cruciform nature of that presence, is determinative for his hermeneutic.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2016 

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1 While enjoyable, learned, and otherwise quite thorough, Benjamin Myers’ recent work, Christ the Stranger: The Theology of Rowan Williams (London: T&T Clark, 2012) makes virtually no reference to Williams as a reader of scripture. Likewise the works in Russell, Matheson (ed.), On Rowan Williams: Critical Essays (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2009)Google Scholar contain no sustained analysis of Williams’ scriptural hermeneutic. Higton's, MikeDifficult Gospel: The Theology of Rowan Williams (London: SCM Press, 2004)Google Scholar is a slight exception; see his brief analysis on pp. 62–8 of that work.

2 For Webster on Williams see ‘Rowan Williams on Scripture’, in Bockmuehl, Markus and Torrance, Alan J. (eds), Scripture's Doctrine and Theology's Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2008), pp. 105–24.Google Scholar See also Bockmuehl's critically appreciative engagement with Williams in his Seeing the Word: Refocusing New Testament Study (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2006), pp. 82–6; and Bockmuehl's comments on Williams in ‘Reason, Wisdom and the Implied Discipline of Scripture’, in Ford, David F. and Stanton, Graham (eds), Reading Texts, Seeking Wisdom (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2004), pp. 5960.Google Scholar More recently, Sarisky, Darren, Scriptural Interpretation: A Theological Exploration (Oxford: Blackwell, 2013)Google Scholar offers two chapters of analysis on Williams as a reader of scripture, largely in the tone of his teacher, John Webster (see n. 18 below).

3 See Williams, Rowan, ‘Historical Criticism and Sacred Text’, in Ford, David and Stanton, Graham (eds), Reading Texts, Seeking Wisdom: Scripture and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2003), pp. 217–28Google Scholar; ‘The Discipline of Scripture’, in On Christian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), pp. 44–59.

4 Williams, ‘Historical Criticism and Sacred Text’, p. 221.

5 Rowan Williams, ‘The Bible Today: Reading and Hearing’, The Larkin-Stuart Lecture, 16 Apr. 2007. (accessed Apr. 2013).

6 For Williams’ diachronic approach, see ‘The Discipline of Scripture’.

7 Williams, ‘Historical Criticism and Sacred Text’, p. 228.

8 See esp. ‘The Discipline of Scripture’, p. 52.

9 Williams, ‘The Bible Today’. For example, the Apostle Paul's argument in Romans 1–2 seeks to facilitate a certain movement within the reading community: ‘The change envisaged is from confidence in having received divine revelation to an awareness of universal sinfulness and need.’

10 ed. Ipgrave, Michael (ed.), Scriptures in Dialogue: Christians and Muslims Studying the Bible and Qu'ran Together (London: Church House Publishing, 2004), p. 21.Google Scholar

11 Williams, Rowan, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1982), p. 49.Google Scholar

12 See Williams, ‘The Bible’, p. 90.

13 Key to Williams’ analogical reading of scripture is the sense in which the eucharistic celebration, along with the scriptural texts, tells a story into which participants are invited. Williams would surely suggest that one without the other is inadequate.

14 Williams, Rowan, Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), p. 121.Google Scholar

15 Webster, ‘Rowan Williams on Scripture’, p. 120.

16 Ibid., p. 122.

17 Ibid., p. 120.

18 Darren Sarisky has recently argued in a similar vein, claiming that Williams’ conception of scripture betrays a ‘certain vagueness in the doctrine of God’ and that Williams is relatedly ‘skittish about applying theological categories to depict the way things really are’ (Scriptural Interpretation, pp. 170, 34). Sarisky notes that ‘Christ is primarily an interrogative presence for Williams, not a commanding one’ (p. 168). He concludes, ‘what holds the text together is more readerly response than it is robust theological description. This is the upshot of Scripture's unity being diachronic rather than synchronic’ (p. 170). In this, Sarisky claims, Williams ‘makes the Bible seem too much like other texts’ (p. 171). Part of Sarisky's own project is to suggest that both diachronic and synchronic approaches to the text can coexist within the same theological hermeneutic, and that an operative doctrine of providence (which Williams allegedly lacks) allows for this coexistence.

19 Webster, ‘Rowan Williams on Scripture’, p. 113.

20 Ibid., p. 122.

21 Ibid.

22 Webster, John, Word and Church (London: T&T Clark, 2006), pp. 910.Google Scholar

23 In this regard, see Webster, John, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch (Cambridge: CUP, 2003), particularly the first chapter, ‘Revelation, Sanctification and Inspiration’, pp. 541.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

24 Webster, John, Domain of the Word (London: T&T Clark, 2012), p. 32.Google Scholar

25 Webster, Word and Church, pp. 2–4.

26 Webster, Domain of the Word, p. 45.

27 Webster, Holy Scripture, p. 72.

28 Webster, Domain of the Word, p. 24, emphasis original.

29 Ibid., pp. 27–9.

30 Ibid., p. 6.

31 Ibid., p. viii.

32 Ibid., p. 12.

33 Ibid., pp. vii–viii.

34 Ibid., p. xi.

35 This recent emphasis perhaps stands in somewhat of a contrast to Webster's earlier work on Jüngel and Barth. As examples of Webster's recent writing on the doctrine of God, see ‘Life in and of Himself: Reflections on God's Aseity’, in McCormack, Bruce (ed.), Engaging the Doctrine of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2008), pp. 107–24Google Scholar; ‘Webster's Response to Alyssa Lyra Pitstick, Light in Darkness’, Scottish Journal of Theology 62/2 (2009), pp. 202–10; ‘Trinity and Creation’, International Journal of Systematic Theology 12/1 (Jan. 2010), pp. 4–19; ‘Perfection and Participation’, in White, Thomas Joseph (ed.), The Analogy of Being (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2011), pp. 379–94.Google Scholar

36 Williams, Rowan, ‘Language, Reality, and Desire in Augustine's De Doctrina’, Journal of Literature and Theology 3/2 (July 1989), pp. 3850.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

37 Williams, ‘The Discipline of Scripture’, p. 56. See also his conclusion to ‘Word and Spirit’ in On Christian Theology, p. 127: ‘I hope what I have written may suggest some affinities with the hermeneutic expressed by Luther in the words crux probat omnia.’

38 Williams, Rowan, ‘Reading the Bible’, in A Ray of Darkness: Sermons and Reflections (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1995), p. 136.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

39 Williams, Resurrection, p. 92.

40 Williams, ‘Historical Criticism and Sacred Text’, p. 225.

41 Williams, Rowan, The Dwelling of the Light: Praying with the Icons of Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2004), p. xviii.Google Scholar Williams more explicitly relates icons to scripture on pp. 33–6 of this work.

42 Williams, Tokens of Trust, p. 122.

43 Donald MacKinnon, God the Living and the True, p. 22, quoted by Roberts, Richard, ‘Theological Rhetoric and Moral Passion in the Light of MacKinnon's Barth’, in Surin, Kenneth (ed.), Christ, Ethics, and Tragedy: Essays in Honour of Donald MacKinnon (Cambridge: CUP, 1989), p. 5.Google Scholar

44 See e.g. Williams, Rowan, ‘Barth on the Triune God’, in Higton, Mike (ed.), Wrestling with Angels: Conversations in Modern Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2007), p. 127;Google Scholar Williams, ‘Word and Spirit’, pp. 110–15.

45 See Williams, ‘Word and Spirit’, p. 110.

46 Ibid., pp. 115, 126.

47 Ibid., p. 109.

48 Williams, Wound of Knowledge, p. 70.

49 Williams, Christ on Trial, p. 7.

50 Williams, ‘Word and Spirit’, p. 125.

51 Barth, Karl, Church Dogmatics, IV/3.1, trans. Bromiley, Geoffrey W. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1961), p. 377.Google Scholar

52 Williams, Wound of Knowledge, p. 20.

53 Ibid., p. 15.

54 For the notion of revelation as ‘generative’, see Rowan Williams, ‘Trinity and Revelation’, in On Christian Theology, pp. 131–47.

55 Williams, Rowan, ‘Knowing Myself in Christ’, in Bradshaw, Timothy (ed.), The Way Forward? Christian Voices on Homosexuality and the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2004), p. 18.Google Scholar

56 For a recent take on Williams’ theological habits, see Medi Volpe, ‘“Taking Time” and “Making Sense”: Rowan Williams on the Habits of Theological Imagination’, International Journal of Systematic Theology, article online posting date: 24 Mar. 2013. DOI:10.1111/ijst.12004. While congenial to Williams’ theology, Volpe helpfully questions whether Williams assumes the importance of Christian habits without ‘describing a process of formation that might cultivate these habits’ (p. 11).