CEFACS Lecture, Birmingham - Centre for Anglican Communion Studies
Wednesday 3rd November 2004A lecture by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, for CEFACS, the Centre for Anglican Communion Studies.
If you were to ask what it is to acquire a musical education it would be a rather odd answer which left out the ability to play an instrument or to sing and that is what I want to use as a very basic analogy to think through what we might mean by Theological Education. It is possible, you see, to learn quite a lot about let us say the history of music, about musical theory. It is possible even to recognise patterns of a page of black marks on a white background which tell you how a composition moves. But it would be strange, as I have said, if that were all pursued in the absence of any acquisition of a skill – any capacity to do something in a particular way. Just as we might say it would be very strange to learn a language without learning how to speak it – although that is as you all know the way many of us learn languages. As the late Ronald Knox, born in this city, remarked, "It is a great mystery that the average English person can spend six years at school learning French and on arrival in Paris is able to say only 'where is the Tourist Office?'"
So in thinking about what is Theological Education I want to think about what a theologically educated person might be like. Just as, in relation to musical education, I might be reasonably sure of being able to identify what a musically educated person is like. I would know what sort of skills to look for and listen for in that case. Now I want to suggest that a theologically educated person is somebody who has acquired the skill of reading the world, reading and interpreting the world, in the context and framework of Christian belief and Christian worship. Someone who has acquired the skill of reading or interpreting the world in the context and the framework of Christian belief and Christian worship. That means that a theologically educated person is not someone who simply knows a great deal about the Bible or history of doctrine but somebody who is able to engage in some quite risky and innovative interpretation, and who is able, if I can put it this way, to recognise holy lives. Because I think that the skill that belongs to being a theologically educated person is a very significant part – the skill of knowing what an exemplary life looks like lived in the context of doctrine and worship.
We are used to hearing that theology is the science of God. God is the object of theology and that is perfectly true. But since God never sits around waiting for us to make observations as a good many theologians have reminded us in the 20th century, since God is not simply an area of study that we can easily demarcate, we depend in theology on people who have some skills in living and knowing in God's presence. Which is why when St Thomas Aquinus in the 13th Century tried to define theology, he put it in terms of studying the narratives of those people by whom revelation reaches us... studying the narratives of those people by whom divine revelation reaches us. And that means, I believe, that theology is inevitably, consistently to do with human lives, not in any sense that excludes theology having to do with God – far from it: but in recognition of the fact that because God is not an object lying around for examination, God's impact upon and the difference God makes to human lives is where we are bound to begin. The word of God, the self communication of God is always bound up with the actual and concrete transformation of human situations – corporate and individual.
I am speaking simply of Christian theology and I will take it for granted from here on that my focus is to be Christian theology. From the vantage point of Christian theology that should not surprise us at all. Christian theology begins from the series of events – events of transformation.
At the very beginning of what we might call Christian Theology is the revelation of God to Moses, the Exodus, the establishment of the Covenant people. In other words, theology there begins when a people has been created, when the act of God is seen as having drawn together the whole community under law, under common understanding and discipline, to glorify God and communicate who God is. Out of that comes that further phase of theological understanding driven by the event, the change that we call the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
These are moments in the human world when the level of change of transition or transformation is so high and so deep that people feel driven to talk about something other than just the forces of history or the conventions of society. To say that theology begins in revolution sounds a very dangerous observation and yet in terms of the Bible it is not, again shouldn't be, all that surprising. Theology begins when something in the human world and human lives has struck at such depth that we need language more than just the conventional language of human agency and historical forces. Theology arises then when the world looks new. One of the saddest things that can be said about theology is that it has become stale; that it no longer speaks of transformation. Because the impulse to do theology arises when the world looks different from what you thought it was. The New Testament is riveting, exasperating, exhausting, inexhaustible because it is the work in progress of the people whose world is in "in the business" of being reformed, reshaped. The Bible, I think, only really comes to life when we see it in terms of that kind of work in progress. Great changes are afoot and we don't yet know quite what we shall find to say about the immense new landscape that has opened in front of us. I will come back in a while to the implications of that for the actual processes of teaching theology, but I think it may be important to hold in our minds for a little bit that notion of theology as having its origin, its energy, in a sense of the new landscape. Because one of the implications of that is that theology will be stale and dreary and boring when people are no longer aware that God has made a difference, whether in individual lives or in corporate lives, in persons or in history. Again I will return to say more about that but let it stand for a moment as a working account of one of the things that makes good theology good.
Theological education is bound, if all that is true, to be regularly a matter of looking at the patterns of human lives. Theology has a great deal to do with biography and with history – the Bible containing many examples of both. It is out of those narratives, out of those stories and transactions that the ideas emerge and I would venture to say that a bad theological education is one which never gets you from the ideas to the narratives; and a good theological education is one that pushes you inexorably from the narratives to the ideas. A theologically educated person, I said earlier, is one who is able to read, to interpret the world in this context. That means somebody who, as I said, has the skill to recognise a life of holiness or a discipleship; and that entails the skill to understand what kind of change, what kind of difference in the world has to do with God. And that is why theology is inevitably a component in the business of Christian discernment. The skills of discernment have a lot to do with living in this environment, this theological environment, in such a way that the world can be recognised, ordered, not explained, but seen in a way that makes sense. And those changes and those challenges that matter from God's point of view can be rightly identified. And in that sense, of course, theology does not set out to give you a map of another world but a set of instructions for this one. People caricature theology frequently, don't they? And to speak of a theological point, in some people's vocabulary, means to speak of something that can have no possible practical impact. It is about another world, and when that great 19th century philosopher Nietzsche made his attack on religious language in general, and Christian language in particular, he did so on the grounds that religious language created pseudo objects and then created a pseudo science about those pseudo objects. In other words Nietzsche assumed that theology was about another world and it is a caricature that comes home when people start talking about the medieval debates, the supposed medieval debates, on angels dancing on the points of needles. Some theology admittedly reads like that – early, medieval and modern. Not to say post-modern. But in fact to look at the history of theology, the way in which theological controversies arise, are dealt with, are resolved or not resolved, is to see again and again that the disciplines there, the discernments there, are about finding your way in the world, understanding what a life looks like that is lived in response to the God of Jesus Christ. And that is not an academic matter in the narrow sense. All of this, I think, indicates very clearly, and I use the word 'academic', why theology is an uncomfortable partner in the academic enterprise. The history of theology once again strongly suggests that where the academy, the main stream intellectual life of a culture is concerned, theology can't live with it and can't live without it and very often the culture can't live with it and can't live without it either. An uncomfortable partner in the enterprise because universities on the whole do not set themselves the task of educating people in the discernment of holiness. Why should they? And yet there is something in the level of critical questioning which theology ought to bring to the intellectual enterprise overall that is essential to intellectual health.
All that by way of rather general introduction and it is meant to convey the overall idea that theology is, yes, a practical discipline, a discipline about acquiring skills for living – to use the contemporary jargon. But those skills for living are shaped by a whole set, a whole heritage of narratives, perspectives, images, metaphors – each one of them traceable to some great upheaval in human understanding which create a responsibility, a sense of, let's use the word, obedience in those who are drawn in by them, which is to say the least unusual in the intellectual world. Theology is about personal transformation, theology is about holiness, theology is about obedience and in a sense in which that last rather contentious idea might be true – again I will come back to it a little later.
But perhaps it is time now to turn to some of the particular areas of theological education which we associate with the enterprise and see how they look in the light of that rather general set of definitions. I will speak about biblical study, about doctrine and about church history in particular. I have already begun to hint at how I think biblical study ought to be grounded in the sort of theological education that I am concerned with here. The Bible is the primary record of the primary difference God makes. It begins, of course, by recording the greatest difference of all – the difference between things being there and things not being there and associates that with God. And in Christian scripture that primordial difference between being and non-being is latched on with an enormously ambitious theological pun at the beginning of St John's Gospel latched on to the life of Jesus of Nazareth as the one who makes the difference between being and non-being within the world's history. But the narrative of Hebrew scripture, what Christians call the Old Testament, evolves in a series of upheavals. The uprooting of Abraham from his native land, the release from slavery of the people of Israel, the betrayal and exile that follows the abandonment by God's people of God's justice, the restoration of the people around more liturgy. And within its contours we are not allowed at any point, I think, to come too quickly to a generalised version of what all this is about and who this God is. We have to watch the story in its process. We have to attend to and be involved in the drama of the narrative.
And that already gives us the clue we need to turn to Christian scripture. Be patient, don't assume the end of the story is come. God is a God who upturns the conventions and the ideas and the images we have and he does it centrally, focally, forever, in the life and death of Jesus. We watch them again as Christian scripture evolves, we watch people in that new landscape trying to find the words for it. To say that is not in the least to say that the Bible does not tell us the truth. The way the bible tells us the truth is by showing us how God's reality, in its freedom and majesty, impresses itself upon human life. We read the impress, we read the impact, we begin to understand who it is that we are dealing with and that is as true of the New Testament as of the Old. Frequently as I read Paul's epistles I read the impatient, inarticulacy of someone whose vision is bigger than his language and that is what makes Paul so intensely worth reading, so inspired, so much a vehicle of God's spirit. Watching him struggle, sometimes very impatiently, with ideas that are getting away from him is precisely to be drawn into what Paul sees and what Paul knows – to meet Paul's God. There is an extraordinary moment when Paul realises that he has dug himself in far more deeply than he originally intended to in an argument and suddenly breaks away saying "I don't know where this is going but ..." as he does, of course, so memorably at the end of his most agonised excursions – Romans 9-11. How am I going to bring all these ideas together, Paul asks at the end of 11 when he has been wrestling with the fate of Israel and he can say only, "O the depth and mystery of God". And it is not a short cut because you have watched him getting there. I had a friend years ago who complained about the way in which theologians would revert to talking about mystery when things were getting difficult and it is a good discipline I think for any theologian to save the language of mystery, if you like, until the very last moment. That is to say to follow through argument, definition, refinement of terms as bravely and consistently as you can and not to give up too soon. Only when you have demonstrated that you are at the end of that story can you afford to say with Paul that you don't know where to go but God does.
Now that means, I think, that a person who is educated in reading the Bible is a person who, you can say theologically, by the Grace of the Holy Spirit, has been brought into that relationship with the God of the Bible which allows them to recognise in the language of the Bible their own faith and their own narrative. And that is something rather different from quarrying the Bible for little bits that happily remind you of how you feel. That is not biblical theology. It may be a useful form of apologetical psychology but it is not particularly theological. But to find in that language, that narrative, that register of exploration, something of the faith that transforms your own life; that I think is to see what biblical understanding is. And it is not a million miles away from what Martin Luther said when claiming that the Christian response to reading the Bible always had to be, if you heard the words, this is about you, datae loquitor, this is about you. The Christian comes into the biblical world – a strange world, a world in which images and ideas and words are not always what you expect. But the education of the Christian in the biblical world is an education in the skills of analogy and connection. Which is why, of course, throughout Christian history some of the most interesting and challenging and unexpected uses of the Bible have been the picking up of biblical narratives to describe the story of the soul. From very early on, from the Greek fathers to the 17th century, the stories of Abraham or of Moses have been picked up to tell you that this about you, to invite you to see your own struggles with God, the speaking, revealing, living God in the contours in the shape of what has emerged in biblical story. And some of you here will know, of course, one of the greatest, latest classical versions of that in Charles Wesley's hymn "Come O thou traveller unknown" which takes the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel as the model of Christian life, Christian struggle and discovery. That means that being a biblically educated person is a great deal more than knowing the texts. Some of you may have come across a novel by Fulton Wilder, that great American writer of the early 20th century, called Heaven is my Destination. Set in the America of the Depression it describes the adventures of a travelling text-book salesman who is also a kind of undercover evangelist. It is a very, very funny book indeed and a very poignant one. And one of the most comical and poignant moments is when this travelling evangelist meets on a train another travelling evangelist who challenges him as to whether he really knows the Lord. George, the salesman says yes of course he does and the Evangelist says all right then so what is Ephesians 4.11? and they swap texts for several minutes until George makes a small mistake in his quotation. The other leaps on him saying, you think you know the Lord, brother but you don't. I don't regard that as biblical education in any very interesting sense because it has absolutely nothing to do with what that other great American writer, William Stringfellow called being a biblical person. That is living under the vision and under the judgement of the God of the Bible. To know how to live a life in that light in that perspective, in that presence – that is being biblically educated I would say.
And so a theological education that is designed to produce people who are really literate in the Bible; that I think has to be an education which looks very very carefully and patiently at the contours of these stories. It does not immediately rush off to the historical critical question – what really happened? Did anything really happen? What are the interests of work in this text? I think it concentrates primarily on seeing how the text itself – the words on the page – bring to birth a picture of human life in God's presence. And how that narrative, that process of bringing something to life can connect with your own process of coming to life.
Now something of the same I would like to say something about Christian doctrine over all. Doctrine as sometimes taught in history of theological education has been very much the finished product as if a particular kind of problem solving exercise had been gone through eventually producing a settled solution; a formula that told you what you needed to know. And again I would like to think of doctrine, as with scripture itself, as the process of finding the words for a new landscape which like any such process is going to be in many ways vulnerable and rather bumpy. When I was regularly teaching theology I used to encourage my students to think of the history of doctrine as the history of discarded solutions, as if for just a moment some person with a light in their eyes says, I think I've got it, I think ... oh no I haven't. And that is very much how the process evolves I think. Someone comes up with what looks like the answer to the question of humanity and divinity in Jesus and ten years later the solution lies in ruins around them, and all you know is that you cannot do it that way. It is something that many scholars of the Eastern Orthodox Church are very good at underlining that there is in all good doctrine powerful element of the negative. We may not know what exactly to say but we know we can't say that. And simply formally and as a matter of historical fact many of the definitions of those early centuries work rather like that. We don't quite know what to say positively but we must avoid saying that or that or that because that will say less than we want to say. So even if we are never be going to be able to say all that we want to say, we shall know that to stop too soon with this or that formula would be to condemn us to being stuck with less than we really want to say. We can't tell all the truth, we can tell the truth consistently, we hope intelligently and then once again, as I said earlier, come to the point when we say that is as far as we can go but we have done the work.
And a doctrinally educated person therefore is, I believe, somebody who can see what sort of human anxieties, aspirations, tensions, prayer, love, sin and grace led people to think it mattered to talk about Jesus in this way, to talk about God in this way, to talk about the Sacraments of the Church in this way. It was not a word game. It wasn't a way of passing the long winter evenings.
If I am to be coherent, consistent in what I think about myself as an inhabitant of this new world and if I believe that this new world is something into which the reality of Jesus has projected me what must I say about Jesus that does justice to the newness of the force of the projection. What must I say about Jesus that doesn't trivialise or shrink the impact of this change that has been made: and so the early church moves, can I say inexorably, towards some of those very technical and very complicated distinctions and sub divisions that are going on in the great debates of the 4th and 5th centuries. Yes we must say that what is at work in Jesus is the life of the creator, nothing less. No we must not say that replaces any element in humanity. Yes we must say that the suffering of Jesus is real human suffering. No we mustn't say that that somehow turns God into a suffering human being and no more. And so the tightrope walk continues through those two centuries because it is all to do with how you do justice to the newness of the new creation. And a doctrinally educated person is then, I'd say, one who knows why that newness matters; why it matters to find words for it. When as it has happened quite a lot in the 20th century, when that classical language of trinity and incarnation has become remote or difficult for people it is I think fair to ask the question what has happened to the sense of newness – that that language has become so difficult and so stale. And very often what has happened is quite simply that the doctrinal language has lost its roots and its mooring, and we have to relearn it from those for whom newness means something.
And that of course is why doctrine is renewed in understanding and expression from what might you call extreme situations. In the 20th century the extreme situations faced by Christians under persecution brought forth new levels of appreciation of understanding of classical language and classical doctrine which were not just a repetition of the text book formulae. Barth and Bonhoeffer coming out of the Germany of the Third Reich both in their different ways reaffirmed the depth and fullness of the classical doctrinal tradition, I would say. Bonhoeffer is quite wrongly thought of here as some sort of liberal revisionist but that is another story. And it was because of the questions posed to people in that situation what is it that is different about Christian profession and Christian community; what is it that makes allegiance to Christ creative of a different space from that which is dominated by political oppression. Later in the 20th century we heard this again from Christians in Latin America and in Africa. And I expect we shall go on hearing it from there. I think here particularly of the way in which the work of Martin. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was so to speak dusted off and revived by theologians in the eighties in South Africa when the Kyros Document was prepared expressing something of that great act of resistance in the name of the lordship of Christ against human tyranny, which has associated with the Barmen declaration in 1935.
And I want to say a few words also about education in Church History. Church History has tended sometimes to be a little bit of a Cinderella subject in theological education. When it has been done people don't always quite see why it is done, whether there is a theological reason for doing it. It becomes another bundle of anecdotes. Facts about the past which may or may not be interesting, probably not very. Stories about people far away, speaking foreign languages with strange names with very bizarre ideas. Now I don't think that will do as an approach to Church History because one of the things that comes out of being a biblically educated and doctrinally educated person is some sense of what it means to belong to the body of Christ. That is to be part of a community which has no spatial or temporal boundaries but in which every participant has something to give and something to receive. And as I've tried to argue elsewhere understanding what the body of Christ means gives a very different complexion to Church History. Those odd people in the text books are actually our brothers and sisters in Christ, and frequently you would much prefer that they weren't. Almost as much as you would prefer that some of your contemporaries weren't! But these are people in whom Christ is given to you.
Church History is the record of holy lives. Frequently dramatically failed holy lives. Or holy lives whose holiness takes an awful lot of recognition because it is not holiness quite as you know it or think you know it. But again, what matters here is a kind analogical skill, a skill of making connections. The temptation, the failure, the blunder, the discovery of figures in the Christian past is a matter of how Christ in his Body speaks to you, giving you something that you need for your holiness and your discernment. Now the difficulty is that Church History frequently falls apart into two equally unhelpful poles. There is the kind of Church History which looks at the past as answering the questions. That is the story, that is how we got here and it all ends happily because it ended with us. And there is the kind of Church History which says we have to be deeply conscious of the absolute cultural gulf that separates us from everybody before 1550 or 1700 or 1981 or whatever. Both of those are unhelpful simply as historical method but they are totally insupportable as theological method.
Part of the challenge, the proper difficulty of studying Church History and being educated in Church History is being able to cope both with the continuity and with the gulf. These are people deciding to be disciples of the same Lord that I try to follow. These are people speaking of that discipleship in categories that are so strange that it will take me a lot of patience to learn what they say and listen to it effectively. Yet both those elements are true and essential in the process.
And a view of the Church which supposes that nothing happens between the New Testament and yesterday is one which is not only intellectually shabby and indefensible but one which is spiritually impoverished. God has given me, whether I like it or not, a very, very large number of companions on the journey. Each one of whom will have something distinctive to say however well I hear it, however easily I digest it. And it takes me back to where I started – and the question of reading the Bible. And I would want to add at this point that an educated reader of the Bible is also somebody who knows how to read the Bible in company – in company with other Christians now, in company with Christians through the ages. The rather odd view which has prevailed in quite a lot of western Protestantism that the essence of reading the Bible is the communication from the page to the individual's soul, everything else is if you like icing on the cake, would have seemed very strange to our Lord and the disciples, the first generations of Christians and indeed most Christians up to about 1850. Christians, like Jews, believe that the Holy Scripture was something you read together and heard together and talked about together. Calvin is very clear when he writes about the biblical interpretation, biblical authority in the 16th Century – that the community drawn together by the Holy Spirit is the community in which you read in the Spirit so that the Word comes alive for you together as a community. Great mistake to think of Calvin or of the Reformers as individualists in this respect. So a proper reading of Church History, an education in Church History is also I would say a coming into the company of the readers of the Bible. And how people read it in the past have indicated can be deeply surprising and deeply alien, but is that surprise and that alienness different in kind from the surprise that we sometimes encounter as we read the Bible with our own contemporaries. I suspect it is not the different order.
I could say more about those three areas but I think you may begin to see what I am trying to convey here. A theologically educated person is someone who is reading the world, I've said, in the context of the narratives that have brought God alive, savingly and transformingly. That means that a theologically educated person reads the Bible as a record of the changes impressed upon the human world by the living God. A theologically educated person encounters Christian doctrine as the struggle for words large enough and resourceful enough not to be completely misleading about the mystery, the scale of the living God. The theologically educated person is the person who reads the history of Christian communities as an invitation to read the Bible in company and to find education and discipleship in that process.
And in all this we come back again to the issue that I touched on right at the very beginning – of obedience. Now obedience as a theological virtue sounds very alarming, very pre-modern, very unattractive. And it does so, I suppose, largely because obedience is usually enjoined on people by those who have the power to make things difficult for them if they don't obey. But the greatest theologian of obedience in the 20th century, Karl Barth once again, meant by obedience, I think obedience in theology, that absolutely faithful attention to the otherness of what you are dealing with, that springs you from the trap of your own preoccupations and preferences. Somewhere in all of this business of theological education we have to come to terms with that sense of an otherness, an elsewhere – not another place, another realm, another world but that which is not simply on the map of our concerns, our security, our ideas. An obedient theology is one which seeks to be formed by what is there and a holy life is one which lets itself be impacted, be impressed by the will of God. For Karl Barth, that meant of course, that an obedient theologian was someone who was free to be the most dramatic possible nuisance in church and world. Obedience to the otherness of God, such a person would be obedient to no other constraints and no tyranny that could be concocted on the face of the earth. That is to put it dramatically. But then of course, the 1930s was a dramatic period.
What obedience means for us is a far tougher, far more complex matter to work out. And yet, I would dare to say that a theology that does not somehow tackle that issue of obedience somewhere along the line as part of the education we are talking about, will fail to be theology. And that is an obedience, of course, which challenges great deal of what we often mean by the term. Obedience we say and we think of passivity or docility, not a characteristic very obvious in the life of Augustine or St Thomas let alone Luther or Karl Barth. Whatever obedience means there, it does not mean docility. Obedience can mean again Paul throwing down his pen with exasperation and say "I don't know what more to say; it is too big for me to speak of" – that's obedience. It's St Thomas Aquinas saying at the end of his life saying, 'all I've written seems like so much straw compared with what has been shown to me'. It is Luther throwing his inkpot at the devil. It is Barth wonderfully, at the end of a deeply boring and conventional parish mission, designed to make everybody feel a great deal worse, decided as he tells us to preach a sermon on little angels with harps and sheets of music. Because he felt he had been listening for a week to a mission all about how 'I' ought to feel and not about how God was, therefore he wanted to turn the whole thing back to praise, and that's obedience.
So with all the awareness that we're bound to have of what a slippery word obedience is, I'd like to put in answer to the question, what is theological education: that element of an education in proper obedience, the passionate intention to what is there, to the extent that I am changed by that attention, and set free by it from other pressures to conformity.
I haven't attempted to outline anything like a reputable academic syllabus for theological education. I used to do that sort of thing and now happily I'm free from it. But I want to propose to you at least that if we try to answer the question what is theological education in the broadest possible sense, we need to put it the context of our discovery, discernment and of holiness. And also our discovery of one another as believers. Theological education can be just as much the unexpected encounter with another believer's vision as it is the absorption of a biblical idea or a doctrinal formula. It can be and should be a discovery of the body of Christ in that way. And if I may in conclusion just relate this to the context in which this lecture is being delivered, I would say that if our Anglican Communion is to discover itself as something which exemplifies the body of Christ rather than just a set of national groups opting to be more or less friendly to each other – usually less these days – we need a theological education like this.
It's a bold statement and perhaps an arrogant one, but I won't make too much of an apology for it. I think that we have suffered a great deal from visions and models of education that have not sufficiently directed us to the centrality of the body of Christ, as the theological theme, as that which more than anything else holds for us the newness of the new creation, the difference of where we are and how we relate. We have a very long way to go in making our Anglican church a coherent, communal, obedient, renewed family of congregations. And yet we share the reality given in Christ by our baptism, the reality of Christ's body. The theological education we need, I believe, in the Communion is something which will make that come alive for us, which will make us literate in reading scripture and doctrine and church history, which will deepen in us those skills of discernment that we need in respect of our own calling and the calling of others, which will set us free from being simply an ecclesiastical organisation preoccupied with policing itself in various ways which will perhaps make us a more effective servant of the world into which God calls us. The world in which God invites us to recognise him, respond to him, praise, be glad in him, a world which is on the way to becoming that new creation which is really the context, the locus of any theology worth the name.
© Rowan Williams 2005