Sunday, August 28, 2011

Rowan Williams: "We Need the Creeds"

In response to the question, "Can finite human beings say true things about an infinite God?", Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams offers a nuanced response that correctly notes the limits of human reason and language while faithfully upholding the doctrinal content and normative boundaries of the Christian faith.

How refreshing it is to hear the spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion strongly affirm "we need the creeds and we need to have a place to stand" and, with reference to the Nicene Creed, state that "we can say, yes, this is how God has shown Himself and not be embarrassed about that." And how heartening it is to hear him clearly and unequivocally state "when I say that the Savior is of one substance with the Father, I mean exactly what I say, and I believe it to be true and I believe my life depends on it."

Listen to the Archbishop's response and read a transcript of his answer below.

"Can finite human beings say true things about an infinite God?"

It’s a really interesting question. And I find it fascinating that in the early church in exactly the same era when people are beginning to shape creeds and formulae, they’re also beginning to say quite extravagant things about how little we know about God. So it’s not entirely a new tension. But I would say it’s a tension not a contradiction. When I say the Creed, when I say the Nicene Creed – and I say “of one one substance with the Father,” “the Holy Ghost who proceeds from the Father” or “from the Father and Son” and so on – I believe I’m speaking the truth. I believe I’m telling the truth about God, that what God has shown us of Himself is best, is truthfully, expressed in those words.

And at the same time I know that whatever has been said is not adequate, it’s not the whole story. So I think in very simple terms true as far as it goes is what I’d have to say. Which doesn’t mean that it’s ever going to be shown to be untrue, you need to revise it or say, “Well, I’m not so sure about that.” On the contrary, when I say that the Savior is of one substance with the Father, I mean exactly what I say, and I believe it to be true and I believe my life depends on it. And if you press me and say “So what exactly does that mean?”, I say, well, God knows exactly what it means. But, to use a formula I’ve sometimes found helpful here, that’s the least silly thing I can think of saying about this, it’s the least inadequate way of talking about it. It will take me a huge step forward in understanding the truth and it will project me further on that journey into the fullness of the truth.

So I think we need the creeds and we need to have a place to stand. And we can say, yes, this is how God has shown Himself and not be embarrassed about that. But the worst thing is when we think that the creeds or any other formulation just lot got up and say, done that, we’ve understood that, and now we move on.

It’s a bit like saying well, you see the footprint of a large animal in the forest. It’s a real mark, it’s made a real difference, you can tell a great deal of truth from that, there it is when you’ve said that you’ve said something true and accurate. But you haven’t seen the whole animal. We at least have an advantage there, we have seen the face of God in Jesus Christ.

All our Christian language is an attempt to say something quite new, quite unexpected, gratuitous has happened. We couldn’t have predicted it, it didn’t come from us. And we’re feeling our way around that great mystery that’s been put down in the middle of us.

~ Rowan Williams


Bryan Owen said...

Rowan Williams' response reminds me of something I recently saw posted on Facebook by the Rev. Phil Snyder (an Episcopal deacon):

"The correct way to complete the sentence that starts 'We cannot fully comprehend God' is to say, 'therefore, we are constrained by what Scripture and Tradition have taught us about Him' (e.g., what God has revealed about Himself). Because we cannot comprehend God, we don't get the luxury of determining ourselves what God is like or what God likes or what God dislikes. We must be limited to what God has chosen to reveal about Himself."

Robert F said...

"Can finite human beings make true statements about an infinite God?" To respond to that question is already to make an assertion about the nature of God. I think it's really a trick question, even if the questioner doesn't realize it. The denial of the meaningfulness of making metaphysical assertions always must itself be based on a metaphysical assertion. Alvin Plantinga has shown this very clearly.

Bryan Owen said...

Good point, Robert F. Although my interest in this particular response is the Archbishop's clear endorsement of the reliability and truthfulness (as far as they go) of the creeds. Not every high-ranking Anglican clergy person is willing to make such an affirmation.

Robert F said...

Yes, Bryan, it is very encouraging to hear Archbishop Williams affirm the creeds so clearly; it doesn't, however, surprise me. Based on what I know of his theological reflections, his statement concerning the creeds is a making explicit of what he has affirmed for some time. I think it will, however, come as a surprise to many so-called progressive Anglicans to hear him unabashedly state his allegiance to the classical formulations of Christian faith in Jesus Christ and in the Trinity. We can be proud to have such a man as Archbishop of Canterbury.

George Dunning said...

When I hear such a quiet measured response, such an assuredness in both belief and yet acceptance that there is so much more . . . it is like a calm spot in a swirling mass of argument and opinion that only causes confusion and doubt. It really does then seem simple to say "I believe" and yet I dont really have all the boxes ticked as to why, when you see someone like Rowan speak.

The desire of some to make God more accessible and the Gospel more relevant for me at least just dissipates it till it becomes something less than tangible. In many ways removing the challenge to 'commit' to the unknowable reduces faith to an abstract.

Robert F what then do you think those who 'would be surprised' hold to? (I am just curious)

The Underground Pewster said...

I am glad to see him witness to more than just the large animal print in the forest, but when it comes to leadership, "feeling our way around that great mystery that’s been put down in the middle of us" is a little discomforting, especially to those who are trying to follow the footprints.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for further comments, Robert F. I agree wholeheartedly that this is, indeed, "very encouraging" to hear this from Rowan Williams. And I am very proud to hear it coming from a prominent Anglican.

Bryan Owen said...

Hi George. I really like your description of Rowan's answer to this particular question as "a quiet measured response" that is "like a calm spot in a swirling mass of argument and opinion." To me, that almost perfectly sums up why the Nicene Creed is such an important anchor for my faith as a Christian. Thank you for offering such a powerful point!

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for your comments, Underground Pewster.

I hear and honor what you're saying as someone who (to use the labels currently in vogue) represents a voice on behalf of the reasserter side of the Anglican struggle. And while I have mixed feelings about Rowan's leadership (in ways that, quite frankly, might not endear me with either the Anglican Left or the Anglican Right), when I came across this video, I rejoiced. It's such a refreshing antidote to other high-ranking clergy who, in stark contrast, freely express personal opinions that signal a bold departure from the faith of the Church.

The Underground Pewster said...

U.R. right Bryan, I'll take R.W.'s comment over that one any day.

Willis said...

I must admit, I was a bit dubious about watching this, but found it refreshing indeed. While I often have moments to question William's leadership, he remains a first class theologian. Even in areas of disagreement with him, I find his arguments thoughtful, compelling, and orthodox. I also must admit that the contrast between William's position and that stated by the Presiding Bishop of TEC, Jesus as "a way, a truth, a light," to be rather stark. Excellent link Bryan!