Rowan Williams on Orthodox Theology

I’ve just handed in a ‘Reading Reports’ assignment where I had to summarise and respond to various set texts in order to grasp something of the global trends in theology in the twentieth century.  It may be a bit clunky, but I’ve cut and paste the assignment here to give you a paragraph on some key theologians from the past 100 years.   Several of the chapters set in these reviews are from the fat brick of a book that is the subject’s text: David Ford’s The Modern Theologians.  Oh how I love Rowan Williams!!!!

Williams, Rowan, ‘Eastern Orthodox Theology.’ In David F. Ford with Rachel Muers, The Modern Theologians: An Introduction to Christian Theology since 1918 (third edition) pp.572-587 (Massachussets; Blackwell Publishing, 2005)

Williams is an easy introduction to Orthodox Theology for Western thinkers – drawing our attention to some key differences at the outset – the more balanced approach to dualism, a stronger link to mystical traditions and a non-Enlightenment engagement with twentieth century Continental philosophy. It is accidentally convenient for Western thinkers that “for most of the twentieth century, the story of Orthodox theology is the story of Russian theology” – making the fruitful reconnection of Western and Eastern Christianity much simpler to pursue. Russian Orthodox theology in the twentieth century can be understood through it’s engagement with Soloviev’s theology of sophia in the century before. Soloviev developed sophia as a cosmology of the Eternal Feminine, Divine Wisdom, that which is uncreated and absolute breaking through to material reality in an act of reintegration in the cosmos, through the incarnation of sophia in the Divine Word. Bulgakov develops Soloviev’s cosmology with a careful description of Christ as uncreated sophia in his divine nature, created sophia in his human nature. Because they are perfected together, Christ leads the way for the church who is “sophia in the process of becoming” (p.576). Lossky was very critical of Bulgakov and saw his furthering of Soloviev as contrary to his own concern for “an ‘authentic,’ patristically based Orthodoxy” (p.578). Mediating between a “Catholic essentialism and Protestant existentialism” (p.580) Lossky embraced an apophatic approach to theology which located the task of theology in that ambiguous realm between divine mystery and human intelligence. This is the place of the Trinity and leads us into God’s complex relationality. “It is from the divine paradigm of the divine hypostases that we come to grasp our own vocation to personal being” (p.579). Unsurprisingly then, Lossky outlines an ecclesiology in a sobornost that binds together both “the institutional and the charismatic…as inseparably as the Word and the Spirit in the Trinity” (p.580). Florovsky also pursued the Patristics synthesis and was unwavering in his commitment to the Hellenism of the Church Fathers. Christianity cannot escape it’s historical particularity, of which the Hellenistic context for the earliest Tradition of the Church is primary, because all reality is grounded in historical acts. Further, Florovsky is critical of any theology that is not grounded in the historical Jesus. The eucharist becomes foundational for sobernost through it’s historical continuity. Contemporary Orthodox scholarship covers a breadth of fresh theological insights as East meets West in various combinations.  

I’m not ashamed to say that I danced around the top floor of the Dalton McCaughey Library whilst reading some of this stuff (there was no-one else around!!).  How exciting to read a critique of Enlightenment hermeneutics from those who have not had to endure the Enlightenment!  Of course, the same goes the other way – it’s easy for me to embrace Orthodox Theology when I only read about it in books! I’m sure the reality is as marred with sin as my own Western Protestant tradition!

However, I can see why Rowan Williams has integrated much of this hermeneutic.  The Orthodox tradition never lost the capacity to keep two poles of belief in tension, to believe two things can be true at the same time without competition.  The West lost that capacity in the late middle ages and the Reformation did nothing to address it.  I think it’s about ‘definitions’.  When we try and define things too tightly we confine them, and their meaning gets distorted.  Hmm… something coming to mind about wineskins…


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