The Heart of Creation

Rowan Williams. Christ the Heart of Creation. Bloomsbury Continuum, 2018. Hardback. 304 pp. $42.99.

Advent has given us room for much needed reflection on Christ’s miraculous birth. To that end, I'm happy to recommend Rowan Williams' Christ the Heart of Creation this holiday season. Williams’ book examines the close relationship of Christology and Creation, and challenges assumptions in Christology which otherwise separates them. Readers within the Reformed tradition will be especially interested in the valuable connections which Williams traces from Aquinas and Calvin to Barth and Bonhoeffer. This review will briefly survey Christ the Heart of Creation and highlight some aspects of Williams’ conclusions.

This book is about the connection between Christology and the doctrine of the creation, which together “leave no ambiguity at all about the non-competitive relations of Creator and creation” (xiii). From the Introduction through Part 1, Williams presents close readings of Thomas, Gilbert, Scotus that interacts with current scholarship. No surprise there; what is surprising is how seamlessly Williams’ readings from Aquinas and Austin Farrer to Augustine and Bonhoeffer introduces the relationship between contemporary Christology and creation, showing how the classical structure continues to inform Christian ethics and ecclesiology.

This book is no mere argument over the form of words, but a singular meditation into the theological language of Christology. Perhaps this is what makes Williams' book such a challenging read: It presents almost a singular train of thought and a sustained synthesis from cover to cover. In Christ the Heart of Creation we are led through the highest privilege of the church: Deep meditation into the how and who of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Williams’ ability to present his subject with laser-like precision creates a dynamic narrative, guiding us through a complex topic that nevertheless demands our attention.

The Middle Is the Hardest

Early Christological language for finite and infinite agency is not to be dismissed as a doctrinal dead end, or written-off as a "contradiction" as it has been in recent theology (cf. Williams, pp. 6-7). Neither should we read Aquinas’ formulation of the suppositum or esse of Christ’s divine and human nature as “two overlapping individuals,” a conclusion which a few scholars have interpreted Aquinas as holding (p. 21).* Augustine is on the hook a bit as well, says Williams, where readers could mistake the Word’s agency in Christ as a mode of speaking generally to the human condition (suffering and solidarity). But in fact,

“...the discourses on the Psalms make it very clear that a lot more than this is being claimed. The ability of the Word to speak in Christ for humanity, especially for humanity in its need, guilt, degradation and poverty, is an ability that presupposes a genuine identification: Christ truly stands in the place of sinful humanity … so he can give voice to its need in the presence of the Father” (p. 72).

This presumably could leave readers imagining the Word as a referee, a sage, or an example... and not our Advocate.

These and other ambiguities lead us to Chalcedon, which produced some mixed but lasting results for the Church both East and West. Williams is as conversant with the Christology of the Eastern Church as he is with Western tradition. He provides in-depth readings of Maximus the Confessor and John of Damascus, and a fluent handling of Greek technical terms (most of which are not listed in BDAG) all culminating in the Summa. In these central figures of the Eastern Church, Christological language strives to maintain the “unbroken presence of divine freedom in the human identity of Jesus without fracturing or compromising that identity in its finite capacity” (p. 118). From the post-Chalcedonian hupostasis and its contribution to Aquinas’ formulation of esse, the trajectory remains the same: The working out of Paul’s language of Christ, whose presence continues to abide with his Church, removing any language that displaces either the divine nature or human nature of Christ.

The Beginning of the Telos

Williams continues on from Aquinas to the Christological developments in Ockham and Scotus to Luther and Calvin in Part 2. Where Luther’s Christology runs into deep metaphysical issues (colliding head-on with Ockham**), Williams' analysis of the extra Calvinisticum is as important as it is provocative—but not for the reasons you’re thinking. Polemics aside, Calvin—who does not cite Aquinas anywhere in the Institutes—flanks medieval scholasticism for (practically) variant readings of Augustine, and defends a Christology that has more in common with Aquinas and byzantine theology than has been expected or realized. Williams explains the difference, in contrast to Luther’s view:

“Through the Incarnation, humanity becomes human in the way God always intended – which is indeed to become united with the divine nature by adoptive filiation; it does not become divine in the sense of acquiring the properties that make the divine nature what it is” (p. 154).

Williams’ reading of Calvin is striking, and illustrates the central concern of Williams’ Christological journey to find the language, “which makes possible the communion of created minds with the Creator, that we can make anything like adequate sense of the work of the Incarnate Christ” (p. 157). 

Calvin brings the depth of Christ’s suffering and sacrifice quite unlike anyone had before, all the while maintaining a Classical Christological foundation. Subsequently, in the upheaval of theology in the 20th century, the work of Barth and Bonhoeffer brought much of Protestant terminology into sharp criticism. The former’s insight of not ‘how’ but ‘who?’ (speaking of the Incarnation) reveals our own limitations. Indeed, says Williams, “Christ thus threatens human logos at the most fundamental level … and so my very existence discovers its limit” (p. 185). Bonhoeffer’s untraditional language does not, according to Williams, attempt to move away from Chalcedon or go behind God’s agency; instead, Williams evaluates and locates the main concerns Bonhoeffer has with Classical Christology as a divine disruption of the finite creation. More compelling still is Williams’ engagement with Przywara and the connections of his thought with some aspects of Bonhoffers. This section ultimately concludes  that theology can never speak about the nature of God in “an ordinary way: we speak because God has given us (literally) a Word” (p. 234).

So what is to be gained here, and how do we arrive at the heart of Williams’ book?

From Aquinas to Bonhoeffer and Back Again

Williams lays aside polemics, longitudinal boundaries, and the like to consider the mystery which has compelled the Church through the ages: The how of the Incarnation, and question "What child is this?" within worship, communal life, and ethics. Williams’ book is not exactly devotional reading, but the continuity of its prayerful findings and conclusions deserve careful consideration for two reasons. First, “Christology is the logic of creation,” says Williams, and every major figure from Aquinas to Calvin to Bonhoeffer has—with Scripture—maintained “the non-duality of God and the world and the non-identity of God and the world” (p. 227). If Williams’ readings are correct, Reformed theology could benefit by evaluating Calvin’s Christology in the Institutes with the Commentaries for fresh insights into the Reformer’s theology and metaphysics. Second, this is a great book if you’re considering seminary. Williams’ thought is lucid, and he is highly sensitive to the early and late careers of his subject(s) and the intellectual development of, well, the entirety of the conversation.

Some might argue that the narrative is too tidy, too polished, and maybe so. But fighting the impulse to criticize and find the best way to conclude this review, we find ourselves celebrating with the Church, in our church community, celebrating the Word, and contemplating Col. 1:17.

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* Williams here is citing Richard Cross, The Metaphysics of the Incarnation: Thomas Aquinas to Duns Scotus, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. Williams may not have other scholars in mind, but it may be worth noting the 17th C. Puritan theologian Stephen Charnock, himself a Thomist, seems to run into the same dilemma: see Works of Stephen Charnock, Pennsylvania: Banner of Truth, Vol. 1, pp. 399-400; cf. Vol. 3, pp. 368-72 for remarks on the Holy Spirit’s overshadowing Mary, anointing Christ’s humanity, and eternal generation of the Word.

** Williams cites T.F. Torrance’s Space, Time and Incarnation to demonstrate how Luther’s view of Ubiquity is based in the, “‘reflective’ model of space” which has been debunked by modern science. A first reading somewhat puts Luther on the hook for his Christology from a modern perspective and leaves him there, whereas Aquinas gets more of a pass from Farrer and modern Christology. This is not to say that Williams’ analysis of Luther is any way cavalier and reading of Robert W. Jensen moves the conversation neatly into 2.2. in Barth’s and Bonhoffer’s Christology.

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Table of Contents 

Beginning in the Middle (Ages): Aquinas’s Christological Vision

Part 1  
1.1 Formulating the Question: From Paul to Augustine 
1.2 Refining the Vocabulary: The Contribution of Early Byzantine Theology

Part 2
2.1 Loss and Recovery: Calvin and the Re-formation of Christology
2.2 Christ, Creation, and Community: Christology in the Shadow of the Antichris

Christ, the Heart of Creation: The Tension in Metaphysics and Theology

Concluding (Unteleological?) Postscript: Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard Chalcedon

Joel Heflin (M.A. Regent College, 2008) currently lives in Chattanooga, TN with his family.

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