Why Study the Past? The Quest for the Historical Church by Rowan Williams. Eerdmans, 2005. 135pp.
The start of The Acts of the Apostles begins with a reference to another book. “In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven” (NRSV, Acts 1:1-2). The reference is most likely to the The Gospel According to Luke. This link alerts us to the fact that we are in the presence of a network of texts, a web of stories nourished and sustained by a community whose continuity stretches far backwards in time. Acts is connected to Luke, and since Luke records a series of statements about the nature, content, and meaning of the Jewish scriptures, Luke is connected to that corpus of texts too. The Bible is a book of books, in other words. It contains works of many different genres, spanning myth, law, chronicle, poetry, prophecy, and much else. If the Bible is a book of books, it is also a story of stories. As the opening of Acts demonstrates, much of the New Testament is concerned with “all that Jesus did and taught.” But, given that a substantial amount of what Jesus is said to have done and taught is connected with stories of what Moses is said to have done and taught, to take but one example among many, a reader of the Bible is presented with an interesting question: what is the nature of the relationship between these stories? And there is an equally important historical corollary: what is the relationship between these stories and history?
Evidently both the Jewish and Christian scriptures involve much storytelling. This storytelling is often revisionist. That is, one story is told in order to cast a new light on another story. Sometimes, relatively often in fact, two different stories are told about the same events. To be a reader of the Bible and to re-tell its stories is to join in an already-existing process of revised storytelling. That dynamic process of revision, broadly conceived, started with the formation of the Bible itself, based as it is on centuries of oral tradition. It has continued in the re-tellings and re-readings of various Christian communities over the past two thousand years. This is a fact of Christianity, just as it is similarly a fact of Hinduism (with its Vedas, Upanishads, Sutras, and so forth). Living communities enact and retell their stories in the present, through some type of symbolic action, like liturgy. At the same time, there exist different relationships between the stories these practising communities tell and the past as it is understood by historians.
If history is a form of storytelling, as undoubtedly it is, what distinguishes it from the other forms of the structured human imagination? In his book Why Study the Past?, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, writes that history is “a set of stories we tell in order to understand better who we are and the world we’re now in”.  While this rightly connects history to narrative, it does not distinguish between history and fiction. After all, Ulysses or The Wasteland might help us understand ourselves better too. In the first volume of Temps et récit (Seuil,1983), the philosopher Paul Ricœur distinguishes between fictional and historical narratives by their referent. Whereas fictional narratives are limited solely by the boundaries of the human imagination, historical narratives are constrained by the real human past. Thus history and fiction have different relationships to the truth. Much more precisely than Williams, Ricœur correctly observes how, in their different ways, both history and fiction imitate the coherence of lived experience. Both forms of narrative bring together disparate actions and events in a temporal unity.
If the past is depicted as totally strange or other, then it may be tempting to think that it can have no relevance for the present; on the other hand, if the past is made to appear too familiar, then it may be tempting to think that it can pose no challenge to the present, that it may authorize some present attitude or practice. By drawing attention to these historical pitfalls, Williams correctly characterizes historical thinking as dialectical. It moves through the familiar, the strange, and back again. In Ricœur’s work this careful hermeneutical movement displaces the present as the centre of meaning, inviting the significance of what has happened in the past to re-situate one’s self and the communities to which one belongs. But rather than pursue this train of thought, Williams turns in the direction of present-day Anglican issues, to the divide between progressives and traditionalists. Although it may be salutary to point out that progressives fail grapple with the past, dismissing it as strange, and that traditionalists fail to properly recognize the past, seeing it as a mirror, this is really the starting point of a reflection on the nature of history, not its conclusion. In registering this basic point, however needful it may have been for the purposes of navigating difficult contemporary ecclesiastical issues, Williams fails to elaborate upon the exact nature of the relationship between the critical study of history and the church’s storytelling. Yes, the study of history can expand one’s horizons, both individually and communally. But by leaving the matter here, at a rather surface level, I’m afraid the question of why and how one should study the past remains, for the most part, unanswered in this book.
According to The Acts of the Apostles, the assembly known as the church was an event that occurred in history. While that does not make Acts itself a historical account in the way we understand that word today, the Christian church is nonetheless in some measure constituted by historical narrative. Somewhat awkwardly, however, there are times in his book where Williams wants to distance theological truth from historical inquiry. For instance, he argues that the church is a comprehensive society founded by an act that isn’t grounded in any human process, and by that he means that it isn’t “limited” by any particular culture or historical context, but is (solely?) an act of God. Yet having said this, he does not offer an account of how, in consequence, historical and theological claims are to be related.
There are other problems of a similar nature. At one point Williams suggests that Augustine’s rejection of moral perfectionism as the test of the historical continuity of orthodoxy is one the church ought to reconsider today. But the claim is left dangling, underdeveloped. Nor is there any attempt to connect how this historical observation relates to current historical practice or the history of historical thinking. In fact such connections are entirely absent from this book. Its overall argument suffers from failing to engage historiography as it is currently practised by specialists, and it is seriously marred by the absence of any interaction with either the history of historiography or the philosophy of history. I would think that both are somewhat glaring omissions in a book as ambitiously titled as Why Study the Past?
Moreover, some of the criticisms Williams levels at certain conceptions of history seem to raise more problems than they solve. At one point he dismisses contextual historical analysis because it is allegedly animated by “a cynical assumption” that a given historical development is a mixture of “arbitrary power struggle and abstract ideological refinement.”  His counter-example is the early church’s earnest attempt to determine the nature of holiness. Frankly, Marx would have made mince meat of such reasoning. In putting it this way Williams relies on a mistaken belief that for something to be ideological it must be about something other than what it says it is, or that the workings of power inherently yield negative moral judgments. This cuts ideological criticism woefully short.  In saying that conceptions of holiness are ideologically grounded one could make the claim that patristic theologians were sincere in their endeavours, and did advance something tangible and beneficial; yet at the same time one could advance an argument about how they did what they did fits within wider ideological frameworks that encompass social and cultural and intellectual change. Indeed it is precisely this type of historical reasoning that Williams himself calls for at certain points in his book, though he seems not to notice that this could be a response to his rather flimsy jibes at Marxist and postmodern criticism.
At another point Williams contrasts theological history with academic secular history, the latter being in his view reductive. Theological history, he claims, is alert to the work of God, something he insists is “irreducible to a mere cultural setting”.  He then follows this up by saying that the signs of God’s providence will be found in that which “unsettles the Church”. First, Williams should justify his claim that most historians are interested in explaining the past reductively, demonstrating that this is a widespread and prejudicial practice (they aren’t, and he can’t). Second, Williams should clarify whether or not his claim is historical or not. If the assertion that such-and-such event in the past is a sign of God is not a historical claim, then by what criteria is one to evaluate rival accounts? One cannot appeal to the signs of God to settle this issue, for that begs the question. Too often, when Williams targets historical criticism he aims at a scarecrow.
In the same vein, discussing the work of an Orthodox theologian on the Greek church fathers, Williams makes the following claim:
I should want to argue that a great deal of what Lossky says remains unaffected by the plain investigation of what the fourth-century writers ‘actually’ meant. He is claiming that they do, as a matter of fact, move the theological discussion on and allow things to be said that could not be said before; and, as a theologian rather than just an intellectual historian, he assumes that new language about God will naturally affect the self-understanding of humans. 
To start with, there seems to be a fear permeating Williams’ analysis, as if the attempt to explain and understand something by the means of intellectual history unduly restricts and threatens theological insight. But this strikes me as both wrong and misguided, throwing up a sharp division between history and theology in order to protect the latter. It also betrays a lack of engagement with the current state of thinking on history, especially that of contextualist intellectual historians who have written extensively on theoretical issues, such as J. G. A. Pocock. The fact that Williams cites Michel de Certeau without engaging with the substance of his thought is quite indicative.
What is Williams asserting in the quote above? If Lossky is saying that the Greek fathers moved the theological discussion forward “as a matter of fact,” regardless of whether or not that is something they intended or accomplished in their time, then presumably what he is saying is that a later reading of their work (i.e. Lossky’s) enabled “new language about God” to emerge. But that simply displaces the historical context of the Greek fathers for the historical context of the later interpreter of the Greek fathers. And, contrary to what Williams appears to be asserting, both those contexts can be understood and explained on historical grounds without being simplistically reductive. The rise of fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible in early-twentieth-century America is in many ways based on anachronism, but that hardly means that a historical understanding and explanation of the rise of fundamentalism will be ideologically skewed or rigidly reductive.
For a theologian to develop an insight that “remains unaffected” by the historical context of the texts she’s interpreting simply means that the context which impinges on her arguments is her own. So yes, Lossky can certainly read the Greek fathers and find a theological insight that isn’t part of their “actual” historical thought. That’s certainly possible. Retrospective analysis will almost of necessity be in terms other than those of the period in question. But if Lossky is claiming that his insight builds on and develops from a historical event, text, or person, then something is going to have to be said about the relationship between historiography and theology. Any such insight, be it philosophical or theological, will probably be based on some type of dialectical historical reflection, akin to that of Vico or Montesquieu or Hegel or Marx. It’s not that understanding and explanation have to be “just” historical, whatever slight Williams means to invoke in using that word in this way. But, as Paul Ricœur has shown in Le Conflit des interprétations (Le Seuil, 1969), Du texte à l’action (Le Seuil, 1986), and elsewhere, if we are looking for the richest, most robust, and ultimately most truthful understanding, then interpretive explanation must pass through historical critique. Otherwise, if Lossky’s claims stand apart from and “above” history, how are we to assess them? Upon what grounds? How would we adjudicate between his view and that of a potential rival who, similarly “unaffected” by history, also claims to have arrived at some theological insight?
Evidently these are not questions Williams feels compelled to address. Though in a book about history, the church, and theology, he most certainly should.Notes
- Rowan Williams, Why Study the Past? The Quest for the Historical Church, Eerdmans, 2005, p. 1.
- Williams, p. 54.
- For a helpful consideration of the notion of ideology, see Terry Eagleton, Ideology: An Introduction, Verso, 1991, especially Chapter 1.
- Williams, p. 97.
- Williams, p. 100.