I felt the need to write a review of this book after noting that a previous reviewer (in, what is frankly, a badly executed review) gave the book only one star. This superb collection of essays deserves better.
Although it is sometimes described as Rowan Williams 'Systematic Theology', 'On Christian Theology' is actually a collection of several of his essays over a period of twenty years that have been arranged systematically. Williams, in traditional Anglican style, prefers the medium of the essay to lengthy volumes of Systematics in order to explore the range and inner nuances of Christian theology. The work itself is divided into five sections, which could be described as a Prolegomena, a discussion of the content of revelation itself, a discussion of the metaphysical underpinnings of revelation in response to revelation, a discussion of ecclesiology and the sacraments, and finally a discussion of ethics and (briefly) eschatology. In the Prologue, Williams discusses the three 'registers' or modes that Christian theology works in: the celebratory, the communicative and the critical. The first is what he describes as 'an attempt to draw out and display connections of thought and image so as to exhibit the fullest possible range of significance in the language used' (p.xiii) (i.e. the realm of hymns, preaching, iconography, Eastern Orthodoxy and von Balthasar; perhaps the best analogy for this is dogmatics). The second, the communicative, is 'a theology experimenting with the rhetoric of its uncommitted environment' (p.xiv), which can perhaps be described as a kind of apologetics. The final register or mode is the critical, a theology 'alert to its own inner tensions of irresolutions' (p.xv). It is these divisions which are at the heart of 'On Christian Theology', and Williams - often within a single essays - weaves through all three.
It must be noted again that this is a collection of essays arranged systematically. Those looking for 'the comprehensive thinking of Rowan Williams' will be disappointed here. Here are a few illuminating snapshots of Williams' thinking. The essay-style of the book is unusual, but in being so it has many gems. Thus, in being in essay form, the essays all begin from differing perspectives and challenges: this is not an unfolding of a single theological idea (ala Barth, Tillich or Rahner), but rather the approaching of different doctrines from certain particularities but with an inner consistency. For instance, his discussion of the empty tomb is also a wonderfully insightful discussion of the ark of the covenant, two seemingly unrelated subjects stunningly brought together - in which both subjects are in turn illuminated. On another occasion, his discussion on the Incarnation works through a critical engagement with the Lux Mundi theologians; a discussion of ecclesial ethics uses the engagement against racism as a way of working through what it means to be the church of Jesus Christ. Whilst sometimes this leaves the reader initially question what actually has been discussed, a second or third reading brings out the inner connections of the essay at hand. When the writing is at its most complex (his discussions of Moore's logic in 'Trinity and Ontology' is quite a challenge to read through), a patient reading will eventually discern the inner gems.
This is not a work for those hoping to find in Williams a theological liberal. Although he engages with 19th and 20th Century liberalism, Williams himself is firmly in the 'Generously Orthodox' School, based in Christian tradition and the thinking of Barth and Balthasar. All in all, despite the eclectic mix of approaches to various doctrines, there is an inner consistency here at work. After sometime with the book, one notes that the essays still keep on bringing out fresh insights even after several readings: the mark of all great theology and all great theologians. A true theological classic to keep on one's theological bookshelf!