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Why Study the Past? Paperback – 1 Apr 2005


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Product details

  • Paperback: 129 pages
  • Publisher: Darton,Longman & Todd Ltd (1 April 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0232525498
  • ISBN-13: 978-0232525496
  • Product Dimensions: 13.6 x 1.1 x 21.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 614,322 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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About the Author

Rowan Williams was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012, and is now Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge. He has written 5 books for DLT. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Graham Humphries on 20 Oct 2008
Format: Paperback
The book, Why Study the Past, published in 2005 shows the multiple layers of the Archbishop, as philosopher and theologian, adapt at the study of history and philosophy.

Although the book is a difficult read, the common theme and intention of the book is to deal with the question of the current view of Unity within the modern Church. Williams takes the Wittgenstein deconstructive view and asks us to consider again our perceived ideas of Unity in the early church, and later our view of Authority and consider the true complexity of the Church. This complexity, according to Dr. Williams, is construed as being not as transient humans with a hotchpotch of experiences, but as a common theme with our relationship with something `other'; and that `other' being in common with many other faiths that seek to grapple with the understanding of the divine and its interplay with us within a faith community such as the Christian Church.

Williams seeks to show how histories view of Unity can be played, either as a Marxist singularity with a particular advantage, offering a polished and manipulated aspect on the issue of our modern view of unity, or to read History with depth, to seek out the veritas of the subject and the individuals.

So why is the Archbishop of Canterbury so interested in Unity? In short he, in common with many Anglicans, is worried about divisions within the Church, in particular the arguments regarding the ordination of practicing homosexuals and women both to the clergy and the consideration of them to the episcopacy. Williams turns away from seeking high theological answers to these complex and angst ridden theological questions, and instead concentrates on about facing God and seeing God looking back at us. Williams' conclusion is refreshing and uncluttered: that Christian Unity ultimately rests on that we can still say the Psalms or pray the Lord's Prayer together as a community of believers.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Melody on 12 Sep 2011
Format: Paperback
Reading this book gave me a much better understanding of why the church is the way it is, why certain traditions exist in different wings of the church and the Godly root of each. I think it will help me communicate more effectively with people in different christian traditions to me.

It also gave me a better understanding of Rowan Williams - his depth of thought, his compassion, his love for God and for the church.

I won't deny that it was quite a challenging read, though - I certainly wouln't like to play Rowan Williams at scrabble!
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25 of 31 people found the following review helpful By J. Thomas on 19 May 2005
Format: Paperback
An excellent book which is very well argued and very helpful to people struggling with the necessity to look at history. More than that however, Williams does not get bogged down in detail and academic intimacies rather he presents information in positive manner so that the church can look forward referring to its past, neither brushing it under the carpet, nor dwelling on it, but to learn to help to come to undertanding of the direction it must pursue.
As with much Williams, this contains wisdom that leads one to want to read more and more and think beoynd the usual spectrum.
How well people could do to listen to the advice in this short, very approachable book.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
A good book but challenging to read at times. Like others who have commented, the language Rowan Williams uses can be fairly difficult to read at times. As a short book he covers his themes well and has much to recommend.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 6 reviews
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
A Discerning Overview of Church History 13 May 2007
By Carlton B. Turner - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
In 4 chapters and only 114 pages Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams gives a penetrating and discerning theology of church history. How has the church described what is unique to itself from the first early centuries, through the Middle Ages, the Reformation and modern times? Williams traces deep patterns of how the church has struggled through the pressures of different historical eras to witness to the unique community that is created by the work of God in Christ. A discerning look at the past will discover something strange and different from ourselves but in a way that helps us discover our community with the past in ways that will change how we see ourselves in the present and so face new challenges as we move into the future.
26 of 34 people found the following review helpful
Faithful Narration 15 Oct 2005
By Billy O. Daniel - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
This is a must read for historians, and should be required reading for students entering Divinity School. Archbishop Williams gifts us with a candid picture of ecclesial scholarship from its inception on. It is not a detailed investigation into specific movements in church history, but reveals to the reader how specific movements tailored history in such a way that the 'winners' articulation of these occurrences prevailed--leaving us with a less than honest narration of that history. Williams presents an argument, much like Alisdair MacIntyre does in "Who's Justice? Which Rationality?," stating that 'we need to understand the other on the other's own grounds.' And in Williams' case, we need to do the grunt work necessary for doing history so to contextualize each period, as best as we can, as the events and language would have been understood to those who actually lived them. (As MacIntyre put it, 'languages can be learned, but they cannot be translated'). This does not mean that tradition and doctrine cannot be timeless. It does, however, mean that they must undergo constant renewal in the community through, as Williams puts it (using the language of Georges Florovsky), the "charismatic memory" as it is located in the liturgical activity of the church.
A Work of Persuasion as Much about Ecclesiology as Church History 29 Nov 2014
By Chip Webb - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Former Archbishop of Canterbury's Rowan Williams's Why Study the Past?: The Quest for the Historical Church consists of four chapters, each one corresponding to a lecture given in May 2003 at Salisbury Cathedral in Salisbury, England. The lectures were revised and expanded before publication in 2005. On the surface, the book looks like another academic work that Williams could write in his sleep; whether you agree or disagree with him on any given issue, his scholarly giftedness is undeniable. For readers familiar with recent Anglican history, however, it's hard not to see subtexts running throughout this work that both point to then-current Anglican events and, in retrospect, shed insightful light on what Williams was trying to do during his tenure as "first among equals" of Anglican primates.

Williams starts from the viewpoint that history is written to make sense of current crises (a statement true as far as it goes, but I think Williams underestimates the human desire to write history just to understand the past apart from other extrinsic motivations). He proceeds from there to look at how Church history has been handled throughout the Church's existence and how we should handle it today. A meaty initial chapter covers several topics, opening with assumptions to make and avoid when studying history, continuing with a well-detailed overview of Christian historians throughout the Church's life, and concluding with some theological reflections on the importance of Church history. Chapter 2 looks in more detail at the early church, while Chapter 3 does the same for the Reformation. (Disappointingly, Williams mostly skips the Medieval Church.) The final chapter deals with present-day applications.

Throughout, Williams frequently critiques common assumptions held by both theological conservatives and theological liberals/progressives. Instead of looking for unbroken continuity concerning any given issue over the course of church history or appealing to any "golden age" of the Church, theological conservatives should recognize that prior Christians often did not mean the same things as we do today even when they used the same language. More importantly, while God's revelation is fixed and not malleable, it is fully understood by the Church only over time. This belief leads Williams to conclude that we will only be able to fully know what is orthodox when history has reached its consummation. He repeatedly asserts that orthodoxy is something to be upheld--his belief that it can only be partly grasped by Christians at any given point in history is not an argument to either treat orthodoxy casually or jettison it, but rather a viewpoint that sees the Church as still a work-in-progress. For all of his reputation as an Anglo-Catholic, Williams agrees with the Reformers that the Church sometimes has to recover something from prior ages in church history that has been lost.

And rather than reading current understandings of issues back into earlier periods of church history or attempting to justify innovations with the proclamation that "the Holy Spirit is doing a new thing," theological liberals/progressives should instead realize that past Christians are their "other" and that God acts in ways consonant with both his nature and what he has done in the past. Some might mistakenly think that God's revelation changes when it's the Church's understanding of it that must be modified over time--and such modifications are not always correct ones. Importantly, neither the Church nor humanity is inevitably progressing for the better over time; Williams rejects that out-of-hand. He stresses that it is up to the innovators to prove that any "new thing" is a valid continuation of what God has been doing throughout history, namely redemption through the cross and the Holy Spirit's work to sanctify each member of the body of Christ. It is also necessary to look at what has not changed in the Church over the centuries and why that is so; normally, there is a very good reason for what has not changed. Only with substantive theological grounding in what God is doing through Christ can anything new be accepted by the Church.

The way forward that Williams offers is a complex one. We are to balance the two poles, neither expecting perfect continuity nor drastic dissimilarity from how God has operated in the past through the Church. Commonality is found in the language of worship over time, much of which comes from the Bible. The Bible's authority for the Church and the individual Christian is not derived from either inerrancy or prophetic passages that speak to modern-day issues, but in the fact that it is used by the Holy Spirit to shape and sanctify the Christian--and has been used that way since the inception of the Church. Since all of the members of the body of Christ share a common relationship through baptism, redemption, and sanctification, and because Christ prays through them and they share the "common language" of worship, reconciliation should be possible when Christians differ. However, since not everything is of Christ (not even in the Church) and some boundaries are necessary, church discipline is required at times. Even church splits might be necessary when the "common language" of worship has broken down and/or the action of God through Christ in the Church is lost.

What we have, then, is not simply an argument for studying church history, but an appeal to both theological conservatives and theological liberals/progressives to approach then-current Anglican issues from a particular vantage point that is atypical for them. Observant Anglicans might well hear echoes of 2004's The Windsor Report, a formal Anglican Communion attempt to chart a way forward from the threat to unity posed by The Episcopal Church's consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson and other theological issues, in these expanded lectures. Williams's hope for reconciliation also brings to mind his future advocacy of indaba as a means of listening and dialogue during the 2008 Lambeth Conference. Overall, the book provides fascinating glimpses into the rationale, faith, and ecclesiology behind Williams's largely unsuccessful attempts to hold the Anglican Communion together.

How valuable is Why Study the Past? nearly a decade after its publication? As a theological conservative myself, I find Williams thought-provoking and sometimes persuasive, but rarely fully convincing; his high views of revelation, orthodoxy, and the Church are refreshing when compared to more common progressive beliefs, but are not enough to make me abandon more traditionally orthodox understandings (e.g., I'm not convinced that common beliefs are as rare over church history as Williams makes them out to be). Sadly, as well, the Anglican Communion seems closer today to dissolution than ever. But much of Williams's high ecclesiology and the importance he places upon understanding church history could benefit the Church today. (A moving passage near the end of Chapter 1 on how past Christian lives impact present-day Christian identities is especially noteworthy in this regard.) This work is not an introductory one on church history (although it could supplement one), but for those familiar with church history, ecclesiology, and/or Anglicanism, it can provide much worthwhile to ponder.
4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
History repeats itself 3 Jan 2007
By Amazon Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
The Archbishop does a fine job presenting the imortance of studying the past. Our history must be understood (actually learned) in order to wisely interpret our present spirituality and worship life. Many of us live a myopic spirituality, liking what we know and mostly only what we know. Rowan Williams pastors a large church (the Anglican communion) that is presented with divisions and is paying the price for the revisionist segment of the communion. The concept of via media is just one of the frames of reference that has come about due to an abismal lack of knowledge of Christian worship history. Hopefully this text will bring light into dark corners, not on specifics of theology but certainly on the importance of knowing our own history.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Shipped on time! 20 Feb 2013
By Lurenna Hutchings - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is a book required for my Church History course that begins February 26 so I have not began reading this book yet. I am pleased with the shipping and the price was great!
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