Theology and the Church

Theology and the Church June 13, 2022


Rowan Williams argues that there are three approaches to theology: the “celebratory,” the “communicative,” and the “critical.”[i]

The “celebratory” is the “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.  It is typically the language of hymnody and preaching,” but it can also be found in the work of Dante and Langland, Byzantine iconography, and some of “the more intelligent modern choruses.”[ii]  Williams also notes that celebratory theology is the dominant mode of reflection in the Eastern Orthodox Church and, in some cases, in the work of western theologians, like that of Hans Urs von Balthasar.[iii]

“Communicative” theology is, by contrast, what Williams describes as “theology experimenting with the rhetoric of its uncommitted environment.”[iv]  What Williams is referring to here might also be described as apologetic theology, as long as one hews fairly close to the classical definition given to that enterprise.  It is the effort to “persuade or comment, to witness to the gospel’s capacity for being at home in more than one cultural environment, and to display enough confidence to believe that this gospel can be rediscovered at the end of a long and exotic detour through strange idioms and structures of thought.”[v]

Williams seems to imply that this task only becomes necessary or important when celebratory theology “becomes so densely worked that the language is in danger of being sealed in on itself,” but it is unclear why that would necessarily be the case.  Described as a separate theological endeavor, communicative theology could easily be understood as a parallel and complementary effort.  Widening the audience that the church has for its message and broadening the categories at its disposal, communicative theology vindicates the church’s claim to universality and embraces a wider world.  Examples that Williams offers include the use made of Stoic and Platonic categories by the Apologists, Clement, and Origen or feminist theory, as used by Sarah Coakley.[vi]

The third endeavor that Williams describes is critical theology.  Here again, he offers a somewhat linear description of the relationship between critical theology and the preceding theological endeavor.  Arguing that communicative theology takes the theologian into a struggle with the question as to what is “continuous with what has been believed” and with what “the ‘fundamental categories’ really mean,” the task becomes “critical” – “alert to its own inner tensions and irresolutions.”[vii]  Once the theologian embarks on this task, Williams notes it can go in a variety of shapes.  But it runs in two fundamentally different directions: toward either “agnosticism” and “even nihilism” or “towards a rediscovery of the celebratory.”[viii]

As before, it is not clear that the strains in a communicative theology are the only occasion for critical theology.  One might reasonably argue that the critical task is essential to the articulation of the Christian message as culture changes and time passes.  The critical task in that sense is not tied to either the failure of Christian categories or questions about the necessity or coherence of those categories.

Ultimately, the way in which we navigate the theological task can be more or less life-giving.  A celebratory theology that becomes moribund betrays the lively and lived connection with God that the church depends upon.  Communicative theology that values the cultural assumptions of its surroundings over the native language of the faith’s essential assumptions betrays its task.  And, plainly, a critical theology that trends toward agnosticism and nihilism will undermine the church’s relationship with the Resurrected Christ.

As Williams notes, lively theology is never confined to one of the theological tasks to the exclusion of the others.[ix]  Theology, he notes, is the product of “an essential restlessness in the enterprise of Christian utterance that reflects the eschatological impulse at its heart”; and it resists “any attempt to picture the world as immanently ordered or finished.”[x]  But the restlessness that Williams describes is not native to theology per se and his description of its origin as “eschatological” – though accurate — masks a deeper reason for that restlessness.  It is rooted in the experience of the Resurrected Christ, shaped by baptism into the body of Christ, and fed by the liturgy and the prayer life of the church.

Today, the failure to acknowledge the necessity of all three tasks and the tendency to emphasize one task to the exclusion of the other two presents the greatest theological challenge that the church faces.  Those who do nothing but advocate for a lifeless reassertion of the church’s doctrine court one set of problems.  Those who do nothing but advocate a critical theology unmoored in the church’s celebratory court another set.

But because the conversation about theology is always a conversation about God’s hope for the church and the world, this is not an abstract challenge.  It is a lived, spiritual, and missional challenge as well.  Attending conscientiously to all three tasks in an integrated fashion is the only solution.


[i] Rowan Williams, On Christian Theology, Challenges in Contemporary Theology, eds., Gareth Jones and Lewis Ayres  (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000): xiii.

[ii] Ibid., xiii.

[iii] Ibid., xiii-xiv.

[iv] Ibid., xiv.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid., xiv-xv.

[viii] Ibid., xv.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid., xvi.


Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

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