Despite broad differences in Christian thinking and practice both today and in past centuries, the essence of the Christian faith can be distilled to four basic elements for the majority of those who call themselves Christians, according to Dr. Rowan Williams, the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury.
Bible Gateway interviewed Dr. Williams about the chapter on the Bible in his book, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014).
How did you decide to focus on baptism, the Bible, the Eucharist, and prayer as the four essential elements of the Christian life to write about?
Dr. Williams: Simply by looking at what Christians actually do to announce that they’re Christians, throughout the ages and throughout the world. It would be hard to recognize as Christian a body that had none of these practices. And all are mandated by Jesus in different ways: he tells his friends to evangelize and baptize, to search the Scriptures, to break bread in his memory, so as to receive his life into theirs, and to pray.
The Bible is a collection of books written over centuries. How do they all fit together in a cohesive message?
Dr. Williams: The cohesion comes through the fact that it is the set of texts read and accepted in a cohesive community—the community of those whose lives are being shaped by the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Christ is the center of Scripture for the Christian and provides the perspective in which diversity can be held in the right kind of tension. And the church both gives Scripture its unity be treading it in the Spirit of Christ and receives its unity from Scripture as the book which provides a universal common language.
Explain your statement in the book, “The Christian life is a listening life.”
Dr. Williams: We believe in a God who speaks and calls; the God of the Bible is one who is always seeking to communicate more fully and effectively with human creatures, so we have to train ourselves to be quiet enough to hear that communication.
If the Bible is intended to be communication from God to us, why are there so few directed quotes from God to us in it and so much seemingly mundane information?
Dr. Williams: God speaks through human lives, not only human words: it is the privilege and power of God to make lives communicate as much as words do. So God speaks in the narrative of those whose lives he has touched and transfigured. This is a natural consequence of believing that the ultimate word of God is a human being who embodies God’s communication in his acts and sufferings, Jesus of Nazareth. His life and death and resurrection create a set of relationships in which learning happens—by words and acts and interactions, not words alone.
Why should readers of the Bible be careful to interpret the whole story of the Bible and not merely a bit of the whole story?
Dr. Williams: The Bible traces God’s way into human history, a story culminating in the coming of Jesus. If you try to deduce the whole picture from one ‘frozen frame’ you will have a very odd picture of God’s activity.
Is the Bible accurate history?
Dr. Williams: Sometimes yes, sometimes no, sometimes maybe. Where it’s a matter of the shape of Jesus’ life and death, it matters that the texts are close to the events and have first-generation testimony behind them. With regard to Abraham and Isaac, we have a traditional ‘epic’ which may not be exact history but tells us what God wants us to know, that he is faithful to his promise. Narratives that may not be exact history can still be exact theology because they represent a long-term deposit from reflection on how God has been encountered over many centuries. It’s a very modern anxiety that everything in Scripture should be what we might now think of as ‘exact’ reporting.
How is Jesus at the center of the Bible’s story and why is that important?
Dr. Williams: All promises of God find their ‘yes’ in him, as St. Paul says; and he alone is without qualification God present and active in the middle of the human world.
Why is the concept of reading the Bible together important?
Dr. Williams: If the Bible is the book read and pondered by the community, then Bible-reading must be like all those other activities that the community of faith does—it must be a matter of each believer’s gift enriching every other believer’s gift, as in St. Paul’s language about the life of the Body of Christ. It’s a text that belongs to everyone, not to isolated individuals.
Bio: Rowan Williams served as the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012 and is now Master of Magdalene College, University of Cambridge. His numerous other books include Christ on Trial: How the Gospel Unsettles Our Judgment, The Lion’s World: A Journey into the Heart of Narnia, and Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief.