This is a bad book from almost every perspective. First, it is poorly written. Williams’ style is as dry as Death Valley and he goes out of his way to write in the most obscure fashion possible. For example, in addressing the Arian heresy, he writes:
“Arius’ theory is probably the best attempt that could have been made to settle the issue of Jesus’ holiness without some basic revision of the very word ‘God’. It proposed that the eternal word embodied in Jesus was the primary recipient of God’s revelation and God’s glory and power, but also the primary worshipper of God.” (page 43)
He might just as simply have stated that Arius denied the co-eternal nature of Christ.
Worse than the writing, though, is the thought behind it. Williams ostensibly wrote “Why Study the Past” in order to answer the questions “What is the Church? How can we recognize it, and how do we recognize those people of whom the Church is constituted?” These are good questions and worthy of serious thought and discussion. Williams proposes that one place to look for an answer is in the past, hence the book’s title. He looks to the great chroniclers of the Church, Eusebius, Augustine, Bede and others to find clues to the answer.
No sooner does he make this proposal, htough, than he undermines it by calling the reliability of the chroniclers into question. According to Williams, Eusebius’ definition of the Church is frequently based on the evidence of martyrdom. The faith of those who recanted to save their lives is suspect in the eyes of Eusebius and he makes no bones about it. Eusebius also saw the history of the Church in cycles of temptation, fall, discipline in the form of persecution, followed by rest in the form of exaltation. Williams takes issue with the way in which Eusebius interprets the constituents of the Church and its historic cycles and dismisses most of it as biased and incomplete. He does this with nearly all of the historians he mentions; examining their claims, searching for weakness in the form of bias, and dismissing their claims when he finds any. He particularly finds fault when a historian makes a moral judgment of an historical event. Apparently he does not realize that, in doing so, he, as an historian, is making a moral judgment of an historical event.
History, then, is mostly unreliable, so it cannot answer his questions about the identity of the Church. Williams grudgingly concedes that there is some truth to be found, but he provides us no tools to assist us in the task of sifting historical truth from the error of the chroniclers, no rock on which to secure our anchor as we look for answers to the questions he raises. So where can we turn to find answers to his questions? It is at this point that the book begins to fall apart. Williams rambles from topic to topic in a tangential fashion looking for a peg on which to hang his hat but never finding one.
Sadly, Williams does not mention Scripture as a place to go to understand who the Church is and what it should look like. The reason for this may have to do with the fact that he does not take a very high view of the authority or authenticity of Scripture. On page 29, he writes: “we do not know in what sense we can begin to see Abraham as a historical person, we do not know whether we see the shadow of a remote but real patriarch or simply the brilliant but God-directed literary creation of a personality by the storytellers of a later age.” If we cannot view Abraham as historical, how can we view any other individual in Scripture, including Christ, as historical? How can we accept as authoritative anything in Scripture?
Williams cannot bring himself to look to Scripture to resolve any question. With regard to his own identity as a Christian he writes: “Who I am as a Christian is something which, in theological terms, I could only answer fully on the impossible supposition that I could see and grasp how all other Christian lives had shaped mine and, more specifically, shaped it toward the likeness of Christ.” (page 27) When discussing controversies and potential heresies in the modern Church, the best he can come up with is: “confronted with dispute over controversial novelty, the sort of question that the believer needs to consider is how far a particular option in the debate or a particular innovation tends to obscure the transparency of the Church to God’s action.” (page 105) Without the absolute standards provided by the Bible, it is no wonder that the Anglican Church is in such a state of disarray.
The only definitive statement Williams is able to make regarding Church identity is on page 85: “we affirm the crucial element of an authentic identity as Church – that is, the abiding act of God, and the givenness of baptism.” If he would only open his Bible, he might begin to find answers to the questions he raises; answers that would provide form to the admittedly flawed efforts of fallen human beings to chronicle the history of the Bride of Christ. Christ, Himself, says that the world will know Christians by the love they have for one another and the fruit of the Spirit that they bear. That seems like a very good starting point for discovering who and what the Church is, and has been through history.
As an investigation into the identity and history of the Church, “Why Study the Past” is a failure. Anyone interested in a good book on those topics would do well to read any of the following:
1. Church History in Plain Language, by Bruce Shelley
2. Ye are the Body, by Bonnell Spencer
3. The History of the Church, by Eusebius
4. The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, by Bede