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Why Study the Past?: The Quest for the Historical Church

3.82  ·  Rating details ·  123 ratings  ·  23 reviews
The well-worn saying about being condemned to repeat the history we do not know applies to church history as much as to any other kind. But how are Christians supposed to discern what lessons from history need to be learned?

In this small but thoughtful volume, respected theologian and churchman Rowan Williams opens up a theological approach to history, an approach that is
Paperback, 135 pages
Published July 6th 2005 by Eerdmans (first published January 1st 2005)
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Aug 14, 2011 rated it did not like it
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 re
Brad East
Jul 27, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Excellent. I will very likely assign this book, or at least parts of it (esp the first chapter), in classes I teach for many years to come.
Ivy-Mabel Fling
I don't know who I would recommend this book to - I had nothing against it but I really didn't understand the message at all. It seemed to me to be full of page after page of meaningless sentences. And those who praise it do so in the same incomprehensible language as Mr Williams. ...more
Jun 25, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: history, theology
Quite good. Some real gold in here on the question of history in general, and church history and Christian identity in particular.
Brett Vanderzee
Dec 31, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The real question that drives Rowan Williams’ Why Study the Past? is implied by its subtitle: What is the Church? In a brisk hundred fourteen pages, Williams unsettles all of our easy answers, calling us to a broad-minded, open-handed Christianity in pursuit of truth’s fullness. His vehicle for this complicating is a fairly simple thesis: the Church’s unity is “given by God rather than achieved by us . . . binding us in solidarity with a good many people we should not have chosen to be alongside ...more
Peter Webster
The study of the history of the Church often has both added complexity and urgency for those working within a framework of personal faith or institutional allegiance. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s 2003 Sarum Theological Lectures, subtle studies of the self-awareness of the early church and of the writing of church history during the Reformation period, offer a stimulating series of meditations on the particularities of approach and attitude that might conduce towards a critical yet useful churc ...more
Jonah Michael Porter
Apr 06, 2013 rated it did not like it
You know, Rowan Williams might have been an OK Archbishop of Canterbury - I don't pay much attention to those kinds of things for the most part - but I'll tell you what, his books are really boring. No way I'd finish this thing if it wasn't for class. ...more
Oct 21, 2013 rated it it was amazing
If you really want to study church history for meaning, you must start here.
Apr 06, 2014 rated it really liked it
Dense. Excellent discussion of history, its continuity and distinctness, relevance, and our attitude towards it as we respond to our identity as Christians and the body of Christ's church. ...more
Jun 22, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I've been wanting to read this one for a while, so I finally got around to it last month. The chapters are based on a series of talks that Rowan Williams gave at Salisbury Cathedral in 2004. Williams, before he became Archbishop of Canterbury in the 2000s, was (and is) a patristics scholar and theologian, so the topic is, of course, an important one for him. It is an important one for me, given my interest in history and church history in general.

William's starting point is what church history
Denise Kettering
Aug 19, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
This book provides some very helpful ways to understand the project of church history, and particularly how theology and history are tied together in meaningful ways. Williams' writing, often in long sentences with many clauses, will deter some readers as being "too dry," but the heart of Williams' argument is helpful for those folks interested in thinking about ways to understand the challenges that the Christian past. In particular, Williams reminds us that some of us have the tendency to miss ...more
Rowan Williams gives Christians a template for evaluating church history, and by extension all history. His nuanced reading of diverse theologians and historians from Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox perspectives strikes me as quintessentially Anglican. He carefully guides us to a middle way between rejecting the past as archaic, primitive, and ignorant on the one hand, and the opposite fallacy of imagining that we can relive or bring back the faith of an earlier era. His way forward preserves ...more
Kendall Davis
Mar 24, 2019 rated it really liked it
This was a good book on the whole. Williams makes you stop and think about what we're often trying to do when we do history, especially when we try to use history for polemical purposes. I think Williams is quite right when he recognizes that doing history is about answering questions of identity. Thus doing church history as christians, we are asking the question, "What is the church?" whenever we are doing church history. It may seem odd at first, but I think Williams is convincing in his thes ...more
anthony keating
Does history really have to be so complex?

I found this book to be really hard going. It would seem that the author has a need to use obtuse and abstract language. He may have a great point to make but digging it out would take many readings. Saying all this maybe I am just to thick to understand.
Feb 20, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Typically dense Williamsian prose — I read many sentences twice, if not three times — but dogged perseverance and submission to his philosophical-theological explorations yields fruitful rewards. Chapter 4 in particular makes the labor wholly worthwhile: “church history as a spiritual discipline.”(is that a spoiler?) I’m sure I will return to this volume time and again.
Aug 09, 2019 rated it liked it
This book was a short and concise summary of the evolution of Christian thought and theological development over the past two millenia, without going into much detail about any of it. The author makes a few good points about the benefits of studying Church history, but otherwise this book is a condensed comparison.
Dec 06, 2012 rated it really liked it
This is a relatively easy read, in which I felt I had entered the mind of a devout but intelligent, humble Anglican wrestling with the many theological issues that present themselves to us within a contemporary setting.

He asks some great questions. How do we define the church? Is it within or without? He argues for the importance of seeing church history in the social, intellectual and cultural context in which it was lived and breathed, rather than seeing and reading it as us merely in fancy dr
Matt Root
Feb 14, 2016 rated it it was amazing
I don't give out 5 star ratings often but this one is well deserved. This is an intelligent, compelling offering about not only the importance of narrative and the stories we tell ourselves but also fruitful and respectful ways of engaging the past that neither eliminate its otherness nor make it so remote as to make it meaningless to us today. I rarely say things like this, but I honestly think this should be required reading for anyone studying church, theology or religious studies. ...more
Sep 04, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: church-history
An interesting little book comprising of an expanded series of lectures delivered by Rowan Williams at Salisbury Cathedral. Williams explores how history can be studied and embraced theologically whilst avoiding the traps of assuming that the past is "the present in fancy dress" or so inaccessible as to have no meaning or relevance.

As always the style is somewhat tricky. Surely there can never be any excuse of using the word "complexification"?
Jan 26, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: faith-religion
I think I had to read about half of the sentences in the book twice. As Williams repeats his main points numerous times, this probably isn't necessary for less OCD readers. ...more
Eugene LeCouteur
Apr 10, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: theology, history
a profound and instructive little book. It made me think and I think I am the better for having read it.
David Smith
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Rowan Douglas Williams, Baron Williams of Oystermouth, is an Anglican bishop, poet, and theologian. He was Archbishop of Canterbury from December 2002-2012, and is now Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge and Chancellor of the University of South Wales.

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30 likes · 7 comments
“To engage with the Church’s past is to see something of the Church’s future.” 0 likes
“we need to bear in mind that the Reformation debate was not one between self-designated Catholics and Protestants; it was a debate about where the Catholic Church was to be found. ‘Is the Pope a Catholic?’ was not a joke in the sixteenth century.” 0 likes
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