Standard work disclaimer – this is a book that my present employer, SPCK, publishes, but I hope my review isn’t too tainted by that.
The most popular blog post on my old blog, now reproduced here, was titled and about The Wonder of the Cross. This book, probably my favourite thing that I’ve read by Rowan Williams, and about the Cross and Resurrection this year, is titled and about God with Us. Published by SPCK on the 19th of January 2017, God with us: The meaning of the cross and resurrection. Then and now. is a brilliant little book, by a theologian with somewhat of a universal reputation. I note that reputation ambiguously at the start – but would preface the review by saying that this book, regardless of author, is a brilliant set of writing about the Cross and the Resurrection. Too often books are about one without the other – and that is one thing that this book challenges us to think about. Further, as I hope to show in my review, the fact that it is Rowan writing these things, at this time, is deeply signifcant and very encouraging.
Anyway, on with the review.
The Cross is the central symbol, the central sign, and the central component of the Christian Faith. But it isn’t the full story. As I’ve observed elsewhere, we all to easily tell only part of the truth, and this is a book that attempts to model what it might mean to tell the whole of the truth. For me, this book is brilliant because it fundamentally recognises the importance of keeping the Cross and the Resurrection together, rather than seeing them as competing elements of the Gospel, or alternative ways of understanding what the Gospel is and means. As Rowan says, “There is no pre-cross Christianity“, just as the Cross and the Resurrection also give us who are post that historical event a shape for our faith and life. This is a book that carefully considers different models of the Atonement, not shying away from what the Gospel accounts actually say, nor avoiding the difficult questions.
I would encourage those of you who doubt Rowan’s orthodoxy, or have a monolithic view of the atonement, to read this book. With that in mind, I’m not going to go into detail around what he says about the Cross, whilst noting that he observes that “Paul uses quite widely the language of propitiation, the gift that makes peace with God“, and that (with the questions raised by, among others, my friend Steve in Jesus Saves, But How?) “we sometimes forget that our Jewish and early Christian ancestors were not nearly as stupid or morally obtuse as we are tempted to think“. This observation applies in particular to our view of sacrifice and our understanding of the Cross, but could be helpfully applied to other areas of discussion within and without the Church. The Cross and the Resurrection are writ large throughout the Christian faith, they mean something now.
In joining the Cross and the Resurrection together, in contrast to many recent books and theological approaches, Rowan rightly observes both the joint victory and the different emphases of the two events. From the sacrifice flows the victory, and Rowan observes that “the outcome of the last struggle on Good Friday is, you might say, a foregone conclusion“. The triumph of the Christian Gospel is that “The victim has become the victor“, and that triumph is seen and found in both the Cross and the Resurrection. The Resurrection, then, is a focus of this book that is particularly important. Here, Rowan writes beautifully, pointing through the Easter King to the Kingdom of God:
The resurrection is neither an optional extra nor a happy ending, it is the inescapable bursting through of the essential reality of who and what Jesus is
This is the heart of the effect of the Gospel – we are not simply saved from Sin, but we are saved for something, participation in the Kingdom of God as members of the people of God:
The Christian community exists, in New Testament terms, because of the conviction that a new age has begun, that something decisive has happened and a change has been made
This is what it means to say that God is with Us. It is a very specific claim about God – in contrast to other Gods, rooted in historic Christianity. It is also a claim about the Church – the ‘us’. The meaning of the Cross and Resurrection is vast and vital and active, affecting everything. Rowan goes on to examine several areas where a healthy, orthodox view of the Cross and Resurrection can re-shape and renew our view and practice of faith. I will expand on these in various forms – I’d like to propose a paper for a theological conference on his discussion of sacraments and worship, and will blog in the future about the Resurrection and Ethics. I close this review with some of the closing words of the book:
In Him our life begins afresh day be day, because he is, and always will be, God with Us