On ‘The Body’s Grace’ (1): God’s command

This is the first part of a planned series on homosexuality and the church. I’m planning to start with a sequence of posts on Rowan Williams’ famous essay, ‘The Body’s Grace’, and then walk slowly towards more ecclesiological matters.

Over on Faith and Theology, when Ben Myers suggested that Rowan Williams’ ‘The Body’s Grace’, was an example of a life-changing essay, one of the blog’s regular visitors, Shane, commented, ‘What was so great about “The Body’s Grace”? … I was disappointed by this essay – there is one central question in the debate about homosexuality (whatever one’s anwer to it): What does God command me to do? Williams spends the entire essay attempting not to raise that question.’ In a comment to another post, he put the same point again, ‘As far as I’m concerned it’s a straightforward example of why the Anglican church is in the crisis it is in today – Williams is just dodging the central question over and over again. The central question is this: Is homosexuality good, bad or indifferent from God’s perspective?’

Those comments are not the main reason for starting this series of posts, but they do provide a useful starting point – by being exactly wrong.

Williams opens ‘The Body’s Grace’ with the questions, Why does sex matter? and, What does it have to do with God? As he goes on, it becomes clear that he is asking, What on earth do sexual relationships have to do with the Christian gospel?

Albeit in a different theological idiom, Williams is precisely asking, What does God command? He is asking, What difference does it make to see sexual relationships in the light of God’s word to the world in Christ? How does seeing sexuality in that light allow us to understand both what can be right about sex, and what can be wrong? How does the gospel enable us to get a truly Christian clarity about sexual ethics?

This strategy is, it seems to me, based on several related assumptions.

  1. The gospel – the good news spoken by God to the world in Jesus Christ – is God’s command. To put it the other way around, the command of God is not extraneous to the gospel – as if God, while saving us in Christ by the Spirit, said, ‘Oh, and there’s another, unrelated thing I wanted to talk to you about…’
  2. The connection between gospel and command is intelligible. That is, it is possible for us by attending to the Gospel to understand how and why we are commanded – and such understanding is the fundamental task of Christian ethics.
  3. The gospel so understood provides the criterion by which we discover what truly is a binding command upon us. Faced, for instance, with a range of biblical commands about slavery, women, usury, polygamy, and sexual relationships, the fundamental theological question is not, ‘Which of these is culturally conditioned?’ but ‘How, if at all, do these matters relate to the gospel?’ Theological ethics is a matter, we might say, of taking every thought captive to Christ.
  4. Because this attention to the gospel is the fundamental task of Christian ethics, any approach that simply stops with the apparent demands we find in Scripture, without asking whether and how they connect to the gospel, fails to take the command of God seriously.
  5. If there is some intelligible connection between the gospel and sexual relationships, there would be a binding Christian sexual ethic (a command of God regarding sexual behaviour) even if there were no passages in Scripture that explicitly treated sexual matters.

I realise that I have as yet left the term ‘gospel’ vague. But we’re only just getting started…

3 Thoughts on “On ‘The Body’s Grace’ (1): God’s command

  1. smithkl42 on August 1, 2008 at 8:30 am said:

    You may be interested in the series of critiques I’ve posted on “The Body’s Grace” on my blog:


    I’m much more critical of Williams’ essay than you are, I’m afraid. I agree with your assertion that “any approach that simply stops with the apparent demands we find in Scripture, without asking whether and how they connect to the gospel, fails to take the command of God seriously.” However, I would also add that if our understanding of the Gospel causes us to consistently arrive at different conclusions about, say, sexuality than the writers of the New Testament, perhaps we’re not operating with the same Gospel that they were operating with. And of course, that’s precisely my issue with Williams.

    Ken Smith

  2. Alex on March 5, 2009 at 6:36 pm said:

    I realise your point of view, and have one of my own.

    Jesus came to bring new laws, just look at Matthew 5ff. In my opinion, Jesus being the perfect figure, talks NOTHING about sexual relationships, other then where the treatement of the woman is involved, or where there is another moral issue involved; NOT the acutall sexual act itself. He doesn’t care about sexuality, so long as you can conform to his new morality. I wouldn’t be suprised if Jesus himself was gay.

    Anyway, the fact that Rowan completely side tracks from the issue of homosexuality in an essay which is meant to enlighten, shows me that he is still predjudice towards homosexuals and such like, and that he does think their acts are bad. In his first line he says “Why does sex matter….. of course it matters”.

    The fact that last year the pertained to Sharia law in Britain can only support that idea?


  3. Alex, thanks for your comment – though I think you may have misunderstood both the lecture and my comments on it.

    First, the lecture was simply not a lecture about homosexuality. It wasn’t ever advertised as such; its title never promised that it would be; when Williams explains what his topic is, he never said it was homosexuality. So the fact that he only treats homosexuality in passing in this lecture can’t really be described as him somehow going off on a tangent!

    Second, what the lecture does say about homosexuality comes down firmly and unambiguously against the idea that homosexuality is inherently a sin. The lecture explicitly, clearly and obviously disagrees with the idea that homosexual acts are inherently bad. So, no, it is not evidence that ‘he is still prejudice towards homosexuals and such like and that he does think their acts are bad.’ Quite the opposite.

    Third, he gives quite a detailed argument about why the gospel might have something to say about sexual relationships – based precisely on a claim very like yours, that what matters in sexual relationships are the other moral issues involved, not the actual sexual act itself. In other words, the claim you make here, far from being a criticism of the lecture, is one that the lecture could support, clarify, and deepen.

    And lastly, no, I don’t think that what he said more recently about sharia offers any support at all to your interpretation – see what I have written elsewhere on this blog about that lecture if you want some more details.

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