He Came Down From Heaven, and The Forgiveness of Sins
by Charles Williams
(Faber & Faber, 1956, 200 pages)
This volume combines two shorter works of theology written by Charles Williams, the first published in 1938 and the second in 1942. While he is best known as an author of novels that have been characterized as “supernatural thrillers” and his critical reputation has been built on his two volumes of Arthurian poetry, Williams was also a profound and imaginative theologian.
The two essays that make up this book present some very original ideas about the nature of the Fall, the nature and practical application of atonement, and the radical requirements of forgiveness. I read He Came Down From Heaven in a separate edition a few years ago. I was struck at the time by Williams’ articulation of the practice of “substituted love” – the idea that one person’s suffering or fear can be borne and experienced by another in their place. Williams sees this practice as a natural application of the Christian doctrine of atonement, though it could be argued that it has more to do with his involvement in magical and occult rituals.
This was the first time I had read The Forgiveness of Sins. The first chapter, dealing with the theme of forgiveness in Shakespeare, shows that even in dealing with theological issues, Williams is very much a literary critic. He highlights issues like the difficulty of receiving forgiveness as well as offering it. The final chapter, “The Present Time,” places the work firmly within its historical context. Writing in the early years of the Second World War, he discusses the possibility of forgiving the Germans. His response is surprising, elevating the notion of forgiveness from the personal to the corporate and national. Williams’ prose is not easy to read, but there are moments of clarity and precision that make the effort worthwhile.