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Act and Being: Towards a Theology of the Divine Attributes: Towards a Theology of the Divine Absolutes [Paperback]

Colin Gunton

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Book Description

1 Feb 2011
In his latest book Colin Gunton - one of the foremost systematic theologians writing today - addresses the thorny question of God's attributes. Theologians often seem to have been content with a list of intelligible, but often abstract, terms as to 'the contents of our idea of God'. And for Gunton, the doctrine of the divine attributes seems often to have been approached using the wrong method; developing the wrong content; and even, when that has not been the case, treating things in the wrong order. This has much to do with what has become a tangled web of the relations between Greek and Hebrew discussions and characterisations of the topic. In this book Gunton attempts to disentangle these threads as individually and carefully as possible. Successive chapters on the problems of the 'tangled web'; the nature of theological language; and the difference that the Trinity might make to the discussion succeed in developing one of the most coherent and intellectually stimulating pictures of the divine attributes to have been published in recent times. The author's many admirers will find this book mandatory reading, as will all serious students and teachers of systematic theology and Christian doctrine. Colin E Gunton was Professor of Christian Doctrine at King's College London. He is the author of numerous books, including Becoming and Being (published in a new edition by SCM Press in 2001), The Actuality of Atonement The One, the Three and the Many, and The Christian Faith. He edited, in addition, the Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine..

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Act and Being: Towards a Theology of the Divine Attributes: Towards a Theology of the Divine Absolutes + God's lesser glory: A Critique of Open Theism + The Openness of God: a Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God
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"This is a demanding but very rewarding book. It is recommended as a significant contribution to the debate about the doctrine of God." Robert Hannaford, St Martin's College, Lancaster, Theology, Nov/Dec 2004

About the Author

Colin E Gunton is Professor of Christian doctrine at King's College London. He is the author of numerous books, including "Becoming and Being" (SCM Press 2001),"The Actuality of Atonement", "The One", "The Three and the Many", and "The Christian Faith".

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To speak of God's attributes is to attempt to speak of the kind of god that God is; of the things that characterize him as God; of what makes him to be God, rather than some other being or kind of being. Read the first page
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A challenge to classical thought 25 Jan 2006
By Derrick A. Peterson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is a great book based upon a series of lectures Colin Gunton gave at Multnomah upon an invitation by Paul Metzger, a residing seminary professor there. In summary the entire book is a discussion upon the attributes of God (as the subtitle suggests) and the disturbing tendency of theology to speak of God via analogy (in the ontological rather than philological sense.) The beginning of the book outlines the four basic problems against which the rest of the book bases its paradigms. 1) Theology's tendency to conceive God in abstractions through analogy from the properties of the world. For example, the "three ways" of Psuedo-Dionysus the Aeriopagite; via negationis abstracts from the world that which is, through so called "rational inquiry", considered an imperfection or finitude and through negation. So, for example, Karl Barth's complaint that aseitas (that God is fully real in and for Himself) turned into independentia (that God is non-contingent and opposed to the world); the via immanentiae whereby that which is considered positive traits and characteristics of the creaturely realm are again elevated into an infinite, and so it seems abstract, degree. Again, e.g., God's peace is a picture of the "indefatigable sublime," where God is distant, vague, unaware. Or his immutability and impassibility are taken quite succinctly from Greek Parmenidian theology, and so God is untouchable by world contingencies, which undoubtedly takes severe offense to the actual Biblical narrative; finally the via causalitatis which is somewhat of a combination of the former two, whereby the characteristics of God are deduced from the idea of God being the first unmoved mover or primal cause. This is (as Gunton cites Schliermacher as aptly stating) a problem rooted in Platonic explanations of how a purely spiritual divinity can be conceived as producing material reality.

The second complaint set forth in the initial chapter is related to the first, where the idea we have of God seems to be too heavily reliant upon a priori presuppositions on what it means to speak of God, rather than concretely grounding it in the divine economy (oikonwmia) of God's interaction and revelation with us through history. The third, more indirectly related to the first two, is the western tendency towards modalism in its conception of the Trinity, where Father, Son, and Spirit are seen, not as "living realizations of separate centers of action," but merely progressive modes or inter-subjectivities of a single underlying subject.

The fourth point, again linked to all the prior points, is the resulting tendency to conceive of the relation between God and the world as a relation of opposed realities, the material and sensible against the spiritual and ideal. Instead, Gunton says in a proleptic answer provided in the following chapters, that "Spirit," should not be seen as a pole in the duality of material/spiritual couplets, rather Spirit (as mentioned in chapter 7) is the reality whereby both we are open and have access to God, and it is the reality that is descriptive of God "crossing ontological boundaries, moving and indwelling in what is distinct from Him." So that to speak of Spirit is not to speak of a reality essentially Other than this material world, but rather the reality that positively relates God to this world.

The next two chapters (aptly titles "A tangled web," and "The Predominance of the Negative," respectively) are essentially a more erudite and specific unpacking of the four general complaints against traditional theology. I wont go over all the points, I will say however that Gunton outlines an interesting parallel between several early Hellenistic Greek philosophers and a wide array of theological tradition. (e.g. Xenophanes' critique of the grossly anthropomorphic tendencies of the Homeric religion, and his resultant reactionary theological tendency to purify this by abstracting from the material, so that God is conceived as "universal mind," or Anaximander's description of God as apeiron, interestingly translated by Gunton and others as "the indefinite," or Plotinus' conception of God as simply the "not this," are remarkably similar to points of the theologies of Origin, John of Damascus, Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, Gregory Nazianzus, Irenaeus...) Gunton balances this critique with the observation that these theologians should not be blatantly accused of adopting Grecian metaphysics, for they digress more often than they agree with their philosophical counterparts. However, they have taken certain forms of thought and applied them to critical areas that may not be in every way appropriate, and have far reaching consequences (such as Origens tendency to conceive of God as universal mind or thought, the nouV of Greek philosophy.)

The solution Gunton offers to discard these abstract ways, and offers the insight shared to various degrees by many of Gunton's contemporaries (Wolfhart Pannenberg, Robert Jenson, T.F. Torrence, Jurgen Moltmann, Eberhard Jungel, Christoph Schwobel, John Ziziolas, Hans Ur Von Balthazzar, the list goes on....) that Karl Rahner's thesis (the so called "Rahner's Rule,") that the immanent Trinity can be deduced from the economic Trinity, is the essential core to eliminating many of the problems encountered in the past. Though Gunton shies away from a full identification of the immanent and economic trinities (as full identification would seem to dissolve the ontological trinity wholly into the vicissitudes of history, thus seemingly leaving us with, at best Pannentheism, and at worst Monism.) he emphatically states that who God is in eternity grounds what He does in time (a seeming combination of the Greek tendency to contemplate God's being, and the Hebrew fixation on God's forms of action.)

I am skipping some parts of the book now, as I cant devote time to an exposition of all of the material (limited though my analyses has been already), though an interesting end to a chapter heretofore not mentioned (chapter 6: The relevance of the immanent trinity) is a reevaluation (brief and not intended to be a systematic reevaluation) on human freedom. The traditional conception of freedom is always freedom from, so that determinisms of any kind are automatically seen as enemies to whatever freedom may be. This conception is based heavily upon Modern individualist conceptions that freedom is a self-contained hypostatic entity that we in ourselves somehow possess like an attribute. Rather Gunton sees freedom as being authentically ones-self, what we each make of our own particularity. And since none of us are who we are except in relation to the other, "especially the Divine Other," our freedom is seen as a function of community and just so is found within determinisms rather than apart from them. This coincides with Gunton's adoption of Duns Scotus' definition (and Gregory of Nyssa, as pointed out in a quote from Robert Jenson's Systematic Theology) that rather than, with Thomas Aquinas, saying God's infinite is merely the absence of limit (and so essentially abstract) rather it should be seen as the overcoming of all boundaries, so that determinism and participation in history is the culmination of perfect communion and perichoretic harmony within the Christian community, rather than an arbitrary removal of whatever we would ascribe as "limits." Interestingly enough, Gunton, wielding quotes again from Robert Jenson, points out that if freedom is not an internal function, but is inherently related to the future as opportunity brought by someone else that would not have otherwise been accessible to us, God as Trinity then is "antecedently in Himself free will...He is liberated by another who is yet not Other than God." This also helps with conceptions that ascribe to God too much of voluntaristic notions of God's freedom, in stating that what it means to be God and to be free needs to be intrinsically linked to what we know of God through the narrative history He has with us, and just so the freedom of God is not "absence of limit," but is marked by its movement of overcoming boundaries through a "funneling," in the Trinity. So that God is free as He is Himself through the movement of the three persons: The father in loving action, the sending of the Son and the Spirit; the Son in self-giving obedient self-submission to the Father and the cross; and the community building and perfection functions of the Spirit in raising Christ from the grave and instating in us "another advocate" (parakletoV) that leads us into the promised perfections.

Other interesting insights from the book come from the idea of impassibility, which Gunton replaces (following Barth) with the word Constancy (Wolfhart Pannenberg is similar when he speaks of God's faithfulness rather than immutability). Essentially, when we speak of immutability or impassibility, we are not speaking of a type of ontological closedness in God. Rather, in entering into history, He is identical to Himself and so the reference is not to the inability to change or to suffer, rather we speak of an indefectibility of action, that this reality is not an abstract unchangeable substance, but a pure and infinite personal reality that meets us in the world. That the son suffered and died does not mean that the son wasnt God, but this suffering belongs to the relation of son to father, because it is the nature of God's persons to love and sacrifice and overcome. So too, when we speak of God's simplicity, we are not speaking of a hopelessly confused mathmatical definition. Nor do we mean that the attributes are all essentially the same, and appear different to us as white light becomes refracted in a prysm. Nor do we mean that the persons are essentially identical (and just so unidentifiable and just so redundant.) Rather, God is not separable because what "He," is, is none other than three persons in relation. These three wholly constitute the other, so, e.g., the Son would not be the Son without the Father and the Spirit, so too would the Father not be the Father without the Son and Spirit... "The Trinity is indeed not constituted of parts, which may be seperated, but of persons who are distinct but not separable."
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Towards but not yet arrived 11 July 2010
By ecclesial hypostasis - Published on Amazon.com
Colin Gunton had a gift of being able to communicate deep theological ideas clearly, and I enjoyed reading his 'One, the Three, and the Many' and 'Principles of Trinitarian Theology'. 'Act & Being' is a similarly lucid exposition of the issues involved in the theology of the divine attributes, and provides a short and clear overview of the history of Christian reflection on this topic as well as suggestions as to how it may fruitfully progress in the future.

His main thesis is that a theology of the divine attributes needs to be grounded in the specific revelation in the Biblical narrative and the person and acts of Jesus Christ. This is against the tendency of theologians to use philosophical categories to speak of the divine being. He hopes thereby to overcome the overly abstract and colourless 'God' of classical theology and allow Christians to speak with confidence about the God who has revealed himself. In common with many modern theologians he rejects the method of positing a God 'beyond' our categories of thought and understanding, and instead sees the being of God expressed in the economic Trinity. He takes up Scotus' principle of the univocity of being to argue that our language is capable of expressing truly what God is when he is compared to human beings. Essentially for Gunton God's acts reveal truly and fully his being.

I agree with much of what Gunton says here. A theology that calls itself 'Christian' needs to be based on the Scriptural revelation and on the Trinitarian acts of God seen in the life of Jesus rather than relying on philosophical categories. However, I think that Gunton has also overreached a bit in order to make his point. He sets up the Greek tradition of theology as too much of a strawman in order to provide a counterpoint to his ideas. In particular he radically misunderstands the project of Pseudo-Dionysius. Gunton argues that Pseudo-Dionysius posited an unknowable and inaccessible God beyond the limited revelations and thoughts of human beings. This would surely be contrary to the Christian faith. But in fact Pseudo-Dionysius was contrasting not knowledge with lack of knowledge but intellectual knowledge with mystical knowledge. The purpose of the way of negation is not to deny that we can know God but to preserve that ultimate knowledge of God that is direct and personal, beyond mere ideas about who God is, even revealed ideas. In a similar way, Gunton misconstrues the Palamite distinction between essence and energies. The essence is not a hidden and different part of God, it is the divine personal centre from which his energies radiate. The whole purpose of Palamite theology is to affirm that humanity is capable of directly knowing God, even going so far as to affirm the possibility of seeing his Light with our physical eyes.

In the end this lack of appreciation of the way of negation leaves Gunton's theology a step away from the true and personal knowledge of God for which he is striving. We are left with 'knowing' God only by 'knowing things about' him, through reading about his acts in the Scriptures. Surely this reading gives us a true knowledge of who he is, but it does not exhaust what it means to know God in his acts and being.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A provocative essay 22 Mar 2013
By Jacob - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book's strength and weakness are one and the same: its short size. The essays are small enough that they focus on the main topic at hand and he rarely loses the reader, but one often feels that Gunton's points are underdeveloped and tempt the reader to draw some dangerous conclusions about Gunton's theology. For example, he gives a great critique of some dyothelitic proposals (e.g., if will is a faculty of nature, does this make Jesus's will an object? If so, dyothetletism runs into huge problems), but seems rather blase on rejecting a major church council.

Gunton's thesis is this: Much of Western (and Eastern!) theology uses language about God that makes it hard to affirm the Covenantal, Hebraic language in the biblical narrative. For example, all of our use of God's attributes are negative in structure. We negate and with each negation we become more abstract and are eventually left with something like Aristotle's god. His chapter on pseudo-Dionysius is worth the price of the book (I paid $3 for mine!). The problem and proposal being critiqued is not just an epistemological one: on Ps-Dionysius' account the more one abstracts God, the closer to union with God one attains. This is, as Gunton notes, precisely the opposite of Philippians 2: Jesus became quite concrete in language and existence and as a result, we know the being of God.

This book might seen as a closeted Eastern slam against Western scholasticism. It is not. Gunton evaluates Damascene and Palamas and notes the same problem there: Palamas accepts the Western problematic. Like them, he denies we know the being of God; we just know his energies. It is true, Gunton observes, that we know God through his actions, but contra Palamas, we know his being through the actions of the incarnate Word, through the human career of Jesus.

In a brilliant, if somewhat too brief, conclusion, Gunton sees God's being as Being-in-Act. If God is love, is not love in the context of communion and act? And so on.
5.0 out of 5 stars Profound 2 May 2013
By Dan Kiat - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Gunton tackles a very important question - what is God like? - in an invigorating way. Through re-capturing a biblical, historical and trinitarian answer, Gunton does the work of weeding out our assumptions about God and letting him set the agenda.
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