on 11 August 2011
The Colin Gunton was one of the great figures of British theology of the post-war period, and, before his untimely death in 2003, looked set to becoming one of the most prominent figures in international theology. Before his death, Gunton had been planning on writing his systematic theology - a multi-volume Dogmatics - the first in the British theological scene since John MacQuarrie. Stephen R. Holmes' preface to this collection of posthumously published essays has a fascinating side note, in which Gunton himself had reflected upon the incompleteness of Karl Barth's own Church Dogmatics; indeed, as Holmes notes, for Gunton, `no theological project can ever be finished, this side of the End'. As such, the statement is fitting of Gunton in light of his sadly incomplete theological legacy.
A book such as Father, Son and Holy Spirit gives us an indicator as to what those Dogmatics may have looked like - which, for this reviewer, makes his sudden death even more potent. I openly state here that reading this collection was an utter joy, and is a book which I shall be returning to! It is, to a certain extent, itself a mini-systematics of Trinitarian theology, divided into two sections: The Triune God of Christian Confession, an opening up of the nature and persons of the Trinity; and secondly, Triune Divine Action, a study of some of the implications of Trinitarian theology.
As a brief background of the theological inheritance of this book, Gunton would clearly place himself in the Reformed tradition of Calvin, as modified by Karl Barth and Thomas F. Torrence. However, one does not need to have much previous extensive knowledge of these authors in order to grasp Gunton's line of thinking: indeed, this collection of essays is structured in order that one need not have extensive knowledge at all. Beginning with the essay, The Forgotten Trinity - originally for the William Hodgkins Lectures, a Christian Adult Education Series - Gunton takes us through the significant figures of Trinitarian theology, ranging from Ireneaus to Calvin and into the present day, and presenting the case for `remembering' the Trinity in worship and thinking. It is in this opening essay that we a greeted by an analogy from Ireneaus which become prominent throughout the book: that of the Son and the Spirit being the two `hands' of the Father. Of course, Gunton would not leave the analogy as it is, and it is always modified in the light of later, more sophisticated thinking, but - primitive as it is - he still uses it as one of his conceptual starting points.
For Gunton, the Trinity is neither an abstract doctrine nor metaphorical poetry. Instead, it is a revelation seen through the concreteness of the history of Jesus Christ - `the God of Jesus Christ', as the second essay is entitled - which is the self-revelation of God. Within this revelation, we see first Jesus the Son relating to God the Father, empowered through the Holy Spirit; secondly, God's self-revelation is not a mask which hides the `real' God. No, God reveals himself as he is in himself; quoting Gregory of Nazianzus, Gunton writes, `"When I say God, I mean Father, Son and Holy Spirit"' [p. 45]. As such, the revelation of God seen in Jesus Christ is that of ' "The original cause of all things that are made, the Father; the creative cause, the Son; the perfecting cause, the Spirit"' [p.30, quoting Basil of Caesarea]; or with Calvin:
` "To the Father is attributed the beginning of all things; to the Son, wisdom, counsel and the ordered disposition of all things; but to the Spirit is assigned the power and efficacy of that activity". And part of the Son's "ordered disposition of all things" is his truly suffering in the flesh for the sins of the world. It is the Son's particular office to become incarnate and suffer in the flesh.' [p.28].
Reading through the ancient heresies (and their modern descendents), and countering them through the readings of the Church Fathers (and their modern descendents), Gunton continually manages to bring about refreshingly new inflections upon the older orthodoxy. Nonetheless, this is not simply a rehash of what has been said before: there are points when he ventures well beyond the restrictions of his Reformed base, rejecting the Filioque - the famous Western addition to the Creed that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son - as well as stating there is a kind of subordinationism of the Son and Holy Spirit to the Father, but this is one of relational subordinationism, not ontological. Indeed, the Father without the Son or the Spirit simply would not be God.
The book is not without its flaws. John Webster wrote of Gunton that, `when his theology does not persuade, it is usually because he does not pause sufficiently long over exegetical or historical description, or because he assumes the viability of his presuppositions and presses ahead to draw corollaries' [p. 263 Systematic Theology after Barth, found in The Modern Theologians, ed. D. Ford]. This is seen clearly in his essay, Atonement: The Sacrifice and the Sacrifices; From Metaphor to Transcendental. In the build up of the argument, Gunton sets out a general theory of metaphor that is `as necessary to the language of science as it is that of poetry' [p.183], in which `new metaphors mean new realities, new ways of looking at and being in the world' [p.190] - an idea strangely reminiscent of John Locke. As such, the focus was mainly aimed at the metaphor of Christ's entire life as `sacrifice', in which in the Word becoming flesh and suffering the trials of humanity is at the centre of sacrifice, and the cross is a more potent example of this. As such, the cross seems strangely lacking in metaphorical substance from the lack of argumentative weight given to it. I understand Gunton's desire to emphasise the whole of Christ's life as sacrifice - and perhaps my frustration is due to this being Gunton's last work - but I nonetheless feel that the weaknesses sensed in this essay is due to the lack of emphasis on those final hours of Jesus' life.
This is nevertheless myself being hyper-critical. This book was a joy to read: a clear and very readable expression of difficult concepts, with plenty of memorable ideas (both old and new) that have been memorably stated. Gunton's fecund grasp of Trinitarian theology and its implications are always drenched in Scriptural and theological logic, and always bear thinking about. A modest, but nonetheless brilliant conclusion to a theological career.