- Paperback: 174 pages
- Publisher: SCM Press (1 Feb. 2011)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0334028922
- ISBN-13: 978-0334028925
- Product Dimensions: 14 x 1.9 x 21.6 cm
- Average Customer Review: Be the first to review this item
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 150,946 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Act and Being: Towards a Theology of the Divine Attributes: Towards a Theology of the Divine Absolutes Paperback – 1 Feb 2011
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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
The doctrine of the divine absolutes is a central component of university courses in modern Christian doctrine and in this book Gunton brings a unique combination of theology and philosophy to bear on the main issues. This book addresses the thorny question of the defining characteristics of the deity - or what God is. After 2000 years there is little clarity about this, and it is this clarity which Gunton provides. He discusses the nature of theological language, the difference the Trinity makes to discussion of the divine absolutes, and the relationship between Greek and Hebrew understandings of the topic. The most coherent picture of the divine absolutes to have been published in recent times, this should be useful reading for all serious students of Christian doctrine and systematic theology.See all Product description
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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.
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."