Supporting Theological Reflection and Conversation that Strengthen the Ministry of the Church
Colin Gunton is one of the most distinguished contemporary British theologians. Now in his early 60s, he has taught at King’s College, London, for thirty-three years, written twelve books and edited six others. Having written full volumes on many of the standard topics of Christian theology (revelation, Trinity, creation, Christology, and atonement), he here summarizes a lifetime of theological reflection in an introductory survey of Christian beliefs.
To an American reader (this American reader at least), The Christian Faith seems traditionally British in both its virtues and its limitations. The virtues are significant: a command of the history of theology that enables Gunton to draw as needed on the insights of the early church, the Reformers, and Barth in particular; writing that is always clear and often elegant; and common sense that avoids fads and extremes.
Some of the book’s limits represent the obverse of that virtue of good common sense. Gunton wrote his first book on Barth and has learned much from him as to theological content, but his style is cool, without Barth’s always manifest passion. He writes from within the church and its faith without ever visibly agonizing over whether it is all true. He cares about human suffering and recognizes Jesus’ identification with the outsiders of the world, but he doesn’t think that reflection on injustice should fundamentally transform the way we do theology.
His tone toward those who stand outside the circle of sensible but committed Christians can be dismissive. He recognizes that his views are partly shaped by his social location, but says that the idea of rejecting what he has to say because he is a privileged white western male, “in my view, is just silly.” (p. x) (Rhetorically, the contrast between “just silly” and the modest qualifier, “in my view,” is a nice and characteristic touch.) Postmodernists, he insists, evade any sort of truth claim. By contrast, “I have written what appears in this book because I believe it to be true; otherwise, I hope, I would not have written so.” (p. x) So there!
Gunton is not simply summarizing middle of the road Christian thought. In the details, this is fascinating and original theology (one regrets that the book’s brevity makes it hard for Gunton to argue for or develop his particular theses very much). So for instance, he develops Irenaeus’ idea that creation in general and human persons in particular are created to develop further, so that “person is and eschatological concept,” (p. 45) something still aimed for rather that once perfectly possessed and now lost. Salvation too is an eschatological concept, a goal to which creation is aimed; (p. 63) it is not the case that “God has one shot at his world call ‘creation’, and because that fails then has to send his Son to pick up the pieces.” (p. 65)
After his account of salvation, Gunton turns to Christology, where he argues for a kenotic Christology developed in the early church, best expressed by Cyril of Alexandria, and very different, he thinks, from more recent (and less satisfactory) kenotic theories. He insists on a more “this-worldly” doctrine of election than he finds in traditional accounts of predestination. (p. 127) He concludes the volume with a discussion of the Trinity which ties his whole project together and differentiates it from Schleiermacher’s great work of the same title.
The Christian Faith is in sum a well written and intriguing introduction to theology by an important theologian. I’m not sure about its ideal audience, and worry that beginners in theology will find too much unexplained terminology and those more advanced will want more developed arguments for Gunton’s positions. At one point, he hints that a larger systematic theology may be his next project; it is a welcome prospect.
British theologians half a generation younger than Gunton have different styles. Those influenced by Donald MacKinnon, like Rowan Williams and David Ford, are more interested in contemporary continental philosophy and more willing to display MacKinnon’s sheer struggle with the task of being a Christian theologian in today’s world. The radical orthodox tribe has much more enthusiasm for postmodernismand much less clear prose. Gunton’s voice recalls those of earlier British theologians like P. T. Forsyth and the Baillie brothers. It remains a voice worth hearing.
William C. Placher
PUBLISHED IN THE BULLETIN OF THE INSTITUTE FOR REFORMED THEOLOGY, WINTER 2003, VOL. 3, #1.
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