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PROFILE: COLIN E. GUNTON
In a recent book from the North American evangelical stable (Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World [Baker, 1999]), R.E. Webber states that before the church learns to be contemporary, it must learn to be historical. Interestingly, another North American, systematician D.H. Williams, argues for a similar return to the historical traditions of the early church (Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants [Wm.B. Eerdmans, 1999]). Such critical insights are hardly benign. As a British systematician I read them with interest and excitement; they reflect, after all, a significant development from within evangelical systematic theology. In addition, they parallel seismic changes taking place within contemporary, British systematics. As the song goes, “the times they are a changing.”
The question that has to be asked in response to such change concerns the reasons why it has occurred at all. Admittedly, the sociological tributaries that feed it are various: the postmodern turn in the last two decades and the steady establishmentarianism of the evangelical constituency as it becomes more mainstream economically and politically. However, there are also significant theological reasons for such a change in attitude from that which once described the evangelical mind and which is best articulated in D. Wells’ critique of evangelicalism—namely, that “what orthodoxy had and what contemporary Evangelicalism so often lacks is a theology at its centre that defines the faith and prescribes the sorts of intellectual and practical relations it should establish in the world” (No Place for Truth [Wm.B. Eerdmans, 1992] 96). His critique may have been pertinent a decade ago, but this is a churchmanship in serious search of a theological identity and is in the process of re-discovering it.
Surprisingly, one of the main contributors to this renewal within evangelical theology is a theologian who would not instinctively describe himself as “evangelical.” When we turn to look at the significance of the English, United Reformed Professor of Systematic Theology, C.E. Gunton, at King’s College, University of London, we see clearly the influence one man can have and the difference he can make.
Gunton succeeded to the chair in Systematic Theology within a department of Theology renowned for its highly liberal stance. And yet, within the space of two decades, he has turned this department around to the extent that it attracts undergraduates and postgraduates from around the world, many of whom would identify themselves from within the evangelical constituency. For brevity’s sake we can identify two major influences for this. First, there is the methodological reason. From his doctoral studies in Barth and Hartshorne onwards, Gunton has articulated a contemporary Reformed, trinitarian theology, and sought to unpack its systematic implications. As a result of Gunton’s influence, English Systematic Theology has moved from being a purely prescriptive theology of the likes found in L. Berkhof (Systematic Theology [Wm.B. Eerdmans, 1996]), which can be learned parrot-fashion, to one that is much more open-ended and fluid. As Gunton argues, this discipline must have an overall consistency in what it says as well as be aware of the relation between one’s theology and the Bible and wider culture. After all, a systematic theology is not so much one that is rigidly logical, but rather one that has an internal coherence and an external relevance.
The second identifiable reason for Gunton’s impact is theological. That is, the content of his theology is rigorously trinitarian, based on the personal revelation of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. It is salutary to note that when I commenced my own doctoral studies under Colin the whole trinitarian agenda was on the point of deconstruction. It is now fourteen years later and the very subject is de rigueur. Within English and North American theological circles this can be traced back to the impact of C. Gunton and his immediate circle and mainly through two channels.
On the one hand, there has been the ground-breaking development within postgraduate studies. Prior to Gunton’s professorship, postgraduate studies was an isolated affair. At King’s, however, Gunton established a context within which postgraduate studies could flourish. He did this by setting up weekly research seminars where faculty and postgraduate students would meet, listen to an academic paper, and discuss for 2-3 hours. As an academic, this is the ideal working environment. As a doctoral student it was like dying and going to heaven each week! One had a master-class with some of the best theological minds around: Gunton, Metropolitan Zizioulas, Stanley Hauerwas, Robert Jenson. Needless to say, this academic model is now essential to any serious postgraduate community. And from such seminars have come four significant publications: Persons, Divine and Human: King’s College Essays on Theological Anthropology (T. & T. Clark, 2000); Trinitarian Theology Today (T. & T. Clark, 1995); God and Freedom; The Doctrine of Creation (T. & T. Clark, 1997); and On Being the Church: Essays on the Christian Community (T. & T. Clark, 1999).
On the other hand, there is Gunton’s prolific and accessible publications. What marks Gunton apart from clearly evangelical writers such as the English McGrath or Canadian Grenz are the facts that he both writes for a wide readership that is not explicitly evangelical and that he is very much a creative theologian who takes the content of his faith and applies it to the major issues facing the contemporary church. In this respect, his published works reflect the key areas requiring theological reflection and innovation. It almost goes without saying that the publications outlined above summarize these areas well. Their contemporary relevance only make them more meaningful.
For brevity’s sake we can identify the influence and impact that Gunton has exercised within the discipline of Systematic Theology into five key areas.
First, Gunton has identified the correct problematic needing to be addressed. It is the love-hate relationship that we have with Modernity and the Enlightenment. What I have always appreciated in Gunton is his ability to identify the good even in the worst of theological responses. Here is a theologian who both denounces the legacy bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment, and yet will be the first to defend its own critique of a Christianity that was rightly under cultural judgment. His Enlightenment and Alienation: An Essay towards a Trinitarian Theology (Marshall Morgan & Scott, 1985) and his critically acclaimed, The One, the Three and the Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity, The 1992 Bampton Lectures (Cambridge, 1993) outline Gunton’s maturing dialogue with the contemporary world. What will fascinate the reader is an almost total contempt of the postmodern—and rightly so: our cultural and ecclesial malaise stems from our dalliance with modernity, not its flawed successor.
Second, Gunton has never abandoned the task of pure theology. What marks him out here from the plethora of voices is his fluid writing style. He is, on the whole, an easy read. This he applies to key doctrinal themes. Thus, it is not surprising to trace a rationale to his publications, beginning with christology in Yesterday and Today: A Study of Continuities in Christology (Wm.B. Eerdmans, 1983), and his now classic The Actuality of Atonement: A Study of Metaphor, Rationality and the Christian Tradition (T. & T. Clark, 1988), which can be described as the application of his critique of modernity in relation to the death of Christ and how it is understood. The mature Gunton has, in turn, exercised his influence in establishing the impressive and excellent International Journal of Systematic Theology, which seeks to publish quality systematic theology in the English medium.
Third, Gunton serves as an excellent example of the publishing academic: He publishes what he teaches! Possibly the best example of this is his postgraduate lectures contained in A Brief Theology of Revelation (T. & T. Clark, 1999), in which the systematic task of theology is applied to the problem of revelation in modern theology. This is systematics at its best. For those who are interested, it is further enhanced by two subsequent publications in which Gunton further hones his communication skills. On the one hand there is his very creative Theology through the Theologians (T. & T. Clark, 1997), a master-class in engagement with theological worthies from Augustine through Owen to Irving and Barth. This is then topped by the obligatory, The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine (Cambridge, 1997), edited by Gunton and containing probably some of the best articles on systematics, ethics, and doctrine available. This is a must have, must read requisite to any theological library.
Fourth, Gunton’s sense for the immediate is revealed in the growing interest he has in a long-neglected aspect of Christian thought—namely, the relation between God as Creator and creation. It starts in his superb little book, Christ and Creation (Wm.B. Eerdmans, 1993), a theological masterpiece in miniature, and culminates with his The Triune Creator: A Historical and Systematic Study (Wm.B. Eerdmans, 1998). This volume is another must for the student of serious contemporary theology, remembering the aphorism at the start of this review that to be contemporary is to remember history. Once again, Gunton reveals the precocious (some might call it prophetic) nature of faith thinking.
Last, with Gunton we meet a culturally informed and exceptionally interesting personality. This comes through in any conversation with the man. His presence is informed by his prescience which has been earthed and grounded in a profound engagement not only with the Fathers of the church, but also with contemporary prophets and sages, whether popular or academic. Here is a theological mind that is not afraid to eschew the cultural and epistemological altars and expose their fallacious identities. To some extent, the mantle of Calvin, Owen, and Barth has fallen in its right place. In turn, by method and example, he has emboldened new generations of thinking Christians, both men and women, old and young, European and Asian, Capitalist and Communist, to take up the challenge to study, be approved, rightly handle, and defend. In so doing, one is encouraged to persevere and plot a chart through sometimes hostile waters.
Consequently, Gunton deserves his place among some of the most significant theologians of the twentieth century. He is not a Barth because Barth has already pulled down the walls of modernity. Nevertheless, he has the same tenacious and unswerving focus and determination as Barth and his doctoral supervisor, R. Jenson. This being so, his influence has not waned and will continue well into the present century. For this reason, he should be read on both sides of the water.
By Graham McFarlane,
London Bible College.
1999 Catalyst Resources
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