In Memory of Colin Gunton

Ten years ago today Colin Gunton, Professor of Christian Doctrine, a (the?) leading British theologian of his generation, died. I went to King's as an undergrad in theology because of Colin. In my second year I attempted to read everything he had written. I did not really know him well, (we shared a few converastions), but his theology and way of doing theology have left a big mark on my life.  

He had planned to write a British (English?) systematic theology. This would have been an huge and rare achievement in British theology. A first volume was completed in draft and there has, in the years since his death, been talk of its publication. The job of writing a British systematic theology perhaps now lies with the likes of John Webster (on his way to St. Andrews) and Sarah Coakley (Cambridge), both now in the writing.

P1410771Colin's published works cover almost all aspects of Christian doctrine - doctrine of God, Christology, atonement, Trinity, creation, revelation, pneumatology, anthropology, ecclesiology - and he made important contributions in all. He wrote essays on many of the major figures of the Christian tradition - Ireaneus, Augustine (famously not favourably), Cappadocian fathers, Anselm, Calvin, Barth, as well as British names like John Owen, Edward Iriving, John Henry Newman, Samuel Coleridge and P. T. Forsyth, and his contemporaries like Jüngel, Pannenberg, Jenson and Torrance and of course Zizioulas.  

Since his death, there has been an increasing challenge to his reading of Augustine, several published dissertations on his work (by Hans Schaeffer, David Hohne, and Brad Green), in addition to a set of essays examining his work edited by Lincoln Harvey.

In 1993, he wrote that both Forsyth and Torrance were 'at the very least ... theological talents whose intellectual achievement will continue to live, and on whom a continuing stream of secondary work is to be expected.' To those names, Gunton himself should be added. 

Colin Gunton's unpublished Systematic Theology

Before he died Colin Gunton was working on the first volume of a projected 4-volume systematic theology. It would have been a crowning achievement to his theological career and one of few English systematic theologies. It appears this first volume (which had largely been written in draft) is finally to be published, edited by Robert Jenson and Paul Braizer and published by T & T Clark. Date on Amazon says November 2012, but nothing yet on T & T Clark website. 

New annual Colin Gunton Lecture

I have just heard that the theology department at King's College London are recognising the huge contribution that Colin made to theology at King's and organising an annual public lecture dedicated to his memory and work. The first one will be on the 20th September and will feature Professor Alan Torrance, as well as a number of other papers. More information will be available I imagine from the department's website in due course. I'm gutted that I will miss it this year as I will be in India, but hopefully some or all it will be either recorded or subsequently published.

Brad Green on Gunton on Augustine

41lNrOIA1GL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_ Bradley Green's PhD dissertation on Gunton's reading of Augustine is now available from Pickwick Publications. From the back cover it ultimately ends up being critical of Gunton and argues that he could have found some of the resources necessary for his own theology within Augustine.

Gunton's criticisms of Augustine are largely emerging to be found wanting - I've seen very little to defend Gunton - and it would have been interesting to see if Gunton himself would have soften his criticisms, I think probably not.

Green's book remains one of the few extensive studies of Gunton's theology currently available.

Book Review: The Theology of Colin Gunton edited by Lincoln Harvey

311H2Sby8uL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU02_ Lincoln Harvey (ed.), The Theology of Colin Gunton (T & T Clark, 2010), 217pp (with thanks to T & T Clark for review copy)

This book has been a long time coming. It is now 7 years since Colin Gunton died and there has still been very little engagement specifically with his work, although see the recent monograph from David Hohne. Gunton has tended to be criticised for his criticism of Augustine and along with John Zizioulas his use of the Cappdocians. This edited collection of new essays therefore is very welcome, because Gunton was a brilliant theological mind, who was beginning to offer one of the most interesting British systematic theologies for a long time. Sadly we only have an unpublished draft of a first volume.

Many of the essays track the way Gunton's theology developed. Robert Jenson examines Gunton's major theological decisions, John Webster studies Gunton's use of Barth, Stephen Holmes looks at the doctrine of the trinity, John Colwell, the doctrine of the church and final essay by Christoph Schwobel provides us with the shape of Gunton's theological thought. Other essays pick up the content of particular doctrines: Alan Spence on christology,  Paul Cumin on the doctrine of God, Paraskeve Tibbs on anthropology, Justyn Terry on atonement and Terry Wright on providence. Lincoln Harvey's contribution explores Gunton's theological method and Brad Green engages with Gunton's interpretation of modernity. Harvey has gathered together an excellent line-up of theological voices, some already established and some just starting out; some who were Gunton's colleagues, some who were his students and some who found him as a dialogue partner in their postgraduate studies.

The tone is generally positive towards Gunton's theology. Webster is the most critical, but not overwhelmingly so. Webster still acknowledges the huge contribution Gunton made to British systematic theology. At a number of points in the book, Gunton is described as rescuing Christian theology when many thought it redundant. (Gunton's loss has left a huge whole that has not been filled by any theologian working in an English university. This is not to say English theology is not interesting and constuctive, but that Gunton and co. at King's and Webster - then of Oxford now of Aberdeen - were doing systematic Christian doctrine in a way that is no longer happening). Steve Holmes, a student and later colleague of Gunton, demonstrates in his essay that he is moving away from Gunton's theology as he seeks to develop his own contribution - he is much less critical of Augustine - while being grateful to Gunton for providing an example of how theology should be done. In Paul Cumin and Lincoln Harvey, two of the final students who begun their PhDs with Gunton, he is still seen as the theologian of choice and in a book that seeks to be an examination of Gunton's theological thought, it is helpful to see how Gunton's project can be continued (pace Bernhard Nausnera's recent SJT article). Jenson provides a response to those that critique Gunton's criticism of Augustine ('Did Gunton overdo it? Probably ... But was Gunton just wrong? I think not ...'), which I think has merit (although we wait to see Lewis Ayres forthcoming Augustine and the Trinity).

I hope this book marks the beginning of further engagements with Gunton. He remains one, if not the, British theological (and nonconformist) voice of the last century. This book certainly shows why Gunton's theology matters, as he tried to show why the doctrine of the Trinity mattered. I hope T & T Clark will publish a paperback version as sadly the cost of a hardback will prohibit many from purchasing a copy. A final word from Webster on Gunton:

Systematic theology owes Gunton an immense debt. He gave intellectual and rhetorical weight to the task of Christian theology in Britain at a time when the majority believed it to be redundant. He was animated by the momentous ideas of Christian dogmatics; though sometimes in his writings they were clumsily or hurriedly expressed, he loved to let them loose and watch what happened. He edified students and colleagues in the academy and the church by restless intellectual energy, by cheerful partisanship, by his catholic range of interests, above all, by his conviction that the gospel is a grand matter for the mind (p.29).

Reading the Theology of Colin Gunton

  P1230264Thanks to T & T Clark Kirsten and I have been enjoying an excellent collection of essays on the theology of Colin Gunton edited by Lincoln Harvey. I think we're reading John Webster's chapter on Gunton and Barth in this picture, which includes a great quote (see below). In my opinion theology doesn't get much better than Gunton and its great to see the likes of Webster, Robert Jenson, Steve Holmes, John Colwell, Christoph Schwoebel and others engaging positively with this British theologian. They demonstrate together that Gunton is a voice that cannot be, and should not be, ignored.

'... Gunton's self-conception as a theologian: he valued openness, freedom, range; he listened unusually carefully but not too long to his masters and then made up his own mind; he never evaded theological responsibility by hiding in the skirts of the tradition. Barth would have enjoyed that kind of feisty Christian independence.'

Has Colin Gunton's Theological Project Really Failed?

Mark Thompson (Moore College, Sydney) has posted a great response here to Bernhard Nausnera's recent Scottish Journal of Theology article.  Thompson notes that David Hohne, who wrote his doctorate on Gunton under David Ford at Cambridge and about to publish it as The Spirit of Sonship, is writing a response.

It does seem that Gunton's theological project has not continued, at least in England, but possibly has north of the border at the universities of Aberdeen (with Webster) and St. Andrew's (with Holmes and Torrance) (see the recent articles in Modern Theology). Theology in England is now a different landscape - so Milbank and Radical Orthodoxy at Nottingham, Oliver Davies and Transformation Theology at King's, Ford and what I might describe (mistakenly) as conversational theology (so his recent Christian Wisdom as chapters on inter-faith, inter-disciplinary, and inter-personal wisdom) at Cambridge, Pattison and Fiddes at Oxford, the newly appointed L. Ayres at Durham (whose book on Augustine due in 2010, will I'm sure not look kindly on Gunton), Higton and Gorringe at Exeter and D'Costa and Crisp at Bristol. I'm not saying this is bad - I like lots of theologians above - but it does seem sad that the kind of theology Gunton was doing and encouraging has not continued anywhere.

New article on Colin Gunton's Theology

The failure of a laudable project: Gunton, the Trinity and human self-understanding - Bernhard Nausnera (Scottish Journal of Theology 62.4 [2009])

This article seeks to summarise and critically analyse Colin Gunton's trinitarian theology in regard to the claim that the doctrine of the Trinity is a doctrine with radical consequences for human life. To this end it engages, first, in an examination of Gunton's trinitarian project following his thought from a cultural critical starting point finally leading to the establishment of three open transcendentals and, second, in a critical analysis of this approach, highlighting some essential inconsistencies in regard to Cappadocian theology, the concepts of relationality and personhood and practical consequences for human life. In conclusion, the article suggests that Gunton's strong emphasis on relationality and his search for open transcendentals could be understood as the result of his passionate aspiration to heal the wounds of an egocentric, individualistic and alienating modern culture through an ontology of communion.

Forthcoming Books on Colin Gunton's Theology

The Theology of Colin E. Gunton edited by Lincoln Harvey (T & T Clark, June 2010)

In The Theology of Colin E. Gunton, a number of contemporary theologians from across the world critically engage with the work of this influential British theologian. Gunton’s handling of the gospel of Jesus Christ is celebrated, key doctrines critically examined, and his contribution to the ongoing theological task carefully evaluated. Contributors address key issues at the centre of Gunton’s understanding of the Christian gospel, thereby enabling readers to appreciate how Gunton’s fundamental analysis of the relation between God, creation and Jesus Christ impacts the church’s ongoing task of faithful theological enquiry.

In this volume of essays, contributors explore Gunton’s constructive thinking on a range of doctrinal topics, as well as critically analyze Gunton’s theological method and use of the Christian tradition. As such, this collection of essays provides the Christian theological community with its first wide-ranging and carefully argued examination into the influential work of Colin E. Gunton. [The chapters by Robert Jenson, Steve Holmes and John Colwell were originally given at the 2007 day conference on Gunton]
Table of Contents


LINCOLN HARVEY, ‘Introduction’

ROBERT W. JENSON, 'A Decision Tree of Colin Gunton's Thinking'

JOHN WEBSTER, 'Gunton and Barth'

STEVE HOLMES, 'Towards the Analogia personae et relationis: Developments in Gunton’s Theology of the Trinity'

ALAN SPENCE, 'The Person as Willing Agent: Classifying Gunton's Christology'

PAUL CUMIN, 'The Taste of Cake: Relation and otherness with Colin Gunton and the strong second hand of God'

LINCOLN HARVEY,  'The Double Homoousion: Forming the Content of Gunton's Theology'

JOHN E. COLWELL,  'Provisionality and Promise: Avoiding Ecclesiastical Nestorianism?'

PARASKEVÈ (EVE) TIBBS, 'Created for Action: Colin Gunton’s Relational Anthropology’

JUSTYN TERRY, 'Colin Gunton's Doctrine of Atonement: Transcending Rationalism by Metaphor'

TERRY J. WRIGHT, 'Colin Gunton on Providence: Critical Commentaries'

BRAD GREEN, 'Colin Gunton and the Theological Origin of Modernity'

CHRISTOPH SCHWOEBEL,  'The Shape of Colin Gunton's Theology. On the Way towards a Fully Trinitarian Theology'

The other book is Spirit and Sonship: Colin Gunton's Theology of Particularity and the Holy Spirit by David Hohne (Ashgate, January 2010)

This book weaves together an interpretation of Christian Scripture with a conversation between Colin Gunton and Dietrich Bonhoeffer concerning the role the Holy Spirit plays in shaping the person and work of Christ. The result is a theological description of human personhood grounded in a sustained engagement with, and critique of, Gunton's theological description of particularity - a topic central to all his thinking.

In the course of the conversation with Bonhoeffer the book also offers one of few broad assessments of his work as a systematic theologian. In bringing together the work of two important modern theologians, this book explores both the possibilities of theology generated from Christian Scripture and the central importance of the doctrines of Christ and the Trinity in understanding what it means to declare someone or something unique. [This is a version of Hohne's PhD Cambridge thesis surpervised by David Ford]



Establishing an exegetical description

Establishing a theological alternative

The spirit enables sonship

The spirit opens sonship

The spirit preserves sonship


Book Review: Revelation and Reason

41QFbVv8nNL._SS500_ Colin Gunton, Revelation and Reason: Prolegomena to Systematic Theology. Edited by Paul Brazier (T & T Clark, 2008) 226pp (with thanks to T & T Clark for a review copy)

Colin Gunton was a great theologian and this latest book again reminds us of the loss to theology and to the church his death was. Like The Barth Lectures, this new posthumous book is based on recordings of Gunton's annual King's College London MA lecture seminar series on revelation and reason, which he had be teaching for over twenty years.  Paul Brazier, like with The Barth Lectures, has again given us an example of Gunton the theological teacher in action. The book also contains another helpful introduction from Gunton's former student and colleague Stephen Holmes (this is now his fourth introduction/ foreword to a Gunton book), which examines some of the book's major themes and his former teacher's contribution.

As the title suggests the book explores the relationship between revelation and reason. With Kant, we find reason is all and there is little room for revelation, this generally continues until Barth's return to revelation as primary. Brazier in his foreword suggests the book be seen as a companion to The Barth Lectures. I think it should also be seen as the background to Gunton's 1993 Warfield Lectures A Brief Theology of Revelation, his systematic account of the doctrine of revelation. And it can also be seen as a history of Western philosophy and theology: there are sections on Locke, Schleiermacher, Hegel, Kant, Descartes, Torrance, Barth, Aquinas, Anselm, Pannenberg, amongst others. As Holmes suggests, whether you agreed with Gunton or not, he had read, taught and knew well the different philosophers.

The book has been creatively put together by Brazier, divided into three parts, each beginning with a lecture, and then sections on different theologians and philosophers based around the seminar presentations students gave. The book should not then be seen as Gunton's mature statement on a theologian or subject, but Gunton helping students, as he says, 'by Christmas to think theologically' (p.12). This makes the book both exciting and frustrating. Exciting because we feel Gunton's excitement about doing theology, frustrating because the book is dependent on the questions asked to which Gunton responds - we are left wanting more. 

I found the book helpful in getting to grips with the different theologians and philosophers it discusses. Brazier helpfully has footnoted in numerous places for those not familiar with a theologian or philosopher or a particular work. For this reason, I think the book does help the reader think theologically, to consider the problems, the issues and the relationship between revelation and reason.

I also found the book interesting in its discussion of various topics. For example regarding foundationalism and non-foundationalism, which Gunton has written about in both The One, the Three and the Many and A Brief Theology of Revelation, it is discussed in Revelation and Reason (pp.32-47) what I found to be more helpful ways. As I said above it is a useful background to other Gunton works.

Both Revelation and Reason and The Barth Lectures are interesting because they are books that would have looked very different if Gunton had written them. I think they need to be viewed seperately from Gunton's other published works, but they are valuable in providing us with an example of how to do theology, of how to think theologically. I did not know Professor Gunton well, apart from the few lectures he gave, when I was an undergrad. I emailed him in January 2003, when I was in my final year, asking whether I might attend the postgraduate research seminar where he was presenting the first draft of the first volume of his projected dogmatics. He replied with warm encouragement and I remember sitting in, in what turned out be his final months, as he read to us his written chapters.I remember the lively way Colin loved to talk theology because he believed it mattered. This is appartent in page after page of Revelation and Reason.