Gunton on Doing Theology


I have recently began a book by a man named Colin Gunton regarding the divine attributes.  For a brief and informative biography of his life and thought, click here

The book i have begun is Gunton’s last work before his untimely death, entitled Act & Being.  It is my first dive into this great thinker, and i have loved it so far.  What he is saying is really resonating with where it seems that my thought and faith are headed.  Although i am planning to do my first “book review” post over this book in the future, i can’t resist posting a keen insight Gunton has now.

This insight concerns the nature of theology, specifically theological method.  Gunton, when dealing with an insight from Karl Barth regarding divine attributes and theological method, points out the difficulties of doing theology:

“This is a theme which will recur, and it reminds us of an essential truth about the practice of theology: that apparently minor shifts of content in one place can have a major impact in another.  To seek ‘balance’ as a primary end in theology is to court boredom, if not disaster; yet imbalance can also be catastrophic.  Such are the difficulties of the discipline (20).”

There are a few truths in Gunton’s quote that i believe merit serious reflection by theologians, both aspiring and professional:

1)  Theology is systemic in nature.  How one understands one area of the faith can’t help but influence and color one’s views in other areas.  I believe that the responsible theologian needs to ask not only if his/her view of the atonement, salvation, creation, and so on is accurate, but does their view pull another area of doctrine out of alignment.  If it does, then one might need to rethink their view.

2)  Most people’s natural inclination from point 1 above is to seek to “not rock the boat.”  The fear of being wrong often, as well as the overwhelming idea of being able to discern theological and bibilical truth straitjackets people from sincere and rigorous inquiry.  Most people want to live in the comfortable yet often confusing center of the majority of Christian thought.  However, i believe that Gunton is wise to anticipate this and offer a strong caution against such an ambivalent attitude.  To always seek “balance” in theology is actually to concede to being in error, as such an attitude is fundamentally at odds with the nature of the Gospel as a definitive and radical proclamation of the truth.  The Gospel (and God) isn’t always necessarily palatable, and the idea that our theology should be and never “rock the boat” cuts against the texture of faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

3)  To those who are ready to dive into the most inane theological speculations after Gunton’s 1st two points, Gunton offers one more thought for our consideration.  While balance can lead to sterility and error, an unnecessary cavalier attitude towards the traditionally accepted doctrines of the faith courts disaster as well.  Many who have spent their lives seeking God have come before us, and their efforts deserve our serious, thoughtful, and charitable engagement.  However, let us not forget point two above, and refuse to break with the norm.  As John Sanders has said “being a heretic puts you in bad company, but it also puts you in some really good company!”

I really appreciate Gunton’s views here.  I think that he has it right that in the end, trying to be faithful to God message in doing theology is a “difficult task,” one that we will all surely come up short of pulling off.  However, let this understanding hold us not in a state of paralyzing intellectual fear or push us into a sloppy carefree attitude.  May we rath be humble and full of prayer, seeking to do our task as faithful servants of both God and His church. 

Lord, whatever our views, may we be found that in holding it our central goal is to be fiathful to you.

2 responses to “Gunton on Doing Theology

  1. Hey There, Great to see you have found Gunton; I too have been significantly affected by Gunton, particuarly in the doctrines of creation and Trinity. Act & Being is a difficult entry point for his theology, though to some degree, a good one.

    Question: my recollection of his comment on not balancing theology was in the context of not focusing on theological harmonization, i.e. how does Paul fit with James in works and faith, not so much in trying to avoid a theological center..?

  2. Pingback: Contemporary European Views of God (2): Paul Tillich and the Problem of Language « A Thinker’s Progress

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