Colin Gunton’s ‘The Barth Lectures': A Review

Colin E. Gunton, The Barth Lectures (transcribed and edited by Paul H. Brazier; T&T Clark, London/New York, 2007). xxiv + 285 pages. ISBN: 9780567031402.

While he fruitfully enjoyed a life-long engagement with and formation by Karl Barth’s work, produced numerous articles on various aspects of such, and lectured on Barth most years he taught at King’s College London, Colin Gunton never fulfilled his ambition to pen a monograph devoted solely to this his favourite theologian. Had he done so, these lectures (recorded and transcribed almost verbatim by Paul Brazier, complete with charts, diagrams, live-questions and Gunton’s responses) would have served as the basis.

Chapters 1-3 attend to the intellectual, historical and theological background to Barth’s thinking. Beginning with a focus on Enlightenment philosophy as it finds voice in Kant, Schleiermacher and Hegel – all three of whom ‘identified Christianity too closely with modern culture’ (p. 17) – Gunton then turns to Barth’s early theological formation in the nineteenth-century liberalism of Harnack and Herrmann, as well as to some other voices and ideas that impinged on Barth’s theological development – Johann Christoph Blumhardt (who also influenced Moltmann), Albert Schweitzer and Franz Overbeck through whom eschatology was re-confirmed on the theological radar. Barth’s engagement with existentialism (Kierkegaardian and other) and theologies of ‘religion’, ‘crisis’ and ‘dialectics’ are introduced in the second and third lectures, and re-appear subsequently throughout. Certainly, for the Swiss theologian, ‘no road to the eternal world has ever existed except the road of negation’ (p. 33). Thus when Gunton later comes to unpack something of the charge concerning Barth’s ‘irrationality’ through the continuing influence of Der Römerbrief, empiricism, and Barth’s ‘assertive style’, the United Reformed Church minister notes:

The influence of empiricism, especially on the minds of English and American theologians, cannot be dismissed. The English, or to be more pertinent, the Anglican theological mind is shaped by a philosophical tradition that does not find Barth’s approach to theology easy to understand let alone agree with … Part of our intellectual tradition makes it hard for us to understand – particularly an Anglican tradition. Anglicans on the whole like things to be nice and middle way, the via media. And there is not much of the middle way in Karl Barth! … Barth’s assertive style does make it difficult for mild-mannered establishment Anglicans to cope with. (p. 66)

Whether critiquing Augustine, Calvin, Kant, the ‘Absolutely Pagan’ Hegel (p. 17), or the ‘great opponent’ Schleiermacher (p. 15), Gunton repeatedly identifies that the crucial question for the author of the groundbreaking Der Römerbrief remains ‘how much of your intellectual method hangs on something foreign to Christianity?’ (p. 42; cf. pp. 52-3). To this end, Gunton also devotes an entire lecture (pp. 53-63) to Barth’s 1931 work on Anselm, Fides quaerens intellectum, and to the Archbishop’s understanding of the relationship between ‘proof’, ‘reason’ and ‘faith’. He later writes: ‘Barth is a post-Reformation thinker with the rallying cry, by scripture alone and by faith alone! Barth found in the Reformation tradition a conception of theology based on a view of God that is linked with human salvation. The problem for Barth with the Scholastic tradition is that they begin with a rational view of God – a rational idea of God abstracted from human salvation. Barth begins with scripture because the God of scripture is about salvation not philosophical argument’ (p. 69). And on a comparison with Schleiermacher: ‘the problem with beginning with religion is that it is not theological, it can be, it can lead into theology, but in essence it is not: religion is an experiential concept, not a theological concept. Barth wants a theology that is theological right from the very outset. Barth considers that Roman Catholics and Protestants such as Schleiermacher are wrong in thinking that there can be a non-theological basis for theology. Barth is a theologian you see, to the fingernails’ (p. 69).

From Chapter Four onwards, Gunton turns to Barth’s Church Dogmatics, acutely aware that ‘there is nothing as boring as résumés of Barth’s Dogmatics‘ and that ‘the way to get into Barth is to select and to read – read him, there is no substitute!’ (p. 71). Over the next 190 pages, this is precisely what Gunton masterfully helps us do; whether on Barth’s theological prolegomena, his witness to the three-fold Word, trinity, the doctrine of God proper, election, christology, soteriology, ethics and creation, we are all along driven by the only thing of theological interest for Barth, the question ‘Who is the God who makes himself known in Scripture?’ (p. 77). ‘When Barth is at his best’, Gunton writes, ‘he looks at the biblical evidence in detail; when he is weak he tends to evade it’ (p. 119)

A few tastes from ‘5. Barth on the Trinity and the Personal God':

Barth is anti-foundationalist … God’s revelation is self-grounded; it does not have to appeal to anything else beyond itself. Because it is revelation through itself, not in relation to something else, because it is self-contained, lordship means freedom. This is characteristically Barthian: a characteristically Barthian phrase. Lordship means freedom – freedom for God, absolutely central for Barth’s theology. (p. 78)

The basis of all theology lies in the fact that revelation does happen … This revelation is Christological: Jesus Christ is God’s self-unveiling. The Father cannot be unveiled, but the Father reveals through the Son. This is imparted through the Holy Spirit. A little artificial I actually think, but you can see what he is actually trying to do: he is trying to show that inherent in the structure of God’s presence in Jesus Christ is a Trinitarian view of God … The point here is that in Jesus Christ we see the limits, the possibilities of the knowability of God … So Barth in a way is still retaining this dialectical structure: veiling-unveiling, knowability -unknowability, revelation-hiddenness … In the end you have only got paradox … God preserves his privacy. (pp. 79-80)

The logic is that if God is like this in time then because he doesn’t con us, so to speak, he doesn’t pull the wool over our eyes, because he is a revealing God, then that is what God is. So don’t think that the God we meet in Jesus is one God and that the God of eternity is entirely different from Jesus. The God you meet in Jesus is no different from the God you might meet if you were able to have a direct view of eternity. (p. 83)

Barth is against all mathematics in theology – he is against theories and ideas propounded down the centuries by theologians whereby examples are given of the Trinity, where three things make one; Augustine was often doing this, it is pure analogy or an attempt at analogy, which generally fails to offer any theological elucidation … I don’t like Augustine. I think he is the fountainhead of our troubles. (pp. 84, 96)

[Barth] is often accused of modalism, and I think he is near it … I think he is on a bit of a knife-edge myself, but then all theology is on a knife-edge, it is such a difficult discipline. [Barth] wants to do what the Cappadocians did, and Barth thinks he has done it better with this term – ‘modes of being’. Well, I don’t agree with him, but that is the way he puts it. (pp. 88-9)

Theology is our interpretation of God’s self-interpretation. God interprets himself to us, that is what revelation is. Our response is to interpret this faithfully, or as Jüngel would put it, responsibly … We move from faith to understanding. We move from a grateful acceptance of revelation to an attempt to understand as best we may what that revelation means for God and ourselves. And the understanding consists in the fact that we can talk of God as Father, Son and Spirit. It is so obvious that we should, isn’t it! We might talk of God as a tyrannical monad, but the fact that we can talk of God as Father, Son and Spirit is, so to speak, a demonstration after the event that we are making sense, that God is making sense, our theology makes sense. (p. 91)

And from ‘8. Ethics: Church Dogmatics Chapter VIII:

I do think that there is a problem of abstractness because there isn’t really in Barth, I think (and I say this tentatively), I think that there isn’t really in Barth an account of how this relationship between God and the moral agent takes shape. There is not much of a principle of formation. How are people formed so as to take one ethical direction rather than another? Barth is relatively weak in ecclesiology; that is, some account of how ethics are shaped by the community of belief. He is so anxious not to tie God down; that is always his anxiety, not to tie God down. (p. 133)

Throughout, Gunton is rousing his 30-40 mostly MA and PhD students (although the lectures were intended for undergraduates and so leave considerable ground un-traversed and engage minimally with secondary literature) to ‘read as much of the man himself’ not least because ‘the people that write about him are much more boring than he is’ (p. 9; cf. p. 39). In a sense, this is one book to ‘listen to’ more than to ‘read’. At times, it’s a bit like the difference between a live album and a studio version. Not all the notes are spot on, but the energy – filled with a depth of theological and pastoral insight that betray years of wrestling with the things that matter – is all there.

Such wrestling means that whether expounding a key motif in Barth’s theology or fielding questions, Gunton reveals not only a deep indebtedness to Barth’s work, but also points of divergence. He is upfront in the first lecture: ‘Not everyone buys into Barth … I don’t, all the way along the line, as I get older I get more and more dissatisfied with the details of his working out of the faith … over the years I think I have developed a reasonable view of this great man who is thoroughly exciting and particularly, I can guarantee, if you do this course, that you will be a better theologian by the third year, whether or not you agree with him – he is a great man to learn to think theologically with’ (p. 10; see the prefaces to his Theology Through the Theologians and to the second edition of The Promise of Trinitarian Theology). Clearly, Gunton is no clone of Barth. Though mostly unnamed, he draws upon Coleridge, Owen, Zizioulas and Polanyi as allies in order to attain a measure of distance from Barth’s theology (and that of Barth’s student Moltmann), notably on creation, trinitarian personhood (Gunton prefers the Cappadocians), natural revelation, Jesus’ humanity, Christ’s priesthood, the Word’s action as mediator of creation, ecclesiology, and an over-realised eschatology, among other things (see pp. 52, 74, 82, 88-90, 96, 133, 142, 148, 170-1, 186, 200, 212, 227, 236, 250, 253-4, passim). Not alone here, Gunton reserves his strongest criticisms for what he contends is Barth’s weak pneumatology (for which he blames Augustine and the filioque): there is ‘not enough of the Spirit accompanying and empowering Jesus at different stages of his ministry’ (p. 200). Again: ‘the second person of the Trinity is made to do a bit more than he does in Scripture’ (p. 212). Gunton is always cautious and respectful however: Barth ‘never really forgets anything, he is too good a theologian for that. And when you are criticizing Barth it is only a question of where he puts a weight; he never forgets anything, he is too good a man for that’ (p. 171). Even on the Spirit, Gunton suggests that he can only be critical here because of what he has learnt from Barth already: ‘That’s the great thing about Barth: he enables you to do other things that aren’t just Barth but yet are empowered by him. Yes, that’s his greatness’ (p. 200).

While the reformed theologian is ‘too-multi-layered a thinker to have one leading idea’ if there is one, Gunton suggests it is that of covenant: ‘that from eternity God covenants to be the God who elects human beings into relation with himself’ (p. 149), that from eternity the triune God is oriented towards us. Gunton’s chapter on Barth’s revision of God’s election in CD II/2 is an astounding example of his adroitness and élan as a theological educator. Not many teachers could summarise so sufficiently and with such economy (just 12 pages!) what for Barth is the root of all things, ‘creation, atonement, all’ (p. 115), that is, election. Gunton concludes by (over?)-suggesting that Barth’s effort was ‘a huge improvement in the crude determinism of the Augustinian tradition, which did not represent a gracious God. The Augustinian doctrine replaces grace with gratuity: God gratuitously chooses group A and not group B – this is not the God who seeks out the lost [even Judas] and does not reject them’ (p. 121).

This volume is significantly more than merely a course on the theology of the twentieth century’s superlative theologian. It is also a reminder that to read Barth attentively is to be introduced to a broader dogmatic and philosophical tradition. Moreover, it is to be led to do so by one of Britain’s ablest pedagogues. A foreword by Christoph Schwöbel and a warm introduction by Steve Holmes prepare us for one of the freshest introductions to Barth available. Again, we are placed in Professor Gunton’s debt.

3 thoughts on “Colin Gunton’s ‘The Barth Lectures': A Review

  1. When Barth is at his best’, Gunton writes, ‘he looks at the biblical evidence in detail; when he is weak he tends to evade it’ (p. 119)…

    You know, I would say the same for Gunton. His main deficiency as a theologian was a terrible lack of engagement with Scriptural texts

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  2. The same could be said for a lot of theologians.

    When I read Gunton’s stuff, I’ve no doubt that it’s inspired and directed by Scripture. I suppose I’m wondering what you mean by ‘engagement’ with the texts. It’s true that Gunton seldom offers exegetical theology.

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  3. Gunton notes that Barth’s approach was that ‘the expositor’s job isn’t to lay out what he thinks to be a scientific and historical exposition of the text … you must wrestle with the text until the walls that divide you from the first century are broken down and it speaks anew to our era’. And as he says in another place, ‘There is always a space between what the words of scripture say and what the theologian has to make of them’. Whether or not Barth was always successful here, I have no doubt that this is what he is always trying to do. When he gets it right (which is almost always!), he’s brilliant, and a exceptional help to preachers. When he gets it wrong, well …

    Michael (and others), had you ever observed Gunton preach or pray, or just live? I really would have loved to have heard, and seen, him – the man living before God. So often, it’s here – that is, in what one does with the Word as it confronts us – that we see the true theologian, and their theology, at work.

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