Colin Gunton

‘The bodice of my new costume caught on the handlebar …’

On Penal Substitution

That Christ died for our sins is foundational for Christian faith and theology. Faithful witness to this fact is, therefore, of the most crucial order.

To speak about the cross in a way that is faithful to the biblical witness requires harnessing a broad range of metaphors that the Bible and the best of the tradition employs to bear witness to the reality of what God has done in Christ. One such metaphor and an indispensable metaphor at that is that of penal substitution. Clearly, the Scriptures teach that there is a penal element within Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice. Equally clear, however, is that penal substitution is not the sum of what the atonement is about. Consequently, when taken alone (or given over-amplified voice) in describing the action of the cross, there is a danger of distorting the witness to that action, of painting appalling illustrations of the Father-Son relationship, and of positing an unbiblical shift in the divine-human relation from one primarily filial and ethical to one predominantly legal. If the story of penal substitution has been told shockingly and distortedly in the past and it sometimes has, pitting an angry Father against an innocent Son, for example, or positing that ‘Jesus came to save us from God’, then rather than abandon the story we need to find ways of telling it better, that is, ways that are more faithful to the whole of the Scripture’s story and which also account for the fact that this story needs to be told alongside others.

There are a number of things I would want to affirm in the context of any discussion on penal substitution. These include: (i) that the notion plays an indispensable role in the New Testament’s witness about the cross; (ii) we must maintain the distinction between penalty and punishment. While the Crucified Christ bore sins’ penalty, there is no sense in which he was being punished by God. The Father was never anything but ‘well-pleased’ with his beloved Son; (iii) to be sure, the chastisement of our peace was certainly upon him who entered the orb of our penalty, but the whole of Christian experience ought tell us that we ought not infer from this that there is no chastisement left for us when we are in him, a chastisement with finds the truest, deepest, and bitterest repentance throughout the course of the Christian life; (iv) there was nothing arbitrary about the penalty meted out on sin as if God was concerned with mere clamant justice or abstract wrath; (v) a biblically-faithful atonement theology must adequately account for the forward-looking aspects of the atonement as well as the backward ones. Hence the need for additional models or metaphors of atonement other than only penal ones. Paul Fiddes’ contribution in Past Event and Present Salvation is a valuable study here.

The message of penal substitution remains an important and relevant one to teach us about the nature of God’s love, about the costliness of forgiveness, and about justice for both victims and perpetrators. Penal substitutionary accounts of the atonement instruct us that justice matters, that justice cannot and will not ever be set aside.

That a stream within British evangelicalism has chosen the issue of penal substitution as its defining marker is particularly disturbing for at least four reasons:

1. It represents that some evangelicals are failing to hear and receive the Bible’s own rich account of, and commentary on, God’s action in the cross, an action that all the doctrines in the world (let alone one) could not contain nor bear full witness to.

2. The new enemies of evangelicalism are now fellow evangelicals. It is a very disturbing day when people like Colin Gunton and Steve Holmes (see my review of Steve’s book The Wondrous Cross: Atonement and Penal Substituion in the Bible and History) are targeted by evangelicals as ‘the enemy’.

3. If Holmes is right that the first full account of the doctrine of penal substitution comes with Calvin, then British evangelicals are again in danger of cutting themselves off from the large majority of the Church and its history. Of course, the evangelical community has its own long tradition of being constantly in search of shibboleths by which to define itself.

4. Not only does it represent a shift in British thinking towards a more North-American way of defining Christian community (rarely a particularly helpful thing in itself), but it fails to recognise that evangelicalism is as much (if not more) a sociologically-defined reality as it is a doctrinally-defined one. Even when some issues seem to move to the fore (as, for example, in some particularly tight definitions concerning the authority of Scripture), it remains that largely cultural phenomenon have traditionally defined how evangelicals have seen themselves (and each other) and others.

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.

Colin Gunton Day Conference

I have mentioned this before on this blog, but it’s probably worth re-mentioning. A day conference to celebrate the theological work of the late Professor Colin Gunton is scheduled for Monday 10 September 2007 at Spurgeon’s College, London.

The title of the conference is The Triune God in the Theology of Colin E. Gunton. The conference will be held on Monday 10 September 2007, at Spurgeon’s College in London (from 10:30 am to 4:45 pm). There will be four speakers who will present papers on some aspect of Gunton’s theology:

Robert W. Jenson (Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton)
John E. Colwell (Spurgeon’s College, London)
Stephen R. Holmes (St Mary’s College, St Andrews)
Douglas H. Knight (Birkbeck, London)

The deadline for those wishing to book a place at a reduced rate is Monday 4 June.

If you have any questions regarding this conference contact Terry Wright at

A Brief Theology of Revelation

Recently, a mate of mine, Reno Lauro, wrote a punchy review of Gunton’s A Brief Theology of Revelation for Religious Studies Review. I thought it well worth repeating here:

Take a moment and consider this particular font; consider the format and layout of the page, or even this very sentence. What these elements all have in common is they mediate meaning. From cover to cover, Gunton’s A Brief Theology of Revelation reevaluates the doctrine of revelation in terms of mediation. Based on a 1993 Warfield lecture at Princeton Theological Seminary, Guntons book offers a surprisingly fresh critique of a neo-orthodox theology of revelation and post-liberal alternatives, which in some ways may seem much more relevant today than it did at the dawn of Clintons America. However, it is not Gunton’s critique that makes this book so important, but it is his systematic advancement of Trinitarian mediation. It is the Trinitarian formulation of a doctrine of creation which allows God to be God, the world to be the world, distinct beings he says, and yet personally related by personal mediation as creator and creation. Gunton’s lecture looks to exploit nuances in the debate previously ignored. Christian revelation is mediated, and at the most basic level all Truth, said Coleridge, is a species of Revelation. All knowledge is mediated, and only when we attend to reality through them does it disclose to us its secrets. A strong Trinitarian doctrine of creation and theology of nature is the answer to Barth’s oversimplified natural theology versus theology of revelation dichotomy. Pneumatology is thus the key to any adequate theology of revelation and of its mediation. I wish T & T Clark would have provided a forward to this new edition perhaps a retrospect of his work and what was lost in his sudden passing but this text should not be passed over lightly.