On Geoff Thompson’s A Genuinely Theological Church

A Genuinely Theological Church.jpgThis afternoon, I had the joy of being at the wonderful Pilgrim Theological College and to share some words at the launch of Geoff Thompson’s fabulous new book, A Genuinely Theological Church. Below’s what I said, more or less.

Thank you to Geoff and to folk here at Pilgrim for the kind invitation and privilege to be here today to help launch Geoff’s latest book, A Genuinely Theological Church.[1] I wish to acknowledge that we meet on Wurundjeri land, of the Kulin nation with whom there have yet been no treaties and whose sovereignty has never been ceded. I pay my respects to any elders past, present, and emerging who may be here among us.

Well, what a wonderful gift to the church Geoff Thompson is! He keeps summoning us to love God and neighbour with our minds, and does so without the levels of anxiety that tend to characterise a great many church discussions. As an expression of Geoff’s love for the Uniting Church, this very timely book is an invitation to develop an explicit rationale for the study of theology in ministerial education. It is also an invitation to the church to understand itself as a theological community, ever renewed by rediscovering its life rooted ‘within the history of Jesus Christ’ (72).

It is difficult to imagine anyone better placed to write such a book. It reflects the wisdom of one who has wrestled long with questions about ‘the highly contested nature of theological education in the Uniting Church’ (7) and beyond.[2] Geoff maps the recent history of theological education against the background of ‘almost incalculable’ (23) cultural and intellectual change in the global church, and he calls upon the church to not retreat from but rather to engage with such realities with the full resources of the Gospel. To this end, Geoff argues that theological colleges ought to be located in ‘larger communities responsible for developing a culture of debate, research, resourcing, advocacy and public engagement’ (68).

He laments that while the demands, orientations, and contexts of ministry and of ministerial training have changed, there has been very little reflection on the role of theology in the church, and about why theology should assume the constant place it does. He surmises that this ‘suggests that we’re convinced that theology is important, but we’re not entirely sure why’, and that this absence of clarity means that ‘theology tends to become little more than a hoop that must be jumped [through] on the way to something else’ (24). He accepts that ‘theologians … have to take some of the blame for this situation’. ‘We have’, he says, ‘been either too defensive or … too confident that people will simply know what to do with a theological education and that the church … will know what to do with its theologically-educated leaders …. who are often appointed leaders for their expertise in other areas’ (25).

Geoff wants us to scrutinise what he and other theological educators have been doing, to ask if we have gotten the ‘questions about theological education right’, and to interrogate that question ‘with meaningful criteria’ (7–8). Drawing upon the extraordinary witness of the Basis of Union, he invites us to reflect on more basic questions, like: why does the church bother with theology at all? Indeed, why is there a church at all? What is this strangely ‘embodied way of life sustained and normed by the novel message of the gospel’ (9) of which Geoff speaks?

Of course, Geoff has been talking about this stuff for a long time. Some might say that he has a bit of ‘thing’ for it. Indeed, in an article in this month’s Crosslight he again advances the claim that ‘theological education is not about developing a theological “position”’ but is, rather, ‘about shaping a theological imagination. It involves learning to see and experience God [and] the world … through an ongoing critical but constructive engagement with the tension-filled biblical material, an immersion in the ebb and flow of the history of Christian doctrine, and a ruthlessly honest familiarity with Christianity’s history and its diverse practices’.[3] This book too is a call to see in the ordinary work of theology that which cultivates the church’s ‘collective imagination’ (73). It therefore rejects as unhelpful the ‘sharp contrast between scholarship and practice’ (14) as, in Geoff’s words, ‘a furphy’ (27). He laments ‘the ease with which’ members of the Uniting Church have allowed ‘scholarship to define theology’, or to ‘reduce theology to scholarly theology …. Theology … is much larger and far more important to the church than its scholarly forms’ (15).

The reduction of theology to the purview of church ‘ministry’ – whether lay or ordained – is another part of the problem that Geoff is keen to diagnose. He does not follow the worn path of thinking that ‘everyone is a theologian’, however. Indeed, he judges this to be ‘one of the more unhelpful slogans at play in the Uniting Church’ (43). Instead, he argues that the theologian is one who ‘relates to particular features of the social imaginary by attending in an explicit way to what otherwise remains implicit’ (46), and who does so with attention to biblical texts, to analysing historical doctrinal developments, to debating contested interpretations, to generating constructive theological proposals, to writing and presenting papers and preaching sermons about such matters, and to critically articulating the faith in public fora (42–43).

Geoff’s reference to theologians clearly preferences those whose work is concerned almost exclusively with words. If I was to venture a small criticism of this terrific book, it would be that it might have donated more ink to the ways that words do not exhaust the making explicit what otherwise remains implicit; that engagement in the joyous burden of enquiry and witness to the hope born of a faith that Easters us is not done with words alone. Yes, theology does much of its critical work through ‘exegesis, analysis, construction, writing and debating’ (50) and so on, but unlike work on say dogma and doctrinetheology does these with more than words. What of cultural myths, ritual, image, architecture, time, music, hospitality? I wish that Geoff had also explored some such ways in this book.

For those, like Geoff and myself, committed to serving God through the atmosphere of the Reformed project, the dynamic and free character of the living Word is as uncompromising a priority as is the hope that faith communities are ever born through its hearing. But it is very easy to be blind-sighted by such a commitment. Edwin Muir’s criticism of King Calvin’s kirk comes readily to mind. Muir, a Scottish poet, spoke of how ‘the Word made flesh … is made word again’,[4] exposing an enduring proclivity in Reformed Christianity to attempt to secure the truth of the Gospel through words alone.

Don’t get me wrong: I love words, and theology can’t do without them. But language has a tendency to pretend ‘to a precision, a finality that it cannot deliver, and this, ironically, is what makes it potentially more idolatrous than the images of which it is so suspicious’.[5] Responsible theological education must constantly underscore this fact by undertaking its work in an abundance of performative modes. This is indeed to take seriously Geoff’s own claim that theological work ought to correspond to the modes by which divine revelation has come into the world. It is also to underscore the theological community’s ‘vocation’, in Geoff’s words, ‘to counter the myth that reason is the only legitimate mode of truth-telling’ (60). Or, to cite Luther: ‘It’s not reading books that makes a theologian, but living, dying, and being damned!’

A Genuinely Theological Church is a welcome challenge to those faith communities still breathing late-Christendom air to imagine that the church’s ‘validity is derived [solely] from its availability to Jesus Christ’ (29–30). It is this that assists the church to counter the ever-present temptations of abstraction and domestication. And it is this, primarily, that makes the Christian community to be stranger than we hardly ever dare imagine. How fitting, for its sole existence is to bear witness to the peculiarity of God’s own strangeness among us in Jesus Christ. This is part of the novel gift that the ‘decline of Christendom allows us in the West’ (34–35). And it is theology’s role, Geoff believes, ‘to help shape the church’s collective imagination around’ this strange and novel story of the crucified God ‘with which Christianity launched itself into the world’ (38). Geoff believes that this calls for ‘leadership which is embedded in a post-Christendom [or we might be better to say late-Christendom[6]] theological imagination which can articulate and shape the Christian faith in the midst of the other social imaginaries that make up the cultural plurality of Australian society’ (82).[7] Geoff’s book made me pause and ask myself the question: What would it take for the UCA to produce another kind of Davis McCaughey, but for today’s Australia?

A few years ago, the Church of England produced a consultation document called Resourcing Ministerial Education. Among other things, it argued that the Church needs a ‘significant increase in the number and quality of ministerial leaders’ to meet its new challenges. One thing that it highlighted is that, as one commentator put it:

To be asked to minister without an informing vision of God (which is what theology is really all about) … is like being told to make bricks without straw …. We cannot evade discussion of issues of finance, resourcing, and patterns of ministerial education. Yet there is a risk that we may fail to ask the right questions – particularly if we allow the institutional needs of the Church to trump the spiritual and pastoral needs of congregations, or lose sight of the importance of a theological vision in inspiring and sustaining Christian ministry.[8]Geoff’s book is concerned to articulate and to invite engagement with many of these ‘right questions’.

You know, many scholars write excellent fat books. Very few get read. Many, however, do a most admirable job at elevating computer monitors. Geoff’s book would make a useless computer monitor stand! A few years ago, when Julian Barnes’ short novel The Sense of an Ending won the Man Booker Prize, readers and critics were reminded that form matters as well as content. At 88 pages, A Genuinely Theological Church frees its readers – and its author – of the burden of being comprehensive. Like Walter Benjamin’s 38-page The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, or Helmut Thielicke’s A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, Geoff’s fabulously-hobbit-sized book doesn’t need to pretend that it’s the only material its reader has at hand. Of course, short books are only very rarely indeed a substitute for more complex works that advance challenging arguments. But they can certainly delight in piquing curiosity and in provoking further thought, and perhaps even action. Geoff’s book seeks such ends, and for that the church is again truly in his debt.

[1] Geoff Thompson, A Genuinely Theological Church: Ministry, Theology and the Uniting Church (Reservoir: Uniting Academic Press, 2018).

[2] While Geoff properly resists the temptation to commit on other parts of the church, the relevance of this book clearly extends beyond the bounds of the UCA.

[3] Geoff Thompson, ‘Forming Disciples – Theologically’, Crosslight, June 2018, 18.

[4] Edwin Muir, ‘The Incarnate One’, in Collected Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1960), 228–29.

[5] Malcolm Guite, Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010), 11.

[6] The judgement that we are living in a ‘post-Christendom’ context is debatable in my view and, as Geoff notes, a not-entirely-accurate description of the Australian scene.

[7] Geoff is right to argue that ‘a simplistically-formulated faith, and a faith reflected on only simplistically, will betray its own substance’ (39). Unremitting and unqualified silence is not a final option for those called to discipleship in the world because such would mark a retreat into pure subjectivity at the very point when those so called find themselves already committed to the world. But as Kierkegaard diagnosed in his own context, the most carefully parsed words offer no guarantee that the truth of Christianity might be rendered more or less meaningful.

[8] Alistair E. McGrath, ‘It’s the theology, stupid’, Church Times, 17 April (2015), https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2015/17-april/comment/opinion/it-s-the-theology-stupid.

Musings on Ministry and Theological Education

Anne MallabyA guest post from Anne Mallaby

Coming to the end of a formal pastoral leadership at Box Hill Baptist Church creates a moment to reflect upon ministry as it has been experienced in the local church context, and in my involvement in theological education within the formal educative process. Often this may have appeared to be a dance between separate spheres of academic theology and its practical outworking that could be at best considered a tension, and at worst placed as polarities. However, for me the concluding of formal pastoral leadership responsibilities does not mean that my love for the church as it strives to express the love of God in the world will stop. It continues, albeit in a different mode but contributing to both in ways that hopefully serve the realm of God expressed locally and more broadly.

For many years, I have lived out a model of ministry that sought to apply academic thought to practice by intentionally considering how academic thinking informs my practice, and, in turn, how my practice prompts more rigorous examination and understanding. The conversation between the two has provided a rich base for ministry, with experience informing theological thinking and the resources of the academy enriching my pastoral practice. I’ve delighted in that interesting dialogue that takes seriously the challenges of engaging with people, religious systems, and social phenomena, and that seeks to reflect theologically upon them. And, in truth, I’ve never been tempted to see this conversation as a one-sided one. We need the academy to distil the social data, the sources of our tradition, and the richness of our text. And the academy needs the practitioner to ask the questions, to prompt the exploration, to seek understanding. This has never been an either/or approach. The academy and the practice of ministry delight together in a dance that rises and falls, seeking to catch the rhythm of God with us.

Often when we turn our attention to intentional rigorous thought, searching to make sense of the many conundrums that come our way in ministry, we shy away from thinking of this as academic research. But to truly grapple with issues that lay before us, we need to understand deeply and fully as much as we can. If ministry on the run is our sole approach, we are likely to run full headlong into complex situations that have been over-simplified or run away from the opportunities for rich learning and engagement that will inform how we live.

I’ve needed the rigor of the academy to make sense of my practice, to stimulate my thinking, and to prompt me to extend my ideas and practice. But there is a compromise of resourcing and time. Trying to be abreast of the most current thinking, responding thoughtfully and intelligently to trends and contemporary questions, requires thinking through the implications and considering fresh paradigms of thought with as much energy as we can gather. We need the means of gathering that research and the skills to interpret it within our contexts, and we need people who have those skills and the time to support us in this endeavour.

Of course, we are all practitioners. We engage in community life with real people seeking to live well in God. We are practitioner-theologians in one sense. That said, we can’t all be on top of everything, and if we are to delight in new discoveries and to be open to new insights in our learning, then time and space need to be available for this. If I’m honest, even keeping up with the latest research is a challenge, let alone contributing to it!

As my formal ministry leadership role in a local church comes to an end, the question may be asked if I have sold out to the desire to live in books and ideas? This is not only a simplistic view of the Academy; it is flawed. Just as I’ve needed the rigor of academy to offer input and clarity along the way, so too I will need the community of God to raise up some of the questions that are important and that need to be explored. We all need people who have the capacity to discern clearly and to think deeply about important subjects that inform our living.

I am committed to informed and integrative learning as the way forward for our churches and our formational programs. And being informed requires thoughtful, intentional, attention to research and discovery. I’m excited to be a part of a team who are committed to doing this together.


Ed. Some related posts can be read here and here.


Review: Manifesto for Learning: The Mission of the Church in Times of Change

ManifestoDonn Morgan, Manifesto for Learning: The Mission of the Church in Times of Change (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2012). ISBN: 978-0-8192-2768-3; 96pp.

A guest-review by Kevin Ward.

This is a very brief little book that at first glance does not have much relevance for the church in New Zealand. It comes out of the crisis facing theological education in the US brought about by having far too many theological schools faced with rising costs, declining student numbers and reduced financial commitment from churches. That is a challenge for theological schools in New Zealand also, as I am aware both through teaching in one and being involved at executive level with both the New Zealand and Australia New Zealand Associations of such schools. However, as I read it I realised much of what was being discussed, both in terms of challenges and suggested ways ahead, was generally true for the church in New Zealand as well as theological education.

The core argument is that the mission of the church has three basic elements: worship, service and learning. He argues that while worship and service are regularly prioritised, learning is no longer regarded as ‘an important part of the church’s identity and mission’. ‘Service and worship without education and formation risks separating mission and ministry from fundamental parts of our identity, and creating a kind of amnesia concerning our Christian faith and its particular expressions’ (p. 38). This is a concern I also share and is identified in many recent studies, particularly among young people and young adults. Morgan takes a holistic view of this, not just concern about theological schools, and argues that the most important level of education is what happens at a congregational level. Here, in my observation, it is sadly neglected in many churches. The consequence of this lack of concern is, of course, a lack of commitment of resources to it, both at a congregational level and also in supporting theological education. Giving our scarce resources, service ministries or providing exciting worship is what counts.

The book is helpful in summarising some of the changes that have occurred over the past 50 years which have impacted on churches and theological schools in similar ways in New Zealand. ‘There continues to be debate about both the causes of and the solutions to the mainline churches’ decline. Because some churches continue to thrive, some say this is just a wake-up call for those in decline. But the overall numbers in many denominations reflect devastating change that would appear to require radical rethinking of the church’s mission, of “how to do and be church”’ (p. 17). Rather than thinking about these issues and the wider challenges of the state of the church as a whole, most focus has been on the survival of our particular community and its sustainability. This fosters a foxhole mentality. I would suggest this is true of both theological schools and local churches.

When it comes to looking at implementing the changes needed, Morgan suggests that it is like being in the middle of a three ring circus. The first ring represents the perennial issue of resources, especially financial, and the lack thereof. The second represents changes in church and society, which are, of course, related to the first. But while we spend much time discussing and obsessing about these, there is a third ring where ‘we try to put financial realities together with the changes in church and society as we reconsider mission and ministry’ (p. 61). This is the place where we need to not merely talk about structural change, but get through to doing it. This is the ring that is all-too-rarely entered. From my perspective it is a problem many theological schools have not addressed; namely, why a number in New Zealand have closed over recent years, and others are at crisis point (although I would add that it is one thing the Presbyterian Church has done well). But it is an even bigger issue for mainline churches, none more so than the PCANZ, and although we have been aware of the need for it for over a decade, have done precious little to address it.

The final chapter looks at some of the problems faced along the way of change, such as ‘inertia and investment in the status quo’, ‘particularity and diversity’, and ‘competition’, which are equally shared by churches and education schools. So while this book, at one level, is about challenges facing theological schools in the US, reading it provides many helpful insights and suggestions not only for similar institutions in New Zealand but also for the church in the very challenging context we find ourselves in, where time is no longer our friend.

Free access to Pacifica

PacificaThe Australasian journal Pacifica is offering access to all back issues, including the latest issue. You can access these here.

The latest edition includes articles by David Fergusson, Geoff Thompson and Gerald O’Collins.

Ray Anderson on theology as practical

Reading Ray Anderson is always good for the soul, the head, and the hands. He writes as one who is simultaneously clinician and patient – pointing ever away from himself to Christ as both God’s Act of reconciliation and God’s Word of revelation. Like all good theologians, Anderson does his theology apostle-like; that is, daily at the coalface with people in their doubt, grief, death, guilt and repentance. Not one word of the NT came from the pen of a cloistered cleric! NT theology was hammered out not from articles and commentaries and academic conferences but on the anvil of existential need, seeking at every turn to bring every situation under the scrutiny and grace, not of Scripture, but of Jesus Christ, mindful of the fact that Jesus did not come to preach the Gospel (or the Bible) so much as he came to make a Gospel to preach. Ray Anderson continues in this tradition … and that’s one reason why I love reading him.

Anyway, here’s a few sentences from his great introductory essay on practical theology:

‘What makes theology practical is not the fitting of orthopedic devices to theoretical concepts in order to make them walk. Rather, theology occurs as a divine partner joins us on our walk, stimulating our reflection and inspiring us to recognize the living Word, as happened to the two walking on the road to Emmaus on the first Easter (Lk 24) … At the center of the discussion of the nature of practical theology is the issue of the relation of theory to praxis. If theory precedes and determines practice, then practice tends to be concerned primarily with methods, techniques and strategies for ministry, lacking theological substance. If practice takes priority over theory, ministry tends to be based on pragmatic results rather than prophetic revelation … Barth, from the beginning, resisted all attempts to portray theory and praxis in opposition to one another, In his early Church Dogmatics he described any distinction between “theoretical” and “practical” as a “primal lie, which has to be resisted in principal”. The understanding of Christ as the light of life can be understood only as a “theory which has its origin and goal in praxis”‘. – Ray S. Anderson, The Shape of Practical Theology: Empowering Ministry with Theological Praxis (Downers Grove: IVP, 2001), 12, 14, 15.

A new Scripture and Theology blog

One of the more exciting things about studying at St Mary’s College (University of St Andrews) is the rich interaction between biblical studies students and their dogmatic theology comrades. There may be lots of other smells around St Mary’s College, but there is little here that smells of ‘keeping the disciplines separate’. Some of my colleagues have now started a blog called Scripture and Theology in order to facilitate discussion beyond metropolis of St Andrews. It is well worth checking out.

Here’s a taster from Luke Tallon on Augustine’s reading of Genesis 1:

God did not create his creatures to live in the colorless borderland of the evening, but in the glorious light of the breaking dawn “when the creature is drawn to the praise and love of the Creator.” With this language Augustine certainly foreshadows the twilight following the fall and the rising of the glorified Son, but Augustine also has in view the progressive development of creation under the command of the creator. Thus, Augustine provides two comforts to his audience. First, just as God in his activity in the six days of creation moved towards the goal of the Sabbath, so too God is moving creation history to a climactic “seventh day” (note: towards the fulfillment, not the abolition of creation). Whether we see this in the morning light or it is hidden from us in the colorlessness of evening, this providential movement is happening. Second, although the twilight still lingers, the darkness will never come, and in God’s own time he will usher in an eternal morning. Thus, Augustine reminds us that it is both natural and right to yearn for the morning (cf. Ben Harper’s “Morning Yearning”).

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.

Biblia Clerus

The Vatican Congregation for the Clergy has launched Biblia Clerus which allows researchers to access Bible verses with exegesis from doctors of the Church or cross-reference liturgical texts with commentaries from some Church Fathers. The site promotes a program which ‘offers Sacred Scripture, its interpretation in light of Sacred Tradition and the teachings of the Magisterium, with appropriate theological commentary and exegesis’. It is available in French, Portuguese, Spanish, German, English and Italian.