Friday, 27 October 2006

Paul Louis Metzger: trinitarian soundings in systematic theology

Paul Louis Metzger, ed., Trinitarian Soundings in Systematic Theology (London: T&T Clark, 2005), 225 pp.; with a foreword by Bruce L. McCormack and an afterword by Robert W. Jenson. (Thanks to T&T Clark for sending a review copy.)

This collection of essays forms a fitting tribute to the late Colin Gunton (1941-2003). The 15 contributors include former friends, colleagues and students of Gunton – and Gunton’s own wide influence is attested by the remarkable diversity of the contributors, their academic and ecclesial backgrounds, and their various fields of interest.

Colin Gunton’s contribution to contemporary theology would be hard to overestimate. He played a central role in reviving the discipline of systematic theology in Britain, turning King’s College London into one of the most vibrant and productive centres of theological inquiry in the world. He wrote and edited 20 books, co-founded the International Journal of Systematic Theology, and established the Research Institute in Systematic Theology (which even has the dubious distinction of featuring prominently in The Da Vinci Code!).

The essays in this collection offer sharp, concise reflections on a wide range of theological themes, and the whole volume is organised around the traditional loci of systematic theology. Thus the book opens with essays on prolegomena (Murray Rae), revelation (Metzger) and the Old Testament (Paul Blackham), before moving on to topics such as relationality in the Trinity (Peter Robinson), sin and grace (R. N. Frost), the sinlessness of Jesus (Demetrios Bathrellos), pneumatology (James Houston), the sacraments (Paul Molnar), eschatology (Kelly Kapic), and ethics (Esther Reed). The book also includes previously published pieces by Miroslav Volf, Stanley Grenz and Gunton himself.

Let me focus for a moment on just two of the most notable essays. In his fine discussion of “Triune Creativity” (chapter 6), Stephen Holmes argues that only a trinitarian doctrine of creation can “provide room for created creativity” (pp. 73-74). On the one hand, the world’s “relative independence” from the self-mediating presence of God allows room for genuine creativity; and on the other hand, God’s close connection to the world affirms the “ultimate value” of such creativity (p. 79). Further, Holmes highlights the presence of many different perfections and rationalities within the ordering of the created world, and he notes that a “rich diversity of varied … human cultures would seem to be God’s will for the world, perhaps mirroring the unity-in-plurality which is his own triune life” (p. 81).

Later in the volume, in a profound and sharply concentrated reflection on the atonement (chapter 10), the Swiss theologian Georg Pfleiderer argues for the importance of an integrative theory of atonement which incorporates the plurality of biblical models, images and ideas. Such diverse models, Pfleiderer suggests, are unified by their focus on the communicative nature of human life, particularly “its vital ground, its rational external rules, and its internal semiotic structure.” The Christian doctrine of atonement, then, should be viewed as the affirmation that “in all these dimensions human life is dependent upon salvation” (p. 136).

While only a few essays here engage explicitly with Gunton’s work (especially Pfleiderer in chapter 10 and Esther Reed in chapter 15), the whole collection is nevertheless pervaded by some of Gunton’s deepest theological commitments: Trinity, pneumatology, relationality, and mediation.

And in a shrewd afterword, Robert W. Jenson (Gunton’s beloved Doktorvater) remarks on the absence of Lutheran contributors to this otherwise ecumenically diverse volume, noting that most of the essays exhibit characteristically “Guntonesque” patterns of thought: “the lines of argument in most of [the essays] are controlled by a certain reticence about the communication of attributes, and by attention to the problem of mediation between time and eternity” (p. 220). Even if one harbours suspicions about precisely such patterns of thought, one can only admire the consistency with which Gunton himself, and those influenced by him, have pursued and developed such themes within all the diverse loci of dogmatic theology.

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