Friday, 7 September 2007

Colin Gunton: The Barth Lectures

Colin Gunton, The Barth Lectures (London: T&T Clark, 2007), xxiv + 285 pp.

Reviewed by Kim Fabricius

I had the great good fortune and privilege of serving with Colin Gunton on the Doctrine and Worship Committee of the United Reformed Church during the second half of the 1980s. Work was stimulating, but the table-talk (not to mention the pub-patter!) was downright mouth-watering. Not long out of Mansfield College, Colin’s own alma mater, I still treasure his word of thanks for an article I wrote for our magazine Reform to celebrate the Karl Barth centenary in 1986. Colin could see how Barth touched my theological G-spot, and he too found the Barth experience breathtaking, but, well on his way to becoming a theologian of distinction in his own right, he was beginning to put some critical distance between himself and the man on whom he had written his doctoral thesis under the supervision of Robert Jenson.

Gunton, even then, anticipated one day writing a more seasoned and comprehensive book on Barth, who continued to be an elephant in his study. Alas, Gunton’s sudden death in 2003 meant that that particular tomorrow would never come. Fortunately, however, Paul Brazier, one of Gunton’s students at King’s College, tape-recorded the lectures that his teacher gave on Barth during the 1999-2001 academic years. This book is the result.

It is a book that you listen to rather than read, as you eavesdrop on Professor Gunton taking his class on a guided tour of Barth’s theology from its intellectual background and nineteenth century influences; through its development in the commentaries on Romans, the correspondence with Harnack, and the book on Anselm; and then on into the mature thought of the Church Dogmatics, where the focus is on theological epistemology, the doctrine of God, and the Christology-and-soteriology (the hyphens make a substantive point).

The lectures, of course, were well prepared, replete with handouts and diagrams, but what you hear is not only Gunton’s take on Barth but also his taking on Barth even as he speaks. That is, we not only get theology, we actually get theologising – Barth “is a great man to learn to think theologically with” – as Gunton probes on his feet, sometimes with touching tentativeness.

There are many memorable statements and expressions. Gunton, ever ready (I dare say too ready) with a poke in the eye of his bête noir, the bishop of Hippo, observes that the Augustinian tradition “replaces grace with gratuity” – a mistake that Barth does not make. That “God reveals himself as Lord” – this fundamental premise of CD, Gunton perceptively suggests, is Barth’s version of Anselm’s misnamed ontological argument. Gunton also pinpoints God’s aseitas as the key to unlocking Barth’s theology, and helpfully relates it to the divine transcendence and freedom. On the one hand, in explaining Barth’s aversion to natural theology, he emphasises that if God “makes himself known in Jesus, why bother to look elsewhere”; and on the other hand, in explaining Barth’s later “theology of lights”, he acknowledges that “Barth is open to God making himself known all over the place.”

Then there is the nice distinction Gunton draws between theology’s intellectual responsibility, which is non-negotiable, and theology’s intellectual respectability, which is of no concern whatsoever; and there is his useful differentiation between “the strategical precedence of sanctification and the tactical precedence of justification” in Barth’s soteriology. A final example – on one of the reasons why the British don’t “get” Barth: “Why won’t he argue, why does he just assert? Why doesn’t Mozart argue with us? – Beethoven does! That is Barth’s point.”

There are some idiosyncratic lacunae. A few are mentioned in the foreword by Christoph Schwöbel and the introduction by Stephen R. Holmes. Here are four of my own. First, Gunton’s account of Barth’s doctrine of creation is almost parenthetical. Second, while Gunton rightly and emphatically insists on the inextricable connection between doctrine and ethics in Barth’s theology, he gives hardly a for-example. Moreover, although he traces the impact of religious socialism on the “Red Pastor” of Safenwil, Gunton misleadingly declares that “Barth saw all forms of liberation theology as privileging one group” (my italics), quite ignoring (for all the caveats rightly to be lodged against taking him as a liberation theologian tout court) Barth’s scathing critique of capitalism, nationalism, and militarism, and his consistent insistence, from the First World War to the nuclear arms race, that a godly theology will be known by its political fruit of justice and peace. So no prizes for guessing that Gunton should be numbered among the right-wing Barthians!

Third, Gunton seems unaware of the huge importance of the final moves Barth makes in CD IV/4 for a judicious perspective on a project that he was always revising in via. And fourth, although I grudgingly accept its omission from an introductory course of lectures (even if the majority in attendance were graduate students), nevertheless I would like to have seen more than the rare reference to and conversation with some of the other big Barth players like Torrance, Jüngel, Hunsinger, McCormack, and Webster, if only better to locate Gunton’s own position in the team.

In late 2002 I wrote a largely rave review for a journal on Gunton’s collection of sermons, Theology through Preaching (2001). In March 2003 I received a letter from Colin, thanking me for the review – and reassuring me of our friendship despite my criticism of fence-sitting on some of the big issues of our times! Colin concluded: “It seems a long time since we met, & I hope that will be corrected some time.” And his final words to me: “I continue to enjoy the immense privilege of being paid to engage in the joyful science” – a quintessentially Barthian note. In less than two months Colin was dead. The Barth Lectures, with its enthusiasm and energy as well as its erudition, will, I trust, convince readers that the labourer was more than worthy of his hire.

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