Thursday 26 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.


Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

I'll have to check this out. Gunton and I were both Visiting Professors at Fuller Theological Seminary in 2000. We had many fascinating conversations and found a common love of Barth and other topics--although Gunton kept trying to get me to abandon my love for the Anabaptists and embrace Calvin. Neither of us converted the other, but we enjoyed hoisting a few pints while we tried. :-)

Anonymous said...

Kelly Kapic was one of my professors at Covenant College. I was there for a business major but I credit his class on Christology for really getting me interested in these topics that eventually led me to your website about a year ago. What a small world. It's pretty cool to see him contribute to something like this. As you can see by searching his name on Amazon, he has done work on the Puritans and specifically John Owen. He's pretty young and I think has a lot of potential, so he's one author to keep your eye on.

David W. Congdon said...

Paul Louis Metzger is a family friend, and I credit him with first piquing my interest in theology, about six years ago. He teaches at Multnomah Biblical Seminary (part of Multnomah Bible College) in Portland, Ore., where my grandfather taught for 30 years, where my parents met, where my mother is finished her M.Div, and where both my brother and wife went to college! It's home for me. My sincerest thanks belong to Metzger and the other professors at that school for shaping my life in ways direct and indirect.

That said, I do have serious reservations about Gunton's theology, particularly in his social trinitarianism and the overly simplistic identification between divine and human being that one finds in theologians like Volf. I respect Gunton greatly, and yet I cannot help but share the criticisms of Bruce McCormack (see his article in the first volume of Cultural Encounters, which was begun by Metzger and is published by Multnomah).

Halden said...

Metzger is my advisor in my current M.Div program in theological studies. I have known him for years and I worked on this book as one of his assistants.

I don't think your criticms of Volf are quite fair, David. He is definately a social trintarian, but he is rigourous in exploring distinctions as well as connections between divine and creaturely relationality, especially in After Our Likeness. There may be reasons to disagree with his account, but he certainly makes no "simplistic identification" between divine and human being. Gunton may be more vulnerable to such a criticsm in his last work Act and Being with his perspective on univocity, however.

Ben Myers said...

These comments are really interesting. I myself am especially uncomfortable with Gunton's concept of mediation, which pervades so much of his thinking. (And it's ironic that contemporary theologians in the "Barthian" tradition are doing so much to revive this concept!)

Personally, I reckon John Webster is on the right track here in his (increasingly rigorous) critique of "mediation".

Halden said...

Could you go into that a bit more, Ben? I think Steve Holmes' critique of Gunton on mediation is very helpful in this volume. What I think Gunton lacks is a proper account of divine action (which I think von Balthasar and Jungel supply, albeit in different ways).

But I'm just wondering about how it is that you are uncomfortable with Gunton's mediation. I'm uncomfortable with it for reasons similar to Jesnson's...which I doubt would be the case with Webster.

Ben Myers said...

Hi Halden. Well, my own discomfort with "mediation" arises from Barth's influence, especially the way Barth relates divine action to creaturely action. If God's action (precisely as divine action) already includes within itself the possibility of presence to the creature and thus of corresponding creaturely action, then all need for mediation is really eliminated at the outset. (And, more importantly, the demand for mediation is seen to be a denial of God's deity!)

John Webster has been developing this approach in a way that has impressed me very deeply. In the introduction to Confessing God (2005), Webster sums up his approach:

"[T]o speak of the perfection of God's triune life is to prohibit certain ways of talking of creaturely participation in God. As there can be no substantial participation of creatures in the being of God, so in no manner can the moral or liturgical work of the church extend, complete or realize the divine work.... The triune God determines that his own blessedness will include life over, with and for the creatures whom he appoints for fellowship with himself.... God's perfection includes, though it is not exhausted by, the movement in which he makes himself present to creatures" (pp. 2-3).

In this view, then, there is no fundamental "gap" between God and creatures which somehow must be bridged via mediation -- on the contrary, God's deity already includes within itself the possibility and actuality of creaturely correspondence. Or to sum it up in Barth's terms: the reception of God's self-revelation is also part of revelation!

Halden said...

I would agree with about half of the Webster quote. It seems to me that he's taking away with the right hand what he gives with the left when he says that creatures cannot participate in God or participate in divine work. Does divine action for him really then include creaturely response?

Jenson seems to me to be on much firmer ground in his account of God's being as "roomy" allowing for creaturely participation through grace, or as Hutter would say, "pathically."

Anonymous said...

Perhaps it's because I'm too 'close' to Gunton (I studied under him during the 1990s and my 'loyalty' to him has only increased since then), but I'm not sure what the problem is with Gunton's concept of mediation. As far as I can tell, Gunton uses mediation as a way of relating divinity and humanity - a way of establishing a relation between two 'unlike' things - but that this is does through the Son and the Spirit. I don't see that what he says about mediation denies the idea that God's revelation contains within it the possibility and means of human reception. (As I say, perhaps it's just me!)

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

I agree that creatures/humans do not participate in the Being of God. This is my nervousness about all Eastern Orthodox talk of "divination." But I always thought Bonhoeffer's correction to Barth's "infinite qualitative difference" in Act and Being had something to it.

I particularly dissent from the idea that we cannot participate in God's redemptive work in the world. This dissent is when/why I moved from being a pure Barthian. God INVITES us to participate in the redemptive work of God in the world by GRACE. By entering the Kingdom, by following Jesus, God gracefully chooses to use us in God's redeeming work. Our Witness to God's work itself is used by God to further that work.

Anonymous said...

"Mediation" is one of those scare words for Reformed theologians (David and Ben - and me too!), rather like analogia entis (indeed they share a family resemblance). But while Gunton's handling of subject may be flawed, there is (I think) no need to panic - particularly if we follow his intentio fidei. So I'll stick my neck out for Colin (who was a friend and ministerial colleague: we served together on the URC Doctrine and Worship Committee, and thus shared table as well as desk talk).

First, remember where Gunton is coming from: a Reformed tradition which often failed to develop the robust doctrines of creation of the Reformers themselves, which over-egged anthropology (and "total depravity") to the marginalising of what we now call ecology (Moltmann!), and which were perhaps shackled to the de rigueur doctrine of the extra calvinisticum. No wonder he was concerned about "mediation", and preoccupied with the relation of divine and creaturely agency!

Also remember that Gunton did his PhD on Barth (and Hartshorne) under the supervision of the Lutheran Jenson, and his programmatiic work on the trinity under the influence of the Orthodox Zizioulos. I'm suggesting that Colin's ecumenical experiences, and his refreshingly practical concern with ecclesiology, also help to account for his felt need to construct - re-construct - a doctrine of mediation.

Finally, remember that Gunton, well aware of the dangers of ontological and ecclesiastical mediation, is insistent that mediation must be understood in a christological and trinitarian context.

Is that helpful?

PS: I just read Michael's remark on "participation" - another scare-word for the Reformed!

Ben Myers said...

Many thanks for these extra clarifications on mediation, which are very helpful. It sounds as though I may have been too hasty in my criticisms of Gunton!

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

"Participation" may be a scare word for Reformed folks, Kim--and also for the most Calvinistic wing of the Baptist tradition. And certain forms of "participation," even in God's redeeming work, ought to be scare words. Any Pelagian sense of "bringing in the Rule of God," or Process view that God NEEDS humans to redeem creation should be rightly opposed.

But I think the theme of God inviting us by grace--of choosing to use our humble efforts from evangelism to justice and peace work--to further the Rule of God is quite biblical. Here the Anabaptists and John Wesley may have something to teach the Reformed. It is notable that Moltmann, who, like Gunton, develops this theme somewhat, was in dialogue with both Mennonites like John Howard Yoder and with Pentecostals.
Is not this kind of participation an implication of perichoresis??

Halden said...

The issue of participation in God is one that has become very important to me of late and to my mind it goes to the heart of the gospel.

Michael, I would question your comments on Bonhoeffer. While he rejected the idea of divinization, he clearly held that salvation is particiaption in the life of God through the humanity of Christ. See my comments on Bonhoeffer's Ethics at

Moreover, to my mind the Reformed "scare" over participation rests on a misnconstrual of the nature of divine and human action which assumes an inherently competitive relation between the two. Von Balthasar I think (and to some degreem Jungel) take this understanding of inherently competitive divine and human action apart.

My own perspectives on the Trinity isinformed most by Torrance, Jenson, and von Balthasar (thought Gunton is where I got my start, and I still think that The One, The Three, and the Manny is a masterpiece). As I would see it, salvation is being brought into right relationship with God through the work of Christ and the Spirit who pour out (mediate, if you will) the love of God to sinful humanity through the cross and resurrection of Christ. Thus, the essence of the gospel lies in us being brought by grace into right relationship with God, that is to say into a relationship of beind loved by God and loving him in return through the Spirit he has given to us. However, the love with which God loves us is not distinct from the love that he always and eternally is. God is love and therefore if the love of God has been poured out into our hearts, we are participating in the being of God.

This is not pelagianism or an attempt to suplement the work of God with human effort in any way. Rather it is to take the identity of God with love seriously (as Jungel does). If God is love, and his love has been poured out into our hearts, then we are drawn by grace into the life of God precisely as creatures of God. There is no need to revert to talk of divinization to affirm this.

Ben Myers said...

Just to add a footnote to Halden's comment: another excellent (and explicitly Reformed) attempt to move beyond competitive accounts of the divine-human relationship is Kathryn Tanner, Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity (2001).

David W. Congdon said...

Interesting conversation. I still hold to my reservations against Gunton and Volf (among others), precisely because of their attempt to resurrection the analogia entis. It is the sloppy use of analogy that gets Volf into major trouble, along with all social trinitarians who try to identify the communal being God (with which I agree) with the need for community on earth. We cannot argue from God's being to human being so simply, and the key to both Gunton and Volf on this point is their doctrine of analogy. In both cases, it fails to be rigorously examined. This is why Barth and Jüngel are able to develop a strong notion of participation in God while preventing the kind of (often sloppy) theology that often attends to those in the social trinitarian camp (Moltmann is a prime example).

Barth and Jüngel fully support language of participation (see CD IV.1, p. 8), but they do so by focusing rigorously on the being of Jesus Christ. The present and future tenses of participation/salvation are always grounded in the past event of Christ.

Ben, I am in full agreement with Webster, as Halden knows well from our discussions on this topic. But the Reformed concern about participation language is not a result of problems with divine-human action. Barth developed a non-competitive account of divine-human action and endorsed participation, but he would still be scared of how many contemporary theologians speak about participation today. Social trinitarians far too often speak as if there is some hypostatic union between the Spirit and the church, as if there is participation in the present-tense that is only tangentially connected to the person of Christ. We must insist that the only divine-human participation is in the hypostatic union of Jesus Christ. If we participate in God's being, it is because we were assumed by the Logos.

See McCormack's essay, "Participation in God, Yes, Deification, No."

Halden said...

David, I'm certain that Gunton and Volf would both repudiate the idea that they are trying to resurrect the analogia entis. Gunton in particular is too Barthian for this, even though he may not be Barthian enough for Webster's taste.

What Volf and Gunton argue for is an analogia relationis as an extension of Barth's analogy of faith (and Bonhoeffer develops this explicitly in his Creation and Fall. They find an analogy between human and divine relationality on the basis of the revelation of the Trinue God precisely in the events of cross, resurrection and Pentecost. Gunton in particular is extrememly Christocentric and the idea of the church having a hypostatic relationship with the Spirit only tangentially connected to Christ could not be further from his thought. Incidentally he himself denies that creatures participate in the life of God because he holds that such a conception would undermine authentic creaturely being as a reality in itself (see The Triune Creator).

The issue with analogy is simply far more complex than many of the close followers of Barth (or the early Barth) are willing to recognize or deal with. Alan Torrance's Persons in Communion deals with this issue directly and I think his discussion of analogy gets to the heart of the issue.

Halden said...

Also, for those that are intersted, see this article by Douglas Knight on Gunton's concept of Mediation:

David W. Congdon said...

Gunton, The One, the Three and the Many: "my concern is to develop a trinitarian analogy of being" (p. 141).

I grant that Gunton is more complex than just a rehash of the old analogia entis, but is still trying to rehabilitate a concept in ways that are theologically problematic, in my opinion. The analogy of relation between the triune perichoretic communion and an ecclesial perichoretic communion is truly a trinitarian analogy of being -- and the addition of relationality does not suddenly make it better. I do not see it as an extension of the analogy of faith.

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