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.


Anonymous said...

Great review! But, Kim, er, "theological G-spot?" Does that lead to theological orgasms? Are they qualitatively distant from theological orgasms related to a "theological clitoris?"

Consider my mind properly boggled.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this review. I wonder if you might say a little more regarding Gunton's claim "the Augustinian tradition 'replaces grace with gratuity' – a mistake that Barth does not make." The distinction he is making is not clear to me.


W. Travis McMaken said...

Great review! I wanted to read this volume already, but now it will be a constant struggle not to surf over to Amazon and order it post haste.

One tangent: I know Gunton died unexpectantly, but I've never heard why.

Anonymous said...

A fantastic review ... and wonderful to hear the personal touch at the end. I think that Colin would have written a vastly different book, with more on creation and engagement with other barthian readers if he had had the chance. The book is great, but also leaves you wondering what it might have been.

Anonymous said...

Hi Michael and Anoymous.

Yes, "theological G-spot" - well, it's an image that I'll bet Shane would appreciate!

On grace and gratuity: two points.

First, there is the suggestion that in the Augustinian tradition there has been a tendency to take grace as a kind of substance, or, even worse, as a transmittable property (as in some versions of apostolic succession), in short, a tendency to depersonalise grace. It was this association Barth had in mind when he objected to the title of a book that in many ways he admired (and which is still a great read), G.C. Berkouwer's The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth (1956), because Barth insisted that it is not grace but Christ himself who triumphs in his theology, a person not a principle.

Gunton: "So what does Barth mean by grace? He maintains, against the Roman Catholic conception of revelation of divine grace, that this is not merely a gift of God which might or might not be given, or an attribute which might be imputed or not - grace is the essence of the being of God. He is going against this view that grace isn't God in action, something, so to speak, that God may or may not pour into the creature. What is grace? - seeking and creating fellowship."

So more to the specific point in his use of the word "gratuity", Gunton is objecting to what he takes to be "the crude determinism of the Augustinian tradition," and the idea that "God gratuitously chooses group A and not Group B." In Barth (contra Calvin), "there is no longer a decree but a person."

And a final quote: Barth shares "with the Augustinian tradition that [election] is utterly in the hands of God. But what he does not share with Augustine and Calvin is the terror."

I hope that "little more" is helpful.

Anonymous said...


I am so glad that you, et. al. (so far!) like the review.

To answer your query, Gunton died from the complications of a burst gastric ulcer on May 6th, 2003. The letter I refer to in my last paragraph is dated March 22nd.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kim,

Your clarifying comments regarding grace and gratuity are indeed helpful. Thanks!

Unknown said...

"how Barth touched my theological G-spot"

One more time, for the court, show me on the doll where Barth touched you.

W. Travis McMaken said...


There isn't much to gripe about when someone is reviewing another person's work. :-)

Thanks for clearing up that mystery for me.

Graham Hunter said...


Thanks for your review.

As someone who attended the 'Barth Lectures' in 1999-2001, I look forward to digging out my lecture notes and handouts, and reading the book alongside them.

In relation to your second comment, it should be remembered that during the same period as these lectures, a number of us where also attending Michael Banner's course on 'Foundations of Christian Ethics'. In this course it was impossible to escape Barth's mantra 'Dogmatics is ethics; ethics is dogmatics' and the ensuing implications.

Put Gunton and Banner alongside Steve Holmes and Murray Rae, and there was a formidable team of systematic theology taught in this 'golden age' of King's. Looking back, I realise now just how privileged I was to be there...

Thanks for all your illuminating posts.


Anonymous said...

"Theological G-spot" - now that would be an interesting meme..

Anonymous said...

Hi Arni,

If the meme is to have an epigraphical NT text, how about II Corinthians 1:20: "For in him every one of God's promises is a 'Yes! Yes! Yes!'"

Shane said...

Reminds me of the title of a book by my old advisor Scott Hafemann, "The Climax of the Covenant."

Anonymous said...

Many thanks for this review Kim. I've just read (listened to) the lectures over the past week and found it one of the freshest introductions to Barth I've 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 is all there.

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