Gunton (via Thiselton) on Atonement

In chapter nine of Thiselton’s 2015 Systematic Theology, he asks the question, ‘Why Consider Historical Theologies of the Atonement?’  The section he covers on Colin Gunton’s 1988 work ‘The Actuality of the Atonement: A Study in Metaphor, Rationality, and the Christian Tradition’  is not only astonishingly concise but well worth popping into this blog:

ACT

Colin Gunton (1941-2003).  Gunton also contributed a classic modern study in his Actuality of the Atonement…He had two aims.  One was to show that interpretations of, and approaches to, atonement were complimentary, not alternatives.  The other was to exhibit the value and power of metaphors among images of atonement.  He regarded Kant, Schleiermacher, and Hegel as indirectly responsible for the “intellectual and cultural poverty” that characterizes much of our age.  He singled out especially Hegel’s devaluation of “images” (Vorstellungen) in religion, as against the critical “concept” (Begriff) in philosophy.  Metaphor, Gunton argued, was “an indispensable means for the advance of cognitive knowledge and understanding” (17).  Janet Martin Soskice and Paul Avis also argued this convincingly.  Metaphor and discovery occur together “with metaphor serving as the vehicle of discovery” (31).  He appealed for this explicitly to Paul Ricoeur, Eberhard Jungel, and Janet Martin Soskice, as well as to Coleridge.

actuality-of-atonementIn the course of more detailed theological argument, Gunton challenged the comprehensiveness of [Gustav] Aulen’s [Christus Victor) approach, and showed concern that he advocated “too triumphalist a view of the atonement” (58).  He valued the victory motif as a metaphor, rather than the “laws for a theory of the atonement” (61).  This approach also tended too readily to personify the devil, which seems to happen in Gregory of Nyssa.  “Evil powers” may includes “political, social, economic, and religious structures of power,” as George Caird, Oscar Cullmann, and others have maintained (65).

In his chapter 4 Gunton considered the justice of God, and corrected misunderstandings of Anselm.  God governs the universe in a way analogous to the duty of the feudal ruler “to maintain the order of rights and obligations without which society would collapse” (89).  He affirmed the grace and love of God, but insisted on “some objective righting of the balance” in the governance of the universe (91).  Here he appealed to P. T. Forsyth, Balthasar, and Barth, as well as to Anselm and Luther.  This governance is “the central metaphor” (112).

In chapter 5 Gunton sought to rescue the concept of “sacrifice” from being regarded as an outworn, “dead” metaphor.  He carefully examined sacrifice in the OT, together with the work by Mary Douglas and Francis Young.  In this respect, he argued, Calvin was faithful to priesthood and sacrifice in Hebrews, and to the passage about “correct exchange” that we noted in the early Epistle to Diognetus.  He concluded, “There are in Calvin elements of a substitutionary understanding of the atonement; indeed it seems unlikely that any conception that remains true to the Bible can avoid it” (130).  The two final chapters return to Gunton’s regular theme of the Holy Trinity, and the need to reconcile the various approaches to the atonement.  He concluded:  Jesus is “our substitute because he does for us what we cannot do for ourselves” (165, italics mine).

Among Gunton’s eighteen or so books, this book is a masterpiece.  It seems to address a central nerve in the [atonement] debate, and should not be underestimated. “

Dodman Cross

 Dodman’s Point, Cornwall

Realistic expectations of what the church is and will be

Realistic expectations of what the church is and will be

In a really well written article in Themelios by Uche Anizor that draws together various ecclesiological strands of Colin Gunton’s thought from multiple sources, we see some really practical outworkings of what the church is and should be and will be in the light of a robust doctrine of the Trinity.  Anizor writes, “Gunton’s relentless attempt to root the nature and calling of the church in the being and action of the triune God opens up a way for a more concrete and realistic perspective on the church than is common, while offering a potentially more fruitful starting point for ecumenical dialogue regarding the nature of the church.”

“a more concrete and realistic perspective on the church than is common.”

We all know things could and should be better; some are disillusioned to the point of desertion; others remain but function in a spiritual wilderness akin to the effects of Ritalin; whilst yet many more recognise a “concrete and realistic perspective” is the only way to live in reality and eschew fantasy.

Thus Anizor opens with these words,

“Conflict in relationships is often rooted in inappropriate or unmet expectations. This commonplace wisdom regarding everyday relationships is no less true of one’s relationship to the church. Our conduct and feelings toward the church are governed largely by our expectations of what the church should be. These expectations, furthermore, are rooted in our understanding of the church’s nature. Ministers who weekly find themselves disappointed with the failings of their congregations would do well to attend to their understanding of what the church is. Laypeople who find themselves regularly frustrated with their community’s shortcomings are advised to do likewise. Disappointment (among other negative feelings) often flows from unrealistic expectations, which sometimes betray an unbalanced view of the church. Therefore, a healthy understanding of the nature of the church is of utmost practical import. Is the church the kingdom? If not, what is it? In what ways, if at all, is the church (and actual churches) a sign of the new Jerusalem? How can we theologically describe this imperfect reality we call the “church”? Colin Gunton provides one helpful response.”

The way forward is offered positively thus,

“First, we examine three related areas that contribute to a fuller understanding of the trinitarian heart of his ecclesiology: (1) the ontology of the church, (2) the place of pneumatology, and (3) the role of a proper Christology.  Then we provide a constructive appraisal. The hope here is that Gunton’s contribution might help free pastors, teachers, and congregants to live and serve in the church with a love and compassion rooted in realistic expectations of what the church is and will be.”

The essay really weaves a fantastic theological tapestry integrating the Pneumatological, Christological and Ecclesiological threads.  We need to know who this God is before we build on ecclesial foundations.  That is why I enjoyed the comments right at the end just before the conclusion, aimed at those pastors and lay people who are tempted to disillusionment at the ontology of the Church:

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