Colin Gunton, The Barth Lectures (London: T&T Clark, 2007), 285 pages, £25.
(Review copy courtesy of T&T Clark)
I met Colin Gunton only once, at a P T Forsyth symposium at King's College, Aberdeen. Since then I've read most of his published volumes. I am also an amateur reader of Barth - by which I mean Barth is a kind of theological hobby, a source of stimulus and refreshment, and of spiritual sustenance, to be read now and then, even studied for a while, but not allowed to absorb mental energy and time I need to give to much else that my life is about!
Reading Barth is my equivalent of remembering to increase the proportion of organically healthy theology in my diet, to prevent that dangerously convenient trend towards over-processed stuff with artificial flavourings! Barth is wholewheat, high fibre theology; Barth is to the theological palate, what dirty carrots from the farmer's market are when compared to those washed, watery, flavourless, peely-wally, plastic packaged supermarket baby carrots!
Back to Gunton. This is an unusual, and unusually enjoyable book for several reasons. First, it is a lasting memorial to Colin Gunton's skill and passion as a theological educator, because the contents are the recorded and transcribed lectures Gunton delivered to post and undergraduate students at King's College, London. Second they were so faithfully heard and transcribed that those privileged to be there, can hear the voice, envisage the face, recall the energy and passion of Gunton in full theological flow. Third, the book is one person's transcribed and edited account (Paul Brazier) of the views of one of the best British theologians in a generation (Colin Gunton), expounding the 20th Century's most influential European Protestant Theologian (Karl Barth). Fourth, because the lectures are recorded pretty much verbatim, and with diagrams and charts and explanatory sections and questions for further discussion, the book reads often like a handbook to major divisions of the Church Dogmatics, with short focused sections making up carefully structured chapters. This series of lectures provide as accessible a way up into Barth's higher altitudes as I know.
Barth is a huge presence in the interchanges, suggestions and counter-suggestions of theological blogs. Those who want to encourage others in their reading of Barth know well that some of the most important works are also the most theologically demanding, bordering on the forbidding. Not this one - I think Gunton on Barth through Brazier, rendered into lecture note form, works extremely well as a way of enabling ordinary theological mortals to follow Barth's complex, prolix, brilliant, dense, unrelentingly demanding and endlessly inviting theology, and know that the view after the hard climb is worth the effort.
The first 75 pages set Barth's Dogmatics in their intellectual and historical context, of Enlightenment philosophy, ascendant 19th Century liberal theology, the cultural and theological crisis of the Great War, the Romans commentaries and Barth's critical appropriation of Anselm. Much of this is available in secondary literature elsewhere, and not so selectively and tendentiously as Gunton's treatment here. It's still good stuff though, from a teacher completely at ease in 19th century continental theology and philosophy.
Then chapter by chapter from the Triune God, to the being of God, the doctrine of election, and on to the hugely impressive work of Barth on Christology and soteriology, where Gunton is at his theologising best. Reading this book isn't only an exercise in hearing a theological lecturer tell students about Barth.It's to overhear and visually imagine a conversation between Gunton and Barth, complete with head nodding affirmation, raised eyebrows of surprise and quips of humour. But also to hear a significant number of corrective comments and courteous demurrals,the whole performance charged with intellectual energy, alive with restless but reverent curiosity. Thankfully Brazier hasn't edited out Gunton's lecturing mannerisms, and on page 145 he makes the statement-question of every good theological teacher, 'You see.....you see'. Gunton, and Barth through Gunton, conducts theological education in the tradition of John the Evangelist - 'The Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us.... and we beheld His glory'. You see?
'Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.' You see?
I've read a number of books on Barth, the intellectual background and development of his theology, and each one with their own take on how best to tackle this theological Matterhorn. Von Balthasar, Berkouwer, Torrance, Webster, Busch, McCormack, Hunsinger, Dorrien - now if pushed to say which were the most helpful guides for me in my amateur mountaineering amongst the Dogmatics, they would be Busch's The Great Passion, Webster's Barth in the Outstanding Christian Thinkers series, The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth. And now these distilled discourses of Colin Gunton, The Barth Lectures. But not because Gunton gives a definitive interpretation, or a comprehensive survey - he does neither.From the others I learned a lot about Barth - but it is just as important to learn what Barth was about. These lectures demonstrate how to engage with Barth, to use him as a massive presence to be tackled because he is there, and then to start climbing.
The Introduction by Stephen Holmes is an affectionately respectful eulogy, honest about the limitations both of the book's form and content, but enthusiastic about the book's value. This, together with Christoph Schwobel's Foreword, enables two of Gunton's friends to offer some evaluation not only of this volume, but of the theological impact of Gunton's teaching - perhaps best gauged by those, like these two, who learned from Colin Gunton a lifelong commitment to doing theology, and doing it well, because 'as to the Lord', which indeed it is!
I always carefully choose the book that will accompany me through Advent - this year I think I'm going to let Gunton guide me through Church Dogmatics 59.1 'The Way of the Son into the Far Country'. Then during Lent and towards Easter, perhaps he can take me further through 59.2 and 59.3. and the meaning of 'The Obedience of the Son of God'.