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Revelation and Reason: Prolegomena to Systematic Theology

Colin E. Gunton
Published by T&T Clark in 2009

Colin Gunton’s career in theology at King’s College, London spanned a period of just over 40 years and his untimely passing in 2003 has left British theology without one of its leading voices. Fortunately for those of us who did not have the privilege of being present in his taught courses, we have the benefit of Revelation and Reason to inform us of what it might have been like. These lectures represent a mainstay in the course calendar for the taught postgraduate and doctoral students at King’s, a course that Gunton taught and oversaw during the autumn term for nearly twenty years. This book is based on tape recordings from this course and comprises lectures, seminars, discussions and unprepared responses to student questions. Drawn together, this piece displays Gunton’s intellectual breadth and rigor and his theological acumen and clarity. The lectures have been polished for the sake of coherence and consistency, yet the editorial process has preserved so much that there is a very real sense in which the reader feels transported into Gunton’s classroom.

The goal Gunton envisioned for this course, a goal noted both by the editor, Paul Brazier and in the introduction by Stephen Holmes, was for his students, by the end of term, to be able to think theologically (12). Notably entitled Revelation and Reason, Gunton aims toshow how the Christian message through which God gives knowledge of himself in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ is a message in competition with reason’s pursuit of ultimate knowledge. The logic behind this is simply that the order of exposition – how one begins to unfold the matter – will determine the moves one makes along the way. The concern is that important doctrines will receive short shrift if one does not begin with God and his gift of knowledge of himself. Theology, therefore, is the science that attempts to give a reasoned voice to faith’s reception of God’s revelation to the believer.

In the first chapter then, Gunton outlines what a systematic theology would look like if one moved from revelation to reason instead of moving from reason to revelation. It is important to note that Gunton is not devaluing reason, nor that he wants to pit the two against each other as competing alternatives; he just wants reason ordered according to revelation. With that said, Gunton signals that this course will take critical stock of important thinkers who have wrestled with the issue of trying to think theologically, listing people like Rene Descartes, John Locke, Immaneuel Kant, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Soren Kierkegaard, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, T. F. Torrance and Karl Barth, but as the reader will soon quickly notice, Gunton includes many other thinkers. As he begins, Gunton discusses the nature and origin of systematic theology as that particular mode of explicating the ways of God and his relation to humanity. As Gunton explains, “Revelation is a drawing out of the intellectual implications of the fact that there is a divine economy” (39).

The second chapter begins with an investigation of Locke and the position he continues to occupy in the way we think today. Gunton asserts that Locke holds that “Revelation is qualified by reason: reason places or situates, Revelation” (41). Because Locke’s ratio remains fixed in the register of the propositional, it makes sense for Locke not to have an idea of a personal God who reveals himself to creatures. Moving from Locke’s ”rather thin, impoverished view of revelation” in search of an account that views revelation as a personal encounter, Gunton turns to Hans Urs von Balthasar, Torrance and Karl Rahner (48).

Chapter three is one of the most important chapters of the book and it indicates one of the key areas that animated Gunton’s own theology. Here we turn to Scripture’s relation to revelation and how God mediates his knowledge of himself to his people through Scripture. Much of Gunton’s own work in the latter part of his career was deeply concerned with the idea of mediation and here the reader can capture Gunton working confidently and playing to his strengths. Here one might even claim that the hinge to Gunton’s argument could be found. Revelation is a personal act of God making himself known to the individual. Mediation is how this personal act occurs. One has to have a theology of mediation, otherwise one goes along with Schleiermacher, contends Gunton, and claims a direct and immediate knowledge of God. The key for Gunton is Christ’s mediation of God to the creature through Holy Scripture. By setting up the problem and answer this way, Gunton, in subsequent chapters, is able to unfold the issue in greater depth and variety, by tracing the way it has been handled historically via a host of thinkers.

Following this historical description, the final section includes three chapters that look at Barth’s solution, arguably the best, to the modern imbalance that places the priority to the order of exposition with reason. The significance of Barth in addressing this problem, it is argued, comes from his taking on the modern assumption of reason’s priority tête-à-tête, that is, as one from within this stream, who challenged many of its cardinal presuppositions. In the mature theology of Barth, Gunton has found the most satisfactory ordering of reason to revelation.

One only needs to turn to the chronological bibliography of Gunton’s work found at the end of this book to get an idea of his output and the range of his theological endeavours. Although this book might not contribute anything new to a material understanding of his work overall, what one does find, in addition to some of Gunton’s more salient emphases, is a theologian who is quick on his feet, able and ready to answer his students’ questions with a bank of information from which to draw. Revelation and Reason confirms what was already well established: Gunton’s passion for the training of future churchly theologians. He was invested deeply in the life of the Church and this comes through very clearly in these lectures.

One might quibble with his interpretation of particular figures and streams of the tradition, even sigh at his characteristic and consistent drumming of Augustine. One might even point out some conspicuous omissions from his historical interpretation, but, as Holmes indicates in the Introduction,

Gunton’s telling of intellectual history is often enough impressionistic, offering heightened contrasts, bold colours and stark lines; like a great painting, however, if it distorted the appearance of reality somewhat it was only to reveal more clearly the essence of what was being looked at (5).

Yet, we must remember that these are lectures and our expectations outbid Gunton’s aims for teaching his students how to think theologically. Throughout, Gunton is generous, fair, and very knowledgeable of various schools of thought and representative figures and his familiarity with the task of systematic theology means that the reader of these lectures cannot fail to be trained to think theologically as Gunton had intended for his King’s College students. In this sense then, Revelation and Reason proves to be an important work that not only reports the value of the theology of Colin Gunton but also enables the reader to give a better, clearer and distinctive voice to faith’s understanding of God as testified in Scripture.

Cite this article
Mark Ian McDowell, “Revelation and Reason: Prolegomena to Systematic Theology”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 39:1 , 136-138

Mark Ian McDowell

University of Aberdeen
Mark Ian McDowell, Theology, King’s College, University of Aberdeen