Obituary: The Rev Professor Colin Gunton ; Advocate of an Unapologetic Theology

By Banner, Michael | The Independent (London, England), May 22, 2003 | Go to article overview
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Obituary: The Rev Professor Colin Gunton ; Advocate of an Unapologetic Theology

Banner, Michael, The Independent (London, England)

COLIN GUNTON'S career was framed by two events which take on a certain irony when viewed in the round. His first academic appointment, in 1969, was as a lecturer in the Philosophy of Religion (at King's College London, where he remained). And, shortly before his death, he had been granted leave to supplicate for the degree of Doctor of Divinity by Oxford University.

Born in 1941, Gunton had studied Literae Humaniores at Hertford College, before moving to Mansfield where he pursued an undergraduate degree in Theology, followed by the completion of a doctorate comparing Karl Barth and Charles Hartshorne. The irony in his first appointment having been in the philosophy of religion is that his most important academic contribution would lie in what must have seemed sometimes a single-handed fight: to conceive and construct theology as a discipline which need not go cap in hand to philosophy to establish its foundations or credentials.

The notion that theology should begin with a philosophical apologetic was generally uncontested by the most influential figures in English theology faculties in the 1960s and 1970s, and even later. Hence, to this way of thought, Barth - the most important theologian of the 20th century - was an incomprehensible and dangerous figure. But Gunton, taking his bearings (albeit critically) from Barth, as well as from the wider Reformed tradition, in which Gunton had grown up and in which he later served as a minister, practised and defended a different conception of the task of theology.

Theology was not to be apologetic, but rather constructive and exegetical. It was to speak of the being of God not as an abstract philosophical notion, but as it is revealed in the most specifically Christian of doctrines, that of the Trinity. It was in the explication of this doctrine that Gunton's major academic contribution was to lie, though he also wrote influentially on the doctrine of creation, on the divine attributes, on revelation, christology and the atonement. In all this his central and abiding thought was that the task of theology was to explicate its claims, not to apologise for them - though this did not preclude a thorough and careful engagement with aspects of contemporary intellectual concerns from the natural sciences and elsewhere.

To this task Gunton devoted himself consistently, whilst taking on the burdens of periods of office at King's as Dean of the Faculty, 1988-90, and then Head of Department, 1993-96, and, outside King's, taking a leading role in the Society for the Study of Theology, serving on editorial boards and so on.

If the irony of the lecturer in philosophy of religion becoming a courageous voice calling theology back to its proper task, against the fashionable stream, frames the career at one end, recognition from Oxford University in the award of a DD frames it at the other. Gunton was not a man to rest on his laurels or proclaim his achievements, but it must (and indeed should) have given him a certain satisfaction to see the lone voice of the early part of his career become the voice of a wise elder statesman, even as early as his appointment to a chair in Christian Doctrine at King's in 1984.

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