10 May 2013

The joyful science

No, I’m not thinking about poetry! The other day, Steve Holmes posted a very moving blog entry about Colin Gunton. Among other things, he pointed out the importance of joy in Colin’s practice of theology:
theology done properly must be cheerful work. How can we speak (read; write) of God’s infinite grace poured out without limit in the gift of Jesus Christ, and not find our hearts warmed, our sorrows comforted, our failures rendered into proper perspective? How can we not be basically joyful, if to do this is our life’s work?
And that, of course, immediately put me in mind of Karl Barth:
The theologian who has no joy in his work is not a theologian at all. Sulky faces, morose thoughts and boring ways of speaking are intolerable in this science. May God deliver us from what the Catholic Church reckons one of the seven sins of the monk – taedium [loathing] – in respect of the great spiritual truths with which theology has to do. But we must know, of course, that it is only God who can keep us from it. (CD II/1: 656)
That attitude, so effectively inculcated by Colin, is what underlies my own personal rule of thumb for judging the theology I read: There is something profoundly wrong with any theology that is arid, boring or depressing. (And the same might be said of sermons too.)

So theology is essentially joyful work, but I would want to add that this joy is other-directed. Theology, when it is done properly, leads directly to praise. Or, as Evagrius of Pontus put it: ‘If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.’ (Treatise On Prayer, 61). Extending the above rule of thumb, there is something profoundly wrong with any theology or sermon (my own or that of others) that does not make me want to engage in praise and prayer.

06 May 2013

Colin Gunton, 1941–2003

Colin Gunton died ten years ago today. He was arguably the finest British theologian of his generation with publications spanning virtually the entire breadth of Christian doctrine. In particular, he made important contributions to contemporary thinking about the doctrines of the Trinity and of creation. Sadly he died before he could write his projected multi-volume systematic theology, so we have to make do with the summary he left in the form of The Christian Faith: An Introduction to Christian Theology.

From 1984 to 1988 I had the privilege of being one of Colin’s research students. I remember a quiet, questioning man who gently probed and raised issues that greatly improved the quality of my work. He was gracious and generous in acknowledging the contributions that his students made to the development of his own learning. For example, when he introduced me to his Doktorvater, Robert Jenson, he made a point of saying how much he had learnt while supervising my thesis (and I recently discovered that he footnoted some of my work in his The Triune Creator).

In addition to being an academic theologian, Colin was a URC minister and he brought his pastoral concerns to his academic work, caring for his students in practical ways. When, for various reasons, I was looking for part-time work after I had completed my PhD, Colin put me in touch with Lesslie Newbigin. That led to my involvement in The Gospel and Our Culture, a project that had been set up the the former British Council of Churches to explore the implications of Lesslie’s work.

It was a privilege to know him.