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:


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


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