Colin E. Gunton and the concept of mediation

The doctrine of the Trinity is the means to talk about the world of action for God and man together that God has opened for us in Jesus Christ. Gunton champions the atonement as the medium of that enlightening which is brought by the revealing of Jesus Christ. He has laid out the central idioms of the atonement – divine justice, the victory of Christ, and sacrifice, and used the conceptuality of metaphor to do so.

[published in Neue Zeitschrift für Systematische Theologie, Heft 1/2001, p. 118-36. The issue was a Festschrift for Colin E. Gunton]

The context of English theology at the beginning of the nineteen-eighties was The Myth of God Incarnate. What right did theology have in the university and Dare we speak of God in public? were deemed the questions of the day. Theology was written in conditional mode, sentences took the form ‘If, as Christians have traditionally believed,…’, with the truth of statements deferred to the arrival of permission from ‘rationality’, or some such abstraction. There was an audible cringing and sneering. Doctrines were examined to ask which of them insulted the dignity of ‘modern man’ and ought to be expunged. Tradition, imagination and the indeterminability of the relationship of language and world had to be laboriously defended. Reason and faith were invariably set in opposition, the doctrine of the atonement was losing to theodicy, and Father Son and Holy Spirit were discovered to be names, and therefore less adequate than concepts.

The crisis was taken with the utmost seriousness. The pace of change was increasing exponentially, nothing could remain as it was, everything had to be dumped in favour of something not yet constructed. It is the Church’s task to make its confession against claims about the imminent passing away of all knowledge, but English theology seemed to be without resistance to this sort of cheap millenarianism. The declarations of the absolute newness of the time were nothing more than a vacuous rhetoric, but voices saying so could hardly be heard.

Amongst those not impressed by the declaration of crisis was Colin Gunton. Gunton believed that the tradition had seen all this before, indeed, that far from being alarming because utterly new, these self-styled new challenges were composed of elements as old as the tradition and were quite familiar to those prepared to immerse themselves in its history and make diachronic comparisons. In Yesterday and Today he argued that the Church had cut its teeth on exactly these challenges, and that the scars of honourable war-wounds sustained against them remain in the creeds precisely so we should not forget this. In ‘modernity’ we were being offered the familiar gnostic ingredients re-warmed; these ingredients did not make an intellectual alternative, being composed of nothing more than breathless excitement. The Church has always encountered such claims about the coming of some new aeon, with its new leader and his claims to new revelation, and it has always been the job of theologian to meet them with laughter and sober scholarship. Belief in such an aeon is no more than the demand theology give away (to the enemy) the resources of memory and imagination entrusted to it, and which constitute its weapons. The mistakes attributed to theology ‘from above’ were to be rectified by a theology that started from history and humanity and believed itself able to arbitrate on what fell within the definition of the human, and what constituted acceptable extrapolations from human history to divine. Gunton argued that theology from below was simply the reverse of what it took to be the approach of its opponent, not a serious attempt to question a crass polarity from the perspective of the Church’s confession. Just as there is no talk of man without God, so there is no account of God except as he has made himself known and continues to control his own appearing and our knowledge of it. Gunton argued that theologies, including secular theologies, that start from one side or the other were opposites sides of a single debased coin.

Since the nineteen-eighties the strong monist drive of modernity has flipped over to become a rhetoric about plurality, though it is no clearer about how particularity and thus plurality can be secured. Within this altered context the theological scene has recovered some self-respect and dropped the self-deprecatory tone. That the context has changed is due to many factors, but that there has been a change of tone in theology in the UK is due in part to Colin Gunton. Gunton argued that the challenges to theology were themselves ‘theologies’, impoverished and disguised, but traceable by the historian, and identifiable as the returning fall-out from earlier crises. We should revisit the history of the tradition to identify where such ‘theologies’ have previously come to the surface, for such moments tell us about the deeper currents of the metaphysics on which Western thought continues to move. In particular Gunton’s contention is that the concept of person is theological, and has since Augustine been insufficiently interpreted as such by the Western tradition. Christian theology challenges the ‘theologies’ that appear under the names of ‘secularity’ and ‘modernity’, and that talk of God is the means to secure a place for man and give meaning to talk of man. The doctrine of the Trinity is the means to talk about the world of action for God and man together that God has opened for us in Jesus Christ.

Gunton has authored and edited a series of books setting out what the Trinity as doctrine and rule achieves. A trinitarian concept, the imago Dei differentiates the concepts of person and individual. Persons are mutually constitutive, whereas that peculiarly impoverished concept of person, the individual, defined in opposition to all others and otherness, has no means to tolerate or be with what is not himself. The kind of philosophy that theology has understood itself to be answerable to asked questions that relied on just this sort of view in which individuals regarded their social and natural worlds as alien and unpleasant. It may be that such philosophy exists only in departments of religion, but there it asks questions about autonomy derived from an over-simplified view of what was claimed and settled in the enlightenment.

Gunton champions the atonement as the medium of that enlightening which is brought by the revealing of Jesus Christ. He has laid out the central idioms of the atonement – divine justice, the victory of Christ, and sacrifice, and used the conceptuality of metaphor to do so. In this paper I will introduce some of his thought on the issues of persons and atonement, and suggest ways to move out of what I see as the risky idiom of metaphor into what Gunton himself always demands – a pneumatological concept of mediation. Such mediation involves not only confessing the Trinity as the doctrine of God, but employing it as the rule that regulates talk of all God’s action. I will ask how successful Gunton has been in showing that God is the issuer of the medium and language in which atonement talk must be set. Is Gunton moving towards a developed pneumatological and ecclesiological medium, via the linguistic-economic question of which community is speaking, hearing and obeying?

Trinitarian Theology

Amongst the first to integrate Barth into the English theological conversation, Colin Gunton led the recovery of the doctrine of the trinity, and so the ability to think connectedly and systematically, rather than in the ‘occasional’ English style. The Trinity is a rule about how to talk about the God who addresses himself and corresponds to himself, and for talk about ourselves that corresponds to our future as his creatures, as those can talk about him because they are addressed and taught by him. This rule allows us to talk about the One and the Many without making them mutually exclusive opposites. The trinity is the grammar of plurality which opens the freedom of two parties, by which God and Man may both be free, and freely together. One major change in the culture of theology is a greater readiness to understand that freedom may be given by limits and definitions, not defined merely in absolute opposition to all definition, particularity and constraint. Humans are now free for one another, not to be free from one another.

Colin Gunton argues for a strong distinction between person and individual. The unity of the person is not that person’s own achievement or possession, but is the work of God, and the concept of person is a theological one. The identity of each person is not hidden in an monadic place-without-extension (the mind, the soul), but spread across the whole nexus of human personhood, constituted and sustained everywhere, and by everyone. One person is not the function of many other persons, for then the question would indeed just be of which persons and which community. Each person is the function of all persons, and decisive in this definition are the persons of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Not only does the concept of person have the totality of doctrine as its context, but any account of the person has to deal also in smaller and larger ‘non-personal’ categories and units, and be expressed in terms of those forces and elements that are ordered into the process of the becoming of the person.

God both distinguishes himself from his work, and identifies his work with himself. Making this distinction and identification is his work, and our knowledge of it is his work too. The distinction between God and world is not obvious (it is no transcendental deduction): it is a function of the grammar of God’s work. We are not able lay out this grammar flat before us to see it all at once, or make it available to ourselves as method, for it is personal, is himself the person of God. The concept of person demands that we refuse to put first the question of God or man. Just as method is not prior, the question of ‘either-or’ (..God or man) is not methodologically prior to the answer ‘both-and’ (God, and man). As long as we insist in talking only on the basis of a divine-human dichotomy, we have not understood that persons are imago Dei, they are God’s image of God – that they are God’s ongoing work, and are therefore presently only readable as such by God, and by us inasmuch as our knowledge is his work.

The Imago Dei and Persons divine and human

Gunton defends the primacy of God’s action in the relationship of God and man by referring to the divine and human natures of Jesus. This two natures doctrine refers to a concept of nature, by which ‘humanity’ is in the first place the proper predicate of man, and only secondarily may ‘human’ be said to become a predicate of God. Is this not to attempt to secure the freedom of God (from the world, rather than for it) by making the issue of a subordination (naturally rather than theologically interpreted) more significant in the definition of the creature than the relatedness of the Creator to it? I suggest that there is no basis for saying that God – who is not individual, not alone, not without glory or without company – may not make man the proper predicate of his own being. Humanity is a function of the agreement of the Father and Son; the Holy Spirit secures that they can be really for each other in this idiom, and this idiom, humanity, does not detract from their proper being for each other. God is Spirit, able to move freely on both sides of a Creator-creature, divine-human line: two-natures language is intended to state the doctrine of creation, not problematise it.

God is not without servants or speech. That God is alone and is the only god – the first clause of the Decalogue – does not clash with the declaration that he has his servants with him. God is alone, and distinct from Israel, and God is with Israel and a member of Israel. Two things are implied in this double statement. The first is that the Law is what God and Israel say and do together. The Torah must understood as witness and as law, that is as both record and as the rules deduced from that record by God and Israel, the two witnesses together. It is not that, without Israel’s involvement, God says what will be the case: this would give Israel nothing constitutive to do, nothing except to fail to be God and thus to fail, full stop. To say the same thing again: it is not the case that the Father says what is the case and the Son merely and mutely receives this – the obedience of the Son is more complex and reciprocal than that, albeit asymmetrically reciprocal. The second is that God teases and draws Israel out into agency and intentionality and that the proper definition of agency is the dialectic of converse and conversation with God, the dual or multiple agency of creature and Creator together. It is the concerted obedience of many generations – or the failure of obedience of many generations retroactively supplied by the obedience of One – that makes the obedience of Israel. This obedience and hearing is the work of God, for the Word is already its own reception and obedience.

The Western philosophical tradition tends mistakenly to assume that an agent must be single. Insufficiently trinitarian theology therefore always seeks to decide either whether Man is acting alone, and acting on or against God, or God is acting, and without man and against him. The error is in the attempt to break agency down into some substrate that is not agency, and thus to be rid of it. The ordo salutis believes representation and substitution are a zero-sum game in which any action of God diminishes man’s room for action. Kant (and Sölle) protested against substitution, believing that Christ’s being for us would be an outrage against our own individuality. But we must reply by saying that the end of the action of God is the freedom of action of his creature. The creature of God is not an individual, so there is no account of him that can be made in terms of his isolation from God but only of his freedom with God, a freedom he has to learn within relationship with God. God relates himself to Israel, and because God makes himself the source of Israel’s definition, Israel is no unit or monad. The image of God – personhood – is not intrinsic to man – it is not his property – but the function of the work of the Father, Son and Spirit. It is their work, and plurality and freedom are its goal.

We can perhaps illustrate this by drawing a broad contrast between the approaches of Augustine and Irenaeus. Augustine’s concern was for the soul and interiority, and what has come to be called the concept of mind. On Augustine’s version we are drawn out of the world to be saved from it, and the Church is the authority intended to keep its weaker individual members safe until that time. For Irenaeus however, our salvation consists in being drawn together from all corners of the world, together to start the new community that will bring about the renewal and transformation of the world. He stresses the redeemed sensus communis that is learned by the elect and baptised community, within which we are tutored and grown into the skills of relatedness, holding one another open to God’s proper action, that will unite earth to heaven. The Imago Dei is plural, and issues not in nature but in freedom. So one question to ask of any theology is whether the Trinity is being fully employed as rule, so it does not rely on any natural or absolute distinction between God and man, as though they were two gods locked in terminal struggle.

Atonement 1. The court of law

In Actuality of Atonement Gunton took advantage of the ontology of personhood to talk about the atonement, which involves talking about justice and the lawcourt. Anselm is the chief exponent of the language of the lawcourt. ‘God is the one to whom certain obligations are due: ‘to sin is the same thing as not to render his due to God’ It is God to whom these certain obligations are due, but we must spell out a little further that because they are due to God the Creator they are due also to his creatures – not because creatures have a right, but because it is the will of their Creator that these creatures grow up into the estate he intends for them.

To make sense of this talk of obligations we have to show that being is constituted by the whole economy of action in which we speak and give and receive names. The demand we make of the other is that they give us something of themselves, and that that something should be an account of themselves in which we feature, that they sketch out some place which we may come to share with them. The man who does not acknowledge and name his fellows (and their joint lord, the provider of the language in which they can be together) and offer some account of himself among them, leaves himself without anyone to return his own name to him. In refusing to offer them his account of their identity, he cuts himself off from his identity-givers and has no (one else’s) account of himself to offer. The accounts we make of each other and which we offer to each other constitute the whole currency and medium of human interaction. The condition of being without supporters, of having a missing identity is the condition of being obliged to give a more public and formal account of yourself – the condition of being taken to a court of law.

If being is both the action of recognition-giving and the fabric that is created by it, it can be damaged by infringement or lack. When praise and reputation is not given there is a deficit of being as both fabric and action. Praise and recognition are due to God as the issuer of this economy – but they are therefore due to every member of this economy. What is due to the Creator is also due to his creatures because they are his, and each to receive their specific praise – as creature, as Creator. This doxological ontology is often understood to be true merely of religious discourse (and it is this belief that makes that discourse religious discourse) but it is true of the world too. Does Gunton make this second step of arguing for the general truth of the doxological ontology, or does he see it as a merely religious truth?

‘It is sometimes dismissively observed that Anselm takes his view of legality from the medieval feudal order, and the suggestion is that this is to liken the deity to an arbitrary or oppressive ruler. The fact is, however, that the opposite is the case. It was the duty of the feudal ruler to maintain the order of rights and obligations without which society would collapse.’ The lawcourt represents the condition of crisis caused by the appearance of a gap in the fabric of being. ‘Anselm’s argument depends upon a particular conception of justice. He holds that God cannot simply overlook breaches of the universal law.’ Such breaches are missing person-fabric which God supplies and foregives. God sees what is lacking and responds by supplying what is missing. The two acts are one: the missing fabric is noticed – there is judgement and wrath – and supplied. ‘The ‘plausibility structure’ supporting Anselm’s work is the belief in a divine universal order in which God, man and the creation are to be in harmonious relation.

A God who simply remitted penalties would not be God. God defends the poor against those who articulate law and history to their disadvantage. Though he is a king, his power is not ‘absolute’, but federal (asymmetrically reciprocal): God does not give mercy to one by robbing another of justice. A God who remitted penalties would not be God who makes all relationships possible, for to wipe history is to destroy the personal continuity of the parties to the covenant. God does simply make the past of no account, but rather makes up what is missing from it. He supplements what is missing from the account with his own account, but his own account will properly place and restore the account that has been given so nothing is lost or lived in vain. This embraces Kant’s insistence that one cannot substitute for another, and meets the claim of justice that the poor are supplied with what has been withheld from them.

One question that could be asked of Gunton is whether he is entirely successful in keeping the concept of sin theologically determined. Sin is not a natural category. It is what the elect community, held within a covenant and driven on to holiness, identifies through processes of confession and repentance. Those outside that community can have no knowledge of sin and can no more be guilty of it than an animal can. Sin is gentile being, and only Israel, now gathered out of the gentiles, can retrospectively and doxologically say what it is that she has been redeemed from. If sin is not thoroughly bound in to other doctrines, in particular that of the election of Israel, will it not be derived from a concept of nature, an Aristotelian understanding of sin either as deviation from the norm, or as failure to achieve the full measure of the big man? On such a basis sin would be measured from an origin and be a stuff intrinsic to human being. All Adam’s stock lies under sin only because Adam is judged from an eschaton in which he will be holy. A thoroughly theological definition measures sin from the telos, against what the people of God will become.

Atonement 2. Sacrifice

Any account of God’s coming to man must include an account of cost, for which sacrifice is the conceptuality. ‘Trinitarian biblical talk of the saving action of God draws heavily on the language of sacrifice.’ Gunton believes that the notion of sacrifice can be supported by an appeal to its derivation ‘from something deep in human nature, of such a kind that it appears to be rooted in a universal or near universal feature of our life on earth.’ One problem though is that sacrifice is archaic. ‘We no longer slaughter animals ritually’. So ‘to call the death of Jesus a sacrifice is obviously a metaphor: although there is a death, it is not on an altar.’ By a effort of empathy and imagination, Gunton argues, we are able to extrapolate from what the ancients did to what God does for us.

Sacrifice of animals has been replaced by a sacrifice of thanks and praise, and yet this represents no diminution of the cost of this sacrifice. Sacrifice really was the medium by which Israel was supplied with what she required in her relation to God, and learned that the holiness of the God who was her supply. By the sacrifice and consumption of animals, life, in the form of blood, was circulated through the ecosystem to reproduce a new generation for Israel, so the covenant God has with Israel is not brought to an end by death. ‘It is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins’ (Heb10.14), yet blood was offered in the Temple precisely because it did indeed, not finally, but yearly take sins away. Animal sacrifice is one of the propaedeutic devices by which this elect community is brought up to the character of her God.

The climax of God’s work is the triumph of all God’s preceding work, not the supersession and replacement of failed earlier attempts by later successful ones. What comes last does not replace but sets in place all that has gone before, and what went before is vindicated by this climax. There are two risks here. The first is that God appears to demand from Israel something that he could not produce for himself, and here we must say that what God wants is not a thing, but the freedom of Israel. Giving and demanding (sacrificial) return is the process by which Israel is brought up into the skills of freedom and the full status of the creature of God. The second risk is that an answer in terms of honour and praise (we give God a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving) is a spiritualisation and evacuation of sacrifice, because praise appears to cost nothing. Gunton fears that thanks and praise might seem to represent a reduction, so he pleads for a metaphorical understanding, so a sacrifice of praise is still a real sacrifice, non-material yet still in some way costly. I suggest that we again need to employ a doxological metaphysics and economics of persons-in-constitutive-relation to do this.

Jesus pays the price. What price does he pay? We all daily work under the assumption that payment involves money, and money is real, natural and necessary. Payment in praise works in the world of metaphor, but not in the shops. On this basis, talk of payment in honour and recognition, or ‘praise and thanksgiving’, is a merely metaphorical derivation from money. What we need here is one of Gunton’s deft historical sketches to show that it is in fact the other way around. Money works in the shops because money is the present form of the practices of the denomination of human being, practices of doxology that we might very appropriately term ‘praise’. Money is not a function of nature but a particular outcome of history. With a full-blown constitutive theory of personhood we can see that being is neither substance nor nature, but the work of attribution and recognition in which all human being and doing consists. Each man receives his praise from the other; God’s praise of man is God’s being for man, and all the praise or being man has for man is derived from the praise and being God has for man. God (alone) returns our being to us (the being he intends for us, not any being that we could regard as our property). By telling the history of the origins of money as a particular idiom and convention of human being and relating we need no longer argue that the form of payment is a given of nature, and sacrifices of thanks and praise metaphorical extensions of it.

The next question is to whom the price is paid, and discussion usually makes the point that the price is not made to the devil. (Anselm was not the only church father to consider whether the devil had at least the rights of custom due a squatter). Gunton believes that the question of to whom the payment is made is not an appropriate one, but I will make a slightly different response. The price which you were bought for is also the price that is paid to you, and the price paid is the whole currency and medium in which you (thought you) existed. The belief is that each of us is his or her own work, but we are paid with the removal of the whole fabric of this false belief – our own medium is taken away from us, and it is replaced and re-positioned by another, larger and more adequate medium. We are paid not in the form of some payment made within a currency that we ourselves have issued, but by the supply of a whole medium that makes us for the first time other-compatible and that therefore opens a world and new forms of action to us.

Sacrifice then is not simply the foregoing of one thing for another. It is ‘not simply the offering of a human life but of the concentrated summation of humanity: it is the kind of offering that, so to speak, longs to offer not only itself but all flesh. That one offering can stand in for the others because, in anticipation of the eschatological presenting of all spotless before the throne, it takes the representative and random sample of fallen flesh and offers it, through the Spirit perfect to the Father.’ It intends to teach all flesh to present itself to God, and to do this by inducting it into a new medium, and new currency and form of payment and account-giving. ‘Sacrifice, in this concrete realisation of the transcendental, is the expression and outworking of the inner-trinitarian relations of giving and receiving. The inner being of God is a taxis, a dynamic orderedness, of love construed in terms of mutual and reciprocal gift and reception. If the sacrifice that is Jesus’s human life and death is a realisation in time of the eternal taxis, than it is indeed universal.’

‘God the Father ‘gives’ up’ his only Son, allows him to be delivered into the hands of sinful men. Jesus lays down his life, and.. offers his humanity, made perfect through suffering to the Father. so it is with the Spirit. As the gift of the Father he is the aparchai, first fruits, of the perfecting action of God in Christ. Although, under the conditions of the Fall, the sacrifice of Jesus must take the form of spilling of blood, that aspect is not of the essence of sacrifice, which is rather to be found in the notion of gift. It is the Father’s giving of the Son, the Son’s giving of himself to the Father and the Spirit’s enabling of the creation’s giving in response that is at the centre… It is as a dynamic of giving and receiving, asymmetrical rather than merely reciprocal, that the communion that is the triune life must be understood.’

With all this we must agree. The next question is what else it is necessary to say in order to say this.


We must spend a little more time on the question of the medium of payment, to establish the novel thought (novel in the English-language at least) that payment is related to telling, describing and giving an account. There is no natural dichotomy between paying, on one hand, and telling a history or story on the other. In what medium can account be given and measurement made? What units does this creation and work of God let itself be measured in? The units of God’s devising measure his creation good and make it good. His measure is an orthopaedic garment that achieves that good shape and dimension that it intends to bring about, that fits uniquely each particular, and makes each particular fit for the end that its Creator opens to it.

How can a finite account be given of the action of an infinite agent? The infinite agent gives an account of himself. The infinite agent gives that finite medium of account in which such an account of his action can be made. The giving of the finite account depends on the giving of the medium of the account, and the health of the finite medium depends on the truth of the account of the agent that is given in it. We are not obliged to decide whether the medium or the message is prior, but simply that in the case of this infinite agent, the giving of the account is the giving of the medium and vice versa. Account and medium are the work of one agent, and the one never comes without the other.

What God does is obvious only within the medium he supplies. We can talk about profit and loss, exchange and transaction only when we are dealing in a common currency. To say that God provides the currency, is to confess that this is his household and economy, and that he provides the medium, language, currency and world in which men may meet and find each other, and exchange accounts of each other, and in the medium of this account-giving, confess God. All the creatures of the household (the elect community) speak the language he has brought them up in, and they account in the accounting medium they have become familiar with through familiarity with him. But – God’s giving his Son is his giving the medium in which this is meaningful and true.

The reconciliation of creation takes place in the ‘medium’ of disorder, so disorder pays with its own dissolution for the establishment of order. Re-creation does not take place on an empty plain (ex nihilo) but on the field of battle of the yet unreconciled powers and forces. Chaos, nothingness, Satan, sin, death name all the deviations of old Adam, the sum of world-memes that receive no place in the creation of God, and yet which have a place in the telling of the process of the arrival of the new creation. The medium of the action of God for us and on us is therefore the powers and authorities of which our world is made, authorities which are subdued, but which nevertheless remain part of the obedient account that must be rendered of God’s action by those of his creatures who grow into the fullness of the being he prepares for them. The saints will judge the earth, the (former, usurper) kings of the earth will be their footstool.

The action of God opens four and more dimensions to us, yet it must be described in three dimensional terms, in terms of a finite economy (zero-sum) in which a gain here is a loss there. We must be able to say God faces loss, for he bears us away from loss, chaos and nothing, and into being in freedom. The finite account and its medium are the work of the Holy Spirit, a worker who, because he is not yet satisfied by what is, submits it to further work, and does not yet commit his presence to it. Discussion limited to immanence and transcendence cannot establish either: it is as work that it is immanent (present), and as work that it is transcendent (not yet present to it or at home with it) and work must therefore be the third term. ‘In the triune economy there is, by virtue of the priority of giving, no calculation of quantities and ends.’ What is given is rather the skill of calculation of quantities and ends. We are to be joined in the person of the Son by discovering the character of the Son (Law) by rehearsing the actions of the Son (gospel). The world as creation is the medium in which we are delivered to the Son, delivered to each other as part of this medium, and which continues to be part of our character. That there is world and place, role and office, for us, is to say that there is mediation and language supplied to us within which we can be delivered to the Son. The whole creation is the medium across which the character of the Son is written, woven and told. Atonement, sacrifice and exchange are the grammar of the three dimensions into which we grow and become present to the native inhabitants of those infinite dimensions that may numbered but never brought to an end.

Metaphor and economy

God fashions a household. His fashioning includes his own commentary on his work; his work has speech, and includes its own grammar (law). This oikos is never without its nomos. To establish the point that language is already both a household and law, we must see what sort of a claim metaphor is, and why it has been resorted to.

Gunton resorted to metaphor in response to the accusation of the English Bultmannians that biblical language is mythological. ‘Metaphor’ was the riposte to the charge of ‘myth’. George Caird had always argued that biblical symbols were complex political symbols. NT Wright, Stephen Fowl and others now argue that these symbols belong to the language of the elect community, are the compressed learning of generations which has to be learned by those baptised into that community. Since this did not seem to meet the demands for public truth, recourse was made to empathy and imagination. Metaphor, Gunton claimed (in company with Ortony and Soskice) was a ‘transfer of language’, which revealed ‘hidden features of the human condition by carrying over meaning from one sphere of reality to another.’. This would seem to make meaning a substance that can be taken from one place to another, rather than mean-ing, ‘common-ing’ – what is composed, received and held in common by the commons – the definition that more clearly belongs to a theology stressing relationality.

There are two problems about metaphor. The first is that to argue for metaphor is to accept Kant’s account of things, an account in which there is a sphere of reason, and another (lower) sphere of imagination, and that there is a gap between them across which things have to be ferried by the vehicle of metaphor from normal use (‘reason’) to new use (‘imagination’). But there is only such a gap if we hold only a non-perichoretic view of the world in which things are closed containers rather than relations and fields. Secondly, metaphor is based on an assumption that new uses of language are created by the single artist, the poet, by the sheer power of his own subjectivity.

The concept of metaphor belongs with the two hundred year history of ‘text’ and ‘interpretation’, the history of the author who creates his own world. The belief that an individual plucks a metaphor from the resources of his own subjectivity relates to the assumption that language has no intrinsic relation to bodiliness and world, but always has to have such a relation (‘meaning’) re-established for it by the author. Such an individual is unable – stubbornly declares himself unable – to take his place from God, has not the skill by which to receive his place. Yet ‘metaphor is an intrinsic feature of all human language…’. It is not the particular skill of the poet that makes language creative but just the indeterminacy of language as such. Error and confusion are every bit as creative of new language as metaphor, and as are exaggeration, alliteration, humour, irony and all the other tropes of the prosody or musicality of language. The creativity of language is not to be reduced to the creativity of an individual.

But our world is not a function of our constructing alone, and our place is not a function of our will, but a matter of where other people place us. They place us. To say we place ourselves, which is what the concept of metaphor amounts to, is to abuse the concept of place. We do not choose our own story or, in any sense but the most trivial, select at random a metaphor through which to make sense of our situation. Rather metaphor or story is that local rationality and set of rules without which we are just not present to each other. It is the domain within which we may come to be and the gravity by which we are held together. The Trinity is the conceptuality by which we can make the confession that God works, and his working binds up and holds together what would not otherwise hold together, and holds open what would otherwise collapse and close. It is the conceptuality of plural agency which makes an extrinsic medium such as metaphor redundant. Priest, judge and sacrifice are not models or metaphors, but the priestly offices the saints will come to occupy.

Perhaps part of the problem is, as I have suggested, that language seems to make a strict distinction between telling and counting. In the case of counting we cannot influence the outcome, but must concede what is necessarily and unalterably there. But if we can we make a case that telling and paying, text and money, are one and the same thing, we can more easily see that every use of the medium of counting – money – involves us in a complex of claims and tales about the world, and reinforces the sense of their necessity. With every trip to the shop we lend credence to a price system that claims to be a mere reflection of a world that is unalterably given. Theology – talk of God – not only shows however that the natural claims on the human being are neither natural nor necessary, but itself releases us from the spell that our practices have over us, demonstrating the contingency of whatever declares itself necessary, and thereby proclaiming the freedom of the Christian. Belief in the one God is our release from the many godlets which seek to re-determine us for their own ends.

The doxological linguistic economy of being

The term ‘economics’ has a history. ‘After such a beginning it happened that a household word (economy, oikou nomos), along with its transferred application to the organisation of finances and the running of the state, was commandeered by theology.’ Yet what we need to hear is that the household consists of the sum of things said. Each member of the house continually reminds all the other members of the position in the household he desires for them. There is an economy of exchange of attributions of worth and status – a doxology. We can say that the financial economy is a language game, and no more normative than other (domestic or theological) uses of the word ‘economy’. Then we can say that finance is just a particular poor expression of a singleness that can really only be theologically established. To return to what we said above about justice and covenant, we can say that if you want to convince us that you belong to our household, that a certain position within our household belongs to you, you will have to adopt the linguistic skills and resources in use here to say some of the things that are said here. Every household, or language game is also an agreement to stay within the household or language game: it is a covenant, within which alone members can be and communicate together. The household is something subscribed to by its members, for it is their determination to be for (and against) each other that makes them this single language-entity.

Language belongs to all its speakers. It is their body-fabric, and every language use is a pushing and stretching of them. Language is prior to the issue of which use of language is wrong or right. Before I go on to develop the concept of place as linguistic which gives us the medium in which statements (not only the theological) can be true, I must refer again to the issue of the origin of right and wrong.


We touched on the issue of sin in dealing with the image of God. Gunton criticises Robert Jenson’s lack of interest in Jesus’s sinlessness. I believe Jenson has the best of the argument. Jesus’s sinlessness is not a matter of nature (understood either as ‘what is necessary’, or ‘what is in common’). It must rather be understood as the work of God by which Israel is made holy and sinless – with the hypostasis of Jesus as the single first-fruit of this work. The question of whether Christ has one will or two is the question of the reality of the struggle we see in the Garden of Gethsamene, of whether we can truly say that the Son learned obedience. We must give two accounts, in one of which there must be a struggle, the struggle of the world and flesh with God. To say Christ could not have sinned is simply to say too much. We can only say he did not sin. We must not attribute this to any essence, phusis or necessity in Jesus, but to his freedom, a freedom determined for him by the Spirit. That Jesus did not sin is an action, not inherent sinlessness, not a nature. He was found to be without sin because, being found one with the Spirit, sin could not cling to him. Jenson rightly insists that ‘the mind of Christ’ is the habitus and practice that results from God’s action on Israel, rather than a matter of ‘what Jesus thought he was doing’. The alternative is surely to rest on a psychology, a doctrine about the nature of minds.


This leads us to the issue of where humankind is now. We must not let the definition of man’s place rest on the fall, but on the doctrine of creation. The question of where the atonement takes place is part of the answer of how it takes place, so we should talk about the fall only in the context of creation and atonement. Gunton seems to take the view that God’s transcendence is adequately secured by saying only that God is beyond the world. I suggest that the result is that mankind alone gets to define what space it is that mankind occupies and which God has to enter in order to come to his creature. Since the seventeenth century, when the fall was first assumed to be a natural truth that stands on its own apart from the totality of doctrine, mankind has described itself in terms of its (self-delusory) success in its self-appointed task of keeping God at a distance. In asking about the status of space Gunton tackles the issue without challenging this vocabulary, with the result is that he is trying to ask where space is – whether inside God or outside God. An uninterpreted concept of space results in space determining God rather than the other way around.

Lutherans have traditionally had a difficulty here, but Jenson and Pannenberg have identified the Lutheran conundrum, and decided that the world is not a container and God does not have first to be invited in to it before he may act within it. The two cities are not of equal status, the human city does not succeed in holding out against the divine city nor the earthly and human history succeed in establishing any definition of humanity against God’s definition of humanity. Jenson and Pannenberg understand that the human city and history have a merely provisional propaideutic status, that they are a function of the work of the divine city and history. These two theologians do not therefore need to show that God has to ask humanity before he can enter the human realm. To Gunton they appear to have erased the (transcendental) difference between the two cities. Gunton’s demand for a transcendental definition of the difference between the human and divine is in danger of being secured by man’s definition of the world as the place where God is not, and thus the definition of sin becoming one with the sin of the definition. Jenson and Pannenberg treat space in terms of God’s action, and thus in something like the terms of honour and linguisticality that I have been using here. The world is rather the cradle and harness in which we are kept safe, and allowed to arrive at no other end than the end that God has prepared for us, and God uses the earthly city for the double function of keeping us in some measure secured in and by our self-deceit so our own self-destructive ends are prevented, and using it (despite us) to bring us to his own end – the full freedom of the creature.

So I have suggested that talk of atonement and sacrifice must be set within an economy, and must answer the question of whose economy and creation the world is to be. We may not put the Wholly Other-ness and transcendence of God first, before the claim that God is a member of Israel. Christology from above is not more worshipful for all that it seeks to attribute a vanishingly high status to God. Christology from below, God-talk that starts with man-talk, is mistaken in its claim that, because humanity is the easier case, it is also the easier route to God-talk. I hope we have seen that God’s action requires the concepts of mediation and economy, and that God’s action on occasion requires parallel accounts that may not be reduced to one. The question of first, is a loose ball that rolls around causing damage everywhere – it turns every question into a question of who is first, God or man, and reinforces the idea that these are two more or less equal entities, two ‘natures’. Equality is entirely the wrong question, an irrelevant issue. The point is that not God is first and man is second. Man is not second. God is second. God is first and second, for God is the builder of a medium of account in which things may be ordered and so come into arrangement and being-together, and come to recognise and give place to each other. He is the issuer of this account and its first receiver. Only when God is both Alpha and Omega does there start to be a middle world in which man may be p and q, and in such plural relationships (m-n-o-p) and (q-r-s-t) there may come into being relationships between God and man (Alpha-(p-q)-Omega), of the pattern God-man-man-God.

It is a large part of Colin Gunton’s achievement to have made use of the concept of sacrifice, even to have shown it should be treated as a doctrine. God works in human time and space in such a way as to make up the losses that appear in our account and medium of being, and re-places and redeems our time, space and medium within his. Within an ontological and constitutive view of personhood sacrifice is not a model adopted to aid understanding, but which must also be left behind. Sacrifice, judgement and cost are intrinsic to God’s account of himself and of the priestly office to which he elects and prepares us.

Though theology remains on the run in the Church, it is in better health in the university. Perhaps Colin Gunton’s secret is in hospitality, in forging friendships and partnerships (it is not invidious to mention Hardy, Zizioulas, Jenson, Watson, Webster, Schwöbel), and in a deftness and understatedness in dialogue that allows interlocutors to make the best case they can and then change their mind in private, and which makes for an atmosphere in which conversation, mutual criticism and all the other positive traits of university are once again possible. Above all it is in thinking connectedly, on the presumption that every doctrine refers first to every other. I hesitate to say how long it is since there has been an English systematic theology, in case we find ourselves counting back in centuries. The point is it looks as though we may well be in for one.