Colin Gunton on the Trinity

These days everyone is writing about the doctrine of the Trinity. It is very popular. I have been reading some Colin Gunton, who is a great exponent of classical Trinitarian theology (ala Nicene-Constantinople Creed), without drifting off into the confusing wonderland of other significant 20th century theologians (names withheld to protect the guilty!).

The two books I have been reading are, “The Promise of Trinitarian Theology” and “Father, Son and Holy Spirit”. Sadly Gunton died in 2003 and was unable to complete a major project in Trinitarian theology.

Here are some notes that I found helpful and interesting from Gunton’s books…


Before starting on Gunton, its worth refreshing your mind with the important Nicene-Constantinople creed of 381:

We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father by whom all things were made; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man, and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried, and the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. And he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end.

And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets. And we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins. And we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

Gunton sees two extremes with understanding the doctrine of the Trinity:
“two equal and opposite errors: of making God so blankly singular that he loses the richness and plurality of his being – and so, that range and richness of God’s gracious involvement in the world – or of so stressing the threeness that there seem to be three gods” (“Father”, p12).

Of course the Western tradition emphasises oneness and the Eastern tradition emphasises threeness. Gunton is big on rediscovering some of the emphasises of the Eastern tradition:

“I believe that if we are to conceive the inalienable marks of the distinctive personhood of the three, we should also attempt to identify their characteristic modes or forms of action as they are made known in the economy of creation, salvation and redemption” (“Promise”, pxxv.) We need to not lose the “concrete particularity” of each person of the Trinity (“Promise, pxxiv). This is not to make them individuals, but their eternal and characteristic identity can only be seen in their relations to each other:

“Each is only what he is by virtue of what the three give and receive from each other; and yet, by virtue of their mutually constitutive relations each is distinctive and particular.” (“Promise”, p12).

These particular elements can be seen in the Cappadocian church Fathers, such as Basil of Caeserea:

“the original cause of all things that are made, the Father; the creative cause, the Son; … the perfecting cause, the Spirit” (“Promise”, pxxvii.). Gunton goes on to link this to Calvin, “Here, as in Scripture, the Father calls the tune, so to speak, and it is played in different modes by his two hands. Calvin’s characterisation is similar: ‘to the Father is attributed the beginning of activity, and the fountain and well-spring of all things; to the Son, wisdom, counsel and the ordered disposition of all things; but to the Spirit is assigned the power and efficacy of that activity'” (Calvin, I. xiii. 8).

Also the concrete particularities can be seen in the submission of the Son to the Father:
“The point of the notion of Jesus Christ’s eternal begotteness is that it enables us to characterize the kind of relationship that subsists between the [Father and the Son]. It also enables us to do justice to the undoubtedly subordinationist elements of the biblical record which we have noticed: the Son is sent, is given, obeys and, indeed, expresses his eternal sonship in temporal or economic subordination. His eternal Sonship is the other side of this agency.” (“Father”, p72).

If we are to emphasise the distinct persons of the Trinity, even if we emphasise their unity, we are in danger of tri-theism (three “gods”). Gunton is big on affirming the doctrine of “homoousion” (“one substance”) of the council of Nicea:

“The function [of “homoousion”] is to establish a new ontological principle: that there can be a sharing in being“. The Arian and Greek philosophical notion of God’s being was non-relational, “by insisting, to the contrary, that God is eternally Son as well as Father, the Nicene theologians introduced a note of relationality into the being of God: God’s being is defined as being in relation”. (“Promise”, p9.). The Cappadocians took this one step further and introduced the idea of on substance of God (“ousia”) in three persons (“hypostases”). (pp9-11). Thus the achievement here was that Biblical truth did not succumb to philosophical categories that made sense in the ancient world, but a new Biblical category was created to make sense of Biblical truth: relationality in being. Why was it not good for Adam to be alone? Here lies a deeper answer than simply saying he was crafted to be with Eve.

You need an eternal (or immanent) Trinity to establish our reality:
“The doctrine of the eternal Trinity serves as a foundation for the relative independence and so integrity of worldly reality also, and thus for human freedom” (“Father”, p24.).
Also he suggests we require “a ‘space’ between God and the world that allows God to be God, and the world to be the world… For the world to be truly the world, it needs a God who is both other than it and who is able to love it for itself, because it is the world to which God has given being.” (“Father”, pp30-31).

Gunton sees the economic Trinity as the starting point and as having very close links to the eternal (immanent) Trinity:
moves from the immanent Trinity to the created world are not obvious, and are fraught with dangers of idealizing and projection“, for example, some “turn Christ into a world principle at the expense of Jesus of Nazareth, and often construe his cross as a focus for the suffering of God rather than as the centre of that history in which God overcomes sin and evil. That is to say, the doctrine of the Trinity must not be abstracted from the doctrine of the atonement.” (“Father”, p25).

Augustine has bequeathed a poor legacy for Western theology and thought. Gunton argues that Augustine failed to appreciate the achievement of both Athanasius and the Cappadocian Fathers in three ways: 1. He sought patterns of threeness apart from the economy of salvation (e.g.: his metaphors). This gives him a rationalist and non-Biblically driven direction (such as anti-material dualism). 2. He over affirms unity and risks losing the distinctives of each person. 3. He muddies the water by treating God uni-personally, rather than one substance in three persons. (“Promise”, pp3-4)

Trinity and Evangelism:
“It is part of the pathos of Western theology that it has often believed that while trinitarian theology might well be of edificatory value to those who already believe, for the outsider it is an unfortunate barrier to belief, which must therefore be facilitated by some non-trinitarian apologetic, some essentially monotheistic ‘natural theology’. My belief is the reverse: that because the theology of the Trinity has so much to teach about the nature of our world and life within it, it is or could be the centre of Christianity’s appeal to the unbeliever, as the good news of a God who enters into free relations of creation and redemption with his world. In the light of the theology of the Trinity, everything looks different“. (“Promise”, p7). Replace “could be” with “should be”! Actually Leslie Newbigin says something very similar concerning advocacy of a Trinitarian gospel:
“A trinitarian understanding of God cannot become part of public truth except through the acknowledgement of the universal lordship and saviourhood of Jesus Christ… If [this confession] is withheld from the arena of public discourse…, then the only image of God present in the public square will be a unitarian one, whether the increasingly powerful image of the Allah of the Qur’an, or the shadowy and ineffective God of a Christendom that has lost its nerve.” (Newbiggin, “The Trinity as Public Truth”, p8, in “The Trinity in a Pluralistic Age”, edited by Vanhoozer)

Finally, I love this quote from Gunton:
“The doctrine of the Trinity is the Church’s resource against idolatry, against worshipping anything other than the one who by the eternal Spirit raised Jesus from the dead” (“Father”, p87).

One thought on “Colin Gunton on the Trinity”

  1. Dear Wayne,
    Thank you very much for this article – I was introduced to the Eastern Church’s view of the perichoresis and the consequent unspeakably attractive idea of the LORD’s wishing finally to take up believers into the circle of the intra-Trinitarian love of God, by my pastor three and a half years ago. This has completely revolutionised my regard for Him, and, in my position as a hospice chaplain who has at times to take funeral services, usually for unbelievers with no church connections, nothing I have ever said from the pulpit comes anywhere near telling them of this stupendous privilege offered to all mankind. It literally lights up the faces of some often distinctly hard-bitten non-Christians and, although I know of no conversions as a result, the effect upon these folks is electric – I just had to tell you how right you were on “the centre of Christianity’s appeal to the unbeliever” – I know of nothing else that seems to open their hearts the way this wonderful fact does!

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