Gunton Saves the World

I don’t agree with everything that the late Colin Gunton said about the doctrine of God, but he makes a significant point about divine freedom in the immanent Trinity in relation to the integrity of the world as contingent order:

In face of both of these polemics against the doctrine of the ontological Trinity, and against any suggestion that it is only the freedom of God that is at stake here, it can be argued that on the contrary that doctrine serves as a foundation for the relative independence and so integrity of worldly reality also, and thus for human freedom.  It is because God is a communion of love prior to and in independence of the creation that he can enable the creation to be itself (Gunton, The Promise of Trinitarian Theology, p. xviii).

Ultimately, Gunton writes, the elision of the immanent Trinity has a propensity to ‘the pantheism which results from any attempt to bring God and the world too close’.  In other words (and to go a bit beyond Gunton’s own phrasing), the moment we negate the fullness of God’s being in its antecedence to the world, the world takes on a character that it was never meant to have and must bear the unfortunate burden of assisting in the project of God’s own self-realization.

What do you think about this point?  What are some ways of drawing out the implications of the preservation (or forfeiture) of God’s freedom in se for our understanding of creation?


11 thoughts on “Gunton Saves the World

  1. This thinking from Gunton (who I got to meet before he died) sounds very similar to TF Torrance’s thinking on God as non-contingent independent relative to the world’s contingent independence dialectic; so there is an integrity to both realities, while obviously the ‘balance’ is an asymmetric one wherein all of reality requires God as the sustaining reality in his own life (of course), and in the “life” of the world.

  2. I am bothered by the idea that God “must” be internally plural in order to uphold God’s independence from the world and v.v. It smacks of moving the basic problem around without solving it. God must be dependent, and if we take care of God’s natural loneliness internal to the divine being, we can remove the idea that God’s natural loneliness finds its necessary ground externally, in the creature.

    That idea makes it clear that it is definitely the freedom of God that is at stake. But we, as the creature, are the only ones who have a natural dependence. God has natural freedom. Our freedom derives from God’s freedom.

    You’ve said something important: that bit about not negating the fullness of God’s being in its antecedence to the world. But God is not necessarily necessarily and antecedently triune, as though without being triune prior to the being of creation, God could not be free. God is not bound to be triune in order to cover some perceived ontological deficiency. As though if it were true that God became in relationship to creation, time, and history, God would become ontologically dependent upon them — and cease being God! It must be true that God, being God, can respond in relationship to the creation, and still remain God in full being and freedom — because God actually does respond to creation and the world, in relationship, while remaining God in full being and freedom. The being of God, in its antecedence to the world, is under no constraint to be triune.

    If God happens to have been antecedently triune, that’s one thing. But I have to believe that the doctrine of the Trinity is not the only thing guaranteeing the possibility of the actual relationship between Creator and creature. If John shows us anything about the relationship between the doctrines, it is that the doctrine of creation is the thing guaranteeing the doctrine of the Trinity, not v.v. We simply say that the God who is Creator in this relationship has been revealed in Christ to have been this precise God all along.

  3. Matt,

    Thanks for your comments. I can understand wanting to avoid the notion that the Trinity of persons in God somehow causes God to be free. Causation in either direction (from the one essence to the persons or vice vesa) would run contrary to who and what God is. In fact, I purposely avoided saying much about the Trinity in particular being the condition for God’s freedom and meant to focus more generally on God’s abundance in himself being the condition for God’s freedom.

    Nevertheless, I would want to say that God necessarily is triune, though not in the sense that he must become triune in order to make sure that he doesn’t need creation. Rather, God just is triune, even if the Trinity is not a necessary truth of reason. Further, it seems to me that, if one accepts the classical principle of the self-diffusive character of goodness and believes God to be good (or indeed subsisting goodness), then the triune relations are a powerful explanatory resource in sketching why God in his goodness isn’t compelled to create the world.


  4. Thanks, Steve. I agree with you that God “just is triune.” The question of whether God is necessarily triune comes down to what the nature of the necessity is. I think it best to say that we must say that God is triune, in terms of theological necessity. But as far as ontological necessity, I have to say that the triune being of God is a contingent truth of history, rather than a necessary truth of reason, if we’re going to step into Lessing’s trap. It can only be known a posteriori, and continually reasoned out as the best fit for the evidence.

    I don’t mean to knock the apologetic value that the Trinity has, especially among the Fathers, especially with relationship to the classical metaphysics in which it developed. But I can’t see any form of that argument in which the basic presupposition is anything but the idea that God is bound by necessity. The presupposed self-diffusive nature of goodness is one such necessity to which God might be bound, because we have said that God is good, and even the source and norm and ground of all goodness. But it’s better to break the metaphysical idea that would force us to argue from the lesser to the greater, than to admit that metaphysical idea as a true necessity, and simply confine it to the sufficient scope of the divine aseity.

    Or, more bluntly: Sure, we can drown the metaphysics in Trinity, but we shouldn’t then baptize it by letting it back up out of the water. Not every piece of apologetics deserves to live on in dogmatics.

  5. As with polotics; so too it seems with theologians.I well understand that some phrases may be interlectual shortcuts to some ,It is on the other hand quite difilcult for others to actualy understand what the man is saying.
    The Trinity of God can be said to be of a necessity in this respect.That The I am that I am must be what he is and must be.
    It cannot be of a nessity that consists that it is needed for God to be God.
    God as a triune being is simply a fact .
    It is a vital fact of necessity for man for his salvation though.
    That some oppose not only the doctrin or Word of God to that effect and indeed the reality of God himself as he has revealed himself to be.Is almost imeterial.For it does not change either the Word of God or indeed the fact.

  6. Matt Frost,

    You may be interested in the work of David Burrell, James F. Ross, Hugh McCann, and, to some extent, James Dolezal (and maybe Brian Leftow’s forthcoming book _God and Necessity_). They all rather dislike the application of modal terms (e.g. necessity, possibility, etc.) to God. I think the following quote from McCann is what you are getting at:
    “There is, however, a point to be added. Even if the ontological argument turns out to be sound, it should not be thought that God’s existence arises, in some ontological sense, from any conceptual reality, and still less that he is in any way subordinate to what obtains in the realm of abstracta. Just the opposite. God is not only a being who by his own choice exists a se, but also one who by his own choice transcends logical possibility itself. And if, as I have suggested, we take it that God’s freedom in the matter of his existence renders talk of de re necessity pointless here, then even if the proposition ‘There is a God’ does turn out to be necessarily true, the de re claim that God himself exists necessarily would be false. We should not, however, be concerned that if this claim is false, it must somehow be true of God that he need not have existed. On the contrary: if de re necessity does not apply to God then neither does de re possibility apply to God. Thus, just as it is false of God that he exists necessarily, so also it is false of him that he might not have existed. The foundational reality is simple this: God is.”
    Hugh McCann, _Creation and the Sovereignty of God_ (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2012), p. 235

  7. For me, here’s the simple, central question. It relates to Theodicy. That is: if God created, or is aside from, a world that does not always follow the good, or does not follow his good nature, then doesn’t that pose a logical problem? And an ontological one too. Since much of the universe is now “not God.” Or not following God either.

    So how is God separate from something (like the material universe or world, and the persons of the Trinity) somehow? When among other things, he is said to have created everything?

    To simply assert that God as Love fixes all this – assigning Love an ontological priority to “God” per se – doesn’t quite seem right for several reasons.

  8. Or correction: maybe it is right enough? Possibly the best and deepest theology is … at least partial Acceptance. Love for what IS. God and/or his Universe, as a given.

    That would be partially Love; partially a sort of philosophicality. Which gives us perspective, a degree of acceptance, even on that things that are, that we don’t like. “For everything there is a season.”

    Though we should always be wary of increasing acceptance. Becoming resignation or complacency.

  9. Arguably, Jesus “saved” or “overcame” the world, or “redeemed” or “reconciled” it to him or to God. Which would in effect make God immanent rather than eminent. Or even should have ended Manichean God/world, religion/world, spirit/earth dualism?

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