Book Review: The Actuality of Atonement A Study of Metaphor, Rationality and the Christian Tradition by Colin E. Gunton


As you know, I have started by M.A. at Spurgeon’s college, and part of my assessment is a theological essay. I thought this might be quite fun, as I am someone with lots of opinions (as you know) and an essay is the perfect way to inflict them on someone who is paid to read it. I chose my title from a small selection, and started to read the suggested books. The book by Colin Gunton (see above) is the first one I read.

As you will know from my last blog, the second-hand copy I bought was full of irritating under-linings by the previous owner. I shan’t mention this again. The book was quite difficult to read, as it was very wordy (perhaps I should have been expecting this given the not particularly snappy title). However, a box of Cadbury’s ice-creams helped, and I ploughed my way through.

The book was clearly aimed at readers who know more than me, because there were unexplained references to theologians (who I had never heard of). For example, he starts by describing the work of Kant (a chap born in 1724 who also had strong opinions) and Colin is discussing his views, when suddenly he writes: “… and as Barth has asked, ‘Is it possible…” Who is Barth? Had I missed something, I wondered. I checked back a few pages—nope, no mention of him. I assumed he was another theologian as opposed to Colin’s uncle, but I did feel rather bemused. I felt I should have been warned before his name was suddenly interjected into the debate, it was like everyone knew something that I didn’t. This happened a lot when I was day-dreaming at school, but I feel it’s cheating when it’s in a book. It happens again later in the book, when Colin writes about, “Dr, Carr’s querying…” and “G. B. Caird’s remark…” Who are they? People he met at the bus-stop? It was like when you’re chatting with someone and they pause to reply to a text on their phone. Oi! Introduce your readers first please Colin.

I read the book with the help of a dictionary, because Colin has a better vocabulary than me. I had no idea of the meaning of terms like ‘procrustean’ (something that forces everything to be the same) or ‘fortiori’ (a stronger reason) or ‘Pelagianism’ (Pelagius believed humans are basically good, and it is possible to be perfect/sinless) and although I had heard of Plato, I didn’t know that ‘platonist’ was another way of saying, ‘a dispassionate realist.’ I won’t use these terms in my essay, just in case … (some of them sound a bit dodgy).

Colin described various types of rationalism (helpful for my essay) and then wrote pretty much a whole chapter on what constitutes a metaphor. This was less helpful, but quite interesting. His main point was that when we take a word out of context and use it to explain an image of something else, it makes a good description, but is it reliable? As much of the doctrine of the Bible is explained in metaphors (like Jesus having victory over death—a military image, and people being redeemed—which is a slave-trade image) then do we actually have a clear understanding of what is described, or just a hazy picture/image? If God is too big to be fully known, then we cannot have the correct terms to describe him, so we have to use images/metaphors—but are these reliable? Interesting point.

One thing Colin writes (which I can definitely use in my essay) is:

“The language…does not then give us a theory, something final and fixed forever, but one way into a many-sided reality with which we are concerned. It helps us, that is to say, to come to a measure of understanding of some aspects of the way in which the Bible sets forth in language the saving action of God in and towards his world.”

I like when people are a little uncertain, when they don’t think God and theology can be packed into the little box of our brains.

Colin makes the point that we all use the language of our time and culture, and so too did the authors of the Bible. Therefore some of the images which relate to the slave market, or Roman conquest, might be misunderstood by later readers. He writes an interesting chapter on demons, and whether these are ‘individuals’ (like people but somehow spirits) or forces (as in evil influences). The words used in the ancient manuscripts meant different things to later readers. All very interesting.

I’m not sure if I would recommend you read this book, unless you are interested in studying theology, because it is not hugely accessible. However, if you are interested in reading something difficult, buy a box of ice-creams and set aside a weekend for some heavy reading. Colin makes some interesting points.

Anne E. Thompson
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