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The One, the Three, and the Many: God, Creation, and the Culture of Modernity

By December 1, 2010January 30th, 2023No Comments

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Colin Gunton, late professor of Christian Doctrine at King’s College in London, undertakes a monumental task in The One, the Three, and the Many. Gunton wrote the book to “illumine both the gospel and the modern condition, so that a continuing dialogue between them may take place.” In the introduction of his masterpiece he states, “I have hoped to contribute to modern thought and to what is now called the renaissance of Trinitarian theology in our times.” Gunton’s contribution has left a lasting mark on the implications of a truly Trinitarian understanding of reality. He traverses the arcane and mysterious with due humility, but also with imagination and wisdom. It is a demanding read, but well worth the sweat.

There are two parts to the book. In part one, “The Displacement of God”, Gunton analyzes the roots of modernity and the subsequent cultural crises, namely fragmentation and disengagement. He argues that modern culture (he includes postmodern culture) has bred an anthropology that views others as instruments. He says, “…we use
the other as an instrument, as the mere means for realizing our will, and not as in some way integral to our being.”

Christian theology did not provide a sufficient apologetic to combat this defective conception of man. In fact, Gunton argues that the proclivity towards a more monistic, hegemonic medieval theology laid the foundation for the Enlightenment revolution. Both extremes, a conception of man as independent and autonomous and a Gnostic conception of man, are equally awed. Gunton argues that much of modern social and political thought is a revolt of the many against the one. But, in revolting, man has been displaced, making himself god, where he was never intended to be.

Because he is displaced in his relation to God, he has consequently been displaced in his relation to creation and his fellow man.

What Gunton offers, in part two of the book, is an attempt at a Trinitarian metaphysic, one that accounts for a proper relationship between the created world and man, between man and God, and between man and man. He emphasizes that due signi cance be a ributed to the one and the many, which can be found only in the Trinity. Gunton seeks to formulate a “trinitarian sociality in the light of which we may understand something of who we are and what is the world in which we are set.” He argues that human beings must be understood relationally rather than in terms of fixed characteristics, such as reason or will. He says, “Individualism is a false creed, because it teaches that I do not need my neighbor in order to be myself.” According to Gunton, reality reflects the inherent relationship of the Trinity; everything “contributes to the being of everything else, enabling everything to be what it distinctively is.” Gunton calls Christians to a deeper understanding of the Trinitarian order of being and, more importantly, to reflect that order in our lives and in our world.

In a culture where pervasive theological and philosophical aberrations abound, Gunton’s approach grounds the reader in the most fundamental truths of Christianity. If there truly is a renaissance in the study of Trinitarian theology, then reading Colin Gunton is a must for thinking Christians and classical educators.

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