The One, the Three and the Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity – A Book Review


Colin Gunton is the professor of Christian Doctrine at King’s College in London and has written or edited a number of books on doctrine. In “The One, the Three and the Many”, a book based on his 1992 Bampton Lectures, Colin Gunton sets out to discuss the relationship Christian theology has played in the development of modernity. He quotes William Morris. “Modernism began and continues wherever civilization began and continues to deny Christ.”[1] Gunton then goes on to say, “Modernity is like all cultures, in being in need of the healing light of the gospel of the Son of God, made incarnate by the Holy Spirit for the perfecting of the creation”.[2] In his book, he analyses the rife within the late modern culture caused by the “fragmentation and decline into subjectivism and relativism”[3] found in that culture. He argues that its roots lie in Western culture’s failure to develop “an account of relationality that gives due weight to both one and many, to both particular and universal, to both otherness and relation”.[4]Gunton contends that a revitalized Trinitarian account of creation is essential to restore and rejuvenate late modernity’s cultural disarray. He outlines a fundamental Trinitarian ontology with the aim to show how this “Trinitarian analogy of being (and becoming)”[5] provides the conceptual resources for thinking and acting coherently with respect to the unity and plurality of being in the world.

Gunton’s book has two parts. In the first part entitled “The Displacement of God”, he presents four observations regarding modernity: modernity’s disengagement, the displacement of the “other”, the “false temporality” of modernity, and the modern problem of meaning. He goes on in the second part, entitled “Rethinking Createdness”, to theologically respond to the observations in a reverse order. The four chapters in the second part are foundationalism, the concept of relation, spirit and particularity and the triune God.

In the first section where he talks about the displacement of God, Gunton argues that the Augustinian view of the doctrine of creation is flawed and this has led to modernity’s fragmentation and skepticism. For example, Augustine’s “divorce of the willing of creation from the historical economy of salvation”[6] led to a monistic view of Creator and creation. When modernity rejected the Augustinian Christian traditions, they also rejected both the Christological and Pneumatological aspects of those traditions. Gunton argued that having Irenaeus’ views of creation and the temporal order would have given Christian theology a stronger foundation.

Modernity, Gunton argues, has failed to deal adequately in thought and practice to the four critical issues: relationality, particularity, temporality, and truth. Hence, modernity became a legitimate and unrelenting protest against the drive towards monism. Gunton alleges that modernity has replaced the transcendent deity with alternatives, the individual will or the secular state, which impose their own version of monism. The consequence of this is that, modernity, like antiquity, “has tended to lurch between the one and the many, and through the lack of an adequate mediating concept, has failed to do justice to the interests of both society and person, one and many”.[7]

In each chapter of Part one, Gunton tactfully unpacks his argument that the deficiencies at the very heart of modernity cannot simply be attributed to the Enlightenment because it has its roots in both ancient thought and intervening Christian theology. For Gunton, the distinguishing mark of modernity is the displacement of God. Functions that were once attributed to God are now attributed to human beings and their institutions. The rational mind of human beings has become relied upon to make sense of the world rather than explaining it as the will and purpose of God.

Many thinkers of the modern period, according to Gunton, rebelled against a unitary deity who is the foundation of a totalitarian social order and gives meaning and purpose to the world. The consequence of this rebellion is that the modern period displaced God for the sake of freedom. Sadly, this has led to worse forms of totalitarianism because the absence of God has only provided room for repression. Gunton argues that this is the cause of the rise of postmodernism, which he calls “late modernism”. Postmodern thinkers he declares, are now rebelling against modernism in the name of freedom because they do not want anything to hinder the nurture and growth of diversity. Anyone, or anything, that adds structure and meaning to the world, whether God, State, Reason, Science, or anything else, should be laid aside if it hinders diversity.

Gunton does not believe that these views of post-modernists would work because if diversity is accepted and celebrated, it only creates a world of disorder because there can never be a set of values and beliefs that are accepted by all. He concludes that the only way is to go back to the beginning and instead of criticizing modernism, one needs to have a better understanding of how modernity was formed. Modernism emerged when Christians lost sight of their own Trinitarian traditions and replaced them with a unitary theism. After diagnosing the problems of modernity in part one, Gunton provides solutions based on a Trinitarian theology of creation in part two that help the reader think in more positive ways about the relations among individuals, between humankind and the rest of creation, and between creation and the triune God.

In the second section of the book, Gunton responds to each of the four deficiencies of modernity chiastically, beginning with the last theme, meaning and truth, presented in part one. He develops the concept of open transcendentals, an idea that is the keystone of his theological response to modernity’s failings. By transcendentals, Gunton refers to those things that can be affirmed by all being, both personal and non-personal, because God is creator and the world is created. He develops the concept of open transcendentals in conjunction with Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s notion of idea, those “fathomless concepts by which the mind and the deep things of existence come into relation”.[8] Unlike transcendentals, ideas do not epitomize the universal marks of being. They may however give rise to transcendentals.

Drawing on Coleridge’s work, Gunton proposes that we understand Trinity as the Idea Idearum, a concept that lays the foundation for three “open transcendentals” – the unity and diversity of human culture, the dynamism of the individual and society, and the relation between time and space and eternity and infinity. In his last three chapters, Gunton explores three ideas: economy, spirit and sociality. These give rise to three transcendentals: perichoresis, hypostasis, and relationality. Perichoresis provides a means of expressing unity without undermining plurality. Hypostasis offers a way to recognize genuine particularity without giving in to the homogenizing pressures that modern pluralism brings. Relationality offers a way forward that goes beyond the false controversy of the one and the many by asserting that all being is being in relation. For Gunton these Trinitarian transcendentals are mediating concepts to heal the tension of homogeneity and fragmentation found in modernity.

“The One, the Three and the Many” is based on a series of lectures given to an academic community. It was not an easy book to read and it took me a while to understand Gunton’s arguments. However, he fulfilled the stated intent of the book to show that the “Trinitarian conceptuality enables us to think of our world, in a way made impossible by the traditional choice between Heraclitus and Parmenides, as both, and in different respects, one and many, but also one and many in relation.” [9] Gunton, in this book, presents a rich and deep understanding of the doctrines of Trinitarian thought and Creation. Gunton did well to defend the Trinity as the ultimate source of the truth, goodness and beauty of all reality. Gunton went about aligning truth, goodness and beauty with science, morals, and art and he encouraged his readers to aspire to a “conception of the appropriate autonomy of science, morals and art—their genuine distinctiveness and diversity—which will yet not render them unrelated to questions arising within the other realms of meaning”.[10]


[1] Cited by Colin E. Gunton, The One, the Three and the Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 1.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Colin E. Gunton, The One, the Three and the Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 2.

[4] Ibid., 6–7.

[5] Ibid., 141.

[6] Ibid., 55

[7] Ibid., 213.

[8] Ibid., 161.

[9] Ibid., 7.

[10] Ibid., 151.

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