Book Review – Life in the Trinity: An Introduction to Theology with the Help of the Church Fathers

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  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: InterVarsity Press (November 30, 2009)
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  • This was not the book that I was expecting. I anticipated a study of the doctrine of the Trinity and its development in the early church. What I found was not nearly as academic as that, though this was published by the Academic imprint of IVP. Donald Fairbairn doesn’t seem to do theology in the modern sense, so much as offer his personal reflections on scripture within the context of the Church Fathers who have shaped his views. In fact, the quantity of scriptural references far exceeds those from the Fathers. Fairbairn references forty-five books of the Bible, but less than a dozen of the Fathers. Fortunately, he provides paragraph-length quotes from the Fathers which help to give a broader context than the single- sentence snippets we sometimes see in similar works.

    Fairbairn attempts to follow what he considers the most helpful theological theme through the Bible and the early church: theosis or deification, which he defines as sharing in the relationship of the Trinity by participating with God the Father as adopted sons through the person and work of Jesus Christ who is the natural son, or Son according to his nature. He then ties theosis into other theological topics such as Creation, Fall, Incarnation, Resurrection, soteriology, justification, sanctification, and ecclesiology.

    The overall tone of the book is almost devotional. Due to lack of in-text citations from the Fathers it is difficult to assess where they end and Fairbairn begins. It seems that he has immersed himself in dialogue with the Fathers and even undertakes to use their hermeneutic. Fairbairn articulates the most important difference between the patristic and modern methods of hermeneutics as one of direction. The Fathers start with the context of the whole Bible and then read individual passages in light of the wider context (deductive approach), whereas modern exegesis attempts to study each passage in its immediate context and work from the narrow context to the broader context (inductive approach).

    Fairbairn’s work is also very ecumenical in tone, but I was somewhat unhappy with the balance he tried to strike. First, he is obviously conversant with Eastern Christian theology. The theme of deification is a major one in Eastern Christianity and Fairbairn has written on the topic before in Eastern Orthodoxy Through Western Eyes. However, Fairbairn seems to cling too tightly to the Protestant distinctives for me to feel like he has given Eastern Orthodoxy a fair shake. It feels more like he has attempted to plunder the Egyptians.

    I was similarly disappointed in his treatment of the current justification debate. Early in the book he distances himself from modern theological debate by emphasizing that he is a Patristic scholar, not a systematic theologian and by claiming to avoid the standard loci of Western theology. However, the book is still roughly organized according to the standard loci and when he does address the issue of justification, he comes down very squarely in the Reformed camp.

    Overall, I deeply appreciated Life in the Trinity. If you are looking for an academic study of the doctrinal development of Trinitarian Theology within the early church you will need to look elsewhere. If you are seeking to deepen your appreciation for how at least some of the early church understood the Christian life and their relationship to God, this is the book for you.

    Reviewed by Adam Reece

    Thanks to Adrianna at IVP for this review copy.

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    2 thoughts on “Book Review – Life in the Trinity: An Introduction to Theology with the Help of the Church Fathers

      • Thank you for the suggestion. It looks like a fascinating read and I will have to keep my eyes open for an affordable copy.

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