Book Review – The Quest for the Trinity

    I recently attended a session on the doctrine of the Trinity. As we walked out of the classroom, one student, confused and frustrated, said, “Can anyone tell me what ‘person’ means?” The doctrine of the Trinity is undoubtedly one of the most challenging doctrines for Christians. The dense concepts of the doctrine such as diversity-in-unity and unity-in-diversity or the classical language of Greek ontology (e.g., ousia and hypostasis) present challenges to many Christians who want to understand this doctrine. As a result, the doctrine of the Trinity has often been eclipsed by the doctrine of God. Indeed, the doctrine was perceived as illogical and useless, especially during the 19th century. Yet, the significance of the doctrine of the Trinity is immense because it is the basis of our Christian belief and has implications for all other doctrines of Christianity.

    The Quest for the Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History and Modernity (Downers Grove: IVP, 2012) by Stephen R. Holmes is a timely and helpful resource. Holmes’s approach to this important issue is unique and goes against modern trends in Trinitarian studies. One might have expected that Holmes would argue how the modern Trinitarian doctrine has overtaken the accounts of the earlier tradition (e.g., person over substance, communion over monarchy) or praise the implications that modern trinitarian theologians draw out of the doctrine (e.g., the Trinity as a model of human society, the Trinity as a model of ecclesiology, etc.). In much of contemporary writing on the Trinity, the focal point is modern trinitarian theology rather than the tradition.

    But Holmes takes the opposite position and contends that modern trinitarian theology fails to be consonant with the tradition. He argues, “I see the twentieth-century renewal of Trinitarian theology as depending in large part on concepts and ideas that cannot be found in patristic, medieval, or Reformation accounts of the doctrine of the Trinity” (p. 2). To support his claim, in chapter 1, Holmes introduces several modern trinitarian theologians and examines their ideas about the Trinity, starting with Karl Barth. In so doing, he delineates how the doctrine has become detached from the traditions (e.g., in the concept of personhood, the relation of God to the creation, etc.). In chapter 2, Holmes examines the Bible and argues that the doctrine of the Trinity is supported by scriptural evidence.

    From chapter 3 to chapter 7, Holmes provides historical presentations of the development of the doctrine. In chapter 3, Holmes focuses on early patristic developments in the doctrine and examines the ideas presented by Irenaeus, Origen, and Tertullian. In chapters 3 and 4, Holmes examines the debates in the fourth century concerning the divine essence and nature. In chapter 5, Holmes dedicates nearly the entire chapter to Augustine. Augustine is perhaps the anchor of Holmes’s trinitarian theology. Holmes closely examines De Trinitate to explore Augustine’s doctrine of the Trinity, while attempting to defend him against charges brought by recent scholars (e.g., the late Colin E. Gunton and Robert Jensen) on the ousia-hypostasis distinction and vestigial trinitatis. In chapter 7, Holmes surveys the medieval doctrine of the Trinity on issues of how to understand unity-in-diversity and diversity-in-unity among the persons of the Trinity.

    Chapters 8 and 9 record developments in anti-Trinitarianism. In the sixteenth century, a small group of Christians began to question the doctrine of the Trinity. By the beginning of the 19th century this view had become widespread. As a result, the doctrine was considered useless orthodoxy: “Persons and nature [were] no longer meaningful or useful terms” (p. 190). Hence, the “doctrine of the Trinity stands in need of re-narration” (p. 190).

    Yet this “re-narration” has appeared in modern views of the Trinity in which God is no longer metaphysical, but moral and personal. Neither is God immutable; on the contrary, this personal God acts toward the creation for the ultimate goodness of the world. Yet, Holmes finds this modern movement of a personal God troubling because the modern concept of person clearly shows diversion from the traditional teaching of the Trinity. He states, “The practice of speaking of three ‘persons’ in this sense in the divine life, of asserting a ‘social doctrine of the Trinity,’ a ‘divine community’ or an ontology of persons in relationship’ can only ever be, as far as I can see, a simple departure from the unified witness of the entire theological tradition” (p. 195). Thereby, Holmes concludes that modern trinitarian theology fails to remain in the tradition.

    I appreciate Holmes’s viewpoint very much, and I share some of his concerns (e.g., over divine simplicity, the divine essence, and personality). Yet, I am not sure if I am ready to write off what modern trinitarian theology has accomplished since Barth. The bottom line of the debate in this book seems to me, after all, the same familiar debate over ousia vs. hypostasis. Holmes is a Western theologian. Just as the Western church formulates the Trinity with an emphasis on God’s essence (ousia), Holmes’s theology starts with essence. But this view seems lacking in light of God’s subsistence as three persons, being in communion. To be a person is to be more than an “individual intelligent substance” (p. 195). As the late Colin Gunton argued, God is a being in communion; therefore, He is relational. And this God has relation to His created world through the two hands of the Father, namely the Son and the Spirit. If so, it is imperative to understand this personal aspect of the trinitarian God. The task that is given to modern theologians, as Holmes also argues, is to develop the concept of person while remaining faithful to the tradition. For a thought-provoking treatment of the Trinity that challenges the status quo, I highly recommend this book.

    — Reviewed by Naomi Noguchi Reese, PhD candidate, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

    * Thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy.

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Philosophy Word of the Day — Nicolaus Copernicus

Heliocentric universe, Harmonia Macrocosmica

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“Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543) was a mathematician and astronomer who proposed that the sun was stationary in the center of the universe and the earth revolved around it. Disturbed by the failure of Ptolemy’s geocentric model of the universe to follow Aristotle’s requirement for the uniform circular motion of all celestial bodies and determined to eliminate Ptolemy’s equant, an imaginary point around which the bodies seemed to follow that requirement, Copernicus decided that he could achieve his goal only through a heliocentric model. He thereby created a concept of a universe in which the distances of the planets from the sun bore a direct relationship to the size of their orbits. At the time Copernicus’s heliocentric idea was very controversial; nevertheless, it was the start of a change in the way the world was viewed, and Copernicus came to be seen as the initiator of the Scientific Revolution.” (continue article)

— Sheila Rabin, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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Does Religion Promote Dissension and Conflict?

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It can, and sometimes does, but so does politics, ideology, race, and gender.  Atheists often caricature religion as the most corrosive force on earth, but as Alister McGrath points out, this is sociologically and historically naive.

Suppose [Richard] Dawkins’s dream were to come true, and religion were to disappear.  Would that end the divisions within humanity and the violence that ensues from them?  Certainly not.  Such divisions are ultimately social constructs which reflect the fundamental sociological need for communities to self-define and identify those who are “in” and those who are “out,” those who are “friends,” and those who are “foes.”

. . . . A series of significant binary oppositions are held to have shaped Western thought—such as “male-female” and “white-black.”  Binary opposition leads to the construction of the category of “the other”—the devalued half of a binary opposition—when applied to groups of people.  Group identity is often fostered by defining “the other”—as, for example, in Nazi Germany with its opposition “Aryan-Jew.”

. . . . The simplistic belief that the elimination of religion would lead to the ending of violence, social tension or discrimination is thus sociologically naive.  It fails to take account of the way in which human beings create values and norms, and make sense of their identity and their surroundings.  If religion were to cease to exist, other social demarcators would emerge as decisive . . . [As they did, for example, during the French Revolution and in the Soviet Union.]

Michael Shermer, president of the Skeptics Society, has made the significant point that religions were implicated in some human tragedies such as holy wars.  While rightly castigating these—a criticism which I gladly endorse—Shermer goes on to emphasize that there is clearly a significant positive side to religion:

“For every one of these grand tragedies there are ten thousand acts of personal kindness and social good that go unreported . . . . Religion, like all social institutions of such historical depth and cultural impact, cannot be reduced to an unambiguous good or evil.”

— Alister McGrath, “Is Religion Evil,” God is Great, God is Good (IVP, 2009), 129-131.

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Review of “God’s Philosophers”

The Thinking Christian blog reviews this interesting book on the Medieval contributions to modern science.

[Author James] Hannam speaks of the myth that “there was no science worth mentioning in the Middle Ages,” and “the Church held back what meager advances were made.” These beliefs took flower as late as the 19th century with Thomas Henry Huxley, John William Draper, and Andrew Dickson White, who tried to paint religion as the enemy of science. Their story has been told often; Hannam himself has blogged on it.

A.D. White’s part is particularly unfortunate, in that he produced a highly influential, heavily footnoted, apparently scholarly tome on the historic warfare between science and religion. Hannam assesses his work this way:

Anyone who checks his references will wonder how he could have maintained his opinions if he had read as much as he claimed to have done.

Others have treated White less gently than that.

Hannam situates these myths in historical context:

The denigration of the Middle Ages began as long ago as the sixteenth century, when humanists, the intellectual trendsetters of the time, started to champion classical Greek and Roman literature. They cast aside medieval scholarship on the grounds that it was convoluted and written in ‘barbaric’ Latin. So people stopped reading and studying it…. The waters were muddied further by … Protestant writers not to give an ounce of credit to Catholics. It suited them to maintain that nothing of value had been taught at universities before the Reformation. (Continue)

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God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science

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Six Myths about Galileo and the Church

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The Christian History blog sets right some popular myths about Galileo’s life and work to commemorate the “400th Anniversary of Galileo’s First Telescope.” Points 3 through 6 deal with his relationship to the church.

3.  . . .  when he did look into space and published his findings that the earth really wasn’t the center of the universe, it caused outrage throughout Christendom.

“It’s tempting to see it representing a fundamental break in the relations between science and religion, but I don’t think it represented anything of the sort,” says science historian Ron Numbers, editor of the recently published Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion (Harvard University Press). “In fact, at the time, it aroused relatively little interest. It was only in later decades and centuries that it came to be seen as a representation of what supposedly happens to scientific pioneers when they dare to try to correct the church’s teachings.”

In Sightings, Karl E. Johnson recently summarized some of the other facts that get in the way of the science vs. faith narrative.

Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, the source of controversy, previously had been read and approved by the Church’s censors; and Pope Urban VIII, who presided over the trial, was Galileo’s friend and admirer. Consider also: prior to the trial, Galileo stayed in the Tuscan embassy; during the trial, he was put up in a six-room apartment, complete with servant; following the trial, his “house arrest” consisted of being entertained at the palaces of the grand duke of Tuscany and the Archbishop of Siena. Galileo, apparently, was no ordinary heretic.

4. Friendly or not, the Roman Catholic Church thought Galileo’s science contradicted Scripture and therefore could not be true! That’s why Cardinal Bellarmine ordered Galileo to back away from Copernican theory.

Well, there is this quote:

In the learned books of worldly authors are contained some propositions about nature which are truly demonstrated, and others which are simply taught; in regard to the former, the task of wise theologians is to show that they are not contrary to Holy Scripture; as for the latter (which are taught but not demonstrated with necessity), if they contain anything contrary to the Holy Writ, then they must be considered indubitably false and must be demonstrated such by every possible means.

But that came from Galileo. Cardinal Bellarmine, a friend of Galileo, said this:

If there were a true demonstration that the sun is at the centre of the world and the earth in the third heaven, and that the sun does not circle the earth but the earth circles the sun, then one would have to proceed with great care in explaining the Scriptures that appear contrary, and say rather that we do not understand them than that what is demonstrated is false. But this is not a thing to be done in haste, and as for myself I shall not believe that there are such proofs until they are shown to me.

At issue were biblical texts that said the earth “cannot be moved.” But a geocentric view of the universe owed more to the Greek mathematician Ptolemy than to Scripture. (Continue)

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Ancient History on Mp3

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Open Culture compiles a nice list of university lectures on ancient Greek and Roman history.

Last fall, Yale University introduced a new round of open courses that included Donald Kagan’s Introduction to Ancient Greek History. A leading figure in the field, Kagan takes students from the Greek Dark Ages, through the rise of Sparta and Athens, The Peloponnesian War, and beyond. You’ll cover more than a millennium in 24 lectures. As I’ve noted elsewhere, Yale’s courses are high touch. And what’s particularly nice is that the course can be downloaded in one of five formats (text, audio, flash video, low bandwidth quicktime video, and high bandwidth quicktime video). Simply choose the format that works for you, and you’re good to go.

When you’ve completed the arc of Greek history, you can move next to the UC Berkeley course, The Roman Empire. The course taught by Isabelle Pafford moves from Julius Caesar to Constantine (roughly 40 BC to 300 AD) in 42 lectures. And the audio comes straight from the classroom, which means that you’ll get solid information but you’ll also have to endure some extraneous talk about homework assignments and exams. (It’s free, so don’t complain.) You can download this course in one of three ways: iTunes or  streamed audio. Lastly, I should note that Pafford has taught another related course at Berkeley – The Ancient Mediterranean World (iTunesFeed – MP3s).

Once you have the big survey courses under your belt, you can switch to some more focused courses coming out of Stanford. Let’s start with Patrick Hunt’s course Hannibal (iTunes). As I’ve noted in a previous post, this podcasted course takes you inside the life and adventures of Hannibal, the great Carthaginian military tactician who maneuvered his way across the Alps and stunned Roman armies in 218 BC. The course also gives you glimpses into cutting-edge trends in modern archaeology. Because Hannibal still remains a figure of intense historical interest, it’s not surprising that this course has ranked as one of the more popular courses on iTunesU. (more)


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