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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Book Review — The Great Theologians by Gerald R. McDermott


  • Paperback: 210 pages
  • Publisher: InterVarsity Press (March 5, 2010)
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  • Author Faculty Page
  • Q and A with the author
  • The Great Theologians: A Brief Guide by Gerald R. McDermott is an excellent resource for those who are interested in understanding how theological thinking has been influenced and molded by Christian tradition. In recent years, I have come to see how a theology student can benefit from studying historical theology. Of course, I don’t believe that historical thinking can play a magisterial role in place of Scripture. Yet, we can learn a great deal from those who went before us (including mistakes that they made), and better understand where we are today. Alister McGrath notes, “Part of our theological method must include an examination of the past to understand how we came to be where we are.” In other words, theology is not simply about giving priority to the Bible; it is also about valuing and interacting with the ideas scholars derive from their engagement with tradition. As Graham Cole summarizes, “Theological thinking is also historical thinking …. To ignore the past would be an immense folly.” Suffice it to say that McDermott’s book succeeds in answering these concerns.

    What distinguishes McDermott’s book from others and what I thought to be very beneficial is the format that he applies to each chapter. Each chapter starts with a biographical sketch of the theologian, telling a story about that theologian’s life, and then introduces main themes of that theologian’s thought. Then, McDermott zeroes in on one theme that is distinctive to that theologian and provides an analysis of it. I really appreciated this format. It helps me to see the bigger picture of how each theologian came to form his particular theological thinking, how he reacted to the theological trends of his day and how such events informed and influenced his view of Scripture, etc. As a result, it demonstrates the interesting journey of the theologian’s mind to his particular thinking.

    Another strength that comes from the format is that since the author keeps it uniform throughout the book, it was easier to compare one theologian to another. This is nicely done especially between Jonathan Edwards and Hans Urs von Balthasar on the subjects of beauty, human experience (feeling) and reason in doing theology. To give another example, Friedrich Schleiermacher argues for the feeling of absolute dependence as the essence of religion (reacting to the Enlightenment), while Karl Barth turned attention to God’s self revelation in the Bible. Yet, Barth did not seem to exclude the significant aspect of human experience or feeling in doing theology, since his view of Scripture is that the Bible becomes the Word of God when the Holy Spirit makes it come alive for its readers. Interestingly, Edwards saw both feeling (affections) and thinking (cognition) as important aspects of religion. In my opinion, Edwards has the most balanced view on this important subject.

    An additional strength of this book is that McDermott did not neglect to include the viewpoints of contemporary systematic/historical theologians such as Alister McGrath and Timothy George. For example, McDermott cites McGrath in the section on Luther’s theology of the cross. This is an excellent example of how past theology can continue to influence contemporary theologians and how the interaction of past and present can further unfold God’s message of the cross.

    I enjoyed this book very much. One thing that I wondered before reading it was how he chose these eleven theologians. What were the reasons behind his selection? McDermott says that it was purely his personal preference. Whatever the reasons, I found it a good selection and I believe McDermott succeeded in accomplishing his purpose for the book: “I wanted to be able to provide a short and accessible introduction to some of the greatest theologians—so that any thinking Christian could get a ballpark idea of what is distinctive to each. . . . An introduction that could inform and provide a gateway to deeper study if so desired”(11).

    — Reviewed by Naomi Noguchi Reese.  Naomi is pursuing a PhD in systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

    * Thanks to InterVarsity Press for a review copy of this book.

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    Philosophy Word of the Day — Dialectical Theology

    Karl Barth
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    “Dialectical theology arose in reaction against rationalistic and liberal tendencies in Protestant theology.  A guiding idea, derived from Kierkegaard, is that the difference between God and man is so great that the usual constraints on rational discourse (non-contradiction, etc.) can have only limited application:  the very core of faith contains paradox, since the tension between finite human existence and infinite divine being cannot be rationally resolved.

    “The first major statement representing this view was Karl Barth’s (1886-1968) commentary, The Epistle to the Romans, 1919.  Emil Brunner (1889-1966) and Friedrich Gogarten (1887-1967) were among the leading representatives of this tendency, which also influenced Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976).”

    Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy (Penguin Books, 2005), 159.

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    New in Online Journals of Theology

    Scottish Journal of Theology
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    The latest SJT [Scottish Journal of Theology] is out, and includes articles by Oliver Crisp (Is universalism a problem for particularists?) and Paul Molnar (‘Thy word is truth’: the role of faith in reading scripture theologically with Karl Barth)

    And the latest IJST [International Journal of Systematic Theology] is out, with articles by John Webster on ‘Trinity and Creation’, Justin Stratis on ‘Speculating about Divinity? God’s Immanent Life and Actualistic Ontology’, Marcel Sarot on ‘Trinity and Church’, Celia Deane-Drummond offers a ‘Trinitarian Eschatology for the Earth through Critical Engagement with Hans Urs von Balthasar’, and Karen Kilby asks, ‘Is an Apophatic Trinitarianism Possible?’

    (HT: Per Crucem ad Lucem)

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    Barth’s Church Dogmatics on Google Books

    Glen at the Hiddenness of Blog has gone through the trouble of locating all the portions of the Church Dogmatics that are available on Google Books.  While the entire text isn’t accessible, a great deal of it can be found there.

    The Doctrine of the World of God.
    Vol. I/1Vol. I/2

    The Doctrine of God.
    Vol. II/1Vol. II/2

    The Doctrine of Creation.
    Vol. III/1Vol. III/2Vol. III/3Vol. III/4

    The Doctrine of Reconciliation.
    Vol. IV/1Vol. IV/2Vol. IV/3.2Vol. IV/3.1Index.

    (HT: Christians in Context)


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    Free Audio Resources for Theology

    The blog Undone has a nice collection of free audio resources in theology, including talks from notable theologians like Karl Barth, Gordon Fee, Stanley Grenz, Robert Jenson, Alister McGrath, and T. F. Torrance.

    (Via Faith and Theology)


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    Good Blog – Winfried Corduan

    Winfried Corduan, who taught philosophy and religion at Taylor University for 20 years, has a great blog covering lots of topics in theology, philosophy, church history, and related subjects.  Recently, he’s working on a series of posts on modern theology, like this one on Catholic theologian Hans Kung.  Here’s an excerpt:

    Küng’s first work attracted quite bit of attention.  It was entitled Justification, and its thesis was that the Reformation rested on a gigantic misunderstanding.  Using Karl Barth as his representative for Protestantism, he tried to show that both Luther and the Church overreacted, and that it never should have come to a split.  This certainly was an interesting thesis, though it seems to me that it’s a whole lot more plausible to let the Reformers speak for the Reformers themselves, in which case there would be an issue after all. In case you’re interested, a much more realistic treatment from the Catholic side, that does not try to rationalize away important differences, can be found in Michael Schmaus’s 6-volume set Dogma, particularly in the last volume, also entitled Justification.

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