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 — Early Christian Thinkers

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Originally published in the Expository Times, this collection of essays edited by Paul Foster explores the life and thought of twelve pre-Nicene Christians. Many of these thinkers you would expect to see, such as Origen and Irenaeus. However, some of them may surprise you, such as Perpetua.

One of the strengths is that the variety of authors results in a less formulaic presentation from essay to essay. However, this also results in unevenness in the writing. Some of the essays were page-turners, while others were a chore to finish. Fortunately, there are only a few that were in the latter category.

Another nice feature of these articles is the juxtaposition of introduction and scholarly dialogue. Many articles give a clear statement of established facts, but also follow up by advancing scholarly opinions on more recent academic debates or textual analysis. For example, Rick Rogers proposes that Theophilus of Antioch’s To Autolycus is more protreptic than apologetic in nature, and Paul Foster discusses the textual criticism surrounding the work of Tatian.

I was also pleased to see that many of the authors showed a connection between these ancient writers and contemporary thought, such as Denis Minns’s observation from Irenaeus that “written documents do not carry their own tools for interpretation with them” (42). That’s a good word for those who fail to realize that any interpretation (of Scripture or any other communication) relies on an interpretive framework.

I was excited to see the Perpetua included in the list. The introduction states, “Her inclusion among other figures is not due to the attempt to embrace the feminist agenda for its own sake, or to feign some other type of ‘trendiness'” (xv) and acknowledges that she “may not have been the greatest theologian” (xvi). However, Sara Parvis’s essay failed to convince me that Perpetua belonged in this collection of significant thinkers. There was just too much supposition and extraction necessary to make a solid case for Perpetua as a thinker.

All things considered, Early Christian Thinkers is a welcome contribution for those interested in a more scholarly introduction to the lives and legacies of a handful of early Christian theologians who have left their mark on the church and her theology.

– Reviewed by Adam Reece

* Thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy.

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Book Review – Worshipping with the Church Fathers

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  • Paperback: 280 pages
  • Publisher: IVP Academic (November 2009)
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    Worshipping with the Church Fathers is the third volume in a series from IVP Academic. The earlier two volumes are Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers (1998) and Learning Theology with the Church Fathers (2002). The working title of the upcoming fourth volume is Living Ethically with the Church Fathers.

    The volume under review can be divided into three main sections. The first section is a treatment of the church fathers’ views on the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist. Hall initiates his discussion of the sacraments by acknowledging that “some readers, particularly those from an evangelical background and perspective, may find themselves surprised, bewildered and perhaps troubled to discover that the church fathers thought, lived and worshipped sacramentally” (21).

    Hall gives good examples of the hermeneutic that the church fathers employed as they sought to understand the sacraments. I’ll label this hermeneutic principle metaphorical extension. By that, I mean that he gives many examples of how the fathers looked for references, for instance, to water beyond the immediate context of baptism in order to understand baptism (30 ff). This approach seems mystical or esoteric to modern readers, but that is another matter. “We must first have listened carefully to the text, entering willingly into its rhyme and reason, before we have the right to disagree” (16).

    The second section, on prayer, is the largest of the three. In fact, the title of the book was originally Praying with the Church Fathers (12). In my opinion, this section was also the strongest. Drawing heavily on Gregory of Nyssa, Origen, Tertullian and John Cassian, we learn how the fathers answered questions many of us encounter. Questions such as: What is prayer (85 ff)? How can we pray without ceasing (113 ff)? How do we avoid distractions while praying (91 ff, 132 ff)? Why do my prayers go unanswered (155 ff)?

    Hall closes the book by looking at the ascetic practices of the Desert Monks. Much of his attention is directed towards Athanasius’ Life of Antony, which is to be expected. However, he also references many other fathers and mothers, such as Abba Issac and Amma Matrona. One perspective that was new to me was that they were not withdrawing into the desert to escape the world; instead, they advanced into the desert as an assault on the Kingdom of Satan. The wilderness was thought to be Satan’s territory in their worldview—Jesus had encountered Satan there, after all. Another valuable offering from this section was the discussion of acedia (laziness, sloth) and gluttony and the willingness to confront these sins which too often we tolerate at our peril.

    Again, the author recognizes that some of what the fathers say will “remain foreign—even loony—to us,” but encourages us to listen and learn from them rather than discount them completely (249). He also suggests that his non-sacramental readers visit a more sacramental service in order to more fully understand the world and worship of the church fathers.

    Reviewed by Adam Reece

    * Many thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy

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    Philosophy Word of the Day – Gregory of Nyssa

    Gregory of Nyssa (fresco in Chora Church)

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    “(335-398).  Greek theologian and mystic who tried to reconcile Platonism with Christianity.  As bishop of Cappadocia in eastern Asian Minor, he championed orthodoxy and was prominent at the First Council of Constantinople.  He related the doctrine of the Trinity to Plato’s ideas of the One and the Many.  He followed Origen in believing that man’s material nature was due to the fall and in believing in the Apocatastasis [for a short discussion, see here], the universal restoration of all souls, including Satan’s, in the kingdom of God.”

    — Louis P. Pojman in The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 354-355.

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    Book Review — The Great Theologians by Gerald R. McDermott

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  • Paperback: 210 pages
  • Publisher: InterVarsity Press (March 5, 2010)
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  • 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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