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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Richard Dawkins’s Defective Understanding of Religion

The God Delusion

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A recent post mentioned Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion as an example of the way the New Atheists present their arguments against God’s existence. These New Atheists often show such a disdain for religious thought that they seem not to bother to understand the beliefs that they criticize. As The Nation states in a favorable article about four New Atheist books, including Dawkins’s, “They show little understanding of religion or interest in it.”

That lack of understanding is one of several serious flaws in The God Delusion. Dawkins tries to refute the popular arguments for God’s existence, and presents his arguments against God’s existence. Many of these arguments are misinformed or not logically sound. He makes no bones about his lack of respect for religious people in general: “What works for soap flakes [marketing] works for God, and the result is something approaching religious mania among today’s less educated classes.” That attitude toward the other side of the issue doesn’t seem to encourage thoughtful debate.

Dawkins’s main attempt to prove that the universe was not created by a God is as follows: He proposes that any intelligence complex enough to design anything must have taken a long time to evolve, therefore must appear late in the timeline, and so (voila!) could not have designed the universe in the first place. There are several fairly obvious objections to this reasoning:

1. Many Christians believe (and there is scriptural support) that God created time along with the universe, and is therefore outside of time. This is not an esoteric view, or a new one.

2. Almost no one believes that the creator God is a biological creature subject to natural selection. Most Christians do not believe that God is physical. There is no reason to accept Dawkins’s assumption that any intelligence that exists, anywhere, inside or outside of our universe, must be physical or must have evolved by Darwinian means.

These objections are based on fairly common points of view, yet they are not addressed.

In some cases, Dawkins actually makes his case worse by ignoring the obvious. In a section denouncing the “argument [for God] from personal experience,” he says:

“On the face of it mass visions, such as the report that seventy thousand pilgrims at Fatima in Portugal in 1917 saw the sun ‘tear itself from the heavens and come crashing down upon the multitude’, are harder to write off. […] It may seem improbable that seventy thousand people could simultaneously be deluded, or could simultaneously collude in a mass lie. […] But any of those apparent improbabilities is far more probable than the alternative: that the Earth was suddenly yanked sideways in its orbit, and the solar system destroyed, with nobody outside Fatima noticing.”

Visions are, well, visions – no one claims that they are actually occurring in a physical sense (except perhaps inside the brain). Omitting such an obvious, mainstream interpretation of the event and claiming that those who accept the Fatima event believe that the solar system no longer exists doesn’t help his case.

The passages in TGD that cite scripture are particularly badly reasoned. He omits or misinterprets important passages and does not seem to be aware that the Bible authors recorded some events that they considered bad. For example, he describes a wrenching story in Judges 19 about a woman being raped and murdered in a strange city and uses it as an example of the misogyny of scripture, implying that the Bible condones such actions; however, he strangely omits any mention of the last verse of the chapter, which contradicts his point: “Everyone who saw it [the body of the murdered woman] said, ‘Such a horrible crime has not been committed since Israel left Egypt. Shouldn’t we speak up and do something about this?’” (Judges 19:30, NLT)

Dawkins believes that religion is evil because it sometimes motivates evil actions. Although Dawkins implies that the evils done by various religions are reasons not to believe in any God, he doesn’t believe that the good things done by religions are reasons to believe in God. He says, “When I pressed him [obstetrician Robert Winston], he said that Judaism provided a good discipline to help him structure his life and lead a good one. Perhaps it does; but that, of course, has not the smallest bearing on the truth value of any of its supernatural claims.” I agree – but I would add that the fact that some religious people lead bad lives does not have much bearing on the truth of a religion. It’s not possible to fairly weigh the overall good and evil done as a result of any religion. The question isn’t, “Do I like religion X?” or even “Will religion X make me a better person?” The question is, “What is the truth?”

– Cloud of Witnesses thanks Desmognathus for this guest post.

Desmognathus is a follower of Jesus Christ, a wife, and a mother. She has an M.S. in biology and a Ph.D. in ecology, and enjoys philosophy and theology. She likes rock climbing and dislikes celery.

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Jim Spiegel Answers Your Questions

The following are four questions posed by readers to Jim Spiegel in response to his interview here this week.  Jim kindly agreed to answer these follow-up questions, and his comments are below.

Thanks again for your thoughtful questions and opinions, both pro and con.

The winner of the free copy of The Making of an Atheist is J. W. Wartick!

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It seems to me that in various beliefs, both simple and major, that often the head follows the heart.  Augustine, Edwards and various other Christian theologians have emphasized the role of desire in leading someone to hold certain beliefs.  I’ve wondered if this might be what Luther had in mind with his statements such as “reason is the devil’s whore.”  Would you mind discussing the role of desire in the life of the mind?  Thanks.

In my book I discuss this very issue, noting that, as William James once noted, a person’s will often prompts one to believe certain things, particularly where reason cannot decide an issue one way or another.  However, I would go a step further than James and note that a preference for a particular position or worldview may tempt a person to believe something against the evidence.  This is “motivated irrationality,” as some scholars have phrased it, and it constitutes a form of self-deception.  I think this is just the sort of thing that Luther had in mind with that phrase about reason being the “devil’s whore”—reason can be co-opted to serve just about any desire or predilection.  This is why it is so important that the Christian scholar actively submit her/his intellect to God and the authority of Scripture.


(1) Why should an atheist accept your account when it presupposes the truth of precisely what the atheist denies the existence and authority of?

I grant that my specific account of atheism presupposes the truth and authority of Scripture, but my intent in the book is not to persuade the atheist of the truth of my account based just on premises that s/he presently accepts.  That would necessitate my first demonstrating the existence of God, and that’s not the purpose of my book.

Having said that, as I show in my book, there are many insights from diverse academic fields (e.g., history, psychology, and philosophy) that confirm the reality of many of the causal dynamics to which I appeal in my explanatory account of atheism.  So I do think that my account would still enjoy a certain amount of evidential warrant even when considered in isolation from the Scriptural considerations that inspired it.

(2) Your claim that cognition-distorting sinful behaviors and wickedness underline atheism is an empirical one for which, as far as I can tell, there is little evidence.  Presumably, more secular or irreligious communities and nations should have higher rates of wickedness and immorality.  What evidence are you relying on?

The evidence for my view is both empirical and non-empirical (philosophical and theological).  Specifically, the case for my thesis can be made by appealing to:

· Theology:  passages such as Romans 1:18-20, Eph. 4:17-19,  John 3:19-21, and  John 7:17, which confirm that beliefs are impacted by behavior, whether moral or immoral.

· Psychology:  specifically, “motivated bias” models of self-deception (such as those defended by James Peterman and Alfred Mele) and the “cognitive redefinition” belief-change theory of Edgar Schein.  Such models are built upon, and aim to explain, behavioral data from empirical studies.

· History:  studies of atheist scholars which reveal significant non-rational factors connected with the paradigms one chooses, including atheism (Paul Vitz’s Faith of the Fatherless, Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals, and E. Michael Jones’s Degenerate Moderns)

· Insights from philosophy and history of science:

o Thomas Kuhn—paradigms are typically selected because of non-rational factors

o Michael Polanyi—all theorizing, even in science, is ultimately personal, dependent on desires

This is just a sampling…

As for your claim that my thesis implies that unbelieving peoples should have higher immorality rates, I suppose that might be true.  But this would be hard thing to assess, since not all immorality is publicly observable, because various forms of conceit, hatred, hubris, lust, etc. would (on a Christian view of ethics) be immoral but not necessarily behaviorally evident, much less ascertainable via a formal study.

J. W. Wartick:

You suggest in the interview that you think current apologetics is lacking in ethical and psychological insights. How do you think we can go about filling in this hole within Christian apologetics? What role can sin play as a concept within philosophy of religion in explaining the desire to rebel against the moral concepts inherent in God?

In writing my book I have addressed his lacuna, at least vis-à-vis the phenomenon of atheism.  I tried to do something similar with my first book, which was on the subject of hypocrisy.  I think it’s just a matter of apologists being more willing to bring moral and psychological insights to bear on their defense of the faith and, perhaps to a lesser degree, Christian ethicists and psychologists speaking to apologetic issues.

As for your second question, that’s essentially the question that drove me to write The Making of an Atheist.  Obviously, my discussion pertains to the rebellion against God generally (in the form of disbelief), rather than merely rejecting God’s moral nature.  But it would be interesting to see whether, and to what degree, deists and heterodox theists might opt for their view—when it involves subtraction of the notion of divine moral perfection and moral demands on humans—precisely because of a distaste for all that entails (e.g., moral judgment, requirements for self-control, etc.).

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Jim’s blog tour continues for the next several weeks.  You can find the complete schedule here.

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