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 – Absurd

Tertullian

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“That which is untenable or beyond the limits of rationality. When associated with existentialism, the absurd refers to there being a lack of any meaning inherent within the real world or in our actions. It gained currency in popular culture via Samuel Beckett’s theatre of the absurd and works by Sartre and Camus. A phrase famously (and erroneously) attributed to Tertullian claimed that faith in an incarnate God was absurd: credo quia absurdum est—’I believe because it is absurd.’

“The actual quotation from Tertullian is: credibile est, quia ineptuin est—’It is credible because it is silly.’ (De carne Christi 5.4). Tertullian is sometimes taken to thereby valorize irrationality, but his thesis was instead that the truth of Christianity was absurd only in relation to Stoic, non-Christian philosophy. If Tertullian is correct, the tenability of Christianity is not contingent upon external, philosophical inspection.”

A Dictionary of Philosophy of Religion, Charles Taliaferro and Elsa J. Marty, eds., 4.

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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 – Handmaiden Metaphor

    Image via WikipediaClement of Alexandria (c.150-211/216).

     

    “During the Middle Ages theology was understood to be the queen of the sciences, and classical learning, insofar as it was true, was theology’s servant or ‘handmaiden.’  The metaphor described the relationship between Greek wisdom and Christian theology.

    “Quite early in the Christian era theologians had to come to terms with classical learning.  Almost inevitably there were tensions between Christian teaching and aspects of pagan thought, with St. Paul declaring on one occasion that the Gospel was ‘folly’ to the Greeks (1 Cor. 1:23).  Subsequently, the church father Tertullian declared philosophy to be ‘the parent of heresy’ (The Prescription against Heretics, chap. 7).  Some early Christian writers, however, stressed the value of pagan wisdom, suggesting that it was a ‘preparation’ for the Gospel (see, e.g., Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 1.5, 1.7).  Tertullian was more positive toward philosophy than some of his more extreme statements might suggest.

    “When Aristotelian learning was reintroduced in the West in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the question of the role of Greek philosophy and its relationship to Christian theology was raised again.  While there was some initial resistance to Aristotelian philosophy, by the middle of the fourteenth century it was entrenched in university curriculums.  Its predominant role in the universities was justified because it was said to serve the interests of Christian theology.  In this sense it served as handmaiden to the queen of the sciences, theology.”

    — Heidi A. Campbell and Heather Looy, A Science and Religion Primer, 116-117.

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    Philosophy Word of the Day – Fideism

    Tertullian
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    “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” . . . . This question of the relation between reason—here represented by Athens—and faith—represented by Jerusalem—was posed by the church father Tertullian (c.160-230 CE), and it remains a central preoccupation among contemporary philosophers of religion.

    “Fideism” is the name given to that school of thought—to which Tertullian himself is frequently said to have subscribed—which answers that faith is in some sense independent of—if not outright adversarial toward—reason. In contrast to the more rationalistic tradition of natural theology, with its arguments for the existence of God, fideism holds that reason is unnecessary and inappropriate for the exercise and justification of religious belief. The term itself derives from fides, the Latin word for faith, and can be rendered literally as faith-ism. “Fideism” is thus to be understood not as a synonym for “religious belief,” but as denoting a particular philosophical account of faith’s appropriate jurisdiction vis-a-vis that of reason.

    (Via Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

    What do you think?  Is fideism the best approach to faith?

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