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 – Delighting in the Trinity

Author Michael Reeves tackles what is perhaps at once the most familiar, most complex, and even the most puzzling Christian doctrine: the Trinity.

He begins by acknowledging that even the words “God is a Trinity” evoke stiffness, a dogma that seems irrelevant. In contrast, he points out, “God is love” brings out warm feelings, something most can relate to, and want to.

And then he says it: “God is love because God is a Trinity.”

Reeves states his overall theme early: “Christianity is not primarily about lifestyle change; it is about knowing God.” And this current flows through the book. What is this God like who invites us to know Him? And what difference does it make that He is a triune God rather than a single-person god?

Comparing the Lord God of Israel to single-person deities is one of the most interesting aspects of Reeves’s work. It is true that because we are used to fitting “God” into our own expectations, the idea of “Trinity” or a “triune” being is awkward at best. We prefer the single-person deity as an entity much easier to understand. Yet a comparison of other gods and the Lord God of Israel reveals some widely differing beings.

For example, according to the Qur’an, Allah “begets not, nor is he begotten”—a strikingly different being than one we know as Father. And God couldn’t be a Father without having offspring.

Marduk, in Babylon’s creation story, creates human beings so he and the other gods can have servants to rule over. Reeves invites readers to take this further. If a god is a solitary being, he has no one to love (in contrast to God the Father, who was loving the Son before creation); he can love himself, but that’s a selfish love. A single-person god must, by his essence, be all about self-gratification. How could a solitary deity be loving when love involves another? Remember that the Son in the Trinity came to serve others, to give up His live for many.

Reeves turns to Aristotle’s god. If being good involves being good to another, how can a solitary god be good when there is no one to show goodness to? Aristotle determines that the universe exists right alongside God, so he gives his goodness to it. But Reeves concludes that this reasoning means that for God to be himself, he needs the world. He’s dependent on it to be who he is; this god of Aristotle’s is good, but not necessarily loving.

If at this point you’re reminded of your freshman introduction to philosophy class, I encourage you to stay with it. Reeves is making the point that before creation, our triune God was neither lonely nor in need of gratification, for He was eternally loving His Son in the Spirit.

Since in a single-person god system, the god would have created beings in order to rule over and be served by them, sin would thus be about behaving and acting wrong. A single-person god might offer forgiveness, but not make us his children (because he wouldn’t be a father). This god’s beings might live under his protection, but he wouldn’t offer closeness.

The author returns to Allah, a single-person god. His only “companion” in heaven is a book, the Qur’an. This is a book, a word that is about him, just a thing. In contrast is our triune God—and this is a lovely truth beautifully expressed by Reeves—who gave us His Word, which is His very self: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He didn’t just drop a book from heaven, He came Himself. So the Father sends the Son, the Son makes the Father known, and the Spirit makes the Son known through Spirit-breathed Scriptures.

God invites us to know and love Him, not just live under His rule; if He did, then only outward behavior would matter. And because it is not outward behavior that is the problem, but what we desire—usually ourselves—the Spirit gives us new hearts.

Reeves continues on the theme of knowing this God who is bursting with fullness and sharing and fellowship, and asks who could prefer a leaner, stripped-down version, i.e., the single-person variety who offers a dull version of religion. And later in the book he reflects on the type of God he’d want to emulate. Would it be a self-contemplative one like Aristotle’s? a cruel deity? Or a triune God to whom love and relationship are central to His being?

The author comments on Jesus’ prayer in John 17 in which He requests that His followers “may be one as we are one.” What is oneness? To a single-person god such as Allah, oneness means sameness. He says, “the once diverse cultures of Nigeria, Persia, and Indonesia are made, deliberately and increasingly, the same.” But oneness for the triune God means unity. Jesus is praying that His followers be united, but not all the same.

I’m not sure I agree with this contention, but it’s an interesting point.

Reeves’s explanation of God’s wrath is one of the best I’ve read. He says that prior to creation, when the Father was loving the Son, He was never angry—there was nothing to be angry about until Adam and Eve sinned. Anger toward evil is how a God who is love responds to evil: because evil harms us, the created beings He loves, responding with anger is the only possible way He can respond. Most explanations of the wrath of God start and end with His holiness (which isn’t wrong), but this one looks at it from the aspect of God’s love.

The author touches upon the evergreen topic of those who just don’t believe in any god, but believes that the antitheists’ problem is not with the existence of a god, but with the character of the god they presume. He said that those who don’t believe often describe the deity they don’t believe in as cold, selfish, greedy. And, Reeves allows, “if God is not a Father, if he has no Son and will have no children, then he must be lonely, distant, and unapproachable; if he is not triune and so essentially unloving, then no God at all just looks better.”

A book titled Delighting in the Trinity must by its essence be a little ethereal; after all, no one can physically see these beings. And is such a discussion useful, or is it just something Christians talk about over coffee or in conjunction with that intro to philosophy class? Does it matter? Let’s consider the book’s subtitle: An Introduction to the Christian Faith. Interesting. Different. Intriguing. Not a book about doctrine per se, but a true introduction to what makes Christianity different from any other belief system: its triune God.

For the very bones of the Christian faith are the greatest commandments: Love God and love your neighbor. These suit a triune God and His outreach to us, His sharing of Himself. It makes becoming like such a God a “warm, attractive, delightful thing.”

I recommend this book without qualification. I didn’t agree with all of the author’s conclusions, nor was I easily able to follow everything he wrote, but his contentions are well expressed, and his treatment fresh.

Reviewed by Pam Pugh, General Project Editor, Moody Publishers

* Thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy.

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New and Forthcoming Books (August 2011)

Since books are part of the life-blood of apologists and philosophers, I wanted to highlight a few new and upcoming ones here.  This isn’t a comprehensive list by any means, but hopefully it will alert you to some new titles you may want to add to your library or wish list.  I’ll try to post similar lists on a regular basis. 

* Evidence and Religious Belief – Edited by Kelly James Clark and Raymond J. VanArragon. Oxford University Press. July 2011.

  • Brand-new work in the hot topic of philosophy of religion
  • Features essays by leading scholars in the field
  • Addresses the crucial question of the role of evidence in religious belief
  • Explores a range of contemporary arguments that push the debate in new directions
  • Will interest theologians as well as philosophers

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* Thomas Aquinas on God and EvilBrian Davies. Oxford University Press.  August 2011.

“Brian Davies offers the first in-depth study of Saint Thomas Aquinas’s thoughts on God and evil, revealing that Aquinas’s thinking about God and evil can be traced through his metaphysical philosophy, his thoughts on God and creation, and his writings about Christian revelation and the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation.”

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* Destiny and Deliberation: Essays in Philosophical TheologyJonathan Kvanvig. Oxford University Press. December 2011.

“Jonathan Kvanvig presents a compelling new work in philosophical theology on the universe, creation, and the afterlife. Organized thematically by the endpoints of time, the volume begins by addressing eschatological matters–the doctrines of heaven and hell–and ends with an account of divine deliberation and creation. Kvanvig develops a coherent theistic outlook which reconciles a traditional, high conception of deity, with full providential control over all aspects of creation, with a conception of human beings as free and morally responsible. The resulting position and defense is labeled ‘Philosophical Arminianism,’ and deserves attention in a broad range of religious traditions.”

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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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Philosophy Word of the Day — Aquinas’ Philosophical Theology

The fifth of Thomas Aquinas' proofs of God's e...

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“In addition to his moral philosophy, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) is well-known for his theological writings.   He is arguably the most eminent philosophical theologian ever to have lived.  To this day, it is difficult to find someone whose work rivals Aquinas’ in breadth and influence.  Although his work is not limited to illuminating Christian doctrine, virtually all of what he wrote is shaped by his theology.  Therefore it seems appropriate to consider some of the theological themes and ideas that figure prominently in his thought.

“The volume and depth of Aquinas’ work resists easy synopsis.  Nevertheless, an abridged description of his work may help us appreciate his  philosophical skill in exploring God’s nature and defending Christian teaching.  Although Aquinas does not think that philosophical reasoning can provide an exhaustive account of the divine nature, it is (he insists) both a source of divine truth and an aid in exonerating the intellectual credibility of those doctrines at the heart of the Christian faith.  From this perspective, philosophical reasoning can be (to use a common phrase) a tool in the service of theology.

“An adequate understanding of Aquinas’ philosophical theology requires that we first consider the twofold manner whereby we come to know God:  reason and sacred teaching.  Our discussion of what reason reveals about God will naturally include an account of philosophy’s putative success in demonstrating both God’s existence and certain facts about God’s nature.  Yet because Aquinas also thinks that sacred teaching contains the most comprehensive account of God’s nature, we must also consider his account of faith—the virtue whereby we believe well with respect to what sacred teaching reveals about God.  Finally, we will consider how Aquinas employs philosophical reasoning when explaining and defending two central Christian doctrines:  the Incarnation and the Trinity.” (continue article)

— Shawn Floyd at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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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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Book Review – Life in the Trinity: An Introduction to Theology with the Help of the Church Fathers

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  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: InterVarsity Press (November 30, 2009)
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  • This was not the book that I was expecting. I anticipated a study of the doctrine of the Trinity and its development in the early church. What I found was not nearly as academic as that, though this was published by the Academic imprint of IVP. Donald Fairbairn doesn’t seem to do theology in the modern sense, so much as offer his personal reflections on scripture within the context of the Church Fathers who have shaped his views. In fact, the quantity of scriptural references far exceeds those from the Fathers. Fairbairn references forty-five books of the Bible, but less than a dozen of the Fathers. Fortunately, he provides paragraph-length quotes from the Fathers which help to give a broader context than the single- sentence snippets we sometimes see in similar works.

    Fairbairn attempts to follow what he considers the most helpful theological theme through the Bible and the early church: theosis or deification, which he defines as sharing in the relationship of the Trinity by participating with God the Father as adopted sons through the person and work of Jesus Christ who is the natural son, or Son according to his nature. He then ties theosis into other theological topics such as Creation, Fall, Incarnation, Resurrection, soteriology, justification, sanctification, and ecclesiology.

    The overall tone of the book is almost devotional. Due to lack of in-text citations from the Fathers it is difficult to assess where they end and Fairbairn begins. It seems that he has immersed himself in dialogue with the Fathers and even undertakes to use their hermeneutic. Fairbairn articulates the most important difference between the patristic and modern methods of hermeneutics as one of direction. The Fathers start with the context of the whole Bible and then read individual passages in light of the wider context (deductive approach), whereas modern exegesis attempts to study each passage in its immediate context and work from the narrow context to the broader context (inductive approach).

    Fairbairn’s work is also very ecumenical in tone, but I was somewhat unhappy with the balance he tried to strike. First, he is obviously conversant with Eastern Christian theology. The theme of deification is a major one in Eastern Christianity and Fairbairn has written on the topic before in Eastern Orthodoxy Through Western Eyes. However, Fairbairn seems to cling too tightly to the Protestant distinctives for me to feel like he has given Eastern Orthodoxy a fair shake. It feels more like he has attempted to plunder the Egyptians.

    I was similarly disappointed in his treatment of the current justification debate. Early in the book he distances himself from modern theological debate by emphasizing that he is a Patristic scholar, not a systematic theologian and by claiming to avoid the standard loci of Western theology. However, the book is still roughly organized according to the standard loci and when he does address the issue of justification, he comes down very squarely in the Reformed camp.

    Overall, I deeply appreciated Life in the Trinity. If you are looking for an academic study of the doctrinal development of Trinitarian Theology within the early church you will need to look elsewhere. If you are seeking to deepen your appreciation for how at least some of the early church understood the Christian life and their relationship to God, this is the book for you.

    Reviewed by Adam Reece

    Thanks to Adrianna at IVP for this review copy.

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