The Holy Trinity, by Stephen R. Holmes

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May 6, 2013 by mattwilcoxen

41VgWFyTUTL._SS500_Stephen R. HolmesThe Holy Trinity: Understanding God’s LifeMilton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 2012. 231pp.

(Alternately: The Quest for the Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History and ModernityDowners Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012. 231pp.)

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“We called what we were doing a ‘Trinitarian revival’; future historians might want to ask us why” (p. 200).

I hope it will not be to the detriment of my doctoral thesis, but I have spent more time in the last six weeks or so reading Gregory of Nazianzus, Augustine, and Aquinas on the doctrine of God than I have spent reading contemporary theology (Barth included). I have felt during this period as if I’ve learned the doctrine of the Trinity over again from the ground up, despite the fact that I’ve already got two degrees in theology.

After an education that was largely in biblical studies (focused on New Testament studies) and biblical theology (so-called), with only the barest possible descriptions of the doctrine of the Trinity and how it arose, some years ago I began my own personal readings in systematic theology, cutting my teeth on Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics I.1 and I.2, and both volumes of Robert Jenson’s Systematic Theology. There was also some Moltmann (Theology of Hope and The Trinity and the Kingdom) and Rahner (The Trinity) mixed in during this time. Barth and Jenson captured me from the beginning and I still find both helpful (heck, I sometimes wonder if Barth isn’t to be numbered among the church fathers). I always found Moltmann’s theology to be hokey at best. As for Rahner, I’m sure I did not understand anything he wrote. Oh, I should also mention that a reading of John Zizoulas’ Being and Communion exhilarated me along the way.

I learned from these authors that the doctrine of the Trinity should at the center of Christian theology, and that it should impact upon all areas of a theological system and indeed all areas of the life of the Christian and her community. I was told–by these authors and their interpreters–that the doctrine of the Trinity had fallen into disuse in the modern era. Further, I imbibed the clearly stated but vaguely argued idea that prior to the modern era teaching about the Trinity had been badly compromised by ideas that were foreign to the Christian scriptures. I should have been more critical from the get, but I implicitly trusted the narrative that had various types of Greek philosophy (Platonism, Neoplatonism, Aristotelianism) dominating the doctrine of God and thus obscuring the real truths of the doctrine of the Trinity. Also picked up in this self-directed reading in contemporary theology was the ever-so-obvious split between Eastern and Western Trinitarianism: the East starting with its three and then finding a harmonious unity of action (taken as being), the West with its monad, struggling to make sense of how the Father, Son, and Spirit are really three ‘things’ at all. This was my Trinitarian education.

Back to my recent readings in patristic and medieval authors. I have been surprised at how the Trinity teaching comes about for authors like Gregory of Nazianzus and Augustine and, later, Aquinas. I have been impressed by how, for these authors, the entire issue centers around stating the grammar of holy scripture, and only within very strict limits trying somehow to “comprehend” God’s very being. Simply put, they continually seem to maintain the idea that God is truly revealed in the acts of God in scripture (all of them), but in such a way that we bodily-temporal thinkers can understand. How God is eternally somehow corresponds to this revelation, but since we only have the creaturely manifestation (and since we are sinners) there is always (or until we see “face to face”) the caveat of divine incomprehensibility thrown over our knowledge. The main reason for this caveat is the difference between God and creatures; God is “simple”–God possesses all of God’s essential attributes intrinsically, whereas everything in the creaturely realm is “composite”–things being composed of a collection of attributes that exist apart from and prior to the thing. As I have read these older authors I have become increasingly convinced that a doctrine of divine simplicity (and therefore its entailments) is a fairly obvious logical deduction from the biblical statements about God being the creator of the world, etc. Further, I have seen how it is this notion of God that allows the older authors to construct their doctrine of the Trinity; it is not at all a hindrance. Finally, I have had the impression that there was not too much of a fundamental difference between, say, Augustine and Gregory of Nazianzus, these two figures that should have been the representatives of the East vs. West split.

I tell this long personal story of discovery because it is essentially what was confirmed for me in Stephen R. Holmes‘ book The Holy Trinity: Understanding God’s Life. Of course, my story is impressionistic and spread out over four years or so. Holmes is a senior theologian who offers a surprisingly lucid historical account of the doctrine of the Trinity in only 200 pages. He begins and ends with the 20th century’s “Trinitarian revival”; in the middle is the progression from the Bible to the modern period period. Without many explicit pointers from Holmes along the way, this historical section serves as a persistent interrogation of the 20th century’s Trinitarian theology–or perhaps, as he hints, lack thereof!

Holmes shows how the patristic tradition, from the beginning and across the whole spectrum takes God to be “simple, incomposite, and ineffable” (“one”, but not in any crude numerical sense) (199). He shows how the tradition was focused on coming up with the proper language by which to speak of God, not a way to denote God’s essence. Following from this, he sees the tradition as speaking of three hypostases and not something like modern “persons”. It is when modern theology (a) departs from the doctrine of divine simplicity and (b) embraces a modern (Romantic) notion of “persons” (and away from God’s ousia or essence) that the door is opened for social Trinitarianism, which turns out not to be properly Trinitarian at all.

I have two places where I think this book deserves critique. The first is more definite. Though Holmes’ entire narrative is an implicit critique of modern Trinitarian theology, I could not help but feel that when Holmes moves to lay the charge of “The Turn to the Person” at Isaak Dorner’s and even Karl Barth’s feet (although making it clear that he thinks neither walked through the door they opened), that he was all too brief and even vague in showing how this was the case. In light of the rest of his narrative, and knowing a little bit about the figures, there is some plausibility to the charge he lays out, but I do not think he has made the case well enough for me to be fully convinced. With that said, I suppose the book had to be wrapped up, and what I am looking for might have taken a lot longer to argue. My second critique is perhaps a bit idiosyncratic. I do not think Holmes did justice to the overall quality of patristic exegesis regarding the doctrine of the Trinity (in chapter 2). He tried to show how some of their exegesis worked under certain assumptions now lost on modern readers. This might be true at points, but I do think patristic exegesis has much more to commend it than even Holmes gives it credit for. With that said, most will think that Holmes has done far too much to defend the fathers’ exegesis, and so I will not press the point any futher.

All in all, this is an incredible book and it should be read by all. It is pitched as a textbook for theology students at the undergraduate and seminary levels. It can certainly serve that purpose and, if closely read, will single-handedly give better instruction on the Trinity than most students are currently receiving in their entire seminary educations. But it is more than a textbook for Trinity 101; it is a solid contribution and significant challenge to contemporary treatments of the Trinity.

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© Matthew A. Wilcoxen and Canon and Creed, 2012-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Matthew A. Wilcoxen and Canon and Creed with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
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