The Quest for the Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History, and Modernity

Stephen R. Holmes IVP Academic, Downers Grove, IL October 29, 2012

Since the Enlightenment, which largely dismissed the doctrine of the Trinity as speculative theology, an abundance of works recently have explicated the triune personhood of God. Some observers have called this eruption of publishing regarding the doctrine of the Trinity a revival or retrieval, a good and necessary reaction to the dismissal of Trinitarian thought after the Enlightenment. In this book, Holmes, senior lecturer in systematic theology at the University of Saint Andrews, argues that “the explosion of theological work claiming to recapture the doctrine of the Trinity that we have witnessed in recent decades in fact misunderstands and distorts the traditional doctrine so badly that it is unrecognizable” (p. xvi). Rather than a recovery of historic Nicene Trinitarian theology, many iterations of Trinitarian doctrine are, Holmes believes, “thoroughgoing departures” (p. xvi). The Quest for the Trinity attempts to correct this trend by providing a faithful retelling of the history of Trinitarian thought.

Holmes begins the narrative by surveying some major Trinitarian works of the twentieth and twenty-first century, namely those of Karl Barth, Karl Rahner, John Zizioulas, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jürgen Moltmann, and Robert Jenson. Holmes argues that these authors share similarities in their Trinitarian grammar, which is characterized by language that refers univocally to the divine, and a willingness to entangle the life of God with the history of the world. Holmes argues that these concepts are “absent from, or even formally condemned by, all earlier accounts of the Trinity” (p. 32).

Then Holmes presents a historical account of the Trinity in the Bible and up to the modern era. He includes sections on the early Patristic development of Trinitarianism, the fourth-century Trinitarian debates, Western accounts of the Trinity, Medieval Trinitarian development, and anti-Trinitarianism from the Reformation to the eighteenth century. Holmes argues that the following seven theological formulations summarize the Trinitarian thought of the Christian tradition up until recent modern developments:

1.    The divine nature is simple, incomposite, and ineffable. It is also unrepeatable, and so, in crude and inexact terms “one.”

2.    Language referring to the divine nature is always inexact and trophic; nonetheless, if formulated with much care and more prayer, it might adequately, if not fully, refer.

3.    There are three divine hypostases that are instantiations of the divine nature: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

4.    The three divine hypostases exist really, eternally, and necessarily, and there is nothing divine that exists beyond or outside their existence.

5.    The three divine hypostases are distinguished by eternal relations of origin—begetting and proceeding—and not otherwise.

6.    All that is spoken of God, with the single and very limited exception of the language that refers to the relations of origin of the three hypostases, is spoken of the one life the three share, and so is indivisibly spoken of all three.

7.    The relationships of origin express/establish relational distinctions between the three existent hypostases; no other distinctions are permissible (pp. 146, 199–200).

It is this tradition that Holmes claims was lost in modern Trinitarian developments and has yet to be retrieved. He goes on to demonstrate that the modern era (1) became increasingly interested in limiting Trinitarianism to New Testament texts instead of listening to the whole of Scripture, (2) believed that the Son must be the mode of mediation of the Father’s presence to creation instead of asserting God’s own ability to mediate His own presence, (3) claimed to be able to reason adequately about the divine essence, instead of affirming divine unknowability, (4) discarded divine simplicity, and (5) insisted on the divine personalities of the Father, Son, and Spirit rather than believing in one divine personality. According to Holmes, each of these doctrinal novelties is an abandonment and rejection of the Trinitarian thought that characterized much of the first twenty centuries of Christian theology.

Holmes’s work is a wonderful contribution to the contemporary Trinitarian discussions. Most noticeably, Holmes’s familiarity with the incredible range and depth of historic Trinitarian thought is immediately evident. However, he does not allow the finer details of his research to obscure his overall analysis. What could have been a tremendously complicated and technical book is actually quite accessible for anyone who is interested in an in-depth historical analysis of Trinitarian thought.

Holmes’s finest theological/historical analysis in the book is on display in his discussion of Augustine and the filioque controversy. Holmes demonstrates that, though there are several discontinuities between the Eastern and Western Trinitarian traditions, there is perhaps far greater continuity than many have recognized.

The greatest weakness of the book is that Holmes never develops theological or dogmatic claims. Though the thesis of the book is indeed historical, one would expect that at some point Holmes, a systematic theologian, would offer his own dogmatic insight. Instead, Holmes leaves his readers to decide for themselves whether contemporary Trinitarian theology or the classical tradition is more or less accurate in its theological judgments about the Trinity. Perhaps Holmes intends to say more in the future on this topic, but readers would be better served if he had said more now.

The story that Holmes tells, a story of a tradition lost not retrieved, is a sad account indeed, and accurate. It is hoped that in light of this narrative, evangelical theologians will return to the rich Trinitarian tradition of the Cappadocians, Augustine, and the Reformers. When evangelicals return to this tradition they will drink from wells they did not dig and eat from trees they did not plant. Most importantly, they will be returning the church to the heart of the Christian tradition, the Trinitarian God who is revealed in Scripture.

—J. T. English with Glenn R. Kreider

April 1, 2014

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Apr-Jun 2014 vol. 171 no. 2 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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