In the twentieth century there was a flowering of Trinitarian theology from such luminaries as Karl Barth, Karl Rahner, John Zizioulas, Jurgen Moltmann, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Robert Jenson, Miroslav Volf, Leonardo Boff, Cornelius Plantinga, Michael Rea, Brian Leftow and others. While this so-called Trinitarian revival begins with Barth and best intentions (to rescue the doctrine of the Trinity from Liberal theology’s refuse pile) those that followed him took avenues which broke with the tradition. Sometimes this was because scholars willfully lay aside earlier theological reflection, other times it is because they fail to appreciate the meaning and nuances of earlier theological discussions.
In The Quest for the Trinity Stephen R. Holmes, senior lecturer in theology at St. Andrews, has written a short book which gives an overview of the contemporary approaches to the Trinity, and sets it against the backdrop of the theological tradition. Holmes basic premise is that the contemporary quest to recapture the doctrine of the Trinity, misunderstands and distorts the tradition (xv). In his first chapter, Holmes sketches the contours of the ‘Trinitarian revival.’ In the chapters which follow, he walks chronologically through the history of the church, demonstrating the broad consensus of Trinitarian theology from the 4th Century councils until the Nineteenth Century. Holmes presents and summarizes the writings of many of the theologians and thinkers who reflected on the nature of the Triune God.
This is a short book (232 pages) and therefore cannot necessarily give a detailed analysis of all twenty centuries of theological reflection. Yet Holmes demonstrates his thesis and illuminates significant details along the way. Holmes is able to shows that the method and understanding of the Trinity had significantly changed in the modern period from what it was in the patristic, medieval or Reformation eras. For instance, when Holmes looks back on the Biblical texts which formed the basis of patristic reflection on the Trinity, he observes that many of the go-to-texts were from the Old Testament. In the modern period, the Old Testament is treated as though it had nothing significant to teach us about the Christian doctrine of the Trinity because historical critical approaches trained us to read the Bible, solely through the lens of authorial intent. Patristic exegetes were committed to reading the Old Testament Christologically and mined it for theological treasures.
Beyond method, Holmes demonstrates that contemporary approaches to the Trinity employ language differently than earlier approaches. In the fourth century debates, which culminated in the councils of Nicea and Constantinople, the language of personhood (hypostasis, persona) was employed to refer to the members of the Trinity. In contemporary theology, personhood is understood as fully personal, possessing will, intellect, personality. In the patrisitic period, personhood denotes a self-consciousness but the individual distinctions between persons is not stressed (there are not three I-centers). Rather the Cappadocian formulation affirms that the Triune God exists as one substance, trice over. Likewise traditional theologians were committed to the ineffability of God, where modern theologians sometimes claim a fuller understanding of God’s nature.
One conclusion which Holmes makes that is controversial in some quarters is his assertion that Greek and Latin conception of the Trinity are in substantial agreement. My own theological training taught me that the model of the Trinity in the East was a ‘Social Trinity model’ which stressed the inter-relation of the persons but in the West, the Trinity was understood in more psychological terms. Often the blame for the difference is assigned to Augustine for his ubiquitous influence on the West and his failure to understand the Cappadocians. Against this Holmes asserts that Augustine was the greatest interpreter of Cappadocian Theology (122). Holmes observes that, ” Augustine is held not to have understood the Cappadocian achievement, and to have stumbled through some metaphysical arguments which are best sub-Trinitarian when compared to the glories of the two Gregories. (130)” Holmes finds unlikely that Augustine would present a radically different Trinity from the Cappadocians without knowing that he did. He asserts to the contrary:
If any explanation is offered to account for this extraordinarily unlikely state of affairs, it usually turns on a suggestion that Augustine’s grasp of Greek was at best partial, and therefore that he did not understand the texts that led to the Constantinopolitian settlement. Against this, we might note: that Augustine’s grasp of Greek was actually rather good, at least by the time he wrote De Trinitate, that there are several earlier Latin interpreters of Nicene theology whom he could have read, some whom we know he stood in close relationship to (e.g. Ambrose of Milan), and that no writer of the day accuses Augustine of misunderstanding Constantinopolitian Trintarianism. Further, my discussion of Hilary, above, has indicated just how dependent on Eastern categories his developed Trinitarianism theoloogy was. (130-1).
Nevertheless, differences in Eastern and Western Trinitarianism develop with the controversy over the filioque clause in the Nicene Creed (In the original creed, ‘the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father’, in the West the word’s ‘and the Son’ were added to the Creed. However this difference did not threaten the Church’s orthodoxy or catholicity; there was full communion for centuries between Christians on both sides of the debate(164).
Without going into the details of every thinker Holmes profiled, I think he demonstrates well that Christians were united in their understanding of the Trinity until the 19th Century (when the ferment of the Reformation and enlightenment style rationalism prompted a decisive break with tradition). You do not need to be an expert of the Trinity to read this book; however I think those who have followed the Trinitarian conversation will find this book most valuable.
Thank you to Intervarsity Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.