Stephen R. Holmes, The Quest for the Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History, and Modernity (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2012). (Amazon.com)

questThe doctrine of the Trinity is something I confess to be true, though I must admit that is leaves me quite perplexed at times. Readers of this blog who are familiar with my story know that I entered Christianity through a Oneness Pentecostal congregation. Oneness Pentecostals deny the doctrine of the Trinity, so my earliest formation consisted of heavy doses of anti-Trinitarian rhetoric and polemic. Later, as I began to study for myself, for a variety of reasons it became apparent to me that it was wise to talk about the Christian God using the language formulated by Christian Creeds, Councils, and important theologians over the centuries. I admit that my approach to the Trinity fits into the slogan, “faith seeking understanding”. All in all, my brain doesn’t process metaphysical matters with much precision. I enjoy pondering and meditating upon what it means for God to be God, but I am not intelligent enough to talk of the divine in new or innovative ways (or, as some might say, I am intelligent enough to not talk about the divine in new and innovative ways), so I aim to understand why Christians have spoken of God as Triune from the posture of a confessing learner.

I have read many of the great thinkers of early Christianity: e.g., Clement of Rome, Polycarp of Smyrna, Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons, Athanasius of Alexandria, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, and others. I have noticed that the doctrine of the Trinity as formulated in these earlier years isn’t quite what I have heard it to be from modern writers. I have been seeking a book that would document the broad trajectories of Trinitarian thought over the centuries, a book that would summarize the development of the doctrine, and a book that would highlight important contributors to the discussion. I have found this book, finally. IVP Academic sent me a copy to review at my requestStephen R. Holmes The Quest for the Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History, and Modernity is exactly the sort of book I wanted to read. This review will come from someone who is not all that familiar with current discussions on Trinitarian theology. For such a review I recommend Nick Norelli’s review, “The Quest for the Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History, and Modernity”. This review will benefit people like me. People who as Christians speak of God as Trinity, yet who are sometimes overwhelmed when thinking about how to read and learn about the doctrine and its development.

Message of the Book

The subtitle of the book tells you a lot about its message. Holmes wants to engage modern discussions on the doctrine of the Trinity (and by “modern” I mean eighteenth century to present) by comparing more recent thought to ancient thought. He investigates what is being said by the most recent theologians. Then he asks what passages of Scripture have contributed to this doctrine’s evolution. This prepares us to study Patristic thought, which allows us to evaluate the continuation and discontinuation between Trinitarian thinking then and now.

Summary of the Content

This book has nine chapters and an introduction. In the Introduction Holmes prepares the reader for what is coming. He provides this important qualification (p. xv):

“This book is on a big-picture scale, necessarily. Covering in one brief volume two thousand years of debate over what is possibly the central topic of Christian devotion, together with the necessary biblical background, means that at every turn I have obscured details of debates, offered impressionistic sketches of complex positions, and otherwise done violence to scholarly ideals.:

The volume is brief. It has about two-hundred pages of content, not including the Introduction. The thesis statement of the book is as follows (p. xv): “In brief, I argue 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.” Also, for what it is worth, Holmes imagines his audience to be “upper-level undergraduates”.

Chapter 1: ‘The History that God is’: Studying the Doctrine of the Trinity in the Twenty-First Century begins the discussion by examining modern renderings of the doctrine. Holmes argues (p. 1), “Right belief about the Trinity will determine our understanding of the church, of the proper shape of human society, and of many other pastoral and political questions.” The theologians summarized in this chapter include Karl Barth, Karl Rahner, John Zizioulas, Miroslav Volf, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jurgen Moltmann, Robert Jenson, Leonardo Boff, Cornelius Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, Michael Rae, and Brian Leftow. Holmes outlines their basic contributions to recent discussions, where there are similarities, where there are dissimilarities, and prepares readers to compare and contrast modern Trinitarianism with Patristic and Medieval Trinitarianism.

Chapter 2: ‘In your light, we see light’: The Trinity in the Bible surveys the use of the Old and New Testaments in the development of Trinitarian thinking. This chapter presents the complicated history of developing a doctrine from Scripture that is not stated outright in Scripture (it should be noted, none of the competing paradigms are stated outright in Scripture making theologizing an endeavor that goes beyond mere proof-texting). Holmes introduces Patristic hermeneutics, especially as this relates to what words may “mean”, how this compares with the modern emphasis on “authorial intent”, and what “rules” governed exegesis in those days (that do not govern our own exegesis). Valuable passages like Proverbs 8, Wisdom 7, Isaiah 53, many psalms, and a broader canonical approach that investigated figures like “the angel of the Lord”, the “Son of Man” in the Book of Daniel, the Shema, and other themes from the Old Testament receive a brief overview. Holmes addresses some of the developments during the so-called “intertestamental” period. He ends the chapter by providing an overview of how the New Testament has been read, as well as some brief statements about Christian worship, interacting with scholars such as Larry Hurtado and Richard Bauckham.

Chapter 3: ‘Always with him are his Word and Wisdom'” Early Patristic Developments in the Doctrine of the Trinity discusses subjects such as The Rule of Faith, the developing canon, and Logos philosophy/theology. Theologians such as Justin Martyr, Theophilus of Antioch, Athenagoras, Irenaeus of Lyons, Tertullian, Hippolytus, and Origen of Alexandria take center stage. Holmes juxtaposes their views with gnosticism, Modalistic Monarchianism, Sabellianism, and a variety of other theological programs that presented differing views on the Monarchy of God.

Chapter 4: ‘From the ousia of the Father’: The Fourth-Century Debates 1 and Chapter 5: ‘The Godhead is by nature simple’: The Fourth-Century Debates 2 focus on the development of the Trinity from the Council of Nicaea to the Council of Constantinople and all that is associated. This begins with the debate between Arius and Alexander of Alexandria; the emergence of Athanasius of Alexandria; debates over terminology such as homoousios, homoiousios, hypostasis, and other words borrowed from the philosophical worldview of the day and redefined to explain the canonical depiction of God; Asterius, Eusebius of Caesarea, Eusebius of Nicomedia, Marcellus of Ancyra, and others. It ends with Eunomius, the Heterousian position; the rise of the Cappadocian Fathers; debates over divine simplicity and the divinity of the Holy Spirit; questions regarding the subordination of the Son to the Father; and the Nicene legacy, such as John of Damascus and others.

Chapter 6: ‘Understood by a few saints and holy persons’: The West and Augustine connects Trinitarian theology in the east to that in the west. Holmes rebuffs the idea that western Trinitarianism was drastically different than eastern. He introduces readers to Hilary of Poitiers, Novatian, and most importantly, Augustine of Hippo. The accusation that Augustine didn’t understand Nicene Trinitarianism is a mistaken view according to Holmes. He spends much of the chapter connecting Trinitarianism from east to west, showing the Augustine did understand the eastern language about God, and that he was connected in his own thoughts on the matter.

There is an Interlude where Holmes summarizes the “harvest of Patristic Trinitarianism”. This is his summary (on p. 146, repeated on pp. 199-200):

– The divine nature is simple, incomposite, and ineffable. It is also unrepeatable, and so, in crude and inexact terms ‘one’.

– 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.

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

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

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

– All that is spoken of God, with the single and very limited exception of the language which 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.

– The relationships of origin express/establish relational distinctions between the three existent hypostases; no other distinctions are permissible.

Chapter 7: ‘Distinction in the persons but unity in the nature’: The Medieval Doctrine of the Trinity surveys the filioque debate: does the Spirit proceed from the Father alone, or the Father and the Son. He argues that eastern and western theologians were debating this doctrine for a while. There was unity in spite of it, until the Pope used his authority to insert the filioque into the Creed (p. 148). Major figures that matter for this section include Anselm of Canterbury, Richard of St. Victor, the great Thomas Aquinas, and Gregory Palamas.

Chapter 8:’By the testimony of the Scriptures or manifest reason’: Anti-Trinitarianism from the Reformation to the Eighteen Century discusses the Reformation in brief. This includes reformers who continued to affirm the doctrine, such as Martin Luther and John Calvin. This chapter discusses those who began to deny the doctrine as part of the upheaval of the Reformation, including Michael Servetus, Faustus Socinus, John Biddle, William Whiston, Samuel Clarke, John Toland, Matthew Tindal, Voltaire, and how post-Kantian rationalism moved many to understand the doctrine as outdated and irrelevant. As someone who emerged from anti-Trinitarian Christianity this chapter was helpful to see how language such as “persons” began to be redefined and therefore misunderstood by people reading earlier Patristic writings on the subject.

Chapter 9: ‘A transformation which will go back to its very beginnings’: The Doctrine of the Trinity since 1800 is an examination of “modern” Trinitarianism, beginning Samuel Taylor Coleridge, G.W.F. Hegel, F.D.E. Schleiermacher, Chalres Hodge, P.T. Forsyth, and Isaak Dorner. Scholars who influenced the “quest for the historical Jesus”, such as D.F. Strauss, Albrecht Ritschl, and Adolf von Harnack make an appearance, as does F.C. Baur. Those who defended the doctrine, like Hodge, seemed unable to explain why it matters. This seems to be the cause of the rethinking of the doctrine, expressed by those theologians mentioned in Chapter 1.

Concluding Thoughts

This book challenges several popular ideas about the development of Trinitarianism such as the nature of what was debated between the Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople, the relationship of Augustine to eastern theologians, the role of the filioque in the Great Schism, and more. I found myself leaning Holmes’ direction with many of his reconstructions, especially since what he had to say resonated with teaching I received from Marc Cortez, a fine scholar of historical theology himself. I found Holmes writing to be easy to grasp. The breadth of knowledge presented in this short volume is outstanding. He was able to tie hundreds of years and dozens of theologians and many perspectives of the Trinity together into a coherent narrative.

I have been told that the great disappointment with this book is that it isn’t “constructive”. It doesn’t offer a way forward. I can see why this would be said, but I don’t think it was the aim of the book. The aim of the book was to summarize the development of the doctrine and show where modern Trinitarianism has departed from Patristic and Medieval Trinitarianism. Holmes succeeds in these endeavors, masterfully.

I would recommend this book to anyone wanting to study the doctrine of the Trinity, anyone who is suspicious about popular retellings of this doctrine’s development, anyone wanting a survey of great theologians who have discussed this subject, a pastor doing a doctrinal study, a professor doing the same in a class. It is a fine work and it isn’t terribly long as noted above. Personally, I don’t come across a book that does exactly what I want a book to do all that often. This book does what I wanted in a book on the doctrine of the Trinity. I don’t think you can go wrong by buying it and reading it.