Stephen R. Holmes, The Quest for the Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History, and Modernity (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2012). (Amazon.com)
The 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.
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.
This is one subject that keeps popping up for me these days, especially since my wife and I have been invited into a Muslim community here in the United States to learn about Islam. Early on, through some very well written apologetics of Islam in relationship to Christianity, I felt the challenge to reexamine this. This is when I became acquainted with current thoughts in “biblical unitarianism” and “Christian Monotheism,” as I wanted to see what was happening in the intramural debates first. Years ago, I used to debate with Jehovah’s Witnesses and Oneness Pentecostals about the Trinity. I remember always coming away thinking “why is this so hard to substantiate in the Scriptures?” It’s not that these groups had any real enticement for me; their positions seemed untenable for any number of reasons, especially with everything else that comes with a “total package.” But now there seems to be some very substantial challenges to it. Muslim literature takes on the likes of James Dunn and Larry Hurtado on early Christian worship for example.
Over the years, in trying to come to terms with what actually is necessary to call oneself a Christian, I’ve explored what I can only describe as the deplorable history of Christianity. It brings to mind that quote from Ghandi: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Not to legitimize “all things Ghandi,” Paul pretty much bears this out – what goes on outside the people of God – when he says in Romans 2:24, “the name of God is being blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” The people of God in my acquaintance are either oblivious to this, or simply don’t care, having become more interested in preserving their own lives at the expense of others – pretty much what I see in Christian history. This is what made me move to Anabaptism, as I saw the outworking of the impulses that make the church what it is today. In the words of Bill Maher, another one who blasphemes God because of us, “If you ignore everything Jesus says to do, you are not a Christan; you’re just auditing.” I think it is rebukes like these most of all that make me wonder if the tradition is really where Jesus makes his home.
At any rate, as I said to my Muslim friend, I am willing to reexamine any number of ideas concerning God, but I don’t believe I will ever give up what it means to follow a crucified Messiah. He asked why I would embrace something so foolish as that. I told him it was that which allowed me to sit with him without the fear and paranoia that so many of his American acquaintances brought to the table. It brought to mind where Paul really places the emphasis on the content of where true faith leads: in the One who is a “scandal to Jews and foolishness to Greeks.” That is, in Jesus of Nazareth, a “loser” in the minds of everyone for all intents and purposes, is the Lord’s Christ. In him is where God’s salvation is found.
I don’t think this comment has strayed from what you topic is Brian. It intersects with it in that I am wondering if the book will be of any help to me. I haven’t found a trump card for any position I’ve studied. My observation has been that when heresies arose, the response was to work with the concepts brought to the table, trying to come to terms with Jesus’ relationship with God given those concepts. Maybe this book would help me see this
differently.Do you think so?
I am not reacting to a doctrine with the vehemence that a strict Islamic Monotheist would; I am just trying to find my way with my faith in relationship to some very real challenges presented to it, forcing me to find out just where Jesus wants faith to land. Right now, I would not be accepted in the typical Christian church, much less the Muslim community, all because I am asking questions, or bringing other’s questions to the table.
I think this book might be very helpful. It isn’t an apologetic for the doctrine of the Trinity, though the author assumes the doctrine to be true, but rather a chronology of how the doctrine developed and what differences are found between modern Trinitarianism and Patristic and Medieval Trinitarianism. This book is helpful for those who want to know if there is more than one way to understand and explain the doctrine of the Trinity. Reading this book should make it obvious that there is more than one way to understand it, and this may be helpful for you as you practice your faith in the context your presented.
This doctrine is hinted at in the OT text. “My Holy Spirit” is the least obvious “Yahweh”, yet , there are some passages that lend credence to a “personification” of “God’s Holy Spirit” in the OT text.
2 separate, but, equal Yahweh’s are way more obvious in the OT text than 3.
1 is always invisible, 1 is always visible, sometimes in the same exact passage. “2 Powers in Heaven” is a book that demonstrates how ancient rabbinic scholars knew this, then after Christ, decided the idea was heresy. Written by a deceased Jewish scholar, Alan Segal.
Dr. Michael Heiser has some video presentations about the 2 powers:
For the references to the 3rd “Yahweh” i.e. the Holy spirit, I’d have to go back and listen to a DVD I have.
They are not nearly as obvious.
One thing I debated with JW’s and Muslims is the OT most definitely does have both 2 co-equal Yahweh’s and a unique eschatological man that has an eternal aspect to Him and neither wanted to deal with them at all.
This is why Jewish Christians had no problem believing Jesus to be Yahweh. They already knew 2 Yahweh’s existed from their OT text and had at least a vague idea of an “eternal” human male”.
I’ve visited this blog for some time now but never felt the need to comment. However, I think that now is an appropriate time.
You wrote: “Over the years, in trying to come to terms with what actually is necessary to call oneself a Christian, I’ve explored what I can only describe as the deplorable history of Christianity.”
Anyone who confesses Jesus as Lord is a Christian. That confession can have a very wide variety of meanings.
Anyone who confesses the Apostle’s and/or Nicene creed is an orthodox (note the small ‘o’) Christian.
Well, that’s my understanding anyway.
Michael Heiser’s work is very good. I’ve heard his present on that topic at a regional SBL. Very well researched.
Re: Michael Heiser – I am in your debt Brian for introducing me to Heiser. I am not in complete agreement with 100% of what he says, nevertheless I greatly esteem his scholarship and commitment to the evidence, no matter where it leads. With respect his work that I do agree with, I very much appreciate the work he does on the ‘Trinity’ under the auspices of ‘Divine Council’. He exposes the filter Post-Christian rabbinic prejudice has had on Christianity, corrupting its own view of old covenant ideas of Divinity.
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