One of the most remarkable features of twentieth century theology was its emphasis on the doctrine of the Trinity as one of the most central and important aspects of Christian theology. The Trinity isn’t some abstract and speculative idea that we can discard in favor of the more important and practical aspects of the Christian faith. According to many modern theologians, what we believe about the Trinity shapes Christian faith and ministry.
That all sounds great. But in his new book, The Quest for the Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History and Modernity (IVP, 2012), Steve Holmes argues that there’s a lot more to the story. These modern theologians haven’t just reemphasized the importance of the Trinity. Along the way, they have reconstructed it, subtly changing the doctrine in ways that run contrary to what the church has always believed.
This outstanding resource should be in the “must read” category for anyone wanting to understand the doctrine of the Trinity and/or the contemporary theological scene.
Holmes provides an excellent summary of his argument at the beginning of his introduction:
“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. A statement of the doctrine was settled in the fourth century, and was then maintained, with only very minor disagreement or development, all all strands of the church — West and East, Protestant and Catholic — until the modern period. In the twentieth century, there arose a sense that the doctrine had been neglected or lost, and stood in need of recover. Many brilliant works have been published in the name of that recover, but I argue here that, methodologically and materially, they are generally thoroughgoing departures from the older tradition, rather than revivals of it.” (pp. xv-xvi)
That is a rather robust claim, but the rest of Holmes’ book goes a long way toward justifying it.
Holmes is also quick to point out that the book makes a primarily historical claim. In other words, he does not attempt to make a constructive claim about what we should believe about the Trinity. He simply argues that many modern theologians have construed their doctrines of the Trinity in ways that differ importantly from an earlier trinitarian consensus that held from the earliest theologians of the church until the modern era. Even if Holmes’ argument is correct, it remains entirely possible that these modern theologians are right and the rest of the tradition is wrong. I don’t think you have to look too closely between the lines to realize how unlikely Holmes thinks this is, but if Holmes wants to argue against some of these modern moves, he’ll need to write another book.
The first chapter offers a superb overview of the twentieth century “revival” of Trinitarian theology, beginning with trajectories established by Barth, Rahner, and Zizioulas, and then tracing the way these trajectories played out in the modern emphasis on the interconnection between the Trinity and history (Pannenberg, Moltmann, and Jenson), the Trinity and the life of the church (Boff and Volf), and the Trinity and analytic theology (Plantinga, Leftow, and Rea). This chapter alone provides an invaluable resource in its clear and concise summary of significant moves in modern theology.
Chapter 2 offers an interesting look at the exegetical practices of the early church, demonstrating that these early thinkers were thoroughly biblical, even though they approached the text with interpretive strategies that modern exegetes often find problematic.
The next three chapters look at the development of trinitarian theology before, during, and after the Council of Nicea. And Holmes’ most important task in these chapters is to argue that theologians in the east (e.g. Basil and Gregory of Nyssa) and in the west (e.g. Hilary and Augustine) held basically the same view of the Trinity. In contrast to modern thinkers who appeal to one or the other in support of their own proposals, Holmes argues there was a single trinitarian consensus in the early church that differs in important ways from these modern approaches.
Chapter 7 moves into the medieval period, but with the same basic task: establishing the existence of a widespread consensus on the Trinity. And here Holmes focuses primarily on the filioque controversy (whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son or from the Father alone). Once again, though, the real purpose is to establish significant continuity between east and west. Although the filioque is an area where the two generally disagree, Holmes argues that this is a disagreement that functions within the overall continuity, not one that results from fundamentally divergent views of the Trinity.
The last two chapters focus on developments in the Trinity after the Reformation (chapter 8) and in the modern era (chapter 9). In these chapters, Holmes’ traces the rise of anti-trinitarian thought and trinitarian developments in the early modern era (e.g. Hegel, Schleiermacher). At the same time, though, Holmes points out that the traditional doctrine of the Trinity never “disappears.” Many theologians continue to affirm the trinitarian consensus of the early church, even though they at times struggle to articulate precisely why the Trinity matters.
I have spent more time summarizing Holmes’ book than I normally do in a review, primarily because I think it’s an outstanding book, and I have relatively little to say in terms of critical evaluation. The strengths of the book clearly lie in Holmes obvious familiarity with a tremendous range of historical and theological data. And he does a fine job keeping the wealth of research from obscuring the basic argument of the book by shifting much of the detail to the footnotes. What could have easily become an overwhelmingly technical book instead remains accessible to the non-specialist, while still providing a wealth of information for those who want to dig deeper.
I particularly appreciated Holmes’ discussions of Augustine and the filioque controversy. I still hear people critiquing both of these as though they represent a way of approaching the Trinity that is fundamentally different from that represented by Greek theologians. The two chapters that Holmes devotes to these topics does a fine job summarizing the widespread consensus among historians that this simply is not the case.
Some might identify as a weakness the fact that the book does not offer its own constructive proposal for how we should understand the Trinity today. That, of course, is because Holmes has no intention of doing so, as he makes clear in the introduction. Nonetheless, those reading the book for that purpose will walk away disappointed.
The only other weakness for some is that this isn’t a book for beginners. Even though Holmes writes clearly and carefully, the book assumes considerable familiarity with theology and church history. Without that, I’m sure you’ll find the book heavy going in places.
In The Quest for the Trinity, Steve Holmes offers an invaluable study of the Trinity, its historic development, and its use in modern theology. Any student of theology would be well advised to spend some time assimilating the book and its arguments.