It seems that, in the world of Trinitarian theology, Stephen Holmes’ 2012 overview of the development of the doctrine of the Trinity from the Old Testament through to the 20th Century has been, in the best sense, controversial. A theological journal recently devoted an entire issue to the discussion of Holmes’ work, and fellow-theologian Karen Kilby endorses it on the back cover as “a real intervention in a debate”. But strikingly, she also endorses it as being at the same time “a textbook for serious students”.
As someone with little formal theological training, I am not in a position to comment on its impact on the debate (of which more in a moment), and am not even a serious student. However, I am someone with a keen interest in speaking about God in a way that is faithful to his Word, as it’s been reflected on by his Church through the centuries, and so the “textbook” part of Kilby’s endorsement appealed to me. On top of which, who doesn’t like a good debate? I read the book to get an overview and introduction to Trinitarian doctrine, particularly to see whether I’d been falling into any obvious traps. It’s with that agenda in mind that I want to offer a review of it: given its controversial and serious nature, is “The Holy Trinity” the best place to start?
To answer that question, I’ll briefly summarise the book, evaluate it in light of that aim, and then raise some questions it prompted for me to illustrate the kind of thinking it provoked.
Holmes’ thesis is that the biggest divide in Trinitarian theology is not between Eastern and Western versions, but between the modern account of the doctrine and the teaching of the Church Fathers. Holmes contends that the modern version of the doctrine is essentially unrooted from, and at points explicitly at odds with, the traditional one. To substantiate this Holmes seeks to offer objective and careful readings of both modern and ancient Trinitarian theologies. He claims that a strong modern/traditional division “arises naturally out of such readings without very much need for further argument.” And so after an introductory chapter outlining the themes of recent Trinitarian theology, Holmes works through chapters on the Fathers’ exegesis of the Old and New Testaments, debates between the Fathers leading up to and following the Council of Nicea, the reception and development of the doctrine in through late antiquity and the medieval period and then the radical questioning of the doctrine in the 17th-18th centuries. In a final chapter, Holmes shows how the 20th century’s Trinitarian theology is at least as shaped by the questions (“how can we recover a Biblical doctrine of God free from the influence of Greek philosophy?”) and redefinitions (particularly of the word ‘person’) of the preceding two centuries as it is by the first 16 since Christ. Along the way, Holmes gives helpful summaries of his argument and his findings. In essence he claims that modern Trinitarianism:
- speaks univocally about God and created things
- defines ‘person’ as a centre of will/volition
- rejects the doctrine of simplicity (that is, God is without parts) as being philosophical
- has an inadequate construction of God’s unity
- is willing to entangle God’s being, and especially the Son and the Spirit, with his creation through an over-emphasis on the work of the Trinity in creation and redemption as a source for understanding God’s eternal life
In contrast, the traditional doctrine:
- is careful to describe all speech about God as analogical
- thinks of God’s will as being undivided, and therefore his “personality” is a property of the one rather than the three
- regards God’s simplicity as the central and necessary glue holding our thought about God together
- constructs a doctrine of unity through a careful distinction between what can be said of the nature/essence/substance of God and the persons/hypostastes
- maintains the Creator/creature distinction as central, while affirming God’s ability to act immediately in the world, resulting in the placement of the Son and the Spirit firmly on the side of being uncreated
The above is just a rough sketch from memory of Holmes’ concerns and conclusions – for Holmes’ own, typically clear and forthright, presentation of these, see the final page (p200) of the book.
So, how did this book serve as an introduction to the doctrine of the Trinity for someone without formal theological training? “The Holy Trinity” is a short book, and so Holmes is often condensed. I found that I had to read this book actively, with a pencil in hand. Some frequently used words such as “hypostasis” were initially confusing but became clearer as I cross-referenced (I take it to be a way of saying ‘person’ without bringing the modern connotations of that word into play). I was helped by Holmes’ regular eye to serve the reader with conclusions and well laid out arguments within and between the chapters. The fact that this work is one with a specific agenda did not for me detract from it: like the gospel writers, Holmes thinks his purpose is best served through a simple laying out of facts, and so the work can still function well as an introduction to the history of the doctrine. I certainly had the impression that Holmes was engaging with the most representative or important parts of the tradition, acknowledging where the evidence was not always precisely in line with his thesis. In fact, the presence of a clear argument made for what was, given the sometimes abstract subject matter, a gripping read (the American title “The Quest for the Trinity” bears witness to this dynamic). Coming away from it, I certainly feel like I have a surer grasp of Trinitarian doctrine, especially as taught by the Fathers but also the modern version. And importantly, I feel that Holmes has made me aware of the points at which he has presented controversial views.
How about those Trinitarian traps I was worried about? Reading this as someone from a classically Reformed/evangelical tradition, I wasn’t always finding myself on the receiving end of Holmes’ criticism: as described by Holmes, modern theologians like Robert Jenson really do go a long way towards entangling the life of God with the world, in a way that I haven’t heard being expressed in the evangelical circles I’ve been part of. However, reading the first chapter’s summary of modern Trinitarian doctrine, I recognised a number of themes that I would be sympathetic to: the centrality of personality and relationship in God’s own life, the possibility of speaking of God’s character in ways which are essentially overlapping with our own existence, the relevance of the doctrine for our community life, and the validity of reasoning from the revealed actions of the Trinity to the eternal life of God, often known as Rahner’s Rule (“the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity” e.g. the Son pours out the Spirit once he has returned to his Father as a reflection of the procession of the Spirit from the Father and the Son). In these areas, I think reading Holmes will help me to be more discriminating before speaking: I’ll certainly be wary, for example, of using the modern definition of the word person in reference to the Father, Son and Spirit.
Perhaps the best way to end this review is to give a list of questions I’ve jotted down for myself to look into as I seek understanding. These aren’t meant to imply criticisms. Instead, they show how this engaging book has stimulated my thinking on this vital doctrine. To anyone who is looking to be introduce to the topic and willing to work with Holmes through his argument, I recommend the book highly.
- God’s simplicity is “at the heart of Trinitarian doctrine” (p200). Can it be firmly grounded in revelation?
- What does it mean for God to be ‘personal’? Is ‘personality’ (modern def.) only a property of God’s one undivided nature/work, or can we say that each of the three are truly personal? (p200)
- The economy is determinative for Anselm (p149), Augustine and Aquinas (p157 n29) as well as Rahner (p10). But Holmes argues that consistent application of Rahner’s Rule has led to an entangling between God and creation (p24). What responsible rules are there for working from the economy to God’s eternal life?
- In sections on Eunomius (p98), Augustine (p136) and Calvin (p169-70), the issue of whether the Father’s ingenerateness can be said of the Son and the Spirit is raised. What does it mean to say that the Son is independent, yet begotten? Is the classical answer that begottenness is a personal property while independence is a property of the nature sustainable?
- Holmes refers repeatedly to “one God existing thrice over” (e.g. p109) and “three instantiations of the divine nature” (p200). Are these Holmes’ own formulations or traditional ones, and what do they mean?
- If ‘personality’ in the modern sense resides in the one rather than the three, what does it mean to have a relationship with the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit?