Review: The Quest for the Trinity (@ivpacademic) by Stephen R. Holmes
We continue in the midst of what has often been called a “Trinitarian revival,” but with The Quest for the Trinity, Stephen Holmes argues that the revival would be more properly termed a revision. He writes:
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 (xv).
Having spent the last several years dipping into the literature on the doctrine of God, both ancient and modern, I was, to say the least, somewhat jarred by this claim. The so-called revival has been received with enthusiasm by many in all the major Christian traditions, and welcomed as a promising foundation for ecumenical dialog. After all, if there is one thing Christians can agree on, it is the Trinity. That Holmes would challenge the consensus by arguing that the contemporary debates are in fact a departure from the historic formulations of the doctrine of God points to the value of this book. Whether or not one agrees with Holmes, anyone interested in the doctrine of God and the way it has been handled by modern theologians will have to engage the argument of this book.
That argument begins with a survey of 20th century treatments of the Trinity including the particularly noteworthy contributions of Barth, Rahner, and Zizioulous (chapter 1). Among the contemporary writers Holmes finds a common interest in locating the doctrine of God in the gospel narratives, a focus on the personal nature of God, the entanglement of the life of God with world history, and the univocal use of language with regard to God and the created order. Chapter 2 takes up the biblical material and provides a critical analysis of the way the relevant texts have often been read. The rest of the book (chapters 3-9) traces the way the doctrine of the Trinity has been handled from the Patristic period to the present.
Holmes finds general consensus with regard to the doctrine of the Trinity up through the time of the Reformation. He even casts doubt on the oft repeated idea that the doctrine of the Trinity was lost prior to the present revival of interest. Even during the anti-Trinitarianism of the Enlightenment, there were numerous theologians arguing for the historic doctrine. From the ancient church through to the Reformation, Holmes identifies a common interest in using all of scripture (not just the gospels) as a basis for Trinitarian thinking, an insistence on the ineffable and simple unity of the divine nature, and the recognition that language about God could be adequate, though always inexact. When compared with the many and various approaches to the Trinity in the modern period, Holmes finds these concepts generally absent and sometimes even rejected. As a result, he sees the extensive interest in and writing on the Trinity as a departure from the historic doctrine. Holmes certainly recognizes what is at stake if he is right about the irreconcilable differences between the ancients and the moderns. If the more recent formulations are right, then “we need to conclude that the majority of the Christian tradition has been wrong in what it has claimed about the eternal life of God” (2).
In my judgment, Holmes is correct that many modern theologians depart in substantial ways from the historic formulations of the Trinity, though I am hesitant to issue a blanket statement that all recent writers commit such a departure. I think we must recognize that the task of modern Trinitarian theology is not quite the same as that of the ancients. The ancients had the great responsibility of forging language that accurately reflected the truth about God in scripture and the worship of God in the church. Theirs was a foundational task, and we do not have to repeat the work that they have already done so well. The task of Trinitarian theology in the present is to explore the implications of the historic doctrine. It sometimes sounds as if Holmes is suggesting that anything other than a repetition of the ancient formulations is a departure from them; but is it not the case that we can stand on their work to consider further and unforeseen implications? Holmes is certainly right that some modern writers completely revise the doctrine of the Trinity. However, the charge is less clearly substantiated against others. Each new contribution must be weighed on its own merits and evaluated with regard to the degree that it faithfully builds on those who have gone before.
The Quest for the Trinity has much to commend it. Holmes’ detailed account of the doctrine of God from the early church up to the present will greatly benefit anyone interested in understanding the historical development of Trinitarianism and will make it a valuable text in courses on the doctrine of God and historical theology. The summaries of the historic formulations give us a criteria to help us judge the degree to which new contributions stand in continuity with or break from the central components of the doctrine. All in all, this is a very valuable book that will help us approach the doctrine of God with heightened care and increased critical awareness.
*Many thanks to InterVarsity Press for a complimentary review copy of The Quest for the Trinity.