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The Holy Trinity: Understanding God's Life
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 5 March 2012
The Holy Trinity is the first in a new series from Paternoster looking at Christian Doctrines in Historical Perspective. In his introduction Steve Holmes, quoting Chaucer, suggests that this is a 'little book'. It is anything but. At 231 pages it is at least medium-sized book and its content - the history of doctrine of the Trinity - means its a book that covers a large amount of history and ideas. Holmes has recently said in a editorial for the International Journal for Systematic Theology (January 2012) that a lot of theology is about engaging with the history of ideas, that is, its about careful reading of the past and present, rather than doing novel and constructive theology. The Holy Trinity is an excellent example of careful reading.

The book begins with a discussion of the 'revival' of Trinity theology in the twentieth century that was initiated by Barth, Rahner and Zizioulas and developed by Pannenberg, Moltmann, Jenson, Boff and Volf (there are of course others that could be mentioned, e.g. Gunton, Cunningham, Fiddes). Then it travels back in history with chapters on the Trinity in the Bible, in the Early Fathers (Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen), and then two chapters on the later Fourth-Century (Arius, Athanasius, Cappadocians, John of Damascus), the West and Augustine, the Medieval period (Anselm, Richard of St Victor, Aquinas), followed by a chapter on Anti-Trinitarianism in the period between the Reformation and the Eighteenth century, and then concludes with a final chapter on the doctrine in the last two hundred years (Hegel, Coleridge, Schleiermacher, Hodge, Dorner).

The book has two aims. First it seeks to provide a book-length (affordable) treatment of the doctrine of the Trinity in the historical tradition. It this way if operates as a textbook for theological students seeking to understand the doctrine's development (perhaps only Paul M. Collin's The Trinity: A Guide for the Perplexed does a similar kind of job). The Oxford Handbook of the Trinity and The Cambridge Companion to the Trinity have recently been published and perhaps Holmes' book should be read alongside these - the obvious strength of Holmes' book being it's price (!) and it is one theologian's reading of the tradition, rather than the multiple author approach of the other books.

Second it argues that rather than the doctrine of the Trinity being recovered in the twentieth century, the doctrine as stated and developed by those coming after Barth offers a departure from the Patristic tradition, that is, a revision. Holmes argues that trinitarian doctrine is largely agreed (there is no East/West Cappadocian/Augustine divide) right up to the eighteenth/nineteenth centuries, that is, theologians restate the earlier tradition. The twentieth century, partly in response to the nineteenth century, does not revive trintiarian doctrine from past (despite its claims), but is doing some different. Holmes does not argue that more recent trinitarian doctrine is wrong or that earlier ages were right. He leaves these questions unanswered.

The doctrine of the Trinity is not the easiest of doctrines (probably true for more than most!), because it can get quite technical in terms of language. Holmes is therefore to be congratulated on providing a help introduction and analysis of how the tradition makes it confession in God as Trinity. He is an able reader of these early and later theologians and presents a compelling case for his main argument. It will surely find its way onto many reading lists. In addition to the text itself, Holmes provides an excellent set of indexes (biblical texts cited, technical terms cited, and index of authors and subjects), which are always welcome to this reader. Having provided this historical study of trinitarian doctrine, we await perhaps a more critical work which explores the theological questions, which this present work does not seek to answer.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 18 April 2012
Stephen Holmes offers an insightful study of the development of the doctrine of the Trinity, arguing that the recent so-called `revival' in trinitarian theology is, in fact, not a revival of the Nicene dogma. Until at least the seventeenth century, theologians from East and West upheld one general approach to God as Trinity: that the three divine hypostases (Father, Son and Spirit) are instantiations of the one divine nature, each distinguished from the other two by the relations of origin. But now, in many recent theological writings, it's assumed that the Patristic doctrine is unduly influenced by Hellenism, with its emphasis on substance metaphysics. Instead, it is considered proper to regard God not as a substance but as relational - particularly as a community of divine persons. Thus the term `person', understood as a centre of consciousness or some such notion, is often assumed univocally to apply as much to the divine hypostases as it does to human beings in general. Holmes's point is that the trinitarian thought of people such as John Zizioulas, Jürgen Moltmann and Robert Jenson cannot be understood as a revival of the Nicene dogma (Ch. 1).

To make his case, Holmes first outlines the biblical basis for understanding God as Trinity (Ch. 2) and then shows how the Patristic debates, largely centred on matters of exegesis, gave rise to the dogma encapsulated in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed (Chs. 3-6). Following a brief interlude, which summarises the doctrine of the Trinity as received from the fourth century, Holmes examines how the doctrine was upheld in the medieval and Reformation eras, only to be denied later by various anti-trinitarian thinkers (Chs. 7-8). The final chapter (Ch. 9) examines how the Trinity concept continued to be alive in the work of number of nineteenth- and twentieth-century theologians and historians, including Hegel, Schleiermacher and von Harnack. It's to Holmes's credit that he is able to condense nearly two thousand years of deliberation into two hundred pages, though the majority of the book is, as might be expected, taken up by discussion of the Patristic period.

Holmes writes clearly and with passion; thus his overall argument has space to convince. And convince he does; he has forced me to think more deeply about both the doctrine of the Trinity and the being of God, which will no doubt have a similar effect on the way I think about the doctrine of providence. Some of Holmes's analysis has helped me better to understand the current debates around Karl Barth's doctrine of the Trinity, particularly with regard to election and Christology. And it seems to me that throughout, Holmes offers fair and balanced interpretations of those with whom he engages. Moreover, as far as is possible, he examines the original texts themselves. There is no evidence of the type of intellectual laziness that remains content simply to accept others' readings of a given primary text.

However, there is one occasional theme (if a theme it is) that grates. Even though 'The Holy Trinity' is primarily a work of historical analysis, charting the development of a doctrine and its subsequent reinterpretation and even rejection; and despite his denial that he's `attempt[ing] to prove that the older tradition was right' (p. xvi); there are still comments that indicate in no uncertain terms where Holmes's own loyalties lie: `it may be that recent writers are right in their accounts of the content and use of Trinitarian doctrine, but if so, 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.' (p. 2). And the book's final paragraphs read:

'... we set out on our own to offer a different, and we believed better, doctrine. We returned to the Scriptures, but we chose (with Tertullian's Praxeas, Noetus of Smyrna, and Samuel Clarke) to focus exclusively on the New Testament texts, instead of listening to the whole of Scripture with Tertullian, Hippolytus, and Daniel Waterland. We thought about God's relationship with the creation in the economy, but we chose (with the Valentinians, Arius, and Hegel) to believe that the Son must be the mode of mediation of the Father's presence to creation, instead of following Irenaeus and Athanasius in proposing God's ability to mediate his own presence. We tried to understand the divine unity, but we chose (with Eunomius and Socinus) to believe that we could reason adequately about the divine essence, instead of following Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and John Calvin in asserting divine unknowability. We addressed divine simplicity, and chose (with Socinus and John Biddle) to discard it, rather than following Basil and the rest in affirming it as the heart of Trinitarian doctrine. We thought about Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but chose (with Sabellius, Arius, and Eunomius) to affirm true personality of each, rather than following Augustine and John of Damascus in believing in one divine personality.

We called what we were doing a `Trinitarian revival'; future historians might want to ask us why. (p. 200).'

I suppose there's no problem with these kinds of comments in themselves; but in a study aiming to present an historical judgement, these appear to me out-of-place rhetorical flourishes. And so, given these kinds of comments, I wonder if Holmes should have provided at least one further chapter explaining why Zizioulas et al. are wrong to depart from Patristic teaching if what they write is nonetheless compatible with the trinitarian dogma set forth in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. Perhaps this, or something like it, is a future project.

Regardless, I can only recommend 'The Holy Trinity'. It is necessary reading and an indispensable resource for anyone researching the doctrine of the Trinity.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 5 March 2012
This is an important book on a vital doctrine of the Christian Faith, here we find careful scholarship which guides us through the discussions about the doctrine of the Trinity throughout Church history. One of the things that really impressed me about this volume is the way the author treats his primary sources. Stephen Holmes has a firm grasp of the issues and unlike other recent authors I did not find myself having to check out whether somebody was being treated fairly. This is a good example of how historical theology should be done.
In the first chapter Holmes guides us through the twentieth century revival of Trinitarian theology, here we find helpful insights into Barth, Rahner, Moltmann, Jenson and Volf. He raises some important questions about these theologians.
In chapter 2, we find a helpful outline of the Bibles trinitarian theology and he looks at how the Church Fathers treated Scripture again there is much that is helpful and constructive here. This chapter closes with a helpful section on the Development of Christian Worship.
Chapter 3 skillfully guides us through the teachings of the early church fathers, I hope this study will stimulate the reader to go back to the original sources. the section on Irenaeus of Lyons shows the vital contribution this Church Father made to the discussion. He also guides us through the contribution that Origen made, I found this section helpful because he brings out the various strands of Origen's thinking,which is no easy task.
In chapter 4 We get to the heart of many recent discussions of the Trinity because nearly all scholars would agree that the fourth century is the century when serious advances were made in articulating the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. In this chapter we are introduced to the theology of Nicea and the writing of Athanasius and the continuing debates of this time.
Chapter 5continues the fourth century history with helpful guidance and exposition of The Cappadocian Fathers. Anyone familiar with the recent debates will know that much is made of how the Cappadocian Fathers made a distinct contribution to the doctrine of the Trinity and how supposedly their theology is at variance with Western Trinitarian thinking. We are once again shown the immense contribution the Cappadocians made and this part will be helpful to all who want to grasp this teaching better..
Chapter 6 discusses western teaching on the Trinity with an in depth discussion of Augustine of Hippo, early in the chapter Holmes makes the astounding claim that Augustine is the is the greatest interpreter of Cappadocian Theology. In the books surrounding the revival of trinitarian theology it has been fashionable to contrast Augustine and The Cappadocians however I believe establishes his claim. I have found much of the recent interpretation of Augustine frustrating to put it mildly, it was refreshing to read an interpretation of Augustine where Augustine was treated fairly, for once I was not having to go back to check every detail out in the primary sources because this was actually the Augustine I know and love. This chapter makes a v ital contribution to the debate surrounding the development of the doctrine. Just reading this chapter justifies the price of the book for me.
Chapter 7 introduces us to the key medieval thinkers and it is demonstrated that their is a rich continuity of thought from the patristic period to the medieval period. We are treated here to an exposition of some key medieval thinkers including Anselm and Thomas Aquinas reading the summaries of these two great theologians thought has given me an appetite to back to the primary texts and read again some of the profound thinking mfrom this period.
Chapter 8 Introduces us to the debates at the time of the Reformation and beyond, there are some helpful historical insights into the development of Calvin's thought.
This chapter demonstrates both the fact that the Reformers were faithful to the tradition at this point and then also the sad development of rationalism which questioned the doctrine of the Trinity.
Chapter 9 is about the doctrine of the Trinity since 1800. The view as such writers as Coleridge and Hegel are examined before moving onto an intriguing section on Schleirmacher and Hodge. Hodge wants to make the doctrine of the Trinity useful and is unable to do so, this is a sad statement because if Trinitarian Theology can not be preached with a direct relevancy to the hearer then much of our investigation into the doctrine has been wasted.
This last chapter sums up the argument of the book and calls us back to the classic teaching about the Holy Trinity.
This is not an easy to read book but it is an extremely profitable read, there are gems on every page. It is not often that I find a book of this size so compelling in its arguments that I have finished reading it within four days of buying it, but that is what happened with this book. I am sure this is going to be a book that I refer to whenever I am thinking about this important and central doctrine of our Faith
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A new vibrant study of the Godhead is greatly welcomed! Stephen Holmes offers a new substantive work on a vital doctrine of the Christian Faith, that fuses scholarship church history, excellently well. Wisdom, insight and faithfulness are brilliantly expressed here. Historical theology at it's very best! This sees a tour-de-force in the company of Barth, Rahner, Moltmann, Jenson Hegel, Volf and for me the lesser-known Harnack. Nicene dogma gets a working over, with particular rigour expressed toward the Patristic period, with a deft touch applied in compacting many hundreds of years of thinking into a medium-sized-page work that will deservedly become a classic. A fresh engagement of the three divine hypostases in sovereign activity. There is sizeable technical content which I trust doesn't put off some readers, yet here is a sizeable overview and thorough analysis of how we can worship, understand and follow God as Trinity. Wise, insightful, comprehensive and full of kingdom sparkle!
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on 27 November 2014
Utterly brilliant. Buy it, read it and learn a lot.
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