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The Holy Trinity - Understanding God’s Life

Author: Stephen R Holmes
Published By: Paternoster (Milton Keynes)
Pages: 231
Price: £19.99
ISBN: 978 1 84227 741 6

Reviewed by Philip Joy.

Stephen Holmes is an ascendant theological star, and as one of his current titles is Baptist Theology, his thinking is worth a good look. This is not supposed to be ‘The Trinity according to Holmes’ since it is part of a series looking at the history of doctrine. Holmes, however, does what is rare in any discipline: he writes a textbook, which simultaneously makes a major contribution to a debate!

The two points he makes as he tells the story of Trinitarian doctrine are first to call into question the degree of assumed split between East and West; and second to assert that most of the 20th Century revival  in the subject (e.g. the Social Trinity) is a dead-end and in places actually contradictory to Nicene belief.

The book begins with a chapter surveying the said 20th Century revival. The contributions of Barth, Rahner, Zizioulas, Moltmann and Jensen are expounded critically, while the further reflections of more radical theologians like Pannenberg, Boff, Volf, Plantinga Leftow are merely stated, exposing their many inconsistencies. The second chapter looks at the Trinity in the Bible; the third, the Patristic period; chapters four to seven the Fourth Century debates, Augustine and the Medieval Period; chapter eight considers the Reformation to the 18th Century and chapter nine the period 1800 to the present day, since Holmes believes the secular philosophical beliefs of the 19th Century are foundational to where modern Trinitarian doctrine has gone wrong.

If you are looking for an intelligent and detailed history of doctrine, which draws out a theological narrative from the history rather than imposing one from a denominational or other stance, this is what you’re after. But it is not easy reading. I don’t mean Holmes’ style is dense – his writing is actually remarkably clear – it is just that the doctrine of the Trinity results in technical vocabulary and complex concepts.

Furthermore, telling the history of the doctrine requires very a close reading of key texts which are here presented in both their historical and literary contexts. For many patristic writers, their position on the Trinity must be established from a spread of works and letters and across decades, and a considerable proportion of their body of work is polemical. This makes the material somewhat hard to sift for mere theological mortals, though not for Holmes. Indeed, he seems to surf effortlessly along these massive historical breakers. Thank God he has the brains to, for, as the book progresses, an unexpected but compelling story unfolds.

The unusual (by today’s standards) Old Testament hermeneutics of the patristics are given full credence. For example, the phrase “...Light of Light…”, it appears, was inspired by the surprising text, Psalm 39.6: “In your light we see light!” But Holmes dismisses contemporary exegetes with a magisterial remark directed to those who think “a text means only what the author first intended it to mean.” In his section on the New Testament, there are a couple of good brief sections which would make fine material for a talk on just how far the New Testament goes in having a Trinity in all but name. The fact that it would take four centuries to work out the doxological and exegetical commitments of the early church, says Holmes, should not blind us to their very early clarity. For those seeking to understand the writers of the sub-apostolic period – Justin Martyr, Iranaeus, Tertullian et al, who introduced much of the familiar Trinitarian vocabulary – Holmes also gives us a valuable and accessible reader, considering the paucity of books on this period.

However, it is when we reach the Cappadocians and Augustine that Holmes’ treatment really flowers. He takes head-on and disproves the assertion that Augustine didn’t know enough Greek, thus leading to a disjuncture between Eastern and Western Trinities. The only evidence of a split is the filioque controversy and the historical context of that issue was much more about whether a pope had the right to add to the creed without an ecumenical council. With an explanation of virtuoso clarity he shows how both positions on the problem can be true and how neither deny the deity of the Holy Spirit or Christ, and how both views were held and discussed right round the ancient world. I was enlightened. 

His constant tale therefore is the patristic Trinity who is to be adored and whose inner life is love: that God is ineffable, simple and unrepeatable “therefore in crude terms one”, but that He exists in three real, necessary and eternal “instantiations” each of whom share fully in the life of the Godhead indivisibly, that all that is said of God applies to all three, the only exception to this being their relations of origin as Father, Son and Spirit. This is in stark contrast with the tale of the 20th Century doctrine he sets forth in chapter one.

It was this last point that really hit me, having been a greedy consumer of Social Trinitarianism at college. You must ask yourself: is personal-ness really located in the three hypostases and not in the one divine ousia? If so, instead of a personal God you have an impersonal ‘godness’, and instead of three divine Persons, you have three actual, different and thereby contradictory divine personalities (virtual Tri-theism). I never really thought it through at college - and there was much like it - being carried away by staff and pupils on a wave of Trinitarian enthusiasm. Therefore I am grateful to Holmes: this excellent, concise yet thorough book marks a sea-change: a return to orthodoxy. It is a necessary addition to every pastor’s shelf.

Philip Joy

Specialist in Old Testament narrative and typology

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You are reading Issue 56 of Ministry Today, published in November 2012.

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