Review: ‘The Quest for the Trinity’ by Stephen Holmes

For me, reading books about the doctrine of the Trinity goes roughly the same as when I think about the concept of the Trinity itself: I start with curiosity and end with a headache.

Stephen Holmes’ newest book, The Quest for the Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History, and Modernity, published by IVP Academic in October 2012, is a brief but thorough survey of one of Christianity’s most perplexing doctrines, spanning from the post-biblical period to modern times. The book is not a proof-text defense of Trinitarian doctrine; in fact, its purpose is not to defend the doctrine at all. It’s to show how the leading thinkers of Christianity have both articulated this belief and refuted what they believed to be heretical understandings of it (and, I’m learning, they often articulated their case during their refutations).

Anyone who isn’t familiar with these debates—and given the central role of the Trinity in Christian thought, it’s a shame that more popular-level churchgoers aren’t acquainted with them—will be amazing at the intricacy and detail in which the Trinity was both argued over and defined (or to be more precise, defined in terms of what language would be best used to describe the Godhead).

Those are the books strengths. I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone because not it’s not written for a popular-level audience. The author is clear that this work is intended for undergraduate-level students, and from what’s written, those students were obviously expected to know something about the material being presented. I consider myself an amateur church historian, and yet there were plenty of references to debates and figures in this book that I had never heard before. (Here’s a quick test to see how much you know about Christian history: if you don’t think Constantine created the Bible, made Christianity the religion of the empire, or invented the deity of Christ, then you’re much better off than some people.)

The chapters are organized by different topics and periods. The first chapter examines modern theologians—Barth and Moltmann are included here—and their Trinitarian doctrines. In the first chapter, Holmes sets up the rest of the book: some of the beliefs held about the Trinity today are contrary to what was believed and defended by the early, medieval, and Reformation-era church. To this end, Holmes examines the pre-Nicea era (Irenaeus, Tertullian, Justin Martyr, among others), as well as Athanasius and Augustine. “The rule of faith is triadic … and so the theological question of the Trinity is not whether to worship the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but how to understand the triune life of God” (75). Thomas Aquinas and Anselm also get their due, as do (although briefly) Luther and Calvin. Anti-trinitarians such as Michael Servetus (whose largest claim to fame, in my experience, is in Calvin wanting to see him executed) also get attention. Well-known topics surrounding this doctrine, such as the subordination of the Son and the filioque, are also visited.

In short, you’ll learn a lot about the Trinity in Christian history. Sometimes, the arguments of leading Christian thinkers will surprise, if not baffle you. Origen, for instance, argued for the eternal generation of the Son (also called the “Word”, by John 1:1) on the basis of passages such as Psalm 44:1: “My heart overflows with a good word.” (Holmes references this on pg. 76.) This is hardly the only passage used to defend the generation of the Son, but it’s also hardly the way that modern-day evangelicals read and interpret their Scriptures. (In my personal opinion, my fellow churchgoers could use some exposure to people like Origen, if for no other reason than to realize that the faith has been defended by people whose interpretations are sometimes radically different than their own. Such exposure can hopefully lead to humility.)

I especially like this comment by Holmes, who in the larger context was speaking of Gregory of Nyssa. This statement, I think, highlights both the impossibility of understanding who God is and the proper role of theology in light of the fact that we can never understand Him:

“According to Gregory, and he is representative of the mainstream of pro-Nicene theology on this point, if more sophisticated than most, the deployment of divine simplicity, ingenerateness, and the rest, then, looks something like this: The divine essence is fundamentally beyond our conceptions; all our language and thought, limited as it is by created categories, is inadequate to speak of what God is. Through God’s gracious revelation of himself, we have been given names to name God, and actions by which we might perceive God at work. However, our names suffer from the same limitations as our language and thought: they point towards the ineffable; they do not define or grasp it. … The task of theology is to find a grammar that will speak of this adequately, a task completed by the Cappadocian fathers in Greek and St Augustine in Latin, at least in the judgement of the majority witness of the Christian tradition” (108).

I can’t say it enough: you’re going to learn something from this book. That’s not to say you won’t need an Advil when you’re done, but you can count on getting something new out of the experience.

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2 thoughts on “Review: ‘The Quest for the Trinity’ by Stephen Holmes

  1. Nicholas November 23, 2012 / 12:33 am

    “Well-known topics surrounding this doctrine, such as the subordination of the Son..” What does the text have to say about this?

  2. jacobcerone November 26, 2012 / 7:14 am

    Excellent review. I know this was a minor and off-handed remark, but if memory serves me, Calvin did not wan to see Servetus executed. He was in protracted dialogue via correspondence with Servetus begging him to recant his views on the Trinity. He even warned him to not come into the city because the ruling authorities would not suffer his presence. It is against this backdrop that Servetus was eventually executed–a travesty nonetheless.

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