The Quest for the Trinity by Stephen R Holmes

Summary: An important look at the historical development of the Doctrine of the Trinity and how modern language drift has changed the historical definitions.

I have been looking forward to reading the Quest for the Trinity ever since I first heard about it in the middle of last year.  Consistently it has been well reviewed and it certainly deserves the accolades.  Holmes know his historical theology, he is very well read and no other book on the trinity I have read so far has been as well documented.

But I intentionally was holding off on reading this because just by reading the description and I knew he was reacting against the modern theological work around the trinity.  And it was the more recent (primarily social focused) theology of the Trinity that drew me toward investigating the trinity more.

The basic thesis is that the modern focus is fundamentally different from the Patristic understanding of the Trinity.  This is not actually all that hard to capture.  One of the things I most liked about Dunzl’s Doctrine of the Trinity is that he clearly showed that doctrinal development is at least partially dependent on language and culture of the time.  You cannot move beyond the current ability to describe the theology you are trying to document into a doctrine.

But a comment early in the book put me off on the wrong foot. “..the [modern] claim that the doctrine of the Trinity is generative for ecclesiology and ethics is in danger of being cast into doubt if such wildly divergent implications can be drawn from the same doctrine.”  In context, Holmes seems to be suggesting that because modern theologians come to different conclusions about ethics and ecclesiology when thinking about the Trinity that the entire idea of using the Theology of the Trinity to discuss ethics and ecclesiology is a suspect idea.

As an example both the role of women in complementarian theology and the radical pacifism of Miroslof Volf are both based primarily on trinitarian theological positions.  On the one hand Volf sees no subjugation of the Son to the Father and therefore bases his theology on a mutuality of the trinity.  Other other hand Bruce Ware bases his theology of complementarian roles of husband and wife on a very different theology of the Trinity.  Both the Father and Son are equally valued, but they have different roles and the role of the Son is to subjugate himself to the will of the Father. Holmes does not spell this out, but insinuates that without agreement of different theologians like Ware and Volf, the modern social understanding of the Trinity is suspect.  To which, I think we can point to almost any other theological position and the differences that people have over them.

It was about this time that I read Kevin Vanhoozer post about the inerrancy of scripture where he said,

“…it is important to remember that doctrines arise only when there is need for them. Doctrine develops when something implicit in the faith is denied; false teaching provokes an explicit rebuttal. This is as true of inerrancy as it is of the doctrines of the Trinity, or of justification by faith. The notion of the Bible’s truthfulness was implicitly assumed throughout the history of the church.”

I am not a fan of the language of inerrancy, but I think Vanhoozer’s point is a good one. Whether you agree with creationism or not, the importance of a 7 day creation was never that important until the rise of evolution. The way we describe scripture fundamentally changed when the concept of truth and history changed as a result of the Enlightenment.

Holmes is asserting, and I think clearly makes the case, that the Patristic language of person and substance that was used in the early development of the Doctrine of the Trinity is very different than the modern concepts of personhood that arose after the enlightenment, and especially after Freud or the modern concepts of substance that have so vastly changed with the ideas of quantum physics. Where The Quest for the Trinity shines is the investigation of the Patristic theology of the Trinity.

“L.P. Hartley’s opening claim from The Go-Between is quite true. ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’ The history of the early development of the doctrine of the Trinity is largely a history of biblical exegesis, but exegesis of a kind that is unconvincing, obscure, or seemingly arbitrary to the modern reader. If we are to understand the arguments that went on, we need to understand the exegetical rules – and the debates over those rules – that governed those arguments.”

Both as a criticism and affirmation, I have never used the dictionary (and wikipedia search) on my kindle as much as I did with this book.  Holmes is very precise with language.  I really do need to read this again because the history and the changes is the language are subtle.

But there are places where I think Holmes did not completely persuade me of his argument.  His assertion that Augustine was actually just explicating the Eastern theology of the Trinity and not making fairly radical changes to the theology seems suspect.  Here Holmes is going against the common stream of understanding of the development of the doctrine of the Trinity for decades if not centuries.  In addition, if he is right, that Augustine was really just explicating the East then that helps make his case that modern theology of the Trinity is fundamentally different from Patristic.  But if Augustine is different, if there really was an Eastern theology that focused more on the social relationship of the Trinity, then some of the movement of modern theology is really an expansion of that historical theological tradition.  I think this is the weakest point in the book.

I do think Holmes is right that the Western development of the filioque (the idea that Holy Spirit comes from both the father and the son, instead of the Eastern insistence that the Holy Spirit comes from the Father alone) was as much about politics and bad teaching as real theological conviction.  Clearly the East was as much upset about the idea that the Pope could change a creed on his own to include the filioque as they were about meaning of the change.

And Holmes also suggests that the West did not have a great theological conviction about the filioque as much as an assumption that it must be true.

On the whole, this is technical, but important book on the development of the theology of the Trinity.  I hope that there is more development around actual evaluation of the modern expansion of the doctrine of the Trinity instead of just saying that it is different from the Patristic doctrine of the Trinity.  Holmes has clearly made the case that the Patristic Fathers were not using the language in the same way as modern theologians are.  But I do not think that is an incredibly controversial point.  What is controversial and I do not think discussed enough in this book, is the idea that the expansion of the doctrine of the Trinity might be either improper or heretical depending on your view.

The Quest for the Trinity Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition


The publisher provided me with a digital copy for purposes of review.

One Comment

For me the equality of the Trinity is important in its ramifications upon other doctrines especially the doctrine of salvation. Without equality Jesus does not have the qualifications to be Saviour and the Holy Spirit is not able to bring to us the message of God as acturately nor as completely. I am having trouble expressing myself theologically because my words and the understanding of them by the ones who read this may be completely different. Sound familiar? I have this trouble when I teach and preach too!

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