It’s a commonplace in contemporary theology to say that the doctrine of the Trinity was marginalized in the modern period, until it was recovered by Barth and Rahner. The doctrine was kept around, so the story goes, but it didn’t matter to theologians, and didn’t do any real work that made a difference. That’s the story as I learned it, and it seemed to make a lot of sense. It seemed to explain why there’s been a torrent of publications on the Trinity since the mid 20th century. I’ve told the story of the decline and recovery of trinitarianism myself at times, with the two Karls as the heroes and some vague, boring 19th century figures as the villains.
But the maginalization thesis is coming under increasing scrutiny recently, and is not doing well. Upon closer examination, it doesn’t do justice to the full scope of theology in the last few centuries. A number of theologians have been calling it into question lately. I am betting that Stephen Holmes’ brand new barn-burner The Holy Trinity: Understanding God’s Life is going to be a turning point in the discussion. More on Holmes soon, I hope. By the way, he has just finished twittering the Trinity section of his bite-sized systematic theology at twystematics.org.
Here is my contribution to overturning the myth of the Trinity’s marginalization: Four quotations that I feature near the end of my chapter in Mapping Modern Theology: A Thematic and Historical Introduction. Colin Gunton once pointed out, “in all periods there have been competent theologians, Catholic and Protestant alike, who have continued to work with traditional trinitarian categories while being aware of the reasons that have led others to question, modify or reject traditional orthodoxy.” I figured that if Gunton were right, it ought to be pretty easy to go find competent theologians from the supposedly moribund period, and see if they were adequately excited about the Trinity.
Sure enough, they were. Everything that is routinely praised as belonging to the excitement of the trinitarian revival of recent times is fairly easy to find in older, conservative sources, and there does not seem to be any chronological gap during which serious theological voices were not holding forth on the doctrine of the Trinity with faithfulness and creativity. It’s hard to say what these conservative theologians failed to deliver.
If you’re looking for a treatment of the Trinity that recognizes it as the core content of the continuity of the Christian faith, you can find it in the British Methodist William Burt Pope (1822-1903):