A History of the Trinity (Holmes pt. 1)

We had a blast talking through Tom McCall’s Forsaken a few months ago and thought we’d do the same with Stephen Holmes’ recent book on the Trinity, published in the US as The Quest for the Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History and Modernity (IVP Academic, 2012) and in the UK as The Holy Trinity: Understanding God’s Life (Paternoster, 2012). Thanks to IVP and Paternoster for review copies! (The book’s identical, by the way, just with different titles and covers.)

Senior Lecturer in Systematic Theology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, Holmes is a British Baptist who began his theological work in the mind of Jonathan Edwards. Like Edwards, Holmes makes no apologies for his particular theological and ecclesial commitments, holding to them with conviction. But also like Edwards, he can be unpredictable. He exhorts evangelicals to listen to the church in the reading of Scripture, but such listening hardly suggests docility. With Alasdair MacIntyre, Holmes finds tradition to be “an argument extended through time”–an argument in which we do well to speak up.

In this post, we frame Holmes’ project in The Quest for the Trinity.

Jenson:  The UK version of the book has it in Paternoster’s series of “Christian Doctrines in Historical Perspective.” The advantage to such a series lies in its ability to lay bare the assumptions and discussions behind current formulations of a doctrine. Often enough, one can detect a bogey in the vicinity without being able precisely to locate it. The series promises to offer a historical account of the contexts, contests and convergences that have led to the current state of a given doctrine.

This is especially important with regard to the doctrine of the Trinity. One of the central claims in contemporary reports of trinitarian theology is that the doctrine itself fell into some combination of neglect and disrepute in the last few centuries, only to rise like a phoenix from the ashes in the 20th century. (No, that is not an overblown account of the rhetoric.) Karl Barth first signaled the dawn in his majestic account of the God who is none other than the one he is revealed to be in Christ. The trinitarian revival was driven in large part by this concern for revelation. To give priority to God’s unity (as had been standard since the Middle Ages) threatened to obscure his triunity, and it called into question the reliability and reality of God’s self-revelation in Christ. So Karl Rahner insisted that the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity, and vice versa. If one is the other, one certainly reveals the other. Added to this, in Holmes’ account, is the irreducible relationality of the Trinity in John Zizioulas’ Being as Communion, which regarded the person (for Zizioulas, the Father) as the basic ontological unit (to put it roughly).

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