Matt Jenson and Fred Sanders are discussing the recent book on the doctrine of the Trinity by Stephen R. Holmes, The Quest for the Trinity. In part 1, we set up Holmes’ project and his approach. In this installment, we discuss what he says about the history of the doctrine (chapters 3-8). In these core chapters, Holmes covers the early fathers, spends considerable time on the fourth century, surveys the middle ages and the Reformation, then looks at the period down to about 1800.
Sanders: Quest for the Trinity has two chapters on the fourth century, and Holmes gives himself room to go into considerable detail on the developments during this period. I think that’s a good move, and there are several reasons for giving disproportionate attention to this century. First, of course, it’s the period in which major and fundamental decisions were made. But second, from the standpoint of modern scholarship, the study of the fourth century has been a contested area in the twentieth century. I remember back in the 1980s it seemed that the historians of doctrine had done a lot of great work on Nicaea and its contexts, and had produced a body of work that introduced significant nuance and depth into our understanding of the fourth century. But systematic theologians were out of touch with that whole body of patristic research: if they read it at all, their reading made no impact on the kinds of things they kept repeating in their thumbnail sketches of the development of doctrine. There was a gap between patristic scholarship and systematics. It was a yawning gap in two senses: big and boring.
In the last 20 years or so, though, a host of scholars have filled that gap, building bridges from either side. From the historical side, we’ve seen fairly traditional patristics scholars like Charles Kannengiesser becoming increasingly skillful at putting their historical results in terms that systematic theologians can grasp. More emphatically, a writer like Lewis Ayres is so thoroughly bilingual in the tongues of history and theology that his major books have made equal impact in both fields (see Nicaea and its Legacy or Augustine on the Trinity). From the systematic-theological side, a number of theologians retooled and adjusted their ways of looking at the historical developments. What we’re getting right now in trinitarian theology is a harvest of historical theology paying off in systematics.
Holmes, in these historical chapters, presupposes all that. He seems to have read just about everything right up to the present date, and it makes a difference for how he tells the story.