We must be willing to admit that, should the doctrine of the Trinity have to be dropped as false, the major part of religious literature could well remain virtually unchanged.
–Karl Rahner, The Trinity
I remember being shocked while reading Karl Rahner’s short and dense book on the Trinity as an undergraduate at the University of Washington. Rahner still seemed to be right about the main thrust of Western Christian theology. However, I later came to discover that his critique had trickled down into at least the academic theology of our time. This means that practical changes in emphasis will reach the laity, and perhaps the liturgy, in about fifty years from now.
Those of you reading this post are probably on your way back from a Mass where a sermon on the Trinity was mostly bungled with heavy recourse to the notion of a “unapproachable mystery.” Or you’re reading it a day or two after Trinity Sunday and wondering what the doctrine of the Trinity has to do with your Christian life.
The language of mystery is fine, however, it is mostly translated by postmodern ears as meaning “gibberish that can’t be explained and has no practical bearing on life.” The older notion of mystery is of something that cannot be theoretically explained, yet, it can be inhabited through participation in the Divine Life.
With this in mind I compiled the following booklist for you. I did an informal crowdsourcing survey that confirmed these books should be relatively new to most of you.
Here is how the list is structured:
It starts out with some introductory surveys, moves onto the historical roots of the Trinity, delves into the appropriation of the doctrine into contemporary spirituality, then it bends toward the fruitful contemporary dialogue between the East and West on this topic.
I pray these tomes help you build on Trinity Sunday and deepen your Christian life. I welcome further recommendations in the comments section at the bottom of this post.
I should add that I couldn’t fit in, given the artificial restraints of a TOP10 list, some really interesting sources like Lash’s Believing Three Ways in One God: A Reading of the Apostles’ Creed, Kasper’s The God of Jesus Christ, Congar’s I Believe in the Holy Spirit, Barth’s Church Dogmatics, Vol. 1.1, Sections 8-12: The Doctrine of the Word of God, and LaCugna’s God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life.
I haven’t read the last three, so at least that’s partially justified.
0. The Trinity: How Not to Be a Heretic by Stephen Bullivant
The central idea of this book is that, contrary to popular assumption, the Trinity is a very simple doctrine. It consists of just three short, deeply scriptural convictions: i) There is only one God; ii) Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all God; and iii) Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not the same. The Trinity: How Not to Be a Heretic explains how the earliest Christians came to be convinced by each statement, why they matter, and how slowly, over a period of several centuries it found a way of saying all three at once. Its sole purpose is to help Christians of all kinds better understand the Trinity so that they can then help others Christians, non-Christians, and maybe even some not-yet-Christians better understand it too.
Something quite extraordinary has happened in Catholic trinitarian theology in the last thirty years or so: the mystery of the Trinity is being approached by reflection on the paschal mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Astonishing though it may seem, the traditional Augustinian-Thomistic treatment of the trinity made no such direct reference to those Easter events, even though it was through them that Jesus’ disciples came to proclaim that Jesus is Lord and that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The redemptive significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection was clearly recognized, but not its revelatory significance.
2. The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God by Margaret Barker
What did “Son of God,” “Messiah,” and “Lord,” mean to the first Christians when they used these words to describe their beliefs about Jesus? In this book Margaret Barker explores the possibility that, in the expectations and traditions of first-century Palestine, these titles belonged together, and that the first Christians fit Jesus’ identity into an existing pattern of belief. She claims that pre-Christian Judaism was not monotheistic and that the roots of Christian Trinitarian theology lie in a pre-Christian Palestinian belief about angels–a belief derived from the ancient religion of Israel, in which there was a “High God” and several “Sons of God.” Yahweh was a son of God, manifested on earth in human form as an angel or in the Davidic King. Jesus was a manifestation of Yahweh, and was acknowledged as Son of God, Messiah, and Lord. Barker relies on canonical and deutero-canonical works and literature from Qumran and rabbinic sources to present her thoughtful investigation.
The first part of the book offers a new narrative of the fourth-century Trinitarian controversies. It takes forward modern revisionary scholarship, showing the slow emergence of the theologies that came to constitute pro-Nicene orthodoxy. Ancient heresiological categories, such as ‘Arian’ and ‘Neo-Arian’, are avoided while the unity of ‘Nicene’ theologies is not assumed. The second part offers a new account of the unity in diversity of late fourth-century pro-Nicene theologies. In particular it is argued that the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed and the statements of unity and plurality in the Trinity, to be found in all pro-Nicene theologians and in Theodosius’ anti-heretical legislation, were intended to be understood in the context of a broad set of theological practices and assumptions. An account of the basic strategies that ground pro-Nicene theology is offered, focusing on common epistemological concerns, a common notion of purification and sanctification, and a common aesthetics of faith. Instructions are provided detailing the Trinitarian theology of Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine of Hippo. Throughout the first two parts of the book, a constant concern is to show that the common acceptance of a basic division between Eastern and Western Trinitarian theologies is unsustainable. Finally, the failure of modern Trinitarian theology to engage pro-Nicene theology in a substantial manner is considered.
4. God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’ by Sarah Coakley
God, Sexuality and the Self is a new venture in systematic theology. Sarah Coakley invites the reader to re-conceive the relation of sexual desire and the desire for God and – through the lens of prayer practice – to chart the intrinsic connection of this relation to a theology of the Trinity. The goal is to integrate the demanding ascetical undertaking of prayer with the recovery of lost and neglected materials from the tradition and thus to reanimate doctrinal reflection both imaginatively and spiritually. What emerges is a vision of human longing for the triune God which is both edgy and compelling: Coakley’s théologie totale questions standard shibboleths on ‘sexuality’ and ‘gender’ and thereby suggests a way beyond current destructive impasses in the churches. The book is clearly and accessibly written and will be of great interest to all scholars and students of theology.
Balthasar’s unique volume on Thérèse of Lisieux and Elizabeth of the Trinity presents a theological biography of each of these holy Carmelite sisters which gives profound insights into their spirituality, showing that their differences actually complement one another. Balthasar probes the depths of the contemplative mission of each of these young Carmelites who both died in their twenties, and gave powerful witness to the critical importance of contemplation as a means to holiness. Each woman is clearly shown as a daughter of her Carmelite heritage with her own emphasis: Thérèse’s discovery of the “little way of love” and Elizabeth’s focus on the indwelling of God in the soul. He proposes their spiritualities as the only valid answers to Nietzsche’s proclamation of God’s death.
6. Being as Communion by John Zizioulas
The voice of John Zizioulas may turn out to be the fresh voice for which theology and especially ecclesiology have long been waiting. In the context of a complete theology, which includes extended consideration of the major theological topics the Trinity, Christology, eschatology, ministry, and sacrament, but above all, the Eucharist the author propounds a fresh understanding, based on the early Fathers and the Orthodox tradition, of the concept of person, and so of the Church itself. His consideration of the local church as ‘catholic’ in the literal sense, and the need to understand the universal Church not as a superstructure but as the communion of all Churches, provides the program for the ecclesiology of the future. Yves Congar has written that he considers the author to be ‘one of the most original and profound theologians of our epoch’ and that he ‘presents a penetrating and coherent reading of the tradition of the Greek .”
7. The Trinity: An Introduction to Catholic Doctrine on the Triune God by Giles Emery
Representing the highest quality of scholarship, Gilles Emery offers a much-anticipated introduction to Catholic doctrine on the Trinity. His extensive research combined with lucid prose provides readers a resource to better understand the foundations of Trinitarian reflection. The book is addressed to all who wish to benefit from an initiation to Trinitarian doctrine.
The path proposed by this introductory work comprises six steps. First the book indicates some liturgical and biblical ways for entering into Trinitarian faith. It then presents the revelation of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the New Testament, by inviting the reader to reflect upon the signification of the word “God.” Next it explores the confessions of Trinitarian faith, from the New Testament itself to the Creed of Constantinople, on which it offers a commentary. By emphasizing the Christian culture inherited from the fourth-century Fathers of the Church, the book presents the fundamental principles of Trinitarian doctrine, which find their summit in the Christian notion of “person.”
In Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Critical Appropriation of Russian Religious Thought, Jennifer Newsome Martin offers the first systematic treatment and evaluation of the Swiss Catholic theologian’s complex relation to modern speculative Russian religious philosophy. Her constructive analysis proceeds through Balthasar’s critical reception of Vladimir Soloviev, Nicholai Berdyaev, and Sergei Bulgakov with respect to theological aesthetics, myth, eschatology, and Trinitarian discourse and examines how Balthasar adjudicates both the possibilities and the limits of theological appropriation, especially considering the degree to which these Russian thinkers have been influenced by German Idealism and Romanticism.
9. Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine by Khaled Anatolios
Khaled Anatolios, a noted expert on the development of Nicene theology, offers a historically informed theological study of the development of the doctrine of the Trinity, showing its relevance to Christian life and thought today. According to Anatolios, the development of trinitarian doctrine involved a global interpretation of Christian faith as a whole. Consequently, the meaning of trinitarian doctrine is to be found in a reappropriation of the process of this development, such that the entirety of Christian existence is interpreted in a trinitarian manner.
10. The Trinity by Karl Rahner
The ground-breaking treatment of the doctrine of the Trinity by one of the most important theologians of the century is here reprinted on the 30th anniversary of its orginal publication. In this treatise, Karl Rahner analyzes the place of the doctrine of the Trinity within Catholic theology and develops his own highly original and innovative reading of the doctrine, including his now-famous dictum, “the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity.”
FILM BONUS: Andrei Rublev by Andrei Tarkovsky
Immediately suppressed by the Soviets in 1966, Andrei Tarkovsky’s epic masterpiece is a sweeping medieval tale of Russia’s greatest icon painter. Too experimental, too frightening, too violent, and too politically complicated to be released officially, Andrei Rublev has existed only in shortened, censored versions until the Criterion Collection created this complete 205-minute director’s cut special edition.
It runs three hours in black and white and then culminates in the following scene (not a spoiler!):
You should also take at Top 10 Theology Books of the Last 10 Years (That I’ve Read).
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