Thousands of Pages of New Trinitarian Theology

Thousands of Pages of New Trinitarian Theology August 21, 2012

There are always books about the Trinity coming out, because it’s a perennially important doctrine. All roads in Christian theology lead to it in one way or another, and from this doctrine you can get to any other doctrine without taking too many steps. But in any given year, the two or three new Trinity books that come out are mostly rehashing standard topics, or at best re-calibrating the old topics for a new audience. I love them all, and I read them all, but I rarely see anything new.

This year looks different. Over the past several months my academic book-gathering habits have resulted in a larger-than-usual pile of books on the “read me very soon, I’m about the Trinity” corner of my desk. And not only are there more of them than in other years, but they seem more important, as well.

The standouts are three large collections of essays from Cambridge, Oxford, and T. & T. Clark. Weighing in at 414 pages, 632 pages, and 512 pages respectively, these tomes pile up pretty fast, taking us over the 1,500 page mark and featuring eighty chapters!  Each of these volumes is a serious attempt by the editors to gather an interdisciplinary and international team of scholars to survey the entire field of contemporary trinitarianism.

The Cambridge Companion to the Trinity, edited by Peter C. Phan,  has been out since August 2011. Whatever other editorial principles Phan used,what he highlights in the preface is his intention “that the contributors should not only represent a wide spectrum of theological views but also be balanced in terms of gender, ethnicity, and geography, to honor the global character of contemporary theology.”  He succeeded in this quest, with mixed results. It’s great to have some of these chapters authored by unexpected contributors: the Reformation chapter is by Young-Ho Chun of the St Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, the liberation theology chapter is by Miguel H. Diaz, U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, and the chapter on feminist theologies is by Patricia Fox of Flanders University. The Cambridge Companion also assembles some of “the usual suspects” for predictable chapters, such as John McGuckin on the Greek fathers, Michel Rene Barnes on Latin trinitarian theology, and Karen Kilby on Hans Urs von Balthasar. There are some odd displacements: Anselm Min covers Aquinas (not liberation?), Christine Helmer writes on post-Reformation authors (not Luther?), and Anne Hunt discusses the nexus of Christology and pneumatology (not the paschal mystery?). At a quick skim, I’d give this Cambridge Companion the award for quirkiness.

The Oxford Handbook of the Trinity, on the other hand,  takes the prize for being definitive, with  no real competition on the market. This is where the usual suspects are all hiding; here is the volume that assembles the all-star cast holding forth on their expected subjects: Seitz on the Old Testament, Rowe, Gathercole, and Witherington on the New Testament, Ayres on Augustine, Louth on late patristics in the East, O’Regan on Hegel and Schelling, Hunsinger on Barth, Boespflug on the visual arts, Nonna Verna Harrison on feminism, and so on and on. The Handbook came out in January 2012, and is edited by Gilles Emery and Matthew Levering, who also write the very substantive introduction and conclusion. One thing they note in the conclusion (“Prospects for Trinitarian Theology”) is that “the recent development of Trinitarian theology has benefited greatly from the progress of historical studies.” Indeed, the historical essays seem to dominate this volume. There are many such chapters, sub-dividing historical periods into relatively small chunks: instead of  single “medieval Latin” chapter, for example, there are separate chapters on the ninth to eleventh, twelfth, thirteenth, and thirteenth-to-fifteenth centuries. These chapters are of a consistently high quality. I suspect the Oxford Handbook will be a landmark in eliminating some unhelpful generalizations about trinitarian theology, clearing out sloppy scholarship inherited from recent generations. The best scholarship is all summarized and represented here; things hidden away in journals and things ensconced in monographs are now in print in a definitive reference work, so there is no longer any excuse for the next generation to pass along howlers like “the East starts with three and moves to one, the West goes the other direction.” Let there be jubilation and the fair reading of ancient texts! I probably shouldn’t say the historical chapters dominate the volume, because I see eighteen more chapters in the sections on dogmatics, the Christian life, and dialogues. Perhaps I just ran out of steam and have only read the first (biblical and historical) half. Did I mention this is a large book?

The T. & T. Clark volume, Rethinking Trinitarian Theology: Disputed Questions And Contemporary Issues in Trinitarian Theology, is edited by Giulio Maspero and Robert Wozniak.  It came out in March, and not being part of a series like the two volumes above, is the easiest to overlook. To my eyes, this volume seems to come from some parallel universe where Trinity discussion is all a little different. But on closer inspection, I see that the parallel universe in question is European Roman Catholicism. Some of the names are of quite renowned theologians, but we don’t hear much of them in American theological circles: Lucas Francisco Mateo-Seco, Angel Cordovilla Perez, Michael Schulz, Emmanuel Durand, Philip Gabriel Renczes, Andrzej Wiercinski, Gisbert Greshake, Luis Ladaria. But there are also some big names from the anglosphere: Lewis Ayres (again –this time with a barnstormer of an essay!), Richard Cross, John Zizioulas, Bruce McCormack, Kathryn Tanner, David Tracy, and Anne Hunt (ah, here’s her paschal mystery essay). There is a lot of good stuff in this volume, but its coherence is hard to locate. The quality of the writing also varies widely, with some excellent work landing side by side with much weaker efforts.

Beyond these three collections, two other new Trinity books stand out. First is Gilles Emery’s inaugural volume in the Thomistic Ressourcement series, The Trinity: An Introduction to Catholic Doctrine on the Triune God (CUA Press, 2011). For me, Emery’s work is an index of all that is best in the recent renewal of Thomist theology, especially for its beneficial effects on trinitarianism. So far the best Emery books have required close attention to Thomas Aquinas, serving almost as commentaries to be read alongside. But Emery’s The Trinity is more straightforwardly a work of constructive theology, though of course it’s in retrieval mode and it’s Thomas who’s being retrieved. This is a very good book (translated by Matthew Levering).

Finally, Stephen Holmes has a new book coming out soon in the USA as The Quest for the Trinity, from IVP.  I’ve been reading the UK edition from Paternoster Press (The Holy Trinity: Understanding God’s Life), and it is dynamite. Holmes takes the “everything you think you know is wrong” approach, at times approximating a jeremiad against the self-appointed twentieth-century revivals of trinitarianism. I think it will prove to be just the right amount of bad attitude to shake up some settled certainties of the recent past. The late twentieth century was dominated by a revolutionary new account of the doctrine of the Trinity, which its fans called a renaissance, a revival, a renovation. In various ways, the best new work on the doctrine can be considered counter-revolutionary: Nicaea was more doctrinally holistic than merely a refutation of one heresy; Augustine wasn’t a tenth as bad as Gunton said; Aquinas did not sever the treatise on the One God from the treatise on the Trinity; De Regnon was overly schematic with his East-West distinction, and so on. The new wave of counter-revolutionary trinitarianism begs to differ, and is finding ways to leap over the orthodoxies of the recent past to get back in touch with a longer narrative that makes more sense. Holmes’ book may be the feistiest of the lot, but he seems to have read all the recent historical and doctrinal considerations, and has made them more succinct and more explosive.

If you’re starting out in the study of the Trinity, the good news is that the latest books happen to be the most helpful ones right now. Take up and read. I suggest starting with the Oxford Handbook on the Trinity.


Browse Our Archives