About Providence, Divine Action and the Church

In this blog, Terry J. Wright posts thoughts and shares research on the Christian doctrine of providence. This doctrine testifies to God’s provision for all things through creation’s high priest, the man Christ Jesus. However, the precise meaning and manner of this provision is a perpetually open question, and this blog is a forum for discussion of the many issues relating to providence and the place of the Church within God’s action.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Stephen Holmes on The Holy Trinity

Stephen R. Holmes, The Holy Trinity: Understanding God’s Life. Christian Doctrines in Historical Perspective (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2012)

Stephen Holmes offers an insightful study of the development of the doctrine of the Trinity, arguing that the recent so-called ‘revival’ in trinitarian theology is, in fact, not a revival of the Nicene dogma. Until at least the seventeenth century, theologians from East and West upheld one general approach to God as Trinity: that the three divine hypostases (Father, Son and Spirit) are instantiations of the one divine nature, each distinguished from the other two by the relations of origin. But now, in many recent theological writings, it’s assumed that the Patristic doctrine is unduly influenced by Hellenism, with its emphasis on substance metaphysics. Instead, it is considered proper to regard God not as a substance but as relational – particularly as a community of divine persons. Thus the term ‘person’, understood as a centre of consciousness or some such notion, is often assumed univocally to apply as much to the divine hypostases as it does to human beings in general. Holmes’s point is that the trinitarian thought of people such as John Zizioulas, J├╝rgen Moltmann and Robert Jenson cannot be understood as a revival of the Nicene dogma (Ch. 1).

To make his case, Holmes first outlines the biblical basis for understanding God as Trinity (Ch. 2) and then shows how the Patristic debates, largely centred on matters of exegesis, gave rise to the dogma encapsulated in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed (Chs. 3–6). Following a brief interlude, which summarises the doctrine of the Trinity as received from the fourth century, Holmes examines how the doctrine was upheld in the medieval and Reformation eras, only to be denied later by various anti-trinitarian thinkers (Chs. 7–8). The final chapter (Ch. 9) examines how the Trinity concept continued to be alive in the work of number of nineteenth- and twentieth-century theologians and historians, including Hegel, Schleiermacher and von Harnack. It’s to Holmes’s credit that he is able to condense nearly two thousand years of deliberation into two hundred pages, though the majority of the book is, as might be expected, taken up by discussion of the Patristic period.

Holmes writes clearly and with passion; thus his overall argument has space to convince. And convince he does; he has forced me to think more deeply about both the doctrine of the Trinity and the being of God, which will no doubt have a similar effect on the way I think about the doctrine of providence. Some of Holmes’s analysis has helped me better to understand the current debates around Karl Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity, particularly with regard to election and Christology. And it seems to me that throughout, Holmes offers fair and balanced interpretations of those with whom he engages. Moreover, as far as is possible, he examines the original texts themselves. There is no evidence of the type of intellectual laziness that remains content simply to accept others’ readings of a given primary text.

However, there is one occasional theme (if a theme it is) that grates. Even though The Holy Trinity is primarily a work of historical analysis, charting the development of a doctrine and its subsequent reinterpretation and even rejection; and despite his denial that he’s ‘attempt[ing] to prove that the older tradition was right’ (p. xvi); there are still comments that indicate in no uncertain terms where Holmes’s own loyalties lie: ‘it may be that recent writers are right in their accounts of the content and use of Trinitarian doctrine, but if so, we need to conclude that the majority of the Christian tradition has been wrong in what it has claimed about the eternal life of God.’ (p. 2). And the book’s final paragraphs read:

… we set out on our own to offer a different, and we believed better, doctrine. We returned to the Scriptures, but we chose (with Tertullian’s Praxeas, Noetus of Smyrna, and Samuel Clarke) to focus exclusively on the New Testament texts, instead of listening to the whole of Scripture with Tertullian, Hippolytus, and Daniel Waterland. We thought about God’s relationship with the creation in the economy, but we chose (with the Valentinians, Arius, and Hegel) to believe that the Son must be the mode of mediation of the Father’s presence to creation, instead of following Irenaeus and Athanasius in proposing God’s ability to mediate his own presence. We tried to understand the divine unity, but we chose (with Eunomius and Socinus) to believe that we could reason adequately about the divine essence, instead of following Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and John Calvin in asserting divine unknowability. We addressed divine simplicity, and chose (with Socinus and John Biddle) to discard it, rather than following Basil and the rest in affirming it as the heart of Trinitarian doctrine. We thought about Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but chose (with Sabellius, Arius, and Eunomius) to affirm true personality of each, rather than following Augustine and John of Damascus in believing in one divine personality.

We called what we were doing a ‘Trinitarian revival’; future historians might want to ask us why. (p. 200).

I suppose there’s no problem with these kinds of comments in themselves; but in a study aiming to present an historical judgement, these appear to me out-of-place rhetorical flourishes. And so, given these kinds of comments, I wonder if Holmes should have provided at least one further chapter explaining why Zizioulas et al. are wrong to depart from Patristic teaching if what they write is nonetheless compatible with the trinitarian dogma set forth in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. Perhaps this, or something like it, is a future project.

Regardless, I can only recommend The Holy Trinity. It is necessary reading and an indispensable resource for anyone researching the doctrine of the Trinity.

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