Stephen R. Holmes, The Holy Trinity: Understanding God's Life (Paternoster, 2011), 231pp
The Holy Trinity is the first in a new series from Paternoster looking at Christian Doctrines in Historical Perspective. In his introduction Steve Holmes, quoting Chaucer, suggests that this is a 'little book'. It is anything but. At 231 pages it is at least medium-sized book and its content - the history of doctrine of the Trinity - means its a book that covers a large amount of history and ideas. Holmes has recently said in a editorial for the International Journal for Systematic Theology (January 2012) that a lot of theology is about engaging with the history of ideas, that is, its about careful reading of the past and present, rather than doing novel and constructive theology. The Holy Trinity is an excellent example of careful reading.
The book begins with a discussion of the 'revival' of Trinity theology in the twentieth century that was initiated by Barth, Rahner and Zizioulas and developed by Pannenberg, Moltmann, Jenson, Boff and Volf (there are of course others that could be mentioned, e.g. Gunton, Cunningham, Fiddes). Then it travels back in history with chapters on the Trinity in the Bible, in the Early Fathers (Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen), and then two chapters on the later Fourth-Century (Arius, Athanasius, Cappadocians, John of Damascus), the West and Augustine, the Medieval period (Anselm, Richard of St Victor, Aquinas), followed by a chapter on Anti-Trinitarianism in the period between the Reformation and the Eighteenth century, and then concludes with a final chapter on the doctrine in the last two hundred years (Hegel, Coleridge, Schleiermacher, Hodge, Dorner).
The book has two aims. First it seeks to provide a book-length (affordable) treatment of the doctrine of the Trinity in the historical tradition. It this way if operates as a textbook for theological students seeking to understand the doctrine's development (perhaps only Paul M. Collin's The Trinity: A Guide for the Perplexed does a similar kind of job). The Oxford Handbook of the Trinity and The Cambridge Companion to the Trinity have recently been published and perhaps Holmes' book should be read alongside these - the obvious strength of Holmes' book being it's price (!) and it is one theologian's reading of the tradition, rather than the multiple author approach of the other books.
Second it argues that rather than the doctrine of the Trinity being recovered in the twentieth century, the doctrine as stated and developed by those coming after Barth offers a departure from the Patristic tradition, that is, a revision. Holmes argues that trinitarian doctrine is largely agreed (there is no East/West Cappadocian/Augustine divide) right up to the eighteenth/nineteenth centuries, that is, theologians restate the earlier tradition. The twentieth century, partly in response to the nineteenth century, does not revive trintiarian doctrine from past (despite its claims), but is doing some different. Holmes does not argue that more recent trinitarian doctrine is wrong or that earlier ages were right. He leaves these questions unanswered.
The doctrine of the Trinity is not the easiest of doctrines (probably true for more than most!), because it can get quite technical in terms of language. Holmes is therefore to be congratulated on providing a help introduction and analysis of how the tradition makes it confession in God as Trinity. He is an able reader of these early and later theologians and presents a compelling case for his main argument. It will surely find its way onto many reading lists. In addition to the text itself, Holmes provides an excellent set of indexes (biblical texts cited, technical terms cited, and index of authors and subjects), which are always welcome to this reader. Having provided this historical study of trinitarian doctrine, we await perhaps a more critical work which explores the theological questions, which this present work does not seek to answer.