Brian K. Kay. Trinitarian Spirituality: John Owen and the Doctrine of God in Western Devotion. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2008.
Reviewed by Ryan M. McGraw
This is a very insightful book that seeks to fill an expansive vacuum with regard to the subject of personal piety, namely, a model for piety that is rooted in the historic doctrine of the Trinity. For most believers, the doctrine of the Trinity is an obscure fact lying at the root of orthodox Christianity that possesses no further practical significance. Developing a biblically rooted “Trinitarian spirituality” is a tremendous need of the Church at the present time. Unfortunately, since this book was originally a doctoral dissertation, it is unlikely that it will receive a widespread readership among the average members of the Church. It is incumbent, therefore, upon ministers of the gospel to digest books such as this one and to learn how to develop and communicate a robust Trinitarian piety in the context of their regular pulpit ministries.
In this work, Kay has set forth viable criteria by to promote a genuine Trinitarian Spirituality. It is somewhat misleading to regard Owen as the subject of this book, as the title might otherwise indicate. Owen is referenced for illustrative purposes as well as for his peculiar contribution to the notion of distinct communion with all three divine Persons (6). Kay’s thesis is as follows: “a robust doctrine of the Trinity is able to shape a quality of spiritual response to God that is not otherwise possible” (2). He added, “In this work ‘spirituality’ is used narrowly to speak of the personal response to God of someone who is indwelled by the Holy Spirit and is thus united to Christ and on that basis restored to the Father” (10). Kay’s two tests of Trinitarian Spirituality are an orthodox doctrine of the Trinity coupled with personal experience of the unfolding “drama” of redemption, or historia salutis. Unfortunately, he limits his discussion to “private worship” whereas Owen, who is Kay’s primary model, regarded corporate worship as the climax of his own Trinitarian theology. Hopefully the importance of the topic treated in this book speaks for itself. Without undermining the great value of this book, I intend to focus on some significant areas of criticism in addition to areas of praise.
Kay’s thesis and criteria are introduced in chapter one. Kay assumes that his readers have an extensive knowledge of historic Trinitarian theology and terminology as well as of contemporary debates (e.g. pg. 22). Chapter two traces the historical growth of Trinitarian orthodoxy as well as the divorce of Trinitarian theology and personal piety in the Middle Ages. In chapter three, he “searches” for a true Trinitarian Spirituality through the Medieval period, finding few positive contributions along the way. His critical analysis of Thomas a Kempis’ still popular work, The Imitation of Christ, is highly insightful. Kay takes into account the curious fact that while a Kempis’ theology and particularly his views of absorption into the divine nature are contrary to both Roman Catholic and Protestant theologies, yet the work has continued to be popular in both traditions. A Kempis, along with several others who are examined, also fails to take the Trinity into account in any meaningful way in his system of piety.
Turning to Owen briefly by way of anticipation, Kay then argues that Owen took a “bolder approach” than the Medieval scholastics (35), creating some “tension” between his developments and the Western tradition in that he focused more on the personal distinctions of the three persons ad extra than ad intra (36). He added, “I believe Owen represents the closest pastoral appropriation of the theological Trinitarianism of the Reformed scholastics of the prior stage, but Owen’s emphases are somewhat unique when compared with other famous devotional writings of the period” (54). On pages 68-71, Kay addresses insightfully the manner in which Owen focused communion with the Trinity in the person and work of Christ. In particular, the union of the divine and human natures in Christ and the union of believers with the divine-human Christ establish a pattern of what it means to be in communion with God as Triune. Owen’s covenant theology rooted this Trinitarian piety in history, rather than in a mystical self-negation. In other words, rather than leading to an absorption into the divine nature resulting in a loss of individual self-consciousness, Owen’s Trinitarian piety was rooted in looking back to and participating in the historically accomplished facts of a covenant transaction in God’s unfolding plan of redemption.
Chapter four serves as a transition to Kay’s extensive treatment of Owen’s important work on Communion with God. Here Kay seeks to set the stage for further discussion by establishing the “general features of Trinitarian spirituality” (98). There are some significant problems with this chapter. First, Kay does not accurately reflect the Reformed concept of the incomprehensibility of God. Incomprehensibility does not mean, as Kay asserts, “the unknowability of God in himself” (99), but than man cannot know God exhaustively as he is. In the classic Medieval distinction between archetypal and ectypal theology, a difference was made between God’s knowledge of himself versus man’s knowledge of God. God is perfectly comprehensible to himself. Man’s knowledge of God is derivative, finite, and a dim reflection of God’s knowledge of himself. There is both a qualitative and a quantitative difference between our knowledge of God and his knowledge of himself, yet this does not negate the fact that believers do know God as he is in himself in some measure. Eastern theology teaches a kind of agnosticism regarding the essence of God, so that believers know nothing of God’s essence. In Western theology, the Eastern distinction between God’s essence and attributes has not been maintained so sharply. To know the attributes of God is to know something about his essence, albeit in a limited way that is appropriate to creatures. Kay’s definition of incomprehensibility does not accurately represent the theological tradition in which Owen participated, and it threats to call into question the genuineness of the Christian’s knowledge (and thus his communion) with God.
Another difficulty is Kay’s representation of the western Trinitarian formula. He asserts that Owen’s construction of communion with all three Persons was “a somewhat novel emphasis in the West” (106). He then refers to the Western conception of the Trinity as the “unfortunate and explicit development of the indivisibility of the actions of the persons” (107). This conception of the undivided actions of the divine persons is explicit, but it is not unfortunate. Moreover, regardless of whether one concludes that Owen is in harmony with the western Trinitarian tradition at other points, there is no question of his historical grounding on this point. The assertion of the undivided or unified action of the three divine persons (opera trinitatis ad extra indivisia sunt) is the foundation upon which Owen built his entire theology of communion with the three Persons distinctly. This is the entire force of the first chapter of Communion with God and this principle is frequently reasserted throughout the book. If this doctrine is “unfortunate,” then Owen’s entire model for Trinitarian Spirituality crumbles at its foundation. Kay further supports his criticism of the Western tradition through a partial distortion of Augustine’s views (via Alan Spence). Two major problems with his treatment are that Augustine did not deny the distinct operation of the three persons in God’s works ad extra, and that Karl Barth is not an appropriate representative of the views of Augustine (108). Barth had his own peculiarities that should not be imputed to Augustine. It would be more accurate to state that Owen’s emphasis upon communion with the three persons is unique, than to say that Owen’s construction of the doctrine of the Trinity is unique.
In chapter five, Kay moves into an extensive analysis of Owen’s Communion with God. Most of this analysis is useful and accurate, but a few features should be mentioned:
Kay assumes that natural revelation legitimates the use of natural theology (125). This is a common position today, but it cannot justly be imputed to Owen. In The Claims of Truth, Carl Trueman distinguishes Owen’s views of Natural Theology from post-Enlightenment conceptions of the same doctrine. It is always a danger concomitant to historical theology to impute our own views to our subject of study. On other occasions, Kay imposes anachronistic terminology upon Owen, which procures the same results (e.g. 131).
One insightful feature of this chapter is that Kay refers to Owen’s exposition of Proverbs 8 as an “undiscovered” aspect of Owen’s Trinitarianism (136). The reason for this is that Owen highlighted the Father’s delight not only in the Son, but in the Son because the Son delighted in the children of men whom the Father determined to save. This is a potentially fruitful insight into the study of Owen’s Christology.
There is a significant problem with Kay’s treatment of Owen’s views on assurance of the Father’s love. After setting forth the standard Puritan syllogism on assurance (i.e., induction from the effects of sanctification, to the regeneration of the Holy Spirit, to the assurance of justification), Kay formulates what he calls the “Owenian Syllogism:” The Father promises to set his love upon anyone who is willing to believe that he loves them; I believe that the Father can love me and I seek to receive his love; therefore, the saving love of the Father rests upon me (143). Although, in one sense, this argument resembles the close of chapter four of Communion with God, Kay has lost sight of Owen’s overall emphasis in the first four chapters, creating a catastrophic problem. The primary ingredient missing in this syllogism is the Lord Jesus Christ! Owen was emphatic throughout Communion with God that it is in union with Christ only that there is any possible knowledge of the love of the Father. It is not believing that the Father can love me and that I desire to be loved by him that produces assurance; it is believing that he can and has loved me in Christ. It seems to this reader, that in light of the bulk of Communion with God, Owen would have been appalled by Kay’s “Owenian Syllogism.”
In addition, Kay has not accurately represented Owen’s emphases regarding communion with Christ. Owen divided this section into Christ’s “personal grace” and his “purchased grace.” Although Kay acknowledges that “personal grace” was a distinctive contribution from Owen (146), he has virtually omitted its significance from his discussion. This has significant ramifications for Kay’s ability to reconstruct accurately Owen’s views. For Owen, the “personal grace” of Christ meant the “grace” that Christ possessed in his Person as the God-man. Part of “personal grace” included Christ’s participation in the gifts and the graces of the Holy Spirit. This means that union with Jesus Christ is the foundation of communion with the Holy Spirit, providing the grounds for sanctification. Kay does discuss the work of the Holy Spirit in distributing Christ’s benefits to believers (156-157, 178-179), but instead of explaining communion with Christ in his “personal grace” in terms of union with Christ (which is central to Owen’s theology), he construes this communion with Christ as the delight that we have in his Person (163). However, Owen treated delight in Christ as the result of communion with Christ in his “personal grace.” Delight is not the substance of communion with Christ in his “personal grace.” This omission is probably the most conspicuous fault of this book. Not only does it misrepresent Owen, but it undermines Kay’s own quest to root Trinitarian Spirituality in the historia salutis, since the “personal grace” of Christ in Owen’s thought place a stronger emphasis on participating in the historical aspects of the life and work of Christ than perhaps any other consideration.
In addition, there is a massive missing ingredient with regard to the criteria of Kay’s thesis. Kay searches for a “spirituality” based upon Orthodox Trinitarianism coupled with the historia salutis, but he virtually neglects the ordo salutis. The ordo salutis was as essential to Owen’s views of communion with God as were his Trinitarianism and his covenant theology. This omission results in a lopsided spirituality that allows for no more than contemplating the “drama” set forth in the historical facts of the gospel. The reader almost wonders if Kay’s “spirituality” allows room for the imperatives included in Paul’s epistles. Kay has gleaned some useful insights from Owen, but by neglecting the ordo salutis, he presents only two thirds of what is necessary for a true “Trinitarian Spirituality.”
Lastly, one stylistic feature of this book should be mentioned: Kay consistently replaces the generic “he” with “she.” This is somewhat agitating and smacks of reverse discrimination or mild feminism. Moreover, one of the endorsements on the back of the book is from a female minister. If the Scriptures themselves use “he” in a generic sense, and if its use does not in the least impair clarity, then why make the change? In theological terms, is it really appropriate for mankind to be represented by a “she” instead of a “he” when the entire human race is under the representation of either one of two important men: Adam or Christ? Can we not avoid demeaning the value of women while not simultaneously acting as though we are embarrassed by the male headship set forth in Scripture?
In spite of the criticism mentioned above, this book partially fulfills the vital need for the Church to be more self-consciously Trinitarian in her worship and piety. If Kay’s treatment is incomplete, at least he sets us on the right track. This book provides many potential building blocks to build an explicitly Trinitarian view of communion with God. If this book is read and digested so that the places where its emphases are correct are disseminated in local churches, then Brian Kay has offered the Church an invaluable service.
The review above was originally published in the Confessional Presbyterian Journal, Issue 5, 2010.