Friday, May 30, 2014

Studies in Trinitarianism

Gilles Emery, O.P. and Matthew Levering, The Oxford Handbook of the Trinity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 632pp. Hardcover. $150.00.

Reviewed by Dr. Ryan M. McGraw

Over the past hundred years, the Trinity has received renewed attention. This has been true across ecclesiastical lines, encompassing Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Reformed, and others. This revival of trinitarian theology has great potential to profit Reformed churches (among others), since the triune God is the lifeblood of biblical Christianity and of genuine communion with God.

The large dictionary-sized Oxford Handbook of the Trinity includes forty-three essays on the Trinity by authors of various ecclesiology backgrounds, though there are far more Roman Catholic authors than any other group. The book traces the development of this vital Christian doctrine from biblical, historical, and contemporary perspectives. The size and depth of this book brings readers up to speed on contemporary research and it is particularly helpful in grasping trends in modern Roman Catholic theology.

The exegetical and historical sections represent the strongest aspects of this book. This material occupies well over half of the volume. Specifically, chapters two and three present outstanding arguments regarding the seeds of the Trinity in the Old Testament and the Trinity in Paul’s epistles and the Book of Hebrews. The former of these chapters argues persuasively that if the Trinity were not present in the Old Testament in seed form, then the New Testament doctrine of the Trinity would not have been possible. This approach avoids the twin pitfalls of finding too little trinitarian material in the Old Testament and reading too much into the biblical text. Both of these chapters assert explicitly that the divine Author of Scripture often intended more than the inspired human authors of Scripture did when they wrote. This is a refreshing approach in an era in which many approaches to interpreting the biblical text have become a-theological and, at times, borderline a-theistical. The kind of exegesis represented here is possible only in the context of a proper view of the divinely inspired nature of the text of Scripture.

The historical sections are particularly strong in their treatment of the early church and medieval periods. The medieval period is often neglected to some extent in modern treatments of the Trinity, though the early church ordinarily draws significant attention. Due to the predominant Roman Catholic influence in this book, Thomas Aquinas features prominently, not only in this historical section, but in the dogmatic and practical segments. John Duns Scotus features as a close second in many chapters. The section on interpreting Karl Barth’s construction of the Trinity and his subsequent influence on the church is simultaneously clear and profound. This historical segment closes with a Greek orthodox perspective on recent trends in trinitarian theology and a highly complex article on the relationship of the Trinity to analytic philosophy.

The remainder of the book addresses a wide range of issues in contemporary theology and practice as well as the relationship between trinitarian theology and other religions. Some of these articles clearly reflect a liberal perspective while others represent a winsomely presented apology for ecumenical unity under the banner of the Roman Catholic Church.

The greatest weakness of The Oxford Handbook of the Trinity is its almost total neglect of the Reformed contribution to trinitarian theology. The one chapter dedicated to Reformed theology (by Scott Swain) highlights the way in which the early Reformers tried to retain the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity. However, it bypasses important questions regarding how Reformed trinitarianism became intertwined with Reformed soteriology and ecclesiology. This reviewer believes that this was the primary contribution of Reformed theology to trinitarian theology. Such developments did not come to full fruition until the seventeenth century in English authors such as John Owen and in continental authors such as Gisbertus Voetius, Petrus van Mastricht, and several others. There is a trend in recent works on trinitarian theology to take a flying leap from John Calvin to Karl Barth. This book bucks this trend to some extent by including philosophical and Catholic developments in the nineteenth century. However, these developments were either openly heretical or unremarkably orthodox. The omission of Reformed trinitarian theology represents a huge gap in the literature that modern treats appear to be almost entirely unaware of.

To be fair, trinitarian theology and piety in Reformed orthodoxy is a field that is still largely unexplored. There is a growing attraction to John Owen (who appears several times in the present volume), though he is often treated as a Reformed anomaly who fell unexpectedly out of the sky. Little work has been done on other Reformed authors on this subject. Perhaps part of the reason for this is that Reformed authors ask different questions than Catholics and Greek orthodox. As this book illustrates, Catholic and Orthodox piety tends to relegate the practical uses of the Trinity either to the doctrinal construction of the system of theology or to mystical contemplation. The Reformed view of mystical union with Christ overlaps with such uses to some extent. What is missing is the Reformed emphasis on communion with Christ in his work and benefits, which grows out of Reformed soteriology. We should expect this to result in a trinitarian theology with a distinctively Reformed cast to it.

This is likely why modern authors have treated historic Reformed authors as contributing little noteworthy material. The seventeenth century Reformed orthodox would likely have thought that modern treatments address the wrong questions. The Reformed voice needs first to be heard, then to be recovered, and finally to be developed and built upon. Reformed trinitarian theology is largely unremarkable and has a medieval feel to it in relation to what is called the ontological Trinity. What the Reformed have to add is their construction of the economic Trinity in relation to how the triune God saves us. Modern interest in this area has turned to trends such as social trinitarianism and feminist theology (both of which are treated in this book). These trends reflect preconceived ideas of what the gospel should be and how it should affect human relationships. The Reformed orthodox contribute a trinitarian theology that reflects the Reformed gospel. This gospel begins with God and ends with God in the entire order of salvation, which is subservient to the glory of God in Christ. This is both what is missing and what is needed for the modern renaissance of the doctrine of the Trinity.

The Oxford Handbook of the Trinity is important and its contributions are profound, but its content is complex. Most of the chapters will not likely appeal to those who are not already well-versed in the terminology and historical and contemporary contours of trinitarian theology. However, for the initiated, this massive work helps brings readers up to speed regarding the contributions of various theological traditions to contemporary debates.