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.

Domestic Economics

Staci Eastin, The Organized Heart: A Woman’s Guide to Conquering Chaos. Cruciform Press, 2011. 103pp. Paperback. $7.99.

Reviewed by Dr. Ryan M. McGraw

How we use our time reveals to us the state of our hearts. Conversely, the condition of our hearts determines whether we use time well or waste it foolishly. The Organized Heart addresses four areas of idolatry (perfectionism, busyness, possessions, and leisure) that frequently lead women into disorganization and chaos in their lives.

This book is useful to help women ask the deeper questions of what they do with their time and why. Other than a few hints in the last chapter, it does not aim to develop time management skills or scheduling. One minor fault with the book is that the author makes too many assumptions that most readers already know how to manage their time (91, for example). However, many books on household management make the opposite mistake of pressing women with model schedules that are virtually impossible to implement. We must plan our time well in order to use our time well to God’s glory. We will fail in this area by over-planning as much as by under-planning. The great strength of Eastin’s book is that she provides us with the tools needed to think through our planning in a godly and biblical manner.

Each of the four areas treated in this book search our hearts deeply. Perfectionism is not the same thing as excellence, but it cripples people from enjoying their homes and families. Being overly busy may result from the fear of man and trying to keep up with the expectations of others rather than from walking in the fear of God. Acquiring, owning, and refusing to relinquish possessions may result in a lack of trust in God’s provisions (55). Our desire for leisure time becomes idolatry when we do not plan our breaks and end up neglecting our children, finances, and other duties in order to take time for ourselves. Eastin’s counsel is wise, practical, and searching for all readers.

Chapter 6 counterbalances her treatment of how heart-idolatry affects our use of time by addressing those who are discouraged through genuinely difficult circumstances in their lives.

This book does not say all that must be said about time-management, but it provides an often neglected piece of the bigger picture. Unless we begin with the idolatry of our hearts, then we will not successfully manage our lives in a God-honoring way. This is an important resource, especially for wives and homemakers.


No Creed But Christ?

Carl R. Trueman, The Creedal Imperative (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012). 205pp. Paperback. $12.75

Reviewed by Dr. Ryan M. McGraw

Many today regard it as a virtue to have “no creed but the Bible.” While appearing to reflect a high view of Scripture, this trend has devastating consequences that threaten both the well-being and, in many cases, the very being of the church.

Carl Trueman’s primary assertion in The Creedal Imperative is that all Christians have a creed or confession, though many refuse to write theirs down. Ten people in a room may state that they believe in the Bible alone, yet when questioned, they may give us ten different versions of what they believe that the Bible says. Rejecting creeds and confessions renders the faith of the church undefinable and leaves ministers without any tangible standard of doctrinal accountability. Trueman makes a simple yet profound case from Scripture for the necessity of extra-biblical creeds. The book bears his characteristically gripping style and witty observations.

In this book, Trueman makes good use of his talent for showing the influence of culture on contemporary Christianity. Among other things, he demonstrates how culture has created a bias against drawing lessons from history and recognizing authority. While older treatments on creeds and confessions are readily accessible and biblically satisfying, this feature makes Trueman’s work stand out.

However, in one place, Trueman overstates the role of confessions. He asserts that it is difficult to argue that items excluded from the confession of a church are “of any importance” and that “the church has no more need to have an opinion on this matter than what color wallpaper is best for the fellowship hall” (179). This argument proves too much. Ministers frequently hold views that are much more important than church wallpaper while being much less important than confessional matters, such as baptism. For example, it is wise for churches not to require that their pastors be exclusively amillennial or postmillennial, or to mandate a position on head coverings in worship. Yet the Bible has something to say about both of these subjects. Everything that the Bible teaches is important, but not all that the Bible teaches should become part of a confession of faith, which is designed to unite Christians in common faith and practice.

No creed in itself can sustain the orthodoxy of a church. Only the Holy Spirit can do so by maintaining the spiritual vitality of her ministers and members. However, rejecting creeds and confessions may unintentionally denigrate the Bible that we are so eager to protect. May the triune God use this book to restore a more stable, clear, and vibrant faith in His church.