Book Review

The Quest for the Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History and Modernity By Stephen R. Holmes

Shane Lems
Stephen R. Holmes
Friday, August 30th 2013
Sep/Oct 2013

The doctrine of the Trinity is right at the core of the historic Christian faith. From the ancient creeds, medieval theologians and the Reformation confessions to current liturgies, sermons, and prayers, the doctrine of the Trinity is a precious truth of Christianity. With The Quest for the Trinity, Stephen Holmes has given Christian scholars another helpful resource on the history of this doctrine. However, this monograph isn’t simply a historical summary of Trinitarian doctrine; Holmes’s focus is much narrower.

In this book, Holmes argues “that the explosion of theological work claiming to recapture the doctrine of the Trinity that we have witnessed in recent decades in fact misunderstands and distorts the traditional doctrine so badly that it is unrecognizable” (xv). In other words, the main point of this book is to show that many modern discussions of the Trinity are a departure from the doctrine as defined and defended by the early church and upheld throughout the years. In The Quest for the Trinity, Holmes does not intend to set out an exegetical case proving that the early church was right and the recent revisions are wrong. Instead, he describes the doctrine historically and then compares and contrasts it to the recent discussions. Holmes does interact with some biblical texts, but the bulk of the work is devoted to summarizing, comparing, and contrasting different theologians’ studies of the Trinity.

The layout of the book is as follows. First, Holmes analyzes recent theologians’ works on the Trinity such as Karl Barth (neoorthodox), Karl Rahner (Roman Catholic), and John Zizioulas (Eastern Orthodox). Second, Holmes goes back to biblical sources, showing how the church fathers interpreted certain texts in a Trinitarian way. Third, the discussion turns more specifically and extensively to the church fathers, including Irenaeus, Origen, Athanasius, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and so forth. Fourth, Holmes’s attention turns to the medieval theologians and their Trinitarian teaching. Some of those include Richard of St. Victor, Thomas Aquinas, and Anselm. Fifth, there is a section on the post-Reformation anti-Trinitarian movements such as Socinianism, rationalism, and deism. Finally, Holmes gives more detail on the Trinitarian teaching(s) of foundational nineteenth-century theologians such as G. W. F. Hegel, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and F. C. Baur.

There are two reasons why The Quest for the Trinity is a solid, but not groundbreaking, book. First, even before reading it I agreed with Holmes’s main point. When I read the introduction I thought, “Well, of course!” I’ve read enough of Barth’s Church Dogmatics to know that his views on the Trinity are different from many who have gone before him. Though not in as much detail, other authors have made the same point that Holmes does in this book. For readers who identify with Reformation creeds and confessions, the book will be preaching to the choir.

Second, Holmes’s summary of the church fathers and medieval theologians isn’t novel. Readers who have already read other historical theological summaries of the doctrine of the Trinity will perhaps think of Holmes’s work as a sort of review. The patristic and medieval parts of this book have been discussed in detail elsewhere, and readers who are well versed in these subjects have no doubt studied all this before.

The Quest for the Trinity, however, will challenge those in liberal, neoorthodox, or progressive evangelical circles. I’m sure there are many out there who would balk at the suggestion that Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity was a departure from the historic understanding of the Trinity. It also might be a good resource for those coming out of liberalism into more confessional Christianity. For a scholar who is struggling with a proper historical and biblical understanding of the Trinity, this book would be a great help. Academics who haven’t studied this facet of Christian doctrinal history might also appreciate Holmes’s contribution.

It has probably become evident by now that The Quest for the Trinity is a scholarly work for upper-level graduate studies, seminary studies, or doctoral studies. It isn’t really a book for laypeople. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who is not well read in theology and church history. Holmes meticulously covers a lot of ground’two thousand years of doctrinal history in two hundred pages! Some pastors, elders, or teachers might be interested in this book if they are looking for a rigorous historical summary of the doctrine of the Trinity. But others will avoid it because of its density and complexity.

In summary, The Quest for the Trinity is a positive contribution to Trinitarian theology. Overall, the book was very technical and detailed, but helpful. Though it isn’t a popular resource, I do hope Holmes’s work is read and discussed in theological circles. Ultimately, I hope it leads more people to a deeper Christian understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity’a central truth of the faith.

Friday, August 30th 2013

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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