The Trinity

Roger E. Olson, Christopher Hall William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids April 4, 2002
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This book is the first in a new series entitled Guides to Theology, edited by Sally Bruyneel, Alan G. Padgett, David A. S. Fergusson, and Iain R. Torrance. The project, sponsored by the Christian Theological Research Fellowship, purposes to provide “concise introductions to themes and current doctrines in systematic theology” (cover). Olson and Hall begin the series with a brief but thorough overview of the doctrine of the triune God. The authors trace the development of Trinitarian doctrine and conclude with a thirty-two-page annotated bibliography that extends from the earliest Trinitarian sources through the end of the twentieth century.

With only a preface regarding the biblical bases for the doctrine of the Trinity (pp. 5–10), the authors prefer to focus on the history of Trinitarianism, which they consider “essential to any responsible contemporary understanding of the churches’ teaching of this topic” (p. 15). The historical survey (part one) divides into two sections, the “Patristic Contributions” and “Medieval, Reformation, and Modern Contributions.” Whereas many Trinitarian histories begin with Irenaeus or Tertullian, this work returns to first-century Clement and other second-century writers like Justin, who help establish the framework for later dogmatics. The authors’ regional development of Trinitarianism flows nicely (e.g., “Early Alexandrian Contributions”), albeit somewhat differently from most surveys. Discussions of Justin, Origen, Irenaeus, and Tertullian are succinct and adequate for an overview. Insights from Ambrose and Hilary are often ignored in surveys. The authors question the popular view of Cappadocian Trinitarianism as a “social model” of the Trinity. They do the same with the Augustinian view as a “psychological model,” and they reject the view that Augustine began with the divine essence. Later on in the book, however, they seem to subvert these cautions by employing the same terminology themselves (i.e., “the typical Augustinian starting point of emphasizing the divine unity of essence and seeking to explain how there can be multiplicity within it,” p. 59; cf. pp. 57, 103, etc.). While one senses original research and depth at many points in the first section, fairly significant dependence is evident on Gerald O’Collins’s The Tripersonal God (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1999) and two journal articles by Phillip Cary.

In sixty-five pages, part two traces Trinitarian tensions and development from the sixth century to the present. The medieval West had few Trinitarian concerns beyond the dispute over the filioque until the high medieval period with Richard of St. Victor, Anselm, and Thomas Aquinas. If some may wonder whether the discussion of Abelard is too generous, these summaries together with those on Joaquim of Fiore and the Councils of Lyon and Florence are interesting. Whereas Luther and Calvin’s Trinitarianism is better known, it is helpful to have included the views of Menno Simons. Probably a disproportionate space is given to anti-Trinitarianism and Deism, as well as to Count Zinzendorf and Jonathan Edwards. Only the last twenty pages of the book survey twentieth-century Trinitarianism, in the writings of Karl Barth, Karl Rahner, Jürgen Moltmann, Norman Pittenger, Leonard Hodgson, Leonardo Boff, Catherine LaCugna, and John Zizioulas. In these final pages the reader is confounded by the order, other than to suppose that the authors are seeking to lead readers to their preference for the work of Zizioulas (Being as Communion [Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimirs Seminary Press, 1985]). Others, such as T. F. Torrance, Ted Peters, and Robert Jenson, are included only in the annotated bibliography. Wolfhart Pannenberg, Colin Gunton, and evangelicals like Millard Erickson and Stanley Grenz are not included even in the bibliography. Every survey, of course, reveals its partialities.

Hall and Olson have constructed an engaging historical survey of the doctrine of the Christian Godhead most helpful for the classroom and for curious readers. What it does, it does well, with reasonable balance and charm. The annotated bibliography alone makes the book worth buying. A major concern, however, is the lack of biblical foundations—although a biblical bibliography is included. If indeed these primers serve “as clear and accessible guides to the doctrinal basis of Christianity” (cover), then uninformed readers might assume that the central dogma of Christianity is almost entirely postbiblical.

—Jason Wiesepape with J. Scott Horrell

July 1, 2004
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jul-Sep 2004 vol. 161 no. 3 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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