Stephen Holmes’ Trinity back to the classics and away from the Moderns

Here is a post I began to write back in April of this year as I finished Stephen Holmes’ excellent book The Quest For The Trinity. I never trinity-iconfinished the post, and it has been sitting as a draft ever since then. I am still not going to finish this post, but I am going to post it as is, and where I left off with it. It might still be interesting, who knows?! Here it is:

Just finished Stephen Holmes excellent newish book on the Trinity The Quest For The Trinity. I don’t want anyone to think that I dislike or am not appreciative of this book, in fact I would say it is one of the best (concise) books on the Trinity I have ever read; and I have read legion. That said, for purposes of future (if I ever have the right kind of time) critical and hopefully constructive engagement I would like to ‘bookmark’ one key area of critique that I might have in regard to an apparent characterization that Steve Holmes makes of a trajectory of ‘modern’ Trinitarian theology that Holmes says is a ‘departure from … the unified witness of the entire theological tradition” (p. 195). What he is referring to is the modern deployment of the language of ‘person’ relative to discussing the eternal relations inherent between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. One of Holmes’ contentions throughout the book is that a technical and patristic pedigree has been established relative to the construction of a theological grammar adequate to the task of articulating an orthodox conception of the Trinity; an integral part of that is ‘how’ “person” came to be used by the patrisitcs, and the subsequent 14 centuries (from the 4th century) following, until we reach the 19th century where Trinitarian theology begins and attempts to re-construct a new lexicon that is capable of communicating the Trinity in a way that modern man and woman might be able to understand it (and Holmes’ argues that this precedent for re-conceptualizing and re-languagfying is provided for by Schleiermacher). Holmes contends that this shift in Trinitarian thought and language actually emptied key terms within the ancient and Orthodox grammar in a way that makes considering the two periodically conceive Trinitarianisms as an equivocal endeavor; and the modern Schleiermacherian project ending up as a still-birthed endeavor mal-nourished by its intentionally abortive mode of cutting the umbilical cord between themselves and mother-church which lived, again, in the patristic and ecumenical period.

Let me post the pertinent quote, and then I might, if I have time quote something from Thomas Torrance that will illustrate where I will want to take this forthcoming critique of mine. Here is Stephen Holmes:

The practice of speaking of three ‘persons’ in this sense in the divine life, of asserting a ‘social doctrine of the Trinity’, a ‘divine community’ or an ‘ontology of persons in relationship’ can only ever be, as far as I can see, a simple departure from (what I have attempted to show is) the unified witness of the entire theological tradition. Why, then,  has it become so popular? In part at least, I think, because of a fundamental sense of dislocation. Dorner suggests that Schleiermacher pointed out a fundamental weakness in the inherited doctrine of God which then needed correcting; Forsyth and Barth followed him in this belief, although in neither case showing any explicit awareness that it came from Schleiermacher. More generally, the harvest of nineteenth-century theology includes a broad sense that the discipline stood in need of fundamental reformulation, as Schleiermacher had said it did. If we try to analyze this logically, it tends to reduce to a series of claims about the broad narrative of the theological tradition – such as the claim that it became profoundly infected by Greek metaphysics in the patristic period – which were based on ninteenth-century historical work; …

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