God the Holy Trinity, Book Review

God the Holy Trinity: Reflections on Christian Faith and Practice. Edited by Timothy George. Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic, 2006. 175 pages. Softcover, $19.99.
Timothy George, as editor of God the Holy Trinity, intends to bring the discussion of the Trinity from the circles of academia into the pews of the church. Acknowledging that the ultimate “problem” of Christian doctrine is “how the eternal God can be both One and yet ever Three at the same time” (9), George presents this volume as one voice in the resurgence of Trinitarian conversation that has taken place in the past century. Surveying doctrinal emphases since the Reformation, George asserts that “the doctrine of the Trinity remained marginalized in a great swath of Protestant theology” (11).

This volume consists of a collection of essays originally presented at a symposium held by Beeson Divinity School of Samford University. Attempting to avoid presenting the doctrine of the Trinity as a “theological conundrum” (13), the participants of this conference investigated how the Trinity impacts the Christian life. While the contributors bring distinct approaches to the topic and come from various ethnic backgrounds and theological traditions, George insists that these essays “represent an underlying commitment to the trinitarian faith of the apostolic tradition” (12). These scholars reflected an ecumenical spirit as they dialogued with each other under the umbrella of Nicene Orthodoxy.

Taken as a unit, the first two essays by Alister McGrath and Gerald Bray function as the centerpiece of the book. McGrath seeks to recover the notion of the Trinity as a profound “mystery” and enable believers to “grapple” with this doctrine (22). He applauds the recent resurgence of Trinitarian discussion, but offers two concerns. McGrath recognizes the tendency of the discussion to digress into rampant speculation that employs unnecessarily extra-biblical terms and concepts. Thus, he urges theologians to have “Trinitarian modesty” (32), by maintaining a close proximity to the language of Scripture and by keeping a healthy distance from constructions built on speculative foundations.

In the successive essay, Bray answers McGrath’s call by providing a thoughtful investigation of the relationship between the Christian Trinity and the God of Judaism. Bray’s key insight is in highlighting the hermeneutical shift that takes place in a Christian reading of the Old Testament, whereby the one God of Judaism is demonstrated to be the Trinity of Christianity. Viewed externally, God is one, but viewed internally, God is three. Bray then demonstrates that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is a “description of what that experience of God’s inner life is like” (45-46).

The rest of Bray’s essay consists of a theological exposition of Galatians 4:6 that shows how “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying: Abba! Father!” Thus, the doctrine of the Trinity springs from the Christian’s life experience rather than his philosophical speculation. In his attention to Scripture and theology, Bray’s essay functions as an apt illustration of McGrath’s model for Trinitarian reflection.

The group of essays that follow are as eclectic as they are ecumenical. James Earl Massey investigates the theological underpinnings of African-American Spirituals. Avery Cardinal Dulles applies the doctrine of the Trinity to ecclesiology. Frederica Mathewes-Green engages in art criticism of The Old Testament Trinity by Russian artist Andrei Rublev.

J.I. Packer provides a “Puritan perspective” on the Trinity in a biographical essay of John Owen. Timothy George examines the implications of the Trinity for interacting with Islam. Ellen Charry argues for the legitimacy of Divine Perfections in thinking about God and his salvation. Finally, Cornelius Plantinga ends the volume with a sermonic exhortation to submit to the “deep wisdom” of Christ’s selflessness evidenced in the Gospel of John.

One obvious strength of this work is the diversity of contributors and their attempt to translate the sometimes oblique discussion of the Trinity into a volume designed to engage the church. The first two essays provide a helpful framework for thinking through the mystery of the Trinity in light of the biblical text.

After these chapters though, the focus of the book begins to wander. Both the nature of the topic and style of presentation vary greatly as the reader moves through this section of the work. Massey’s investigation of African-American spirituals is interesting, but his discussion of the Holy Spirit in these songs is more tenuous than with the other members of the Trinity.

Dulles’ ecumenically driven discussion of “Trinitarian ecclesiology” perhaps engages in the speculation about which McGrath cautions in his essay. Mathewes-Green’s art criticism is intriguing but is based on a debated Trinitarian interpretation of Genesis 18:1-2.

The chapters range from biography (Packer), to apologetics (George), to art criticism (Green), to literary criticism (Massey), to philosophical debate (Charry), and to sermon (Plantinga). This topical diversity reflects the ecumenical makeup of the contributors but also detracts from the structural focus of the work.

Though George accomplishes his goal of starting an engaging Trinitarian conversation, an editorial comment on how each essay relates to the next would provide this volume with the thematic cohesion that would strengthen its overall impact.
Ched Spellman
In Southwestern Journal of Theology 50.1 (Fall 2007), 110-12.
Book Review
March 8, 2008


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