Essay / Theology

Readings on the Trinity (Class Outline)

This is the book list, with short annotations, for a class I teach on the Trinity from time to time here at Biola. There’s more to a class than just the book list, of course: our classroom work is all Socratic discussion, and during the semester we spend some time on supplementary topics like the Trinity in art, music, teaching children, and understanding anti-trinitarian groups.

Still, the book list is the heart of this readings course, and I love the challenge of picking the Top Ten Trinity Texts to lead students through when we have a whole semester together.

Week 1: B. B. Warfield, “The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity” (from the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 1915), and Fred Sanders, “The Trinity,”  (from the Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, 2007). Two concise reference articles giving an overview of the topic. Warfield’s, just about a century old, is unbelievably comprehensive and shrewd. I would require students to read it twice if I thought they would obey. I also highly recommend the other article if your name is Fred Sanders or you are taking a class with the guy and want to know his biases up front.

Week 2: The Gospel of John, and a book about it by Andreas Köstenberger and Scott Swain, Father, Son, and Spirit: The Trinity in John’s Gospel. With only 13 weeks of class, how much time should we spend on Scripture? It’s a vexing question. If this doctrine is not profoundly biblical, then nothing else in the class matters. But if we do justice to the biblical material, we never get to the rest. So I have the students read the gospel of John straight through, then read Swain and Köstenberger’s extended treatment of its trinitarian dynamics, and then re-read John. I hate to leave out the synoptics, Paul, and Hebrews, but a guided tour of John’s gospel is a good downpayment on the topic of the Trinity in Scripture, and Johannine categories set us up well for the patristic developments.

Besides, these students have read the rest of the New Testament and most of the Old in other courses at Biola, and they will also write a short exegetical essay about a passage of their choosing. So we cheat some more Bible in, in various ways.

Week 3: Tertullian: Against Praxeas (ca. 165). No sooner have we moved from biblical to patristic readings, than we have the same problem: too much good stuff. In a perfect world we would read widely in the church fathers, and compare the various ways they developed the Biblical themes before and after the crucial breakthrough at Nicaea. I refuse to resort to an anthology of excerpts from many sources, so I’m stuck with the question: If you could only read one pre-Nicene church father on the Trinity, who would you pick? My answer is Tertullian. He gets enough things right and enough things wrong that students can see with their own eyes the status of trinitarian theology in the early centuries.

Besides, these students have already read some of the Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Athanasius, and some classic creeds in other coursework at Biola. Also, for this class each of them will read one other church father from a list in the syllabus. They’ll each give short reports on what they found in those books, which does increase our patristic literacy as a group.

Week 4: Gregory of Nazianzus, The Five Theological Orations (379).  This is the first week where I know we’re reading exactly the right book. Gregory’s five orations are unmatched for their clarity, forcefulness, and ability to stimulate doctrinal thinking. Students often have a hard time getting over the bombastic rhetorical style, but “Gregory the Theologian” eventually wins them over. He is absolutely certain that we can know the eternal generation of the Son and the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit, but he is equally certain that you are insane if you think we can know more than that.

Weeks 5 and 6: Augustine, On the Trinity (ca. 420). We spend two weeks on this very demanding text, in the translation by Edmund Hill that includes copious notes and commentary. Augustine’s Trinity book ranks alongside Confessions and City of God as his masterpieces, but it’s a much more difficult read (and one we don’t require of all students). The first week we discuss Augustine’s biblical evidence and his terminological clarifications, and the second week we discuss his quest for images and likenesses of the Trinity. This book showcases Augustine at his discursive, digressive best, or worst, depending on how well you like reading Augustine.

Week 7: John of Damascus, Book I of On the Orthodox Faith (ca. 740). John of Damascus has come on and off of my reading list as I’ve taught this course over the last few years. He is called the last of the Greek fathers, and he excels at summarizing and consolidating what has gone before, while adding almost nothing of his own (at least on this topic). I use his text as an excuse to tie up loose ends from the patristic development so far. He’s also a nice Eastern break between the very Western Augustine and our great leap into the high middle ages with Thomas. There is some opportunity here to discuss the filioque question, but not as much as you might think.

Weeks 8 and 9: Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologia, Treatise on the Blessed Trinity (Prima Pars, questions 27-43 (ca. 1270). A leap of 500 years in our survey, skipping some great stuff but landing on a mountain peak of theological greatness. Whereas Augustine had started with a question about the Father sending the Son to save us, and then led us through the whole territory of trinitarianism, Thomas’ starting point is the most fundamental and abstract question possible: whether there be procession in God. As I warn students in advance, this is the thinnest the air gets all semester. It is worth climbing this mountain of speculation and analytic clarity, but it is hard to stay up there for very long.

Week 10: John Owen, On Communion with God. (1657) Another 500-year leap, skipping over Bonaventure and Luther and Calvin and others whose contributions to trinitarian theology are well worth studying. But many of those intervening authors are somewhat subtle on this topic, whereas Owen is blatantly and elaborately trinitarian, as well as warmly devotional. Students have testified that this book has changed their lives and their relationships with God. We use a modernized version of Owen’s book (see link) and we skip some of the very long christological section.

Week 11: Karl Barth, “The Way of the Son of God into the Far Country” (1953). This is about fifty pages from Church Dogmatics IV:1, section 59, first sub-section, pages 150-203 in the nifty new student edition. Barth writes like he’s telling a detective story, and this section takes up the traditional concepts we’ve been working with all semester, turns them around, and examines them in a breath-taking new way. It remains very difficult to pigeonhole Barth, especially on this topic. He is the author most likely to make students think they should become professional theologians, even (especially?) if they disagree with his decisions at some points. He makes the work look both serious and enjoyable, work worth doing, an honor.

Week 12: Wolfhart Pannenberg, “The Trinitarian God” (1988). This is 77 pages (259-336) from his Systematic Theology volume I. After Barth we’re only reading one modern theologian. Who should it be? Karl Rahner was the most influential: I wrote a book about how he set the agenda for 50 years of trinitarian theology. Jürgen Moltmann is the most provocative: his Trinity and the Kingdom is what got me interested in modern trinitarianism in the first place. Robert Jenson is the most drastic, Hans Urs von Balthasar the most evocative, and so on. But Wolfhart Pannenberg does a great job incorporating the historical development into his doctrinal writing, which makes him the best anchorman for exploring the modern trends in trinitarian theology. Sometimes it’s more like chewing than reading, but it gives you mental muscles. I also think that Pannenberg makes suggestions and points to projects that are still live and under-explored options in trinitarian theology.

Week 13: Fred Sanders, The Deep Things of God (2010). Yes, my own book, shamelessly put onto a list of books right alongside Tertullian, Nazianzus, Augustine, Aquinas, Owen, and Barth. And to make matters worse, imagine the names of the venerable authors I left off of this list to make room for my own self! Just who do I think I am? I think I am the teacher of this class, and that I put everything I’ve got into that 2010 book. So if I’m going to do my best to lead students to see what I have seen, I’m going to use my own book to do it. I decided to use Deep Things as a final assignment, to leave room for debriefing on the whole course, and to increase the odds on students leaving the class with some practical advice from the teacher.

That’s the class. Following the great books pedagogy of the Torrey Honors Institute, we invest heavily in single books by major authors. Following the general education mandate of the Institute, we go broad rather than deep, surveying as many authors as we can rather than seeking mastery of, for example, the Thomistic approach. Following my judgments about what matters most, we invest heavily in the pre-modern elaborations of the doctrine, but always with an awareness that we are doing real, live, doctrinal theology rather than historical investigation of what certain dead guys once thought.

Other approaches, of course, are possible. If you like course objectives and things like that, here are mine:

Upon completion of the course, students:

*will be able to articulate the way trinitarianism arises from the scriptural witness to God’s decisive action in salvation history, and will be able to trace trinitarian patterns of thought in many passages of scripture.

*will be able to identify major theologians and movements which have shaped trinitarian theology, and will have a broad awareness of the chronology of this doctrine’s development.

*will have traced difficult arguments through the theological systems of thinkers from a variety of cultures and traditions.

*will understand the connection between the doctrine of the Trinity and the experience of salvation and discipleship.

*will understand how doctrinal theology can function as a means of knowing and experiencing God.

*will be able to explain how the doctrine of the Trinity fits into a comprehensive systematic theology, to explain the work that it does in a systematic theology, and what would be lost if the doctrine were removed from that structure.



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