Essay / Theology

Traditional Trinitarianism (Holmes pt. 2)

See the other essays in this three-part series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

Matt Jenson and Fred Sanders are discussing the recent book on the doctrine of the Trinity by Stephen R. Holmes, The Quest for the Trinity. In Part 1, we set up Holmes’ project and his approach. In this installment, we discuss what he says about the history of the doctrine (chapters 3-8). In these core chapters, Holmes covers the early fathers, spends considerable time on the fourth century, surveys the middle ages and the Reformation, then looks at the period down to about 1800.

Sanders: Quest for the Trinity has two chapters on the fourth century, and Holmes gives himself room to go into considerable detail on the developments during this period. I think that’s a good move, and there are several reasons for giving disproportionate attention to this century. First, of course, it’s the period in which major and fundamental decisions were made. But second, from the standpoint of modern scholarship, the study of the fourth century has been a contested area in the twentieth century. I remember back in the 1980s it seemed that the historians of doctrine had done a lot of great work on Nicaea and its contexts, and had produced a body of work that introduced significant nuance and depth into our understanding of the fourth century. But systematic theologians were out of touch with that whole body of patristic research: if they read it at all, their reading made no impact on the kinds of things they kept repeating in their thumbnail sketches of the development of doctrine.  There was a gap between patristic scholarship and systematics. It was a yawning gap in two senses: big and boring.

In the last 20 years or so, though, a host of scholars have filled that gap, building bridges from either side. From the historical side, we’ve seen fairly traditional patristics scholars like Charles Kannengiesser becoming increasingly skillful at putting their historical results in terms that systematic theologians can grasp. More emphatically, a writer like Lewis Ayres is so thoroughly bilingual in the tongues of history and theology that his major books have made equal impact in both fields (see Nicaea and its Legacy or Augustine on the Trinity). From the systematic-theological side, a number of theologians retooled and adjusted their ways of looking at the historical developments. What we’re getting right now in trinitarian theology is a harvest of historical theology paying off in systematics.

Holmes, in these historical chapters, presupposes all that. He seems to have read just about everything right up to the present date, and it makes a difference for how he tells the story.

Jenson:  Holmes demonstrates something of the payoff you describe, Fred, in organizing chapters 4 and 5 around two central claims–that the Son is ‘from the ousia of the Father’ and that ‘the Godhead is by nature simple’. Within the frame of each of these, he deftly narrates a complicated story with appropriate nuance and sound judgment. The question of the Son’s ontological status does not begin with Arius, though he remains the poster child for the problem in Holmes’ account. In fact, it stretches back to the second-century apologists’ flirtation with subordinationism (a flirtation that at times became a full-blown affair). Actually, it stretches back to the economy of salvation and the New Testament’s own grappling with a Jesus who prayed to the Father and whose disciples worshipped and glorified him with the Father. Add to all this the ‘unstable’ legacy of Origenistic theology, with ‘both a tendency to emphasize the unity of the Son and Father, and a tendency to emphasize the difference.’ One strand of Origen’s thought spoke of the Son’s eternal generation (again a hot topic these days), but that sounded too much like ditheism for the ‘profoundly apophatic’ Arius. While homoousios (‘of one being’ or ‘substance’) had a shady linguistic past, Athanasius eventually landed on it in defending Nicaea’s jugments about the Son’s co-equal status with the Father against all ‘Arian’ comers (called ‘Arian’ as a quick way of labeling and dismissing those who would rank the Son lower than the Father and question his eternality).

Even those who suggested the mediating homoiousis (‘of similar being’) fall afoul of Athanasius, who ‘introduces, or better assumes, a strong ontological dualism.’ Crucial is his insight that there are no ontologically intermediate beings between God and creation. There is only God and creation, and ‘the Son is not a middle term between the Father and the created order.’ The question then becomes, ‘On which side is the Son?’

To insist that the Son is on the side of God rather than creation is not, however, to lapse into ditheism. In the second half of the fourth century, Eunomius argued that divine simplicity requires that the Son be heteroousios from the Father. The unbegotten God begets the Son as a consequence of his will, and the two are ‘alike in every way as the Scriptures insist, but alike in will and action, not in ousia.’ Enter the Cappadocian witness to the Trinity. The problem with Eunomius is that he thinks human language ‘can exhaustively and definitely refer. Names, properly used, correspond on a one-one mapping to entities’. On the contrary, Basil and Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa appeal to a ‘strong doctrine of divine incomprehensibility’. They pair this with divine simplicity, though: ‘Father and Son language, for Basil, is not a description of what God is–the divine essence is necessarily simple and so ineffable–but of how God is.’

Well, how is God? We know that the Father, Son and Spirit ‘are named with the same divine names’ and ‘perform the same divine actions; we therefore discern that Father, Son and Spirit are not three dissimilar, or even similar, essences but one essence–the one, simple, ingenerate, divine essence.’ Theology, though, has to find a grammar suitable to this, one that relies on an appropriately apophatic account of analogical language. (Eunomius erred like a traveler who ‘mistakes her sketch map for a satellite photograph, and so trusts rough approximations as if they are precise details’.) Holmes summarizes the grammar, developed by the Cappadocians, echoed by John of Damascus and, significantly, shared by Augustine:

 ‘God is, and is ineffable. God is triune: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The church believes, adores, and worships the one simple divine essence, which exists three times over, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, inseparably united in life and in action, one in everything save in their relations of origin.’

Sanders: Great summary of two key chapters. I think this fourth-century section is crucial for Holmes’ overall argument, but it’s easy to miss how he takes some positions here which make his thesis all but inevitable. Let me try to state it more polemically than Holmes does in these middle pages of the book. Classic trinitarian theology developed as an exposition of divine simplicity. Much modern theology has approached trinitarianism as if it were an alternative to divine simplicity, or the massive counterexample that the church fathers must not have noticed: if God exists as three persons, how could we ever have claimed that he is one? But Holmes traces the Nicene logic (as you summarize his discussion here, Matt) in a way that makes it clear that none of this trinitarian stuff works at all unless “the divine nature is simple, incomposite, and ineffable,” as well as “unrepeatable, and so, in crude and inexact terms ‘one.'”

Somewhere in the mix between Athanasius and the Cappadocians, in that fourth-century struggle with arians, semi-arians, and neo-arians, the church learned that a simple God (“without body, parts, or passions,” as this doctrine has been put) who sends his eternal Son and Spirit simply has to be triune in eternity, or triune all the way back. Divine simplicity is central to all this, and I found Holmes’ account of it compelling.

Of course the other major line of argument in the chapters on the fourth century is that the church fathers recognized that the Son is begotten by the Father, and the Spirit proceeds from him. These relations of origin are non-negotiable for any modern trinitarian theology that wants to position itself as continuous with the traditional theology. “The three divine hypostases are distinguished by eternal relations of origin –begetting and proceeding– and not otherwise.” Both simplicity and relations of origin are considered controversial in some advocates of the modern trinitarian revival. But that’s why Holmes argues that the revival is so drastically out of touch with all that has gone before. It’s really less of a revival and more of a revolution, as some of its advocates in fact boast. In a perceptive review of Holmes’ book for the Gospel Coalition, Scott Swain said it was “renewal without retrieval.” For theology since the late nineteenth century, “the path to trinitarian renewal required bypassing rather than retrieving the classical trinitarian consensus.”

Jenson:  I could imagine certain voices of renewal protesting that they do engage in retrieval–but that their retrieval is, like anyone’s, selective. Everyone has parts of the tradition they find embarrassing or just downright wrong. These revivalists might, for instance, appeal to the Cappadocians, or to a more generally ‘Eastern’ view of the Trinity that prioritizes the three over the one. The fall guy here is the fountainhead of Latin trinitarian theology, Augustine. This East vs. West line has been pretty well dismantled by the likes of Michel Barnes and Lewis Ayres, and Holmes’ book sounds the death knell. ‘Augustine’, he writes, should be seen as ‘the greatest interpreter of the Cappadocian theology’. East and West ‘essentially spoke with one voice.’ Nor did this change in the medieval period, saving the issue of the filioque. It is not a caricature but simply a falsehood to accuse someone like Thomas Aquinas, who infamously (according to some trinitarian revivalists) began his account with the one God rather than the three persons of positing a static deity. For Thomas, God is ‘superabundantly dynamic’. Or: ‘This simple, dynamic, eternal being is triune.’ In the East, Gregory Palamas relied heavily on Augustine, insisted that the external works of the Trinity are undivided and made use of the psychological analogy for the Trinity.

The doctrine of the Trinity really did go into a decline, at least in certain critical academic circles (hardly the only circles that matter) beginning in the 17th century. This could take a ‘biblical’ form (finding the Trinity a non-necessary departure from the language of Scripture, perhaps due to a metaphysical compromise with Hellenism) or a ‘rational’ form (broadly allergic to revelation and critical of supposed incoherence in trinitarian terms and concepts). Revisionist treatments of the Trinity ran afoul of core doctrinal commitments. Hegel’s synthesis required a world to exist for God to be God. His account of the Trinity couldn’t sustain the strict God-creation distinction and doctrine of creation ex nihilo that classical Trinitarianism thought followed from God’s being triune. Schleiermacher gave the doctrine of the Trinity pride of place, but damned it with faint praise, convinced it did no work in Christian piety. The turn to the ‘person’ beginning with Dorner eventually led to a social doctrine of the Trinity which ‘can only ever be’, so Holmes, ‘a simple departure from…the unified witness of the entire theological tradition.’

In a rather surprising move, it turns out that divine simplicity is the key to the doctrine of the Trinity, and the glibness with which recent trinitiarian theology has dismissed divine simplicity suggests just how far we have come from the Fathers’ recognition that the one God of Israel is the triune God.

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