The Quest For The Trinity

January 9, 2013 — 14 Comments


Stephen Holmes, The Quest For The Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History, & Modernity. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, November, 2012. 300 pp. Paperback, $26.00.

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Thanks to IVP Academic for the review copy!

Stephen R. Holmes is senior lecturer in systematic theology at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. I was recently able to read his essay on the attributes of God in Mapping Modern Theology. Now, I’ve got the privilege of reviewing The Quest For The Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History, and Modernity as well as offering you a chance to win a copy for yourself!


The Quest For The Trinity is the first volume in a new series called Christian Doctrines in Historical Perspective. We can look forward to one volume per year for the next few years or so. This volume though sets the tone for the series. In this case, we are treated to a brief but thorough treatment of the doctrine of the Trinity.

In chapter 1, Holmes begins his study in the modern period and details the revival in Trinitarian studies that took place in the 20th century. If you’re familiar with this phenomena, then you’ll recognize the usual suspects who receive mention: Barth, Rahner, Zizioulas, Pannenberg, Moltmann, Jenson, Boff, and Volf.

Having given a “flavour to the energy and main themes of contemporary Trinitarian theology” (32), in chapter 2 Holmes implicitly raises the question of whether it all constitutes a legitimate revival. To make his case, he must go back in time and starts with the Bible. Holmes does this through five headings: The Old Testament, Old Testament Theology, The Intertestamental Period, and two final ones devoted to the New Testament. Due to space, he only focuses on the major passage that were used in constructing the doctrine. One might have liked to see a full exegetical treatment, but you can read Letham’s book with us if that’s what you’re looking for.

Chapters 3-6 devoted to a close reading of the patristic sources up the end of the fourth century. Chapter 3 details the early patristic developments in Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen (among others). Chapters 4-5 then cover the fourth century debates, which as Holmes rightly sees it, set the bar for orthodoxy in Trinitarian doctrine. Chapter 4 specifically focuses on the story Arius’ rise and Athanasius and the Nicene response. Chapter 5 then chronicles Eunomius’ rise and Basil and Gregory of Nyssa’s response, eventually getting us to Chalcedon after visiting Gregory of Nazianzus. The chapter rounds with a look at John of Damacus as an example of Trinitarianism in the East. In chapter 6, the focus is on Augustine and Hilary of Potiers as examplars of Trinitarianism in the West.

After conducting this study, Holmes transition with an interlude titled “The Harvest of Patristic Trinitarianism.” He offer the following (appropriately so) 7 point summary of the received doctrine from this time (146):

  • The divine nature is simple, incomposite, and ineffable. It is also unrepeatable, and so, in crude and inexact terms ‘one’.
  • Language referring to the divine nature is always inexact and trophic; nonetheless, if formulated with much care and more prayer, it might adequately, if not fully, refer.
  • There are three divine hypostases that are instantiations of the divine nature: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
  • The three divine hypostases exist really, eternally, and necessarily, and there is nothing divine that exists beyond or outside their existence.
  • The three divine hypostases are distinguished by eternal relations of origin – begetting and proceeding – and not otherwise.
  • All that is spoken of God, with the single and very limited exception of the language which refers to the relations of origin of the three hypostases, is spoken of the one life the three share, and so is indivisibly spoken of all three.
  • The relationships of origin express/establish relational distinctions between the three existent hypostases; no other distinctions are permissible.

Holmes will return to this summary at the end of the book (199-200). As sees it, this represents “an adequate, if incomplete, epitome of necessarily orthodox teaching concerning the eternal life of God” (146).

Holmes expects readers to hold this summary in the back of their mind as he proceeds in a quicker historical pace through the Medieval period (chapter 7), and the Reformation to the beginning of the 18th century (chapter 8). Little development of the received doctrine is witnessed through these chapters (which is kind of the point). One development that is important on the heels of the Reformation is the rise of anti-Trinitarianism. This will come into full bloom in the 18th century onward, as Holmes explain in chapter 9, which also closes out the book.

Toward the end of chapter 9 though, we come full circle, having made our way back to the modern period and come to the 20th century revival from the other side. It is here that Holmes reiterates the 4th century summary and make his closing point: the so-called Trinitarian revival is really nothing of sort since it was not reviving the received orthodox doctrine that arose from the patristic sources.


As an historical study, Holmes work is excellent, especially since it is driven to make a point about modern idiosyncrasies in the doctrine of God. It also serves well as a concise overview of the patristic thought on the doctrine of God from the key theologians that developed it.

In terms of weaknesses, I thought the ending was rather abrupt. I echo Nick Norelli’s desires for Holmes to develop his conclusion a bit more and weigh in on its significance for 21st century Trinitarian studies. However, given the aims of the particular series, maybe that is why Holmes refrained from adding an additional editorial chapter along those lines.

Whether you look at it as a strength or weakness, Holmes work is dense and relies on readers to be familiar with technical theological terms in patristic Trinitarian and Christological studies. For me, I had a very strong background from seminary with this language (I took 6 hours just in Trinitarian studies), but for the average reader, it might prove to be heavy lifting to navigate Holmes’ depth of thought and language.


All in all though, Holmes’ book is welcome addition to any serious theological student’s library. Especially if you’re interested in patristic studies or Trinitarian theology, this book is for you. It is well a conceived historical study in the doctrine of God that is potentially paradigmatic for readers only familiar with the so-called 20th century Trinitarian revival. I hope the book is widely read and proves to be influential in 21st century Trinitarian studies!

As I mentioned above, you have an opportunity to win a copy of this book. If you’re in RSS, you’ll probably need to click through to see the PunchTab form. As always, just follow the prompts to earn your entries! I do want to add this disclaimer though: I plan on starting a blog newsletter in the coming weeks or by the first of the year. By entering your email, you are also adding yourself to the mailing list. You can enter the giveaway without using your email, but if you go that route, that is what you’re doing (and this will be true in giveaways from now on!)




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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

14 responses to The Quest For The Trinity

  1. The Trinity is one of those subjects you can never have too many books on. It’s been an area of study for a number of years now. The shape of the doctrine in the 21st century sounds like an exciting study.

  2. The continuity/discontinuity between Trinitarian doctrinal emphases today and those of the early church/councils.

  3. That understanding God in triunity is as vital in the 21st as it was in the early church.

  4. What interests me is the ongoing emphasis on Jesus (“It’s all about Jesus) to the determent of the entire doctrine of the Trinity, at least within evangelical circles.

  5. To echo Kevin, the continuity that has existed from the early church to the present.

  6. How to be truly Trinitarian in both doctrine and ministry.

  7. What most interests you about Trinitarian theology in the 21st century? The whole obsession with the immanent versus economic Trinity. Presently reading Fred Sanders’ book *Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything*, Sanders does a good job of tackling this issue.

  8. What most interests you about Trinitarian theology in the 21st century?
    I am currently interested in the perichoretic union of the divine persons within the unity of the Godhead in relation to the filioque.

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