When I sat down to read Robert Letham's The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship, I had no idea what I was getting myself in for. On the one hand, I knew my doctrine of the Trinity was at least intellectually orthodox; on the other hand, I knew it was relatively shallow and had relatively little impact on my Christian life. Letham's book had come highly recommended, so I was looking forward to reading it, but given the scale of the topic and the length of the book (551 pages), I was afraid I might be in for some long, dry reading. Like many Christians, I have tended to think the doctrine of the Trinity is theologically important and practically just confusing. I was wrong, and Letham proved it.
While this book is by no means short or light reading—J. I. Packer calls it a textbook—it's deeply practical in the best sense, as well as profoundly theological. He shows convincingly and repeatedly that Christian practice, at its best, will be deeply tied to the nature of God. How we function, both as individuals and as churches, should be greatly affected by the doctrine of the Trinity. If sanctification happens as we increase in the knowledge of God, then it is important to know Him as He truly is: one God in three persons, sharing all things but distinct from one another, mutually indwelling and yet unique, ordered but coequal, and above all, overflowing with love.
Letham does an excellent job of developing the Biblical basis for the doctrine of the Trinity, tracing the Scriptural progression from Genesis through the New Testament. He then lays out the historical development of the doctrine in the early church age, focusing especially on the Arian and filioque controversies and the ramifications of the church's response to each, including the eventual split of Eastern and Western Christianity. Heroes of the faith like the Cappodocian theologians and Athanasius receive lengthy treatment as well, and here I really began to fall in love with the book—as well as want to read these great fathers for myself!
He note the contributions of medieval scholars like Aquinas and takes a long look at Calvin before moving on to the modern era. He examines both East and West in the 20th century, looking at orthodox writers like Torrance and Staniloae on the one hand and heretical writers like Pannenberg and Lossky on the other. Though Letham examines the modern writings on the Trinity with a critical eye—and rightly so, seeing as most of them have tended toward the heretical—he remains evenhanded. Augustine, and the Western tradition that follows him, receive criticism for their modalistic tendencies. The Eastern tradition is commended for its more thorough Trinitarianism and critiqued for going too far in its mysticism. When Letham considers how East and West might at long last be reconciled, he does so in a way that notes the strengths and weaknesses of both sides.
Although the Trinity is a challenging topic to write on, Letham maintained a clear and concise style. That was especially helpful when dealing with some of the more complex issues raised by modern authors, many of whom were themselves quite difficult to follow. This is a textbook, but it's a readable textbook. Along the same lines, I was pleased that Letham, though an academic himself, clearly addressed this volume to a non-academic audience. It might take a while, but just about anyone could get through the book.
In the final quarter of the book, Letham turns from history and toward theology and worship. Along with his treatment of the great church fathers, I thought this the best part of the book. Letham calls churches to consciously embrace the Trinitarian faith that we profess, to make it a central part of our preaching, our songs, and our congregational life. Whether in writing and singing Trinitarian hymns, remembering that baptism and the Lord's Supper are Trinitarian events, returning again and again to the topic in sermons, or embodying Trinitarian fellowship in community, the church should hold the doctrine of the Trinity as central because the God we worship is triune! Whether we know it or not, we reflect his nature; we can reflect it better as we know Him better./p>
This volume has only a few weaknesses, in my opinion. First, for reasons that weren't entirely clear to me, Letham took a chunk of his space to defend the Pauline authorship of Ephesians. It's a worthwhile task, no doubt, but it didn't seem to fit with the flow of the book. Second, Letham betrays a quiet suspicion of the emotions at several points in the text, in what appears to be a slight overreaction against the extremes of emotionalism that have dominated evangelical and especially charismatic circles. The dangers of intellectual Christianity divorced from emotions are no less than those of emotional Christianity divorced from the intellect. Finally, I thought it interesting that Letham devoted relatively little time to the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of individuals and the church. It seems that, like many Western theologians before him, Letham tended to emphasize the Father and Son more in his Trinitarian doctrine. The Spirit received some attention, but deserves much more—especially now, when a corrective is needed for the unfortunate abuses of much of the charismatic movement.
J. I. Packer's review of Robert Letham's The Holy Trinity, cited on the back of the book, sums up my thoughts quite cogently:
Solid and judicious, comprehensive and thorough, abreast of past wisdom and present-day debate, and doxological in tone throughout, this is far and away the best big textbook on the Trinity that you can find, and it will surely remain so for many years to come.
I can't comment on any other textbooks on the Trinity, but this was an excellent read. I had to reevaluate how truly Trinitarian my own outlook is, and it continues to motivate me to think about the outworking of the doctrine of the Trinity in life. Letham's theology is solid, his writing easy to follow, and his advice good. The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship is an excellent book, and it ought to be required reading for anyone preparing for or already engaged in vocational ministry. It would be good reading for laypeople, too!
What is your experience with the doctrine of the Trinity? How has it been handled in your church?
This begins the first of our Wednesday specials. In the months ahead, from time to time you'll see special kinds of posts on Wednesdays. You can expect to see any future book reviews in this space. As we think of other interesting ideas, we'll integrate them here from time to time.