The Limits to a Diachronic Treatment of the Trinity: A Case for Dogmatics in the Classroom

Students of trinitarian theology at the outset of the twenty-first century were likely shaped by the use of textbooks written in a diachronic fashion–that is, they teach the doctrine of the Trinity primarily by describing how it has developed over time. These textbooks would typically proceed from a survey of relevant biblical data through patristic, medieval, and Reformation-era developments to a conclusion emphasizing twentieth century trinitarian theology, perhaps with a brief section on pastoral applications or selected systematic questions tacked on at the end. This diachronic approach was pervasive in textbooks from a wide range of perspectives, including evangelicals such as Roger Olson and Christopher Hall’s The Trinity (2002) and Robert Letham’s The Holy Trinity (2004; rev. ed. 2019), Catholic treatments like that of Gerald O’Collins in The Tripersonal God (1999; rev. ed. in 2014), and even more expansive ecumenical texts like The Oxford Handbook of the Trinity (2014) and The Cambridge Companion to the Trinity (2011), though to a lesser degree.[1] While there are certainly benefits to such diachronic approaches in classroom texts, and while this approach was a necessary corrective to much of the theology of the second half of the twentieth century, I am convinced that market saturation by diachronic texts carries risks such that it is necessary to supplement diachronic texts with a dogmatic structuring of trinitarian theology that proceeds topic by topic, or locus by locus, instead of era by era.

We can illustrate why a dogmatic, locus-based approach to the Trinity is a necessary complement to a diachronic approach by demonstrating certain weaknesses in one specific diachronic text: Stephen Holmes’s The Quest for the Trinity (2012). I want to be clear at the outset that this is an exceptional book–my favorite among the diachronic texts. My brief reflections here are not a critique of Holmes’s work as much as a demonstration that even the most gifted of theologians–and Holmes is indisputably gifted–are constrained in important ways by the structure of a diachronic text. Specifically, chronological structure can result in the appearance that later theological developments are unmoored from Scripture, it can sideline important discussions of loci of trinitarian theology that may not have been central to the main narrative presented, it can weaken criticism of theological perspectives in one era by insights found in another era, and it can exclude voices from contemporary theologians from various cultures in Africa, Asia, and Latin America (among others).

Because diachronic presentations of the Trinity discuss the biblical data relevant to the development of the doctrine of the Trinity at the outset,sections on later trinitarian eras may seem to be without scriptural support. Holmes surpasses other diachronic texts in this regard by returning to passages considered in his treatment of Scripture, which occurs in the second chapter of his book. He especially returns to the treatment of personification of Wisdom in Proverbs 8 and Wisdom 7, showing how such texts were crucial to the projects of Justin Martyr, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Augustine of Hippo, among others.[2] This continuity illustrates the manner in which subsequent theologians were rooted in the biblical text. However, Holmes is still constrained by a sequential narrative, so trinitarian loci that were not clearly part of the first century discourse that was in view when he discussed Scripture might not be connected to the Bible. For example, divine simplicity is central to Holmes’ treatment of the unfolding tradition; indeed, its rejection is a major failure of twentieth century theology. However, since first century Christians and Jews apparently did not directly focus on the question of simplicity, little was discussed in Holmes’s chapter on the Trinity and the Bible that would relate to his later treatment of simplicity, giving the impression that divine simplicity might be largely unmoored from the Bible. In contrast,a dogmatic structuring of the Trinity dedicating s extensive time to exploring divine simplicity could better address the question of whether Scripture’s presentation of the divinity of Christ entails simplicity as a good and necessary consequence, perhaps through the rejection of a hierarchy of divinity.[3] Such an argument is better made outside of the constraints of a diachronic text.

A key feature of diachronic accounts is storytelling, but a story with too many digressions fails. As a result, authors of diachronic treatments are faced with difficult editorial decisions regarding which dimensions of trinitarianism to highlight and which to downplay. Holmes wisely emphasizes divine simplicity, something much neglected and often attacked in twentieth century theology.[4] In order to avoid too many digressions, he does not emphasize perichoresis, that important doctrine exploring the mutual coinherence or interpenetration of the divine persons, except briefly in his treatment of twentieth-century theology.[5] Other aspects of Holmes’s treatment of the Trinity are constrained to a single historical epoch in similarly limiting ways. For example, the discussion of the filioque centers the medieval and Byzantine eras, adeptly comparing Patriarch Photius and Anselm of Canterbury and noting the major contributions of figures like Gregory of Cyprus and Richard of St Victor.[6] Being constrained by historical parameters, it does not adequately engage in the exegesis of key passages such as John 15:26,[7] nor does it consider modern contributions like that of Sergius Bulgakov, who challenges the claim that persons are distinguished by either nature or origin.[8] These lapses are not due to any deficiency in Holmes, but rather to inherent flaws in a diachronic presentation of material. Dogmatic treatments of the Trinity that center on distinct loci can rectify these weaknesses.

The need to retain a singular narrative in a diachronic treatment of the doctrine of the Trinity can also limit the ability of the author to level a critique against a figure in a particular era on the basis of the theology of another era. Holmes begins The Quest for the Trinity with a survey of modern “retrievals” of the Trinity, which he rightly notes are “generally thoroughgoing departures from the older tradition, rather than revivals of it.”[9] Here again, Holmes’s text stands out for its creativity in placing the most recent figures at the beginning, then offering a flashback of sorts that surveys the rest of the historical development of the doctrine beginning in the first century until the nineteenth. Holmes successfully and clearly shows that many twentieth century trinitarian theologies are deviations from a broad historical trajectory. However, what is lost is an ability to fully assess whether modern deviations are advances or problematic lapses. For example, Holmes rightly explains that Jürgen Moltmann’s use of perichoresis is quite different from patristic usage, but the format of his work prevents evaluation.[10] Unless Holmes had made perichoresis a central element of the story, discussing mutual indwelling language in John 17 and considering the substantial contributions of John of Damascus on the subject, for example, he simply could not demonstrate the flawed nature of Moltmann’s theology.[11] Holmes is well aware of the limits of his format, admitting “it may be that our recent writers are correct… nothing I have written excludes that possibility.”[12] Yet the prevailing use of diachronic texts in the classroom can sometimes result in a theological methodology that believes demonstration of novelty is disproof. Such a method is inadequate. Moltmann’s theology is disprovable not because it is novel but because it is mistaken.No matter how much we value tradition (and I certainly do), the most important question is not, “is it traditional?” but “is it true?”

Finally, diachronic approaches tend to neglect recent (and sometimes ancient) contributions to theology from Asia, Latin America, and Africa. I am not certain whether this is a feature of the larger Eurocentric tendencies in theology or whether it is a feature of diachronic formats, but I suspect the latter can only hurt. Because many recent majority world treatments of the Trinity consciously draw on indigenous cultures and philosophies from times before Christianity’s substantial introduction to these cultures, it would be difficult to introduce a treatment of the Trinity that draws on ubuntu philosophy or Japanese conceptions of personhood as “betweenness” in a chapter following historical narratives about European philosophies and theologies.[13] Predictably, then, Holmes only really engages Leonardo Boff, the single Latin American theologian most likely to be included in recent diachronic treatments.[14] Dogmatically, it is a failure to neglect the Christian theology of three continents for such is to fall short of the standard of catholicity, which recognizes a church for all people and a body in which all are gifted. Neglect of theologies around the world may wrongly give the impression that sound trinitarian theology is the unique accomplishment of European and North American theologians. Pragmatically, neglect of such voices is a failure given the dramatic projected growth of Christianity in Asia and Africa, which may soon be the population centers of Christianity. Theologians primarily familiar with diachronic texts that do not attend to various theologians in the global church may be ill equipped to communicate orthodox trinitarianism in a sufficiently broad range of cultural contexts. Without adequate breadth, students may not recognize both the strengths and weaknesses of various global theologians they will be increasingly likely to encounter.

I hope these reflections have shown the weaknesses of a diachronic approach to the Trinity, but I would be remiss if I did not name the similar weaknesses in a dogmatic approach that proceeds locus by locus. This dogmatic approach can address a wider scope of authors from various continents and eras, clearly linking biblical exegesis (the bedrock of all sound theology) to each dogmatic question, while adjudicating conflict between positions found in various historical epochs up to the present. Such are the strengths of a dogmatic sketch of the Trinity. However, the risks are that when a treatment of a locus appeals to a historical figure, it is rarely able to contextualize that theologian’s ideas in their proper historical setting. This shortcoming further risks misuse of that figure’s ideas. In fact, late twentieth century dogmatic treatments of the Trinity characterized by a general historical negligence that perpetuated simplistic East/West trinitarian caricatures, or that scapegoated historical figures (most commonly Augustine of Hippo) as the reason for a trinitarian decline set the scene for the pervasive diachronic approaches today. Holmes truly serves the Church by correcting and nuancing such accounts. Yet, there is still risk in exclusively emphasizing diachronic treatments. So, for those who have any influence over curriculum, when you next design a course on the Trinity, consider using a diachronic text (Holmes’s is exceptional) supplemented with primary texts from each epoch, but be careful to recognize the limits of such a diachronic text. To offset them, a good dogmatic sketch of the Trinity may be invaluable.

Dr. Glenn Butner (Ph.D, Marquette University) is Associate Professor of Theology and Christian Ministry at Sterling College, KS. His forthcoming book Trinitarian Dogmatics: Exploring the Grammar of the Christian Doctrine of God, which employs the kind of approach advocated above, will be published in July 2022 by Baker Academic. He is also the author of The Son Who Learned Obedience: A Theological Case Against the Eternal Submission of the Son (Pickwick, 2018).

  1. See Roger E. Olson and Christopher A. Hall, The Trinity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002); Robert Letham, The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship, rev. ed. (Philipsburg, NJ: P & R, 2019); Gerald O’Collins, The Tripersonal God: Understanding and Interpreting the Trinity, rev. ed. (New York: Paulist, 2014); Peter C. Phan, ed., The Cambridge Companion to the Trinity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011); Gilles Emery and Matthew Levering, The Oxford Handbook of the Trinity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

  2. Stephen Holmes, The Quest for the Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History, and Modernity (Grand Rapids: IVP Academic, 2012) 39–41, 60, 114, 137.

  3. Here, one can also draw on many important contemporary exegetical discussions that were published after Holmes wrote – part of what is needed is simply an update to texts to reflect the newest scholarship.

  4. For example, see Richard J. Plantinga, Thomas R. Thompson, and Matthew D. Lundberg, An Introduction to Christian Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 104. Plantinga, Thompson, and Lundberg argue that simplicity has “no real biblical basis and has in fact worked to defeat the resources of a full-fledged trinitarianism.”

  5. The index lists twenty-three entries under “God, simplicity of” but only three under “perichoresis,” all in the chapter on modern thought. See Holmes, Quest for the Trinity, 227, 229.

  6. Holmes, Quest for the Trinity, 147–64.

  7. Holmes simply notes Anselm’s interpretation of John 15:26 without having time to dig into exegesis or the broader reception history of the text. Holmes, Quest for the Trinity, 149.

  8. Sergius Bulgakov, The Comforter, trans. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 95–97.

  9. Holmes, Quest for the Trinity, xvi.

  10. Holmes, Quest for the Trinity, 21–22.

  11. Such studies are typically reserved for academic monographs, which are not particularly useful in the classroom, no matter how robust they may be. See, for example, James D. Gifford, Jr., Perichoretic Salvation (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011).

  12. Holmes, Quest for the Trinity, xvi.

  13. Here I am thinking of Nozomu Miyahira, Towards a Theology of the Concord of God: A Japanese Perspective on the Trinity (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 2000) and James Henry Owino Kombo, The Doctrine of God in African Christian Thought: The Holy Trinity, Theological Hermeneutics and the African Intellectual Culture (Leiden: Brill, 2007). Many other authors could be added.

  14. Only Boff is included in Holmes, Quest for the Trinity, 25–26; Olson and Hall, The Trinity, 107–9. No substantial treatment is given to a Latin American, African, or Asian theologian in the historical treatment in Letham, The Holy Trinity or O’Collins, The Tripersonal God.


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