Review: The Quest for the Trinity

Title of Work:

The Quest for the Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History and Modernity

Author of Work:

Stephen R. Holmes


Pastor Souksamay Phestanghane

Page Number:

Format Availability:


The Quest for the Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History and Modernity, by Stephen R. Holmes. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012. 231 pages.

SS.54.The Quest for the Trinity.LgStephen R. Holmes received his Ph. D. from King’s College London. He is currently a senior lecturer in systematic theology at the University of St. Andrews Scotland. For a detailed list of his accolades and accomplishments, you can visit his bio page here.

This book is the first in a planned series entitled: Christian Doctrine in Historical Perspective. The next three planned books are: The Person and Work of Christ (2012); The Church and Sacraments (2013); and The Church and the World (2014).

Holmes states the purpose of this book in the Introduction: “In brief, I argue that the explosion of theological work claiming to recapture the doctrine of the Trinity that we have witnessed in recent decades in fact misunderstands and distorts the traditional doctrine so badly that it is unrecognizable” (xv cf. also 2). Initially, Holmes does not want to say that the modern theologians (exemplified by Karl Barth and Robert Jenson among others) are right or wrong in comparison to the Church Fathers (xvi). He just wants to show that, historically, the modern teaching on the Trinity is not the same as the Church Fathers’ teaching.

Holmes does this in nine chapters. The first chapter traces the study of the Trinity in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Then Holmes has a chapter on some key Biblical passages used by the Church Fathers.

In this second chapter, there is an interesting patristic exegesis on Isaiah 53:8: “And who can speak of his descendants” (NIV84). Based on the Vulgate (generationem eius quis enarrabit) and/or Septuagint (τὴν γενεὰν αὐτοῦ τίς διηγήσεται), the Church Fathers took this passage either as a reference to the virgin birth (Justin Martyr) and/or the Son’s eternal generation from the Father (Eusebius of Caesarea, Basil). Holmes calls this exegesis “read out of context (when judged by modern standards), and astonishingly woodenly, as a support for crucial technical theological positions” (42).

Chapters three to six trace the study of the Trinity into the time of Augustine. Then follows an “Interlude” chapter summarizing the Church Fathers’ Trinitarian doctrine. Holmes finishes up with a chapter on the study of the Trinity during the Medieval Age; from the Reformation to the eighteenth century; and coming full circle, from the eighteenth century to the modern era.

For this book, a reader will need a working knowledge of systematic theological (and Trinitarian) terms e.g. ontology, apopathic, perichoretic, eschaton, economy, hypostases, ousia. In addition, Holmes has a vast vocabulary (e.g. idiosyncratic, accretion, instantiations) and uses British English (e.g. to the fore, programme, whilst).

Some may find these items as a criticism of the book. However, here are a few criticisms that this reviewer has. One error was found, the use of homoiousians where the text should clearly read homoousians (124). Holmes does not appear to believe in verbal inspiration and the unity of Scripture. (38, 42) He includes the apocryphal book, The Wisdom of Solomon, as part of the Old Testament (39). He also quotes (and at times seems to agree) that Athanasius was the villain in his struggles against Arius (84-85, 90, 91).

Holmes calls the doctrine of the Trinity a “development” (44, 47, 55, 62, 126). What does he mean by that? At times he seems to be saying that the Church Fathers were preaching, teaching, and worshipping a priori the Trinity. They then attempted to find the scriptural proof (37, 39, 81). However this reviewer thinks Holmes would explain “development” like this, “After all, as I have tried to show, the debate down to Augustine was almost entirely exegetical, the search for a set of concepts that would allow every text of Scripture (including the Old Testament texts) to be true in what it affirmed; as concepts were borrowed, refined, sometimes redefined, in this process, it is more easy to believe that the concepts were forced to fit the shape of Scripture than vice versa, and this was certainly the belief of those involved; an argument to the contrary at least needs credible evidence” (198 cf. also 54 and 58).

There are many things with which Lutherans can agree in this book. Unlike what some scholars assume today (129), Holmes argues (very well and convincingly) that Augustine and the Cappadocians taught essentially the same Trinitarian doctrine, only the former in Latin and the latter in Greek. (120, 134, 144, 146, 154) Holmes has many scripturally accurate quotes from the Church Fathers and his own assessments [e.g. describing the Trinity (71, 107, 120); Scripture as final authority on doctrine (95); and understanding the passages about Jesus’ exaltation and humiliation properly (113, 127)].

Most important is Holmes’ summary of the Church Fathers’ Trinitarian doctrine. (146, 199-200) While Lutherans may not be familiar with his choice of words, Lutherans should recognize the doctrine: it is the Trinity as revealed in Scripture. (The only thing this reviewer would question is what Holmes means by “instantiation” in the phrase, “There are three divine hypostases that are instantiations of the divine nature: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”)

Holmes’ comments involving Martin Luther are interesting (85, 167-168). This reviewer does not agree with Holmes’ assessment: “The post-Reformation Lutherans speculated that, after the resurrection, the human nature of the incarnated Son could share in (some of) the perfections of the divine nature” (23). While there are errors in that statement concerning the communication of attributes, specifically the genus maiestaticum, Holmes claims Lutherans taught the above because they wanted to affirm the Real Presence against the Reformed. Holmes is thus repeating the common Reformed notion that Luther (and Lutherans) taught the communicated omnipresence to also then teach the Real Presence. (However cf. Hoenecke’s Dogmatics Volume III:90-91, 96; Volume III:122-123; Pieper’s Dogmatics Volume II:190-195; Seminary Dogmatics Notes Volume I, C. Christology, 1. Person of Christ, B. Communication of Idioms, 2. Genus Maiestaticum, III. Scripture names specifically four communicated idioms, 3. Omnipotence; and Volume II, 2. Means of Grace, F. Lord’s Supper, VI. Errors Concerning Lord’s Supper, 4. Fundamental Error in the Lord’s Supper.)

This book offers a brief and concise history of the teaching on the Trinity rather than a systematic treatment of the Trinity. It shows us what the Church Fathers taught from Scripture. (152, 155, 163, 169-170, 181) It also shows us how modern theologians corrupted this doctrine [e.g. view of Scripture (34, 51-52, 196, 197); definition of “person” in the Trinity (8, 144, 191); and several other places (175, 180, 186, 187-188, 195, 199)]. The fundamental error of modern theologians is using their reason to judge Scripture. This book is helpful to trace the history of what the Church Fathers fought so hard to uphold, while serving as a warning to keep reason in its ministerial and not magisterial role on matters of Scripture.

Although Holmes states that he does not want to say that modern theologians are right or wrong in comparison to the Church Fathers, he does show his bias for the Church Fathers and the doctrine that they taught: “I do, however, attempt to show just how strongly exegetical the traditional presentations of the doctrine were” (xvi). Holmes does that and does it masterfully.