Foundations: No.80 Spring 2021
The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology and Worship (Revised & Expanded)
Robert Letham, P&R Publishing, 2019, 696pp, £23.99 p/b (Amazon)
Do you pray to and worship the Triune God like a functional heretic? This is the pebble in my shoe left by Robert Letham’s revised and expanded edition of his award-winning The Holy Trinity. Letham is Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Union School of Theology in Wales and has published several respected works.
This over 600-page study inspects the Trinity from a biblical, historical and systematic theological perspective while engaging critical questions throughout. The book discusses the expected topics: major (and minor) heresies, necessity of extra-biblical language, eternal generation and eternal procession, the filioque, insufficiency of Trinitarian analogies and so on. This book, however, is unique: The final chapters ask how the Trinity frames our understanding of the incarnation, creation, Christian witness, human relationships and glorification. Evident throughout is that much of Christian behaviour flows from one’s degree of love for and understanding of the Trinity.
The historical section alone is worth the purchase: The author distils years of inquiry into tight and sharp account; though the concepts are intricate and abstract, he regularly clarifies and streamlines. Students will happily see this section is thick with primary source references while engaging leading interlocutors. In addition, the book has helpful taxonomies such as the analysis of the filioque debate. Further, the consistent dispelling of historical myth provides needed correctives. And as one might expect from a theologian of the Trinity, Letham is skilled at nuancing seemingly parallel positions and sketching their theological trajectory.
The study engages widely: East and West, ancient and modern, respected and rejected, beloved and forgotten. Some heroes undergo brief jabs (Hodge, Warfield and Packer) while others are shielded (Van Til). The analysis of the twentieth-century conversation is critically appreciative and reveals a deep-structure comprehension of those many will never read. For instance, very helpful is the description of Rahner’s axiom and its ripple effects (leading to pantheism and panentheism only decades later). The author is charitable throughout and finds value in the questions and ideas of those outside his camp – even those we orthodox evangelicals cannot call mentors.
Possibly the most fundamental warning of the book is that God is equally one and three. Though Letham notes the reductionism of claiming the West tends towards modalism and the East slips towards tritheism, the overemphasis of God’s oneness or threeness produces such outcomes. The end of the book traces how excesses of the one or the many play out in other religious or philosophical systems. For instance, Islam’s exaltation of the oneness of Allah permeates the whole religion and is the root beneath much of its problems. Also, high modernity’s pre-eminence of the many is in the end unliveable and unhuman.
This work exposes several less-discussed ideas, thinkers and questions: When was the last time you read about anhypostasia and enhypostasia? Also, most will encounter new names in the section on contemporary Eastern Trinitarian theology. Further, Letham asks interesting questions regarding how the Trinity and the pactum salutis (or covenant of redemption) cohere. The reader is also served by clear explication of slightly more common topics: perichoresis, taxis and the relation between the economic and immanent Trinity.
Regarding today’s controversies and concerns, The Holy Trinity cautiously engages dangerous tendencies in evangelicalism. Most significant is the sober and respectful warning to those affirming some form of an eternal subord-ination of the Son – especially those who deny eternal generation and/or speak as if there were multiple wills in the Godhead.
The ideal reader is any Christian. The size may daunt the busy and distracted but make no mistake, it is not a crushing burden. For the average church member, this is a significant but dividend-paying undertaking; for the student, Letham’s work discloses many new channels of study; for the church leader, it bids the reading of the Cappadocians (in addition to Augustine); for the pastor, it not only instructs and alarms but reminds of the necessity to worship God according to his being as Trinity. Who wants to unwittingly lead their church – by example – to worship like heretics?
I certainly recommend this book. It is not only worth purchasing and reading but for taking notes, reflection and discussion.
PhD Student, Cambridge. Ministerial Assistant, Cambridge Presbyterian Church.