The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship

By Robert Letham
Phillipsburg, N.J. : P & R (2004). xv + 551 Pages.

Reviewed by Clifford McManis
19.2 (Fall 2008) : 269-272

Dr. Robert Letham, the former pastor of Emmanuel Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, Delaware, teaches systematic theology at Wales Evangelical School of Theology. He writes from a Reformed perspective (ix).

Letham’s work is a welcomed tour de force in trinitarian studies. He begins this substantive tome by begging for a “recovery of the Trinity at ground level” (7) among evangelicals (5), in all areas of life and worship (1), in most pulpits and pews (1), and especially in the Western church as a whole (3-7). He laments that Christians and the church abroad have relegated the Trinity to insignificance. Even theologians and scholars have failed here, for Letham alleges that the doctrine of the Trinity has not been significantly advanced or developed since the work of Calvin. Consequently, a “serious lacunae in contemporary Christian awareness of the triunity of God” (11) has developed. Letham’s goal is to fill the void.

He divides his work into four parts. The first section he calls “Biblical Foundations,” in which he gives a cursory overview of selected OT texts, a survey of the deity of Jesus and a basic examination of triadic NT patterns of the Holy Spirit (17-85). The second section is “Historical Development,” in which he traces trinitarian progress from Irenaeus [A.D. 130-200] to Calvin [A.D. 1509-1564] (87- 268). The next section he calls “Modern Discussion.” Here he traces the influences of Barth, Rahner, Moltmann, Pannenberg, Torrance, and others (269-376). The last part covers “Critical Issues” In this he metes out practical implications of trinitarian theology on worship, prayer, song, missions, and others (376-478).

In his work, Letham gives priority to “Historical Development” by committing 179 pages to the discussion; he gives the least attention to “Biblical Foundations” with a mere 68 pages. This is in keeping with his observation in the Introduction that one cannot appreciate the Trinity without “a wide and thorough historical underpinning” following “carefully and patiently the development of the church’s understanding” (11). In hindsight, Letham’s study is based more on historical theology than on biblical theology. In fact, at times Letham downplays “Biblicism” (5), “biblical studies” (5), and biblical exegesis (384) in favor of historic creeds (383-84), church Fathers (378), and even philosophical theology (360-62, 379). Despite this periodic tendency, overall, Letham proves himself to be vigorously committed to biblical authority and inspiration.

One clear theme gives continuity to Letham’s study. He repeatedly bemoans the fact that throughout church history, the “Eastern and Western churches have faced different tendencies toward imbalance on one side or the other” regarding views of the Trinity (2). Letham’s mission is to establish a modern-day corrective, providing the perfect biblical balance. The East, from the earliest times, has been prone to subordinationism (and tritheism), due to over-emphasizing distinctions among the divine persons, thus relegating the Son and the Holy Spirit to sub-deity roles that are somehow derivative ontologically or by altogether positing three distinct gods (3, 211, 251, 354 , 377, 463). Letham says Pannenberg, Moltmann, Gunton, and Bray are guilty here (321, 463). On the other hand, the Western church has routinely leaned toward modalism, blurring eternal distinctions among the three persons of the Trinity due to an imbalanced focus on the divine essence. Augustine is the culprit here (3). Because of his Neo-Platonist inklings (430) and his ahistorical/allegorical hermeneutics, Augustine had a faulty starting point for explicating his doctrine of God. Letham avers, “Augustine held to the Trinity only with some difficulty” (446); even worse, he writes, “[T]he Augustinian model has bred atheism and agnosticism” (212; cf. 408). Other Western theologians who inherited the sin of Augustine’s modalism in one degree or another include Aquinas (235), Barth and Rahner (7), W arfield, Charles Hodge, Berkhof, and Packer (4). Only Calvin (252-268) and Owen (409, 117, 419) come away somewhat unscathed from the historically exacting pen of Letham and his tacit examples of heresy.

Letham’s solution to striking the delicate balance between starting with the distinction of persons versus starting with the divine essence when systematizing a biblical doctrine of God is to pursue “equal ultimacy” (463). Simply put, this entails a restraint from conceiving of the divine being separately from person. Or positively stated, recognize, “The one Being of God is identical with the communion of the three divine Persons and the Communion of the three divine Persons is identical with the one Being of God” (462). According to Letham, only T. F. Torrance [1913- 2007] has been able to pull this off (356, 373). Following suit with Torrance, Letham suggests his own remedy toward the perfect, biblical, trinitarian balance by delineating his six “Vital Parameters” which constitute his working definition of the Trinity (381-83). His six parameters are as follows: (1) we need to recognize the equal ultimacy of the being of God and the three persons; (2) the three persons are homoousios; each person is the whole God; (3) the three persons mutually indwell one another in a dynamic communion; we need to invoke the historic doctrine of perichoresis; (4) the three persons are irreducibly different from one another; the Son is eternally distinct from the Father and the Spirit; (5) there is a fixed, eternal order among the persons regarding their relations; the Son is sent from the Father only; the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son; this is the historic doctrine of taxis; (6) finally, “A doctrine of the Trinity that is to be faithful to the Bible from which it emerges must give equivalent expression to each of the above parameters.”

True to his promise, at least for this reviewer, Letham delivered—he craftily and painstakingly advanced the doctrine of the Trinity in a refreshing, edifying, and biblical manner. Of his many contributions, one stands out. He forges a meticulous and unrivaled historical analysis of the development of trinitarian thought in the church, especially in the seminal centuries. Letham reminds readers that Irenaeus bolstered a healthy triadic view of God and excoriated ontological dualism (96); Tertullian bequeathed to the church helpful terms like trinitas and persona (98); he reminds the reader that hypostasis and ousia were once synonymous (119); Athanasius gave hypostases new, more precise nuances (144) and introduced the concept of “mutual indwelling” (139); the Cappadocians enhanced and clarified the doctrine of the Holy Spirit (164); people frequently confuse the “creed of Nicaea” of A.D. 325 with the “Nicene Creed” of A.D. 381 (87, 115, 168). Other examples abound.

As for weaknesses, not many were glaring ones. At times, he overstates the case: “For the vast majority of Christians, including most ministers and theological students, the Trinity is still a mathematical conundrum” (1; cf. 5, 212, 272, 356, 408). Letham does not know “most” ministers first hand. Also, for a treatment that intends to be comprehensive and up to date, it is surprising that Letham is not conversant with other solid works recently wrought that advance trinitarian studies from a biblical and exegetical stance, like Carl Henry, Millard Erickson, Bruce Demarest and Gordon Lewis, James White, John Feinberg, and Wayne Grudem. Despite the oversight, Letham’s work is monumental and will serve the church well for years to come.